Adultery and Divorce (Matthew 5:27-32)

Submitted by admin on Fri, 2007-11-09 12:57.

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All who listened to Jesus knew the command about not committing adultery. (Exodus 20:14) They had often heard it. The Son of God revealed that living in harmony with the full import of this command involved more than not engaging in the immoral act. For a man to continue looking at a woman to the point of arousing a passionate desire for her would mean that, in his heart or his deep inner self, he had already committed adultery. The desire to commit the sinful act would have been fully developed. (Matthew 5:27, 28)

Jesus then directed attention to rooting out wrong desires before they develop and lead the individual to sin. “If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and toss it away from you, for it is better for you to lose one of your [body] members than for your whole body to be tossed into Gehenna. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and toss it away from you, for it is better for you to lose one of your [body] members than for your whole body to go off into Gehenna.” Neither the eye nor the hand is responsible for an individual’s “stumbling” or being induced to sin, but wrong desires lead to misusing the eye or the hand. These wrong desires must be forcefully and decisively rendered inoperative, comparable to surgically removing a diseased body part to save the rest of the body. For the whole body to be cast into Gehenna would signify the permanent loss of eternal life, being forever cut off from an abiding relationship with God and all the blessings associated therewith. Far better it is to lose something the flesh may crave than to be eternally cut off from God. (Matthew 5:29, 30)

The law allowed a man to divorce his wife, but required that she be given a “certificate of divorce,” which freed her for remarriage. (Deuteronomy 24:1, 2) This provision, however, did not set aside God’s original purpose respecting marriage. After quoting what had been said about divorce, Jesus continued, “But I say to you that anyone divorcing his wife, except for unchastity [porneía], causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31, 32)

The “certificate of divorce” constituted a legal proof that the husband no longer considered the woman as his wife and had released her from all legal obligations to him. Deprived of her home and commonly without any means to support herself, the woman would be forced to seek the security that marriage to another man could provide. Then, upon beginning to live as a wife with another man, she would commit adultery, but the divorce certificate protected her from being legally charged as an adulteress. Likewise, the man who married her would be committing adultery, but her divorce certificate cleared him from being legally charged as an adulterer. Thus a man who divorced his wife would be committing a grave wrong, making himself responsible for causing his wife and another man to enter a relationship that, without the existence of the divorce certificate, would be adultery in every respect.

In case the married woman had made herself guilty of unchastity or unlawful sexual intercourse, she would be entering into a relationship with another man as an adulterous woman and not merely as a wife who had been rejected by her husband. The husband to whom she had been unfaithful and who divorced her would not be responsible for having created the circumstances that would cause her to seek a relationship with another man.

On another occasion, when certain Pharisees raised a question about the certificate of divorce, Jesus replied, “Moses, on account of your hardheartedness, permitted you to divorce your wives, but this was not so from the beginning.” There was no provision for divorce in the case of the first human pair, Adam and Eve. Thus Jesus made it clear that marriage was to be a permanent union, with the later concession about divorce serving to prevent the kind of abuses to which women could have been subjected by husbands who had rejected them but who were nevertheless bound to continue living with them in the marriage arrangement. (Matthew 19:3-9)


Although disciples of Christ do have the help of God’s spirit, this does not mean that no exertion on their part is needed to resist wrong desires. Sin must not be allowed to acquire a base of operation. (Romans 6:12-14; 8:5-14; Colossians 3:5)

It should be noted that Jesus’ comments about divorce are limited to what is set forth in the law, which included no provision for women to initiate divorce proceedings. According to the law, a married man was guilty of adultery only if he had relations with another man’s wife or an engaged woman.