Solid Food
Did Jesus Teach Old Covenant Law on Marriage?
(Matthew 5:32)

Jeff Archer


In Mt.5:32 Jesus stated His position on divorce and remarriage. "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery."

His message is clear and authoritative. It is a message of His covenant that needs to be accepted and followed by all. The thrust of this article is to explore the question, "Did Jesus teach Old Covenant Law on marriage in Matthew 5:32?" The reason for examining this passage from this vantage point is the "one covenant" teaching that has been promoted by some brethren. This "one covenant" position leads some to say that God had one universal law on marriage from the beginning. The practice of the patriarchs and teaching of Moses only clarified the original intent of God. Jesus did not teach anything different from Moses or patriarchs but sought to reiterate and reconfirm what was always true. Those who are teaching this "one covenant" doctrine seem to be trying to loosen the marriage, divorce and remarriage law of Jesus by grabbing hold of any deviant behavior concerning marriage practiced by the patriarchs and/or the Jews, whether God's approval is stated or possibly implied, and applying that to Jesus' marriage law.

The "one covenant" teaching on Mt.5:32 is that Jesus was not contrasting His own Law with what Moses gave but correcting the apostate teachings of the Pharisees and reaffirming what God gave through Moses all along. The context shows, however, that Jesus was contrasting the erroneous teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees but that He went beyond an explanation of Moses' Law to a declaration of His own.

This teaching of Jesus concerning divorce and remarriage is found in the larger context of what is commonly known as the "Sermon on the Mount". In this sermon Jesus was contrasting the arrogant, superficial, self-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees with the true righteousness He expects of those who would enter the "kingdom". In this sermon, Jesus went from subtly contrasting the Scribes and Pharisees attitudes with the attitudes necessary for anyone to be in the "kingdom of heaven" (5:1-12), to a direct warning to keep from these false teachers (7:15-20). He concluded with a direct statement and parable declaring the necessity of "hearing" and "doing" what He taught.

Jesus wanted it abundantly clear that He did not come "to destroy the Law of the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (5:17). He had no animosity for the Mosaic Law or Prophets. The Law and Prophets were in harmony with His plans. They were given to help prepare man for His coming. He recognized them as being authoritative "till all is fulfilled" (5:18). The fact is Jesus had every intention of fulfilling them. While He was on the earth He was "filling them full". After His life on the earth, death, and resurrection Jesus said, "'These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.' And He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Lk.24:44-45). Paul wrote to the Galatians concerning his fear that they were beginning to follow a "perverted" gospel which is not the gospel at all. They were being tempted to follow the Law of Moses intermingled with the Law of Christ. He told them, "The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (Gal.3:24-25). The Law had its purpose which was fulfilled when Jesus accomplished His mission. The teachers of the "one covenant" fail to make this essential distinction.

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus makes an extended comparison. A comparison between the concept taught and practiced by the Scribes and Pharisees, i.e. "you have heard it was said to those of old", and what would be truly demanded by Him, i.e. "but I say to you". Note that Jesus does not quote the Mosaic Law but what they had been taught about the Law. Each of these concepts was a twisted view of what God demanded from His people. In fact, the last contrast contains a concept not found in the Old Law, i.e. "love your neighbor and hate your enemy" (Mt.5:43).

In Mt.5:31-32 Jesus dealt with their concept of divorce. There was a great debate among the first century Jews about the meaning of Deut. 24:1-4. It stated that if, after a man has taken a woman to be his wife, and she finds "no favor" in his eyes because of some "uncleanness", and he divorces her, if another man marries her, divorces her or he dies, then the first husband cannot remarry her. In particular, the debate centered around the meaning of "uncleanness". There were two schools of thought. "Shammai and his school defined some indecency {"uncleanness" NKJV} as meaning unchastity and nothing but unchastity. `Let a wife be as mischievous as the wife of Ahab,' they said, `she cannot be divorced except for adultery.' On the other hand the school of Hillel defined some indecency in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, . . . if she talked to men on the streets . . etc."(1) The marriage institution at the time of Christ was in decay and was crumbling. Most had conveniently followed Hillel's teaching. Jesus clearly sought to raise the concept of marriage among the people by stating His position that divorce is only permissible for "sexual immorality."

But these contrasts were more than contrasts in the teaching of the Jewish leaders. They were more than an appeal to return to the true meaning of Moses' Law. They were statements of what Jesus would demand in His kingdom. Why do I believe so?

1) Jesus' words not only shattered the superficial concept taught about the Law in His time but went beyond what the Law said. For example, God said through Moses, "You shall not commit murder". But Jesus went beyond this law by condemning the simmering anger and the lashing out with words such as "Raca!" and "You fool!". God said through Moses, "You shall not commit adultery". But Jesus goes further by condemning "looking at a woman to lust after her". Or, God said through Moses, "love your neighbor". But Jesus went beyond this by demanding love not only for our neighbors but also for our enemies.

In Deut.24 God dealt with a particular situation. He dealt with a man who divorced his wife for uncleanness then, after she had been married and divorced, wanting to marry her again. God said that he could not do so. Such was an "abomination" to God. Jesus not only sought to correct the perversion of Moses' Law by the Scribes and Pharisees but went beyond by stating His Law. Moses did not deal with the guilt of the one divorced when she remarried but Jesus did. Moses did not deal with the contributing guilt of the one divorcing his wife when she remarried but Jesus did. Moses never deal with the guilt of the third party who married the divorced woman but Jesus did.

2) Notice that Jesus began His teaching with, "but I say to you". If Jesus was only explaining the Law of Moses, would He not have started His explanation with "the Law says"? He specifically states that He was explaining the Law on other occasions (see Mt.7:12; 12:5; 22:40; 23:23; Lk.10:26-28; etc.). While Jesus was alive and the Law of Moses was in effect, He taught the necessity of observing that Law but He also told of a time when the Kingdom would be established and His Law would be for all. After His death and resurrection, He said, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, . . . teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Mt.28:18-20). Jesus is the One in authority now. We are to make disciples of Jesus not Moses. We are to teach that all must observe Jesus' commandments not Moses'.

3) Jesus made a direct contrast with Moses' Law in Mt.19. He was asked the question, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (vs.3). Jesus answered by going back to the beginning, to the original pattern established by God. His summary was, "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (vs.6). The Pharisees correctly saw that Moses' teaching was different when they asked, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (vs.7). Jesus did not correct them by saying that they had misunderstood Moses' Law but explained why God allowed divorce under Moses, "because of the hardness of your hearts". But Jesus said that this was not the way God wanted it, "from the beginning it was not so" (vs.8). He then stated what He would accept, "I say to you . . ." (vs.9). It was clear to the disciples that this teaching was different from and stricter than the teaching of Moses because they said, "If such is the case of the man and his wife, it is better not to marry" (vs.10). Jesus did not back down one letter. He, in fact, showed the extent of commitment He demanded by saying, ". . . there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake" (vs.12). God gave His pattern for marriage in the beginning. Under Moses, God allowed man to deviate from His original intent. Jesus makes it clear that God will no longer tolerate that deviance. Jesus' Law on divorce and remarriage is different than Moses because it goes back to what God wanted all along.

The words of Jesus are clear, authoritative and will judge us in the last day. We must accept them ourselves and teach others to become disciples of Him. We cannot mix the Old and New Covenants, as those who teach the "one covenant" doctrine, and appreciate the blessings we have in Christ.

(1) William Barclay The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 (The Westminster Press Philadelphia 1977) p.152.


e-mail this author at Archerfam@juno.com

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