It is important to understand that Jesus was speaking to his students who were following him, some 2,000 years ago. This means he is teaching to a particular time and circumstance.
How do we know this instruction was applicable to a certain time and culture?
We can consider the source of Jesus' point: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce." Where does this come from? Was this just what the Jewish teachings of those days were?
No. This comes from the time of Moses. As stated in Deuteronomy:
"When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house,... (Deut. 24:1)In other words, divorce was a custom as far back as Moses' time, some fourteen centuries before Jesus.
So why did Jesus teach this, contrary to Jewish law? Jesus is discouraging divorce because it had become commonplace to write a divorce certificate for minor reasons so the man could chase down another woman. This doesn't mean that Jesus was saying that divorce was not sometimes necessary.
Divorce is prevalent in modern times, with well over 50% of marriages today ending in divorce. The institution of marriage has become thoroughly secular, with the purpose of marriage often revolving around physical and sexual attraction, money or other materialistic motives.
A marriage within a spiritual context would be undertaken for the purpose of supporting each others' (and possibly children's) spiritual growth in their relationship with God. A marriage based on this premise would have no reason for divorce, unless one of the partner's decided that their relationship with God was not important.
The symptom of this can be adultery by one of the partners. This act represents a person's deciding that their own physical satisfaction is more important than their relationship with their partner, and God.
As we seek to apply this today, we must bring into context the time and circumstance of the teaching and our culture today. We must live within the society our body lives in at the moment.
Marrying a divorced person with a purpose of helping each other develop their relationships with God is a marriage that transcends the circumstance of the person being divorced. The criteria of being pleasing and coming closer to God should prevail above all others when considering who to marry.
Therefore using the overriding principle of Jesus regarding developing ones love for God, it is better to marry a person once-divorced and share a relationship with God than to marry a virgin who seeks only a physical relationship:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment." (Matt. 22:37-38)
(For a translation of Jesus' statements from the Gospel of Matthew without sectarian influence, see the Gospels of Jesus - translated from the original Greek texts.)