"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Matthew 5:31-32)
Is Jesus changing Mosaic law?Jesus continues to comment upon the Mosaic law - that is, the law as promulgated by Moses and continued through the temple tradition.
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 institutional temple 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 ... (Deuteronomy 24:1)In other words, divorce was a custom as far back as Moses' time, some fourteen centuries before Jesus.
Why the difference?So why did Jesus teach this, contrary to institutional temple 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 sexual attraction, money, or other materialistic motives.
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 partners 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.
Can these teachings be applied today?As we seek to apply this teaching today, we must also bring into context the time and circumstance of the teaching and our culture today - just as Jesus was doing 2,000 years ago.
We must live within the society our body lives in at the moment.
Today we live in a secular society and a majority of adults have been divorced. Are we to shun every divorced person? Are we to ignore the opportunities for people to grow spiritually despite this secular society? This would be a gross oversight of practical reason.
Marrying a divorced person with the purpose of each partner helping the other develop their relationships with God is a marriage that transcends the circumstance of a past divorce. The criteria of becoming closer to God prevails, as Jesus teaches:
“‘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)