Christ in his teaching on the doctrine of the new covenant and its bearing on the inner man fulfilled and superseded the old covenant and condemned the practices of the scribes and Pharisees which the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 24) regulated. The Lord contrasted His supremely higher law of the inner man with the then current morally insipid and motive driven pharisaic interpretation of the Mosaic Law. The pharisaic interpretations dramatically altered Yahweh’s intent with Israel under Moses. The extent of their immorality on this question is illustrated by Josephus, himself a Pharisee, who stated “that there are many causes for a man to put away his wife”. The greatest abuses had arisen in regard to divorce that was permitted on very trivial grounds. One rabbinical saying was, “if any man hates his wife, let him put her away”.

The tradition of the scribes and the Pharisees was to quote one rabbinical opinion upon another, each opinion being tainted by the popular sentiment of the day. By the time of the coming of the Lord the nation was entering that final phase of corruption in which that generation would fill up the iniquities of their fathers. The scribes and Pharisees were addressed by Christ’s forerunner in these words “O generation of vipers, who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” The Lord Jesus takes up the same language to address the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 12 describing them as, “an evil and adulterous and wicked generation” (Matthew 12:34, 39, 45). This “adulterous generation” passed over the penalty due for what Job calls “an heinous crime… an iniquity to be punished by the judges” (Job 31:11). The Lord laid bare their inner man, the motive in all their dealings. The Law which condemned them all to a violent death (Leviticus 20:7, 8, 10, 23) was taught through their traditions in a way which seemed to elevate Israel’s rulers beyond the Law’s condemnation.

The basis of judgement in relation to the new and everlasting covenant rests on higher principles altogether. The Lord Jesus Christ will not ultimately enter into eternal fellowship with someone through entrance “into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 5:20) if that person’s spirit or disposition of mind is not brought into servitude to Christ’s.

Christ’s teachings (Matthew 5:28–32) elevates the seventh commandment, “thou shalt not commit adultery,” to encompass two aspects, one mental, the other moral. This was a new way of thinking for his disciples, who had been indoctrinated by the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees. The Lord’s teaching brought them uncomfortably to consider the undisciplined musings of the heart upon “deceitful lusts” which if not brought under servitude to Christ would lead to the condemnation of adultery. This laid bare the real motive for divorce. The Lord in his teachings concerning adultery (verses 28–32), though he continually refers to the man’s position, does not of course exclude the woman from the type of thinking that can lead to the practice of divorce and remarriage for reasons other than unrepentant unfaithfulness. The Lord’s words are applicable to all, male and female, as is illustrated in Mark 10:12. This being understood, the object of Christ’s consideration in Matthew 5:32 is the same type of man who has adulterous intentions as described in verses 27 and 28. It is this adulterous motive of the heart that led this man to quote the “it hath been said” Pharisees’ tradition of verse 31 which falsely interpreted the Mosaic Law of Deuteronomy 24:1–3, to provide permission for divorce for every cause. It is also possible for brethren and sisters to use Christ’s teachings of the new covenant in a way in which he never intended, to circumvent his motive of transforming principles! This man’s righteousness did not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, who for the lust of his heart believed the law allowed divorce for any cause or ground. It is this adulterous man of verses 27–30 who is the predominant subject of Christ’s words in verses 31–32, the man who puts away his wife who is innocent of unfaithfulness. The Lord reveals this man’s terrible sin (versus 28–32) in terms of the consequences for his wife who was put away for improper grounds.

The Lord shows that this man’s motive is not the known and verified fact of his wife’s persistent unfaithfulness which the word “fornication” (Greek “porneia”) indicates, as Christ states in his words “apart from the cause of fornication” (Young’s literal translation). The reason we know this is evident is by Christ’s next words; for in the putting away of his innocent wife this man “causes,” or makes his wife to “commit adultery”. If sexual immorality was the reason for this man’s putting away of his wife, his putting her away would not “make” her commit adultery, because she was already doing so. If she was responsible for the illicit union and not her husband, then could he be accused of “causing her to commit” something, if she was already guilty of it?

By the act of divorce, this man causes his wife, who was innocent of “porneia”, to commit adultery because she would ultimately remarry under the circumstances of Jewish life. Furthermore, he who marries his divorced wife also commits adultery. This in itself proves that under Christ’s new law, the divorced wife, put away for reasons other than her known unfaithfulness, remains the wife of the man whose adulterous heart caused the putting asunder. Thus Christ’s doctrine (verse 32), sweeps away the Pharisees’ contention that divorce for any cause severs the marriage bond, for upon what grounds could the Lord then say that he who marries her who has been put away also commits adultery? It is this fact under Christ’s new law that prohibits remarriage where separation has occurred for causes other than continued unfaithfulness (1 Corinthians 7:10–11), ensuring the reconciliation hoped for of the separated spouses.

Bro. Roberts, in the April 1882 Christadelphian states, “There is nothing in the law of Christ to interfere with the remarriage of a man and woman who have been previously divorced from one another. The law of Christ rather favours every kind of reconciliation and triumph of peace”.

What is to be done, however, where a spouse is guilty of “porneia” and the condition exists in which the other spouse could “put away” and be free of the charge in doing so of causing to commit adultery? Indeed, necessity may leave no other choice but like Hosea, to separate and send his erring wife away from his house. Does this give the innocent spouse the right to divorce and remarry? The Lord answers this in Matthew 19:9. Where no other commands of Christ is violated (i.e. suing at law etc.) divorce from an unrepentant adulterous spouse is not a sin against either Christ’s teachings or against the spirit of them. However, Christ does not in his words encourage, let alone command it.

Bro. Roberts in the 1891 Christadelphian answering a request to explain Matthew 5:32 states, “Christ’s words relate to divorce for insufficient cause as was at that time common among the Jews. He recognises no divorce as lawful ‘save for the cause of fornication’. (Notice bro. Roberts states Christ’s words relate to divorce, not just separation and that Christ’s teachings do recognise divorce for the cause of fornication and that he is speaking of divorce in the context of Christ’s day.) This severs the bond. Human law recognises this, and we are commanded to submit to human law where it does not conflict with divine law. Where the law recognises man and woman in any case as husband and wife, there can be no question of adultery” (notice bro. Roberts dismisses the idea of a continued state of adultery where remarriage has taken place).

The Christadelphian No. 214―April 1882 Notes

The Christadelphian 1891, Inside front cover

I would like to reiterate that the injured husband is not commanded to put away his wife who is committing porneia. The Lord’s words are very carefully chosen. His words of verse 32 are compassed about by a multitude of other precepts that highlight the continual unabated characteristics of Yahweh manifested in the Son—long-suffering, mercy, forgiveness, patience, tireless seeking of reconciliation, which must find their representation in all God’s sons and daughters that grace might be pleasurably extended. Christ’s own example of laying down his life for those who the apostle calls “enemies,” (Romans 5:10) is the basis of our redemption, the recognition of which and manifestation of its principles in our own lives towards the undeserving, are our garments of beauty (Revelation 19:8). It is interesting to consider why the Lord did not give definitive commands regarding the rights or otherwise of the injured partner either in Matthew 5 or 19. This of course is the reason why over many years there has been so much contention over these verses. Why didn’t the Lord make the matter absolutely clear?

It is a trait of human nature to love to have everything clearly defined so that man does not have to seek matters out and exercise his mind to understand great truths. But this matter of divorce and remarriage touches perhaps the greatest spiritual type revealed in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. The reason the Master is not as clear and decisive about the injured partner as he is about the guilty, is because the sons and daughters of God would not interpret Matthew 5 in isolation from all their Master’s other teachings in chapters 5–7; principles by which “we judge (or discern) ourselves truly, that we might not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31).

We are ever called upon to exercise our minds on the overall principles Yahweh has revealed to us through His son’s example and teachings. The writer is fully convinced that this process cannot be without suffering, trial and tribulation, because integral to the understanding of Yahweh’s mind, is the development of a character that is receptive to it. By this process alone, the disciple can “attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a full-grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”; and by “speaking the truth in love grow up in every way into him who is the head”, into Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 4:13–15, ESV).