A Gospel-Centered Approach to Divorce

divorceMany Christians when they think about God’s view on divorce rattle off three words: “God hates divorce.”

This sentiment is biblical, but too brief. It fails to understand why God hates divorce (see Eph 5:32–33); it misses the fact that God himself has experienced a divorce (Jer 3:8); and it denies the way the gospel promises pardon and healing to those who have been divorced (see John 4), not to mention the power the gospel gives to live in covenant faithfulness to God and the spouse he has given us.

This week I preached on the subject of divorce and in our bulletin I included a biblical survey of what Scripture says about divorce. What follows is an expansion on that survey. While the subject of divorce can be approached in many ways, my hope is to put the gospel at the center of our discussion about this personal subject. Let me know what you would add.

Divorce in the Law

Deuteronomy is the first place where the idea of divorce is mentioned. In chapter 22, Moses records two ways divorce is impermissible. First, if a man wrongly accuses his new wife of “misconduct” whereby he “brings a bad name upon a virgin in Israel,” he is to be whipped, fined, and disallowed from divorce (vv. 11–19). Likewise, if a man seizes a woman who is not betrothed and lies with her, he must pay the bridal price, and not divorce her (vv. 28–29). Clearly, these laws do not advance either practice (wrongful accusation or marriage by seizure); instead, they seek to give order to a people who are familiar with sexual sin and relational injustice.

Two chapters later, in Deuteronomy 24 Moses legislates the way in which divorce is to be carried out in Israel. He does not prescribe divorce as an ideal for God’s holy people, but like the lex talionis (“an eye for an eye,” Exod 21:24), Moses permits divorce to delimit the effects of sin. In short, the message to Israelite men is “If you divorce your wife, you cannot have her back. So think twice.”

As Jesus will later interpret, Moses permitted a certificate of divorce because the people’s hearts were hard (Matt 19:8). Such a legal action was not God’s original design (Gen 2:24), because as Malachi 2:16 reads: “God hates divorce” (NASB). Yet, because of sin, divorce is a common feature in our fallen world. In fact, in his own dealings with Israel, Yahweh himself issued a certificate of divorce (read Jeremiah 3).

Divorce in the Prophets

In Jeremiah 3:6, Yahweh speaks of Israel’s spiritual adultery: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill . . . and there played the whore?” To such repeated unfaithfulness, God issued a “decree of divorce” to his covenant people (v. 8). Because they broke the covenant, God sent Israel into exile. In context, Yahweh also warned of Judah’s ensuing exile, which we can assume was also a kind of divorce.

Throughout the Prophets, Israel is compared to a harlot. With foreign gods she plays the whore and eventually her infidelity causes God to reject her from his home. Showing the weakness of the Old Covenant, God divorced Israel because of her marital unfaithfulness. Yet, as Jeremiah 3:1 indicates, what the Law would not permit (i.e., the reunification of a divorced couple), God is able to overcome through his new covenant. The remainder of Jeremiah 3 (vv. 11–14) issues a call for unfaithful Israel to return to Zion. It also promises a better (marriage) covenant for Israel, Judah, and the nations (vv. 15–18). In short, it foreshadows the way in which Christ will come and reconcile a people to God, finishing in an international new covenant marriage (see Rev 19:6–9).

Similarly, Hosea shows a God who in his absolute holiness is wildly in love with Israel. Though breaking her covenant with him, his steadfast love remained true. In keeping his promise, God promises to redeem, purify, and reclaim them as his own. In this way, God promises to make a new covenant with his people (3:1–5).

Isaiah also depicts a new covenant where God redeems Israel from divorce. In Isaiah 50:1, God asks, “Where is you mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? . . . Behold, for your iniquities were you sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.” However, instead of condemning his people, Yahweh speaks of a new exodus whereby he will save his people (vv. 2–3). By means of his Servant (vv. 4–9), he will redeem and restore his bride.

In this way, God speaks tenderly to those he divorced. While his anger led him to divorce them, his mercies moved him to send his Son, the Suffering Servant, to create a new marriage. Though confounding to our own ability to reconcile justice and mercy, we see in his severity and kindness the perfect exhibition of his covenant love (see Exod 34:6–7). Personally, we also learn that divorce is not the unpardonable sin, but a sin that God can forgive. God delights to show mercy on sinful people (cf. Luke 19:10); indeed Jesus’ treatment of the women at the well confirms this. In John 4, he does not begin by condemning her. Rather, he exposes her sin and leads her to find mercy, forgiveness, and living water. What is foretold by the prophets is dramatized at Jacob’s well.

Divorce in the New Testament

In the New Testament, we discover that marriage is designed to picture Christ and the church (Eph 5:32–33). Human marriage is the shadow, Christ and his bride the substance. This reality explains why marriage is so important to God and why divorce is such an offense.

When Jesus and Paul forbid divorce, they argue for marriages to rightly represent the gospel. When a divorce happens it directly contradicts the message of the gospel—that Christ laid down his life for his bride to love her forever. Only in the case of porneia (adultery, etc.) or abandonment do Jesus and Paul permit a divorce (Matt 5:32; 19:8–9; 1 Cor 7:15). Such a rationale recognizes the original design of marriage (Gen 2:24), the way sexual infidelity eviscerates the covenant (Deut 24), and the permissive right to get a divorce if the marriage cannot be repaired.

The reason for the permission is tied to the sinfulness of humanity. Only where the Law made adultery a capital offense, now the guilty spouse is set outside the church. This excommunication does not “kill” the person; instead, it recognizes that they are spiritually dead—or acting like they are.

At the same time, Jesus does not demand separation and divorce in the event of adultery; he only permits it. This, too, indicates the greater power of the new covenant. Under the old covenant, repairing the breeches in the marriage covenant was not even possible. When the Hebrews married foreign women in Ezra 9–10, they did right by divorcing their wives to remain faithful to Yahweh. Under the new covenant the circumstances are different. Now, there is a new power to be able to restore what has been torn down.

For example,  Paul clearly restricts marriage to believers (2 Cor 6:14–18; cf. 1 Cor 7:39), but he encourages believers to remain married to unbelievers if the unbeliever will live with them (1 Cor 7:12–16). The application is that physical marriage is no longer determinative for spiritual living. Whereas, faithfulness to God in the old covenant was seen by corporeal circumcision, now God’s people are set apart through a circumcision made without hands (Col 2:11–12). Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christians can pursue any kind of sexual relationship they desire. No, Christians are bought with a price, and their bodies belong to God (1 Cor 6:19–20). But the shift in covenants does mean that the weakness of law (Deut 24:1–4) has been surpassed by the power of resurrection life. What God has joined together and has been subsequently torn asunder by a man’s sin can be reunited through the power of the new covenant.

In the end, the New Testament retains God’s original design: marriage is for one man and one woman, for life. Divorce rejects God’s design. But for those who are repentant of their divorce, for those who come willing to confess their sexual sins to God, the floodgates of mercy are wide open, ready to pardon, heal, and restore those devastated by divorce.

This is what Jeremiah 3 promised centuries ago, and it is still available to all who look to Christ today.

“‘And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. And when you have multiplied and been fruitful in the land, in those days, declares the LORD, they shall no more say, “The ark of the covenant of the LORD.” It shall not come to mind or be remembered or missed; it shall not be made again. At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no more stubbornly follow their own evil heart. In those days the house of Judah shall join the house of Israel, and together they shall come from the land of the north to the land that I gave your fathers for a heritage.
— Jeremiah 3:14–18 —

Soli Deo Gloria, ds