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Sermon on the Mount: Adultery and Divorce

What did Jesus say about adultery and divorce?


Discussing relationship breakdown can be hard, especially when unfaithfulness is involved. When Jesus tackled the issue of adultery – cheating on a marriage partner – and marriage breakdown, it’s important to have some understanding of the culture into which he was speaking.

In the Old Testament, if a man chose to divorce his wife, he was allowed to give her divorce papers and send her away. However, a woman could not seek a divorce from her husband. Read more in Matthew 19:8.

In fact, women were in a difficult position as they had no real power in society. Women needed to be in a family for their own security, if they were outside the protection of a family they were vulnerable and could easily become penniless and homeless.

The options for women outside of the home were begging, prostitution or death. This was the stark reality facing a woman who was separated from her husband. Husbands could divorce their wives for any reason, so women were very dependent on their husbands. In the original Hebrew text, it says that God hates ‘putting away’ or kicking the wife into the streets; in English, this gets interpreted as divorce.

Adultery means a married person having sexual intercourse with someone who is not their husband or wife. Jesus goes beyond this and says that unfaithfulness begins when a person thinks about a person they’re not married to in a lustful way.

Jesus says that sin (doing wrong) isn’t just an action but also the wrong thoughts and desires that we have. The wrong thoughts can lead to the wrong actions but Jesus is suggesting that unfaithfulness starts in the heart and mind.

When Jesus uses the example of “if your eye causes you to sin take it out” he isn’t meaning this literally; he’s trying to make a point that we need to avoid dwelling on thoughts and feelings that are going to lead to unfaithfulness. Lust has a selfish motive as it is about using someone for self-gratification, therefore it is different from love.

Christians believe that marriage is a covenant relationship, which means one that is based on trust and it reflects the relationship God offers to people with himself. God is faithful, and he wants people to be faithful to him; this extends to human relationships too. Therefore, marriage mirrors the covenant relationship with God, and unfaithfulness in a relationship breaks trust.

Find out more:

In John 8:1-11 Jesus shows compassion to a woman who is brought to him who has been caught committing adultery. For a woman, the sentence for committing adultery was death by stoning. It is only the woman who is brought to Jesus, not the man involved. Jesus tells the men assembled that “those without sin should cast the first stone” but of course no one can throw the first stone because none of them are perfect. Jesus doesn’t condone the woman’s adultery in fact he tells the woman to “go and sin no more” but he does challenge those assembled as to how they are choosing to live. Read more here.

In Matthew 19 Jesus expands on this as he talks with his disciples. He says that God created a man and woman to live together in a faithful and trusting relationship.

You can read more about a Christian response to divorce here or watch an interview with a Christian couple who had to go through previous divorces

It’s important to remember that Jesus both challenged people in his teachings and showed love and grace towards them, as he did to all people who had committed a sin.

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
‘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 5:27-31
Image reproduced with kind permission of Free Bible Images.