So what is the answer to our questions about divorce and remarriage?
- Can divorce and remarriage be free from adultery, or not?
- Is a divorced and remarried person committing perpetual adultery?
- Should divorce and remarriage result in some sort of sanction from the church?
On the one hand, God has given us a simple ideal for sex and marriage: One man with one woman for life.
On the other hand, our lives are complicated by sin and weakness. So God addresses penalties and remedies for all kinds of complications. There is defilement. There is adultery. There is selfishness and sinfulness. There are people who find themselves divorced. Someone might say there should not be divorce because the penalty for adultery was death, but the OT recognizes divorce as an alternative to the death penalty (Deut. 24:1).
The OT also addresses several other situations that do not square with God's idea for sex and marriage. If a man seduces a virgin he is forced to pay the bride price and marry her - without the possibility of ever divorcing her (Deut. 22:28-29). If a man has two wives and loves one wife but not the other, he must not deny the birthright of his children by the unloved wife (Deut. 21:15). If a man divorces his wife and she marries another man, but that second husband dies, the first husband cannot take her as his wife again because she has become defiled (Deut. 24:2-4).
When Jesus addresses issues of divorce and remarriage in the New Testament, He is not prescribing new laws. He is explaining God's perspective on the hearts of the people who are involved in these situations. Jesus is addressing people who feel pretty good about their level of success at achieving an acceptable level of righteousness. They had not violated the written law - the letter of the law. But Jesus says, "You have still violated the spirit of the law by committing adultery in your hearts." In fact, Jesus says, "You are using the law to commit adultery."
A man may not have ever committed adultery physically, but still have committed adultery by looking at a woman with lust in his heart (Matthew 5:28).
A man may have not been unfaithful to his wife while married to her, but then he divorces her to marry another woman. Jesus says that is adultery on his part (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18). He also says that the man who marries the divorced woman is committing adultery (same verses). He even says that when a man divorces his wife causes HER to commit adultery!
Jesus is not saying that the remarriages are not legitimate marriages. Both the law (Deut 24:1-4) and the language Jesus uses acknowledges that the remarried people are really married. The second husband might die or divorce the remarried wife, making her available again to be married - but not to her first husband. When Jesus talks to the woman at the well he says, "... have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband" (John 4:18)
So what is Jesus saying? That the people who practice these things are falling short of God's ideal. Lust in the heart violates God's ideal and pollutes (adulterates) what ought to be kept pure. Divorce and remarriage spoil God's ideal and may well be just a socially/legally acceptable way of committing adultery. God knows the hearts and all have sinned, even if they have kept the letter of the law.