Tag Archives: will of God

Did Jesus Introduce a New Standard for Divorce?  (JDR-12)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage (JDR), where I’m currently walking through Matthew 19. To understand my goals in this series, please see my past posts, especially the first two:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)

“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

“From the Beginning It Was Not So”—And Never Has Been (JDR-11)


Summary of this post:  I consider the relationship between (1) God’s creation standard for marriage, (2) what the law of Moses said about divorce, and (3) Jesus’ divorce teachings. Contrary to the assumptions of the Pharisees, the giving of the law did not make God’s creation standard irrelevant. Similarly, I argue, Jesus intended to clarify rather than overturn the law of Moses. His divorce teachings are consistent with those of Malachi, an earlier Jewish prophet who likewise affirmed the law of Moses. Thus, just as the creation account offers Christians today an essential vision of God’s ideal for marriage, so the OT divorce laws can help us understand his will for responding to hard-hearted covenant breakers.


Creation and the Law: Consecutive Standards, or Concurrent?

In my last post I explained why “in the beginning it was not so” is a bad translation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:8, which are better translated as “from the beginning it has not been so.” I’ll pick up where we left off by once again quoting Luck’s comments on the same clause:

Jesus is not trying to distinguish between a dispensation up to Moses, followed by a hiatus, in turn terminated by Jesus’ present teaching, but rather a continuing divine attitude that runs clear from the beginning of creation up to the point of the Lord’s speech—right through the time of Moses and the exercise of the Law![1]

We can display Luck’s argument visually by contrasting several timelines.

The Pharisees based their divorce teaching entirely on the legal portions of the law of Moses. If they thought about God’s creation purpose for marriage at all, they apparently assumed it had been superseded by Moses’ allowance of divorce, as this consecutive timeline suggests:

In this conception of things, the Jews were off the hook if they failed to live up to God’s creation purpose for marriage permanence, for its relevance had ended with the giving of the law of Moses.[2]

Jesus sharply rebuked this attitude, insisting instead that God’s creation purpose remained unchanged, despite God’s allowance of divorce in the law of Moses. In Jesus’ perspective, God’s primary will and his secondary will ran concurrently, so that Jesus could still call his hearers to God’s higher standard, despite Moses’ divorce allowance:We should not, however, draw too sharp a division between creation and law. In our English translations of the OT, the word law is traditionally used to translate the Hebrew word torah (tôrâ). In Hebrew thought, however, torah is often understood more broadly and could be better translated as instruction or teaching. When Jews spoke of “the Torah” they meant everything found in the books of Moses, including not only commands but also narrative portions—including the creation account. Consider Meier’s warning:

It is unfortunate that some commentators (betraying a theological concern with Law within a particular Christian context) speak in too sweeping a fashion of… Jesus opposing creation to Law. In reality, the creation narrative of Genesis is the beginning of the whole Torah, the whole Law, of Moses.[3]

Perhaps, ironically, we are guilty of a similar interpretive stumble as the Pharisees if we imagine that creation and law should not be taken together as parallel witnesses of God’s will, a complete Torah (teaching) that includes both his original purposes and his concessions.

The Law and Jesus: Consecutive Standards, or Concurrent?

The second timeline above clarifies that God’s creation purpose was not terminated when the law of Moses was given. The timeline leaves another question unanswered, however: Did Jesus mean to revoke God’s secondary will as given in the law of Moses? Was he eliminating all allowance for divorce when he reminded people of God’s original creation design for marriage? Was Jesus saying “it’s God’s primary will or nothing” now that his kingdom was at hand?

Some Bible teachers and scholars seem to think so. Consider again, for example, these words from Coblentz:

Under the Old Covenant God permitted [divorce] in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.”[4]

The evangelical commentator Hagner expressed a similar view even more forcefully:

The Mosaic legislation in Deut 24:1–4 was… not normative but only secondary and temporary, an allowance dependent on the sinfulness of the people… The new era of the present kingdom of God involves a return to the idealism of the pre-fall Genesis narrative. The call of the kingdom is a call to the ethics of the perfect will of God (cf. the Sermon on the Mount), one that makes no provision for, or concession to, the weakness of the flesh.[5]

In timeline form, this view looks like this:

According to this view, the coming of the law did not overturn God’s creation standard about divorce. The new covenant, however, did overturn what the law of Moses taught about divorce.

Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at his transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). Image: Transfiguration of Christ, c. 1560, a painting by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio).

Did Jesus Overturn the Law and Introduce New Divorce Teaching?

There is much that is attractive about this view, and it is at least partly right. The full NT witness makes it clear that Jesus did inaugurate a new covenant and that new covenant believers are no longer under the law of Moses in the same way that OT saints were.[6] It is also true that God’s Spirit gives believers new hearts and can empower them to honor God’s original creation design for marriage. That standard should certainly be the goal of every married Christian.

None of this, however, proves that Jesus was intentionally overturning the law of Moses when he gave his teachings on divorce. Nor does it prove that what Moses law taught about divorce no longer has any relevance for new covenant believers. The fact that the law of Moses could be given while God’s creation standard remained relevant should make us ask: Could the law of Moses remain relevant in some way while Jesus calls us back to God’s creation standard?

The answer is surely Yes, according to the literary and historical contexts of Jesus’ divorce teachings. In both Matthew 5 and Luke 16, Jesus introduced his teaching on divorce by emphasizing the abiding relevance of the law.[7] Similarly, in Jesus’ divorce debate with the Pharisees, they “tested” him using the standard of the law: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife…?” (Matt. 19:3). If Jesus had contradicted or overturned the law, his enemies would have pounced.[8]

But they don’t pounce, because “Jesus avoids nullifying Deuteronomy. Instead, he affirms the validity of both Genesis and Deuteronomy as (respectively) ‘creation prototype and wilderness proviso.’”[9] In answer to the Pharisees’ question, “Is it lawful?” Jesus essentially answers, “Yes—but you’re avoiding another question that’s even more important: ‘Is it consistent with God’s original and highest will?’”[10] With this answer, he avoids their trap, refusing to either approve their selfish divorces or contradict the law of Moses.

But what about the new covenant? Didn’t it overturn the law of Moses?

Given what one hears from some Bible teachers,[11] it can come as a surprise to notice that Jesus never appealed to the new covenant when teaching on divorce. He only pointed backwards to creation, never forward to the coming of the Spirit. Despite brief contextual references to the present inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven,[12] in his divorce teaching “Jesus [did] not appeal to the new eschatological situation brought about by the arrival of the kingdom of God… but rather to God’s purposes in creation.”[13]

In sum, Jesus presented his divorce teaching as a clarification of existing truth, not as something new. He seemed to think that what he was teaching about divorce was what Jewish leaders should have been teaching all along, before he ever arrived on the scene.

Jesus and Malachi: Two Jewish Prophets Address Divorce

Indeed, Malachi— the last OT prophet to teach on divorce—did just that. I would argue that Jesus said nothing in his Matthew 19 divorce teaching that was different in essence than what the prophet Malachi had already said over 400 years earlier. Put differently, everything Jesus said about divorce and remarriage in the Matthew 19 account either had already been taught by Malachi or fits perfectly with what he wrote.

Note the similarities:

  • A central concern for both Malachi and Jesus was men who practiced “aversion divorce”—divorcing wives without valid cause, often because they wanted new ones.
  • Malachi began his discourse on divorce by asking “Has not one God created us?”, presenting this as an argument against being “faithless to one another” (Mal. 2:10; cf. 2:15). Jesus similarly began with creation: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:4; cf. 19:5, 8), using that as a basis for preserving marriages.
  • Malachi emphasized that marriage was a “covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Jesus likewise emphasized the covenantal expressions “hold fast” and “one flesh” (Matt. 19:5-6).
  • Both described aversion divorce as being an affront against God himself, who is described as the one who unites a husband and a wife (Mal. 2:14-15; Matt. 19:6).
  • Both honored wives, recognizing their dignity and legal rights more than was common in Jewish culture. For example, both warned that aversion divorce was a crime against one’s wife (Mal. 2:14; Matt. 19:9; cf. Mark 10:11, “against her”).
  • Finally, the central term in Malachi’s critique of divorce was “faithless” (or “unfaithfulness,” NIV; Mal. 2:10, 11, 14, 15, 16) which foreshadowed Jesus’ more pointed punchline that he who divorces and remarries “commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9; cf. Matt. 5:32; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).

Stuart says the following about the divorces in Malachi’s day:

Their aversion-divorce decrees were pure “unfaithfulness.” This divorce that they were practicing was just as much “unfaithfulness” as if they were committing adultery.

And did not Jesus say just this about aversion divorce? His words are entirely consistent with the view of marriage enunciated in Malachi’s third disputation: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).[14]

Given these similarities, Carson suggests that “Jesus aligns himself with the prophet Malachi”[15] and some commentators have even suggested that Jesus, in his debate with the Pharisees, was using Malachi to interpret Deuteronomy 24.[16] Whether or not Jesus was indeed thinking of Malachi as he taught on divorce, the similarities between their prophetic warnings are evident.[17]

This raises important questions. When Malachi rebuked aversion divorce so sharply, was he overturning the divorce allowance found within the law of Moses? This hardly seems feasible, since OT prophets functioned as covenant enforcers, holding Israel accountable to keep God’s law from the heart.

What, then, about Jesus? If Malachi was not overturning Moses’ divorce allowance,[18] and if Jesus’ words “are entirely consistent with the view of marriage enunciated in” Malachi, then what basis do we have to conclude that Jesus intended to overturn Moses’ divorce allowance? Isn’t it more consistent to see him, like the latter prophets, urging Israel to keep “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness… without neglecting” the legal details they so often emphasized or abused (Matt. 23:23)?

Here’s what Malachi said about divorce (Mal. 10-16 ESV). Some parts of his message are very difficult to translate (notice all the footnotes in vv. 15-16) but the heartbeat of his message is clear and is consistent with Jesus’ later teachings.

Does the Law of Moses Speak to Christians Today?

But what about the Christian today, who is a member of Jesus’ new covenant community in a way that Jesus’ original audience of Pharisees never was? Does the law of Moses, with its divorce allowances and commands, have any relevance for us?

A good approach, it seems to me, is to acknowledge both continuity and discontinuity regarding the law of Moses for the Christian today. On the one hand, we are no longer members of the Mosaic covenant and therefore not directly under its law. On the other hand, the law of Moses still reveals eternal realities about the heart of God and about his concern for justice, mercy, and faithfulness in marriage. Just as we affirm many things the law of Moses says about sexuality in general[19] while relaxing or adapting others,[20] so the Mosaic divorce permissions and commands still have some relevance for us today.

All parts of the Torah remain “profitable” for the Christian today (2 Tim. 3:16). Just as the creation account offers an image of God’s ideal for marriage, so the OT divorce laws can help us understand his will for responding to hard-hearted covenant breakers. Hard hearts, after all, exist as much today as they did in the days of Moses and Jesus.

No, we should not use OT laws to override clear NT teachings. But neither should we assume a total break with all that the OT law teaches about divorce. Jesus didn’t—and neither, for that matter, did Paul (see Rom. 7:2).

Expressed as a timeline, the view I am proposing could look like this, with a dashed line showing a that the law of Moses still has indirect relevance for the Christian today:

Some of us aren’t as comfortable with a dashed line as with a solid line or a period. Black-and-white law can be more convenient than ambiguity. The view I’m proposing requires us to seek God’s heart and not merely his rules, important as they are.

Conclusion: Final Quotes to Ponder

I want to wrap up this long post with a couple long quotes from authors who share my reading of Matthew 19:8. First, here again is our text:

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so [has not been so].”

Here is Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary:

This text has been understood in two main ways. (1) Jesus opposes Moses, cancels Deuteronomy’s permission, and so contrasts divorce with God’s will “from the very beginning.” Deut 24 is not God’s will for Jesus at all; it is only Moses’ concession. Or (2) Jesus demotes Moses’ concession, subordinating Deuteronomy’s “Second Law” to Genesis’s “First Law.” Yet, this argument concedes, Deut 24 is God’s permitted, “second” will for some persons.

I understand the text in the second sense because Jesus does not say, antithetically, “You have heard of old, ‘Because of your hard-heartedness Moses permitted you to divorce your wives,’ but I say to you, this must no longer be the case.” Jesus does not substitute; he subordinates. He does not replace Moses’ teaching with his own but subjects Deuteronomy to Genesis. But Deuteronomy remains. Deuteronomy is the subordinated, concessioned, qualified, but still valid will of God… Matthew’s Jesus takes both laws, places them in a clear first and second place, and then seeks in every way possible to move his disciples to seek God’s first will.

…Jesus read Scripture discriminately, even hierarchically, placing some texts over others in authority. Scripture was not flat to Jesus; it had peaks and valleys, higher truth and subordinate truth…

Genesis (the “Beginning” Book) gives us God’s pristine will on marriage; Deuteronomy gives us God’s permissive will for failed marriage; Genesis is Primary Will, Deuteronomy is Secondary Will. For those to whom Jesus is Lord, these two teachings—of Genesis and of Deuteronomy—will not be seen as two equal or even close options, but as the Lord’s passionately-to-be-sought highest will and as his only finally, penitently-to-be-accepted last resort.[21]

Barbara Roberts views the Mosaic witness more holistically than Bruner, without setting creation against law code. She also adds crucial words affirming innocent spouses. Yet she agrees with Bruner’s main point—and mine—that Jesus did not replace Moses’ teaching with his own:

It is not the case that Jesus simply abrogated the Mosaic divorce law and instituted a new, more stringent divorce rule for kingdom living. The Mosaic Law had always set forth the divine intention that marriage was a lifelong committed relationship. It had sought to protect a vulnerable, innocent spouse from a callous or unfaithful spouse, and had allowed the use of disciplinary divorce. It had sought to deter people from treacherous, cavalier and impulsive divorce and remarriage.

Jesus did not change any of this; he simply called for a full and proper adherence to God’s standards for marriage. He condemned the legalistic approaches of his own day, which had legitimized treacherous divorce. And he declared that treacherous divorce with ensuing marriage is equivalent to adultery and a breach of the seventh commandment. If this appeared to be changing the standard, it was only because the Jews had so poorly adhered to the standard.[22]

I realize some readers will remain unconvinced. For some, anything short of an absolute enforcement of God’s creation standard against divorce feels like an unjustifiable compromise, unsuited to the new covenant and the kingdom of God. For such readers, I’ll share one more quote. It is pregnant. I invite you to ponder this:

It is true that from the beginning men did not divorce their wives… We may note in passing that, from the beginning, neither was there a separation from bed and board.[23]


If you made it this far, thanks much for reading! Up next is Matthew 19:9, which is Jesus’ climatic statement on divorce in this whole account. I have lots of thoughts I hope to share on this verse but don’t have any blog posts drafted yet, so you may have to wait a couple months for my next post. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks again!


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[1] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157-58. Available online: https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view.

[2] Kauffman’s use of the phrase “in the beginning” suggests a similar interpretation: “Moses permitted man to give a writing of divorcement, but it was not so in the beginning, neither is it under the Gospel.” Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 452. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC

[3] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 143.

[4] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23. I want to also take this opportunity to underscore that, having met John Coblentz personally and heard him speak, I deeply respect him.

[5] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 33B (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), 548–549. Blomberg expressed a similar view: “Jesus does not challenge their logic, only the permanence of the Mosaic law. God’s provisions for divorce were temporary, based on the calloused rebellion of fallen humanity against God. He did not originally create people to divorce each other, and he therefore does not intend for those whom he re-creates—the community of Jesus’ followers—to practice divorce. As in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims a higher standard of righteousness for his followers than the law of Moses. This distinction suggests that we must be more lenient with non-Christians who divorce but also that we may not include ‘hard-heartedness’ as a legitimate excuse for Christians divorcing.” Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1992), 291.

[6] See Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:17-26; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:16-17; Heb. 7:12; etc.

[7] See Matt. 5:17-20 and Luke 16:16-17. The latter passage presents two balancing realities. On the one hand, “the Law and the Prophets” are either superseded or fulfilled by “the good news of the kingdom of God.” On the other hand, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void,” and one way to understand the sequence of Luke’s account is that Jesus presented his teaching on divorce as evidence of the latter reality—as an example of a teaching of the Law that the Pharisees were failing to observe, a teaching that remained relevant with the coming of the kingdom.

[8] See Matt. 12:2, 10; 22:17; cf. Acts 6:11,13; 21:28; 25:8.

[9] Jeannine K. Brown and Kyle Roberts, Matthew, Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 259, quoting F. Scott Spencer, “Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Matthew’s Jesus,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, Vol. 64, No. 4 (2010), 377.

[10] I am disagreeing here with Kuruvilla’s commentary on Mark’s account: “Jesus is questioned about whether or not divorce is lawful at all… In response, Jesus sends his examiners back to Genesis to first understand the nature of marriage. To address divorce, Jesus appeals to the one-flesh union as the basis of comprehending marriage. On this basis, He declares that man should not separate what God has joined together. The answer to the Pharisees’ question about divorce being lawful is evidently ‘no.’ The reader is urged to carefully re-examine the above passage [Mk. 10:2-12] to fully appreciate this point: Jesus was undercutting the Mosaic law’s tolerance of divorce. What the Mosaic law merely restricted, Jesus now forbids.” Finny Kuruvilla, “Until Death Do Us Part: Is Remarriage Biblically Sanctioned After Divorce?” (essay), (Anchor Cross Publishing, July 13, 2014), 6, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/570e3c2f8259b563851efcf8/t/5911288c4402435d4e08c196/1494296716383/essay_remarriage.pdf

[11] See Coblentz and Hagner above. See also Daniel Kauffman’s reference to divorce not being permitted “under the Gospel” in a quote in my last post. Edwards’s suggestion is also questionable: “Mark 10:1-12 is a blueprint for an entirely new norm of marriage.” James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 305.

[12] Mentioned in Matthew’s account (Matt. 19:12) but not by Mark. In both the Sermon on the Mount and near Luke’s record of Jesus’ divorce teaching, though the kingdom of heaven/God is mentioned, Jesus underscores the enduring relevance of the law as a moral standard (cf. Matt. 5:17-20; Lk. 16:16-17).

[13] Robert H. Stein, Mark, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 456.

[14] Douglas Stuart, “Malachi,” The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary, Vol. 3, ed. Thomas Edward McComiskey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 1338. Stuart later says the following about Malachi’s divorce teaching: “Because of its reinforcement in the teaching of Christ, it cannot be dismissed as no longer binding on New Covenant believers” (1344).

[15] “Jesus aligns himself with the prophet Malachi who quotes Yahweh as saying, ‘I hate divorce’ (2:16), and also refers to creation (2:14–15)” (Carson, D. A.. Matthew (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary) . Zondervan. Kindle Edition.).

[16] “[Malachi] 2.10-16… begins with a reference to God’s creation of humanity (v. 10: ‘Did not one God create us?’) and continues a few verses later with an apparent allusion to Gen. 2.24: ‘Did he not make one?’… It has therefore been argued that the rejection of divorce is based upon a reading of the creation story… This sets Malachi’s criticism of divorce squarely beside the same two verses quoted in the gospels… In view of this, we find attractive Sigal’s suggestion… that ‘Jesus exegetes Deut. 24.1 in the light of Malakhi.’” See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. III (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 12. The quote from Sigal can be found in Phillip Sigal, The Halakhah of Jesus of Nazareth According to the Gospel of Matthew, Studies in Biblical Literature, No. 18 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007 [orig. pub. 1986]), 116: “Jesus stands with Malachi and in line with Malachi’s admonition to ‘remember the Torah of Moses.’ Jesus exegetes Deut. 24:1 in the light of Malachi… Jesus is not thereby annulling Deut. 24:1. He is only exegeting it.”

[17] There are differences, too, though arguably not contradictory ones: Malachi warns against marrying pagan wives, a problem Jesus never mentions. And, unlike Malachi, Jesus mentions “divorce certificates” (alluding to Deut. 24:1).

[18] Stuart (“Malachi,” 1343) says, “Moses and Malachi come at the issue of divorce from different angles. Moses allows it under certain conditions. Malachi condemns it except under certain conditions. But inasmuch as those conditions appear to be identical, employing even the same essential vocabulary in definition of the actions involved, their respective doctrines are compatible.”

[19] For example, adultery, incest, and rape are still wrong.

[20] For example, the death penalty is no longer prescribed for adultery, sex during menstruation is reduced to a question of personal dignity, and polygamy is discouraged.

[21] Frederick Dale Bruner, Mathew: A Commentary; Volume 2: The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28 , rev. and exp. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 260-61. Davies and Allison, quoting Cranfield, present a view which is virtually identical to Bruner’s. See W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, Vol. III (London: T&T Clark, 1997), 14. Google preview: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Matthew/ZXIV2WOTVvMC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=%22from%20the%20beginning%22

[22] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 88.

[23] Guy Duty, Divorce and Remarriage: A Christian View (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1983), 68-69. Unfortunately, Duty reads “from the beginning” as if it meant “in the beginning.” Yet, his point remains valid: Separation from bed and board (“moving out” without divorcing) is no more a part of God’s original design or perfect will than divorce is. Yet, who among us would argue it should never be done? Therefore, merely noting that something was not part of God’s original design does not prove it is always wrong. We do not live in Eden, and requiring others to live as if they do can cause great harm. It is clear Jesus was urging us to follow the creation ideal and rebuking those who are to blame for breaking it. This does not mean, however, that he was ruling out making accommodations for situations where others have already broken that creation ideal.


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“From the Beginning It Was Not So”—And Never Has Been (JDR-11)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage (JDR), where I’m currently walking through Matthew 19. To understand my goals in this series, please see my past posts, especially the first two:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)

“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)


Summary of this post:  Jesus agreed that “Moses allowed you to divorce” but emphasized that “from the beginning it was not so.” Was Jesus hitting reset, overturning everything the law of Moses had said about divorce? In this post I argue from grammar and context that the handful of English translations that read “in the beginning” badly miss the boat, and even the translations (ESV, etc.) that read “from the beginning it was not so” are not as accurate as ones (NASB, etc.) that read “from the beginning it has not been this way.” Jesus was saying that divorce, though it was allowed and sometimes even commanded by God in the law of Moses, has always been in tension with God’s original intent for marriage.


Recap of Divorce in the Law of Moses

In my last several posts I considered Jesus’ words, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Many men of Israel—both in Moses’ day and Jesus’—had hearts that were hard toward God and their wives. Because their hearts were hard, they often divorced their wives for frivolous reasons. God, through Moses, gave laws to prevent the worst of such abuse. He recognized the use of official divorce certificates (rather than mere abandonment) and restricted husbands who wished to reclaim wives they had previously divorced. Hardhearted husbands also sometimes failed to provide for wives they no longer loved. In such cases, God commanded them to grant their wives divorces, releasing them to seek homes (and sometimes husbands) elsewhere.

Jesus’ rebuke (“because of your hardness of heart”) turned the moral logic of the Pharisees on its head. The law of Moses did not grant Jewish men justification to divorce their wives for any cause they wished; rather, it condemned them as hardhearted for seeking unjustified divorce rather faithfully loving their wives. The law they cited in their defense actually witnessed against them.

When Was It Not So?

“Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Jesus said, “but from the beginning it was not so.” What did Jesus mean by “from the beginning it was not so”? Was Jesus hitting a cosmic reset button, overturning every instruction about divorce given since the beginning? Did Jesus, by this statement, fully revoke all permission for divorce? Do his words indicate a divine timeline, a sequence of separate dispensations of God’s will, each with its own special expectations and rules? In short, when was it not so?

One way to continue is by sharing another bad translation of Jesus’ words. Jesus did not say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but in the beginning it was not so.”

“In the beginning it was not so.” Why is this a poor translation? I’ll suggest four reasons.

(1) “From,” Not “In”

First, Jesus did not say “in the beginning” (ἐν ἀρχῇ) as in John 1:1, but “from the beginning” (ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς). Some translators and authors have missed this. Daniel Kauffman, for example, wrote this:

It was because of the degraded condition of fallen man that Moses permitted man to give a writing of divorcement, but it was not so in the beginning, neither is it under the Gospel.[1]

Quarles, in his handbook on the Greek text of Matthew, explains why this phrase “from the beginning” is significant:

The prepositional phrase ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς is temporal and marks the beginning point of an action that continued for some time thereafter: “from the beginning on.”[2]

This continuing action is evident in another instance when Jesus used the same phrase (ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς), foretelling “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now” (Matt. 24:21). Similarly, in Matthew 19:8 Jesus wasn’t referring only to the moment of creation. No, he was referring to a state that began at creation and continued from that point on.

How long did it continue? One clue is found in the fact that, in Matthew’s record of Jesus’ divorce debate, Jesus uses this phrase “from the beginning” twice. In the first instance, he asked, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…? (Matt. 19:4). Quarles says “the construction [from the beginning] seems to imply that God’s creative work continues through procreation,” as humans conceive and bear children.[3] According to this clue, “from the beginning” probably means from the beginning right up to and including the present.

“From the beginning” starts with the moment of creation but does not end there. (Detail from The Creation of Adam, a fresco by Italian artist Michelangelo.)

(2) “Has Been,” Not “Was”

A second reason to reject the translation “in the beginning it was not so” is found in the verb “was.” The Greek word that I translated “was” is γέγονεν. This word is in a tense-form that is called perfect. Please be patient as I dig into some grammatical weeds for a moment.

Decker, in his textbook Reading Koine Greek, suggests that the perfect verb form focuses on a state or condition rather than the past action that caused that condition. Take, for example, the Greek verb λύω (“to loose”). While some forms of this verb should be translated by English past tense expressions such as “he loosed” or “he was loosing,”[4] the perfect form is better conveyed by the present tense phrase “he is loose.” Consider the advice Decker gives to translators:

The equivalent of the perfect in English is a bit difficult, because we have no exact equivalent. The best we can do in most cases is to think in terms of a simple present form in English… If the simple present tense makes good sense in English, then do not conceive of the meaning in terms of the English helping verb have. Some statements, however, make good sense in English only as “I have been x,” but this is a matter of English idiom, not a reflection of the meaning of the Greek statement.[5]

Thus, if we follow Decker’s suggestions, we should first try to translate Jesus’ statement using the present tense: “From the beginning it is not this way.” That sounds awkward in English, however, so our next option should be this: “From the beginning it has not been this way.” This translation accurately clarifies that Jesus’ observation about the beginning remained true right up to his day—right up to the present.

This, in fact, is exactly how the NASB translates Jesus’ words: “From the beginning it has not been this way.” It also reflects how English Bible versions most often translate the perfect verb γέγονεν elsewhere in the NT.[6]

Decker says “the perfect tense-form is almost always significant when it is used.”[7] Other verb forms were available if Jesus had meant to say “was not so” [8] or “had not been so,”[9] as if God’s creation standard had come to an end when Moses allowed divorce. Luck summarizes well the significance of the grammar of Jesus’ statement:

Jesus is not trying to distinguish between a dispensation up to Moses, followed by a hiatus, in turn terminated by Jesus’ present teaching, but rather a continuing divine attitude that runs clear from the beginning of creation up to the point of the Lord’s speech—right through the time of Moses and the exercise of the Law![10]

(3) “From the Beginning” = God’s Timeless Creation Design

A third reason why “in the beginning it was not so” is a potentially misleading translation of Jesus’ words is found in Mark’s parallel record of Jesus’ teaching. Mark, like Matthew, quotes Jesus’ statement about hard hearts. But instead of following this up with a negative statement (“but from the beginning it was not so”), Mark follows with a positive statement that makes the same point, by saying what was so. Compare the two accounts, first Mark’s, then Matthew’s:

They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:4-9)

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:4-8)

A comparison of these two accounts shows that Matthew’s clause “from the beginning it was not so” functions as a flashback. It points us back to what Jesus had just said: God “from the beginning made them male and female” (cf. Gen. 1:27), “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24), and finally—in a timeless implication drawn from these two quotes—“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

“From the beginning it was not so,” then, refers not merely to a specific time in the past when divorce was not permitted, but to God’s unchanging creation design. This design has been the foundation for marriage in all ages. And according to that design, it has never been God’s original will that man would separate what he has joined—not at creation, not during the time of Moses, and not today. (We Bible teachers, in our eagerness to emphasize the newness of Jesus’ teaching, sometimes obscure this point.[11])

God’s original creation design for marriage has never been irrelevant—not even after God allowed divorce in the law of Moses. (Image from Wycliffe BibleTranslators of Russia, distributed by FreeBibleImages.)

(4) God’s Creation Standard Remained Relevant for the Pharisees

A fourth reason why “in the beginning it was not so” poorly reflects Jesus’ thought may be suggested by the first part of Jesus’ statement: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” Notice that Jesus is accusing the Pharisees in his own time of hardness of heart (“your… you… your”). If a person is hard of heart, this means they are stubbornly resisting something. In this case, at least part of what the Pharisees were resisting was God’s original creation design for marriage.

What does this suggest? If God’s expectations for marriage had been truly and fully lifted during the time of the law of Moses, then Jesus could hardly have accused the Pharisees of being hardhearted in relation to those divine expectations. The fact that he did accuse them of hardheartedness about marriage and divorce suggests that God’s creation intent was a standard that was still, on some level, in effect.

Summary and a Glance Ahead

For these reasons, I think the handful of English translations that read “in the beginning” badly miss the boat, and even the many translations (ESV, etc.) that read “from the beginning it was not so” are not as accurate as ones (NASB, etc.) that read “from the beginning it has not been this way.”[12]

What is “this way” that Jesus said has never been from the beginning? Grammatically, “this way” (οὕτως) points back to the clause before: “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”[13] Jesus is saying, then, that the allowance of divorce, even though it was included by God it in the law given through Moses, was always in tension with God’s original intent for the permanence of marriage. Yes, God permitted and even sometimes commanded divorce in the Law of Moses, but every such situation of permitted or commanded divorce involved someone who was acting contrary to God’s original purpose for marriage, a purpose which had never been lifted.

Here, again, is how Luck put it:

Jesus is not trying to distinguish between a dispensation up to Moses, followed by a hiatus, in turn terminated by Jesus’ present teaching, but rather a continuing divine attitude that runs clear from the beginning of creation up to the point of the Lord’s speech—right through the time of Moses and the exercise of the Law![14]

In other words, “from the beginning it has not been so”—divorce never was and still is not part of God’s original intention for marriage.

This understanding of Jesus’ words resolves some questions but leaves others hanging. If you can’t spot the hanging questions yet, wait for my next post, where I plan to ask what Jesus’ words suggest about the relationship between God’s creation standard, the law of Moses, and new covenant believers today. Hopefully, after muddying the waters a little further, I can help us more clearly identify the flow of Jesus’ teaching about divorce.

Meanwhile, feel free to share your observations in the comments below.


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[1] Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 452. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC

[2] Charles L. Quarles, Matthew, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2017), 221. I have printed in full several words that Quarles abbreviated.

[3] Quarles, Matthew, 221.

[4] Aorist and imperfect, respectively.

[5] Rodney J. Decker, Reading Koine Greek: An Introduction and Integrated Workbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014), 329-330.

[6] The verb γέγονεν occurs 31 times in the perfect form in the NT. In most occurrences, English Bible versions translate γέγονεν using some sort of present tense verb—usually a present perfect progressive verb phrase like “has been” or, less often, a simple present tense verb like “is.” The NASB, which aims to reflect Greek word forms carefully, uses past tense verbs only twice to translate γέγονεν.

Here is a rough survey of how γέγονεν is translated in three popular English versions: ESV: Past (9x); past perfect progressive (1x); present perfect progressive (12x); present (9x). NIV: Past (9x); past perfect progressive (1x); present perfect progressive (12x); present (5x); not translated (4x). NASB:  Past (1x); past perfect progressive (1x); past with pres. perf. prog. footnote (4x); present perfect progressive (24x); present (1x).

[7] Decker, Reading Koine Greek, 330.

[8] Ἐγένετο, the aorist form, found 195 times in NT.

[9] Ἐγεγόνει, the pluperfect form, found 2 times in the NT.

[10] William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 157-58. Available online: https://bible.org/series/divorce-and-re-marriage-recovering-biblical-view. Luck, ibid.: “The grammar here is interesting; ‘from the beginning it has not been this way’ (gegonen) does not mean from the beginning until a point in the past (i.e., the giving of the Mosaic ‘concession’). That translation would be clear had the text used the tense called ‘pluperfect.’ But it uses the simple perfect instead, which should be rendered ‘from the beginning all the way up to the point of my speaking these words.’” Webb drew on both this grammatical point and the previous one (from the beginning) to emphasize that “[divorce] was never God’s intention—‘from the beginning’ until now, and from now on” but he unhelpfully insinuates that the OT divorce allowance was Moses’ idea, not God’s. Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), 67.

[11] Taylor appears to temporarily show confusion on this point. It appears he was alluding to Matt. 19:8 (though I can’t find a translation that includes his word “since”) when he wrote, “Jesus raised the duty and majesty of marriage higher than it had been for a long time—‘since the beginning.’” Later he more correctly expresses Jesus’ meaning when he writes, “Jesus stated to them what the fundamentals of marriage actually are… since the dawning of creation.” Dean Taylor, “One Flesh, One Covenant,” Pt. 1 of “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage,” The Heartbeat of The Remnant, April/May/June 2007, Ephrata Ministries, p. 4. Available online, accessed 4/21/2022, http://www.ephrataministries.org/pdf/2007-05-covenant.pdf.

[12] Other translations similar to the NASB include the AMP, ASV, DLNT, WEB, and YLT. See https://www.biblegateway.com/verse/en/Matthew%2019:8.

[13] Quarles: “Οὕτως, ‘like this,’ in which a comp. is made to what precedes (Moses’s permission to divorce due to humanity’s hard-heartedness)” (Matthew, 222).

[14] Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage, 157-58.”


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