Matthew 19:1-2 – Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Matthew tells us that Jesus left Galilee and made his way to the region of Judea. Although his followers did not realize it at the time, this was the first step in his journey to Jerusalem, where Christ was going to lay down his life on the cross.
At this time his fame was reaching a peak. Great numbers of people followed him, but not all of them had the same motivation. Some came to hear the word and receive instruction. Some came to be healed or delivered. Some came to see if he would set up a kingdom. Undoubtedly, some came out of curiosity. Some, perhaps, came to witness the miraculous. And some came to ensnare or entrap Jesus!
Matthew 19:3 – And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
The Pharisees (and other religious leaders) were part of the group that followed Jesus in order to discredit him. Many of their attempts have been noted in the book of Matthew. As we would expect, each and every time they confront Jesus, they are rebuffed; they cannot fight divine wisdom.
Despite earlier failures, they are going to make yet another attempt. This time, they waited until Jesus was with a large crowd (possibly the largest ever). Thinking that this was the perfect opportunity to cause maximum trouble, they brought up one of the most decisive issues of their day – divorce.
Divorce continues to be a somewhat controversial issue in the church today. If you are a divorced person reading this post, please rest assured – you are not going to find any condemnation here!
We took a quick look at this topic back in chapter 5. Let’s review the controversy that surrounded this issue:
The dispute involves an Old Testament law from Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 24:1 – When a man has taken a wife, and married her, and it comes to pass that she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and put it in her hand, and send her out of his house.
The Jews had two interpretations of this law. One group (the school of Hillel) believed that the true meaning of the law was found in the word ‘uncleanness’ and it referred only to adultery. Therefore, adultery was the only true basis for divorce.
The second group (the school of Sammai) believed that the true meaning of the law was found in the phrase ‘she finds no favor in his eyes’ and interpreted that to mean that if a woman displeased her husband in any way, no matter how trivial, he could give her a certificate of divorce and send her away. We have historical evidence of just how ridiculous this became – a man could divorce his wife if he did not like her cooking!
Not surprisingly, the second view became very prevalent among the Jews. And once again we find the Jews making the same serious mistake – adhering to the letter of the law, and believing themselves righteous for it, while at the same time completely ignoring their duty to God.
Here in Matthew chapter 19, the scripture clearly tells us that the Jews were not really looking for wisdom. They were not really searching for truth. They were trying to ‘test’ or discredit Jesus.
If Jesus sided with the second group (the school of Sammai) the Pharisees would condemn him for contradicting his own teachings (Matthew 5:32). If he sided with the first group (the school of Hillel), they were ready to charge him with contradicting Moses. Either way, they thought they had him!
Matthew 19:4 – He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,
Notice that both parties were supportive of divorce. It was the grounds or cause for divorce which caused the arguments between them.
Jesus, in his divine wisdom, does not fall into the trap of using one of the two opinions presented to him as a starting point; both opinions reflect ignorance and corruption of the law of God.
Ignoring man’s conclusions entirely, he draws their attention to the very first marriage union, which shows the original will, intent and purpose of God.
Because God is unchanging, we know that what was done at the very beginning is the pattern we are to follow in every subsequent generation. Thus, we conclude:
- Marriage is an institution appointed by God. It is the foundation of society.
- Marriage is between a man and a woman.
- The marriage relationship is a permanent union. In God’s eyes, death is the only way to break the bond.
- The marriage union is more intimate and more binding than other human bonds, including paternal or filial relationships.
Matthew 19:5 – …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’?”
Our translation says “therefore”, but the King James version says “for this cause” which is a better reflection of the true meaning. In other words, male and female were created for this very purpose – that they might glorify God in a matrimonial connection. They become ‘one flesh’, forming an indissoluble partnership of life and fortune.
When God created Eve, he could have made her from the dust of the ground, just as he did with Adam. But he didn’t. As you recall, he put Adam to sleep, then took one of his ribs and created Eve (Genesis 2:21). So, quite literally, the two were one flesh!
William Burkitt’s Expository Notes on the Bible makes an interesting comment on the first marriage: “…there was no sooner one person, but God divided him into two; and no sooner were there two, but he united them into one.”
Matthew 19:6 – “So they are no longer two but on flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
If God has joined the man and woman together as one, no human law/regulation has the right to separate them. So, Jesus condemns the Jewish practice of dissolving the marriage bond. In regards to the Jews of Jesus’ day, this rebuke would also have fallen on the elders who sanctioned the divorce.
Matthew 19:7-8 – 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 you wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”
The Pharisees are looking for justification of their impure and unholy conduct. To that end, they offer a rebuttal – Moses commanded/permitted divorces (Deuteronomy 24:1). And if that was the case, divorce could not be unlawful.
It is interesting that they use the word ‘command’. Moses did not command it; he made provision for it, or allowed it. This allowance was based on the fact that Jews were cruel to their unwanted wives and it was better for such a woman to return to her father’s house than to suffer abuse in her current situation.
Moses also established that the divorce decree could not be a verbal declaration. It had to be written out by a scribe. It must become public knowledge. As such, it could not happen in the heat of the moment. It required the husband to stop and view the situation more objectively. It gave him time to ‘cool down’. The assumption was that this would give an opportunity for the relationship to be reconciled and the divorce dropped.
Jesus makes it very clear that this allowance was made for man’s wickedness, not because the act of divorce was lawful in God’s eyes. He once again reiterates that from the beginning, God had sanctioned the union of marriage – between one man and one woman, until death takes one of them away. This was the law that was to be observed perpetually, throughout all subsequent generations.
Matthew 19:9 – “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The gospel of Mark indicates that the public discussion of this issue ended in verse 8. The rest of this discussion (beginning here) took place more privately, between Jesus and the disciples (Mark 10:10).
Here, emphasis should be placed on the word “I”. Jesus was God in the flesh; God was saying that the indulgence given by Moses was to cease. Limitless, groundless divorces (like those granted for bad cooking) were no longer acceptable. Marriage should be brought back to its original intention and there was only one legitimate cause for divorce – adultery.
So where does all of this leave those of us in the 21st century? Here is what we can know for sure:
ONE: The law of marriage has been instituted by God, and He is unchanging:
Malachi 3:6 – For I am the Lord, I change not…
TWO: Because God does not change, his mandate for marriage remains the same as it was when he united Adam and Eve – one man and one woman until death parts them, except for the cause of adultery. (Even in cases of adultery, the bond does not have to be immediately severed; the insulted party may choose to stay in the relationship and try to mend it.)
THREE: Between the instituting of the marriage law in paradise and the current day, sin has entered the world:
Romans 5:12 – Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned –
No surprises there, right?
FOUR: Our sinful society is not fully committed to God’s law of marriage.
In our culture, marriage is kind of like buying a new shirt. You buy it with the understanding that if you don’t like it for any reason, you can always return it. No questions asked.
Likewise, you don’t really need to seriously consider marriage before entering into it, because if you don’t like it for any reason, you can simply divorce. No questions asked. This reflects the kind of halfhearted commitment that seems to underlie everything we do.
- If you have a dispute with the people in your church, there is no need to bother working it out. You can just change churches.
- If you don’t like your new boss, there is no need to stay and respect their authority. You can just change jobs.
- If you want the 4-H club to go in one direction, but the assistant leader wants to go in another, there is no need to find a common goal. You can separate and each go your own way.
- If you have a roommate that doesn’t dust and vacuum often enough for your standards, there is no need to modify your expectations. You can just find a new roommate.
Our culture accepts these halfhearted commitments in nearly all areas, including marriage. There is no deep, underling commitment to resolve disputes, respect each other, submit to authority, find common goals or make allowances for each other.
FIVE: What is acceptable to man, is not acceptable to God. To the best of their ability, Christians should embrace God’s law of marriage.
Committing to marriage until death is a serious, life altering decision. It affects every aspect of our lives including our health, our finances, and our freedom to make future choices. In part, it determines our level of education, where we will live and where we will work. It will have a profound impact on our ministry in the kingdom of heaven. And, as if that were not serious enough, marriage is the partnership through which the joys and burdens of children should come.
In light of this, you might think that marriage is something that should be avoided (the disciples will soon make this assumption). However, there is more to marriage than just doom and gloom! When both people are firmly committed to Christ and to each other, they put themselves in a position to discover the unique and endless joys/blessings that God has included in the marriage relationship.
This does not mean the relationship will be perfect. Two sinful people cannot produce a marriage that lives up to God’s perfect standard. Because the individuals are sinful, the marriage will also be subject to the effects of sin. But the rewards of the relationship are worth the time and effort to make it work.
SIX: Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out.
Sin is like a wedge that seeks to divide and destroy marriages. This sin can take almost any form including abuse, unfaithfulness, emotional damage, addiction, erosion of trust, lack of love, lying, selfishness, disagreements over money or any one of a thousand other things.
If you are in a position where sin is threatening to destroy your marriage, there is good news! There are many, many wonderful resources available to Christians who have a division in their marriage. When both parties are committed to Christ and to change, there is hope for restoration.
However, a Christian may find themselves in a situation where staying in the marriage is more damaging than leaving it. In this case, the marriage bond needs to be cut, so both parties can move forward towards healing.
SEVEN: As in the breaking of any of God’s laws, there will be forgiveness but also consequences.
It’s no secret that all of us have broken God’s laws. Thankfully, if we are repentant, God freely forgives us.
1 John 1:9 – If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Divorce is a sin (the breaking of God’s law) that can be forgiven, just like any other sin.
However, we should keep in mind that while God readily forgives us of sin, we still must deal with the consequences of our actions and decisions. For example, if we steal money from our employer and get caught, God will forgive us. However, we will still probably be fired from the job. That incident will remain on our record and it will continue to affect us as we look for other employment. These are some of the consequences of our actions.
In the same way, God can and will forgive us for breaking a marriage vow. But that forgiveness does not negate the consequences associated with our sin. There could be financial burdens, emotional distress, and/or legal constraints. If the marriage has children, the consequences of divorce become even greater.
However, it is comforting to know that we can absolutely count on God to walk through all of life’s difficulties with us, even the ones we bring upon ourselves by breaking his laws!
Matthew 19:10 – The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Isn’t this interesting – in Genesis 2:18, God declares that it is not good for man to be alone (unmarried). But here in Matthew 19:10, the disciples declare that not only is it good to be unmarried, but it is preferable if you don’t have the right to divorce a wife who does not please you!
This is a good example of how our fallen nature rebels against restraint of any kind, even when placed upon us by our Lord. It is also an example of rash and foolish thinking. Had they stopped to consider all the benefits and blessings of marriage, perhaps they would not have been so quick to cast it off.
Maybe there is a lesson here for us. Philippians 4:8 instructs us to dwell on things that are pure, lovely and excellent. So rather than dwelling on the annoying traits of our spouse (which causes division), perhaps we should reflect on their strengths and good qualities (which causes increased love and intimacy).
Matthew 19:11 – But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”
The disciples jumped to the conclusion that a life of celibacy was best for everyone. However, Jesus contradicts this conclusion. He says that this state of abstinence requires a supernatural gift from God.
Matthew 19:12 – “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Some men have the gift of abstinence from birth, some were forced into abstinence by other men and some have chosen that path in order to devote themselves entirely to service in the kingdom of God.
In the last instance, Jesus may have been referring to the Essenes, a sect of the Jews that abstained from marriage in order to devote themselves exclusively to religion. Obviously, they had no children of their own. They perpetuated their sect by adopting the poor children of others.
However, do not choose that path without great care. Jesus cautions that this lifestyle should be limited to those few who feel they had the gift to embrace it.
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Do you own a car? Do you perform routine maintenance on your vehicle like changing the oil and giving the engine a tune-up? If so, your vehicle will run smoother and last much, much longer.
The same is true for your marriage. Do you maintain it? Are you doing things that will build up the relationship you have with your spouse? This bible study is by no means a practical guide to strengthen your marriage, but there are plenty of resources available for just that purpose. I strongly encourage you to find these sources and invest time in your marriage.
Let me offer you some relief:
Is it possible that you have gone through the pain of a divorce? Has your family or your church made you feel like a second class citizen because of it? Let me offer you some relief – there is no sin that God cannot forgive! Man may look down on you for failing, but God does not. He is standing by ready to take that burden of guilt/shame and nail it to the cross. So let him have it! Cast all your cares on him, for he cares for you! Let him give you a garment of praise for your spirit of heaviness!
Let me offer you some strength:
Maybe you find yourself in the midst of a difficult marriage right now. Perhaps, for whatever reason, your relationship has deteriorated and the future of your marriage is uncertain. Maybe you feel like giving up. Before you do, let me give you some strength from the word of God:
Isaiah 41:10 – Fear not; for I am with you: be not dismayed; for I am your God: I will strengthen you; yea, I will help you; yea, I will uphold you with the right hand of my righteousness.
If your marriage is worth fighting for, then I encourage you to do so! It may be difficult or exhausting to get your relationship back on track, but God is right there with you. You don’t have to tackle this in your own strength – he is right there to give you his inexhaustible strength. He will hold you up as you endeavor to walk in the ways of righteousness.