Someone asked me to do a lesson as a follow-up to the sermon on marriage last week on the subject of divorce. I am glad to do so, for several reasons:
First, Jesus taught on the subject, and as followers of Jesus, we need to know what He said about the matter.
Second, given the high divorce rate among professed followers of Christ, it is clear that the words of Jesus have not made much of a difference, and that is sad. I used the passage I preached from last week as the basis for the very first wedding ceremony I performed – for two young Christians here in TN. That marriage ended in divorce. Almost every year when I attend the FC Lectures I hear of another couple whose marriage has fallen apart. So it isn’t like I will be speaking on mere hypothetical situations – they are all too real, and too frequent.
At the same time, precisely because divorce is a tragic reality, I know that I am speaking to an audience that includes those whose lives have been deeply wounded by divorce. The older I get the more heavily this reality weighs on me. Yet I also know that those of you who have been through this painful experience would be the first to say that teaching about marriage and divorce needs to be done.
So today let’s look at the most definitive statement Jesus ever made on the subject, in Matthew 19.
I. The Question of the Pharisees (Matt. 19:1-3)
A. Setting (19:1-2).
1. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem, traveling from Galilee down the eastern side of the Jordan, the area the Bible refers to as “Judea beyond the Jordan.”
2. This is significant because it is part of the territory of Perea, one of the regions under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas.
a. Why is the significant? Because the last prophet to come into Perea and speak about divorce was executed – John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1-11).
b. So the subject of divorce is, to put it mildly, a politically sensitive issue, and may explain why the Pharisees chose to ask Jesus His opinion on the matter there.
B. The question of the Pharisees (19:3).
1. We are used to the Pharisees harassing Jesus with questions about the Law, as in 15:1-2.
2. In this instance, they ask specifically about divorce. “Is it lawful…for any cause?”
3. The basis of their question was the legislation about divorce, recorded in Deut. 24:1-4.
a. The basic law said that if a man divorced his wife, sending her away with a written certificate of divorce, and she then remarried, that if her second husband divorced her then her first husband was not allowed to take her back.
b. The reason for the initial divorce is vague, what the ESV calls “some indecency.”
i Literally this phrase means “the nakedness of a thing,” and most commentators think that it refers to something approaching actual adultery but just short of it (why not adultery? That was punishable by death, not divorce).
ii And apparently remarriage is prohibited because a woman moving from one man to the next and then back again is tantamount to adultery.
4. It won’t surprise you to know that as the rabbis dealt with this text, many different interpretations of “some indecency” arose. Passed down through the years, three very famous opinions from just before the time of Christ have been preserved in the Mishnah, in a section called Gittin (9.10):
a. First, the conservative opinion of the Rabbi Shammai: Bet Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he found her guilty of an unseemly moral matter, for it is written: “[And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes] because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her [—then he should write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thereby sending her away from his household]”.
b. Second, the more liberal view of Hillel: But Bet Hillel say: Even if she burned his food, for it is written: “Because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her.”
c. And third, some preferred the wide open opinion of Rabbi Akiva: Even if hefound another more beautiful than her, as it is written: “And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes
5. So the Pharisees want to know what Jesus thinks in order to test him.
a. If he presents the more conservative view, he will run afoul of Herod.
b. Further, He will likely say something contrary to popular opinion, if Josephus’s statement about divorce is reflective of what most men practiced: “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, (and many such causes happen among men,) let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do.” (Antiquities 4.253)
II. The Answer of Jesus (Matt. 19:4-6)
A. Jesus’ answer takes the Pharisees back to the beginning.
1. The problem with the approach of the Pharisees is that their starting point for God’s will was not God’s starting point. God’s starting point is not the case law given in Deut. 24 to regulate divorce, but the very creation account itself.
2. In Matt. 19:4-5 Jesus refers to two passages.
a. “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female” – is from Gen. 1:27.
b. “Therefore a man shall leave…and the two shall become one flesh” is from the restatement of creation in Gen. 2:24.
B. From these two passages Jesus draws a conclusion in 19:6 – “So they are no longer two but one flesh.”
1. The God who designed humanity in two sexes has ordained that the two should come together in a one-flesh relationship so serious it takes precedence over even that of the relationship to one’s own parents.
2. And on the basis of this divine arrangement, Jesus concludes: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” – 19:6b.
C. So, what is Jesus’ answer to the question, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause”? NO it is not.
1. And notice, we aren’t discussing remarriage. The question was not, can you divorce and then remarry for any reason?
2. Remarriage after divorce is a different matter. Here the issue is divorce itself, and Jesus says that divorce is contrary to the will of God as expressed from the beginning.
3. Which means that this teaching is not only applicable to Christians, or to Israelites. It is applicable to all of humanity, since it is based on the principles given from the beginning of marriage itself.
4. Divorce is the betrayal of a solemn vow made to God and to another person, and according to what Jesus taught it desecrates the very work of God.
Now at this point if you are thinking, well wait a minute, I thought there was an exception, you are right. But I want to make this point – if our focus is on the exception rather than on what God has clearly expressed, then we are making precisely the same mistake the Pharisees did.
III. The Question of the Pharisees and Jesus’ Response (Matt. 19:7-9)
A. What Jesus just said sounds like divorce isn’t permitted at all. So what about Deut. 24 – 19:7?
1. Notice the language carefully. It is obviously a reference to Deut. 24.
2. But did Moses in Deut. 24 “command divorce,” or did he permit it and say, if it happens here are the rules that apply?
B. Jesus draws this distinction sharply in His reply – 19:8.
1. First, Jesus says that whatever Deut. 24 teaches, it does not express God’s ideal, but rather is a concession to “your hardness of heart.”
a. Normally anyone familiar with the OT would think of “hardness of heart” in relationship with Pharaoh, the pagan oppressor of Israel.
b. But Jesus says that the Israelites were also guilty of stubborn rebellion against the will of God. How? By the way they treated their women, by divorcing their wives.
2. Further, Jesus points out that Moses did not “command” divorce – he “allowed” it or permitted it. But this permission does not represent divine approval, but the reality of working with deeply flawed, depraved humanity.
C. And then Jesus expresses the one exception to the indissoluble character of marriage – 19:9.
1. The basic premise is shocking – “whoever divorces his wife…and marries another commits adultery.”
a. “Adultery” is an unlawful sexual liaison with the spouse of another person.
b. And since marriage is to be permanent, to divorce your wife and marry someone else is to engage in an activity reserved for the one-flesh relationship you originally entered.
2. But there is an exception – “except for sexually immorality.”
a. This is the broader term for illicit sexual activity, would include adultery, prostitution, any sort of unlawful sexual intercourse.
b. Jesus says that in this case, and presumably because this offense compromises the very essence of the one-flesh relationship, a person can divorce and remarry.
3. So to summarize: can you divorce for any reason at all? No. Whatever provisions the Law made were in view of the extenuating circumstances of hard hearts. Instead, in keeping with the will of God expressed from the beginning, marriage is to be permanent, and the only legitimate basis to rupture that one-flesh relationship is when one partner betrays it through infidelity.
If this seems incredibly stringent, to the point of being radical, you are not alone.
IV. The Reaction of the Disciples (Matt. 19:10-12)
A. The disciples’ response is virtual incredulity! 19:10
1. In our culture, lots of people remain single, and we don’t think too much of it. But in Jewish culture, it was extremely rare to remain unmarried and celibate, so when the disciples say, “It is better not to marry”, it is akin to saying, “this view is so extreme you would be better off doing something virtually unheard of – don’t marry at all!”
2. I imagine it struck them even more unrealistic than it does people today. “If all this seems very remote from our own society with its soaring divorce rate, divorce by mutual consent, and the widespread assumption that marriages cannot be expected to last for life, it is! But it was no less radical in the Jewish world of Jesus’ day, where divorce was if anything easier in practice than it is for us now…Jesus is laying down a challenge to accepted norms, and demanding a complete rethinking of marriage, on the basis not of human convenience but on the purpose of God for his creation.” R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT), p. 721.
B. And if the disciples were only joking when they suggested it might be better not to marry, Jesus does not. He takes this option very seriously – 19:11-12.
1. Not everyone can remain unmarried, Jesus acknowledges – 19:11.
a. The general sense of Scripture is that marriage is good, and all things being equal, preferable to being single.
b. But there are exception to this, such as the impending distress Paul was concerned about in 1 Cor. 7 when he advised remaining single, although even then he allowed for marriage much as Jesus did here, because not everyone can be content as a single person.
2. There are three classes of people who Jesus considers under the category of those able to remain celibate (19:12):
a. “Eunuchs…from birth,” those born with physiological conditions that render them incapable of physical intimacy.
b. “Eunuchs…made eunuchs by men,” quite a normal practice in ancient royal courts to make attendants safe around female superiors, such as the eunuch serving in the court of the queen of Ethiopia in Acts 8.
c. “Eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” which does not necessarily have to refer to literal castration, but those like Paul who choose to forgo the right to marry as part of their service in the kingdom.
3. Notice the end of 9:12 – “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
a. The disciples may have thought they were wildly exaggerating when they suggested remaining single in view of God’s high standards for marriage, but Jesus very straightforwardly says, you know what, if you are able to remain unmarried, do so.
b. After all, He did (like the bald surgeon we asked about chemo causing hair loss – “what’s the big deal with losing your hair!”).
I have done by best to go through the text and explain what Jesus said about divorce, but I realize that it is possible to have questions about various hypothetical (or even real situations). And if you have those questions, go to the elders!
But on a serious level, if we recognize that divorce represents a departure from God’s order for the family, we should expect there to be chaos and confusion if God’s plan is disobeyed.
I’d like to offer a couple of points for us to think about putting into practice in view of this lesson:
1. If you are married, make sure that you understand the purpose of marriage. It is not primarily about happiness, sensual pleasure, having someone around to help with the dishes, although marriage can be the source of the deepest happiness, most intense pleasure, and closest friendship imaginable. But marriage is ultimately about putting the work of God on display. And as Christians especially, our marriages should serve as a testimony to the world of the reconciling power of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:32). What a failed opportunity to show the world the difference Christ can actually make in people’s lives when we do not let Him make it in this most intimate of relationships. And ironically, by thinking about marriage not in terms of your own happiness and satisfaction, but glorifying Christ, you will end up being happy and satisfied as well.
2. Second, we need to be sure we are supportive to our brothers and sisters here who have gone through the anguish of divorce. Yes, we must be uncompromising about what Jesus said regarding the grounds of divorce, but at the same time we need to build up each other, help pick one another up when we sin (Galatians 6:2). It is easy to allow certain sins to become stigmatized, and create a spiritual leper colony of the perpetually unclean. That is not what we are to do as God’s people.
3. And finally, we need to take a look at our hearts. After all, Jesus said the root of the problem was hardness of heart, a problem the Law of Moses exposed, but could not solve. It seems to me the only reason Jesus could hold us to a higher standard is because He can do what the Law could not – cleanse us inwardly. Have you opened your heart to the renewing of Jesus Christ?