1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 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. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 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.” – Matthew 19:1-12 ESV
This is a difficult passage that has caused a great deal of contention and confusion over the centuries. And it’s likely that the disciples were left scratching their heads when they heard what Jesus had to say. These 12 verses deal with a topic that remains highly controversial to this day: Divorce among believers. And like so much of what Jesus taught, what He told His disciples seems to run counter to the prevailing sentiments of times in which they lived. Popular opinion would not line up with Jesus’ take on the matter. That’s why the Pharisees brought it up in the first place. They were trying to test or trick Jesus into saying something that could ruin His reputation among the people. Divorce was just as controversial then as it is now. And if Jesus attacked the peoples’ perceived right to divorce, it would alienate Him from the masses.
It could be that they were hoping He would take a similar tact as that of John the Baptist. It was John’s outspoken stance on divorce and remarriage that had resulted in his execution by Herod.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT
Matthew opens this chapter by stating that Jesus had traveled into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” – an area sometimes referred to as the Transjordan – which fell under the jurisdiction of Herod. The Pharisees were probably hoping that Jesus would speak against divorce as well, bringing down the wrath of Herod on his head.
Their question to Jesus was carefully worded: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
Behind the question was their understanding or interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-2:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife…
The Pharisees interpreted this Old Testament passage to mean that God permitted divorce and approved of remarriage. But like so much of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Pharisees tended to read into it the meaning they wanted to get out of it. There were two contemporary rabbinic schools that differed in their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy. One group taught that it condoned divorce for just about any reason, while the other group took a more conservative view, stating that divorce was only permissible in the case of sexual immorality.
In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had come down on the conservative side of the debate.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV
It would seem that the Pharisees had heard about Jesus’ stance on this issue and hoped to cause a stir among the people by getting Jesus to state His more conservative and less popular view.
The interesting point in all of this is the marked difference between Jesus’ area of emphasis and that of the Pharisees. They came asking a question about divorce. Jesus turned it into a lesson on marriage.
As Jesus was prone to do, He responded to their question with a question: “Have you not read…?”
This unveiled inference by Jesus would have been like a slap in the face to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus was about to school them on their understanding of God’s Word, taking them back to the book of Genesis. Paraphrasing the words of Moses regarding the God-ordained institution of marriage, Jesus asked them:
“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.” – Matthew 19:4-6 ESV
Notice His emphasis: What God has joined together. Marriage is to be seen as a God-ordained union between a man and a woman. And no man is to separate that union. In that day and age, a woman was denied the right to divorce. But the husband was free to divorce his wife and, as many interpreted it, for any reason whatsoever, even for burning dinner.
But from God’s point of view, through the covenant of marriage, a man and woman became “one flesh.” They are united in an inseparable bond, sanctioned by God Himself. Marriage was to carry the idea of complementation, but also completeness. Two individuals, by covenanting together in marriage, were supernaturally bonded by God and made a completed whole. From that point forward, He saw them as one, not two.
But appealing to the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1, the Pharisees present Jesus with a follow-up question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” This was their perceived loophole. In their minds, it appeared that Moses had provided a clear and legal escape clause from the marriage bond.
But the answer Jesus gave them most likely infuriated them.
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” – Matthew 19:8 ESV
Notice that Jesus points the finger of culpability straight at the Pharisees. Even though the words of Moses were spoken hundreds of years earlier, Jesus applies them to the men standing right in front of Him. Their hearts were hardened. They were unwilling and incapable of abiding by God’s will concerning marriage. And Moses had made it clear that “from the beginning it was not so.” In other words, from the day God had ordained the institution of marriage, divorce was not to be an option. No man was to separate what God had joined together.
And it’s interesting to note what the Deuteronomy passage goes on to say about this topic.
…if she [a divorced woman] goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:2-4 ESV
Notice what Moses said. The woman who has been divorced and remarried is “defiled.” If she were divorced again and her first husband tried to remarry her, he would be committing an abomination before the Lord. It was totally unacceptable.
As usual, the Pharisees were looking for loopholes. They were seeking God-approved grounds for divorce. But Jesus was emphasizing the sanctity and holiness of marriage. Rather than looking for excuses to separate, Jesus wanted them to recognize God’s command to remain one. Moses made a concession for divorce because of man’s inherent sin problem. He was in no way condoning divorce. He was simply conceding man’s inability to do what God had called him to do: Remain in an inviolable relationship with his wife.
And Jesus reinforces the fact that divorce was not in God’s plan. He had not ordained it and would not condone it. But like all sins, it was inevitable. So, when divorce did take place, there was only one scenario that would be considered biblical grounds for divorce.
“…whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 ESV
And it’s interesting to note that the Pharisees, while quick to quote from Deuteronomy 24:1, seemed to ignore what Deuteronomy 22:22 had to say:
“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
This discussion led the disciples to question the whole viability of marriage. If remarriage after divorce was out of the question, because it would leave both individuals guilty of adultery, it seemed to make more sense to never marry in the first place. You can see that their view on marriage had been influenced by the idea of divorce as a potential get-out-of-jail-free card. If the marriage didn’t work out, they could always get a divorce. But Jesus had shut down that option.
Yet Jesus informed His disciples that celibacy was not an easy road to take. It had to be something that God led someone to do.
Jesus described three types of eunuchs. The term “eunuch,” referred to “one naturally incapacitated – for marriage” (G2135 – eunouchos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (ESV) Blue Letter Bible). Some were born eunuchs. Others were made that way, through forced castration. But there was still another group of individuals who chose to remain unmarried. They were essentially eunuchs by choice, or as Jesus put it, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He would have been a case in point. Jesus never married, focusing all His energies on fulfilling the will of His Father.
As we will see, Jesus is beginning to set His eyes on the mission objective waiting for Him in Jerusalem. The storyline is quickly moving to its final stages. And Jesus, while teaching the disciples about issues that relate to everyday life, is trying to get them to understand that there are far more important things on the horizon than debates about marriage and divorce or arguments about who is the greatest in the kingdom. The cross looms large in Jesus’ mind. His destiny carries with it the shadow of death, but also the hope of the resurrection.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.