The Simplicity of Matthew 19

It is very amazing how brethren so often want to explicate and extrapolate a Scripture that is on the surface very easy to understand and in so doing attempt to render the passage incomprehensible.

We may see this being done with Matthew 19. It is such a basic Scripture with very little innuendo or difficult language to understand. Let us now examine this Scripture.

[All Scripture in this article taken from the ESV.]

Matthew 19:1-3

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.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

The Pharisees have another question for Jesus. This is not the first, nor will it be the last. The question itself is highly interesting perhaps in a study of the rabbinic traditions developing at this time, and it may be reasonable to assert that the Pharisees were attempting to see whether Jesus agreed with the school of Shammai or the school of Hillel. Either way would provide a means of attacking Him.

Matthew 19:4-6

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 they shall become one flesh’?
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Jesus guides the Pharisees to the answer found in Scripture, that God’s law is that a marriage is to be an indissoluble bond while both man and wife live. No one today would deny this.

Matthew 19:7

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

Here we begin to see the thrust of the questions of the Pharisees. I would like to emphasize that when Jesus says clearly that man is not to separate what God has put together– one man and one woman– the immediate question is, “why did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”

What, pray tell, would be the motivation for such a question if the Law of Moses was truly understood to prohibit divorce save by reason of adultery? Why are the Pharisees not satisfied with Jesus’ original response if there is no question as to what Moses says? Ultimately, and most importantly, if the Pharisees of the day agreed that divorce is only permissible in the case of adultery, why do they phrase their question as a contrast between what Moses says and what Jesus has just said?

Matthew 19:8

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.”

Before we break down Jesus’ response, it is most noteworthy to see here what Jesus did not say. We see in Matthew 15 that when the Pharisees accuse the disciples of Jesus of violating cleanliness rules, He chastises them for holding to the traditions of their fathers and not the Law of God. The same type of condemnation comes in Matthew 12.

Yet Jesus does not chastise the Pharisees for holding to some “tradition” from their fathers that divorce was permissible for almost any reason– if this were the truth of the matter, He obviously would have had few qualms pointing this out. But let us see what He does do.

He says that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their heart. Deuteronomy 24:1-2, the Scripture of Moses in question, is a concession to the Israelites, and does not represent the desire of God.

By saying that Moses allowed them to divorce their wives, but from the beginning this was not so, Jesus further demonstrates that there is a contrast– hence, a significant difference– between what Moses conceded to the Jews in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 and what God intended in Genesis 2. They cannot be one and the same doctrine, for otherwise Jesus appears to be a lunatic. Further, the Pharisees would have immediately pointed out this problem– how could Jesus be making a contrast of identical principles?

There is only one conclusion allowable from the text, and it is the basic, easy to understand, premise: God’s original plan as demonstrated by Adam and Eve is one man and one woman in marriage until death. Because the heart of the Israelites were hard, Moses permitted them to divorce their wives by giving them a certificate of divorce– whatever reason would suffice. This was not the original intent of God.

Speaking in terms of Jewish rabbinic tradition of the day, Jesus agrees with both the schools of Shammai and Hillel at the same time: He affirms that the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-2 is with the school of Hillel, but that God’s original intent in Genesis 2– and therefore the guiding principle of His followers– is in line with the interpretation of the school of Shammai.

Further, Jesus is not contradicting the Law– Moses did not desire this allowance, and neither did God, but they gave it because of the hardness of their hearts. One would not transgress the Law by maintaining his marriage with his wife.

Matthew 19:9

“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The Gospel truth is stated: the rule of God is that unless one divorces by reason of sexual immorality, one’s divorce is not truly legitimate and any marriage to another causes that one to commit adultery. The Gospel message is not prohibiting marriage; it charges a Christian to abstain from adultery. The priority of a man’s (or woman’s) life will be made manifest by the decisions they make in such a situation.

Generally, the discussion of the chapter ends here. This is unfortunate, since the reaction of the disciples and the response of Jesus demonstrate far better than the above the ramifications of the teachings Jesus has just made.

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.”

An amazing statement by the disciples. We recognize very quickly in the Gospels that the disciples are, quite frankly, generally clueless. They believe in the power of Jesus but do not understand His true mission. They are good Jews, however, and they do know the Law, and Jesus’ words strike them in a way not seen anywhere else. Please show me any other teaching of Jesus that caused the disciples to have a reaction anywhere similar to this!

Their reaction, a question asking why a man would even marry in such a situation, is highly illustrative to the truth and extremely damaging to the errors promulgated concerning this chapter. If the Jewish marital law was based upon divorce for only sexual immorality, there would have been no need for this type of reaction. After all, it would be merely an affirmation of the things already having been taught for ages. Yet the disciples do react to this teaching, and they do so in a profound way. In their mindset, the idea that Jesus has just presented– either divorce for the reason of adultery or be an adulterer yourself– brings forth a marriage law so strict that it would be better to not even marry! If the only way to get rid of the “old hag” is if she commits adultery against you, why marry her at all? This reaction of the disciples proves clearly the mindset of the Jews of the time: divorce could be achieved for many, many reasons, and the divorce was legitimate as long as a certificate of divorce was given.

Now, if one would argue that the Jews did not understand the truth of Moses’ teaching, there is still the task of explaining why Jesus didn’t just say it that way. If Moses truly taught in Deuteronomy 24:1-2 that divorce was only for adultery, and the Jews misinterpreted it, He would have said that and let it go. “Moses did not allow you to divorce for any reason, but only for sexual immorality,” He would have said.

But He did not. He said that Moses allowed for divorce, but that from the beginning this was not so. The disciples understood what Jesus was saying and to what He was alluding, and they concluded that it would be better to not even marry than to live in a marriage where the only legitimate way out was for the spouse to commit adultery. Thus, the only conclusion that can be derived that makes any sense of the text at all is that Moses allowed for divorce for any cause with a certificate of divorce, but from the beginning– and as Jesus taught– the only reason for divorce would be sexual immorality.

Finally, we see Jesus’ response to the disciples.

Matthew 19:11-12

But He said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 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.”

Anyone who would like to relegate Matthew 19 to the “Old Testament covenant only” have a lot of explaining to do about those who are eunuchs for the sake of the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Why would Jesus respond in this way? He is saying that the Gospel truth is that some people who sacrifice their sexual desires to gain the Kingdom of Heaven. This can have two applications:

1. A person who does not desire marriage but wants to focus only on Christ.

2. A person who divorced for improper reasons and therefore must either choose to live in celibacy and gain the Kingdom of Heaven or remarry and incur condemnation.

To those who would rather incur condemnation, and to those who would rather marry and divorce at will, this saying is not given. They do not desire to accept it, and for that they will be judged.

Brethren, this text is not hard. It does not take excessive theological speculation to understand it. But we must accept the text for what it does say– that despite whatever the condition was under Moses, we are called to a higher calling that includes the original law of marriage: one man, one woman, for life. The only possible exception allowed is for sexual immorality, the breaking of that covenant in a sinful manner that thus has the potential to release the other spouse from that covenant. This teaching came as a difficult one for Jesus’ disciples, who concluded that under such a guideline it was preferable to not even marry than bear such a burden. This teaching perhaps was new to the Jews, but it was not a new doctrine by any stretch of the imagination. It was the renewal of the original teachings on marriage.

“Traditional” as this position may be, it makes sense of every verse in this passage and leaves no room for any confusion on what Jesus is saying and the significant impact His words had on His disciples. The difficulties are not with the text, but with brethren with pretexts trying to justify their misguided compassion or their own situations.

I fear lest Isaiah’s prophecy is true for them.

Isaiah 6:9-10:

And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Let us strive to understand what Jesus said and what it means, and not attempt to force what Jesus said to conform to what we desire that it means.


The Simplicity of Matthew 19

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