Matthew 19 is a turning point for this gospel account of Jesus. The first verse of chapter 19 tells us that Jesus is leaving Galilee and going to Judea. Luke’s account proclaims that Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. This will be the last time Jesus will go to the region of Judea and to the city of Jerusalem. Large crowds continue to follow Jesus and Jesus continues to heal the crowds. But then some Pharisees approach Jesus with a question with the purpose of testing Jesus. Here is their question: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (19:3). Now if we were to ask this question to our society today, what would it say? The answer would be a resounding yes. You can divorce for any cause. This answer was also the common answer in the first century in Roman society as well as Jewish society.
Now it is useful to consider as we begin that we do not get to determine this answer. The Pharisees, though testing Jesus, are asking for authority. They are asking if it is lawful to divorce for any reason. We need to look to the Lord for authority for what we do in this life. Sometimes we can forget that we do not determine what is right and wrong. We must look to Jesus for the answer. So let us consider how Jesus answers this question.
Jesus’ Marriage Law (19:4-6)
Notice how Jesus begins his answer in verse 4. Jesus seems to indicate that the answer to this question is self-evident. Jesus begins by saying, “Have you not read?” Jesus does not start his answer by saying that this is a really tough and complicated question. The answer is self-evident. Notice that Jesus goes back to the book of Genesis for his answer. First, Jesus restates Genesis 1:27. In the beginning God made them male and female. Second, Jesus restates where God gives the institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24.
Now it is important that we note something here. God defines marriage. We do not define marriage. Our legal system does not define marriage. Our government does not define marriage. God created marriage and he gives the definition of marriage. Notice how God defines marriage: a male and a female leaving their parents, joining together, and becoming one flesh. Friends, this is the definition of marriage and we cannot change it. We can try to make words mean new things in our culture. But God is the authority. God tells us what marriage is. Marriage is not more than two people. Marriage is not two people of the same sex or gender. God says marriage is a born male and female leaving their family homes and uniting together as one flesh.
Notice the necessary conclusion that Jesus draws in verse 6. They are no longer two people but one. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The Pharisees asked if it is lawful to divorce for any reason. What is Jesus’ answer? Jesus’ answer is no. It is not lawful to divorce for any reason. Please notice also that Jesus does not state this as new covenant law. Jesus does not state that this is Mosaic law or Jewish law. Jesus goes past the covenants to the very beginning. God’s marriage was given before Moses’ law or Christ’s covenant and is applicable to all people. God’s marriage law is one man and one woman joined together for life. Jesus plainly states that we are not to separate in marriage because God himself has joined us together. Please also notice that this is where Jesus ends his answer. The other accounts record Jesus’ answer in the same way in Mark 10:1-9 and Luke 16:18. This is the rule. Marriage is permanent. God joins us together. So do not separate.
An Exception (19:7-9)
Now the Pharisees have a question about what Jesus taught. When you read verse 7 you can see that the religious teachers primarily interpreted Moses’ law to say that you could divorce for any reason so long as you give divorce papers to the person being divorced. Now you can even think about illogical nature of this interpretation. Do we think that God’s big concern for marriage was making sure that if you divorced that you fill out the proper paperwork? Is God’s big concern was that you could divorce for any reason as long as everyone had a certificate proving that they had been divorced? This answer would not fit what Jesus just said nor would it fit the marriage law that God gave in Genesis 2.
This is why Jesus says what he says in verses 8-9. The point of the certificate was not to allow people to divorce for any reason. The problem, Jesus notes, was the hardness of their hearts. Now think about what Jesus is saying about the hardness of the people’s hearts. Do we see God changing his laws because his people do not like his laws? Is Jesus’ point that God’s marriage was to not divorce, but since you did not like that, God allowed you to divorce so long as you had paperwork? No! God never budged with his people even when they were hard-hearted toward him. The problem was that these men were being hard-hearted toward their wives and divorcing them in violation of God’s law. God needed to do something to protect these women from these hard-hearted husbands. This is what Jesus is revealing to them. What Moses gave was not a license for divorce but to deal with the sinfulness that was going on among the people.
So Jesus restates the law in verse 9. If you divorce and marry someone else, you are committing adultery. The exception to this law is if the divorce is because of sexual immorality committed by your spouse. In this situation, a person can remarry lawfully if the divorce was because of the sexual immorality committed in the marriage. In short, the rule is it is not lawful to divorce for any reason. The exception is that divorce and remarriage can occur only for the reason of sexual immorality being committed. I have given a number of lessons on marriage and divorce in the past and I would encourage you to go listen to those lessons if you would like a deeper dive into this topic. I would like to leave myself time to look at verses 10-12 since this is the only place we read about the response of Jesus’ disciples to his marriage law.
The Disciples’ Response (19:10-12)
Listen to what the disciples say after hearing this teaching. “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” (19:10 NET). This response is important for our consideration. How did they understand what Jesus taught? Did they think what Jesus said was complicated? Did they think what Jesus said was confusing? Not at all. Rather, what Jesus taught was very straightforward and they understood what Jesus taught. Clearly, the disciples understood that Jesus taught the permanence of marriage and that you cannot divorce for any reason. If there were lots of reasons for divorce, then the disciples would not have remarked that it is better not to marry. Marriage is permanent. We do not get to divorce because we fell out of love, your spouse is nasty, your spouse does not care about you, your spouse does not meet your needs, your spouse has changed, or any other reason except for the cause of sexual immorality. I want to underscore this point. If what Jesus said was easy, then the disciples would not have said this. Jesus clearly taught that marriage was for life.
Now I want us to notice Jesus’ response to the disciples. The disciples say that if this is the teaching, then it is better not to marry. Look at verse 11. Jesus does not tell his disciples that this is an overreaction. He does not tell them that they must have misunderstood what he was teaching. Jesus gives that option but notes that not everyone will make the decision not to marry. You might look at the seriousness and permanence of marriage and decide it is better not to marry. You can do that. But Jesus also notes that not everyone can decide to live alone and will want to be married.
How Jesus ends this discussion in verse 12 is also instructive. The disciples have said that it would be better to abstain from marriage if this is God’s marriage law. Jesus uses an illustration of eunuchs to speak about what they say. In ancient times, eunuchs were men who were castrated typically in service in a royal court. So notice what Jesus says in verse 12. There are some who are born without the sexual capacity. There are some who have been made to be eunuchs by others, as I illustrated above. But then listen to what Jesus says. “There are those who live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12 NIV). What I want us to see is that it is possible to live without being married for the sake of the kingdom.
What Jesus says applies to what he said earlier and to what the disciples just said. The disciples said that it is better not to marry due to the seriousness of God’s marriage law. Jesus says that some people will do that for the sake of the kingdom. Please also consider that Jesus also said that if you divorce and marry another, you are committing adultery. This teaching means that if you are divorced, you must not remarry or else you are committing adultery, unless the divorce was for sexual immorality. So you will have to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus speaks to this reality. People may need to remain unmarried for one reason or another for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does not say that it is ridiculous to have to live a single life. Rather, Jesus says that living single may be your calling in God’s kingdom.
Before we come to the conclusion of this lesson, I want to note that in our world today it can be difficult to apply Jesus’ teaching to our lives. It is not that Jesus’ teaching is complicated. Rather, we make our lives complicated because we have not followed God’s marriage law. So if you want to meet with the shepherds of this church to help you apply God’s marriage law to your life, we would be happy to meet with you and help you determine how to live right before the Lord.
So what did Jesus teach? First, marriage is between a male and a female. The world is confusing this teaching. The world is actively fighting against this definition of marriage. But this is what God proclaimed marriage to be. We cannot change what God said.
Second, marriage is permanent. The Pharisees ask if we can divorce for any reason. Jesus’ answer is no. Divorce is not God’s will. Divorce is not from the beginning. What God has joined together, we are not to be separating. We are joined by God. Do not divorce.
Third, there is only one exception for divorce. Marriage is not something that we are trying to get out of. Too many people approach these scriptures trying to get out of their marriages. God does not want you to get out of your marriage. God does not want you to look for a loophole. Do not look for a loophole. Look to save your marriage. Look to fix your marriage. Look at how you can be different to improve your marriage situation. The marriage can only be broken due to sexual immorality. Sexual immorality is the only exception.
Finally, it may be desirable or necessary to remain unmarried due to God’s marriage law. The apostle Paul referenced this teaching of Jesus in 1 Corinthians.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10–11 ESV)
We must support people who make this decision to remain unmarried. We must also support people who must remain unmarried or be reconciled for the sake of the kingdom. We must be their family and include them in our plans and activities. We can help them with this situation by being the family they desire.
We must have a high view of marriage. Jesus taught us that marriage is serious and permanent. Let us live according to God’s marriage laws and not follow our desires and wishes so that we can belong to the kingdom of heaven and be true followers of Jesus. Everyone is called to make various sacrifices for the kingdom. This is what we will see in the next paragraph in Matthew 19 and will be what we look at next week, Lord willing.