Matthew 19:1-15: Divorce and Marriage
February 20, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
The teaching that Jesus gives in this passage about divorce is interpreted in a number of different ways within the Christian church today, and this has led to no small degree of controversy over the years. While we may not always see eye-to-eye with those who interpret this passage differently from the way we do, we should hold our view in tandem with some other principles—namely, Christian charity towards brothers and sisters, the prioritization of the most important things (such as Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 13), and the humble willingness to admit that we may ourselves be wrong. If we find that there are praying, godly, wise, humble, genuinely converted, and gifted Christian teachers who hold a view that is different from the one we hold, we are surely to be slow to insist that our way must be right.
With that context in mind, it is important to realize that the controversy was originally set up by the Pharisees (19:3). If someone comes intending to stir up controversy from the matter of divorce, then we can be sure that that intention is more Pharisaic in style and tone than gospel-centered. Jesus makes a number of points in reply to the Pharisees’ question. First, he quotes from Genesis (19:4-6). He says that a man and woman married for life was the Creator’s original intention. It is important to note a number of things about this part of the argument. We can note that the original template of marriage, according to Jesus as well as Genesis, is one man and one woman for life. This excludes polygamy; it also excludes same-sex marriages.
The Pharisees push back, because they understand the implications of Jesus’ argument, and relate it what they perceive as a different viewpoint in the teaching of Moses (19:7). But Moses, they argue, allowed people to divorce (though not for “any” reason, as they began their question in verse 3). Jesus says that Moses’ stipulation is not a description of the original intention but only because of the “hardness of heart” of God’s people (19:8). How awful it is that God’s people can be described as having hard hearts! But, anyway, the point of Moses’ teaching was a concession, not a command.
And then with his own authority in verse 9 (“And I say to you”), Jesus clarifies that divorce and remarriage “except for sexual immorality” is to commit adultery. It is this “Matthew exception” (not found elsewhere in Jesus’ teaching, though compare with Matthew 5:32) which has sparked controversy in various interpretations down through the years. The traditional protestant interpretation was that this means what it on the surface seems most obviously to mean—which is that Jesus teaches that divorce and remarriage, unless there is physical adulterous marital unfaithfulness, is itself sinful and adulterous. The Roman Catholic view was traditionally that no remarriage was allowed unless you received a special papal dispensation. (This meant that such dispensations were earnestly sought for by, for instance, Henry VIII, and that various ongoing affairs became embedded within some Roman Catholic countries’ cultures by those who could not attain such dispensation). The protestant view, strenuously and strictly upheld and very difficult itself to attain, began to be loosened in the twentieth century, and now in many countries divorce and remarriage is allowed for irreconcilable differences.
All the complexities of this are hard to unravel in this very short space, especially in the context of a “devotional,” but it is perhaps worth saying that I personally hold what is known as the traditional protestant view, but one that is stringently maintained under the biblical standards, not those of a deteriorating secular culture. In other words, marriage in God’s intention is one man, one woman, for life—and anything outside of that is going against what God has designed. That said, divorce is not the unforgiveable sin, and there is a way back to find fulfillment and blessing in God’s purposes.
That this teaching is hard is not unique to us, for from verse 10, the disciples witness to how hard they found this teaching to receive too. In fact, they say it would be better not to marry at all. Jesus then refers to “eunuchs” (19:12), either from birth, or made such by the hand of men, or “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”—that is those, like the apostle Paul, who are single for the sake of gospel work. But such singleness is not to be enforced on anyone; it is a gift (as Paul described it), and as Jesus put it, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
If we are married, then, we are to do all that we can to maintain and grow our relationship with our spouse for the glory of God and the advance of the kingdom. If we are single, we are to use our singleness for the glory of God and the advance of the kingdom. For both such situations may God give us grace and joy to serve him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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