This lesson deals with one of the most difficult and human topics that touches nearly everyone in a deeply personal way. Divorce hurts so much to talk about not only because we have seen whole families plunged into its sorrow and pain, but also because it shows us how hard our hearts really are; we don’t want to look at why our love failed.
This subject is personal for me as well as for some of you:
- My brother is divorced and remarried
- My mother-in-law is divorced and remarried
- My wife is the blessed first daughter of this second marriage; showing the mercies of God are new every morning
- My spiritual mentor was divorced
But more than all of this I see in myself the same hard-heart that Jesus exposes is the root-cause of divorce: unforgiveness. If you have ever struggled with unforgiveness in your life towards anyone – not just your spouse – then this topic is personal for you too because you have the same seeds in you that lead to divorce too.
Introduction and Setting: Verses 1-2
Now when Jesus finished these sayings, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River.19:2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
“When Jesus finished” (ἐγένετο ὅτε ἐτέλεσεν): this is the literary formula that Matthew uses to conclude each of his major discourses (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1), meaning that we have just concluded the fourth major discourse in Matthew’s gospel and are now entering the last major discourse before the crescendo of Matthew’s gospel in the Passion of Christ.
“He left Galilee”: this is the final time that Jesus leaves Galilee to begin his last journey to Jerusalem.
- Matthew 19 – 20 narrates Jesus’ journey on the road to Judea
- Matthew 21 – 22 narrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem
- Matthew 23 – 25 narrates Jesus’ outcry against Israel’s sin and his final public teachings
- Matthew 26 – 28 narrates the Last Supper, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and his great commission
The Pharisees Test Jesus on Divorce: Verse 3
Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?”
Jewish law permitted a man to divorce his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce without trial or appeal:
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (CSB) If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. 2 If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house or if he dies, 4 the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord. You must not bring guilt on the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Controversy about what Moses meant by “indecent” had divided Jewish interpretation into two camps:
- The School of Hillel: interpreted “indecency” as being any reason of offense
- The School of Shammai: interpreted “indecency” as being limited to sexual immorality
Their question was designed and precisely phrased to force Jesus to take sides in this debate and thereby turn the people against Jesus, or cause Jesus to oppose the Law of Moses and expose him as a false prophet.
The Creator’s Design: Verses 4-6
He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female,19:5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 19:6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus answers in good rabbinic form by answering their question with a question; he answers “Moses” with “Moses”.
“Made them Male and Female”: Jesus’ answer sees Genesis 1:27 as a “creation ordinance” and shows us that one of the theological realities of his messianic redemption is redeeming creation from sin’s curse that the Mosaic Laws were forced to deal with.
Genesis 1:27 (CSB) So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female.
Human relationships in the kingdom of God must increasingly reflect God’s original design.
“One flesh”: God’s original design in creation is that husbands become one-flesh with their wife.
To understand Jesus’ reasoning, we have to ask how the two become “one flesh”:
Ephesians 5:22-33 (CSB) Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 since we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband.
Jesus is appealing to the design and purpose of marriage for its governing ordinances:
- Verse 22 & 24: Wives submit to their husbands, which reflects how the Church submits to Christ
- Verse 23: Husbands are the head of their wives, which reflects Christ being the head of the Church
- Verse 25 & 28: Husbands love their wives as their own bodies, which reflects Christ loving and serving the Church
- Verse 30 – 32: The marriage union demonstrates the covenantal union between Christ and the Church
- Verse 33: We become one-flesh when the husband is the head and the wife is the body.
The imago Dei is reflected and preserved in the union of a husband who loves his wife as his own body to a wife who respects her husband as her head. The error in the Pharisee’s question is that they are asking if all of this can be annulled for any indecency.
The theological statement Jesus is making is that no one may separate the holy union of the marriage body; it is an insoluble union between one man and one woman.
Matthew 19:6 (NET) So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Moses’ Certificate of Divorce: Verses 7 – 8
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 19:8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way.
“Why then did Moses command”: The Law of Moses not only allowed a divorce in certain circumstances, it commanded a husband to stone his wife if she was caught cheating. Many rabbis were also teaching that husbands were commanded to divorce their wives if their wives were caught in any kind of “indecency”.
“Moses permitted you because of your hard hearts”: Jesus corrected their erroneous assumption that Moses required divorce and told them that Moses permitted divorce because he was managing the hardness of their wretched hearts.
The heart of divorce is rock-hard.
The very text being cited to support the idea that divorce is permissible was given to manage the hardness of their hearts. In this way Jesus is telling the Pharisees that their justification of divorce exposes the hardness of their hearts.
We must ask ourselves what is the hardness of their hearts?
Matthew 18:32-35 (CSB) Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And because he was angry, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart.”
The hard-heart that Jesus is referring to is one that cannot forgive their spouses’ sins.
The husband is supposed to love his wife as his own body, even laying his life down for her. Divorce comes from the hardness of our own hearts that refuses to let love overcome evil and forgive sins suffered.
Please consider the following commandments from Christ and ask yourself if they don’t apply 10 times more to marriage:
Matthew 5:44-48 (CSB) But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary?, Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 6:14-15 (CSB) For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. 15 But if you don’t forgive others, your Father will not forgive your offenses.
John 13:34 (CSB) I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another.
When asking if divorce is permissible, Jesus’ conclusion is clear: “let no one separate what God has joined together”.
Jesus’ Commandment: Verse 9
Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.
“Whoever divorces and marries another”: there’s a grammatical function that will help us deal with this verse more efficiently by taking the parenthetical statement out and reading the simple sentence together and then dealing with the parenthetical statement afterwards.
The simple sentence is: “Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.”
This is exactly how Mark, Luke, and Paul teach Jesus’ commandment:
Mark 10:11-12 (CSB) He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 Also, if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Luke 16:18 (CSB) Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and everyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
1st Corinthians 7:10-11 (CSB) To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife is not to leave her husband. 11 But if she does leave, she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband—and a husband is not to divorce his wife.
The base doctrine of Jesus’ commandment is an absolute prohibition against divorce and remarriage.
Unfortunately, Jesus’ actual words often get lost in the heat of this debate, so we need to pay careful attention to what we just read.
Jesus said that divorce and remarriage constitute adultery.
This is where the rest of Paul’s teaching on this subject fits into play:
1st Corinthians 7:12-16 (CSB) But I (not the Lord) say to the rest: If any brother has an unbelieving wife and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. 13 Also, if any woman has an unbelieving husband and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce her husband. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy by the husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or a sister is not bound in such cases. God has called you to live in peace. 16 Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.
Mark, Luke, and Paul remain in absolute agreement that marriage between believers is insoluble and that if divorce occurs, then they are to remain single. In a moment, I will argue that Matthew is equally clear on this conclusion as well.
Paul then adds that those who were unbelievers and convert to Christianity after they are already married to unbelievers must not divorce their unbelieving spouses if their spouse is willing to stay with them; they are to live at peace with them in the hopes that they may one day be saved.
Then Paul adds that if their unbelieving spouse leaves them, the believer is not “bound” and may “let him leave”:
- View #1: the believer is released from all obligations and may remarry
- View #2: the believer is released from their marital obligations and may let them leave, but must remain single
Though I ultimately defer to each person’s individual liberty to make their own decision in this case, after years of study on this subject my own conclusion is that the second view is what Paul originally had in mind: they must remain single.
“Except for Immorality”: now we must deal with Jesus’ parenthetical statement about “sexual immorality” being the exception clause for divorce.
The Pharisees justified divorce by referring to the Law that permits divorce if the wife is caught in some kind of sexual immorality, which was the Shammai School of Interpretation for Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But Jesus invalidates that reason by saying that this law was provided only because of the hardness of their heart and their unwillingness to forgive sins; the Kingdom of God is based on the new creation, not the heart of stone.
I do not believe that Jesus would provide the same exception that he just refuted.
Instead, Jesus’ exception clause refers to another very well known and undisputed Law in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 that addresses what happens when it is discovered on the wedding night that the woman is not a virgin. According to this law, if no evidence for the woman’s virginity can be provided, she is to be stoned at her father’s house.
I believe there is internal evidence in Matthew’s Gospel to support this conclusion:
Matthew 1:18-19 (CSB) The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
Mary would have been stoned to death in front of her father’s house for her infidelity if Joseph had brought public charges against her.
Neither Mark nor Luke includes this account of Mary and Joseph because it is uniquely relevant to a Jewish audience who understood Jewish laws. Matthew is highlighting the righteous virtue of mercy in Joseph’s actions because he had the power to exact the highest possible punishment upon Mary, but elected to show mercy instead – even bearing shame upon himself in so doing.
This was the Law in play with Matthew’s account of Joseph when he was preparing to divorce her quietly.
Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience familiar with the Law of Moses. He is the only one to address the πορνείᾳ exception clause, and he is the only one to recount the relevant event between Joseph and Mary.
My Conclusions: Verses 1-12
My conclusion to this text is that marriage is an insoluble union by which God makes two people one flesh.
The Christian ideal of marriage is that what it represents is too holy, and too special, to be broken. The regenerate Christian heart should fight for marriage with love and forgiveness, not because their spouse is perfect, but because God has joined them together in holy matrimony.
Questions That Need Answering
There are more questions than I can answer here, but I want to answer a few because I know they are important:
Scenario #1: what if your spouse cheats on you multiple times?
The pain of marital infidelity cannot be cheapened by glib answers; the pain experienced in the marriage body by marital infidelity is no less real and hurtful than when our physical bodies experience a broken bone or some other kind of debilitating disease.
But our redemptive-experience in Christ must be equally real and restorative. Jesus’ call to be light and salt in the world doesn’t begin when we leave our homes, it begins in the home; we must be the real savor and illumination of Christ’s tangible forgiveness and grace on earth in our homes as well as in our workplaces.
Scenario #2: what if your spouse is beating or abusing you?
Physical and emotional abuse can be as painful and damaging as the experience of sexual infidelity; sometimes even more damaging.
However, this is why I took the time to be clear about Jesus’ doctrine regarding “divorce and remarriage”. Paul told us that if you divorce your spouse, you are either to remain single or be reconciled. As this applies to someone who is in an abusive relationship, with a great deal of prayer and faithful Biblical counseling, I would support someone who separates from an abusive spouse in the hopes of reconciling again under safe conditions but with the commitment to remain single if reconciliation does not occur.
Scenario #3: what about someone who has already been divorced and remarried?
Hearing what I just taught can be one of the most difficult things to hear because I have just told those who have experienced the agonizing pain of being cheated on or abandoned by their spouse that they were guilty of adultery by remarrying another spouse. We are initially repulsed and outraged by the idea that we have sinned by remarrying another spouse; we see our beloved husband or wife, and our precious children that are the result of these unions and we are deeply offended by these words.
Believe me, I know because I am married to a woman who was the first precious daughter in her mother’s second marriage. And the depths of my heart will never sufficiently express how thankful I am to be married to my precious and perfect wife.
This is where I ask you to hear me clearly:
The reality that your second union has been richly blessed with love and respect, and that the union of your marriage is full with the blessings of precious little children demonstrates that “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love” and that “his mercies never end and are new every morning because great is his faithfulness!”
These blessings, however, do not mean that your actions were right; they merely prove that God “gives his blessings to the good and bad, the just and unjust”.
The answer is not to break the second union and double your sin; the answer is to confess your first iniquity and sanctify your second marriage to rid it of every trace of any hard or adulterous heart so that you can fully honor and glorify God in your second union.
Celibacy: Verse 10-12
The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 19:11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 19:12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.”
Taken in this light, the disciple’s response makes perfect sense: “it’s better not to marry!”
Marriage is a serious undertaking that should not be taken lightly. The responsibilities and the joys of marriage are tremendous.
“The one who can accept this should”: I had no choice in this sermon but to devote the majority of my time to the topic of divorce. So here I must apologize to our single brothers and sisters because I was unable to offer you the attention that your current situations deserve.
But here is the message that I want to give you right now: singleness is not your curse, if you can accept it, singleness is your blessing for this time in your life.
Society tells you that you are incomplete because you are not married. But that is a lie. Everything you need to be complete is found in Jesus Christ!
The question is not whether or not Christ can make you complete in your singleness, but whether or not you can accept it.
The Kingdom Children: Verse 13-15
Then little children were brought to him for him to lay his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded those who brought them. 19:14 But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”19:15 And he placed his hands on them and went on his way.
This is a fitting conclusion to this discourse because it reminds us of the lessons we learned about humility and trust in the beginning of chapter 18; we need the simplicity of trust and humility that is found in children to accept our Father’s words regarding marriage and choose to walk in forgiveness towards our spouses when things become difficult.
The Kingdom of God belongs to those who are humble in spirit like children and trust their Father’s good will.