In this series of studies we’ve been looking at Jesus and how he interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures. So far we have focused almost exclusively on things in the Gospel of Matthew because Matthew is the one who most often pictures Jesus referring back to the Old Testament to make some spiritual point. But we will look at the other gospel accounts as well. Today I want to focus on Matthew 19:1-11. Jesus had left Galilee and gone to the region of Judea on the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds were following him. The Pharisees came to him to test him. “They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”
This was a question that was being debated among the rabbis regularly and there were two very different opinions on the subject. Some followed a rabbi saying that what God had Moses to write in Deuteronomy 24:1-5 about men divorcing their wives and giving them a certificate of divorce if they found anything unseemly in them gave the right to divorce for any reason that seemed wrong or distasteful to the husband. The other primary view was that the only legitimate reason for divorce was for sexual impurity on the part of the wife. They wanted Jesus to take one side or the other so they could use that against him or turn those who followed the teachings of the other rabbi against him.
Jesus handled the question by going back to the very beginning rather than to what Moses had written in Deuteronomy. “Haven’t you read, ‘ he replied,’ that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.” Notice Jesus didn’t at this point deal with the subject of divorce at all but went much farther to say that there shouldn’t even be any separation, since God has made them into one flesh. God’s ultimate plan obviously was that when two people get married that they will stay married for a life time.
The response of the Pharisees was, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Instead of dealing all with what God had said in the beginning, they went to what Moses had written much later on the subject of divorce.
“Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” In dealing with their question, it is vitally important to see how Jesus dealt with the Scripture they referred to in Deuteronomy 24. They had said that Moses commanded them to give a certificate of divorce and put the wife away, Jesus first corrected that by saying that Moses actually “Permitted” them to do so, rather than commanded such. There is a huge difference between something being permitted and being commanded. Second, Jesus explained the reason Moses permitted them to give the certificate of divorce to their wives. It was because of the hardness of their hearts. It was a time when most wives were completely dependent on their husbands for support and care to be able to survive. Men were putting their wives away from them and marrying other women to leave the wife with no way to marry anyone else and no means of supporting themselves or their children outside of prostitution. God saw the hardness of their heart and the plight of the wives being put away and gave this teaching from Moses as a means of protecting the wife. The man who put her away had to give her a certificate of divorce so that she could go and become the wife of another man. If he later put her away, she was not allowed to go back to that first husband to marry him again since another man had uncovered her nakedness and that would be an abomination to God.
So Jesus first gave the correct statement of what Moses said and why Moses gave the teaching to begin with. Then he turned to give his own teaching on the subject when he said this is what I say to you. Instead of following exactly what God had said in the beginning or what Moses had said later, he declared that there was only one legitimate reason for divorcing one’s wife and that was if she was involved in sexual immorality. Then he had the right to divorce her without committing a sin himself and could marry another wife without any sin on his part. If he divorced an innocent wife and married someone else he committed adultery in the process. Why was it adultery? Because they had made a covenant of companionship to have God join them in marriage and become one flesh. The divorcing of the companion would break the covenant that had been made between them and God. It is vital to notice that it is the divorcing and remarrying of another person that causes one to commit adultery. Nothing is said in this text about the ongoing sexual relationship of the people who have remarried. Nothing is said that indicates that this is an ongoing sin that is recommitted each time the couple has sex after marriage. They commit adultery by marrying another when they have divorced an innocent partner.
This sin like any other sin is forgivable when one repents of it and turns back to God. Like any other sin there must be sorrow or regret for the sin and a turning from the sin to the Lord. Does that mean that the person must then divorce the new wife or husband and go back to the first one or remain celibate for the rest of their lives? No repentance for divorcing and remarrying someone else doesn’t mean one should divorce again. It does mean they should become the kind of husband or wife that God calls them to be and make the marriage they are in what it ought to be.
Notice that the disciples were immediately concerned with Jesus answer. Their response was, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” It seems that the thought of not being able to freely divorce the wife when there was a problem between them was so frightening to them they thought it easier or better to just stay single.
“Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” I’m not sure where the Pharisees were when the disciples began to question what Jesus said. But it is important to notice that Jesus first statement to them was that not everyone could accept this teaching. His illustrations are all about people who shouldn’t get married to begin with. Those who for reasons of birth or actions of others can’t be a sexual partner in marriage shouldn’t get married. Some people are so devoted to the cause of Christ, like Paul would be, that they don’t need to marry. But if one can accept the teaching they should.
It is of interest to me that the very text that ends with Jesus saying not everyone can accept it has been used too often to declare that everyone must accept it and if they don’t they can’t ever be forgiven of their sin. Never forget that adultery like many other sins is listed by God as one that he will wash away, justify the sinner and sanctify them in Christ Jesus ( I Corinthians 6:9-11).
Notice most of all with this study that Jesus in using Scriptures from the Old Testament first went back to the primary source of what God did and said in the beginning. When he looked at the Scriptures that came later he first corrected their misuse by showing it was permission rather than command and he noted the context or reason for the giving of the Scripture to begin with. He put it into its context and its original purpose. In our interpretation of any Scripture it is vital that we follow the same reasoning. What does it actually say? Is this the primary text on the theme or one dealing with some problem in relation to the primary text? What was the purpose for this text to begin with? How does it fit with what is being said now? With Jesus he had the right to change what had been taught for the coming age. We don’t have that right. Our job is to find the right meaning and apply it correctly to our own situation.