MDR: Matthew 19, Part 1 (exegesis)

As mentioned earlier, the other frequently cited divorce passage in the Gospels is Matthew 19:1-12:

1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

The Pharisees are specifically asking Jesus to comment on Deuteronomy 24, and in particular, are asking Jesus to choose between the two prevailing interpretations of the passage—divorce is permitted only for indecency — essentially the same as fornication or adultery—or divorce is allowed for any reason.

Deuteronomy 24 is indeed ambiguous on this point, and so rather than simply expressing an opinion, Jesus calls his listeners to consider the fundamental principles behind marriage, found in Genesis 1 and 2:

4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Jesus concludes that marriage is a divine institution, which God blesses, having invented it in Eden before sin entered the world. Jesus declares that God joins a married couple together. He doesn’t state, however, that God’s work can’t be undone. Rather, he plainly states that people can undo a marriage, but to do so is sin.

The fact that God joins the couple together hardly leads to the conclusion that man cannot un-join them, only that man should not un-join them. Salvation is a work of God that can be undone by man (Heb. 10:26). Just so, God gives life, but murderers can take it away.

God is a party to all our covenants. If I make a contract to deliver goods for a price, and if a break that covenant, I have offended both my customer and God. However, once the contract is broken, my customer doesn’t have to pay for the goods and I don’t have to deliver the goods if he declares the contract terminated. It’s impossible for me to be bound to a covenant that the other party isn’t also bound to. However, a sufficiently severe breach allows the other party to terminate the covenant—even though God is in a sense a party to it.

7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

This is an entirely sensible question. If divorce is wrong, why does the Law of Moses make provision for it? However, Moses certainly did not command that husbands divorce their wives. It’s important to realize that the rabbis taught that adultery requires a divorce.

8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”

Jesus says that divorce is not part of God’s plan. God intends that marriage be for life. However, God (who is really the author of the Law of Moses—not Moses) recognized that some people would fail to make their marriages work, and so divorce was anticipated. Not approved, but regulated.

Moreover, Jesus denies that divorce is ever mandatory. It’s simply permitted.

It is entirely fair to ask whether modern men still have hard hearts, or did God expect divorce to no longer occur under the new covenant (other than for fornication)? Jesus was not saying that hard-heartedness was over and that allowance for it was no longer needed. He was merely saying that it is sin to terminate a marriage covenant.

It is important to know that the NIV is inaccurate in translating “because your hearts were hard,” implying that hardness of hearts was a thing of the past. The KJV is more accurate in translating “because of the hardness of your hearts,” which plainly presumes that hearts were still hard when Jesus was speaking and leaves no implication regarding the future hardness of hearts.

Ultimately, the statistics quoted at the beginning of this book plainly demonstrate that hard-heartedness is very much still with us—even in the church. It would be absurd beyond words to assert otherwise.

God’s regulation of divorce is seen in Deuteronomy 24, which requires that a husband divorce his wife by giving her a certificate of divorce. This wasn’t to encourage or approve divorce, but to give the wife a method of remarrying. Without a certificate, she would have trouble proving that she is no longer married and free to remarry.

Plainly, while God did not want men and women to violate their marital commitments, he made merciful allowance to allow divorced spouses to remarry. (Husbands didn’t need certificates of divorce, because polygamy was allowed at the time of the Law of Moses.)

9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The KJV extends this verse by adding “and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” The phrase has since been omitted by nearly all later translations. The reason is that the very oldest manuscripts we have of Matthew entirely omit the phrase.

This is important because there is no reference to the husband causing the wife’s sin in this passage, whereas Matthew 5:31-32 plainly says her adultery is caused by the husband who put her away. This erroneous translation is surely one reason so many preachers have argued that there never is an innocent party so that the one wrongfully put away may not remarry.

The key point in Matthew 19 is that “adultery” does not necessarily refer to sexual relations. As we discussed in an earlier chapter, “adultery” is very frequently used in both testaments as a metaphor for any covenant breaking. Thus, a likely translation would be “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman violates the marriage covenant.” In other words, while God’s children have the power in them to terminate a marriage, doing so makes one a covenant breaker—the moral equivalent of an adulterer or of the children of Israel when they forsook God as described by the prophets.

This brings us to the question of why Jesus addresses remarriage if all he is really saying is that divorce (terminating a marriage) is wrong. The answer is found in re-reading Deuteronomy 24, which is all about remarriage. Jesus is simply commenting on the question posed. More precisely, as noted by Lenski, in Deuteronomy 24 the reason for the divorce was to remarry.

Jesus’ point is that you can’t avoid the proscription of the commandment to refrain from adultery simply by getting a divorce before having sex with another woman. The sexual relations with the second wife may not be sin, but putting away the first wife to get a second wife is—and is the moral equivalent of adultery. You’ve still violated the marriage covenant and have tainted yourself with your sin. (This, however, does not put you entirely outside of grace—a subject not at issue in Jesus’ commentary on the Law of Moses.)

Reading this passage together with Matthew 5:31-32, we see that violating the marriage covenant by wrongfully ending the marriage imposes the consequences of sin on the guilty spouse, the innocent spouse, and any second spouse of either. Thus, although getting a divorce before having sexual relations with a new spouse would seem to avoid the sin of adultery, Jesus is saying that sin is judged on weightier things than such technicalities.

I’d add that a woman who induces a man to divorce in order to marry her is, in Jesus’ teaching, as much an adulterer as a woman who has sex with a married man. Either way, the marriage covenant is violated and the pain given clearly shows the sinfulness of the conduct. (Of course, it works the same way for a man inducing a woman to get a divorce. But that wasn’t an issue under the Law of Moses when Jesus was speaking.)

There is nothing honorable or right about waiting to get the divorce before having sex with the new lover. Rather, so long as the man is married, he is obligated not to allow himself to be overly attracted to anyone else.

I think it is Ann Landers who points out that most of us will meet three or four people in our lives that we could fall in love with and marry. As God says through Malachi 2:15b, “So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.”

Therefore, while breaking the marriage covenant is wrong in any instance, there is a difference between divorcing your wife and divorcing your wife to marry another woman. In the second instance, the other woman is party to the sin and the second marriage is truly a sin against the first wife.

Leon Morris makes the point that the verb tense of “has been loosed” in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 indicates that Paul only permits the remarriage where the divorce is a settled state. That is, a second marriage is not a sin — unless the desire for the second marriage was the reason for the divorce, in which case the second marriage (the marrying—not the having sex in marriage) is adultery.

Thus, Jesus and Paul thus say the same thing. The second marriage that is the reason for the divorce is wrong, and yet it is a marriage, and sex between married spouses is not sin. Breaking up a marriage is, however.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Jesus here is assuming a non-polygamous marriage. He makes a point of saying the “two become one,” which is taken from the Septuagint’s translation of Genesis 2. The original Hebrew omits “two” and does not contradict polygamy. Jesus picked his text for a reason.

Paul seems to have picked up on the point, as 1 Corinthians 7 seems to only permit a monogamous marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:2, for example, states that “each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.”

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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