(Mat 19:7-9 ESV) 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This is passage famously presents a host of interpretive problems, especially verse 9. I deal with those questions in the ebook “But If You Do Marry … .” We’ll not discuss most of those in this series on hermeneutics.
Not surprisingly, the Pharisees suggest that Jesus’ interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2 is inconsistent with Deuteronomy 24, which seems to plainly permit divorce. And so they ask Jesus how he reconciles the two?
Jesus replies that Moses (by the breath of God, of course) allowed divorce due to the hard-heartedness of some husbands and wives. (He wasn’t saying that the Jews were the only or the most hardhearted spouses.)
In other words, while it’s a sin to break a marriage, marriages are sometimes broken by sin. The result is a relationship that is no longer properly called “marriage” because it’s so far removed from the one-flesh relationship described in Genesis 2. Therefore, Moses required the husband to give his former wife a certificate, not ending the marriage, but proving that the marriage has already ended so that she could remarry without risk of bigamy to her new husband.
Hence, while Genesis 1 and 2 teach the ideal, God made humane allowance for the brokenness resulting from sin. Jesus adds, “but from the beginning it was not so,” to make the point that it’s God’s desire that marriage last for a lifetime. That was the pattern he intended to create in Eden and that he expects to continue.
Now, this begs all sorts of important questions about how these teachings apply to modern Christians, and that’s not today’s topic. Rather, the passage that I want to focus on is —
(Mat 19:10-11 ESV) 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”
Whatever Jesus intended, the disciples were shocked, saying that’s it’s better not to marry — even though they lived in a culture where being single was often considered sin. Jesus was plainly saying that it’s a sin to violate the marriage covenant, and the disciples were afraid that such a rule would be too hard to obey: better not to marry!
Jesus then declares that marriage isn’t for everyone — only those “to whom it is given.”1 Not everyone should expect to be able to marry and so commit to the obligations of marriage.
(Mat 19:12 ESV) 12 “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
And Jesus again surprises by speaking of “eunuchs,” literally meaning men who’ve been castrated to prevent sexual desire. Is that really the only alternative to marriage? Jesus was no eunuch. Nor was Paul. What is Jesus really saying?
The NET Bible translators conclude, quite sensibly–
The second occurrence of the word [“eunuch”] in this verse is most likely figurative, though, referring to those who willingly maintain a life of celibacy for the furtherance of the kingdom (see W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew [ICC], 3:23).
Nearly all commentaries agree.
Thus, Jesus speaks of those who cannot marry due to being born eunuchs and to those who choose not to marry “for the furtherance of the kingdom” by being celibate.
(You know, “celibate” is technically the right word, but among Protestants, the word carries a negative connotation due to its association with certain Catholic teachings that Protestants reject. I prefer “chaste.”)
In short, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, some Christians choose not to marry and to, instead, remain single and chaste — no more sexually active than if they were castrated, in Jesus’ graphic metaphor.
Hence, Jesus speaks of three possibilities: marry and be faithful to your wife; be born a eunuch; or be single and chaste.
Where is he coming from? Well, Genesis 1 and 2 offer the option of faithful marriage. The occasional birth defect — the fallen nature of the world — forces the second option on a few. And the needs of the Kingdom of Heaven produce the third choice. Indeed, if history is to be believed, all the apostles other than Peter remained single for the sake of the Kingdom. The life of an apostle was just too dangerous to take a wife.
Jesus counsels his listeners that not everyone “can receive this saying.” But neither, Jesus says, can everyone receive the other option — chaste singleness. “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
But Jesus does not allow for any other possibility. Evidently, we must be able to receive one or the other. Either marry — committing to be faithful to your spouse — or be single and chaste.
[to be continued]
1. Jesus said that the “saying” (logos) can’t be received by everyone. Logos can also be translated “command.” The Ten Commandments are called the Ten Words in the Septuagint and throughout the scriptures.
Commentators disagree as to whether the “saying” is what the apostles said (“Better not to marry!”) or what Jesus had just said (“whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery”). It’s hard to imagine Jesus saying that his command regarding breaking a marriage is only for those who can receive it!
Personally, I don’t think Jesus was referring to one particular command in the dialogue. He was referring to marriage in general, including the command, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh,” which is grammatically a command and had been taken by many Jews as a universal command for all.
Thus, Jesus’ point is that you don’t have to marry — and shouldn’t marry unless you’re willing to make the commitment that marriage entails.