Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. Genesis 2:24
You may have noticed that this is the first time in this study that we will not be going through a full chapter. My reasoning for this is that Jesus continues His answer to the young man we meet in the second half of this chapter, in chapter 20. I want to keep that context together so that we don't get confused. My second note of "housekeeping" today is one that has to do with judgment and grace. Today's main topic is extremely sensitive for most people: divorce. This chapter has often been used as a cudgel against people who have been through the painful experience of divorce. I don't believe that was ever Jesus' intention in His answer to the rulers who ask about it. In fact, in the context of His answer, Jesus is giving radical grace and protection for the women of His day because of the abusive way in which men were divorcing their wives. One more note before we dive in, I am not married nor am I in a romantic relationship at this time, but I do come from a divided family where both of my parents have remarried. I think it is only fair that you know what perspective and life experience I'm coming at this particular topic from.
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Matthew 19:1-2
Throughout the beginning of Jesus' ministry, we've seen Him focus mainly on the region of Galilee, only coming into Judea for brief occasions. Now that Jesus has warned His disciples on a couple of occasions that He must return to Jerusalem to be handed over for His death and resurrection, Jesus' ministry seems to shift more directly into Judea as the time approaches. However, the substance of Jesus' ministry stays the same! Wherever He goes, He teaches and heals the crowds that come to Him.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” Matthew 19:3
If you know anything about debate or have listened to an argument this question should strike you as manipulative or leading. The Pharisees don't ask, "On what occasions, if any, is it appropriate to divorce one's spouse?" No! First, they don't believe a woman has the right to divorce her husband for any cause. Second, the popular practice of men in Jesus' day was to divorce their wives for any reason that pleased them. Burn dinner and you might be getting a notice of divorce! For women, at this time a divorce would have been devastating as there would be little hope for her remarrying and outside of marriage there were extremely limited options for her to provide a living for herself not to mention the concern of what would happen to her children?!
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:4-6
Jesus' first answer to the Pharisees is to take them back all the way to creation with Adam and Eve. God's original design for marriage left absolutely no room for divorce. To become man and wife, was to become one entity joined by God. The religious leaders seem to have been astounded by this answer because they follow up with the law handed down to them by Moses regarding divorce.
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Matthew 19:7
I'm sure it won't surprise you to find out, that even in their question about this Law, the Pharisees have made a gross oversimplification of what they were actually commanded.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. Deuteronomy 24:1-4
In this context, Moses is allowing that a man may divorce his wife if he finds some indecency in her. In Hebrew, the word being used that we translate "indecency" is ʿervâ which means nakedness, shame, or uncleanness. This does not mean that if a man goes to sleep with his wife on the first night of their marriage and doesn't enjoy himself then he is allowed to divorce her! Our English vocabulary is really not helping us to have a right understanding of the concession that God is making for the dissolution of a marriage, but Jesus is about to make it perfectly clear to these wicked Pharisees! The "indecency" that this man has found with his wife is sexual immorality. In other words, she has committed adultery, and instead of offering her up to be stoned (executed) as the Law would require, this man is simply offering her a divorce. The second man, is actually not even giving an acceptable reason for divorce but once he has put her out it is an abomination before God for her to remarry her first husband.
What does this mean as we seek to honor God in our relationships? First, the binding part of marriage in this context is sexual just as what can break apart a marriage has to do with sexual immorality. Look at it this way, in the eyes of God, you are binding yourself to someone effectively in "marriage" when you choose to have sex with them. Breaking with that person to take another sexual partner is then in effect adultery and sexually immoral. God designed the human body and the marriage relationship with all of its pleasure as a wonderful gift but the key here is that it was only ever meant exclusively for the marriage bed between one man and one woman. This concept is almost completely foreign in our modern culture!
Now what I don't want you to hear in this is any kind of judgment for the way that you personally have conducted your relationships. If you are a new Christian, this is probably a totally new perspective for you and you know that God's grace through Christ's death and resurrection has covered all of your sins... He didn't forget your relationship mistakes along the way! Take comfort in that! If this is the first time you're getting a picture of God's standards for your relationships, then it's time to take a thoughtful inventory of the health of your current or prior relationships. Were they or is it honoring to God, how you treated your romantic partner? How would honoring God in your relationships now transform the health, happiness, and satisfaction you find in your romantic partner?
Later on, in Paul's letters to the new Christians in the Church instructing them about marriage he says:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Ephesians 5:25-28
This was a novel concept in their day, where wives were viewed more like property. Instead, of abandoning his wife, a Christian man is expected to lay down his life for her and to love her as Christ has loved him and as he loves himself. Before I start hearing any screeching from the peanut gallery... yes, Paul also has some pretty strong words for wives as well, and how they ought to behave regarding their husbands.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Ephesians 5:22-24
If you weren't already reeling from God's standard for sexual relationships compared to the way our culture sees them today, then this call for wives to submit to their husbands may very well have made your head explode. As a woman, I can tell you that this command is a difficult one, it requires a humility and a love that I don't think I could be capable of with God's help! Because I have always been a Type A sort of person who ends up in one leadership role or another whether I ask for it or not. However, I want to honor God in my relationships and I have seen firsthand the pain and destruction that following our culture's manual for marital happiness brings. I also see the incredible picture of the Gospel that is being formed when a man and a woman choose to fulfill the commands that we have been given in scripture to live in God's design for marriage and not our own.
Let me be clear! I do not believe that if either spouse is being abused that they should stay in that unsafe environment. That does not fit with God's picture of grace or His design for marriage in any way! If you are experiencing abuse in your marriage whether you are a man or a woman, please go seek help from the proper authorities.
Let's get back to Jesus' answer to the Pharisees about Moses' Law...
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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Matthew 19:8-9
The disciples are just as astonished as the Pharisees when it comes to Jesus' strict stance regarding marriage and divorce. They actually respond, "Well, then no one should get married!" Which goes to show what their own attitude toward marriage was at the time. But what makes me laugh is Jesus' response to them, which is basically, "You're right! Some people should not get married."
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 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.” Matthew 19:10-12
In fact, I think it's slightly funnier than that because Jesus doesn't say that some are born single, some have been made single, and some choose to remain single for the kingdom of heaven. Instead, He uses the very specific word eunouchos meaning a man who is unable or unwilling to take a wife and have children. Meaning, that some men are born without the ability to procreate; some men are castrated later in life; and some men choose not to take a wife and have children for the sake of the kingdom. Paul would be a good example of this last type of man. Can you see the subtle scolding Jesus is giving His disciples through the choice of this word? For those who have not been given the very specific call to remain unmarried and childless, the standard Jesus has just laid out for marriage is the bare minimum and should not be scoffed at by those who claim to live for Him!
Closely following this discussion of marriage, the people begin to bring their children to Jesus for Him to pray for them.
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. Matthew 19:13-15
In the next few verses and the following chapter, we're going to be brought back to the discussion of hierarchy in the Kingdom of Heaven, "Who is the greatest? Who is the next greatest? Do we get anything out of following Jesus more closely or not?" This scene with the children, therefore, is a great reminder of what Jesus has just taught in answer to that question...
And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,... Matthew 18:2-5
Whatever side of a romantic relationship you're in (or like me, you're single right now) the focus should always be in humbling ourselves before God and honoring Him with our lives. When we do find that person to share our lives with, it shouldn't be about your wife being "less than" you or your husband needing to "fall on his sword" every time you want something or do something foolish. If our marriages are supposed to be a picture of Christ's love for the church, those things should be the furthest from our attitudes toward the one we love. Christ offered Himself up freely out of love with the knowledge that in this life we would continually fall short in sin. The Church also submits out of love and honor for the One who gave everything for them, remembering also that Jesus submitted to the will of His Father to show such great love for us.
I pray that our relationships are a wonderful example to a fallen world of His great love!