Verses 1 and 2
Chapter 19 opens with Matthew telling us that when the Lord finished saying these things — the things we were studying in chapter 18 about how to treat one another — he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. That is, to the east side of the Jordan. The Lord will not return to Galilee until after his resurrection and he’s now heading towards Jerusalem. And Matthew also tells us that large crowds followed him. And so, there were people with him wherever he went and he healed them.
In these two verses, Matthew reminds us that the Lord’s ministry up to now consisted of two things: teaching and healing. He had come to teach the people about the kingdom of God; and the healing miracles were a sign that he had come from God and therefore the people should listen to him. And the healing miracles were also a foretaste of what he will do when he comes again in glory and with power, because when he comes again he will deliver his people from all the sorrow and sadness and disease and death of this troubled life; and he will transform our lowly bodies so that they become like his glorious body.
Verses 3 to 6
Matthew then tells us that some Pharisees came to the Lord Jesus to test him. Presumably they were hoping that he would say something in answer to their question which they could then use against him. He might say something which might become the basis of some charge or accusation against him. And so, they’ve not coming to him with humility as a student to a teacher, hoping to learn something. They’re coming to trap him. And as you can see in verse 3, their question was about divorce.
This passage is paralleled in Mark’s gospel and so you might recall from our studies in Mark’s gospel that the Jewish rabbis were divided on what were the lawful grounds for divorce. They based what they believed on what we read in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses wrote about a woman who becomes displeasing to her husband because he finds something indecent about her. And when that happens, the man writes a certificate of divorce and sends her away.
But what did Moses mean when he said the man found something indecent about her? That’s what the rabbis argued over. Some said Moses was referring to adultery or to some other form of sexual misconduct. And therefore the only lawful grounds for divorce is adultery or something similar. However, other rabbis said that Moses was referring to anything the husband found displeasing. So, burning his dinner was grounds for divorce. And some rabbis said that if a man is displeased with his wife because he’s seen someone more attractive, then that too is grounds for divorce.
That’s the background to this passage and it helps us to understand the question which the Pharisees put to the Lord Jesus: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ Some of the rabbis said that no, a man may not divorce his wife for any and every reason, but only for adultery. Other rabbis said that yes, a man may divorce his wife for any and every reason. If she displeased him in any way, he is in his rights to divorce her and send her away. And the Pharisees want to hear what the Lord thinks. Presumably they’re hoping that whatever he says, he’ll offend someone. And, of course, he might get himself into trouble with King Herod, who was married to a divorcee.
But in his reply, the Lord takes them back to the very beginning of the creation and to the time when the Lord instituted marriage and gave it to us. ‘Haven’t you read’, he asked. And those words imply that they ought to know these things, because right at the beginning of the Bible God made clear what his will is for us concerning marriage.
So, haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female. He’s quoting from Genesis 1:27. And haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator said that a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will come one flesh. He’s quoting there from Genesis 2:24. And therefore, by being united to his wife, the man and his wife are no longer two, but one. They are no longer two separate individuals, but they are one couple who have been bound together by marriage. And what God has joined together by giving us marriage, let man not separate.
And so, the Lord Jesus is making clear that God’s will for marriage is that it should be a permanent union between a man and a woman. From the very beginning, it was always God’s intention that marriage should be permanent, because the man and the woman are no longer two separate individuals, but they have become one. They are one couple joined together by means of marriage.
And since marriage is from God, then we do not have the right or authority to change its nature or purpose or to tinker with it in any way. God has determined what marriage should be; and, according to God, a married couple have become one and they should not be separated.
And so, before anyone talks about divorce and the lawful grounds for divorce, we need to establish as a fundamental principle that God’s will for us concerning marriage is that it is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And anything else is a corruption of his good creation.
Verses 7 to 9
The Pharisees respond in verse 9 by asking the Lord why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? So, if you’re saying that God’s will is for marriage to be permanent, why did Moses command divorce?
And the Lord’s reply is there in verses 8 and 9. Firstly, he says that Moses permitted divorce. That is to say, he did not command it, but he permitted it. He allowed it. And he allowed it because your hearts were hard. In other words, Moses allowed the people to divorce because you are sinners. Your hearts are hardened by sin and you’re not able to do God’s will or to walk in his ways. God’s will for husbands and wives is for them to love one another always. But because we’re sinners, none of us loves others the way that we should. We don’t love God the way that we should. We don’t love our neighbour the way that we should. And every husband doesn’t love his wife the way that he should; and every wife doesn’t love her husband the way that she should. And so, as a concession to human sin — and as a concession to the failure of husbands and wives to love one another as they should — Moses permitted divorce.
But — the Lord adds at the end of verse 8 — it was not this way from the beginning. From the beginning it was God’s will for married couples to remain married. It was God’s will for a husband to love his wife always and for a wife to love her husband always. That was God’s will. So, if you want to know what God’s will is for marriage, his will is for married couples to remain married.
And even though Moses permitted divorce as a concession because of human sin, husbands and wives are not permitted to divorce for any and every reason. The only lawful grounds for divorce — according to the Lord Jesus in verse 9 — is adultery. And so, anyone who divorces his wife — except for marital unfaithfulness — and marries another woman commits adultery. He has committed adultery, because in the eyes of the Lord that man is still in a one-flesh union with his first wife. When they were married, they became one. And they’re still one in God’s sight. And their oneness can only ever broken by adultery.
Presumably what the Lord says about a man divorcing his wife applies as well to a woman divorcing her husband. And I should add that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that desertion is another grounds for divorce. Paul describes the case of a married couple who were both unbelievers when they were married. But since their marriage, one of them is converted to faith in Christ. Under those circumstances, what should the believer do? Now that this person is a Christian, should he or she leave her unbelieving spouse? Paul says no, because the marriage bond is meant to be permanent. But, says Paul, if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. If he’s unwilling to live with the believing spouse, then they should separate. And there are some Christians who say that a spouse who is irresponsible or abusive has also — in a sense — deserted their spouse, because they’ve given up their duty to love and care for their spouse. This would give the innocent party grounds for divorce.
And so, there are only two lawful grounds for divorce: adultery and desertion. So long as there has been no adultery, and so long as there has been no desertion, a married couple should remain married. This is the will of the Lord. And even when adultery or desertion has taken place, divorce is not required. It’s permitted, but it’s not required. And so it’s possible that where there has been adultery, or where there has been desertion for a time, the couple may nevertheless be reconciled to one another through repentance by the one who sinned; and through forgiveness by the one who was sinned against.
Before moving on to the last three verses. I’m should say that when I preach on this topic I take care to remind everyone about the grace of God. All of us are sinners and every day we fall short of doing God’s will. We all fall short; and all of us who are married fall short of loving our spouse the way that we should. And some believers fall short of doing God’s will regarding divorce and perhaps they get divorced for other reasons and not for adultery or desertion. And while it’s important to make clear what God’s will is, we must also remember God’s grace and mercy and his willingness to pardon the humble and contrite for their sins and shortcomings for the sake of Christ who gave up his life to pay for our sins and shortcomings. And so, because of Christ, God is able to remove our sins from us as far as the east is from the west; and he’s willing to remember them no more.
Verses 10 to 12
And today’s passage ends with the disciples wondering whether it’s better not to marry. If there’s no escaping an unhappy marriage, perhaps we should all stay single?
And the Lord replies by saying that not everyone can accept what the disciples have said. He therefore seems to be suggesting that singleness is good, but it’s not for everyone. And he goes on to explain that some people can remain single because they were born eunuchs and are unable to have a sexual relationship with anyone. Others are made this way by men. In the ancient world servants who were to oversee a king’s harem might be castrated so that they couldn’t sleep with any of the king’s wives or concubines.
And then the Lord says that others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. They have remained single so that they can devote their time and energy to serving God. Those of us who are married have responsibilities to our spouse and to our children (if we have any); but a single person is free from those responsibilities; and their singleness opens up doors of opportunity to them which are closed to those who are married. But while there may be advantages to singleness — just as there are advantages to being married — it’s not for everyone. The one who can accept this should accept it, says the Lord. But not everyone can accept it.
And so, there are advantages to remaining single, but singleness is not for everyone. And those who are married should remain married, because this has always been God’s will concerning marriage. It’s to be a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And the only lawful grounds for divorce are adultery and desertion.
And perhaps the final thing to say is that all of us need to rely on the help of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is the one who sanctifies us and who helps us to do God’s will more and more. And so, we can look to him to help us all to love one another more and more. We need the Spirit’s help to love God more. We need his help to love our neighbour more. And husbands and wives need his help to love each other more. And the Holy Spirit is at work to renew us in the image of the Saviour who loved his bride, the church, and who gave himself up for her to make us holy and blameless.