Date: August 12, 2018
Speaker: Erik Raymond
Category: Biblical Exposition
Scripture: Matthew 19:1–19:12
Earlier this week the Globe published an article entitled, Hey Boston, Let’s try to be a little nicer to one another. The writer was attempting to shine a light on the rampant rudeness that he has observed.
I don’t believe the writer was calling for a complete reorientation of our entire lives. Instead, he would be satisfied with better manners on the T, in traffic, and on the sidewalk. If we weren’t so selfish in a few areas then life in Greater Boston would be, well, better.
As a Christian, we read the article and nod approvingly at many of the conclusions. The writer has put his finger on one of the core issues of our time: selfishness.
But at the same time, the application was as you might expect, unsatisfactory. Because for us as Christians we understand that the ethics of the kingdom are not limited to a few application points on our commute, but rather to the complete reorientation of our lives. And this reorientation is from a selfishness to a God-centeredness. From a universe that revolves around me to one that revolves around God.
When we become a Christian our first words of life are repentance. Repentance involves a reorientation of the mind, heart, and life. This is reorientation is away from self and toward God.
This morning we will see that Jesus applies this reorientation toward the kingdom of God to the very foundational institutions of society. He doesn’t just want part of your life, but the entire thing.
In our passage this morning, we notice that Jesus is once again on the move. You’ll notice in verse 1 that he is leaving Galilee and moving towards Jerusalem. This is important because it marks the conclusion of his ministry in Galilee and the beginning of his march to Jerusalem. Jesus has already told us that it is there, in Jerusalem that he will be crucified and then rise again. While this pivot away from Galilee is, in fact, a death march, it is one undertaken by a powerful and unrivaled King who will in fact reign forever.
But, as the scenery changes the message doesn’t. Jesus is still talking about the kingdom and its preeminence. He is pressing the importance of the kingdom into the lives of his hearers.
And what we see is this, the Kingdom of God is preeminent because God himself is preeminent.
To make his point we once again have Jesus utilizing the timelessly effective question and answer format. There are three big questions with three important answers. The first two questions come from the Pharisees and the third comes from Jesus’ disciples. Jesus answers all of the questions himself.
It is important that we understand these questions and answers not simply as explorations into particular subjects but as vehicles that help us to better understand the importance of one subject. In other words, the way Jesus answers these questions shows us that in the end, it’s not fundamentally about marriage but rather the kingdom of heaven. It’s the fact that the kingdom is preeminent that causes Jesus to answer these questions in this way. He shows us that the importance of the kingdom reaches to the most foundational institutions of human society. The King remakes his people from the ground up. And, as he does, he reorients our common understandings from their natural self-centered state to a new, God-centered way.
And this is what I believe to be the central argument of the text because God's kingdom is preeminent, Jesus reorients common understandings about marriage and singleness from self-centered to God-centered.
Therefore, whether you are single or married—this should be of concern to you. Because the kingdom is preeminent then the kingdom must be of concern to you. We must be jealous for the king and his ways. Therefore, you must be careful not to dismiss the teachings here on marriage to be not applicable to you if you are single. And likewise, if you are married, do not dismiss what Jesus says about singleness. He is teaching us about the kingdom.
Let’s dig in with the first question and answer in verses 1-6.
(1) God's design for marriage reveals its dignity & permanence (1-6)
As I’ve already mentioned, verses 1 provides us with a GPS update, Jesus is leaving Galilee. He is on his way to Jerusalem. But in verse 2, we see that there are large crowds attending to Jesus. People continue to flock to him. And, not surprisingly, Jesus continues to heal them. How remarkable is this man? While marching to his certain death, he continues to heal the broken, answer questions from people trying to trap him, patiently teach his disciples, and bless the seemingly insignificant children? There is more than enough in Jesus to commend your admiration, esteem, and truly, your worship. He is infinitely lovely. He may be leaving Galilee but as he does the aroma of his compassion, love, mercy, and care lingers in the air. Our fairest Lord Jesus is worthy of the delight of both angels and all people.
Let’s look at these questions.
In verse 3 we see the first one comes from the Pharisees. Please look at your copy of God’s Word. We see, “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand how the question was asked because we are unable to hear the inflection or observe the body language of the one asking. But, Matthew, knowing that this would be read by many people after he wrote it, includes some keys so that we can understand.
Do you see the clue in the text?
We read that they came up to him and tested him. When we think of testing we might think that they are playing a game of Bible trivia or innocent theological ethics. The Pharisees, after all, love to read and quote the Bible and Jesus obviously really likes the Bible. Is this innocent testing of one’s understanding and application of the word?
I don’t think so. The word translated “test” here also conveys the concepts of scrutinizing and temptation. One lexicon describes it being used to try and trap someone in a mistake. It’s used in Matthew 16:1 in this sense as well. I think we are solid ground to conclude, in light of the Pharisee's relentless anger, bitter, and calculated malevolence towards Jesus, that this question has ill motives. They are trying to catch him saying something wrong in front of the crowd.
Another reason why we can tell they have impure motives here is the cultural debate at the time. The topic of divorce was very controversial in Jesus’ day. And there were two main schools of thought that dominated religious leaders at the time. And, as you might imagine, one was more conservative and the other more liberal. We know by the way they asked the question, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” that they were trying to stir things up.
The gist of the positions is this. The more conservative Rabbis permitted divorce only in the case of sexual immorality while the more liberal leaders granted permission for a man to divorce his wife for almost any reason imaginable. And, to make the point, there was even provision made for a man to divorce his wife if she was not a good cook. Can you imagine that? Divorce for overcooking the meatloaf? So, there is a wide gulf between the two main sides. And the Pharisees are inviting Jesus to alienate a side and cause a public controversy.
What’s interesting here is Jesus does not directly answer their questions about divorce. Instead, he teaches about marriage. Look with me at verses 4-6.
“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)
First, we notice that Jesus directs them to the authority on the matter. He points them to the word of God. Consider what a dig this might be to the Pharisees. These guys were the Bible guys. It’s like asking a Supreme Court justice if they have ever read the constitution. This is a good practice for us to develop also. When the swirling cultural debates are kicking up dust around us, we don’t answer the question from the standpoint of what the experts (even the religious experts) are saying. We are not thinking about sexuality, gender, marriage, and issues of life based upon what the editorial pages or headlines news says. Instead, we follow Jesus’ pattern and direct our attention back to the Word of God. This is our authority as Christians. It is our ultimate authority.
Secondly, notice that Jesus shows the dignity of marriage. The passage quoted by Jesus Genesis reveals that marriage is not some simple and ordinary social contract that can be crumpled up and tossed aside like it’s no big deal. Marriage is not like being a member of the rewards program at Star Market. It’s not a fuel saver card. You can’t just decide you don’t want to be a part of it any more. Marriage was created by God with a particular purpose. Jesus goes back to the beginning to show the divine purpose in it. This develops the authority of God in marriage. Therefore, since it was God’s creation for his purposes to bless people and glorify his name, then it has dignity.
Third, by quoting these verses, Jesus shows the intended permanence of marriage. In the face of the question about divorce, Jesus reminds the Pharisees that God intended, from the beginning, that a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. And, the two shall become one flesh. This tearing apart and sewing together shows the permanence of this. Therefore, marriage is not something that can just be changed with the frequency of a new pair of socks. Nor can it be dismissed with the flippancy that comes over an unsatisfactory meal. God means marriage to last a lifetime.
Fourth, Jesus shows the sacredness of marriage. This one flesh union is intended to persevere because God is over marriage. Look at the warning that Jesus quotes in verse 6, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” This is Jesus effectively saying, “Hands off.” Marriage is between a man and a woman, but most importantly, it is before God. Therefore, it is sacred.
While Jesus doesn’t answer their question directly, I think he does answer it completely. It’s a sufficient answer.
Can a man divorce his wife for any reason? No, of course not.
He can’t because he is under the authority of the Word of God—and not autonomous unto himself.
He can’t because marriage has dignity, it is not a meaningless contract.
He can’t because God intends for marriage to last a lifetime, and not as long as one party wants it last.
And he can’t divorce his wife for any reason he chooses because marriage is sacred, and therefore, not something to be trifled with.
Now, remember what Jesus is doing here. He is teaching us about the kingdom of God. You might say, “I thought he was teaching about marriage.” He is. But, it’s not ultimately about marriage. Jesus goes back to the beginning to show how things were intended to be. And, in the kingdom of heaven, God is remaking things according to his standard, his design. So, by holding high God’s design for marriage he is showing the value of the kingdom, for, in the kingdom, God is putting back together the stuff that people like you and I have broken.
And when you and I value the kingdom of God—when we see it as preeminent—then we will view marriage differently. Let’s remember, the contemporaries of Jesus supported divorce for any number of reasons. This is not unlike our day. How does the kingdom of Christ reform this view? Well, it shows that marriage is intended to be a long-term commitment that is characterized by repentance, forgiveness, humility, and perseverance. It is to be God-centered, not self-centered. Jesus flips the contemporary under-appreciation for marriage on its head to show he values it.
Perhaps this morning you are challenged by Jesus words about marriage. We live in a time where marriage is being redefined before our eyes. Gender, sexual orientation, divorce, and many other topics are cultural paintbrushes that distort God’s original mural of the one-flesh union between a man and a woman.
Whether you are married or single, consider again how Jesus views marriage. Let his understanding of marriage shape yours. And as he does you’ll perhaps notice that he is reorienting you away from yourself as the center and putting God in the center. He shows you the authority is not us but God’s Word, and that marriage has dignity, is permanent, and is sacred.
And, if you are married, take Jesus’ words to heart. You must value your marriage like God means you to. It is a reflection of your understanding of, and agreement with, the value of the kingdom of God.
As you know, the Pharisees were not satisfied with Jesus’ answer. And so they ask a follow-up question. Let’s look at verses 7-9 as we see that divorce is reserved for extreme scenarios.
(2) Divorce is reserved for extreme scenarios (7-9)
We read in verse 7 this follow up question, “They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?”
You get the sense the Pharisees are pulling out their Bible sabers. We can quote the Bible too; what do you do with Deuteronomy 24? The Pharisees pull out a question that was doubtless on the tips of the tongues of all who would object to the more conservative approach.
They are asking why would Moses allow for a certificate of divorce if marriages are as Jesus describes. The first question we need to answer is, Are they right? Did Moses allow for this? The answer is yes, but.
Let’s look back at Deuteronomy 24:1-4
“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.
There are a few things we need to see here. We’ll consider what the passage says before we can get to the Pharisee’s why question.
First, there is a mention of a certificate of divorce. So, they are right in one sense. It’s actually a good question.
Second, let’s look at what the text says. The Pharisees asked about this by using the word “command” Why did Moses command? But Jesus picks up on this verb and changes it to allowed. This is a difference that will help us understand this better.
Third, we read in verse 1 that the certificate of divorce is a result of finding some indecency in his wife. And this is where the two schools of thought were divided. The more liberal side took indecency to be any number of things—a convenient excuse to end the relationship. While the conservative school said that divorce was required for circumstances of infidelity. You might be wondering about the death penalty for adultery in the Bible. And, it is true the OT law did teach this (Leviticus 20:10) but we know that at the time of the NT this command was substantially relaxed.
Fourth, the command for the divorce actually means to protect the wife. He is saying that if the husband divorces her then he must provide some certificate to show that she is no longer married. And this will allow her to be remarried to someone else (Deuteronomy 24:2). But it also prevents the first husband from remarrying her after her second husband dies or he also divorces her (24:3-4). What is this about? Well, when the first husband married her he acquired her dowry—a gift from her father. When she married the second guy he also would’ve received a dowry. If she would then remarry the first husband, he could, in effect get a second dowry out of the deal. So this law is attempting to protect and prevent exploitation of the wife by her first husband.
Now, let’s consider Jesus response to them in verses 8-9, 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.”
Here Jesus says baldly, it was because of hard hearts that he allowed this. Again, Jesus is shifting away from the Pharisees here and the popular conservative view. He is actually not saying that divorce was required but allowed. This recasts the whole conversation. Divorce is not a card to be played to get out of a relationship at any time for any reason but an accommodation as a result of sin.
But what do we make of this reference back to the beginning? This is the second time that Jesus says this in this dialog. In the first answer, back in verse, 4 he made the same reference. Many have observed that this is an argument based upon first principles. The ideal that God wants is found in the beginning. Jesus won’t allow them to elevate a concession to human sinfulness to become the ideal. Divorce is not a divine principle but a divine accommodation of human sinfulness. In order to find the ideal, we have to go back to the first principles or what was in the beginning. Jesus answer to the Pharisees “Gotcha question” is important. He refuses to let them pit one passage of Scripture against another. Instead, he wants to let the Bible speak for itself, in context, within the framework of God’s design. As one has said, one statement is “of the ideal will of God, the other as a (regrettable but necessary) provision for those occasions when human sinfulness has failed to maintain the ideal.” (RT France)
But at the same time, Jesus does permit divorce here in extreme situations. He provides an exception clause. There are lots of questions about this verse. I want to answer seven of them quickly.
You may have noticed that Mark 10:10-12 and Luke 16:18 we don’t have the language “except for sexual immorality” as we do have here and Matthew 5:32. Why the difference? This is complicated, but with some work it makes seems to make sense.
First, Matthew, Mark, and Luke are on the same page in that all three forbid divorce for reasons other than sexual immorality. It’s important to note their counter-cultural similarity.
Second, in both the Greek and Roman culture immorality was an acceptable grounds for divorce. Nobody questioned it—especially not the Pharisees who initiated the question. The issue was about what other reasons there might be.
Third, as a writer, Matthew sometimes does include additional details that Mark and Luke leave out. One example is found in Mark 8:12 where he quotes Jesus saying “no sign will be given to this generation,” whereas Matt. 16:4 says “no sign will be given to [this generation] except the sign of Jonah.”
It is still a difficult question, but I think these are reasonable answers.
By marrying someone is not technically divorced they would be participating in an adulterous relationship.
Sin is messy. One could imagine a number of ways this could take place, multiple marriages, multiple wives at one time, etc. This is something that would require wisdom according to the situation, but it would seem that the principle of remaining as you are when you are called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). I don’t think the Bible calls you to divorce your current spouse and then remarry the previous spouse.
The word Jesus uses to describe the grounds for divorce covers a range of serious sexual sins. It would include various sexual sins, including but not limited to adultery. There are certainly other acts that can be classified in this category. But, it is adultery that tears apart the “one flesh” that Jesus talks about in the beginning of the chapter. Sin is messy and godly wisdom is required to work through heartbreaking situations.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul lays out another scenario. Go ahead and turn to 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 Paul is considering a scenario where two unbelievers are married and then one gets converted. As a result, the unbelieving spouse either stays with the marriage or they leave. In the case where the spouse leaves they remaining spouse is free to remarry. This is what is referred to as abandonment.
1 Corinthians 7:11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
Wisdom is required to rightly apply what atonement is. One can imagine scenarios where it is not simply physical abandonment in the marriage. They may live in the home but have abandoned their spouse. This is complicated. The church needs wisdom here, for sure.
The sin of immorality or pornea does not automatically end the marriage but it does provide the offended spouse with biblical grounds for divorce. (In a similar way, fornication between two unmarried people doesn’t make them married). Just because a sin may be potential grounds for divorce does not mean that the divorce must take place. God can and does repair broken marriages. Let’s not forget that chapter 19 follows chapter 18 and its heavy emphasis upon forgiveness (70x7).
First Corinthians 7 also answers this, “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” 1 Corinthians 7:39
So, yes, I believe the Bible teaches that widows or widowers may remarry.
If we could somehow transport back to the time of Jesus we would find that people were getting divorces for all kinds of random reasons. Not unlike today, marriages were ending for purely selfish reasons. Jesus did not come to affirm worldly misconceptions about marriage. He couldn’t. So because of the preeminence of the kingdom, Jesus reorients our thinking away from selfishness to a God-centeredness.
(3) Like marriage, singleness mustn't be taken lightly but leveraged for the glory of God (10-12)
We don’t know what happens to the Pharisees from here. Did they run away with their tails tucked? Were they scratching their heads? Did he win them over? We are not sure. But the conversation continues because the disciples have a dangling question.
Look with me at verse 10, “The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.””
Since we don’t have a video of this exchange it’s difficult to know how they said this. Is it a joke? Frustration? Exhaustion? Serious? We don’t know. But, we can understand it. They are basically saying, If marriage is like this then it’s better not to get married. The strict standard for divorce was counter-cultural and it seemed to prompt the disciples to a bit of a resignation.
Look how Jesus answers, “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 19:11–12)
I realize some of the language here might be unfamiliar, but I’m confident that, as we go it’ll become clear.
Jesus says that not everyone can receive this saying. It seems that he is referring back to what the disciples just said and not to what he has just finished teaching. It would seem like a strange conclusion to a teaching like this to say, But of course, not everyone can bear with this. No, I think he is talking about the disciples' comment about marriage.
He is basically saying, Not everyone can bear this burden of singleness. But there are some who do.
And then he goes into this discussion about eunuchs. What is a eunuch? This was obviously something that was more common in biblical times. It was a male who have renounced any pursuit of marriage for one reason or another. The focus here is upon the celebrant life. He cites three categories of those who remain celebrant.
The first includes those who are born without the capacity to engage in sexual activity. Others who are made to be celebrant by men. In the ancient world some men would be given oversight over a harem or the care for women in the kings home. In order to ensure they wouldn’t be promiscuous they were made to be eunuchs, that is they were castrated. Then there is this third category, those who, according to Jesus, have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
This is referring to those who are, by God’s help, pursuing celebrancy, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Why do they do this? I think this passage compliments what we read in First Corinthians 7:25-38. God gives some men and women the ability, the grace, to voluntarily accept a life of singleness (and purity) in order to better serve and devote themselves to the work of the kingdom.
You see what Jesus does with the disciples’ focus? They are thinking solely about themselves and not the kingdom. And this is the way we often think about marriage and singleness. We think about it in terms of us and how it affects us. But, as Jesus teaches here, there is another consideration, a more foundational consideration, it is about the kingdom of God.
The disciples hear Jesus teaching and think he has a very high view of marriage. This is true. But, there’s more. He is showing in these verses that he has an even higher view of the kingdom. To show the devotion of the single person here (living for the sake of the kingdom) he is showing the value of the kingdom.
Christians should not consider either marriage nor singleness from a selfish perspective but from the perspective of the advancement of the kingdom.
Why? Because God's kingdom is preeminent.
This is why Jesus reorients common understandings about marriage and singleness from self-centered to God-centered.
As we conclude this morning, I want to do so with this thought. Jesus has tied marriage and the kingdom together in another powerful way. Throughout Scripture, God uses the imagery of marriage to communicate his relationship with his people. And when Jesus comes it is no different. In fact, he shows that the physical, earthly, and temporal marriage is actually reflective of a spiritual, heavenly, and eternal marriage through the gospel.
We read in Ephesians 5,
“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.” (Ephesians 5:25–27)
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31–32)
Jesus is the great husband who laid down his life for his bride, the church. He comes to rescue, redeem and restore his bride. He fixes our brokenness. He transforms selfish people to become selfless. He is fixing people, even today, through the gospel.
And this fixing goes beyond good manners on our commute. It is a total revolution of the person through a repentance from self-seeking to seeking of God’s glory. Have you made this break? Is your life characterized by a draw to live for the kingdom of God? Do you see the rule and reign of God as preeminent? Are you jealous for his honor? If not, then let nothing hinder you from doing this today. Turn from sin to trust in Christ. If you are, then praise God. Continue to pursue this glorious King and kingdom with endurance and zeal.