Marriage & Divorce

Jesus revisits the topic of divorce, addressing some troublemaking Pharisees.

Written by David Steltz on .



Good morning!

‌Last week, Mike wrapped up Matthew chapter 18, and today we are continuing into chapter 19.

Chapter 18 was filled with teachings from Jesus about how people in a community of Jesus-followers ought to behave amongst each other.

In chapter 19, Jesus and his disciples have moved on from the town they were in, as they draw closer to Jerusalem.

By this time, the fame of what Jesus could do had spread, and a lot of people were following and flocking to him, wherever he went.


Let’s read:

Matthew 19:1–12 LSB
1 Now it happened that when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; 2 and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there. 3 And some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 4 And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 5 and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’? 6 “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. 9 “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”


‌Formula Phrase

‌Verse one starts out with the same formulaic phrase that we’ve seen elsewhere throughout Matthew.

“When Jesus had finished...”

That phrase marks the end of the fourth of five major sections of teachings in the book. Now, Jesus is going to continue teaching, we’ll continue to see sections of discourse, but they’re woven into a narrative of Jesus and his disciples traveling to Jerusalem, and his ministry along the way.

‌Travel Context

Jesus left the region of Galilee, which was the region of the “sea of Galilee,” a big lake and fisherman villages, and came to the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan.

This means they had traveled quite a ways south, and entered a much more urban environment. More populated, the closer they get to Jerusalem.

More Healing

Verse two says that large crowds followed him. This was probably a mix of people who wanted to hear him teach, and people who simply wanted to be healed, or wanted a loved one to be healed. And Jesus did heal them!


‌But, of course, the Pharisees can’t leave him alone. I think it’s kind of telling of the Pharisees’ hearts and motives that they would approach Jesus, who is literally healing people, and interrupt him to try to trip him up. Remember, the Pharisees are members of the religious elite, who consider themselves to be experts in interpreting Jewish law.

‌Their intention in approaching Jesus is to discredit him, to get him to contradict the law that was given through Moses. The fact that they’re so obsessed with creating a scandal, it’s like they don’t even notice that he’s out there miraculously healing people! He’s clearly the messiah, but they just feel their power and authority being threatened and they’re trying to trap him.

The question they ask him actually reflects a debate that was occurring within the Pharisees at that time. It’s essentially a political “hot topic” of debate between two parties, two schools of teaching. The school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. It comes down to two divergent views on how they interpreted this verse in Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 24:1 CSB
1 “If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house.

‌The school of Hillel interpreted the phrase “some indecency” very loosely and taught that Moses permitted men to divorce their wives for any reason. Literally, any reason, including burning her husbands dinner, or having bushy eyebrows! One common reason for divorce that was widely accepted was if a woman was unable to have children, her husband could discard her and try with someone else.

The school of Shammai followed a stricter interpretation that allowed divorce only in cases of adultery, sexual immorality, or other major issue of sin.

So, the Pharisees are basically asking Jesus to choose a side, to create controversy and stir up strife. And when Jesus responds, he basically refuses to choose a side at first! Eventually he’s going to side more with the school of Shammai, but first he insults them and makes it clear the whole existence of the controversy is a product of sin.

Back to the Beginning

He answers, in typical Jesus fashion, with a question, in verse four:

“Have you not read...?”

These are Pharisees, the ultimate Bible nerds. They literally have the entire torah memorized! Any one of these guys could quote the entire book of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. 

‌And Jesus asks them “have you even read it?”

He references Genesis 1 and 2, the most seminal passages of scripture, the origin story of humanity itself, the foundation for everything else in the Bible.

Genesis 1:27 LSB
27 And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Genesis 2:24 LSB
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.

‌Jesus asking the Pharisees this would be like asking “Do you even know what two plus two is?” “Do you even know the alphabet?”

‌OF COURSE, they’ve read it, of course they know the story! By Jesus asking this question he’s implying that they are not understanding a fundamental truth about humans and what we’re created for. That by getting caught up in this political warfare they’re missing the point. In tragic irony, they’re so obsessed with knowing the law that they lose track of why the law exists in the first place.

‌Ultimately, having read it, having memorized, it, knowing it, is different from understanding it. And these men were motivated by greed and power, rather than loving God and loving others, which means their lens for interpreting scripture was warped. And that’s what Jesus is calling out here.

The Pharisees don’t exist as a Jewish group today, but that doesn’t mean that any of us can’t fall into that same trap of legalism, or of abusing scripture, or religion, as a political tool or way of manipulating people. Be wary of anyone who does that, and be careful not to do it yourself.


So, Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, but in the meantime I don’t think they even realize how badly they’ve been insulted, because they think they’ve actually caught him in a scandal! Jesus’s initial reply essentially negates both schools of teaching and implies nobody should ever get divorced for any reason!

That goes directly against the law of Moses in Deuteronomy!

‌The Pharisees might at this point think that they’ve struck gold! Think about it! To them, Jesus is conflicting against Moses, contradicting the very heart and soul of Jewish law and culture. If this couldn’t discredit Jesus’s authority, what else could? I think if I were one of the Pharisees I’d be delighted!‌

They come back with “Well then why did Moses say this?” And the word they use in verse seven is literally “command.” Why did Moses command that men should divorce women? They’re twisting the words for their purposes.

While Jesus is exposing the Pharisees, they think they’re exposing Jesus as not knowing the law of Moses. 


Obviously, that’s not the case. Jesus is well aware of this verse from Deuteronomy, and he corrects their understanding of it. His response, in verse eight is:​

Matthew 19:8 LSB
8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.

‌He’s addressing the Pharisees, again rebuking them for having hardened hearts, but he’s really referring to all humans.

And, again, he refers back to the beginning, to Genesis. The first humans were a model for the intended purpose of marriage: for the two to become one, permanently, in a covenant relationship. However, human hearts became hardened by sin, and would at times break that covenant, destroy the bond.

Notice how Jesus corrects their wording! Whereas the Pharisees say Moses commanded divorce, Jesus says he permitted divorce. Moses was not even justifying divorce, much less “commanding” it. The law regarding divorce is a recognition that because of sin, divorce is in some cases inevitable, and in fact, the law was designed as a protection for women. If you keep reading in Deuteronomy 24, you can see this:

Deuteronomy 24:1–4 LSB
1 “If a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that 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 from his house, 2 and she goes out of his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and if the latter husband turns against 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 husband dies who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before Yahweh, and you shall not bring sin on the land which Yahweh your God gives you as an inheritance.

‌Now, the way this is worded may sound a little strange and confusing, but ultimately it shows that this law is a concession for the inevitability of divorce being necessary in some situations. And it comes with it a prohibition against men divorcing and remarrying the same woman.

Why would this be?

‌Now, it’s important to realize that this is not a law prohibiting couples from reconciling after a falling out. It’s a response to something that was happening in their culture at the time, which was men treating women like property, discarding and reacquiring them at will. This law is a call to view marriage as a covenant partnership, and to take breaking that covenant as a grave, serious matter.

It’s something that is never desirable, but Jesus, like Moses, recognizes that human sinfulness can sometimes damage a marriage to the point of no repair.


‌Matthew doesn’t tell us how the Pharisee’s reacted to this answer. However, we do get the disciples’ response, in verse ten.

Matthew 19:10 LSB
10 The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.”

‌That’s how bad the culture of marriage was at the time! Divorce is rampant in our culture today, but I think it was even worse then. We don’t have exact numbers to compare divorce rates to prove that, but clearly divorce was not just acceptable to them, it was expected as a way of life for the Jews. Of course, it was common in other cultures as well, but the Jews were a people who were supposed to understand the value and importance of covenant partnership better than anyone else!

Marriage is meant to reflect the permanent, two-way partnership that God made with humans, and has always been faithful to keep.

And yet, when Jesus teaches this expectation, his followers think it’s so burdensome, such a high expectation, that it would be easier not to marry at all! Essentially, they conclude that if marriage covenants are to be permanent, then lifelong celibacy is the better option. Wow!

And, to be fair, it’s true that celibacy is better than unfaithfulness.

Jesus doesn’t deny that.

However, that’s not everyone’s calling, and it’s certainly not the norm, or the design for humanity. 

The design for humanity in general is to marry, reproduce, and have families. But in our incredibly diverse and populated world, there are certainly exceptions to that general rule. 

Jesus uses eunuchs, which were common in their culture, as somewhat of an obvious example. Eunuchs, or castrated men, are not so common now so it may seem like an odd illustration to us, but it would have made sense for his disciples.

And Jesus is certainly not suggesting voluntary castration, he’s affirming that it is acceptable, and even noble, for someone who is unable to marry, or unable to have children, to embrace that as a gift.

Dare I say that it’s a gift to be spared the burden of marriage?

Truly, marriage is an incredible gift, as are children, but it’s also important to recognize that those are not the only things in life that give us value or purpose.

All humans, regardless of marital status or family size, have inherent, immeasurable value, because we are all created in the image of God, and we are all his children. Any human’s ultimate purpose can be fulfilled by having a relationship with God and with others. And in the absence of marriage, even more time and energy can be devoted to pursuing those.

The apostle Paul was unmarried and embraced it! He addresses the topic in 1 Corinthians:

‌1 Corinthians 7:1–11 LSB
1 Now concerning the things about which you wrote, it is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 But because of sexual immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband. 3 The husband must fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But this I say as a concession, not as a command. 7 Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one this way, and another that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

‌Paul is echoing Jesus’s call for marriage to be a lifelong commitment, while recognizing that there will still be times when marriages are broken. And acknowledging celibacy as being preferable to sexual immorality, while recognizing that realistically not everyone can or should be celibate.


Not Exhaustive

Note that in this passage as with Deuteronomy, it’s addressed solely to men. That’s only because at that time only men had the legal right to obtain a divorce. In fact, while wives were expected to be completely faithful to their husbands, and could be put to death if they weren’t, husbands could have affairs with single women without it being considered adultery. How messed up is that? Husbands are supposed to model the unconditional love and faithfulness that God shows us. We, as his bride, can always rely on him to provide for us and be there for us.

‌For husbands to treat their wives like property is to spit in the face of their creator. It’s just like that wicked servant in the last chapter, who is forgiven an enormous debt, only to go demand payment from someone else.

And realize that in the context of this passage, it’s addressed to men, but the principle applies both ways in our culture. I think that goes without saying, but it bring up the important observation that Jesus’s overall intention here is not to specify every possible exception for divorce, but rather to emphasize the importance of keeping marriages intact.


We’ve already visited this topic, back in chapter five. Jesus said these same things in the sermon on the mount, and you’ll even see some of the same illustrations used that we saw in chapter eighteen:

‌Matthew 5:21–37 LSB
21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever murders shall be guilty before the court.’ 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. 23 “Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 “Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 “Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last quadrans. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 “But if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 “And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “Now it was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ 34 “But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. 36 “Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 “But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of the evil one.

‌So, yes, a lot of this teaching is redundant, but apparently it is important enough that it bears repeating.

In the context of the sermon on the mount, Jesus is addressing how the law is meant to address issues of the heart, rather than be a list of rules and regulations. He says that, yes, murder is wrong, adultery is wrong, lying is wrong. Those are core moral teachings of Jewish law. But simply not murdering someone is not a true fulfillment of the law. Murder isn’t wrong just because it’s ending a sacred human life. That’s part of it, but the root of the issue, the underlying cause, is a failure to love our neighbors as ourselves. Failure to recognize the sanctity of life; failure to see each other as fellow images of the all powerful creator and king of the universe.

‌Ultimately, this goes for any sin against each other, and breaking a marriage covenant is no exception.

In the book of the prophet Malachi, he addresses Israel and her unfaithfulness to God, collectively as a nation, and uses marriage as a poignant illustration of their attitude towards him. I’m going to read from chapter two, which uses really strong language to describe how disgusting the situation is.

Malachi 2:1–16 LSB
1 “And now this commandment is for you, O priests. 2 “If you do not listen, and if you do not set it upon your heart to give honor to My name,” says Yahweh of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already because you are not setting it upon your heart. 3 “Behold, I am going to rebuke your seed, and I will spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your feasts; and you will be taken away with it. 4 “Then you will know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant may continue with Levi,” says Yahweh of hosts. 5 “My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as something to be feared; so he feared Me and stood in awe of My name. 6 “Instruction of truth was in his mouth, and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7 “For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of Yahweh of hosts. 8 “But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says Yahweh of hosts. 9 “So I also have made you despised and low before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction. 10 “Do we not all have one father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each against his brother so as to profane the covenant of our fathers? 11 “Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of Yahweh which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 “As for the man who does this, may Yahweh cut off from the tents of Jacob everyone who awakes and answers or who presents an offering to Yahweh of hosts. 13 “And this is a second thing you do: you cover the altar of Yahweh with tears, with weeping, and with groaning because He no longer regards the offering or receives it as acceptable from your hand. 14 “But you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because Yahweh has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 “But not one has done so, even one who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly seed? Be careful then to keep your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16 “For I hate divorce,” says Yahweh, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says Yahweh of hosts. “Be careful then to keep your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

‌God’s love for us is faithful, steadfast, and endures forever. It’s unconditional and nothing we do will separate us from the love of God through Christ. But that doesn’t mean we should take advantage of that love by prostituting ourselves to other gods, idols, infatuations, love of anything in this world over our creator.

It does mean that we should show that love to others, treat each other with dignity and respect, be loyal and committed in our marriages, and in all of our relationships willing to forgive others as we have been forgiven by God.

Marriage & Divorce

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NCF was started in 1987 to minister to the growing population of Fort Drum and Jefferson County. Located in Carthage, just minutes away from Ft Drum, Lowville and Watertown, it is a blended congregation of local and military folks, single soldiers, young families and grandparents.