Singleness and Divorce

Today’s passage is all about the topic of divorce and the positive and effective use of one’s singleness, taken from Matthew 19:1-12. Our command passage is in Matthew 19:12 (“let him except it” – present imperative).

Opener Questions:
1. What was (or would be) Mom’s advice to you about marriage? What was Dad’s?
2. Who has the best marriage you have ever seen? Why is it so special?

Purpose of This Study: To teach that God intended marriage to last a lifetime and those with the gift of singleness ought to embrace that wholeheartedly in order to advance the kingdom of God.

Historical Background: As Jesus continues to make his way toward Jerusalem, the crowds get larger. The Pharisees, always lurking in the background, come to the front with a question. They aren’t looking for an answer but an opportunity. They want to trip Jesus up with a difficult question of divorce. It was as much of a hot button back then as it is today. Everyone stops and listens; all eyes are on Jesus. His words are typically stunning. He applies to men, for the first time, the same absolute restrictions on divorce that had always applied to women. This offers women unparalleled protection from the ravages of men who, like these Pharisees, want to have their cake and eat it too.

Since His second year of ministry, every time Jesus attracts a crowd He also attracts Pharisees. They are not disciples; they are informants’ obvious enemies. This is even more true since the Sanhedrin openly plotted to kill Jesus (John 11:53) and put out a “warrant” for his arrest not more than a month earlier (John 11:57). That’s what sent Jesus to this area in the first place (John 11:54; Luke 17:11). Their question is designed to trap Jesus (Matthew 16:1; Mark 10:2; Luke 11:53). Divorce was a raging debate.

Discussion Questions:

1. Geographically, where was Jesus when the Pharisees tested Him? (Matthew 19:1-2) “When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.”

2. What were the Pharisees hoping to accomplish by testing Jesus? The Pharisees wanted to ultimately destroy Jesus. The clever Pharisees were well aware that Perea, where Jesus now ministered, was under the rule of Herod Antipas. He was the tetrarch who had John the Baptist imprisoned and eventually beheaded for condemning his unlawful marriage to Herodias, whom he had seduced away from his brother Philip (see Matthew 14:3-12). No doubt the Pharisees hoped that, by denouncing divorce for any cause at all, Jesus would thereby publicly condemn Herod’s adulterous relationship just as John had done and suffer John’s fate.

Two Rabbinical Schools of Thought on Divorce:

The School of Shammai: This school taught that the sole ground of divorce was mentioned in Deuteronomy 24:1- “some indecency in her” [Hebrew literally is “nakedness”]. The School of Shammai applied this expression only to moral transgressions, and exclusively to adultery. It was declared that if a woman were as mischievous as the wife of Ahab (Jezebel, 1 Kings 16:31; 18:4-19; 19:1,2; 21:5-25; 2 Kings 9) or (according to tradition) as the wife of Korah, it were well that her husband should not divorce her, except it be on the grounds of adultery.

The School of Hillel: This school took the words “some indecency in her” (Deuteronomy 24:1) in the widest possible sense, and taught that a man could divorce his wife for the most trivial of reasons, for such things as taking her hair down in public, or talking to other men, and even for burning the bread, or putting too much salt in the food. For her to speak ill of her mother-in-law or to be infertile were more than sufficient grounds for divorce. Rabbi Akiba (early second century) thought, that the words, if “she finds no favor in his eyes” implied that it was sufficient if a man had found another woman more attractive than his wife. The words “some indecency” are translated in the Talmud as “obnoxious.” Josephus would fall into this school of thought, he was deserted by one wife, divorced his second wife being displeased with her behavior… afterwards he married a woman of Jewish extraction who had settled in Crete.

3. What rabbinical school of thought on divorce did the Pharisees’ question represent? (Matthew 19:3) “Some Pharisees came to Jesus….” These Pharisees are probably from the stricter rabbinical school of Shammai. They are basically asking Jesus, “do you think the laxer rabbinical school of Hillel has the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy 24?” Their exact words, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” They hope He sides with them and says something that would get him in trouble with Herod Antipas or say something contradictory to the Law of Moses so the people would reject Him.

4. In what way was Jesus sarcastic in answering the Pharisee’s attack? (Matthew 19:4a) Jesus asked the Pharisees, “Have you not read…?” and then quoted Genesis 1:27, 2:24. This was an insult since the Pharisees claimed to be scholars and experts of the Law of Moses (The Pentateuch). Jesus says, “Are you not aware of what God Himself declared from the beginning of creation, (Mark 10:6)? Don’t you know the very first thing God said about marriage?

5. Which Rabbinical school of thought did Jesus side with? (Matthew 19:4-6) When the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to side with one of the rabbinical schools of thought on divorce, Jesus rejected both schools (Matthew 19:3-10). Both Rabbinical schools were based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus didn’t side with either interpretation but instead went back to Genesis and re-emphasized God’s original creation order in which there was no divorce. He even added a warning to it. “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

6. What verses does Jesus use in reaffirming God’s law against divorce? (Matthew 19:4-6) Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27, 2:24 “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

7. What was God’s intention in creating only one man and one woman? (Matthew 19:4) The distinction of the sexes, established at creation, underlies the institution of marriage and is the foundational for the human family and well-being of society. “Male” and “female” are without an article and singular, “a male and a female” indicating that the reference is to a single pair, Adam and Eve. God did not make provision for either polygamy or divorce by making more men than women or more women than men, nor did He make provision for a homosexual or lesbian couple.

8. What four reasons does Jesus give to show why it is not lawful to divorce? (Matthew 19:4-6)

First, Jesus said, God “MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE.” In the Hebrew text of Genesis 1:27, both “male” and “female” are in the emphatic position, giving the sense of “the one male and the one female.” In other words, God did not create a group of males and females who could pick and choose mates as it suited them. There were no spares or options. (There was no provision, or even possibility, for multiple or alternate spouses. There were only one man and one woman in the beginning, and for that very obvious reason, divorce and remarriage was not an option).

Second, Jesus said, “FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE.” Since Adam and Eve had no parents to leave, the leaving of father and mother was a principle to be projected into and applied to all future generations. The Hebrew word translated “joined” or “cleave” refers to a strong bonding together of objects and often was used to represent gluing or cementing.

The third reason Jesus gives for divorce not being in God’s plan is that, in marriage, “THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.” As Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 7:4, spouses belong to each other in the physical relationship of marriage: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Consequently, Jesus said, when a man and woman are joined in marriage they are no longer two, but one flesh. They are therefore indivisible and inseparable, except through death. One is the smallest indivisible unit. God’s marriage equation is not 1 + 1 = 2 but 1 + 1 = 1. In God’s eyes a couple becomes the total possession of each other, one in mind and spirit, in goals and direction, in emotion and will. When they have a child it becomes the perfect emblem and demonstration of their oneness, because that child is a unique product of the fusion of two people into one flesh and carries the combined traits of both parents.

The fourth reason Jesus gives for divorce not being in God’s perfect design is that, in the creative sense, every marriage is made in heaven. From the very first marriage of Adam and Eve, God has joined together every husband and wife. Marriage is first of all God’s institution and God’s doing, regardless of how men may corrupt it and deny or disregard His part in it. Whether it is between faithful believers or between pagans or atheists, or whether it was arranged by the parents or by the mutual desire and consent of the bride and groom, marriage as a general social relationship is above all the plan and work of God for the procreation, pleasure, and preservation of the human race. Whether it is entered into wisely or foolishly, sincerely or insincerely, selfishly or unselfishly, with great or little commitment, God’s design for every marriage is that it be permanent until the death of one of the spouses.

9. Did Moses give a command to divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as the Pharisees insisted? If not, what did he legislate? (Matthew 19:7) Jesus rejected the teaching on Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that had been passed down to the Jews of His day. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32 but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:31,32a). The very word structure emphasizes that His teaching is in sharp contrast to what they had heard. The words “LET HIM GIVE” is a single Greek verb that is an aorist imperative. The Pharisees had turned this into a command, but the legislation of Deuteronomy 24 doesn’t start until verse 4.

The Deuteronomy 24 passage, upon which “marital unfaithfulness” is based, is designed to regulate an existing condition not to condone divorce. Verses 1 through 3 contain a series of conditional clauses “if” in the original Hebrew that establish a case situation. If this case situation existed then the legislation (command or prohibition) of verse 4 applies.

“When [if] a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that [if] she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and [if] he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, 2 and [if] she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and if the latter husband turns against her and [if he] 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 the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.”

The Pharisees that came to Jesus 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…” God never commanded that people get a divorce, He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

Furthermore, the Deuteronomy 24 passage cannot be construed to include “some uncleanness” after the marriage has been in existence for any length of time. Provisions had just been given two chapters previously for a man to contest the marriage at the beginning if he believed his wife was not a virgin (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

10. Why did Moses allow for divorce? (Matthew 19:8) Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives.” The word “hardness” describes a heart dried up, hard and tough.

11. What is the difference between immorality and adultery? (Matthew 19:9; 15:19) Immorality is violating God’s moral law before marriage and adultery is violating God’s moral law while married. Matthew 15:19 says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries [Gr. moichos], fornications [Gr. porneia], thefts, false witness, slanders.” This verse demonstrates that Matthew didn’t use these two words interchangeably as mere synonyms but saw them as distinctly two precisely different sins.

12. Does immorality or adultery cause divorce? (Matthew 19:9) The text says that immorality [Gr. porneia] causes divorce, not adultery [Gr. moichos]. To teach that divorce is permissible on the grounds of “marital unfaithfulness” [Gr. moichos] is to build a doctrine on one word using the wrong translation for the word! The word fornication [Gr. porneia] cannot be restricted to “marital unfaithfulness.” The word adultery [Gr. moichos] would have been used if Jesus meant only “marital unfaithfulness.”

13. What does remarriage cause a person to become? (Matthew 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Romans 7:2-3) The Bible teaches that when a divorced person remarries they become an adulterer or adulterous. “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife…, and marries another woman commits adultery'” (Matthew 19:9). “And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery'” (Mark 10:11-12). “For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (Romans 7:2-3).

14. What does the “exception clause” mean? (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) Jesus said the only cause for divorce is porneia, which means:

1) Incestuous marriage – the man in the Corinthian church who married his father’s wife was condemned by Paul for his incestuous marriage). His sin is named as “immorality” [Gr. porneia] in 1 Corinthians 5:1. Incestuous marriages are condemned in Leviticus 18.

2) Sodomite marriage – a “marriage” between two men or two women was also condemned in Leviticus 18:22. The word “fornication” [Gr. ekpomeuo] is used for sodomy in Jude 1:7.

3) Betrothal unfaithfulness­ – if a man found that his wife was not a virgin at the time he married her, he was given the option in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 to divorce her. Matthew alone has the “exception clause” (Matthew 5:32; 19:9) because only a Jewish audience understand the betrothal period. This situation was illustrated in Matthew 1:19.

CULTURAL ASPECTS OF JOSEPH AND MARY’S ENGAGEMENT AND MARRIAGE

A MAIDEN, A VIRGIN: Joseph’s father, Eli, probably made the decision and choice of Mary to be his son’s wife. A father could make this decision alone (Genesis 38:6) but a mother could play a role (Genesis 21:21; 27:46) though it was not essential, the bride’s consent was at times asked for (Genesis 24:5,58). Romance was involved in some of the matches (Genesis 29:20; Judges 14:1-3; 1 Samuel 18:20, cp. Song of Solomon). The text is silent concerning how Joseph and Mary were matched. It only reveals that Mary was a virgin (Matthew 1:23,25, Isaiah 7:14).

DOWRY NEGOTIATED: Joseph the son of Eli traveled to the home of his prospective bride. Mary’s father then negotiated with Joseph. A price was negotiated which had to be paid to purchase his bride. Once again the text is silent concerning these details. Note: In Genesis 34:12, Shechem is willing to pay any bridal payment (dowry) for Dinah. In Exodus 22:16-17 one who has seduced an unbetrothed virgin has to pay a dowry. In 1 Samuel 18:25 Saul demands a dowry of a “hundred foreskins of the Philistines” for his daughter. Instead of silver or goods, an act of valor or of service was at-times performed to win a bride (Genesis 29; Joshua 15:16-17; 1 Samuel 17:25).

COVENANT ESTABLISHED: When Joseph paid the purchase price, the marriage covenant was thereby established. At that point Joseph and Mary were regarded to be husband and wife, even though no physical union had taken place. The paying of the dowry created a legally binding relationship. Even before his marriage to Mary, Joseph was called her husband (Matthew 1:19). Note: Before marriage Jacob called Rachel “my wife” Genesis 29:21, cp. Deuteronomy 22:23-24: “his neighbor’s wife” cp. 2 Samuel 3:14 “give me my wife Michal, to whom I was betrothed.”

BETROTHAL BENEDICTION: The moment the covenant was established, Mary was declared to be set apart exclusively for Joseph. Then Joseph and Mary drank from a cup over which the betrothal benediction had been pronounced. This symbolized that the covenant relationship had been established.

BETROTHAL PERIOD: After the marriage covenant was in effect, Joseph left Mary’s house and returned to his father’s house. He remained there for a period of twelve months, separated from his bride. During this period of separation, Mary gathered her wardrobe and prepared for married life. Joseph was busy preparing living accommodations in his father’s house for his bride. Matthew 1:18 states that “Mary had been betrothed to Joseph.” The verb “betrothed” in the active voice would signify to woo a woman and ask for her hand in marriage. But the verb here and also in Luke 1:27, 2:5 is in the passive voice, describing this period of being set apart and promised in marriage, (“espoused” KJV).

15. Does Scripture illustrate a just divorce consistent with the “exception clause”? (Matthew 1:18-20; John 8:41,48) Matthew 1:18-20 says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband , being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away [Gr. apolusai =divorce] secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”‘ Joseph was considering divorcing Mary when he became aware of her pregnancy. Despite the apparent betrothal unfaithfulness he did not want to disgrace her publicly but was intending to divorce her privately. A writing of divorce was required to break this covenant arrangement. The angelic messenger from the Lord changed Joseph’s mind and he “took Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).

The Pharisees some 33 years later falsely accused Jesus of being illegitimate and the product of Mary’s unfaithfulness to Joseph during their betrothal period. Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles in John 8:39-41 was questioning the Pharisees as to whether they were truly descendants of Abraham. The text says, “They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham.’ 40 ‘But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.’ 41 ‘You are doing the deeds of your father’ They said to Him, ‘We were not born of fornication [Gr. porneia]; we have one Father: God.'” In John 8:41 they Pharisees sarcastically lash out and imply that He was the product of betrothal unfaithfulness and in John 8:48 they accuse Him of being a “Samaritan.'” They called the Holy Son of God an illegitimate bastard who had a demon and was the product Mary’s promiscuous behavior with some Gentile. If this had been true, Joseph had every right to divorce Mary.

16. How did the disciples react to Jesus’ teaching on divorce? (Matthew 19:10) The response of the disciples indicates that Jesus’ interpretation of Old Testament Scripture on divorce was much stricter than what they had imagined. The disciples were aware of the rabbinical schools. Their astonishment at Christ’s teaching would hardly be in order if He simply said, “You can only divorce for marital unfaithfulness.”

17. Why does Jesus use this occasion to address the topic of singleness? (Matthew 19:10-11; Genesis 2:18; 1 Corinthians 7:7-9; 9:5) Based on the disciples’ response in Matthew 19:10, it appears that the disciples were considering a life of singleness if divorce wasn’t an option. Jesus used this occasion to address singleness because the general rule is that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Although the disciples concluded, “it is better not to marry,” Jesus said, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.” The Apostle Paul talked about being given “the gift of singleness” or “celibacy” in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 “For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. 8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Although the disciples boasted of remaining single they all married except Barnabas and Paul (1 Corinthians 9:5-6 cp. Mark 1:30).

18. What three categories of singleness does Jesus mention in Matthew 19:12? “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mothers 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…'”

  1. First “are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.” These are people who are born with congenital deformities that involve undeveloped sexual capacity.
  2. Second “are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men,” such as were male harem guards of that day. In some ancient religions, castration was considered a way of pleasing and serving a pagan deity and parents sometimes even had their infant sons castrated for that purpose. Obviously castrated men do not have normal desires for a woman.
  3. Third are “eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Unlike the other two forms, this one is not physical. Mutilation of the flesh in order to please God is a purely pagan idea. Jesus is speaking of the voluntary celibacy of those to whom that gift has been granted by God (Matthew 19:11). In that case, celibacy can indeed be for the sake of the kingdom of God and be pleasing to Him and used by Him.

19. What does Jesus command a person to do with the gift of singleness? (Matthew 19:12) Jesus said “He who is able to accept this, let him accept it (present imperative).” Totally embrace it and continually use it to advance the kingdom. The word “accept” has the basic idea of making room or space for something. Metaphorically it means to completely embrace an idea or principle with the heart and mind so that it becomes part of one’s very nature. Singleness cannot be wholeheartedly accepted simply by human willpower or sincerity. Nor can it be successfully lived out simply by applying the right biblical principles. Celibate singleness is a kind of spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 7:7) and only those to whom it has been given can hope to spiritually survive in it, much less find happiness and be effective in the Lord’s service.

20. What is this gift to be exclusively used for? (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35) 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 says, “But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; 33 but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. 35 This I say for your own benefit; not to put a restraint upon you, but to promote what is appropriate and to secure undistracted devotion to the Lord.”

21. What areas of compatibility are non-negotiable when evaluating a potential marriage partner? (1 Corinthians 7:39; 9:5; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Amos 3:3) Spiritual compatibility is a non-negotiable for a Christian single looking for a mate. When Christians marry unbelievers they forfeit a common treasure found in a relationship with Christ, they also miss out on a common blueprint (the Bible), common strength, and common values. The following verses require a believer to marry a believer.

  1. “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:30).
  2. “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5)
  3. “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14)
  4. “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3)

The answers to the questions above have been drawn from the following resources:

  1. Serendipity Bible for Groups by: Serendipity House, Zondervan Publishing House, 1998
  2. Rebuilders Guide by: Bill Gothard, Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, 1992
  3. Rebuilders Supplement by: Bill Gothard, Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, 1978.
  4. When You’re Serious About Love: straight talk to single adults by: Kay Kuzma Here’s Life Publishers, 1992
  5. The Divorce Myth: A Biblical Examination of Divorce and Remarriage by: J. Carl Laney, Bethany House Publications, 1981
  6. Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce by: John MacArthur Jr., Word of Grace Communications, 1983.
  7. Lawfully Wedded by: Ronald Showers, Philadelphia College of Bible, 1983
  8. Meant to Last: A Christian view of marriage, divorce and remarriage by: Paul E. Steele and Charles C. Ryrie, Victor Books, 1986
  9. Call it Love or Call it Quits: The single’s guide to meaningful relationships by: Tim Timmons, and Charlie Hedges, Word Publishing, 1988.
  10. Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 135 No. 539 July-Sept 1978. Theological Quarterly published by Dallas Theological Seminary. “Cultural Aspects of Marriage in the Ancient World,” Edwin M. Yamauchi pg. 241-252
  11. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by: W.E.Vine, Thomas Nelson Publishers, pp.114, 371, 908.
  12. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Vol.3, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956, pp.1996-1999.
  13. The Jewish Encyclopedia, “Betrothal,” Editor: Isidore Singer, Funk & Wagnals Company, 1907.
  14. The Role of Women in the Church, “The Teaching on Divorce,” by: Charles Ryrie, Moody Press, 1958, pp.40-50.
  15. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by: Gerhard Kittle, translated by Geoffrey Bromley, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1967.
  16. The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia – “Marriage,” by: Isaac Landman, Universal Publishing House, 1948.
  17. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible Vol. 4 by: Merrill C. Tenny, Zondervan Publishing Company, 1975, pp.92-102.

On Divorce: 1

Matthew 19:7–10 / If divorce runs counter to the divine intention, then why, asked the Pharisees, did Moses give the law allowing a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away? Is Moses guilty of writing laws that run counter to the mind of God? Such an idea would be blasphemous in the religious culture of first-century Judaism. Jesus answers that Moses’ injunction regarding divorce came as a result of their hardness of heart. Williams translates, “It was because of your moral perversity that Moses allowed you to divorce” (Matthew 19:8). But that was not what was intended in the beginning. Actually, the requirement of a written notice of divorce made the process more difficult. Prior to that time a marriage could be dissolved by the man simply declaring it to be so. A written notice would give time for anger to dissipate and common sense to regain control.

Jesus continues by pointing out that whoever divorces his wife for any cause other than marital infidelity and marries another is guilty of adultery (Matthew 19:9). In the parallel passage in Matthew 5:32, divorce is said to cause the woman who is put away to commit adultery. In the culture of that day a divorced woman would very easily find herself trapped into a life of prostitution. In the present passage it is the man who commits adultery by remarriage. The point is that in God’s sight the man who divorces his wife for any cause other than her unfaithfulness is still married to her.

If that’s the case between a man and his wife, respond the disciples, then it would be better not to marry at all. The difficulty of achieving a perfect marriage becomes an argument against marriage itself.

On Singleness: 2

Matthew 19:11–12 / Jesus’ response to his disciples’ conclusion about marriage is that not all men are able to accept, “to make room,” thus, in a mental sense, “to comprehend or accept,” BAGD, p. 890) this saying, but only those “who have the gift.” Commentators differ as to what this teaching refers to. Some take it as a response to the disciples’ saying in the previous verse. For example, Knox translates, “That conclusion … cannot be taken in by everybody.” The problem here, however, is that God is held as agreeing with the disciples’ conclusion that it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:10). This runs counter to the divine intention in creation (Genesis 1:28).

It is better to take Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:11 as referring to his teaching on divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:3–9. Not everyone is able to accept his strict position on the subject, but only those to whom it [the ability to accept] has been given. It is not a question of whether or not a person should refrain from marriage for the sake of evangelism or because the end of all things is not far off. The issue has to do with true disciples who have had to divorce their wives for immorality and “out of obedience to Christ’s law concerning divorce they do not remarry” (Gundry, pp. 381–82). Those who cannot or do not accept the teaching are non-disciples and false disciples.

There are several reasons why men do not marry (or are unsuited for marriage). Some have been disabled from birth. Others were made that way by men (Matthew 19:12). It was not uncommon for servants in the royal harems to be castrated in order to protect the women. Also, in certain Mediterranean cults priests dedicated themselves to a mother goddess by self-emasculation (Beare, p. 391). Origen, one of the most influential thinkers of the early church, castrated himself, although in time he came to realize his error.

A third type of eunuch is the man who has renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. This is voluntary celibacy, and, if one follows Gundry’s argument, these are those who “live as eunuchs after they have had to divorce their wives for immorality” (p. 382). So Jesus concludes, The one who can accept this (teaching on divorce and remarriage) should accept it. It is the mark of a true disciple to live in obedience to God’s best intention for human beings.

1 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (p. 181). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
2 Mounce, R. H. (2011). Matthew (pp. 181–182). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Question: “Is remarriage after divorce always adultery?” 3

Before we even begin to answer this question, let us reiterate, “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). The pain, confusion, and frustration most people experience after a divorce are surely part of the reason that God hates divorce. Even more difficult, biblically, than the question of divorce, is the question of remarriage. The vast majority of people who divorce either remarry or consider getting remarried. What does the Bible say about this?

Matthew 19:9 says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” See also Matthew 5:32. These Scriptures clearly state that remarriage after a divorce is adultery, except in the instance of “marital unfaithfulness.”

It is our view that there are certain instances in which divorce and remarriage are permitted without the remarriage being considered adultery. These instances would include unrepentant adultery, physical abuse of spouse or children, and abandonment of a believing spouse by an unbelieving spouse. We are not saying that a person under such circumstances should remarry. The Bible definitely encourages remaining single or reconciliation over remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:11). At the same time, it is our view that God offers His mercy and grace to the innocent party in a divorce and allows that person to remarry without it being considered adultery.

A person who gets a divorce for a reason other than the reasons listed above, and then gets remarried has committed adultery (Luke 16:18). The question then becomes, is this remarriage an “act” of adultery, or a “state” of adultery. The present tense of the Greek in Matthew 5:32; 19:9; and Luke 16:18 can indicate a continuous state of adultery. At the same time, the present tense in Greek does not always indicate continuous action. Sometimes it simply means that something occurred (Aoristic, Punctiliar, or Gnomic present). For example, the word “divorces” in Matthew 5:32 is present tense, but divorcing is not a continual action. It is our view that remarriage, no matter the circumstances, is not a continual state of adultery. Only the act of getting remarried itself is adultery.

In the Old Testament Law, the punishment for adultery was death (Leviticus 20:10). At the same time, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 mentions remarriage after a divorce, does not call it adultery, and does not demand the death penalty for the remarried spouse. The Bible explicitly says that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), but nowhere explicitly states that God hates remarriage. The Bible nowhere commands a remarried couple to divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 does not describe the remarriage as invalid. Ending a remarriage through divorce would be just as sinful as ending a first marriage through divorce. Both would include the breaking of vows before God, between the couple, and in front of witnesses.

No matter the circumstances, once a couple is remarried, they should strive to live out their married lives in fidelity, in a God-honoring way, with Christ at the center of their marriage. A marriage is a marriage. God does not view the new marriage as invalid or adulterous. A remarried couple should devote themselves to God, and to each other – and honor Him by making their new marriage a lasting and Christ-centered one (Ephesians 5:22-33).

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[Based on my classes with Richard D. Leineweber, Jr. c. 2000]

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