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The Bond of Marriage
1When Jesus had finished saying these things, He left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.
3Some Pharisees came to Him to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce His wife for any and every reason?”
4“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”
7“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
8Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
10The disciples said to Him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Jesus was once again on the move: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, He left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there” (vss. 1–2). Although, this seems like a typical transitional sentence of Matthew’s, there is some significance here: Jesus is leaving Galilee, never to return, until after His resurrection. Much of His time of ministry and teaching was spent in Galilee. With His departure from there, we are moving on to the climax of the history of Jesus’ life on earth, as Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem.
“Some Pharisees came to Him to test Him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce His wife for any and every reason’” (vs. 3). These Pharisees “came to Jesus”; sadly, they came to Him for all the wrong reasons. They came to “test Him”, rather than to be ministered to by Him, rather than to learn from His great wisdom, rather than to be healed by Him, rather than to be saved by Him. “They came with a question, but they were not genuinely looking for information; they were testing Jesus, posing a question that they hoped He would not be able to answer satisfactorily” [Carson, 479]. You know you are far gone when you go to the Lord of the Universe, not to find answers, but to try to trip Him up.
Then as now, the Pharisees’s question on “divorce”, was a delicate and controversial question. It seems that any answer Jesus could give was bound to offend someone. Men would be offended if divorce was disallowed; women would be offended if divorce was too easy. Answering this question could even be dangerous, as John the Baptist found out. John was imprisoned (and eventually beheaded) because of his outspokenness with regard to King Herod’s marital situation (see Matt. 14:1–12).
It seems at that time, divorce was fairly prevalent, even among the Pharisees [Carson, 411]. For instance, Josephus the historian and Pharisee, who lived in the first century AD, was a divorcee. In fact, some of his comments on the law echo the question found here by the Pharisees. Josephus wrote: “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more” [Antiq. IV, 253]. Today, sadly, we have the same attitude about marriage, even within the church. Divorce is by and large accepted, even approved, for any and every reason. One could even imagine, if Jesus were walking the earth today, the same question being asked of Him.
So, what did Jesus say? He answered: “‘Haven’t you read,’ He replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female,” and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate’” (vss. 4–6). On matters of the Law, Jesus always referred to the Old Testament. “Let those who reverence the authority of Christ mark the divine authority which He ascribes to the Old Testament in general, and to the books of Moses in particular, in the settlement of all questions of divine truth and human duty” [JFB]. “Jesus refers to the account in Genesis as historical fact and bases His argument on literal expressions found therein” [Thomas, 278].
Here, Jesus cites as authority the earliest mention of marriage in the Bible. “If the sanctity of the marriage-tie, as the fountain of all social well-being, is to be upheld among men, it must be by basing it on the original divine institution of it” [JFB]. The essence of biblical marriage is that God Himself, the “Creator”, has “made them male and female”, and once “united” by marriage, the “Creator” makes them “one flesh”. With this view, to divorce would be equivalent to and as radical as ripping your arm off your body, for man and wife are “one flesh”. Jesus underscores this: “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (vs. 6). Marriage, then, in its Godly ideal, is indissolvable. “Jesus cites Scripture, then, to bring out the truth that marriage is more than a casual arrangement for the convenience of the two parties. It is the closest of earthly unities, and must be understood so” [Morris, 481]. “If God has joined them together, according to the structure of His own creation, divorce is not only ‘unnatural’ but rebellion against God” [Carson, 412].
The Pharisees follow up with another question: “‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’” (vs. 7). The passage in Moses’ law to which the Pharisees are referring is in Deuteronomy 24: “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance” (Deut. 24:1–4, AV).
Jesus answers their question: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (vss. 8–9). Jesus teaches us that the passage in Deuteronomy was not sanctioning divorce, but rather defining a procedure for divorce, should it occur. To divorce, a man must write a certificate of divorce. This certificate freed the wife to marry another man. The law also stipulated that the woman was not allowed to remarry the first man. This procedure was a protection for women. If the husband, through the hardness of his heart, divorced the woman for a trivial reason, she would be able to remarry without blame (assuming she was not guilty of marital unfaithfulness). “What the Pharisees call a command was only an allowance, and designed rather to restrain the exorbitances of it than to give countenance to the thing itself. The Jewish doctors themselves observe such limitations in that law, that it could not be done without great deliberation. A particular reason must be assigned, the bill of divorce must be written, and, as a judicial act, must have all the solemnities of a deed, executed and enrolled. It must be given into the hands of the wife herself, and (which would oblige men, if they had any consideration in them, to consider) they were expressly forbidden ever to come together again” [Henry]
The Pharisees, as teachers of the Law, should have realized, through the study of other passages in the Old Testament writings, that the procedure proscribed by Moses was not a sanction of divorce. For instance, God clearly states: “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel” (Malachi 2:16). Jesus was “calling on His hearers to take seriously the Scripture that they professed to respect. If they did this they would realize that marriage was a much more binding relationship than they were making it. The typical attitude of the people of that time had reduced a God-given unity to a casual union, dissolvable at the whim of the male. This was not what Scripture meant when it spoke of what God did at the creation” [Morris, 482].
Jesus offers one and only one reason for divorce: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (vs. 9). The uniting in marriage of two into one flesh is tainted by marital unfaithfulness, for the unfaithful spouse becomes united with another. Jesus, therefore, releases the faithful spouse from the obligation of staying married, and allows that the faithful spouse may marry another without guilt.
Unfortunately, pre-marital sex, divorce, and even adultery are prevalent in today’s society. One reason for this is that those of the world treat sex as just a physical act. However, the sexual union is not just a physical act. It is a mystical bond, forever uniting the participants. Thus, even pre-marital sex can be harmful to a future marriage, tainting the union of the married couple. We Christians must be an example to those of the world, and follow Jesus’ instructions on sex and marriage. We must resist the temptation of joining in the sexual union before marriage. There are rewards to resisting this temptation. The eventual marriage bond is greatly strengthened by the faithfulness of both participants. There is no bond stronger—the uniting into one flesh by God—no love deeper than that of married spouses whose only life-long sexual partner is their spouse.
Given the irrevocability of the marriage vows, we must never enter into marriage lightly. Those who are planning to be married must understand clearly the permanence of marriage. “It is clear, from the whole tenor of the passage, that the relation of marriage ought to be highly reverenced and honoured among Christians. It is a relation which was instituted in paradise, in the time of man’s innocency, and is a chosen figure of the mystical union between Christ and His Church: it is a relation which nothing but death ought to terminate. It is a relation which is sure to have the greatest influence on those whom it brings together, for happiness or for misery, for good or for evil. Such a relation ought never to be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, but soberly, discreetly, and with due consideration” [Ryle, 235].
The disciples had a comment about this teaching of their Lord: “The disciples said to Him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry’” (vs. 10). “The remark made by our Lord’s disciples shows the deplorably low state of public feeling on the subject” [Ryle, 234]. This comment by Jesus’ disciples reflects that the ease of divorce was a relief to the men of the time. Clearly, they did not view marriage as a permanent bond. Moreover, if given the choice to accept the permanence of marriage, or to not marry, the disciples would choose not to marry.
The disciples, in a way, point out what all married people know: marriage is difficult; to stay married is a difficult thing; to live intimately with the same person for the rest of one’s life requires constant acts of commitment. A good marriage is not so much a state of existence, as it is a series of chores to maintain the good marriage. A good marriage requires work on the part of both spouses. It is our Lord’s command to stay married. And this we must do. It is a command for our good, and for the good of society. For us individually, there is nothing better and more stabilizing than having a permanent ally, a partner in love, someone to trust, to talk to, to pray with, to share life with. For society, it is well known that children raised in a stable family are more likely to become productive members of society.
Jesus replied to the disciples’ remark: “Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it’” (vs. 12). Jesus’ reply to the disciples is, basically, if you can’t accept that marriage is permanent, then don’t get married. If you can accept it, then do get married. Marriage is optional. Some are “born eunuchs”, i.e. not made for marriage. Some “have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven”, i.e., they have voluntarily decided not to get married in order to serve God more effectively.