Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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An Exegesis of Matthew 19:1-9

The first nine verses of Matthew 19 make up as disputed a passage of scripture as any in our time. It is interesting to note that the conversation contained in the passage, a discourse between Jesus and some Pharisees who sought to “test” him, was likewise an outgrowth of great dispute among the Jews of that day.

There were two major schools of thought concerning divorce in the first century. One group, following the teaching of a rabbi named Hillel, contended that the law, (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), allowed a man to divorce his wife for any offense at all. The other main group, led by the teaching of a rabbi named Shammai, maintained (as reported by Albert Barnes in his commentary, page 194) “divorce was unlawful except in case of adultery.”

The Pharisees knew that whichever position Jesus took would bring objections from the “other” group. So, they asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (vs. 3).

In answering their query, Jesus did not appeal to either of the two leaders of the differing groups, but made his appeal to the Genesis account, penned by Moses centuries before. The simple answer to the question was a resounding NO! Using the creation account where Moses wrote that “the two become one flesh” as his basis, Jesus argued “So, then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (vs. 6).

Note that the term “join” or “cleave” (KJV), is defined, (in the original Hebrew of Genesis 2:24), as “to cling or adhere; cleave (fast together); be joined (together)” (Strong’s). It is a very strong term, (as is its Greek equivalent), and is further strengthened by Jesus’ statement that man has no right to sever what God has joined together.

The Pharisees felt the weight of Jesus’ argument, and so countered in verse 7, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” In emphasizing the process required by Moses in Deuteronomy 24, the Pharisees missed the point. As Jesus noted, the action of Moses on that occasion was an accommodation of their rebelliousness. “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” Jesus rightly pointed out that God’s original intention for the marriage relationship “but from the beginning it was not so”, was for man and woman, upon marrying, to remain together until death.

It must be noted that until this point in the discourse, the idea of remarriage has not been entertained. The Pharisees asked if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, and the Lord told them that the teaching of Moses did not allow it! When the Pharisees objected, appealing to Moses, Jesus’ refuted their argument and showed his original answer was valid. A man may not divorce his wife for any cause. Simply put, God intends for marriage to consist of one man and one woman for a lifetime.

Finally, Jesus by his own authority, “And I say unto you”, establishes the principal yet again, at the same time supplying the single exception which would allow a man, with God’s approval, to divorce his wife. Notice verse 9 in its entirety, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

Simply put, the only reason given by our Lord whereby a man may divorce his wife is for “sexual immorality.” It is important to note that the phrase “sexual immorality”, or “fornication” (KJV), comes from the greek term porneia, and refers to unlawful sexual intercourse. Lasciviousness or lewdness which falls short of the act of fornication, while definitely sinful and destructive to the marriage, can not be accurately placed in the category of porneia.

Jesus authorizes a man to divorce his wife, and further gives him the right to remarry (as necessarily implied in the verse) only if he divorces his wife for the cause of sexual immorality. He neither gives in this text, nor anywhere else in his teaching, another reason or cause whereby a man may divorce his wife. To quote the verse again, removing the exception clause, “…whoever divorces his wife, … and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”

The teaching was hard for the disciples, who responded to him by saying, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (vs. 10). And it is hard for individuals to accept today.

In our time, individuals are simply unwilling to accede to Jesus’ teaching on this matter. Marriage is not given the same respect as intended from the Creator in the beginning. Appeals are made to what is “fair”, and to God’s compassion and understanding, as an excuse to disregard the plain teaching of scripture. Such are saying, in effect, “Surely God would not want me to be unhappy… or to remain alone… or to break up a happy marriage to my third husband…”

Christians must respect God’s teaching on this matter. A man is bound to his wife, (and she to her husband), for life. Only if a spouse is guilty of fornication may the innocent divorce, and remarry with the blessing of our Savior. The Pharisees asked the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” Jesus answer was a resounding, “NO!”