Jesus's Response to a Dicey Test: Matthew 19:1-12 (Sermon)




INTRODUCTION 

Thank you, worship team. Happy New Year! We are going back to our series in Matthew, picking up where we left off, preaching verse by verse, chapter by chapter. That has strengths and weaknesses. Overall, it has more strengths than weaknesses. I say that because preaching topically, we would likely avoid subjects like the one for the morning. In our text, the Pharisees test Jesus. They already conspired about how they might destroy him in Matthew chapter 12, verse 14. Today, the test is on a contentious topic: divorce. There may have been some earnest curiosity in their questioning. The dialogue was significant enough for three of the four biographers of Jesus to include it.

OUR DAY

In our day and age, divorce impacts many of us, some more than others. Thirty to fifty percent of first marriages in America end in divorce. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/legal/divorce/divorce-statistics/#sources_section. Divorce has hurt many. Children have parents who are divorced. Parents have kids who are divorced. And some here are divorced. The knight in shining armor can become a nightmare. The fairy tale can become a tragedy. Sin wreaks havoc in relationships. Some wrestle with guilt, shame, fear, and bitterness. We may have questions about these conflict-ridden relationships. We may wonder why it happens. You may be thinking about a divorce yourself. This passage is here to offer some help, and so is the church.  

CHURCH

The church is more than a building; it is a community of love, grace, truth, and healing. At least it should be. Together, we can humbly seek answers and offer charity and kindness where we typically find distance, division, selfishness, and sin. 

ORGANIZATION 

This morning, we will read the Bible and pray. I will share the context, structure, and point Jesus made and draw some implications. When answering questions, we don’t have time for every question. Jesus doesn’t. And I am certainly not Jesus. The Bible is not a policy manual. I want to stick as close to the text as possible. Let’s zero in on what Jesus says and try to figure out why. The danger with a text like this is that we all have frameworks in which we understand the world. We can easily read into the text something that is not there. 

QUESTIONS

Feel free to continue the conversation with me later. The fact that I am leaving for India in a few hours was not intentional, but it is convenient. Would you please put up project Mike’s home phone number and email? All joking aside, I have studied this. Each of us pastors has experience with family members’ divorce. If you want to hear pastor Mike’s take, he is preaching at Converge today. The elders have a paper on the topic called a Commitment to Preserving Marriages. We will have copies at the back. We have been praying for this service and care for you. We value marriage and want to see people flourish. Our society, like the ancient one, doesn’t. With that, let’s dive in. I am going to have R.K. read for us. Would you please stand with me if you can honor God’s Word?   

TEXT


Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 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.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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.” 

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 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 19:1–12, ESV)


PRAYER

Ok, let’s pray. Dear God, I need your grace. This is a painful issue for many. We need to know how to understand your Word, obey it, and have the motivation to follow through. Help us; in Jesus’s name, we pray. AMEN. You may be seated. I will ask a few people to pray for my words and our hearts as I preach. If you would be praying for that during the sermon, could you please raise your hand now? Thank you. 

Structure

Our passage breaks down into three sections. 

1-2 The Setting - On the Way to Jerusalem 

3-9 The Question of Divorce by the Pharisees’ and Jesus’s Answer 

10-12 The Disciples’ Statement About Celibacy and Jesus’s Response 

Main Idea 

The entire book of Matthew is about following the promised king into his kingdom. And this passage is no different. It is about following God with the gifts of marriage and singleness. The primary purpose is to have us assess our hearts about God and our significant others. We can sum it up in two parts: First, the gift of marriage and singleness reflects the heart. Second, we must assess our hearts in our relationship with God and others. Let me repeat that for those of you taking notes. 

  1. The gift of marriage and singleness reflects the heart, 

  2. We must assess our hearts in relationship with God and others. 

Let’s work through the text verse by verse to see this.

SETTING 

1-2 The Setting - On the Way to Jerusalem 

Verses 1 and 2 describe the setting. We will only spend a little bit of time on this. Look at verses 1 and 2, please. 


Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. (Matthew 19:1–2, ESV)


Scholars think the “region beyond the Jordan” was the east side of the Jordan River, called Perea. Remember, Galilee is a lake in the northern part of Israel. The Jordan is a river that runs north to south on the eastern edge of the nation. Jesus was heading to Jerusalem. This was not the direct route. The direct route would take him through a region called Samaria. Those in Samaria heard Jesus wanted to pass through and decided they didn’t want him to do that. So, he didn’t. The people in these verses are Jesus, the crowd, the religious leaders, and the disciples. Jesus has been ministering to the crowds since chapter 4. Jesus was healing, teaching, and talking about the kingdom of God to these groups. People gathered from all walks of life and all parts of the country to hear, see, and experience him. The crowds may have been as large as 12-15k people. Twice, he fed that many miraculously. He walked on water and could calm a storm with a word. He healed paralysis, blindness, deafness, muteness, and skin disease. He could cast out demons and raise the dead. This event happened before the Jewish holiday called Passover and the death of Jesus. The tension in this short biography was building. 

THE TEST

That brings us to the test in verse 3. 

1-2 The Setting - On the Way to Jerusalem 

3-9 The Question of Divorce by the Pharisees’ and Jesus’s Answer 

Look at verse 3.  

“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’” (Matthew 19:3, ESV).  

What do you notice? Their track record would indicate that they don’t want him to pass the pop quiz. In John chapter 8, they do something similar with the hope of “bringing a charge against him.” This would be like putting a person on the witness stand and asking loaded questions to make them look bad, or the inquisitor look good. Perhaps the Pharisees were looking to alienate Jesus from his base that sympathized with John the Baptist, who died because of his stance on the issue of divorce and remarriage. But there is a more likely motivation; they hotly debated this subject and wanted his take. 

RESPONSE 

Look at verses 4 through 6 to hear Jesus’s response. 


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, ESV)


Jesus went back to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. He cited that God made man and woman in his image. God wonderfully designed maleness and femaleness from the start. Both men and women bear his image. God unites them in the bonds of matrimony for life. 

COMMAND 

Jesus dared to ask the teachers of the Law if they had read the first book of the Law and the first two chapters. They had the wrong starting point. They should ask what God intended for the gift of marriage, not asking, “Where is the line?” Remember the big idea here: 


  1. The gift of marriage and singleness reflects the heart, 

  2. We must assess our hearts in relationship with God and others. 


In addition, Jesus finished by commanding them, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” In saying this, he raised himself to the level of the lawgiver. He was not like any other teacher, prophet, or priest. He had the authority of God behind his words. What was he getting at? He didn’t answer their question. This seems to make the Pharisees, and the disciples, for that matter, uncomfortable. 

THE PHARISEES ISSUE 

The Pharisees pressed the issue. Look at verse 7. 

“They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’” (Matthew 19:7, ESV).  

They refer to Deuteronomy 24, verses 1 through 4. Turn there if you have a Bible. We will get back to Matthew chapter 19 soon. This passage is complicated. So, I will read it slowly. Deuteronomy is in the 5th book of the Bible. We are in the 24th chapter.   


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. (Deuteronomy 24:1–4, ESV)


TWO SCHOOLS 

Two schools of thought existed: one Hillel and the other Shammai. Both Hillel and Shammai were teachers of the Law during the reign of King Herod from 37 to 4 BC. 


One of their differences is how they interpret the word “indecency” in verse 1. The school of Shammai thought it meant unchastity or sexual immorality. “The School of Hillel understood the passage to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any cause, even burning his toast” https://www.evidenceunseen.com/bible-difficulties-2/nt-difficulties/matthew/mt-193-12-is-adultery-the-only-reason-for-divorce-are-other-reasons-permitted/#_ftn5. In both cases divorce was okay, and presumed remarriage. R.T. France wrote: 


On this basis subsequent Jewish teaching developed a detailed body of legal teaching on divorce; a whole tractate of the Mishnah, Giṭṭin, is devoted to provisions for a valid divorce certificate. Divorce was, of course, purely a male prerogative, which required no legal hearing, merely the husband’s decision; Jewish law made no provision for a woman to initiate divorce. (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 207)


They wanted Jesus’s perspective. Which side was he on? 

REMARRIAGE DO THE DIVORCE

Ancient Israel was a very different culture than ours. You can tell. Why did Deuteronomy 24 prohibit remarriage to the divorced spouse? That seems odd. Deuteronomy seems more of a cultural rule for protection than a hard and fast policy. We have beautiful examples of people returning to their first marriage in our church history. On the flip side, I know a family with immense hurt because of going against this passage. How might this prohibition be a rule of protection?

I read that in Biblical times, the bride’s family gave a dowry away to the husband and his family. She would have a dowry for the first and second marriage. The second husband would get a smaller dowry. If he were to die, the previous husband could not marry the woman to obtain the second dowry and continue to mistreat his first wife. Yet, how do we deal with the abomination part? I do not know. I can see how the Pharisees had questions. I want answers. But we do know that marriage can be messy and is always valuable. We should not take it lightly or take it out with the trash. We don’t want to cheapen it. I think our society has devalued it. It values the wedding day but not the marriage. How much do you think the average wedding cost in America in 2023? [I read that it cost $29,000]. Faith, no ideas. https://www.cnn.com/2023/05/31/business/wedding-costs-rise-2023/index.html#:~:text=But%20engaged%20couples%20will%20pay,online%20wedding%20planning%20site%20Zola. Jesus is going back to the beginning to remind us of two things: 


  1. The gift of marriage and singleness reflect the heart, 

  2. We must assess our hearts in relationship with God and others. 

JESUS’S RESPONSE 

Let’s get back to Matthew 19. Look at verse 8.

“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’” (Matthew 19:8, ESV).

Jesus corrected them that Moses allowed divorce, not command it. (Now, we cannot make too much of the words “command” and “allow” because Jesus used the word “command” in Mark the Pharisees used “allow”). But we can assert that just because your spouse doesn’t live up to the standard God would have for him or her, it doesn’t mean you have to get a divorce. 

MOSES

So where is the line? When can we get a divorce? Do you want to know? I do. Jesus wasn’t saying Moses was wrong. He was saying, 

  • Marriage is between one man and one woman 

  • For life, and

  • Sin messes it up. 

Once Jesus goes to the heart, the message applies to everyone. Where is our heart regarding God and others? The word heart is a compound word only found once in Matthew. He used the word heart fifteen times. It is a theme of Jesus. Jesus wants us to have humble, loving hearts, not dull, evil, hate-filled hearts. God’s design for us is to love him with all our heart and love our neighbors as ourselves. If we did that, there would be no divorce. 

So where is our heart? Are we fantasizing about inappropriate relationships? Are we treating the opposite sex with brotherly and sisterly respect and kindness or as objects and condescension? Are we content with the spouse God has given, or are we bitter and annoyed? Are we thankful? Do we pray for them? 

AND I SAY TO YOU

Jesus was not done. Look at verse 9. 

“And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, ESV). 

He was declaring that divorce results in adultery. To be candid, that is also confusing. What did he mean? Jesus was saying that just because we go through a legal or religious ceremony or separate to dissolve a marriage doesn’t make it so. You could still be married to your x. So, if you are still married but playing married with another, what do we call that? Adultery.

PERSIST? 

Here is a dicey follow up dilemma: Does adultery persist if you remain in a new marriage? Or, do you divorce and go back to the previous marriage and live in sin in regards to Deuteronomy 24? This seems to be a catch 22. This is messy. I would say, acknowledge your sin. Sin no more. Follow God in love, faithfulness, forgiveness, mercy, and grace where he leads. Feel free again to talk with me, another pastor, or an elder afterward. Jesus gives no easy answers and nor can I. 

EXCEPTION CLAUSE 

What about the exception that Jesus made? Is it okay to divorce because of sexual immorality? The biographies of Jesus by Mark and Luke don’t mention this. Some would say that indicates there is no exception based on how Matthew uses Greek differently. Others, like myself, disagree. Matthew seems to fill in more explanation in his biography. It makes more sense that Mark and Luke don’t mention it because it is obvious. How was that an exception? Following this, the consequence in the Old Testament for sexual sin was death. The community was supposed to stone them to death. God’s Word teaches that the covenant bond of marriage is over upon death, and one is free to marry again. 

ABANDONMENT 

Keeping with our inquisitive minds, are there other exceptions? What about abandonment or abuse? I don’t think Jesus was exhaustive in his treatment of divorce. He was dealing with the heart. 


  1. The gift of marriage and singleness reflects the heart, 

  2. We must assess our hearts in relationship with God and others. 


Paul understood the same Law and Jesus’s teaching. He gave abandonment as a reason for divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians, chapter 7. When it comes to some forms of abuse, it would seem like the covenant bond is over as well. But, all of a sudden, we start sounding like the Pharisees trying to create a lengthy prescription for what we can and cannot do. We want to know where the line is. Why? What is going on in us that we want an answer? Could God have purposely baked ambiguity into the text to drive us deeper to him and a way of love, forgiveness, grace, and mercy? 

EACH SITUATION 

Each situation is unique, and we are dealing with messiness. That is why Jesus’s words about the heart are apropos. Where is love and forgiveness in the heart? Where is grace and mercy in the heart? 

DISCIPLES 

The disciples miss this. They seem to want to throw marriage out altogether. This brings us to the third section. We have seen the setting in verses 1 and 2 and the Pharisees’ question about divorce in verses 3 through 9. Now, the disciples interact with Jesus about singleness in verses 10 through 12. 


1-2 The Setting - On the Way to Jerusalem 

3-9 The Question of Divorce by the Pharisees’ and Jesus’s Answer 

10-12 The Disciples’ Statement About Celibacy and Jesus’s Response


Look 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’” (Matthew 19:10, ESV). 

We don’t know if this was said in exasperation, jest, or a real consideration. Commentator R. T. France writes: 


This sounds like an instinctive reaction rather than a thought-out response, since in Jewish society at that time the possibility of remaining celibate was not a recognized option. With the one remarkable exception of Jesus himself, there is little evidence that mainstream Judaism contemplated the possibility of a man remaining unmarried; marriage and the fathering of children was regarded as a religious duty. But, ironical as the disciples’ words may have been intended to be, Jesus takes them as the basis for a serious response. (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, 722)


RESPONSE 

How did he answer the disciples? Go to verse 11.  

 

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, ESV)


Singleness is a gift some people receive from God, like marriage. This gift can come in three ways.

  1. First, some are born in such a way that they would have a defect, where they are not quite a man or woman. We might call this androgyny. I read that this affects 1 and 4500 to 1 and 2000 people. Those are eunuchs by birth. 

  2. Second, there is another way this happens. If you wanted to hire someone to take care of women or daughters in a household surgically, a person could do something to men and boys that make them what the Bible calls eunuchs. It will change their hormones, and they will not be attracted to women, and thus safer attendants. Those are the eunuchs made by men. 

  3. Finally, some chose this lifestyle. This group does it for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The Apostle Paul did it. Here is what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7. 


Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am [being single]. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. (1 Corinthians 7:6–7, ESV)


BENEFITS

Both are gifts from God. Both have benefits. Marriage is to help each other, community, pleasure, have children, and most importantly, the love relationship properly expressed demonstrates the love relationship between God and his people. The gift of celibacy is one of service unhindered by some of the necessary obligations of family life. 

APPLICATION 

So, what is your gift? Are you single or married? God gives you a calling. It may not be for life. Suffering happens. However, let us not be the one through whom suffering comes. Let us pursue soft, faithful hearts. Let us seek the Lord’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness. As I conclude, let us not be judgmental. Instead, let us be holy. How? Here are two questions pastor Mike came up with about this text: 

  • Are there ways God is adjusting how you view marriage, divorce, or singleness? 

  • Where do you find your heart hardened and resistant to God’s purposes? 

PRAY

Let’s pray.

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