Matthew 19:1-12Theme: An unbreakable covenant.This week’s lessons teach us about the permanence of marriage. LessonThere is one other interesting point to be considered. Mark also has a discussion of this issue (in Mark 10:1-12), but the exception clause that has been the cause of so much controversy does not appear in Mark. Matthew is the only Gospel that has it. Why is that? Some liberal commentators (and even some conservative ones) argue that Mark’s version of this saying is the original one and that Matthew added the exception because of divorce problems in the church of his day. That is hardly satisfactory.
Isn’t it more reasonable to explain the addition, which Jesus certainly spoke, by noting that Matthew is also the only Gospel to record the reaction of Joseph when he learned of Mary’s being pregnant. Matthew wrote, “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). Joseph and Mary were not married though they were formally engaged, which was nearly as binding, and Joseph wanted to annul the engagement, which was regarded as a divorce, when he learned that Mary was expecting a child. If someone read that, followed by Jesus’ statement in the nineteenth chapter that any divorce was wrong, the reader might conclude that Joseph was willing to break the law by what he planned to do. Matthew included the explanation to explain what had happened in the case of Jesus’ parents.2
Chastity before marriage, fidelity after marriage, and a lifelong commitment of one married partner to the other with no thought of divorce! What a terribly high standard! No wonder the disciples reacted with the cynical comment I referred to at the beginning of this study: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). We hear something very much like that today, young people often declaring, “I have never known a happily married couple; I am not going to get married.”
The obvious answer to such cynicism is to model happy marriages, which Christians can do in spite of the sin that mars even Christian marriages and the need for repeated forgiveness that any close relationship entails. But strikingly, this is not the answer Jesus gives. Instead of reassuring the disciples that it is possible to have a happy marriage and instructing them on how they might achieve it, Jesus responded by saying that it is in fact better for some not to marry, if this is what they are called to do by God. Jesus refers to those who are unable to marry because of a physical lack or deformity and to others who are called to renounce marriage “because of the kingdom of heaven” (v. 12).
This is what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7, where he advised remaining single “because of the present crisis” (v. 26). He was thinking of difficult missionary work and was acknowledging that it might be better done by single people than by those who are encumbered by a family. Yet he added that there is nothing wrong with getting married (v. 28). Jesus spoke to the disciples as he did because they were being given the same high calling.
That is the essence of Christ’s teaching. It is consistent with the Bible’s teaching as a whole, and there is no legitimate way of getting around it.
2 The interpretation of verse 9 and its “exception clause” is discussed at length in some of the major commentaries. An example is D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, Matthew, Mark, Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), pp. 412-418. But fuller treatments can be found in books dealing with divorce and remarriage issues specifically, for example, J. Carl Laney, The Divorce Myth (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1981).
To what does the exception clause actually refer? For what reason is this clause most likely written only in Matthew and not in Mark’s account?
Why might Jesus say that it is better for some not to marry?
Why did Jesus discuss the reasons not to marry with the disciples rather than telling them how two people can work at achieving a happy marriage?
Key PointChastity before marriage, fidelity after marriage, and a lifelong commitment of one married partner to the other with no thought of divorce! [That is what the Scriptures require.]
Holiday Sale! Starting tomorrow, July 4th, through Monday, July 7th, we will have Dr. James Boice’s commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, on sale. Read tomorrow’s devotional for details!
Exciting changes are coming to Think and Act Biblically! James Boice’s ministry continues today in multiple media formats, and the Think and Act Biblically devotional is only one. Starting Monday, July 7th, we will be syncing the radio broadcast The Bible Study Hour with this devotional. That means that the message you can listen to on Sunday will be expanded and further exegeted throughout the following week. Keep your eyes open for that change, and listen to The Bible Study Hour!