The Book of Matthew

Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce – Part One


Matthew 19:1-12Theme: An unbreakable covenant.This week’s lessons teach us about the permanence of marriage. LessonWhom, therefore, God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” These are the words that end the most common form of marriage service used in Christian churches. They come just before the benediction. But men are “putting asunder,” and women too. The statistics tell us that nearly one in two marriages taking place in the United States today will end in divorce, and the statistics are not much better for Christian marriages. We see the evidence of decay all around us. What are we to make of these statistics, especially when we turn to the Bible and find that God requires chastity before marriage, fidelity afterward, and lifelong unions of wives and husbands without easy divorce as an escape?
When we compare our practices with God’s standards we might very well exclaim, as the disciples do in Matthew 19, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10).
But it is good to marry! The problem is not with the institution of marriage, since marriage is God’s idea. It was God who brought the first bride to the first groom in Eden, after all. Everything God does is good. The problem is sin or, to put it another way, it is with our hard hearts, which Jesus refers to explicitly in verse 8. Jesus said, referring to the Old Testament law about divorce (Deut. 24:1-4), “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.”
I am sure this is why, in Matthew’s Gospel, the long discussion of divorce in chapter 19 (vv. 1-12) follows immediately after the equally long discussion in chapter 18 (vv. 21-35) of the need of Christ’s followers to be forgiving of other people, knowing that they themselves have been forgiven much, much more by God. Marriage is the most intimate of all relationships. It is where the most piercing pain can be experienced. If follows that it is the relationship above all others that must be upheld by that “seventy-seven times” forgiveness about which Jesus speaks.
This important discussion of divorce and marriage was occasioned by a question the Pharisees asked Jesus. It was a question that had been debated seriously among the rabbis, but Matthew says here that it was asked “to test him” (v. 3). “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” they asked. Presumably they wanted to force Jesus to one side of the issue or the other, thereby automatically alienating him from at least half the Jewish leaders. But perhaps, knowing that Jesus was conservative in his views and was likely to oppose divorce, or at least easy divorces, they also wanted to brand him with a view they knew would be unpopular with the masses.
The discussion among the rabbis was over the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the only Old Testament passage that explicitly discusses divorce. It uses the words “something indecent” to describe what a man might find in his wife as a ground for his action. What does that refer to? And regardless of what it refers to, does the passage grant a husband the right to a divorce?1 The adherents of the Qumran sect judged all divorces to be wrong. The well-known Rabbi Shammai permitted divorce but only because of gross indecency, though he did not spell out clearly what that was. The equally well-known Rabbi Hillel permitted divorce for all kinds of offenses, even preparing bad meals. Hillel was the liberal spokesman on this matter; Shammai was the conservative.
1 Women had no rights of divorce; that was not even a question.
Study Questions

What is the problem causing the high divorce statistics in society today?
What is a possible reason this discussion of divorce follows the discussion on forgiveness?
Explain how the Pharisees’ particular question about divorce was posed as a “test” for Jesus?

Key PointMarriage is the most intimate of all relationships.

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