Matthew: The Character of the Kingdom, Part 1: The Kingdom and Marriage

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on December 29, 1998

Matthew 19:1-12

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew 19.  Today we’re beginning a new study in the section of the gospel of Matthew.  Jesus has been speaking to his disciples, in an extended series of lessons and a discourse in Matthew, chapter 18.  Now, in Matthew 19, He’s left Galilee, He’s in the border regions of Judea just on the other side of the Jordan ministering to multitudes.  Let’s hear God’s word  in Matthew 19:  

“And it came about that when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.  And great multitudes followed Him and He healed them there.  And some Pharisees came to Him testing Him and saying, ‘Is it lawful to divorce his wife for any cause at all?’  And He answered and said, ‘Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning, made them male and female and said, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  Consequently, they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Let therefore what God has joined to together, let no man separate.”’  They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?’  He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it has not been this way.  And I say to you whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.  The disciples said to Him, ‘If the relationship to the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.’  But He said to them, Not all men can accept this statement; that only those whom it has been given, for there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb.  And there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven.  He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.”   

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired and inerrant Word.  May He add His blessing to it.  Let’s look to Him now in prayer. 

Our Heavenly Father, we come to You bowing before You, praising You for Your sovereign word.  We ask O Lord, that You would cause our hearts to bow before You as well in this area of all areas most tender and sensitive and personal, the area of troubled marriages.  We need, O Lord, to recognize Your authority.  This is difficult for us to do because it is painful, and yet we know that You write in Your word for our good as well as Your glory.  Help us to believe that, even now as we attend this hard passage.  For Christ’s sake, we ask it, Amen.   

The issue of divorce was a hot topic in Jesus’ day, and there is some evidence to suggest that divorce was of an epidemic proportion in that time, as it is in our own.

Divorce was a significant problem.  You will know the at least one name of a divorced Pharisee.  This will tell you that divorce was not only a problem amongst the common folks, but it was part of a problem of the clergy in Jesus’ time.  Have you ever heard the name Josephus, the famous writer of the Antiquities, and the Jewish War? He was a divorced Pharisee.  There was significant divorce even amongst the clergy of Israel and there were great differences among those clergy as to what the biblical views of marriage, divorce and remarriage was.  And so, as it was a controversial issue it is a controversial issue now. 

The statistics today tell us that in United States in the late 1990’s, the divorce rates are at least twice as high as in 1960.  In Mississippi the divorce rates have gone up three times what they were in 1960.  The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world.  At the present time approximately half of all marriages in the United States can be expected to end in divorce.  Divorce has tremendous repercussions for families, we know that, many of you who have gone through divorce know the impact that it has on a family.  The statistics are terrifying.  Divorce apparently has its most horrific ramifications on females, and on young daughters in those marriages, with regard to future marital stability.  A 1987 report showed that white women who were younger than sixteen when their parents were divorced or separated, were about sixty percent more likely to be divorced or separated themselves in their marriages.  And these statistics should disturb us, and concern us. 

There are all sorts of solutions that have been proposed.  I’m going to read a quote in a moment, and I’m going to ask you whom you think it came from.  Do you think this quote comes from a minister?  Does it come from a fundamentalist, a right-wing conservative organization?  Does it come from the American Family Association, or does it come from Focus on the Family?  You tell me where this quote comes from.  “Because of the shattering, emotional and developmental effect of divorce on children, it would be reasonable to introduce breaking mechanisms that require parents contemplating divorce to pause for reflection.”  This is a proposal that there be legal breaking mechanisms to slow the ability to get a divorce in our culture.  Where do you think that came from?  AFA?  Focus on the Family?  That is a statement penned by William Gallston and Elaine Kaymart, respectively the Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy and the Senior Policy Advisor to Vice-President Gore.  Let me read that again.  “Because of the shattering, and emotional, and developmental effects of divorce on children, it would be reasonable to introduce breaking mechanisms that would prepare parents contemplating divorce to pause to reflect.” 

Divorce is striking at the very fabric of our society.  And that debate was going on in Jesus’ time.  And the Pharisees in this passage take the opportunity to press Jesus on this matter to make Him articulate His views publicly.  And so I’d like to look at this passage with you. 

I want you bear in mind one thing before we do so.  When the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked Him this question, “Is it lawful for man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”  They could have cared less about the marriages that were involved.  They could have cared less about your marriage.  Their one goal and purpose was to catch Jesus Christ in a trap.  Their desire was to get Him involved in a controversy which would cause His reputation to suffer no matter what answer He gave.  And so they had no concern for your soul; whereas, throughout this passage Jesus shows every concern for your soul.  I’d like you to see two or three things as we look at this difficult passage together.       

I. Jesus cares for the people.
And the first thing you will see in verses 1 and 2 where Jesus is beginning His ministry in the border region of Judah just on the other side of the Jordan.  And what we learn in this very brief that Jesus is the one who truly cares about people.  And that is so important in light of the difficult things that He’s going to say in a few moments.  Jesus is going to have a view of marriage, divorce and remarriage which is, if we can use this language, more narrow than the view of Pharisees, all of them.  The Pharisees, whichever side they are on, are going to have a more relaxed view of the grounds for divorce.  And so Jesus is going to say some things that are unpopular.  But it is very important before we see what Jesus says, to see that Jesus is the one who truly cares about people.  It is not the Pharisees with their lack of views that care about your life and your soul.  It’s Jesus who is investing Himself in the ministries of people.

Notice where He is ministering.  He’s ministering in the border regions on the other side of the Jordan.  Now let me ask you this: Were the Pharisees out there ministering?  Were they out amongst the multitudes caring for their souls.  No, they were out there in order to catch Jesus in a trap.  Jesus was out there ministering to those people.  He was healing them.  They were following Him in multitudes, and He was giving His heart, His life, His soul, in His ministry to them.  It is important to understand that Jesus is no “pie in the sky,” “ivory tower theologian,” simply saying what the preacher is supposed to say here.  Jesus is the one in this passage who has invested Himself in the lives of people. 

Jesus, though He is a single man, shows a greater knowledge of marriage in this passage than the Pharisees.  To be a Pharisee you had to be married.  And yet Jesus showed a greater sense of sensitivity to the dynamics of God’s statements about marriage in the book of Genesis than the Pharisees did.  And we’ll see that in just a few moments.  Jesus is the practical one.  But Jesus also knows that truth, even when it is uncomfortable, is for people.  It makes their lives better. And even if it hurts at first to hear it, it always in the long run pays eternal dividends.  And so He sets forth His teaching on marriage and divorce and remarriage in the context of this hostile question that is asked him by the Pharisees. 

It is important for you to know that the Pharisees were lax on the issues of divorce.  That may surprise you because your mindset is to think of the Pharisees as legalists, nitpickers, people who are dotting every “I” and crossing every “T” with regard to the law of God.  And you may say, what in the world are they doing with a relaxed view on marriage, divorce and remarriage?  Well, in fact, their legalism plays into that because the Pharisees paid a lot of attention to a passage in Deuteronomy from which they drew their teaching on divorce.  And they parsed it very carefully.  But they overlooked the fundamental teaching which had been set forth on marriage in Genesis 1 and 2.  Does that not fit with the pattern that Jesus accuses them of before they do what?  They strain at a gnat, and they swallow a camel. They make a great deal about the lesser things of the law while ignoring completely the weightier matters of the law, and on these issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage.   

II.  Jesus teaches a high view of marriage.
So, having seen the point of verses 1 and 2, that it’s Jesus out caring for people, I want you to see also in verses 3 through 9, Jesus engaging these Pharisees on the issue of marriage and divorce.  And He’s going to teach us here that we ought to have a high view of marriage.  We ought to practice a high view of marriage in our own families.  And we ought to help others walk through the difficult struggles and trials that always are attended to marriages in a fallen world.  I want you to note that whereas Jesus, when he was approached in Luke 12, and asked by a certain group to help them divide the family inheritance,  remember what Jesus said to them?  “I’m not your judge.  You go find a judge or an elder and let him divide the family inheritance.  I’m not going to get involved in that.”  Whereas that was His response when some came and asked Him to help with the family inheritance, but when people came to Him and asked Him about His views on marriage, divorce and remarriage, He was more than willing and ready to pronounce what God’s views were on marriage, divorce and remarriage.  He did not hesitate to lay down the lay down the law.  He did not hesitate, if I can use this language, to poke His nose into our business.  We are very uncomfortable with folks pressing us in these areas.  Whether they be from the church, even our neighbors and friends.  We feel that our marriages are very private, and it’s none of your business.  In fact, we have just had a national leader tell us, not too long ago, that it was his business what he did with regard to his marital relationship.  It’s not our business, it’s not our business to poke our noses into that, but the Lord Jesus says, “Yes, it is My business.” 

And let me say that historically all human society had believed that marriages were their businesses.  Why?  Because of what J.C. Ryle said:  “Nations are nothing but a collection of families.  The good order of the family depends entirely upon keeping the highest standards of the marriage tie.  And so we ought to be thankful that the great head of the church had a definite opinion about marriage and family.”  And it’s set forth here.  He is ready to assert His authority even in this very personal area of our lives, and, He considers His view authoritative for our conduct, our choices in this area. 

Now, if I can direct your attention to verse 3, I want to look again at the question that the Pharisees asked.  Let me just stop and make this point.  We can say everything that needs to be said about marriage, divorce and remarriage today. We’ve already looked at this in Matthew chapter 5, verses 27 through 32.  But even looking at Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 doesn’t tell you everything that the Bible says about marriage, divorce and remarriage.  Paul has a very important passage in I Corinthians 7.  There’s a lot in the Bible about marriage, divorce and remarriage and I can’t touch on a lot of the questions which may be on your mind.  You may ask the question, “What do you do with an abusive spouse?  What do you do with a spouse who’s threatening the life of a spouse?”  You can come up with more questions than I can possibly answer, even if we sat down for hours and didn’t stop tonight until 7:00 or 8:00 o’clock. 

But, we are going to focus on the main point in this passage that Jesus points us back to, and that is before you get to the issue of divorce, you have to know what God meant, what He intended for marriage in the first place.  And then, and only then, can you go on and speak about divorce. 

So, the Pharisees come to Jesus with this trick question in verse 3.  Now why do I say this is a trick question?  It looks straight forward enough.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  But it is a trick question because the Pharisees want one of two or three things to happen.  Either they want Jesus to get into a theological skirmish, because this was a skirmish.  The Pharisees themselves were divided on the question of what was a legitimate ground for divorce.  Those who followed Rabbi Shammai said that divorce was only legitimate in the case of marital infidelity.  They’ve had the “strict” view.  Those who followed Rabbi Hillel said that marriage could be ended, divorce could occur for virtually any reason at all.  In fact, one of the Rabbis who followed Rabbi Hillel said that a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast.  If he met a woman was prettier than his wife, he could divorce his wife and marry another woman.  So virtually any cause at all, any displeasure at all, was a ground for a divorce. 

Now by the way, you notice the phrasing of the question itself, “Can a man divorce his wife for any cause at all?”  Why would it be phrased that way?  Well, because in Jesus’ day, so also in ours, most men are usually the initiators in divorce.  Secondly, in Israel, a man could get a divorce very easily. In Israel, a man didn’t even have to see judge to get a divorce.  All he had to do was to have two witnesses and a write a bill of divorce, and he was out of there.  Now if a woman wanted to get a divorce, she had to go get a judge, and there had to be a trial and there had to be cause.  And so there is a real sense in which Jesus is protecting the rights of married women with what He says in this passage. In Jesus’ day there was a problem with lax divorce, just like in our day.  It is easier to get out of marriage than it is to get out of marriage.  And so it was then.  And Jesus is speaking precisely to that situation, which was so often precipitated by a man. 

Now the Pharisees were basing their opinions on divorce on a passage from Deuteronomy, chapter 24, verses 1 through 34.  And they very carefully misread Moses in that passage to argue that Moses was commanding a very broad range for grounds for divorce.  And Jesus, in response to their question in verse 3, takes them right back to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, and He says, “Look, what is marriage, what does God institute marriage for?”  He instituted marriage in order to present oneness between a man and a woman who would leave from parents, and they would cleave to one another.  And so He quotes to them the words from Genesis 1, verse 27, and Genesis 2, verse 24, and then He adds His own words, “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”  Jesus says, “Marriage is to promote oneness and, therefore, we are never to lightly, flippantly consider breaking up an institution which is designed to promote oneness.  We are never to take that lightly.  So basically He says to the Pharisees, “Shame on you, you’re ignoring what Moses taught in Genesis.” 

Now the Pharisees thought that either He was going to get trapped in the theological skirmish, or perhaps they thought that Jesus was going to actually oppose Moses, by saying, “Moses was wrong when he said such and such in Deuteronomy.”  But Jesus, of course, doesn’t do that.  Jesus basically says to the Pharisees, “Once again your problem is not that you care too much about what Moses said, it’s that you don’t care enough about what Moses said because you haven’t read the foundational statements of Moses about marriage in Genesis 1 and 2 carefully enough. 

Then the Pharisees come back to Him again.  And in verse 7, they give Him another question based on Deuteronomy 24, and they ask Him, “But why then did Moses say give her a certificate of divorce and send her away.  And Jesus explains to them that Moses’ statements there were statements which gave permission.  It was a permission to grant divorce in certain circumstances, it was a concession to the hardness of their heart, and you will notice that Moses built into that concession two restrictions on the man who was seeking divorce. 

First of all, he had to give his wife a divorce.  And that indicated that this poor woman was not at fault for sins in sending her away, which left her free to be married at some point. 

Secondly, notice that in that passage in Deuteronomy 24, Moses says, “If you divorce her, and she subsequently remarries, you cannot be married to her again.  So know what you are giving up forever when you do this.  And so Moses is putting the pressure on them in that passage.  He’s not giving them a blank check to fill out.  Look, you’ve got to fish or cut bait.  You’ve got to recognize that this is a serious thing that you are doing as you send a woman away.  Jesus thus explained that Moses’ divorce law was permission, not command. 

And thirdly He goes on to say that violation of the marriage is a violation of the seventh Commandment.  It’s adultery.  Now you remember that the Pharisees were hard on immorality.  They were hard on adultery.  They were ready to execute two people who were caught in adultery.  But they would let anybody who walked in the door get a divorce.  And Jesus was saying, “Let me tell you something, Pharisees, divorce and remarriage is tantamount to adultery.  You are promoting adultery in Israel.  He’s using hard words against the Pharisees to catch their attention.  And so Jesus teaches the Pharisees that instead of asking the question, “What will God let me get away with in the matter of marriage and divorce?  they ought to be asking the question, “What does God desire for us in marriage?”  Instead of asking,  “What do I get out of marriage myself?   My wife’s not fulfilling me.  What am I getting out of this relationship,”  we ought to be asking,  “How can I use this marvelous institution for the good of my good of my spouse, or the good of my children, for the good of my children to be, for the good of my grandchildren, for my fellowmen and for God’s Kingdom?”  The Pharisees, you see are not asking, “What does God intend marriage to be?”  They’re not even asking,  “How can we help hurting people in broken relationships stay together?”  They’re asking this one technical question: “When can I get out of the commitment I made before God?”  That’s the question that they asking.  And it’s Jesus that loves and cares for us and who wants the best for us.  He comes back and says, “You’re asking the wrong question.  The question is, ‘What does God intend for marriage to be?’” 

Now the disciples are allergic to commitment.  The disciples themselves had the same attitude as their contemporaries.  Look at their response in verse 10.  The disciples say, “If I don’t have the escape hatch of being able to get rid of my wife whenever I want, my, it would just be better to stay single!”  It is mind boggling.  The attitude of the disciples here.  It’s mind boggling.  But Jesus teaches them not only that they ought to have a high view of marriage, but He says, “Look, the marriage state is not to be neglected because of its challenges.”  Jesus says, “Sure I’m demanding commitment.  That’s what marriage is.  It is commitment.  It is divine contractual commitment to one another made in vows before man and God.  It is hard.”  But He says, “Disciples, I want to tell you what you have just said is far harder than anything I’ve said.  You’ve just said you don’t want to make a commitment, a life commitment to a woman, you’d just rather stay single.  You’d just rather be celibate.”  And He says, “I want to tell you something.  We’re not hardwired that way.  No, singleness is a calling.” 

Notice what He says, “There are three ways you can be a single.  You can be born that way in the sense that there has been some sort of physical deformation that keeps you from being able to have marital relations and so requires a form of singleness.  There can be mutilation by man.  You remember in the near East, there were cultures where men would have the job of looking over the harem, and so they would actually be physically mutilated in order that they might be “trusted” to be in charge of the harem.  He says, “Those are the way that you can be a eunuch, and there’s another way you can be a eunuch.  You can decide I’m called to serve God, and I can serve God best if I’m single, and therefore, I’m going to forgo my right to be married. 

Paul himself had undergone that particular approach.  Paul, because he was a Pharisee, at some point had been married.  Now either his wife had left him when he went into the gospel ministry, or perhaps she died.  But whatever the case was, Paul had decided to forego marriage.  He talks about this in one of his letters.  Peter, on the other hand, was married.  Jesus says, that’s fine.  But He also says, “You have to have a calling to singleness.  He’s saying, ‘Oh, I just don’t want to make that kind of commitment.  We’ll just stay single.’  No, marriage is good, even if it’s hard.  Commitment is necessary.  Singleness is a calling.  So the disciples, like many in their age and ours, are so allergic to commitment that they declare celibacy better than Jesus’ view of marriage.  And Jesus responds by emphatically rejecting their rationale.  Marriage is good; celibacy, singleness is a calling. 

Jesus’ words completely reshape the debate itself, and ask us to rethink what we’re doing when we commit to one another in marriage.  When we make these vows, this isn’t just some ritual of no significance that we go through up here when we marry.  We are making vows before God and man.  And I say that in the year to come, that everyone in this congregation should devote themselves to helping to strengthen the family life of our congregation.  If you’ve gone through divorce you have an opportunity to minister to struggling marriages and our family, to be able to say, “Let me tell you what I had to go through in that.  And let me encourage you how to overcome and to stay together.”  Perhaps right now you’re in a struggling marriage, and you need to reach out to someone who has been through that before.  There have been people in this congregation who have occasionally struggled in marriage.  They say yes, I’ve been there and I want to help you. 

Perhaps you are in an irreparable situation.  A situation where the marriage vow has been so grossly broken, that the opportunity for reconciliation is not there.  You still need to gather around and say, “It is not my lack of respect in regard to the marital estate, but rather the opposite.  My high esteem leads me to say that this marital relationship must end because of the infidelity that has occurred.”  Whatever the case is, we all need to devote ourselves to upholding the status of marriage.  It is not just a foundation of our nation, it is the foundation of this congregation.  We all have a vested interest in helping one another in the areas of marriage and family.  Whether we’re single, whether we’re divorced, whether we’re married, whether we’re happily married.  All of us have a vested interest in helping one another in this area.  May God help us do so.  Let’s pray. 

Our Heavenly Father, there are few issues more difficult than this in our own church and our own culture.  Do we ask the grace to stay the course and stay committed.  We ask the grace to help one another in time of need, especially in this area.  We ask, O Lord, that You would be honored in our lives as families, for Christ’s sake, Amen.

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