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The Life of Jesus - Series 10: Episode 5

Marriage, divorce and singleness

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 19:1-12

Jesus responds to two questions about divorce. He points to the creation of man and woman and does not uphold easy divorce. He sets a high standard of marriage for his disciples and supports singleness as an option.

Jesus responds to two questions about divorce. He points to the creation of man and woman and does not uphold easy divorce. He sets a high standard of marriage for his disciples and supports singleness as an option.


Hello, and welcome to Series 10 and Episode 5 and our topic today is ‘Marriage, Divorce and Singleness’. We're studying in Matthew's Gospel, Matthew 19: 1 - 12.

Introduction and Recap

We haven't been in Matthew's Gospel for quite a long time in our studies, as you will have noticed if you've been with us on the journey. The material we've been drawing from in recent series has largely been from Luke, with other important material from John. But we're back in Matthew's Gospel, as Matthew takes up the story of another event, another discussion and another question by the Pharisees, that takes place during Jesus' long and complex journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. We notice here, as in quite a number of other places, that he's travelling around over quite a wide area, and where he is located exactly is often quite significant in terms of the story. This is an incredibly important section of the Gospels and has a parallel passage in Mark 10, but this is the fullest account of Jesus' discussion with the Pharisees and his disciples about this very important matter of marriage, divorce and singleness. It's been a heavily discussed passage in the history of the Church, and is one of the most sensitive and important areas of Christian teaching, concerning the nature of marriage, and the conduct of marriage, in the context of cultures which allow or even encourage divorce. The other important theme here is singleness, which is crucial to emphasise, along with marriage. This is a very important passage and one that deserves very careful study.

The Location

We're going to study it in sections and we're going to start by reading Matthew 19: 1 - 3;

‘When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"’

Matthew 19:1-3, NIV

The first thing I want to observe is where Jesus is. He'd been presumably in the southern part of Galilee. We noticed from Luke's Gospel, in a recent episode in Luke 7, that Jesus was in the area between Galilee and Samaria just very recently in the chronology. Here he is clearly stated as having come south towards Judea, but gone to the other side of the Jordan. That area is technically known as Perea, and was ruled by King Herod Antipas, who also ruled Galilee. It wasn't ruled by the Romans and the governor, Pontius Pilate, who ruled over Judea and we'll later find was sometimes resident in Jerusalem. We are in the territory, the other side of the Jordan, which means on the eastern side of the River Jordan. We're in the territory of King Herod Antipas, which is interesting by way of background. We've come across him quite a number of times earlier in the story, as you will probably recall, his main headquarters were in the city of Tiberias, which is on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, and quite near Jesus' initial headquarters in Capernaum. Herod appears in the story on a number of occasions, particularly in connection with John the Baptist. It's notable that the reason that he entered into conflict with John the Baptist initially, was about marriage and divorce - the very topic we're going to discuss here. Luke 3:19 - 20 states that,

‘When John, (John the Baptist,) rebuked Herod the tetrarch(Herod Antipas,) because of his marriage to Herodias, previously his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.’

Luke 3:19-20, NIV

One reason he locked John up in prison was that John told him that it was against the Jewish law for him to divorce his wife and to marry a woman he'd been having an affair with, who was previously married to his brother. That's an interesting bit of background. Jesus isn't the first person to enter into this thorny and controversial area of marriage and divorce. John the Baptist has been there before and, of course, John the Baptist is eventually executed by King Herod Antipas.

The First Question

The question the Pharisees ask is,

‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’

Matthew 19:3, NIV

It's a question about divorce. Before going further with the story, let's pause for a moment, and reflect on the culture of divorce in Jewish society at the time. It was fairly common, and in most parts of Jewish society it was only men who could initiate divorce, but they could do it fairly quickly by writing out a certificate and issuing it to their wife and that would create a divorce without the necessity of a further legal process. That authority had been delegated to them. Divorce, in some parts of Jewish society, was quite common, and had massive social consequences, especially for women if they were divorced by their husbands, and of course for any children who left the family home with the divorced wife. There wasn't a culture in which one would debate conditions, or terms of divorce in a law court. That is a much more modern idea and didn't take place formally in most settings of Judaism, in the time that we are talking about.

The Jews had, theoretically, a high respect for marriage, and there was debate amongst the Jews as to whether this was the right way of going about things. Not everybody agreed. Some people adopted a very conservative attitude to marriage, and adopted a very faithful attitude towards their marriage partners. But Judaism was filled with lots of schools of teaching, different rabbis had different interpretations of the Old Testament and particularly the Law of Moses. In the day of Jesus, it's known that there were teachings that were very much in contrast. Let me give you ones that are usually quoted in this context. One school of teaching following a Rabbi called Shammai, was that divorce should be only granted if there was adultery or other specific sexual misconduct. A more open and liberal approach was adopted by another school led by a Rabbi called Hillel, who advocated the view that divorce could be undertaken for a variety of reasons and if a wife displeased her husband in any significant way, that was considered a condition for divorce. Jewish society was divided. This was unfair on women, but societies in those days gave much more priority to the decision-making power of men, in most spheres. This question, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ is inviting Jesus to enter into a current debate and argument, amongst religious Jewish leaders concerning divorce. Was Jesus going to be liberal and allow divorce for many conditions? Or was he going to take a view similar to the school of Rabbi Shammai which advocated the view that sexual unfaithfulness, sexual immorality was really the only legitimate course of divorce?

Creation Ordinances

Let's read verses 4 - 6, as Jesus begins to address this question.

‘"Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they're no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate."’

Matthew 19:4-6, NIV

Jesus doesn't answer the question directly here, but he does helpfully point back to the original creational pattern, quoting verses from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 which are foundational texts in terms of understanding God's creational pattern, or intention, for all of humanity, what are known as ‘creation ordinances’. What Jesus tells us is that gender identities, that binary gender identities, male and female, are built into creation. They're distinct and complementary, and that the general creational pattern is that a man and a woman should marry. This is a monogamous relationship, one man, one woman, it's built into the text of Genesis 1 and 2. They will be married involving three distinct realities which Jesus quotes here. Chapter 19: 5,

‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother’ - step 1 leaving. Step 2 - ‘be united to his wife’ and step 3 - ‘the two will become one flesh.’

As is often stated in Christian teaching, we need to distinguish these three steps. A man will leave his father and mother. A conscious decision on the part of those getting married to form a new marriage union, which will form a new family unit, is implied in the statement. Adult decision-making is implied. The freedom of will to engage in that process is implied, although that may be guided or supervised by families to some degree. Adults - an adult man and an adult woman -, decide in their hearts they're going to be married, and being united in this context means entering into marriage in a publicly definable way. It was always the case in the Bible that marriage was a publicly definable event, not a private agreement between a man and a woman, which had no bearing in the public domain - like living together, or cohabitation in the modern world, it's an informal, personal agreement. The Bible always understands marriage as a public, societal institution where it's recognised, endorsed, supported, and protected, and there are responsibilities for the husband and wife within that decision. ‘Then they shall become one flesh,’ which is a reference to sexual union, which is preserved for marriage and not considered in the Old Testament, or in Jesus' teaching, to be appropriate in any other relational context whatsoever.

The other interesting thing Jesus says is that God is involved in a marriage. It is God who is joining a man and a woman together. This is not a statement about their faith, by the way, because this is a statement about creation, about the very nature of humanity, about God's common grace to all people - whether they believe in him, or not, is not the point of this text. God himself is blessing, and confirming, and strengthening, the union between a man and a woman in marriage. Therefore, he ends by saying that, if God is involved in that process we should be very careful about separating it, and breaking it up. He hasn't answered their question fully, has he? But the implication is very clear, he's not supporting a divorce policy for ‘any and every reason’ to quote the Pharisees, in verse 3.

A Second Question

Now another question comes and further details from Jesus. Verses 7 - 9,

‘"Why, then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."’

Matthew 19:7-9, NIV

The Pharisees pressed the question. They haven't had a decisive answer to their first question. They can see that Jesus is heading in one direction. He's not supporting the idea of easy divorce but he hasn't given a very precise answer to their question yet. The further question comes about what Moses intended. Moses here is representing the Law of Moses, or the Old Testament law, and their statements here assert that Moses gave a command that gave the details of how to divorce your wife. Moses did it in the name of God. That's the implication of that question in verse 7. The terms of the question aren't quite right, as we find out when we see what Jesus says in response. He says,

"Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard."

Matthew 19:8, NIV

Notice there he ‘permitted’, he didn't ‘command’. Moses did not command divorce at any point. God did not command divorce at any point. The Law of Moses regulated the already existing practice of divorce, and in fact it minimised it. But the passage that's often discussed in this context, and which both the Pharisees and Jesus would have had in mind, comes in Deuteronomy 24: 1 - 4, which I'll read briefly, and make a comment on, just to substantiate the point that we're making.

‘If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if she leaves his house and she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.’

Deuteronomy 24:1-4, NIV

Moses' command is only not allowing people to remarry the person they married before and divorced. That's the only command in that context. The Law of Moses there recounts, or tells the story, of people using certificates of divorce, to divorce their wives for what appear to be relatively trivial reasons. The fact they're recorded there doesn't indicate that it's God's will - far from it. It's regulated; it's reduced; it's controlled. It's not commanded. Jesus is right in saying that he allowed certain things to happen because your hearts were hard. It wasn't God's will; it was human sinfulness that made divorce necessary in some circumstances. Jesus goes on to say it was not that way from the beginning. In other words, the way mankind was created. We were created for permanent, monogamous relationships. One man, one woman together for the rest of their lives. It was not that way from the beginning.

Jesus' Teaching for Disciples

Jesus comes to his specific teaching and this is his standard for Christian discipleship, the discipleship community that he's forming. Here, as in many other areas that we've already looked at, we find that the standards of discipleship are very high.

‘"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery."’

Matthew 19:9, NIV

Divorce is only permitted here for sexual immorality, which includes adultery, homosexuality, incest, or any other actual sexual activity with another person. To divorce for trivial reasons is not permitted in the Christian discipleship communities. If we divorce for trivial reasons and marry someone else, it's a bit like committing adultery with that person. There's an implication here that if we divorce because someone has been unfaithful, then it is legitimate to remarry. That's not spelled out, but it is a legitimate implication of this statement. Remarriage is not the focus of this teaching.

We find a very similar teaching in Matthew 5:32 in the Sermon on the Mount. We've discussed that when we looked at that passage in Series 4. There are other texts we need to consider. The parallel passage in Mark 10, and a passing reference in Luke 16: 18, which I've explained in an earlier episode when we were dealing with that passage. But this is the fullest passage on the subject in the Gospels and therefore is the one we should use as a foundational text in terms of understanding what we believe that Jesus is teaching. It's clear that he's calling the discipleship community to have a very high standard of commitment to marriage and sexual ethics related to it.

Verse 10 records the rather surprised and challenged response of the disciples.

‘The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it's better not to marry."’

Matthew 19:10, NIV

They're so used to this easy divorce situation in the culture, they can't imagine how people can stick together in marriage and hold these high standards. They realised he was setting a high standard. They realised that easy divorce was not part of Christian discipleship culture, and they began to think seriously about the reality of being married, or perhaps staying single as an alternative. We don't know for certain that all the disciples were married at this particular point, because we understand them to be young men, generally speaking.

This was quite a serious reflection on a hugely challenging piece of teaching from Jesus. But, as so often, what Jesus is doing is he is setting the discipleship community apart from others in terms of the sheer quality of their living. The self-sacrifice involved in being a disciple, taking up our cross, and giving ourselves for the benefit of other people, is really central to Jesus' understanding of what it is to be a disciple. This is now applied in the context of marriage, where a great self-sacrifice and profound commitment is asked of disciples as they enter into Christian marriage.


The concluding passage brings in another surprising and challenging aspect of this situation. Verses 11 - 12,

‘Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it's been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others - and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."’

Matthew 19:11-12, NIV

Our interpretation of this passage depends on our understanding of the opening phrase, ‘Not everyone can accept this word’. What's ‘this word’? Probably it refers to the disciples' statement in the previous verse, that ‘perhaps it's better not to marry’. Jesus said, ‘Not everyone can accept that word’ ‘not to marry’, as an alternative to the strict ethical framework of marriage. But he then goes on to say ‘but some people are led in that direction of actually not marrying at all’. He's presenting here singleness as a positive alternative to marriage. This is culturally challenging to his Jewish audience as well, because amongst the Pharisees, being single was a matter of shame. The Pharisees prided themselves on being married in almost every case; it was part of their culture. If you weren't married there was something wrong with you. Jesus has, on the one hand, challenged the easy divorce culture, and on the other hand, he's challenging the view that singleness is in any sense inferior - far from it.

When you read this text you don't feel that that is the case at all. But he does explain to them why people are not married. He uses a culturally specific example of eunuchs - males who have been castrated. That's not a common experience in most societies in the world today. But it was in the ancient world, and there were people who were castrated because they were slaves, and therefore they might be a sexual threat in a domestic household, and that took the threat away. There were other reasons as well, to do with the structure of society. It was something that the Jews saw happening in other societies around. We even see a eunuch appearing in the story of the book of Acts, where the Ethiopian eunuch appears in Acts 8, for example. Jesus teaches here that some people lose their sexual potential, become eunuchs because of the actions of others, as I've described, some people were born that way. Either physically or emotionally, they're not capable of active sexual life and sexual or intimate relationships. Then he goes on to say, some people, perfectly normal physically and sexually men and women, but they choose a single life for the sake of the Kingdom of God. There are three reasons given there for singleness. One is physical or emotional incapacity from birth, the other is physical or emotional damage caused by other people, and the third one is choice of a lifestyle; you're perfectly capable but you choose singleness. Jesus advocates the single life, which indeed he chose and lived out, as indeed did Paul the Apostle. Singleness has some great examples in the Early Church.


What final reflections can we make on this immensely challenging passage? I know that some people listening to this will be profoundly challenged in terms of what's happened in your life, or what's happening in your society, or what's happening in churches you might be involved with, which appears very different from this. Let me make some final comments. God's creational pattern for marriage was that it was rooted in creation, to be entered into freely in a monogamous manner, one woman, one man, as a lifelong partnership and the foundation for childbearing and family life. Jesus here sets a very high standard for marriage, the practice of divorce and remarriage (implied) and for singleness in the discipleship community. The disciples are to have a very different relational culture than the society around them. The sexual ethics of the Christian community greatly protect the integrity of marriage and greatly uphold the integrity and the dignity of those who live as a single life. There isn't any grey area between those. Easy sexual morals, easy divorce - these things are not part of the Christian community.

There's an implication here of something that's not stated, and that is, that those who were involved in the failure of relationships, like marriage, before they are converted, can find forgiveness. The slate is wiped clean at conversion. This is teaching for disciples. There are some unanswered questions here, about problems in marriage such as abuse and neglect. Jesus does not appear to give these problems as a basis for divorce, maybe temporary separation, but he doesn't give a clear permission for divorce in those situations. We need to think long and hard about them, if that's an issue we are facing. As we read further in the New Testament, we find Jesus' position upheld but Paul adds in one other condition for divorce in 1 Corinthians 7: 12 - 16, when he states that if a non-Christian partner decides to initiate divorce against a Christian, then they should not feel under any obligation to resist that. But notice, the initiative is with the non-Christian partner.

Singleness here is honoured and commended and we need to reinstate that value in the church. That's often a missing ingredient, for cultural reasons in different societies in the world, not least in Western societies such as the one that I live in. We also need to remember that forgiveness for past sins is always there, and we can find God's grace even though we may have made big mistakes in our personal relationships.

A final point to take away from this session, is the encouragement to all who are disciples of Jesus, to invest in your marriage, to invest heavily and strongly in building a strong marriage, and overcoming difficulties and failures, forgiving past sins, rebuilding intimacy and strength, rather than running away from difficult relationships. God's grace will be with us as we do that, and as we fulfil the moral framework we're called to live in, by this passage in Matthew 19, and other teachings of Jesus. Thanks for listening.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What exactly does Jesus teach about marriage and divorce?
  • Discipleship
    1. In a liberal society like the 21st century western world, relationships are often regarded as passing - not permanent. How can you live alongside these ways as a Christian?
    2. How do you mix with people who live very differently to you?
    3. In stricter cultures, there will still be differences between the Christian view of relationships and those of other faiths. Again how can you interact with these?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Read Genesis 1 and 2. In the light of this episode, what do you learn?
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