The Trap and the Truth
1 When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan;
2 and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.
3 Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?"
4 And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE,
5 and said, 'FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH'?
6 "So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."
7 They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND HER AWAY?"
8 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.
9 "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery."
It's always best to establish context when studying the Bible. In this case, the end of chapter 18 was all about forgiveness, which will tie in a bit here. However, Jesus has travelled to a new region, and Matthew's account largely deals with new subject matter.
The Pharisees are laying a trap for Jesus by testing Him on His interpretation of Old Testament Law relating to divorce (probably Deuteronomy 24:1-4): Does the "indecency" mentioned refer to sexual immorality, or just something the man doesn't like about his wife?
But this begs the question...why was this a trap? Well, my take is that, by getting Jesus to speak openly about this sensitive topic, they thought they were guaranteed to get Him to offend a lot of people, regardless of His answer. If He said divorce for any reason was okay, the more conservative-minded Jews who disagreed would no longer trust his teaching and integrity. But if He said divorce was only okay in the case of adultery, that would offend all those who had gotten dicorces for other reasons (or wanted to). This still rings true today - think how many people, including those who call themselves Bible-believing Christians, get majorly offended when the Scriptural truth about divorce is stated. But what the Pharisees didn't realize is that getting Jesus to speak God's truth doesn't count as a trap - it's at the core of His being. John 18:37b: "You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice."
Jesus's point is that divorce was never God's plan. In God's will, marriage lasts as long as both spouses are living. It's as simple as that. However, because God knew they would do it anyway, He provided a specific social framework to avoid chaos. It wasn't optimal, but it prevented the people's hard hearts from resulting in even worse damage.
The only permitted reason for divorce, both in the New Testament and in the accurate interpretation of the Old Testament, is if one of the spouses commits adultery. However, Jesus makes it clear that the victimized spouse striving to forgive the cheating spouse is His will (see Matthew 18:21-35 and the book of Hosea). If forgiveness isn't possible, divorce is allowed, yes, but it seems that would put a person in the category of having a hard heart, like He references in verse 8. That's not a place we want to be if we're truly seeking God's will in our lives, and truly holding Him up as our Lord.
If you're looking for a lot more information on all the ins-and-outs of the Bible's take on divorce, I highly recommend reading 1 Corinthians 7. Here are also a few excellent sermons breaking down that chapter and going in-depth on divorce (and singleness, which we'll get to in a minute) (they're audio files and might take a minute to start playing):
Here also is an excellent written approach in Q&A format about different divorce scenarios:
But please don't let chasing exceptions and answers to the question, "Can I or can't I?" distract you from Jesus's main point: Divorce is never God's will, and the best possible situation is for spouses to forgive each other and remain married. Period.
What about Singleness?
10 The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry."
11 But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.
12 "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."
The disciples' reaction could be taken as chauvenism ("We can't divorce them? Then we're never getting married!"), or it could just have been that seeing how prevalent divorce was (and therefore marital disputes) prompted what they said. Peter was married and had graciously taken his wife's mother into his home, so don't judge these guys too harshly. ;-)
But, regardless of what's going on in the disciples' heads, Jesus isn't addressing that - He's branching off into a more serious point.
The idea is that some people have the spiritual gift of singleness. This means that God has called a few of His followers to be able to resist sexual temptation and not suffer from strong emotional longings for a spouse in order to remain single for life and therefore have more time and freedom to commit to serving God. In some Christian circles, this is a "duh!" statement, but in others, where marriage is over-emphasized, it's never brought up.
I don't have any official discussion starters today, but is there anything you'd like to add to our study (an insight, a perspective, something that stuck out to you, a relevant verse to add)? Or, are there any questions related to this topic - whether clarification or a new point? :-)
Image citation: The Exhortation to the Apostles, by James Tissot. Wikipedia. Public domain in the United States.