Today: [Matthew 19] Is Divorce the Unpardonable Sin? In Matthew 19, Jesus enters into a discourse on marriage and divorce that has been used for many years to beat down and castigate those with divorce in their background. In this study, we will look intently at the depth of this conversation Jesus has with the Pharisees on marriage, divorce, and subsequent remarriage and make the case that regardless of what many insist, there is, in fact, a redemptive path for those who have endured the breakup of their marriage, if they will set aside their judgments and look at the situation through the lens of God’s mercy.
[Mat 19:1-30 KJV] 1 And it came to pass, [that] when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan; 2 And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. 3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made [them] at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except [it be] for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with [his] wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All [men] cannot receive this saying, save [they] to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from [their] mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive [it], let him receive [it]. 13 Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put [his] hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15 And he laid [his] hands on them, and departed thence.
After a discourse on forgiveness and dealing with offenses between believers, Jesus leaves Galilee and travels to Judea, marking the delineation between the year of popularity, and the year of opposition in His public life. Upon arrival in Judea great multitudes follow Jesus, and He continues His healing ministry with great success and favor among the people. In verse 3, we see the Pharisees of Judean origin come out with the “big guns,” challenging Jesus with a question that still reverberates with controversy today: “is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” Under the Old Covenant, the law of putting away was unambiguous:
[Deu 24:1-4 KJV] 1 When a man hath taken a wife and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give [it] in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s [wife]. 3 And [if] the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth [it] in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her [to be] his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that [is] abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee [for] an inheritance.
The Pharisees no doubt expected Jesus to quote Deut. 24, but surprisingly He does not. Let us remember that the law was not given to produce unswerving righteousness among men. The law was given, according to the apostle Paul in Gal. 3:24 as a “schoolmaster” to bring us to Christ. So, then the law is parenthetical or was brought in as a remedial instrument to bring men to the cognizance of sin and need of a savior. Jesus, in answering this question in v. 4 does not do so from the consideration through the lens of sinful flesh, rather He looks as we might expect Him to, from the perspective of God’s original intent before sin entered in: He answers the question from the perspective of God’s perfect will as intended in the idyllic state of Adam and Eve when they were sinless in the garden.
Ask yourself the question, if Adam and Eve had not fallen into sin, would there have ever been one single divorce among men? The answer is obvious, of course not. Jesus makes the point that from the perspective of God’s original intent (v. 6), man and wife become ONE FLESH literally through their union in the copulative act. Remember that God didn’t take Adam and Eve down to the courthouse for a blood test and a marriage license. They came together, and that constituted their conjugal covenant. The same is true in Gen. 24:67 when Isaac met Rebecca. There was no formal ceremony indicated, other than he took her into his mother’s tent, and she (by reason of sexual union) became his wife. Now listen to what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. Jesus, in discussing this issue, is taking it out of its cultural context and considering it in the light of God’s intention for man in a sinless condition, which of course, doesn’t exist anymore because of Adam’s transgression. What then are we to conclude concerning marriage, divorce, or subsequent remarriage?
In verse 7, the Jews realize that Jesus is pre-empting the discussion with reference to Edenic sinlessness, and they know they can’t argue with Him on that point. Therefore, they bring the discussion back to Moses and the law. They ask the question, why did Moses allow for divorce? Jesus’ answer drove home the point He was getting at all along: divorce was allowed under the law because of the hardness of men’s hearts. I have a question for you: did the law pass away? Does the law of God no longer apply simply because we are under the New Covenant? In Matthew 5:18, Jesus plainly states that the law is not negated even in the context of the consequences of redemption. Outside of Christ, the law applies, whether men are aware of it, accept it, or believe in it. For those that are in Christ, the law is superseded by grace that is supposed to produce a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.
So, the law which applies to everything and everyone outside of Christ allows for divorce why? Because of the hardness of men’s hearts. I ask you the question – did hardness of heart pass away with in the first century? (Pause, briefly to take in the deafening silence). Now, listen to what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. Then, to compound the implications of the matter at hand, Jesus goes on to say in v. 9 in essence, that if we are going to have a discussion of divorce and remarriage in the context of sinless perfection (which is His chosen pretext and not the Pharisees who only wanted to consider the subject at hand in regard to the law) that not only is the spouse who is put away in sin for being put away, but the spouse who initiates the putting away or divorce from the perspective of sinless perfection is also guilty before God.
At this point, the disciples can’t take it anymore and interrupt Jesus, saying, “if that’s the way it is, then it is better not to marry at all…” In other words, if God’s original intent does not include the option of divorce, then the estate of marriage is not preferable, then is it? Of course, the Medieval church takes this as a total condemnation of the fairer sex and hence defines true piety as only fully expressed in utter and complete abstinence and celibacy, which is an abomination in the eyes of God and not what God intended.
What is the take away for us, in reading this passage? It is more than a passing consideration when you realize that Evangelical Christians, those believing in the New Birth experience, have a significantly higher divorce rate than professing atheists; in fact, gay and lesbian marriages end in divorce much less frequently than heterosexual unions between Evangelical, born again believers. What does this mean? That the church, as we know it does not necessarily hold the moral high ground where the defense of marriage is concerned. Why are we having this conversation? Because no one else will. Unfortunately, the commonly held interpretation and application of this passage suggests in the popular view of many Christians, that because of the wording of Jesus so expressed here, the opinion is that those having been divorced, and remarried with a living partner have defacto committed an unpardonable sin because they are living in an alleged state of ongoing adultery. Can this possibly be true? Of course not.
Lastly, what about fornication? Jesus says in v. 9 that in the context of the conversation the Pharisees were provoking (did they really want to go there?) Jesus is saying that there is an exception for fornication that would allow for divorce even under this strict interpretation. Many spouses, having caught their partners in sexual sin, pounce upon this as a club wherewith they beat down their sinning partner at the same time liberating themselves to remarry whom they will, not knowing the scripture.
In this culture that Jesus is speaking in, fornication was not sexual sin after the marriage (that would be adultery in their eyes). Fornication referred to a situation where a bride could not prove her virginity before the groom ever touched her – THEN and ONLY then could an espousal, which was equivalent to marriage in this culture, be terminated. If conjugal relations were consummated, from the perspective Jesus is talking here, then there is NO basis of divorce without both parties being concluded in sin – and do you REALLY WANT TO GO THERE? What am I saying? I am saying that the problem at hand goes much, much deeper than any religious argument, or spiritual consideration. In the Western World, including the USA, more than half of all marriages end in divorce. Perhaps we should look at how marriages come about in the first place. The fact is that arranged marriages only end in divorce 6% of the time, a percentage far, far lower than free-will marriage as it is practiced in the West. Am I advocating for an arranged marriage? Not necessarily, but I am suggesting that if we are going to have a conversation such as this, let’s do it from a perspective of intellectual honestly in light of what Jesus is actually talking about and not use it to make those who have divorced, or divorced and remarried a pariah among us, for that is an egregious injustice and not what Jesus was driving at in His discourse.
16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? [there is] none good but one, [that is], God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and [thy] mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go [and] sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come [and] follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. 23 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. 25 When his disciples heard [it], they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? 26 But Jesus beheld [them], and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible. 27 Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? 28 And Jesus said unto them, Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. 30 But many [that are] first shall be last; and the last [shall be] first.
In verse 16, a brilliant young man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. It is interesting that the conversation and consideration of eternal life does not figure prominently in Old Testament culture, but suddenly upon seeing the sinless son of God among them, the issue crops up as a question by this seemingly devout young Jew. Jesus, in answering the question, points the man back to his upbringing. Keep the law. Observe the Decalogue, the ten commandments. Notice the smug answer of the young man: “all these have kept from my youth…” Do you realize is making this statement, he has born false witness against the very law he claims to have kept so perfectly? Jesus, in answering him, goes right to the heart issue – “sell all and come follow Me…” The young man, cut to the heart, turns away sorrowing for he has no intention of relinquishing the materialism and status that has defined him his whole life.
The disciples look on this exchange and Jesus’ comments afterward and question how it is possible for men to be saved if the demands and expectations of heaven are so high upon them. Many read this as a repudiation of wealth, and a command to live in extreme poverty as the only means of actually serving God as He deserves to be served. That is not what Jesus is saying. In answering the question “who can be saved if this rich young ruler can’t make it…” Jesus answered and said, “with man it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible…”. The observation is this: you can’t serve God and mammon, but you can serve God WITH MAMMON if you learn and are willing to set your priorities of God first above all things, including material concerns. If this is NOT the intent of what Jesus is saying, then He was disingenuous to declare that He came that we might have life and life more abundantly (John 10:10); and Paul was expressing false doctrine when he declares in 2 Cor. 8:9 that Jesus became poor so that we could be rich. Now, of course, many object that these are references to “spiritual” riches but that assertion is either in ignorance because the person hasn’t read the scriptures, or in perversion, because they have twisted the clear intent of scripture regarding temporal blessing now, and eternal reward as being not mutually exclusive one of another.
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