Martin Luther said, “Matthew 19:9 is a blunt, clear, plain text.” Yet, the majority of the controversy regarding divorce and remarriage is centered here. However, a tour through the passage finds it is not so hard to understand. It is the application of the challenging words of Christ that troubled His disciples and that troubles many today. Get your Bible and read the verses as we study so we might understand and obey what Jesus says on this vital subject.
THE QUESTION, v. 3 - The question was a good one, even if it came from impure motives. In what would become almost routine for our Lord, the religious leaders of His day come with yet another difficult query. Many see the question as an attempt to array Jesus against the rabbinical schools of that time. Hillel affirmed that you could divorce and remarry for nearly any cause. Shammai contended that divorce was lawful only for adultery. Obviously, there was friction between these two schools of thought, but it is not clear that the Pharisees are attempting here to engage Jesus in that debate. Their reply in verse 7 seems to indicate that what they really wanted was to force Jesus to contradict the common man’s understanding of Moses’ teaching in Deuteronomy 24.
THE RESPONSE, vv. 4-6 - In a way uniquely His, Jesus ignores the questions surrounding Deuteronomy 24, and all that the rabbis had said about it. He goes straight to God’s word, asking “have you not read” about how it all began? In the beginning there was no divorce, as Adam and Eve lived in perfect harmony with God’s original plan for the home. From this original plan, Jesus derives four reasons why divorce must not occur. First, God created one man for one woman (Gen. 1:27). No spares or extras were made. Second, husbands and wives cleave to each other. God’s will is for mates to cleave together, not break apart. Third, husband and wife become one flesh. You cannot divide one! The husband and wife are one in mind, spirit, goals, and directions. Fourth, God has joined them together. If God joins them together who is man to come along and “un-join”? So Jesus turns our minds back to what God originally planned for all His children. Truly Jesus’ law on marriage and divorce can be called the “from the beginning plan” for the home. The Pharisees’ rejoinder in verse 7 shows they believe they caught Jesus speaking against the common perception of Moses’ law.
JESUS’ NEW LAW, vv. 8-9 - Yes, the Pharisees’ trap is now sprung, but Jesus makes it clear they have only trapped themselves. Moses’ legislation was put in place for hard-hearted, stubborn people who were unwilling to seek God’s true plan for the home. No one who was truly spiritually minded (as the Pharisees imagined they were) could ever use Deuteronomy 24 to justify his actions. Instead he will conform his life to complete commitment in marriage. Divorce for every cause results in adultery, Jesus says, and violates the “from the beginning” plans of the Father. So Jesus teaches that there is one and only one reason to divorce and remarry: sexual immorality. He adds that marrying the divorced is a further violation of God’s law, and is absolutely forbidden.
The term for “sexual immorality” in verse 9 is a very expressive word, “porneia.” It refers to every kind of sexual perversion, from adultery (relations between a married person and one not his mate) to fornication (relations between those not married) to homosexuality, incest and . All of these fall under the broad category of “porneia,” and meet Jesus’ criteria as a defilement of the home that frees the innocent to put away and marry again.
Jesus’ language is not difficult to understand. The force of the expression “except for” can easily be seen by illustration. Basketball rules might read, “Whoever shoots a basketball, except it misses the hoop, scores two points.” That’s not so complicated, is it? The terminology here has the force of “if and only if.” To continue our illustration, “If and only if your shot misses the hoop you do not score two points.” Or, as Jesus says, “If and only if you put your wife away for sexual immorality and marry another, you do not commit adultery.” Christ’s law contains a blanket rule (remarriage after divorce is adultery), and one exception to that blanket rule (remarriage is not adultery if one divorces for sexual immorality). Christ’s law also contains a blanket rule for marrying the one who has been “put away:” it is adultery. Notice that there is no exception given for marrying the divorced. One who puts away and remarries commits adultery, unless he put away for sexual immorality. One who was put away commits adultery when remarrying.
We freely acknowledge this may lead to some difficult, or even unfair, situations. A man may go to prison for life. His wife will be lonely. Can she divorce him and marry another? A woman may become sick, and lay for months or years in a hospital. Can her husband put her away and get a new wife? Emotionally wrenching situations that appeal to human feelings and conceptions of fairness do not change Christ’s clear law in Matthew 19. Along this line it is good to note the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ law: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). Evidently they understood that this was a challenging saying, radically altering conventional thought on marriage. We would do well to use the disciples’ words as a quick test for the many teachings on divorce and remarriage today. If it is so that Jesus meant people could divorce and remarry at will, why did the disciples react so? Why did the disciples admit such difficulty with Christ’s law if one need only say “I repent of breaking a covenant” (as some would redefine adultery to mean) and then marry again? If Matthew 19:9 means the sexually immoral can marry again after being put away for their great sin why does verse 10 say what it does? Let us not be deceived by those who would soften the force of the Master’s words. His disciples got the point, and so must we, if we will only open our hearts to His powerful, “from the beginning” teaching.