Jesus Answers Questions on Divorce (Matthew 19:1-12)
Leaving Galilee Jesus proceeded toward Jerusalem, going down through Perea on the east of the Jordan. By the expression “the coasts of Judea” we are to understand the land bordering on Judea. As He moved majestically on toward His death He continued to exercise His grace and power toward all who came to Him for physical healing. Through His miracles He demonstrated that He was the anointed of Jehovah (Acts 10:38), although unrecognized by the religious leaders and the rulers of the nation.
Some of these proud, haughty Pharisees came to Him and raised a question in regard to divorce, which gave Him opportunity to make clear the new order that was to prevail among those who would be subject to His authority in the days to come. The kingdom predicted by the prophets was in abeyance since Christ had broken with Israel after the flesh for the time being. But His followers needed guidance during the intervening years while the mysteries of the kingdom were being unfolded. Jesus spoke with authority as He provided definite information for the guidance of His followers.
The question asked by the Pharisees was evidently designed to put Jesus in opposition to the law of Moses. In answering them He went back to the original institution of marriage rather than to the Sinaitic or Levitical enactments. The guideline established at creation was to be the rule for His disciples in the future.
So lax were the teachings of some of the more liberal rabbis as to divorce, that a man could disown and divorce his wife upon the slightest pretext. Jesus referred them to what was written in Genesis 2:24: “He… made them at the beginning… male and female.” This is the divine ideal: one man for one woman in the sacred relationship of marriage. The entire human race sprang from the first pair thus created by God. Their union typifies, as the marriage ceremony so aptly puts it, the mystical union that exists between Christ and His church (Ephesians 5:31-32).
“They twain shall be one flesh.” Observe, it is not “they three,” or five, or any other number, but simply “they twain.” Anything other than this is a perversion opposed to the original intent of the Creator.
“What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Thus, at the very dawn of human (and family) history, we have the inviolability of the marriage contract revealed, as according to the will of God. He who breaks this union disobeys the Word of the Lord.
Naturally His opponents asked, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” Jesus explained that this was a temporary provision that Moses was authorized to allow because of the callousness of men’s hearts. This arrangement was to protect the woman from the hardship of endeavoring to carry on in a home where she was unloved and unwanted and might be subjected to cruel treatment. Far better to send her back to the home of her parents than to make of her a slave to the capriciousness of an unkind husband.
But now that Israel’s destined King and Redeemer had come, He reaffirmed the sacredness of the marriage relationship. It is intended by God to be a union for life. The subject believer will never break it. If one violates the tie by unchaste behavior—that is, by illicit relations with a third party—the innocent one is free to divorce the unfaithful one and to marry someone else.
Many have questioned this interpretation of our Lord’s words, but His words allow no other meaning. To say, as some have done, that the Lord was referring to fornication committed before wedlock (as in Deuteronomy 22:13-14,20-21), and not to such sin committed after marriage, would be to insinuate that marital unfaithfulness is less evil than the same kind of iniquity committed by those not yet married. To support this theory it has been stated that the word fornication refers only to sexual impurity on the part of single people. But 1 Corinthians 5 contradicts this definition. The incestuous man there was living with his stepmother, and he is charged with fornication.
While affirming the high and holy character of marriage according to God’s Word, Jesus does not put on the innocent divorced party the burden of going through life alone because of the unfaithfulness of a wicked partner.
Another theory has been put forth in order to nullify the very clear teaching given by Jesus as to divorce: namely, that He spoke as under the law, and that therefore the exception He mentioned does not apply in this dispensation of grace. Those who hold to this view forget that while Jesus came under the law, “the law and the prophets were until John.” The preliminary teaching of the new dispensation was given by Jesus, for “grace and truth came by [Him]” (John 1:17). He was laying down the principles in regard to marriage and divorce that were to prevail from that day on.
Christ’s teaching perplexed and troubled the disciples, who said that if these things were so it would perhaps be best not to marry at all, as He seemed to put such heavy restrictions on the natural propensities of human nature. The Lord acknowledged that all men cannot receive this teaching; it is for those who are ready to be submissive to the will of God, recognizing the sacredness of the marriage relationship, or for others who, as Paul said in a later day, had such self-control that they could keep themselves pure though unmarried. Such were as eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven’s sake. But Jesus would put no one under bondage as to this. It was for him who was able to accept it.
It is well to remember that the real object of marriage is to bring forth children and so to establish a godly home, which is a marvelous testimony for Christ in the midst of a corrupt world. Home to millions is one of the sweetest words in the English language. What memories it evokes! What stirring of the hearts and what thanksgiving to God are aroused as we recall the joyous home circle and think about the impressions made there on our young minds. For though we may have wandered far since, home is still the most sacred place we have known on earth. Yet vast numbers of people have never known its mystic spell. And in many languages of earth there is no word which is the exact equivalent of our word home. Few pagan tribes have any synonym for it. They speak of a house, a dwelling-place, or a shelter; but to them home, as we understand it, is something of which they know nothing. Yet “God setteth the solitary in families” (Psalm 68:6), and established homes for mankind long before the rise of governments and before the church was brought into existence.
It takes more than four walls and comfortable furniture to make a home. Home, in the truest sense, is where love rules. The ideal home of Scripture is an abode, whether it be a pilgrim’s tent or a grand mansion, where the family live together in love and harmony, each delighting in the company of the others, and all seeking the good of the whole. Such homes were found in Israel when all the rest of the world was steeped in idolatry, and where fear ruled instead of love. Christ lifted home life onto an even higher plane, making it a place of deep spiritual fellowship as well as tender love. The Christian home is a scene where father, mother, and children enjoy together a sense of the divine favor and protection, and where the whole family honors Christ as Savior and Lord. From such a home the voice of prayer and praise will rise up as a continual sacrifice day by day.
The loosening of the marriage tie and the lowering of the home ideals are perhaps the two greatest evils of our times. Divorces are increasing at an alarming rate as people more and more disregard the teaching of Scripture as to the sacred character of marriage, and give free rein to inordinate affections and selfish desires. The children are the greatest sufferers in the breaking up of the home. We are sowing the wind as a nation, and we are destined to reap the whirlwind unless we turn to God in repentance and seek to walk in humble obedience to His Word.
At the rate in which divorces are increasing in this and other lands, family life will soon be a thing of the past in the majority of cases, as far as the unsaved are concerned. The children of God should avoid any complicity in this evil thing by implicit obedience to the teaching of our Lord in regard to the intended permanence of the marriage relationship.
After this somewhat lengthy digression we must pass on to consider the next incident, which follows in beautiful moral order.
Jesus Blesses the Children (Matthew 19:13-15)
Parents brought their little ones to Jesus, beseeching Him to lay His holy hands on them and to bestow a blessing upon them. The bringing of the children was a token of real faith in the grace and power of the Lord. To the disciples this seemed an unnecessary intrusion upon the time and consideration of their Master, and they attempted to restrain those who came desiring Him to take such kindly notice of their offspring.
Jesus interfered immediately, however, and encouraged the parents by saying, “Suffer [or permit] little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He had shown and declared earlier that, because of their simple faith, children are the ideal subjects of the kingdom. Here He reaffirmed this, and by these words gives encouragement to all parents everywhere who believe in Him and endeavor to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. They can bring their little ones to Him, confident that His blessing will be upon them.
After laying His hands on the children, Jesus left that place to go on toward Jerusalem where He was to lay down His life as a sacrifice for sin.
Jesus Defines the Cost of Discipleship (Matthew 19:16-26)
In order to understand this incident correctly we need to distinguish carefully between salvation and discipleship. God’s salvation is absolutely free. It is offered to men on the principle of pure, unmerited grace. But discipleship literally costs all that one has—the loss of all things (Philippians 3:7-8; Luke 14:33). No one can be a true follower of Christ who does not take up his cross—that which speaks of death to the flesh—and follow the Lord Jesus in His path of rejection by the world and devotion to the Father’s will.
“Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” The question involves one’s ability to earn eternal life by doing. This young man had not yet learned his own utter sinfulness and absolute helplessness.
In addressing Jesus Christ as “Good Master,” the young man evidently meant to do Him honor, but Jesus declared that only God is good. All men are sinners (Romans 3:12). Therefore, if Jesus were only a man, He would not be good, in this absolute sense. If truly good, then He is God. After His solemn declaration, the Lord Jesus took the inquirer up on his own ground. The law promised life to those who kept it (Leviticus 18:5; Galatians 3:12). So the Lord answered, “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” This declaration was designed to show the man his inability to obtain life by obedience to the law, for if his conscience were active, he would realize he had already violated the law.
“He saith unto him, Which?” This was clearly an attempt to evade the full force of the Lord’s words. In reply, Jesus quoted five of the principal commandments and concluded by summing up all of those that refer to our duties to our fellow men by quoting from Leviticus 19:18, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” It would indicate an unawakened condition of soul if one could face all these and plead not guilty.
If men would seek to gain eternal life by doing good, the law challenges them to perfect obedience. Because all have sinned, it is not possible for anyone to be justified by the deeds of the law. The law speaks with awful force to an awakened conscience, leading one to realize the hopelessness of ever obtaining eternal life by human merit.
“All these have I kept from my youth up.” No doubt these words came from a sincere heart, but they give evidence of lack of real exercise of conscience. Who, knowing himself, could so speak? Outwardly, the life may have been blameless, but if conscience had been active there would have been confession of sin. The words of the young man revealed the smug self-righteousness of one who prided himself on his own morality and did not realize the corruption of his heart. The question, “What lack I yet?” in itself indicates how complacent he was—how self-satisfied.
“If thou wilt be perfect, sell… and give… and follow me.” Jesus so spoke in order to jar him from his ill-founded confidence. How could anyone who was wealthy profess to love his neighbor as himself while needy, poverty-stricken people were suffering on every hand. To become a disciple of Christ—to live for others—and thus to lay up treasure in Heaven, had no attraction for this one who talked so glibly of complete obedience to God’s commandments from his youth up.
In calling upon the rich inquirer to sell all he had and give to the poor in order that he might have treasure in Heaven, our Lord was seeking to reveal both the deceitfulness and selfishness of the human heart. The challenge to forsake all and follow Christ was a call to yield wholly to His authority, thus to become a disciple in deed and in truth.
It is a poor thing when Christ has merely the first place in one’s life. He is intensely exclusive and asks that we give Him full control of our entire being. No one, however closely related, is to be permitted to turn us aside from the path of devotion and allegiance to Him (Luke 14:26-27). So fervent should be our love for Christ that our affection for our dearest friends or relatives will seem as hatred in comparison.
To the flesh, this may seem to be a hard and almost unkind demand. But the truly surrendered soul finds a deeper joy in yielding all to Him who has bought us with His blood, than in living to please one’s self. Many have resisted for years the call to such a life of wholehearted allegiance, only to learn at last that they have lost out immeasurably by refusing to own the claims of the Lord Jesus to the exclusion of all else.
“He went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.” It has been well called “the great refusal.” Whatever admiration this man had for the Lord Jesus Christ, whatever inward yearning there was for the spiritual life, all were weaker than his love for his wealth and the place it gave him in the social circles of his day. His great possessions stood between him and the salvation of his soul. They meant more to him than the knowledge of life eternal.
To take up the cross and follow Christ in His path of rejection by the world may appear to involve sacrifices too great for flesh and blood to endure. But when the surrender is made and the cross accepted, we find, as the saintly Rutherford expressed it, that “that cross is a burden such as fins are to a fish, or wings to a bird.”
“A rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” As we have seen already the kingdom of Heaven is not Heaven itself. Rather it implies the recognition of and subjection to Heaven’s authority while here on earth. It is hard for those to whom God has entrusted great wealth to hold everything they possess as a stewardship, which they are responsible to use for His glory. It was not merely the salvation of this young man’s soul that was at stake: Christ was pointing the way to true discipleship.
“His disciples… were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved?” They naturally thought it would be easier for those in comfortable circumstances to follow Jesus than for the poor and needy, but throughout the history of Christianity the poor of this world have often been richest in faith.
“With God all things are possible.” It is only the omnipotent power of God that leads any man, be he rich or poor, to trust in Christ as Savior and yield obedience to Him as Lord. Every conversion, and every consecrated life is a miracle of grace. Whether men be wealthy or poverty-stricken, or among the fairly comfortable middle classes, it is only when they have been convicted of their lost condition by the Holy Spirit that they ever turn to Christ for deliverance. In Him all class distinctions vanish, and all stand on one common ground before God.
Just what it was that led the rich young man to talk with the Lord Jesus we are not told. He may have felt within his soul that Jesus spoke with all authority and had therefore the right to claim submission to His words. But the young man evidently had no sense of his own need as a sinner. He thought of Jesus as a teacher, not as a Savior. So he was not ready to put Christ first in his life, and like many thousands since who were somewhat attracted to the Lord Jesus, he went pensively away when he learned the conditions of discipleship.
The Right Use of Wealth. It is not sinful to be rich. It is sinful to make riches the ground of overconfidence, and to enjoy the comforts that wealth can give while forgetting the sufferings of the poor and needy. When God commits wealth to any man, it is as a stewardship entrusted to him to be administered for the glory of Him who gave it. It is the love of money, not money itself, that is evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Money may become the means of untold blessing if used in subjection to Christ (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Jesus Promises Rewards for His Followers (Matthew 19:27-30)
The disciples had been silent on-lookers and listeners during the colloquy between their Lord and the rich young ruler. But now that the young man had turned away to go on in his selfish course, Peter spoke up on behalf of them all and expressed the concern in their hearts as to what the final result would be of their own renunciations for Christ’s name’s sake.
“We have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” It seemed to be a natural question, and in one sense it was. In the eyes of the world they had forfeited all hope of riches or advancement. They had risked everything on the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Yet He had spoken darkly of rejection, suffering, and death. For what were they to look in the days to come?
In reply Jesus assured them that when the kingdom was fully displayed, in the days of earth’s regeneration, or new birth, they who had been identified with Him in His rejection would be honored and recognized in a very signal manner. They would sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. In saying this He did not overlook the predicted apostasy of Judas, but it had been arranged in the counsels of God that Matthias was to take his place. Paul’s apostleship later on was of an altogether different order. He was not numbered with the twelve, but was the chosen instrument to make known the mystery of the body of Christ in which no distinction is made between Jew and Gentile, as he told us in Ephesians 3.
Not only were the twelve sure of reward. Jesus declared that “every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or… lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” No one ever lost out by excessive devotion to Christ. Whatever has to be renounced for His name’s sake will be repaid abundantly, both in this life and in the next. Many who profess such renunciation of worldly profit for His sake will, like Demas, fail of reward because of unfaithfulness (2 Timothy 4:10). Others who might not seem to have endured much for Him but were true at heart in the time of His rejection will be recognized in that day. Thus, the first should be last and the last first.
When Christ fills the soul’s vision, it is easy to forsake all else for His sake. But until He is known, first as Savior, then as Lord, things of earth still seem to be of far greater worth and importance than the things of eternity. Not until one has learned the lesson of his own sinfulness and good-for-nothingness, will he turn to the Lord Jesus alone for deliverance and be prepared to acknowledge His authority in every sphere of this earthly life. Love for Christ makes self-surrender easy. Love of self makes it impossible.
The contrast comes out clearly as we consider the great refusal of the rich young ruler and the devoted allegiance of the apostolic band, who had left all to follow their Lord, in spite of much misunderstanding and failure.