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Breaking Up

Matthew 19:1-15

Lesson audio

I know of no other teaching than this lesson’s which is more firmly resisted by the church today. The precepts of the Scripture are crystal clear, and therefore we are all the more inclined to “see through” them. We must, therefore, start at the beginning so that we might see what Christ taught – even though it is no longer taught.

Mat 19:1-12 NASB 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." (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 Situation – then and now

Three schools

Ultimately, Jewish thought produced three schools (by great Rabbis) of thought concerning divorce:

  • The school of Shammai held that the only reason for which a man could divorce his wife was her adultery. Even in that school, it was not mandatory; rather, a man could follow the example of Hosea. But once divorced, there was no return.[1]
  • Hillel was much more liberal. Basing himself upon a variety of Old Testament passages, divorce was permitted in a wide variety of circumstance. This included things like spoiling his dinner; walking around with her hair down in public; speaking to another man in public; raising her voice or criticizing his parents.
  • After the time of Christ (about 100 AD) rabbi Akiva proclaimed that “any indecency” was grounds – including the indecency of the husband finding a prettier girl. Women, it seems, were disposable items.

It is tempting to point fingers at the ancients for this. All it really does is show that the concept of a “trophy wife” is not nearly as new as we think it is.

The Pharisees

The Pharisees do not ask him this out of some intellectual curiosity. It is a blatant attempt to trap Jesus. If He sides with Shammai, he risks His popularity with the people. If He sides with Hillel, there are plenty of Scripture passages to throw in His face. It appears perfect.

But may I point out one obvious fact? Those who seek out a divorce lawyer do not do so to strengthen their marriage, but to end it. Which, I suspect, will stand in nicely as their motive behind the motive.

In my youth divorce still carried the faint air of disrespectability in the church. In those days, a woman seeking a divorce would rent a motel room in Las Vegas, Nevada for six weeks. Having thus satisfied the legal requirement for residency, Nevada courts would grant a divorce for practically any reason. At a time when many states still had laws on the books making adultery the only cause for divorce, you can imagine what this did for the tourist business in Nevada. Not to mention the supply of available women with experience.

The church today

It is, I hope, blatantly obvious that the church no longer teaches that divorce is a sin. Indeed, it is hard enough to find a sermon on the subject of adultery that doesn’t cause an exodus from the church. This is true even of “Bible believing” church congregations. One reason for this is rather simple: anywhere from a quarter to half of the people in the church have been divorced.

At one time I thought this was a case of the clergy being unwilling to voice their unpopular teaching. No more. I once made the mistake of pointing out to three of our staff members that (following C. S. Lewis on the point) any society which judges women by their appearance is permanently unfair to women. I got an interesting reaction:

“My wife knows that if she ever loses her face or her figure, she’s begging for a divorce.” The other staff members around nodded in agreement. I must tell you that I stood there with my mouth open and silent – which is a rather rare phenomenon.[2]

It is a sad fact: faithfulness in marriage is seldom mentioned and no longer required. The pattern of the church is that of the world. But it is interesting to watch a divorce from the teacher’s point of view. A couple divorcing has a very noticeable attendance pattern, designed to make sure that the church thinks everything is fine – until the divorce is over. But even then, everything is fine.

God’s Plan

It is fruitful to see how God intended marriage to work. If the rules change, we can at least find a good example.

From the beginning

Let us examine three principles which started with Adam and Eve:

  • We are made “in His image.” Marriage is not just animal coupling. We are to take account of right and wrong, not just our animal lusting nature.
  • We are made “male and female.” Those are not interchangeable parts. The role of man is not the role of woman, especially in marriage. As marriage is the picture of the church, this is also true of roles in the church.
  • Marriage makes us “one flesh.” Divorce should feel like ripping your right arm off – because it is.

Is this important? God must think so, I submit, in that He often uses adultery to portray the idolatry of Israel.

Reaction: the Pharisees

The trap having been set, the Pharisees now spring it. What about what Moses said? It is worth the time to answer this objection, for in that answer we may see an approach to adultery and divorce which might just work for this evil generation. We must consider principle, law and permission.

  • Principle – things like “one flesh” express the desire of God for His children. Whether or not divorce is permitted, it is God’s intention that marriage be lifelong – and faithful.
  • Law – there comes a point, however, when the desire of God cannot be enforced by His children of faith. So we set up laws to govern these situations, as we do not have the power of God to enforce the principle. In civil society, for example, we have a much lighter set of criteria for divorce. This is about all we could enforce.
  • Permission – there are also those things which God permits but does not require – which means that law is useless. For example, Hosea took his “wife of adultery” back into his home.

So it is that our treatment of the divorced is not one of unbending condemnation but should be one which welcomes the sinner home. It is not ours to judge; just because the legal paperwork didn’t say “adultery” doesn’t mean that adultery is absent. We need to preach the principle, enforce church discipline as the occasion presents, encourage those in troubled marriages to be forgiving – and welcome home even the worst of sinners.

Reaction: the disciples

The disciples, interestingly, catch the point immediately. Christ has already taught them that divorce brings adultery just as much as adultery brings divorce.[3] They reach the obvious conclusion: if it’s really that tough, then maybe we shouldn’t get into it in the first place. But that’s tough too; male hormones will be male hormones.

Christ’s answer points up the severity of the situation. Some men will be able to do this; in essence being eunuchs. For the rest, such chastity is the gift of God. And most of us don’t have it.

The Children

Mat 19:13-15 NASB Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. (14) But Jesus said, "Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (15) After laying His hands on them, He departed from there.

This passage is not usually connected with the teaching on divorce, but Matthew places it as being contiguous. We shall see that it has its bearing on the subject.


A little background: at this time, it was customary for women to bring their small children to be touched and blessed by anyone recognized as being a rabbi. It remains, in some sense, to this day. We like to shake hands with a popular sports figure, for example. Two things distinguish this practice:

  • It pays honor to the one who is doing the blessing. It says that you think such a person worthy of honor.
  • As such, it is also an act of humility, especially at this time – when women (low in status) would bring a baby (even lower in status) to be blessed by someone high in status.

This episode points up that marriage is designed to produce children. Hear what the prophet Malachi had to say about it:

Mal 2:13-16 NASB "This is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. (14) "Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. (15) "But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. (16) "For I hate divorce," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "and him who covers his garment with wrong," says the LORD of hosts. "So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously."

One of the purposes of marriage is to produce God-fearing children. This too can be abused, but this is the principle. Have you ever considered just what divorce does to the children of marriage?

  • What does the divorce teach the children about the sanctity of marriage? Is it given by God, or is that just natural adult hypocrisy?
  • What does divorce do to the home environment of the children? Do they need security, or a front row seat for the fight?
  • What does divorce teach them about faithfulness? Is it OK to lie to your boyfriend/girlfriend when you see your mother lying to your father?
  • What does divorce teach them about the value of others? Are women to be handled with honor, or to be squeezed for what they can give, then thrown away?

And if I might add a note: what are grandparents supposed to teach their grandchildren in the face of such examples?

The nature of children

May I point out the characteristics of such children? The ones that make them the “of such” which constitute the kingdom of heaven?

  • Obedience
  • Teach-ability
  • Trust
  • Loyalty

Children are often “in over their heads” in understanding marriage and divorce; they must therefore trust in their parents. Bitter is the disappointment when those parents fail them. Do we consider their eternal destiny when we decide to divorce?


May I leave you with three points?

  • We are not concerned with law but with principle – that our “one flesh” be wholeheartedly committed to a marriage in God’s style.
  • It is wise to ask: how is my marriage doing?
  • If it is doing well, then reach out to others whose marriage is in trouble. You may be the lighthouse which guides them home.

[1] Deuteronomy 24:1-4

[2] It should be noted that no church is perfect; it should also be noted that we did not pick this church, it was selected for us by the Holy Spirit. It should also be pointed out that I don’t know exactly why, either.

[3] Matthew 5:32

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