Session #119 Wrong Questions Right Answers
Scripture Matthew 19:1-12
Summary In Matthew 19:1-12, the Pharisees came with intentions to test and trap Jesus. They asked wrong questions about divorce but Jesus provided right answers about marriage. This teaching shows our questions can reveal our focus but God’s answers will always reveal His heart. Knowing the difference will enable us to live out the spirit of the law, and not simply get by with the letter of the law.
In our wrestling with God, many of us will ask tons and tons of questions. However, are these questions asked with the right motives? Several times, we only want to hear the answers that agree with our own position. Thankfully, God does not answer our questions according to what we want to hear, but what we need to hear, that is His word and ways.
Matthew 19:1-12, deals with the difficult topic of divorce. Is it allowed? When is it allowed? How do we get divorced?
These are practical questions indeed. But those asking these questions may not be seeking the right answers; just answers they want to hear. This is especially for those struggling in their marriage. Dealing with marital struggles is a painful and challenging journey. However, if we want to seek the right answers to our problems, we need to ask the right questions with the right intent. Let us learn from Jesus in this passage.
Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him….. Matthew 19:1-3
The first two verses of Matthew 19 depict a transition from Matthew 18. Jesus had just completed the fourth kingdom discourse with the teachings on kingdom relationships and kingdom community. This provides an important context for today’s passage about divorce, or more accurately, about kingdom marriage.
Jesus and His disciples were journeying from Galilee to Jerusalem, coming to “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan”. This region is known as Perea, which was located at the east of Jordan. It was a common route for the Jews who wanted to avoid Samaria. However, Jesus was not avoiding Samaria. In fact, He had just been rejected by a Samaria village (Luke 9:51-56), and thus had to detour via Perea. While this was not His first trip, this trip was Jesus’ final one to Jerusalem. Jesus had already accumulated much popularity among the people. He was healing them during the trip and there were “great multitudes” following Him. This surged in popularity also brought about escalating hostility, setting the stage for the final confrontation in Jerusalem.
This was the point when the Pharisees came in to ask Jesus a few questions. They must have followed Jesus’ teachings, especially the series “Sermon on the Mount”. In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus had already addressed the issue on divorce. The intention of these Pharisees was not to learn, but to test and tempt. They were asking these questions with the hope that Jesus would provide the wrong answers so that they could trap Him. Yet, contrary to their expectations, Jesus not only gave the right answers, but also exposed their wrong questions, intentions and hearts.
In the next few sections of this teaching, we will be delving into the “wrong questions” that the Pharisees asked and the “right answers” that Jesus provided.
Question #1 “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matthew 19:3)
Is it lawful to divorce? The Pharisees were referring to Deuteronomy 24:1 which states, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house”. The word “uncleanness” means indecency or shame; however, its exact definition was controversial in Jesus’ day, with two rabbinic schools of thought. The school of Shammai advocated that uncleanness refers to sexual immorality or marital unfaithfulness. On the other hand, the school of Hillel defines it as anything that upsets the man and brings “shame” to him, even if it is just accidental burning of his food.
The main issue for the Pharisees was not about divorce per se, but the reason for divorce. Divorces are common and accepted by the Law during Jesus’ days, albeit the controversies. But, how should the justifications for divorce be interpreted? What did the Law say, and who should interpret the Law?
How did Jesus reply to this question? He emphasised that it was the wrong question and focus. The focus was not about divorce itself, but about marriage. In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus provided His answer by quoting the teachings on marriage from the Book of Genesis.
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 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’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” Matthew 19:4-6
Jesus was emphasising God’s original design for marriage here. Marriage is about two genders – male and female, both created in God’s image. Marriage is not about us, but it is about God; it describes God’s image. It is not just about our happiness or satisfaction. It is about God’s glory!
The man should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. In many cultures, the woman’s leaving from her family is assumed. Concurrently, the man must also start to assume his new responsibilities for a new kingdom unit and family. It is a kingdom assignment to be a husband who is joined to his wife to become one flesh in marriage (just like “superglue”). The husband and wife should be “glued” together through sexual union (consummeration) (1 Corinthians 7:4) and the sharing of spirit and soul (Ephesians 5:31-32). This is the mystery of marriage and it is all in God’s divine plan.
How does such a union happen? God is the one who joins the husband and wife, not us. Man is not to separate what God has joined. To put the message across strongly, divorce is considered human destruction of a divine creation. Therefore, asking how to walk out of marriage is the “wrong question” to start with. Herein, Jesus provided the “right answer”: to work out our marriage!
Question #2 “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” (Matthew 19:7)
So why did Moses command divorce? In the Jewish context, Moses is synonymous with the Law and command. But here’s an interesting observation: the Greek word for divorce, “apoluo”, is the same word for forgiveness. In the case of forgiveness, it refers to the release or cancellation of a previous debt. In parallel, divorce also means the release and cancellation of a person being divorced!
What Jesus was saying in Matthew 19:8 was that divorce is a concession, not a command. Moses did not command divorce, but instead permitted it. However, this is not God’s original intent from the beginning (referring to Genesis). The reason why divorce was accepted by the law was because God factored in the hardness of a man’s heart (Matthew 19:8). A man can be
can be proud, stubborn, rebellious, perverse, self-seeking (selfish), self-righteous, unfeeling, unloving, uncaring, unforgiving… Imagine living with someone like this? The concession for divorce was in fact a protection for the one being divorced.
Divorce or no divorce? It is important to throw a word of caution that either extreme is unhealthy and even dangerous. In some countries where divorces are prohibited, there is an exorbitantly high number of cases with broken marriages, multiple partners, annulments and desertion. It is wrong for us to only focus on the letter of the law, but miss out on the spirit of the law. We need to understand God’s heart and align with Him. Yet, other problems can arise by allowing divorce. With our hardened heart, divorce can become a convenient escape. Many no longer want to work out our marriage, opting for a quick way out when any issue arises.
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. Matthew 19:9
Here, Jesus is providing an exception to the rule of no divorce. Sexual immorality (porneia) means fornication, or sexual immorality prior to marriage. Unlike what many presumed to be, “porneia” does not refer to adultery (moichea), which means sexual immorality outside of a marital relationship. If a man discovers a woman has not been pure before the marriage, he can release his prospective wife (such as in the case of Joseph and Mary).
In Deuteronomy 24:1, divorce is clearly a concession. However, if we apply Deuteronomy 22:20-21, there is strictly no concession for someone who has been sexually immoral. If sexual immorality is discovered, either both parties live with it and stay married, or the sexually immoral one is stoned to death. If adultery is committed, both the adulterous man and woman are to be stoned to death. Whether in the Old or New testament, our King treats the issue of righteousness (sexual purity) and sin (sexual immorality) very seriously, especially in a marital relationship. We should neither fornicate (before marriage) nor commit adultery (outside of marriage). To adhere to these standards, we must focus on working out our marriage!
Is Jesus thus endorsing divorce with this exception? It depends on whether we are reading this with hardness of the heart. If our hearts are hardened, we will respond like the Pharisees and start to focus on the wrong question. We will then miss out the right answer, which is to focus on God’s design and intent for marriage. The humility of heart is what will counter the hardness in our hearts. Here are a few pointers to what it means by a humbled heart:
- The way into the kingdom is through the humbleness of our hearts. The husband and wife are both sinners who are saved by grace through faith. There is no place for pride here!
- The only way to deal with and relate to one another is with humility. We must learn to see each other through the Cross. As how Jesus has loved us, we should love one another; and as how Jesus has forgiven, we are to forgive one another (Matthew 18:21-35). If one party is non-repentant, we should apply Matthew 18:15-20. Our intention is about restoration, but never at the expense of righteousness.
- The only way of the kingdom is a much higher way because it is God’s way for His people. Kingdom marriages represent Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:31-32), and humbled hearts recognise that we cannot achieve this on our own. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit to live out our marriage to bring glory to Jesus (Ephesians 5:18).
Question #3 “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)
Jesus had made His point about marriage and divorce. But notice the wrong focus again! This time, it is the disciples’ turn to ask a wrong question. They were asking Jesus whether it is better to stay single. However, the focus is really not about whether to be married or stay single. Therefore, Jesus did not provide a direct answer to this question.
But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
Jesus was telling His disciples that singlehood is not for everyone. There are some eunuchs who are born with disabilities (by birth), eununches who are castrated or emasculated, assigned to look after royal harems or dwellings of females (by men) and finally eununches who voluntarily abstain from sex for the sake of the kingdom (by choice) (e.g. Jesus, John the Baptist and Paul). However, it is not better to be married than to be single and vice versa. Whether we are married or single, let us live righteously and humbly to the glory of Jesus and His kingdom. If we are married, we should reveal Jesus and His kingdom through our marriage. If we are single, we also reveal Jesus by being holy and remaining pure.
Wrong questions. Right answers! The passage in Matthew 19:1-12 seems to be about divorce. It was the Pharisees’ intent to test and trap Jesus into providing answers that served their purpose. However, Jesus turned it around to reflect the true kingdom purpose of marriage. To understand the spirit of the law, we must get to the heart of the One who gave the law- Restoration and Righteousness. This can only be done with humbled hearts, not hardened hearts. Hardened hearts will also ask the wrong questions and seek for the answers they want to hear to suit their purposes. Between working out a marriage and looking for a way out of marriage, the latter was the easier option. However, the kingdom way is about God’s original design and intent for marriage. Kingdom people are to strive for kingdom marriages that would reveal Jesus and His kingdom. This is only possible with humbled hearts, fully yielded to and enabled by the Spirit of the King. Whether married or single, there will be challenges and it will require sacrifice. Either way, we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to live for the King.
As we close, I want to be extra sensitive to all who are struggling in your marriage. Every situation is different and challenging. My prayer is that this teaching will provide you with kingdom principles to understand the heart of Jesus, as you seek Him for the right answers.