“Jesus… came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him… The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’” (Matthew 19:1-3).
How was this a test? It was a test in at least three ways. (1) It was a test of courage. Herod Antipas governed this territory beyond the Jordan (Perea). Herod Antipas arrested, and beheaded John because of what he taught on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Would Jesus speak on this subject? If He did, would His words agree with John’s? (2) It was a test of consistency. Jesus had previously taught on this subject (Matthew 5:31-32). John’s death came. Would Jesus change His teaching? (3) It was a test of character. Multitudes were now following Jesus. This subject was highly controversial. Many agreed with Rabbi Hillel (d. 10 A.D.), who taught that one could divorce for small reasons, such as burning a meal. Others agreed with Rabbi Shammai (d. 30 A.D.), who taught that one could divorce only for serious offenses, such as sexually immoral or indecent behavior. Any answer had the potential of offending some in the multitude of Jesus’ followers. Would He water down His answer to please the masses?
The Pharisees were trying to damage Jesus’ influence. If He was inconsistent with John, they would expose this. If He said anything that might anger Herod Antipas, they could report this to Herod. If He was inconsistent with His earlier teaching, this could be exposed. Moreover, the Pharisees knew that any answer Jesus gave had the potential of not pleasing some in the multitude.
Jesus was unlike many (cf. John 12:42). He never compromised truth for the sake of popularity (cf. John 6:66-68).
“And He answered and said to them ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.’” (Mark 10:3-4).
They were correct. The Law of Moses did allow divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
However, what else did Moses write? Had they considered God’s design for marriage?
“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 be 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 returned to creation. He quoted Genesis 1:27 in Matthew 19:4 and Genesis 2:24 in Matthew 19:5. He said in effect, “This is God’s ideal for marriage: one man and one woman joined together for life.” They were focused on divorce. Jesus wanted them to focus on God’s ideal for marriage.
Two words are interesting. The word in verse 5 which is translated “joined” (NKJV), “cleave” (KJV), and “hold fast” (ESV) means “’to join fast together, to glue, cement,’ is primarily said of metals and other materials” (Vine’s). God’s design was for a lasting bond to exist. The word in verse 6 translated, “joined” means “to yoke together” (Vine’s). God’s ideal is for the two to walk together as one unit.
“They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:7-8).
The Pharisees returned to the subject of divorce, and pressed Jesus for an answer on Deuteronomy 24. They said, “Moses commanded.” However, Moses had never commanded such. He permitted it. Oliver Green commented, “The law did not command a man to put away (even – B.H.) an unfaithful wife, but it did command that he give her a ‘writing of divorcement’ if he did put her away.” (Green, The Gospel According to Matthew, Vol. 4, p. 222).
Jesus replied that Moses (the Law of Moses) allowed divorce. He allowed divorce because of the hardness of your hearts. This was not a compliment. Ancil Jenkins commented, “If divorce had not been allowed, two greater evils would have prevailed. Some people would not have married, thus promoting immorality. Others, not having an opportunity for divorce, would have killed their unwanted wives” (Jenkins, A Commentary on Mark, p. 101). Such is possible.
However, “from the beginning it was not so.” That is: Divorce was never God’s ideal for marriage. The words, “it was not so” are from gegonen, which is in the perfect tense. Roy Deaver provides a literal rendering – “but from the beginning it stands in the position of not having become thus” (Deaver, A Study of Matthew 19:9, p. 7). God’s ideal for marriage has never been found in divorce.
“But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘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 they are no more two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9).
God’s ideal for marriage is found in creation. He created one man and one woman. He planned for the two to be joined together in a lasting union, an enduring partnership.