Troublesome Topic: Jesus Was Asked About Divorce Mt 19

Matthew 19:3


Then the Pharisees came to Him, testing

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Him and saying, “Is it lawful for a man to dismiss

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his wife for every reason?”


Then some self-righteous religious leaders came near Jesus in order to find fault in Him, and asked this question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?”

The Pharisees were asking about Dt 24:1 which refers to shameful exposure of parts of her body which only the husband should see. It refers to a woman who, after marriage, begins to exhibit indecent, immodest behavior. It had not yet lead to adultery, but it likely would for what other reason did a woman have to abandon the modesty that was common in that culture?

Thus, in my opinion, the permission for divorce does not grant a man the freedom to dismiss his wife if she burned breakfast, or any other trivial matter. It seems to be pointing to evidence of inappropriate conduct on her part that would lead to adultery if it continued. This statement made divorce/separation under the Law a very rare thing because the permission granted was for a narrowly defined situation.


For a long time, a debate had been going on over the interpretation of a passage in Deuteronomy that we refer to as Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Some interpreted Deuteronomy 24 as saying that a man could divorce his wife for any reason, while others interpreted Deuteronomy to say that divorce was only allowed in cases of sexual immorality. Ever since at least the time of the prophet Malachi (and probably earlier), it was common for men to divorce their wives for frivolous causes; only a few held to a stricter interpretation of Deuteronomy.

This debate seems to have been reignited or intensified by Rabbi Hillel (110 BC – 10 AD) and Rabbi Shammai (50 BC – 30 AD). Rabbi Hillel promoted a “wide open” interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, while Rabbi Shammai held to the interpretation of “only for sexual immorality.” You can see from the years shown above that they both had at least some degree of overlap with the life of Jesus. Even though Rabbi Hillel was no longer alive, this was still a hot topic when Jesus was involved in public ministry.

What were the Pharisees trying to achieve?

They wanted to find inconsistencies in what Jesus might say here and what He had taught or done earlier, or they wanted to make the general public unhappy with Him. If Jesus sided with the more lenient Hillel, it would be a contradiction with what He had already taught in Mt 5:32 and Lk 16:18 and they could discredit him for contradicting Himself. If He were consistent with His earlier teaching and sided with the stricter Shammai, this would highlight the strictness of Jesus and cause those among the Jewish population who had already divorced their wives for frivolous causes to dislike Jesus. They could also point out apparent contradictions between His words and how he treated with kindness people like the adulterous woman of John 8 and the Samaritan woman at the well (if they heard about the latter). Of the various possible reasons they had for asking this question, this last possibility, that Jesus said one thing and yet treated people in a way that looked contradictory, seems to have the strongest support.

Matthew 19:4


Answering He said, “Have you not read that the One who created, from the beginning made them male and female?”


He answered, “Haven’t you known through reading Genesis that the One who created everything, created humans as male and female from the beginning?”

Matthew 19:5


Then He said, “On account of this a man will leave father and mother and will be glued to his wife and the two will become one body.


Then He added, “Based on this, a man will move out from under the direct and complete authority of his father and mother and become closely united to his wife and the two will become one family and one body [when their love produces their first child.]

When a young man gets married, he steps out from under the direct authority of his father (there is still an indirect authority that remains) and he is now directly under God’s authority as the head of his own household. We all answer to someone, and he now answers both to God as his primary authority, to his father in a general way, and to his wife as a dependent and an important team player. Having people depend on us changes our perspective on many things.

If this young man were a modern-day American and were to get divorced, he would think that he would answer only to God and to himself. But God’s design never has us answering only to ourselves on the human level; we must answer to another person, as well as to God. Yes, we are responsible for our own souls, but I am talking about submission to authority. I see the biblical pattern being that he should be subject again to his father’s direct authority. Wow! Can it get any more un-American than that? Unless they lived in the city, the son was already living in an apartment in his parents’ complex so he did not move back in with them, he was already there, but the primary authority changed back to his father.

God gave fathers and grandfathers (called elders) responsibility and authority, he also held them accountable. That is the way it needs to be, for authority, responsibility and accountability always go together.

Matthew 19:6


So no longer are they two, but one body. Therefore, what THEOS has yoked together,

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man must not separate.”


So that they are no longer two people but one unit. Therefore, a man [or a woman] must not separate what THE CREATOR AND OWNER OF ALL THINGS has paired closely together in order to work well together.”

At this point in His answer, Jesus did not choose to support either Shammai or Hillel, instead He pointed them to the original state of things at creation. The original plan was for a union of one man and one woman that would only be broken by death. This statement by Jesus seems to allow no room for divorce. In this way it appears at first glance that Jesus did not agree with the law of Moses, however, we will see later that He did uphold the Law as well as highlighting the original design. The words “what Theos has yoked together, man must not separate” was a stronger statement than most of us realize. If only God can give life, only God can take it away. If only God could strike someone with the scourge of a visible abnormality (often called leprosy), only God could heal it (as Jesus

healed it rapidly). If only God could establish a covenant with mankind, only God could replace that covenant with a new covenant. The same is true here; if God unites a man and woman in marriage, only God can separate them. When we choose divorce, we are playing God.

Thus, at this point in Jesus’ answer, it sounds like divorce is not an option at all. But Jesus went on to address the allowance given in the Law.

Matthew 19:7


They say to Him, “Why then did MOSES command to give a small scroll of separation

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and dismiss her?”


They said to Him, “If a married man and woman cannot be separated, why did RESCUED give orders that a man could give his wife a written notification of dismissal and send her away?”

Matthew 19:8


He says to them, “MOSES, in light of your dried-up heart,

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permitted you to dismiss your wives, however, from the beginning it has not been this way.


He said to them, “RESCUED permitted you to choose dismissal as an option because of the hard, dried condition of your hearts, but dismissal was not included in God’s original plan.

Notice that the Pharisees placed the possibility of divorce on the lips of Moses as if it were a command, but Jesus refers to is as an exception to the ideal that God had in mind.

The verb form used in the clause “From the beginning it has not been this way,” refers to action done in the past with continuing results in the present. This means that when the Law granted permission for dismissal it did not annul the original design of the Creator. God has always wanted us to live in ways that reflect His character and purpose, which is simultaneously what is best for us. According to the creation account, that means one man married to one woman for life. Dismissal was not intended to be part of the picture, but it was allowed because many people refuse to follow God’s way.

What did Jesus mean by a “dried up heart”?

Option 1: That “Dried up hearts” referred to the lascivious women. But it does not make sense that an allowance is made to the husband because of the lasciviousness of the wife.

Option 2: Men’s inability to resolve marriage problems – why was this not punished? Allowing it and giving a way out of the problem created by neglect would only encourage it.

Option 3: Moses was complicit in the errors of men who actually deserved punishment, not license. No, Jesus would not have refer to Moses at all if he had participated in wrongdoing. Option 4: That a woman did indeed have the right to initiate a divorce and it was allowed by Moses for the woman’s protection. However, that seems to be a modern thought process injected into the ancient

text, and not what we find in the Scriptures themselves. In the Law, men were the ones with the option to divorce, however, by the time of Jesus, it appears that women also had that option.

Option 5: (from Barnes and Matthew Poole): Divorce for any reason was already common among the Israelites before the days of Moses and God allowed Moses to grant the people some allowance for dismissal rather than a harsh punishment for something which was already common among them. Yet he limited it in an attempt to make it less common and encourage better choices on the part of both husband and wife. The limitations were that it had to be put in writing, there were often judges involved in the process, and Dt. 24 allowed it only for a very specific reason. I consider this to be the best way to understand “dried up hearts”.

Matthew 19:9


But I say to you that whoever dismisses his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery, and he who marries the one that has been dismissed commits adultery.


Let me tell you something important. If a man who wants to send his wife away, the situation must fit the exception given in Deuteronomy, i.e. it must be a case of a wife who is involved in sexually inappropriate activity that is leading toward a sexual affair. If this man dismisses his wife and marries another woman, he commits adultery, and any man that marries the dismissed woman also commits adultery.

Please hold on as I walk slowly through this. Don’t react strongly without reading to the end or you will miss some important pieces of this puzzle.

What is the meaning of the key words used here?

The word which is often rendered “fornication” can refer to any sexually indecent or sexually immoral act, including adultery. Growing up I always heard that fornication referred to sex before marriage, and adultery was a sexual affair by a married person. Now I see that the truth is not that narrow.

The word that is often translated “divorce” means “to release, set free, send away, dismiss, or divorce.”

Why Does My Paraphrase Sound So Different from My Translation?

It sounds like my paraphrase has changed the meaning considerably from what the translation says. Yes, that is true and here is why. The translation tells you what the words of the original language said, but sometimes the meaning of those words includes one or more assumptions that went unstated in the original statement because the original audience would have understood those assumptions. In this case there are several assumptions, and they are all very important. Those assumption deal with the following issues: How are this man or woman still alive? Did the exception refer only to divorce or also to remarriage? What is the correct interpretation of Dt 24:1-4 and the answer to the Pharisees’ question? Was remarriage ever permitted? These questions will be answered as I present my perspective below.

Instead of dealing with all the possible interpretations of this passage and their respective strengths and weaknesses, allow me to jump right to what I think is the most plausible interpretation.

God’s Plan

Marriage was intended as a picture of what our relationship with God is like. It is a flawed image because we are flawed people, but it is still helpful.

It appears that the authority structure which names the husband and father as head of the home was intended to be for life. The only thing that could properly change that was death I Cor 7:39). Divorce was allowed, but it was a narrowly defined exception.

If a woman was given a certificate of dismissal, she returned to the authority of her father. If the woman went back to her father of her own volition, she was under the joint authority of her husband and her father.

If the husband gave her a certificate of divorce, it was intended in his mind to be permanent, but God kept open the possibility of a reunion. That was because, once a woman was dismissed by her husband, no other man could rightfully have her as a wife (see I Cor 7:11).  The only one who could marry her was her original husband. By not giving them another option, God wanted to motivate them to reunite.

A sexual affair violated the marriage covenant, that is one reason it resulted in death. So there was no divorce and remarriage after adultery because the one involved in the sexual affair would be dead.

The Words of Jesus Pertain to Deuteronomy 24:1-4

After she had been dismissed, only the husband could have her again as a wife. This taught that remarriage to someone else was not a good option; it caused uncleanness of a serious kind. Most of the things we do, like going to work or taking a walk, or mowing the lawn, are considered common and clean. However, remarriage after a separation or divorce was considered unclean, unacceptable, not according to God’s standard.

What did these regulations teach regarding a relationship with God in general?

They taught that God is the ultimate authority, He is where authority begins and all humans with authority are to function under God’s authority, striving to do His will.

They taught that a relationship with God was intended to be for life, without any allegiances to other people or other things. There can be no competition for our allegiance.

 If Jesus was highlighting the marriage relationship as a picture of our relationship with God, why did He mention an exception?

 He pointed to the original design, but He also upheld the Law, which recognizes our fallen condition that has been true since Adam and Eve sinned.

What should we make of the exception Jesus gave?

Jesus must have addressed this issue several times, for it appears in the Gospels in different places Mt 5:32, but in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18. The exception is mentioned in Mt 5:32 and Mt 19:9, but in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18 no exception is given. This means that the truth being communicated could be stated without any exception granted, but it was sometimes mentioned for the sake of clarity because of the debate between Shammai and Hillel. When stated without any exception, it placed greater emphasis on God’s design by highlighting how things were at the beginning.

According to the law, sex outside of marriage brought the death penalty. The woman in the example of Mt 19:9 was still alive to possibly marry again. That means we are not talking about a case of premarital sex, nor of an affair after marriage. You can’t get remarried if you’re dead!

The exception Jesus gave in Mt 19:9 followed Dt 4:1-4 and referred to sexually inappropriate acts that were an obvious lead-up to a sexual affair (in agreement with Shammai). This is the only way I see to interpret the exception Jesus gave.

Many scholars agree that the Law permitted divorce (under limited circumstances), but it did not permit remarriage.

What was Jesus really saying?

Twice in Matthew 19 Jesus emphasized how things were at the beginning.

God’s plan does not include divorce

We should not consider divorce as an option.

The next lesson is: How Should We Treat People Who Have Been Divorced and Remarried?



The word used here can mean “to test, to tempt, to prove.” It can be used in either positive or negative ways. The context here points obviously to a negative intent.


[1] In Greek this is a compound word, coming from “away from” and “loose.” Therefore it means “to send away, to dismiss, discharge, divorce, get rid of, let go of.”


Here a different mental image is used, that of yoking two oxen together to form a team that can accomplish much more together than if they worked separately. It was a common way to refer to marriage in ancient Greek.


The marriage formula said, “I am your husband and you are my wife;” the divorce formula said, “I am not your husband and you are not my wife,” or it could be shortened to “you are not my wife.” However, the divorce statement needed to be presented in writing.


This is a compound word made up of the word for “dried out or rough and hard,” and the word “heart”. It describes a condition of something being overly dry due to a lack of water or a lack of oil. Water represented, among other things, God’s gift of life, and oil always represented the Holy Spirit. A heart without water belongs to a person who is devoid of compassion or flexibility and lacks true life; a heart without oil belongs to  a person that is obstinate, unyielding to the Holy Spirit and hence rebellious toward God.