The Sanctity of Marriage: Matthew 19:3-9
“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) Consequently 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.”” Matthew‬ ‭19‬:‭3‬-‭9‬
This encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees became the basis of the clearest teaching by Jesus on the sanctity of marriage in the four Gospels. The Pharisees goal was not to learn about marriage, but merely to get Jesus on record as discrediting Moses and the Law. They wanted a basis to accuse Jesus of breaking the Law.
Their question as recorded in verse 3 expresses how liberal the religious leaders had become; “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” This was the origin of “no fault divorce”, but it was only initiated by the man.
According to verse 7, all the husband had to do was give his wife a certificate of divorce and send his wife away. There was no basis for child visitation or custody, no alimony and no claim to any marriage equity. She could be thrown out and abandoned for no cause and no reason.
This injustice was partially why Malachi 2:13-16 says that God hated the practice of divorce among His people. It had eroded the family and social structure in Israel. They had become worse than the Gentiles. Jesus was condemning this immoral and corrupt practice. He was defending women and the sanctity of marriage.
Jesus responded by appealing to the original design for marriage in Genesis 2:21-25. He went back to the beginning and noted that God created them as male and female, and caused them to cleave together as one.
The concept of “cleaving” is illustrated by glueing or laminating two pieces of wood together. As the carpenters son, Jesus could speak with authority on bonding. He was an expert at glueing wood together. He knew how to make two pieces of wood into one!
Jesus then issued a strong warning in verse 6. He said; “Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh, what therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” It’s not that they cannot be separated; the issue is that they cannot be separated without severe consequence.
Let me give an illustration. From the beginning, God joined electrons to protons to make atoms. For centuries mankind left them together. The end results of scientists separating them resulted in the nuclear bomb. The fallout has been disastrous. Bad things always happen when people tamper with Gods original design.
When a marriage ends in divorce, there are consequences. Two pieces of wood cannot be separated without marring both pieces. Divorce does the same to people. It leaves serious wounds and scars. The fallout affects a lot of people, especially the children.
The Pharisees could not refute the logic of Jesus, so they refer back to the command of Moses relative to divorce. Jesus pointed out that what Moses said was not “a command” but “a concession” based on hard hearts. In doing so, Jesus exposed the hard and calloused hearts of the Pharisees.
It is at this point that Jesus pointed out in verse 9 that divorce and remarriage amounts to adultery. It had become a loophole in the Law for wife swapping without assigning guilt of anything immoral. The religious leaders had evil and immoral hearts. The practice had become rampant in Israel as a way of legally circumventing the charge of adultery.
Verse 9 also includes what has come to be called “the exception clause.” When Jesus said “except for the cause of adultery” most people believe He was saying that infidelity is an excusable reason for divorce without immoral consequence.
But there are some serious biblical flaws with that view. First, the Greek word Jesus used was not the common word for “adultery”, but for “immorality.” Second, in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7; Paul taught that recourse to “pornia” or “immoralities” was to get married and not to get divorced. Third, Jesus Christ and the gospel is the basis for forgiveness and reconciliation not division and destruction. Finally the permanence of the marriage covenant is a picture of the assurance of salvation for believers. (See Ephesians 5:22-33)
Some scholars believe Jesus was teaching something totally different with “the exception clause.” Let me summarize.
According to the Old Testament, there were numerous immoral relationships that God did not permit. (Read Leviticus 18 & 20) God looks at these relationships as being “immoral.” God does not join them together in marriage because they are forbidden.
According to this view, Jesus was saying in Matthew 19:9; “When the marriage itself is immoral, it should be ended because God did not join those relationships together!” They must be repented from and set aside. When these people latter enter into a biblical marriage, it is not adultery because they were never in a biblical marriage covenant.
Coincidentally, the New Testament instructs two marriages to end. John the Baptist told Herod it was “unlawful” for him to be married to his brothers wife. Then again in 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul disallowed the immoral union of a man to his fathers wife. Both were unlawful or immoral marriages. Both were forbidden under the Law. God did not join them together. Both were instructed to end.
Many see the biblical sanctity of marriage being extended to the Gentile church in Acts 15:28-29. The three restrictions summarize in these two verses for Gentile believers come directly from Leviticus 17-20. The Jerusalem Council was instructing the Gentile believers to embrace the biblical sanctity of marriage and holiness.
The usual view of “The Exception Clause” from Matthew 19:9 has resulted in the modern church basically adopting the same values on divorce and remarriage as the Pharisees. In the context, Jesus was doing just the opposite. He was establishing the permanence of the marriage covenant. He was not permitting divorce and remarriage for nearly any cause.
Daily Bible Commentary By Terry Baxter: Cofounder of GoServ Global