The Reaction to Jesus' Teaching on Marriage and Divorce
I know of no one who would deny it. Jesus was radical in the religious arena of
the first century world. His life began in the womb of a woman not yet married.
He was not degreed from a prestigious rabbinical school, yet He never hesitated
to engage the scribes and lawyers in fierce verbal confrontations. He did not
pay tribute to the hallowed traditions of men. He rowed against the tide of
current religious thought during His entire ministry and for a finale, He died
the despicable death on the cross.
Repeatedly, the Lord heralded the message, "My kingdom is different." In the Greco-Roman world of first century Palestine, a person could not have found someone more openly counter-cultural in both lifestyle and philosophy than was Jesus of Nazareth. One would come to expect anything Jesus said to be expressed in radical terms.
The marriage question has been a controversial religious issue for years, even during the first century. The scribes and Pharisees were forever trying to entrap Jesus with their questions, attempting to force Him to take a position which they, in turn, could effectively destroy. In Matthew 19, their question was erroneously focused on the legalities and technicalities of divorce. My Lord, in response, focused on God's purpose and intent in marriage. Rabbi Hillel was the champion of liberals, advocating a broad position of divorce for every cause. Rabbi Shammai, on the other hand, was the hero of the conservative wing, holding the line on what seemed to be an extremely narrow interpretation of the law regarding divorce. Jesus of Nazareth was publicly challenged to show His colors and declare one way or the other. It seemed to be the perfect challenge. No matter which of the two positions Jesus took, those holding the other view would devour Him
You already know that less did not take either of the two positions on divorce. Instead, He stated the law of God concerning marriage. According to the Lord, marriage was God's idea. It was designed for one man and one woman, instituted from the time of creation. God said that the duration of the relationship established between a man and woman in marriage would be lifelong. Furthermore, God said that sundering a marriage was sin.
While the listeners were still reeling from the rigidity of these comments on marriage, Jesus boldly asserted a divine message about this matter of divorce. To the ears of these listeners, it was the most radical statement of all.
"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).
Who can believe it?
Who can accept it?
When this confrontation began, it was the Pharisees who were challenging Jesus. As Jesus expresses the attitude of heaven toward marriage and divorce, it is the disciples not the Pharisees who react to Jesus' teaching.
Today, when a Christian teaches that divorce for every cause is sin and those who thus divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery, he likely will hear some folks say, "That's too hard!" Be advised, that is exactly what the disciples of Jesus said almost two thousand years ago (Matthew 19:10). The disciples understood what Jesus was saying. They understood the implications of that teaching. In fact, in their turmoil they concluded that if His rigid, obdurate statement is indeed the divine Word on marriage, then it would be far better for a man not to marry. "It's hard. It requires so much. It's so inflexible. It's radical!" But what did they expect? What less can you expect in a kingdom born of a crucified King. This is the King who demands a loyalty to Him that exceeds loyalty to one's own flesh and blood (Matthew 10:34-39). If God can require of us our very lives, He can surely require of us certain relationships in life.
Did you ever wonder why the disciples would have reacted as they did, if in fact Jesus was not teaching what He appears to be teaching? As they heard these words of Jesus, they immediately concluded that this was a hard saying. Jesus taught that marriage is for life. He likewise taught that divorcing a mate (for a cause other than sexual immorality) and marrying again is sinful. Was this statement hard because it was difficult in interpretation? No. It was hard because it was painful in application.
By David Thomley
From Expository Files 3.10; October 1996