Gender, Marriage, and Human Relationships in Matthew 19:3-6

1.  Introduction

Gender, marriage, and human relationships are topics of massive contemporary significance.  Therefore, it is important to see exactly what the Scriptures have to say about each one.  The Old Testament creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 sets the stage with Adam and Eve, the ideal humans in perfect relationship with each other and with God.  Then in Genesis 3, the fall of humankind occurs and turmoil and strife are introduced to the human relationships.  It looks bleak for humanity at this point.  However, there is hope.  Jesus Christ himself comes to the earth along with his plan of redemption for all of humankind.  This plan of redemption includes human relationships ruined by Adam’s rebellion in the garden.  What follows is an examination of Matthew 19:3-6, Jesus’ confrontation with Pharisees and subsequent teaching on the nature of marriage, human relationships, and divorce.

2.  Literary Context of Matthew 19:3-6

Before diving into the actual content of Matthew 19:3-6, it is necessary to place it within its proper context to avoid misinterpretation.  Matthew 19:1-2 describes Jesus having finished a particular set of sayings, before traveling along with large crowds who followed him.  Blomberg argues that this traveling is both geographical and theological: “In 19:1-20:34 Jesus is literally ‘on the road,’ continuing to teach a variety of people, and following up public discourse with private teachings for the disciples to correct their misunderstandings.”[1]  This region is “most likely Perea, the land just east of the Jordan River that lay between Samaria and the Decapolis.  Along with Galilee, it was administered by Herod Antipas, with a largely Jewish population.”[2]  This sets up the immediate context, but what about the book-wide context in which the passage exists?

This passage concerning Jesus’ teaching on human relationships, marriage, and divorce fits well with Matthew’s agenda to portray “Jesus [as] the consummate Teacher.”[3]  Throughout Matthew, Jesus is shown as one who teaches with authority.  This culminates with his “five large blocks of discourse material (“sermons”).”[4]  So this teaching on human relationships is fitting to the character of Matthew.  Having now established the literary context of the passage regarding both its neighboring passages and its context within the book as a whole, the content can be explored for its significance.

3.  Marriage: A Union Not to Be Broken

In Matthew 19:3, a group of Pharisees approach Jesus in order to test him with a question regarding divorce.  This particular scenario only serves to sustain “the tension, encountered earlier, between Jesus and the religious authorities.”[5]  Presumably, some of these Pharisees were aware of the teachings of Jesus, and they were approaching him in order to trap him into interpreting one of their questions in a way that would compromise some of his earlier teachings.  Their question, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3) points to a different issue than divorce itself.  Hagner explains, “The issue was not divorce itself, the right to which they took for granted, but rather the justifiable grounds for divorce.”[6]  In essence, the Pharisees wanted Jesus to answer a question regarding their interpretation of the permissible grounds for divorce rather than discuss divorce in its own right.

Two major Pharisaical schools, Shammai and Hillel, interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 (“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house…”) differently.[7]  Hagner adequately describes the situation when he jumps into the minds of the Pharisees and asks, “Would Jesus side with the school of Shammai, which allowed divorce only on the grounds of sexual immorality, or would he side with the school of Hillel, which sanctioned divorce on the most trivial grounds?”[8]

Jesus, apparently unmoved by the petition, responds, “Have you not read…?” (Matthew 19:4).  This would have been akin to an open-hand slap to the face for these Pharisees.  Blomberg explains that Jesus’ response here “challenges his interrogators’ understanding of the Scriptures.”[9]  “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4-5) constitutes Jesus’ initial answer to the Pharisees’ question.  This response is especially powerful because it completely bypasses the Pharisees’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 and goes all the way back to creation.  Jesus quotes Genesis in order to establish his point to the Pharisees.  This is to show what God’s original design for marriage is: namely, a covenant union between one male and one female culminating in sexual relations.  Brown comments, “These citations are brought together ‘to demonstrate the intention of God as creator of humanity for lifelong marriage or monogamy.’”[10]

It is interesting to note that Jesus completely demolishes the Pharisees’ question.  Not only does he avoid their trap, but also he utterly confounds them by pointing away from divorce and to God’s original design for the ideal human relationships.  This has wide-sweeping implications for modern Americans in an age of tolerance and shifting cultural definitions of marriage.  Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees clearly indicates that marriage is not simply a culturally-defined institution, but it is a God-ordained custom that exists across all cultures during all time periods because that is how God designed it to function.  Look closely at Jesus’ answer: “he who created them” indicates that God had a particular design and function for his creation and “from the beginning made them male and female” demonstrates how God’s design is intended to function.

Jesus then goes further: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6).  Blomberg explains, “Verse 6a makes it clear that this creation ordinance remains in effect even after the fall of the human race, the giving of the law, and the coming of the kingdom with Jesus.”[11]  It is simply an affirmative restatement of his rhetorical question presented to the Pharisees.  Again, this shows that Jesus’ teaching on marriage was not specific to that particular culture; his teaching extends to every culture everywhere.  Verse 6b heightens Jesus’ teaching even further: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”  God himself has ordained marriage to operate in a specific way, as Jesus points out, and humans should not seek to abolish or alter this design.  Blomberg notes, “precisely because God wants all marriages to be permanent, we dare not do anything to jeopardize them.”[12]

A comment on divorce is now in order.  Marriage has clearly been established as a covenant union between one male and one female both from the creation account in Genesis 2 and then Jesus’ reaffirmation of God’s original design in Matthew 19.  The sensible reader will then ask, Does Jesus not allow for divorce at all?  Should a woman be encouraged to stay with her abusive husband?  Should a husband whose wife has been unfaithful be forced to stay despite the obvious issues that would be present?  These questions, and their answers, demonstrate why it is critical for readers to read passages within context.  If one stopped reading at verse 6, it would be unclear whether Jesus allowed for divorce in any case.  He states the original intention of marriage and then says, “let man not separate” and break this union of one flesh.  But then in verse 9 he adds one exception: sexual immorality.  This is the only exception for permissible divorce that is explicitly mentioned by Jesus in the context.  So apparently, divorce is permissible under certain conditions where the covenant union is already broken.

4.  Additional New Testament Mentions of Marriage

Now an examination of the rest of the New Testament teaching on marriage and divorce can take place.  Is this particularly radical view of marriage and divorce unique to Matthew?  Or does the rest of the New Testament support this same kind of interpretation?  For the purposes of this essay, Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:22-33 is the most important passage in the rest of the New Testament.  Here, Paul gives explicit commands to wives, namely, “submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).  Paul is teaching about the deeper reality of the nature of marriage: union between one male and one female is meant to be a picture of the relationship that Christ has with the church.  That is why he says that husbands are to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25).  This is incredible!  Not only does Paul affirm heterosexual, monogamous marriage, but also he explains the deeper realities therein.

Next, Paul tackles the issue again in 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.  Briefly, Paul gives several exhortations to the church in Corinth regarding marriage: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband…do not deprive one another…if [unmarried and widows] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry…the wife should not separate from her husband…” (1 Corinthians 7:3, 5, 9, 10).  This set of commands takes into account that marriage is the covenant union between one male and one female, and begins to shape how the Corinthian church should respond because of this reality.  It is interesting to note that Paul lists a second explicit exception for permissible divorce: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so” (1 Corinthians 7:15).  If one spouse is not a believer and decides to leave, Paul says that this reason is sufficient grounds for permissible divorce.

The writer to the Hebrews exhorts his audience in 13:4 to “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”  There are two main points that the writer is making: 1) the audience should keep the institution of marriage honorable, and 2) they should absain from sexual immorality.  Again, the teaching of the text is clear, and it supports what Matthew reported from Jesus as well as what Paul charged to the Ephesian and Corinthian churches.

Finally, 1 Peter 3:1-7 is the last major teaching section on marriage in the Bible.  Interspersed with commands for the audience, it repeatedly assumes that wives are married to husbands, thus showing Peter viewed marriage as a covenant between one male and one female as well.  It has now been shown that Matthew, Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, and Peter all have strikingly similar views of marriage and divorce.

5.  Synthesis and Conclusion

It has been thoroughly demonstrated that marriage in the New Testament is to be a covenant union between one male and one female.  This reality has its genesis in the creation account, and it is noteworthy that Jesus points back to this fact in order to establish these grounds.  The fall of humankind brought strife and difficulty into these relationships, but the coming of Jesus brought redemption for all of creation, including broken human relationships.  While Jesus is clear about the seriousness of the commitment in the relationships, he does provide for one sensible exception for divorce in cases of sexual immorality.  The rest of the New Testament, including Paul, the writer to the Hebrews, and Peter, agrees with Jesus on all of these points.  Paul introduces one more sensible exception in cases of an unbelieving spouse deserting the relationship.  In the eyes of the New Testament, marriage is to be a permanent union for the display of God’s original design of how Christ loves the church.

[1] Blomberg, Craig L., The New American Commentary: Matthew (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 287.

[2] Wilkins, Michael J., The NIV Application Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

[3] Blomberg, Craig L., Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 146.

[4] Ibid., 143.

[5] Hagner, Donald A., Word Biblical Commentary: Matthew 14-28 (Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 546.

[6] Ibid., 547.

[7] For an extensive overview of this reality, cf. ibid., 547.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Blomberg, Matthew, 290.

[10] Brown, Jeannine K., Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2015), 221.

[11] Blomberg, Matthew, 290.

[12] Ibid,. 290.

Thanks for reading.  Have a question or comment?  Leave it below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s