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Matthew 19:1-12

Divorce: What does it mean for two to become one?

Tom Faletti

February 13, 2024

Matthew 19 Introduction before reading the passage


Matthew 19:1 tells us that Jesus now moves into Judea, for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel – a step closer to the most vigorous opposition he faces, in the spiritual and secular power center of Jerusalem.  So this move, this step, sets him on the path to Jerusalem and the Cross.


The particular route he is taking involves going out of the way, crossing over to the east side of the Jordan River.  Jews often did this to avoid going through Samaria.  (Jews detested the Samaritans because the Samaritans were in their mind only semi-Jews, since they did not engage in the Temple worship in Jerusalem.)



Read 19:1-12 Marriage and divorce


Notice the contrast in verses 2 and 3. There are 3 kinds of people identified here.  What are 3 different reasons people come to Jesus here?


  • Some people follow him. They think he is teaching something valuable.

  • Some people want him to cure them.  They think he is doing something valuable.

  • But some people want to catch him in error.  They think he is misleading people.


What is the Pharisees’ question?


The Pharisees are thinking about Deut. 24:1-4, where the Law of Moses appears to allow men to divorce their wives for any reason.  Different schools of thought in Jesus’s time interpreted this differently – the Hillel school took the words at face value to produce a policy that made it easy for men to divorce their wives for any reason, while the school of Shammai took a strict approach that only allowed a man to divorce his wife if she committed adultery.


What is Jesus’s answer?


What is Jesus’s scriptural justification for his answer?

Gen. 1:27 and 2:24.


Marriage is a human institution in every culture, even where it is not considered a divine institution.  Jesus interprets the Old Testament to emphasize that God had an original plan for marriage, from the beginning of human history.  What do these passages he quotes from Genesis tell us about the meaning of marriage?


What is the point of his referring to what was “from the beginning”?  Why is that important?


Jesus says that “what God has joined together” (19:6, NRSV and NABRE) must not be separated by humans.


How can the statement “what God has joined together” guide our thinking about marriage?

Members of my Bible Study group offered answers such as: Marriage involves commitment, cohesiveness, a spiritual bond, being a complete unit, sticking to or clinging to each other, following the original template from before the Fall.


The Pharisees move right past his explanation and ask why Moses allowed divorce if God doesn’t actually permit it.  What is Jesus’s explanation for why Moses had a more lax standard?

Their hard-heartedness.


What does hard-heartedness mean?  What does it look like?


Whose perspective is foremost in mind for the Pharisees: the man (husband), the woman (wife), or the couple together?


Whose experience do you think God is concerned about?


In ancient times, and not only among the Jews, adultery was considered to be an offense against the husband – an offense against men.  (See New Oxford Annotated Bible, footnote to Mark 10:1-16, p. 1810.)  In reaching back beyond Moses to the “beginning,” Jesus points to a part of the Old Testament that is not so male-centric.  In human terms, the Book of Deuteronomy has the flavor of having been codified by men who were writing to men, for men.


What difference does Jesus’s teaching make for women?


Notice that all the language is egalitarian – the words are identical for the man and the woman. 


Marriage, in God’s view, is a union of equality and oneness.  Does this surprise you?  What do you think of this?



Now focus on the statement, “the two shall become one flesh” (19:5, NRSV and NABRE).  In the context of Genesis, this is often taken almost as though it is primarily about biology: here’s a man, there’s a woman, the man leaves his family, the woman leaves her family, they get married, they have sex, and that’s how the species propagates.  In sex, the oneness is physical and temporary.


But Jesus says something more profound when he adds, “So they are no longer two” (Matthew 19:6, NRSV and NABRE).  He’s not just talking about sex.


In Jesus’s profound “before Moses” vision of what marriage is supposed to be, in marriage a husband and wife are “no longer two.”  What does it mean for the two to become one?  In what ways are they meant to be one?

Members of my Bible Study group offered answers such as: They are of one mind.  They exercise joint decision making.  They give and take, with a commitment to reconciliation when they get it wrong.  They act like what happens to you is as important as what happens to me.  They are like conjoined twins in the sense that what I do affects you.


William Barclay offers several beautiful thoughts here: being one means not just doing one thing (sex) together, but doing all things together; being completed by your partner; sharing all the circumstances of life; knowing each other well; with consideration thinking more of the other than of oneself (Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew Volume 2, pp. 223-226).


People often want to marry for love.  In Jesus’s time, most marriages were probably arranged and not decided based on love, yet God wanted the two to become one.  Love is an act of the will, not a feeling.



Now let’s look at the rule for divorce that he lays down in verse 9.  What is the standard he establishes?


Note that the Catholic Church has chosen to follow Mark’s version, which does not have the exception for unchastity (Mark 10:1-12).  Mark’s Gospel was written earlier, so Matthew’s exception clause is often assumed to have been added later.  Also, Luke follows Mark’s absolute standard.


Why do you think Jesus lands there as the answer to when divorce is allowed?


How does this view honor the idea that marriage is a covenant that is supposed to be a true union?

It should be like God’s covenant with us.



This is the first of several teachings of Jesus that even his own disciples aren’t sure they can live up to – they think it is a hard teaching.


How do you interpret Jesus’s answer in verse 11?


One way to think about this is that marriage is not for everyone.  Some are called to be married and some are called to be celibate.  Does that make sense to you?


Another way to think about this is that Jesus may be saying that not everyone will be capable of living up to this teaching.  It is a teaching given to Christians.  Why would Christians be especially enabled, and especially expected, to live up to this teaching?

Believers in God have received the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to live out the teachings of Jesus.



We are not going to dwell on v. 12, which has challenged scholars throughout the Church’s history.  The point of verse 12 may be that, when the disciples say maybe it is better not to get married, Jesus says that some people do choose not to be married – for a variety of reasons.  Some men (whether from birth or injury) do not have the sexual equipment to have intercourse and cannot fulfill the Jewish expectation that they get married and have children.  Some men were castrated, a practice at that time for some jobs in royal palaces and Greek temples but thankfully not practiced now.  And some have chosen to be “eunuchs” – probably meant figuratively for those who have chosen a life of celibacy and not meant to be taken literally.  Unfortunately, the early church historian Eusebius tells us that Origen, the early Christian scholar who lived from c. 185 AD to 253 or 254 AD, castrated himself, thinking he was making himself a eunuch for the kingdom of God in accordance with Matthew 19:12.  This is not what Jesus was saying.



What do you think is most insightful in Jesus’s teaching about divorce?


What do you find problematic here, if anything, and how do you think Jesus would respond to your concern?


What should we do to promote a healthy view of marriage in our society?



Take a step back and consider this:


Paul had the great insight that the marriage of a man and a woman was an image of the relationship between God and the church (Eph. 5:25-32).  Spouses should love each other and lay down their lives for each other as Jesus loved and laid down his life for the church.  The husband and wife are not just two separate beings; they are a unity.  That is why I should care as much about what happens to my wife as I care about what happens to me, and vice versa.  When we live out that calling, we are acting as people made to reflect the image of God to the world around us.  When we live out that calling, we are truly being all that God wants us to be.


If you are married, how can you lay down your life for your spouse?  How can you make sure that your spouse doesn’t feel like she/he is doing all the laying down of their life while you’re not?  How can you show that this is a mutual thing where you are a team, together in all things?



The relationship between a husband and wife is far more important than just its effect on each other.  It also affects their children.  Children are the subject of the next passage.



Click here for the bibliography.

Copyright © 2024, Tom Faletti (Faith Explored, This material may be reproduced in whole or in part without alteration, for nonprofit use, provided such reproductions are not sold and include this copyright notice or a similar acknowledgement that includes a reference to Faith Explored and See for more materials like this.

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