In the Reformed tradition, adultery or deliberate desertion are “sufficient reason for dissolving the bond of marriage”; the innocent may remarry and the guilty party treated as if dead. Calvin realised the gravity of the Matthew 19:9 ‘exception clause’ and lamented the woeful magistrates who would not execute for adultery. The Reformers settled for a metaphorical death to allow remarriage (i.e. pretend your spouse is dead!). This meant that the person one had promised to love in sickness and in health, ‘until death do us part’, could effectively be treated forevermore as an untouchable leper! Would Jesus really have taught anything like this?

Matthew 19:9 – A Deadly Exception (ACT PhD, 2020) shows that the “sexual immorality” of Matthew 19:9 does not equate with “a matter of indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1. The current Protestant majority view on divorce and remarriage is therefore wrong, because it largely depends on this equation. Mercy is not core to this view. As with other current views, it also misses the point of the ‘exception clause’ in Matthew 19:9 (and 5:32).

Matthew 19:9 offers no easy escape from marriage. As written in the Law of Moses, “sexual immorality” encompasses every kind of illicit sexual intercourse: acts that attract the death penalty. This includes “adultery,” an evil in God’s eyesand a sin against God (Ps 51:4). Applying Deuteronomy 22:22 to Matthew 19:9 has dire ramifications, especially for an “evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39; 16:4). In contrast, “a matter of indecency” (Deut 24:1) is something unfavourable in a wife found merely in a man’s eyes. Capital punishment is not applied. It is a highly subjective and likely selfish judgement.

By the Law, any man who writes “sexual immorality” on his wife’s divorce certificate hands her a death sentence! Does Jesus advocate this for Christians today? No. We must not rush straight to Christian application, but appreciate that Jesus was tested on a matter of Law. Jesus turns the tables on his opponents: he is totally lawful and they are lawless (Matt 23:28). Jesus has also taught that whoever looks with lustful intent at another woman commits adultery in his heart (Matt 5:28-30). Therefore, whoever divorces his wife for “sexual immorality” risks joining the lawless “hypocrites” Jesus condemns, and if a man divorces his wife for any other reason, then he commits adultery himself. A deadly judgement rests on all who test God and break covenant in their unfaithfulness.

Matthew 19:1-12 firstly involves a question of Law. Many scholars agree that Jesus did not abolish or change the Law (Matt 5:17-20), but they then contradict themselves by saying Jesus modified the Law, especially in the area of marriage. They use complex arguments to do this, but they really do not take Jesus at his word. Jesus. Did. Not. Change. The. Law.

Christians routinely hold that only the moral law, as represented by the Ten Commandments, remains applicable, without sure basis for neglecting the 600-odd other Old Testament commands – with their many bloody demands. Matthew’s ‘exception clause’ is often seen as clear proof that Jesus changed the Law, for it is thought that (in keeping with contemporary law and culture) he replaced death for adultery with divorce. However, the ‘exception clause’ is actually exceptionally good proof that Jesus did not change the Law at all.

This is not an appeal to reinstate the death penalty, but to clearly understand which law and covenant Christians come under. Observing Jesus’ commands (Matt 28:20) must involve observing the context of his commands. Christians are not commanded to obey the (Old Testament) Law of Moses, but to obey the (New Testament) law of Christ. All principles of the Law endure – as do all penalties of the Law for those who remain under the Law. Yet all fall short of the Law’s perfect standard (Matt 5:48), so all must rely on God’s mercy and Jesus’ surpassing righteousness for salvation.

When tested on grounds for divorce, Jesus used the first book of the Law to highlight a clear command on marriage. He gave a definite “No” to divorce: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt 19:4-6). The Pharisees continued their test by asking why Moses permitted divorce (Deut 24:1-4). Jesus then charged them with “hardness of heart” (Matt 19:8). This is usually taken to mean that God permits divorce as a concession to human fallenness. Here is another common mistake.

Examining every occurrence in Scripture of “hardness of heart” shows that this rare characterisation is a terminal indictment that attracts certain – deadly – judgement. This is an irredeemable stubbornness. It is foolish to follow the divorce practices of those in Moses’ time who lived in rebellion to God and never reached the Promised Land. When we see “hardness of heart” as dire judgement, and not as some sort of gracious concession to general sinfulness, we can then better see how Jesus’ sole exception, “sexual immorality,” uttered in the one same sentence, also brings dire judgement.

How Matthew uses apolyo (a Greek term for “divorce”) is also illuminating: elsewhere it has no technical meaning invested in it, suggesting that better attention be paid to its simple verbal use within a marriage context. “To divorce” simply means “to send away,” and Israel has been sent away from God and his “house” (Temple / land) before in the Babylonian Exile roughly 500 years prior to Christ. Within a generation of Jesus speaking, Israel will be sent away again, this time for almost 2000 years. No wonder “Babylon” features four times in the opening of the Gospel. Matthew has good news: God will save his people; and bad news: God has just grounds for sending away his unfaithful wife (again).

The ‘exception clause’ of Matthew 19:9 is best understood not only in relation to Law, but in its narrative context. Jesus has just spoken on forgiveness, and marriage is the perfect place to practice this! Reading Matthew 19:1-12 in the light of Matthew 18:21-35 reveals that an unpayable debt to God, as accrued say by committing adultery, can be forgiven. Thus, any debt to a spouse – due to indecency – that the hard-hearted hold as grounds for divorce, should be forgiven too. If divorce is ultimately about an unwillingness to forgive, then no wonder God’s anger burns. God rejects those who reject his voice (Heb 3:8, 15; 4:7), who test him and stubbornly rebel against his clear command to hold fast in marriage (Gen 2:24; Mal 2:16). God will not forgive those who do not forgive (Matt 6:15; 18:35).

For the unmerciful and unfaithful, judgement looms, as witnessed by the binding nature of biblical blood covenants, and in the climactic fulfilment of the Hebrew narrative. Critics fear that this understanding will wreak havoc in the church, but it actually offers clear teaching and solid hope. It encourages the humble to examine their own hearts, to repent of all unfaithfulness and bitterness, and to know and show God’s mercy.

God desires mercy (see Hos 6:6 – cited twice by Jesus, Matt 9:13; 12:7), and mercy requires mercy (Matt 18:33).The merciful and faithful will be united with God forever in his house – a place abounding with love, peace, security and sensational celebration. Such people enjoy the good news of Jesus and the presence of God eternally.

                                                                                                       – David Lowe

PhD Publication: ‘Matthew 19:9 – A Deadly Exception

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