Friday, August 19, 2011

Understanding What Jesus Meant in Matthew 19:9 About Deuteronomy 24:1-4

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is correcting misinterpretations of the Law of Moses that He and others have been hearing in the synagogues for the past 30 years. In the gospel narratives, Jesus is described as traveling throughout Israel teaching in the synagogues (Matt. 4:23). "Large crowds" are now following Him (v. 25), and He has called His twelve disciples (5:1-2). After describing what a citizen of the kingdom is in The Beatitudes (5:3-12), and how citizens will be viewed by worldly people (vs.11-12), and how we are to view ourselves (vs. 13—16), Jesus immediately confronts the idea that He has "come to abolish the Law or the Prophets," stating that He has not come to abolish them, but to "fulfill" them (5:17-20).

I understand Matthew's usage of Jesus' words to mean that He is making plain what was a "mystery" in the OT (the classical argument of the OT conceals what the NT reveals) by contrasting what God actually meant with what the Pharisees and scribes had (mis)interpreted it to mean. Jesus and His apostles are "enemies of the state" being falsely accused of subverting God's nation (Mark 14:55-59; Acts 21:28). Immediately following Matt. 5:17-20, which concludes with the thought that "except your righteousness" (integrity, not moral superiority) "exceeds" (is more evident that you are real and not fake) that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall not enter into the (coming) kingdom" that He and John the Baptist have been announcing for about a year now--Jesus now begins correcting these misinterpretations of the Law which came as a result of these teachers being covetous hypocrites (Matt. 23:1ff).

The NIV divides Jesus' corrections conveniently into murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, etc. with paragraph headings. Each of these corrections begins with "You have heard…" or "It has been said…." These are the things that the people and Jesus had been taught all their lives in the synagogues. What Jesus is doing is correctly interpreting what the "scribes and Pharisees" had corrupted with their traditional interpretations and practices. Throughout the entire Sermon, Jesus is contrasting kingdom behavior with scribe and Pharisee behavior, especially throughout chapter 6.

Concerning divorce, Jesus is saying the exact same thing that Moses said. He is fulfilling it--not abolishing it. I noticed the KJV, ASV has "she may go and be another man's wife" (Deut. 24:2). This conveys the idea that "it is permissible" for her to go do it. This is not how the modern versions translate it (NIV, NKJV, ESV). They have "if she goes," or "when she goes." I believe this is still understandable in the KJV and ASV "she may go." The KJV and ASV are not saying, "it is permissible." They are saying 'if she goes'—i.e., hypothetically she 'may' go. The faulty "mis"understanding the religious teachers had was that "Moses gave us permission." Jesus is correcting their error in the Sermon (also see Matt. 19:1ff). They thought it was permissible to simply "give a certificate of divorce." Jesus is correcting their misunderstanding of Moses. Moses did not contradict Genesis 2.

The only command Moses gave in the scenario of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was "that the first husband could not take her back because she was defiled." This would pollute the land. Jesus is explaining explicitly what Moses implied. Jesus is fulfilling = "filling full" (making plain) the Law and explaining to these "covetous" men (Luke 16:14-18) what God's real law of marriage said "from the beginning" (Gen. 2) = "What God has joined together, let not man separate." Moses was saying that the woman who was put away by the first husband "may go" and remarry, but when she does she becomes an "adulteress" and that is why her husband cannot take her back. She has been defiled by marrying another man while her husband lives. This is how Paul understood marriage (Rom. 7:1-3). Jesus is saying that anyone who puts away a wife other than for the cause of fornication "causes her to commit adultery" which is exactly what Deut. 24:2 says she "may go do" (She is not being given permission by God to do so--this was the misunderstanding as it is today). She becomes defiled when she does this, and the first husband cannot "remarry" her. Jesus says, 'Whoever marries the divorced woman commits adultery." This is the correct interpretation of the Law of Divorce that Jesus is correcting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32) and is the same thing he says later in Matthew 19:9, except he is talking about the "first husband" instead of the "wife."

When Jesus says, Moses permitted you "because of the hardness of your hearts," it still says nothing of re-marriage (like 1 Corinthians 7 says nothing about re-marriage). Is there marriage? Yes. Is there divorce? Yes. Is there approval for remarriage? No. And this is exactly what Moses says in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

In Matt. 19:8, what I believe Jesus is saying to the Pharisees is: Are you now going to argue that "it's okay" to put away your wives, because "your hearts are hard?" So therefore, it's okay??!! Of course, this is an absurd argument, especially for "great religious teachers" the Pharisees thought themselves to be (Luke 18:9-14; Matt. 23:1ff). I think Jesus simply painted them into another corner with His argument like He did in the rest of Matthew (ch. 21-22).

May God bless our decisions, because we will answer for them personally (2 Cor. 5:10).


  1. Scott I am delighted to stumble across your blog. I have spent the last 20 minutes poking around and am refreshed. I did a series on the book of Deuteronomy called "The Gospel According to Moses" on my blog that perhaps you may be interested in. What a towering book of the Bible.

    You have some really thought provoking titles in your reading list: Hicks, Boyd, Wright ... and of course I have say Chapman because I love that book.

    I was stunned to see my blog linked on the left. I hope to get to know you better.

    Bobby Valentine

  2. Bobby,

    Thanks, man. The pleasure is all mine. Your recent article on "sound doctrine" from Timothy was refreshing, as well. I look forward to reading your series of articles on Deuteronomy. The authors you mentioned present a fresh perspective, don't they. Glad to have your link here. Look forward to future correspondence. God bless.


  3. This is very sad to read. What about 1 Corinthians 7, stating the believing spouse is no longer bound if the unbelieving spouse departs? It seems to be the same language used in Romans 7 to talk about the death of a spouse and the surviving spouse no longer being bound. What's your take on it?

  4. Solemn Seeker,

    I am not sure what you mean by "this" is sad. Will you elaborate?

    My take on "no longer bound" is that the spouse should not think that they must remain married to an unbeliever who departs, let them go. What does this have to do with re-marriage?

    In Romans 7, I think Paul is saying that if a woman is married to another man while her husband is alive, then she is called an adultress, but if he dies she is free to "re" marry whom she wishes.

    My article is about what is positively stated in Matthew 19:9 about re-marriage, not just divorce. What is your take?


    1. Scott,

      Thanks for your response. By sad, I meant that the reality of what is presented in your article is unfortunate for those whose unbelieving spouse leaves the marriage - especially if they are young with no kids(and desire to have those things) and are not able to be married again without sinning.

      I am aware that 1 Corinthians 7 does not speak of re-marriage directly for a believing spouse and that your article is about Matthew 19:9. My intent in writing is to have dialogue about the topic as I have read differing views about who is able to re-marry or not, and it is difficult to determine the truth because both sides present logical arguments.

      Romans 7:2 and 1 Cor. 7:39 say that a wife is not bound unless her husband dies. It appears that 1 Cor. 7:15 is the exception to those verses, as it states that a "sister or brother is not bound in such cases." If an unbelieving spouse leaves/divorces his believing spouse, then it would be redundant to say that the wife is "no longer bound" if such is the same as "no longer married to." Also, if a believing wife is still bound by the law of her husband when he leaves, when the husband lives a sexually immoral life while away, then what? the wife can "divorce" him again(since she was still bound by the law when he left) and remarry now that he's committed adultery?

      Also, in 1 Cor. 7(specifically v.25-28), Paul addresses marriage for those who have never been married and those who were married before, as he makes that distinction. So it seems that the apostle is allowing for remarriage. In regards to Matt. 19:9 and 5:32, I have read that these statements were specifically for the Jews who were not under the Christian dispensation, but Paul's instructions are for those who were. I'm not too sure if that argument holds up though, as Jesus gave many specific commands to the Jews directly that apply to Christians today("teaching them whatsoever I have commanded you").

      I'm not sure, though, I would like to believe that God would be gracious to those who had no say in a divorce (no one can make a person stay with them) and allow them to marry again without living sinfully. However, I will believe whatever the truth is; it's just not so clear right now.


  5. SS,

    Yes, I agree. Regardless of the remarriage issue, it must be tragic to be abandoned by an unbeliever.

    My opinion is that an unbeliever who abandons a believing spouse will rarely remain celibate, at which point the spouse who was abandoned has a right to remarry following the unbeliever's fornication.

    I have found, for myself, that it is very easy to use a rigid and legalistic interpretation method concerning the intent of God's commands that is not sustainable. I have learned that commands are given for our (societies) well being, not to satisfy an angry God's wrath. Nevertheless, grace may be abused irresponsibly by some as a license to sin. God knows each person's motive at the time of action and whether s/he is using a cloak for misbehavior. The sheer amount of divorces in our culture cannot all be legit, but God is the Judge of that. The main thing is that each person takes responsibility and accepts that s/he will be judged for his individual action.

    No preacher or elder will be sharing an individual's judgment (2 Cor. 5:10), and I think that many people want someone else to be responsible for their decisions (clerical hierarchy). This is the real problem in hierarchical, cultural thinking of which divorce is a symptom. I think that many people simply find a "higher up" who agrees with them rather than flesh it out themselves (1 The. 5:21), and so irresponsibility, or direct accountability to God, is not realized in the person's mind, since someone is in between them and God, whether they agree or disagree on an issue.

    In 1 Cor. 7, verses 10-11 and v. 39 are the same as Matt. 19:9 and Romans 7:1-3, so I don't see an exception except the caveat I stated above about abandoners rarely remaining celibate. Again, I think God's intent is to maintain healthy (sound) societies, so Paul states, "how do you know if you will save your husbands, etc." if you "leave the body with them." God's intent is always toward one man/one woman for life. The momentum of our culture is often just the opposite, and divorce occurs "for every cause."

    Concerning "not bound." Not bound to (do) what? I think that it means not bound to remain married, or "go with" the departing spouse who is leaving the body of Christ. Again "re" marriage is never mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 7, and the two passages I stated, vv. 10-11, v. 39, are what do concern remarriage and state that the spouse is "to be reconciled or remain unmarried."

    Thanks for the dialogue, as it shows the importance of "discussion" (not monologue preaching) that is to be occurring in the assemblies (Acts 20:7), but has been hijacked by the preacher/elder hierarchy. I had assumed a different motive on your part initially, so I am glad I had the opportunity to ask that many may benefit from the truth coming to light, rather than being controlled by "oversight" and being afraid to "question the authority of the pulpit (word of God)."

    If you think that I have missed something you said, please let me know.