The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
Teaching About Divorce
19 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Matthew 18 records Jesus’s teaching session with His disciples at Peter’s house in Capernaum.
In Matthew 18:1-4 He says that believers must become as humble as children. He was responding to the disciples’ question about the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is more evident in the parallel passages of Luke 9:46-48 and Mark 9:33-37. The latter, incidentally, is in the three-year Lectionary.
Matthew 18:5-6 deals with the gravity of people causing believers to sin. Jesus said it would be preferable for them to have a millstone around their neck and drown in the middle of the sea. As my post explains (see link), drowning was a horrifying punishment that was unknown to the Jews until the Romans came to rule over them.
Jesus went on to say in Matthew 18:7-9 that it would be better to remove an eye or a limb that causes us to sin rather than be condemned to hell.
Then, He gave them the Parable of the Lost Sheep — Matthew 18:10-14 — as an example to follow once they become evangelists and leaders of the fledgling Church. They did not understand it as such as they had no comprehension of what would happen to Jesus.
Jesus concluded with two lessons on the necessity of forgiveness, following the divine example of God the Father.
The first concerns what to do if someone sins against us (verses 15 to 20). Verse 18 says:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f] in heaven.
Whatever we hold against someone in this life will be held against us in the next unless we mend our fences with that person.
Verses 21 to 35 relate the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It begins with this exchange:
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
The parable concerns a merciful master who forgave his servant’s debt. The servant, however, did not forgive someone who owed him. Not only did he choke the man, he had him put in prison. When the master found out, he became angry with the servant for not showing mercy to his debtor:
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[k] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Now we come to Matthew 19:1, which tells us that when Jesus finished ‘these sayings’ He left Galilee for Judea ‘beyond the Jordan’.
Although the next two entries will concern divorce, it is important to understand that Matthew 19:1-2 are not incidental verses but mark an important point in our Lord’s ministry.
Matthew Henry tells us that Galilee was a region that was looked down upon and that Jesus’s attire reflected its humble character (emphases mine):
it was an instance of his humiliation, and in this, as in other things, he appeared in a mean state, that he would go under the character of a Galilean, a north-countryman, the least polite and refined part of the nation.
Although He moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, both towns were in Galilee. Therefore, He stayed in the land of His upbringing until He completed His preaching and healing miracles to and for His immediate people. Henry says that He had accomplished all that His Father had wanted him to do. Those in ministry today can also take a lesson from this:
Note, As Christ’s faithful ministers are not taken out of the world, so they are not removed from any place, till they have finished their testimony in that place, Revelation 11:7. This is very comfortable to those that follow not their own humours, but God’s providence, in their removals, that their sayings shall be finished before they depart. And who would desire to continue any where longer than he has work to do for God there?
Jesus drew a line under Galilee at this point. Although He returned there, it was on the way to other places.
It is important to understand that the Galileans might have followed Him in fascination, but very few believed He was their Messiah.
The Nazarenes tried to kill Him. He read a scroll with verses from Isaiah and announced that He was their fulfilment. The Nazarenes asked each other, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ They were unsettled by His words. Here is Luke 4:24:
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.
He then related the story of Elijah to illustrate that just as the prophet cleansed the Syrian leper — an enemy and a foreigner — so He would minister elsewhere. His townspeople became angry with Him, chased him out of town and attempted to throw Him from a cliff. Luke 4:30 says:
But passing through their midst, he went away.
Nazareth would neither know nor experience His miracles and His teaching.
Recall that, even though He had been living in Capernaum with Peter and his family, the townspeople rejected Him. Because the people in Capernaum actually saw and heard Him, yet disbelieved or were indifferent, Jesus says their punishment would be greater than that of Sodom, Tyre and Sidon.
His next — and final — ministry concentrated on Judea and Jerusalem, including areas that were near the Gentiles:
Thus Christ intimated, that, while he kept within the confines of the Jewish nation, he had his eye upon the Gentiles, and his gospel was aiming and coming toward them.
He travelled south. John MacArthur describes the geography:
He came into the region, or area, or borders of Judaea beyond the Jordan. Now you know the land of Palestine, don’t you? It’s split down the middle, really, by the River Jordan. It runs from the very far north into the Lake of Chinnereth or the Sea of Galilee, and it runs down from there to the Dead Sea.
And the Jordan River is a very important point in the center of Israel. Galilee is in the north and Judah is in the south. Galilee is a rural area. Judah is the more populated area where Jerusalem is.
Jesus took a particular route:
… instead of going straight down to Judah he goes east, crosses the Jordan River, goes down the back side of the Jordan on the eastern side, and the will cross again south by Jericho, ascend up the mountain to Jerusalem. That’s the route that he takes.
As verse 1 tells us, He was going ‘beyond’ the Jordan. MacArthur says the Jews called that locale Perea, from the word peran, which means ‘beyond’.
Jesus went there for historically religious reasons — to avoid the Samaritans, whom the Jews considered defiled:
Also, any Jew traveling from the north to the south would go that way, because if he went straight south, he would have to go through the land of the Samaritans, and they didn’t want to do that because they thought the Samaritans to be a defiled people, and also a rather dangerous people.
Another reason for going to Perea was Passover, which was imminent:
So they would go east and down that area of Perea, which meant that this close to the Passover and the feast season, there would be a lot of pilgrims going that way, as well. So the Lord would be able to minister to the inhabitants of Perea, as well as to the pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. So it was a very careful thing the Lord did as he approached Jerusalem from this route.
So he goes east and down towards Jerusalem from the back side of the Jordan.
This explanation helps us to put verse 2 in a more meaningful context. Large crowds followed Him in Perea and He healed them there.
A parallel verse can be found in Mark 10:1, which I wrote about in 2012. The only difference is that Mark used the word ‘taught’ and Matthew ‘healed’.
These healings were the manifestation of his Messianic credentials. They showed his power and his compassion …
So it’s very much like the Galilean ministry: A crowd gathers, he teaches, and he heals them, giving them the Word of God, and affirming its truthfulness and Himself as the spokesman of God by his miraculous compassion and miraculous power.
MacArthur reminds us that Jesus knew His death was imminent. However, instead of being preoccupied with the horrifying crucifixion to come, in His infinite mercy and love, He taught and healed people.
As Matthew’s Gospel enters its concluding accounts of our Lord’s ministry:
we have the final presentation of the king, and the final rejection by the nation of Israel. So we’re moving into the final section. He presents himself, and is ultimately, finally rejected, crucified. While that seems to be the sweeping focus of this final phase of Matthew, keep in mind, too, that all the while, he is teaching his disciples.
So you have Jesus presenting himself in Judea and Jerusalem, you have him moving toward his passion, the crowds are there, the people are there, the popul[ace] is there, but interspersed and woven through all of that lessons, and more lessons, and more lessons for the disciples who are to carry on the ministry. So it’s a great time of transition for the Lord.
These two verses made me think about the way I learned about Jesus at home and at school in my youth. Whilst I have little to criticise, if I were teaching an adolescent about our Lord in either place, I would intersperse the big picture of His ministry with the reality that people, by and large, rejected Him. Sure, He had huge crowds but they did not ensure His ‘success’ on earth. In fact, their disbelief and yearning for political salvation led to His death — for their, and our, sins. Yes, it was destined to happen, but, by the time we get to Good Friday and Barabbas, teens should no longer be surprised or puzzled by the mob’s decision.
Teens can understand nuance — just about — so, it is important to present Jesus’s ministry as fully as possible.
The same holds true for adults. It’s only because I’ve been doing this series that I have come to understand the complexity of Jesus’s ministry, His people and His enemies. The mob’s reaction on Good Friday is no longer a mystery, which it was for many years. I also understand that Jesus did not come to earth to deliver His people politically but spiritually.
His message was never going to be popular. Our world is of a similar mindset today. We want a utopia, which is never going to happen. People say, ‘Oh, if only we practised Christianity properly, we would have world peace, an end to poverty and complete happiness.’ That can happen only in small measure, and, whilst Western civilisation is based on Christian values (even for secular humanists) and has improved the lives of countless millions over many centuries, we still live in a fallen world.
Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins and rose again to bring us to life everlasting: a totally different proposition. Yes, we are to love and care for our neighbour, do the right thing and improve our world — but, in doing all those things, we are to focus on the life beyond the present. That is where our eternal future lies. May it be with Him.
Next time: Matthew 19:3-6