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.
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Last week’s entry discussed the first two verses of Matthew 19, which introduce Jesus’s teachings on divorce.
He was now in Judea, beyond the Jordan, in a region called Perea.
As last week’s post explained, the crowds continued to gather around Him. Among them were the usual groupings of the Jewish hierarchy.
The Pharisees approached Jesus with a question on the legality of divorce for any cause (verse 3). This question was designed to trap and discredit Him.
There was also another angle. The Pharisees were known to divorce their wives for any reason, no matter how trivial. I wrote about this at length in 2014 when discussing Luke 16:18.
Briefly, two schools of Jewish thought existed on the matter. Rabbi Shammai said that divorce was strictly forbidden. Rabbi Hillel said that any trivial reason provided grounds for divorce. Not surprisingly, Hillel’s argumentation was the more popular with the Pharisees.
There is also a third aspect regarding not only the institution of marriage but also the location of this confrontation. John MacArthur says that John the Baptist was held prisoner in Perea, at or near Herod Antipas’s summer home in Machaerus. John the Baptist had warned Herod Antipas about his adulterous relationship with Herodias, who grew very angry with his pronouncements. Her daughter was the one who requested the beheading of this last great prophet of the Bible.
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
He asked if they had never read those verses before. They, of course, would have done. Therefore, it was time for Him to remind them of their meaning and import. As Matthew Henry’s commentary states (emphases mine):
Note, It will be of great use to us often to think of our creation, how and by whom, what and for what, we were created. He made them male and female, one female for one male so that Adam could not divorce his wife, and take another, for there was no other to take. It likewise intimated an inseparable union between them Eve was a rib out of Adam’s side, so that he could not put her away, but he must put away a piece of himself, and contradict the manifest indications of her creation.
Subsequent formal marriage ceremony rites symbolise the reuniting of man with woman into one, indissoluble body. This makes the bonds of marriage the strongest of family relationships:
a man must leave his parents, to cleave to his wife. See here the power of a divine institution, that the result of it is a union stronger than that which results from the highest obligations of nature.
… it is in a manner equivalent to that between one member and another in the natural body. As this is a reason why husbands should love their wives, so it is a reason why they should not put away their wives, for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, or cut it off, but nourishes and cherishes it, and does all he can to preserve it. They two shall be one, therefore there must be but one wife, for God made but one Eve for one Adam, Malachi 2:15.
Note that God did not make more than one male and one female. His plan and His purpose in doing this should remind us of the fundamentals of couples and their loving bond.
John MacArthur points out what God did and did not do:
He did not make provision for polygamy. He did not make provision for divorce by making any spare people …
When he made them, he made them a male and a female, and that was it. Not a male and two females, not four folks who could work it out the best way. Very basic. So, in the case of Adam and Eve, divorce was not only wrong, it was inadvisable. Not only that, it was impossible. It was absolutely impossible. There were no alternatives. There was nowhere to go, no one else to talk to, nothing. That’s the way God meant it. If it isn’t you two, it isn’t anything. This is God’s intended creation, a non-optional, indissoluble union …
And just because spares came along as time went on didn’t change God’s original intention, you understand? It didn’t change it at all. And God never intended two people to be married and be poking around seeing if they like somebody better. That is not an alternative that God ever intended, and that’s obvious by virtue of his creation.
MacArthur explains the word ‘cleave’:
It means basically “to have a bond that can’t be broken.” It’s a word that’s used really for glue. It means “to be stuck” … It’s a happy stuck and not a sad stuck. That’s the idea here. But you’re stuck. You are cleaving, the idea of glue. In fact, there’s a translation … where it even uses the word “glue” in Genesis 2 to refer to this. “A man should be glued to his wife.”
There also is inherent in the word another thought that takes it into the heart a little more, and it’s sometimes used to speak of pursuing hard after something. And so you have the idea then of two people who are stuck together, and are so because they pursue hard after each other. So you have two hearts diligently and utterly committed to pursuing one another in love … Glued in mind, glued in will, glued in spirit, glued in emotion.
Malachi 2:16 is relevant in this context, likening divorce to attacking oneself physically:
“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,[a] says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers[b] his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
Henry considers that verse and the Greek word used in the ancient text of Matthew 19:6:
From hence he infers, What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. Note, (1.) Husband and wife are of God’s joining together synezeuxen—he hath yoked them together, so the word is, and it is very significant. God himself instituted the relation between husband and wife in the state of innocence. Marriage and the sabbath are the most ancient of divine ordinances. Though marriage be not peculiar to the church, but common to the world, yet, being stamped with a divine institution, and here ratified by our Lord Jesus, it ought to be managed after a godly sort, and sanctified by the word of God, and prayer. A conscientious regard to God in this ordinance would have a good influence upon the duty, and consequently upon the comfort, of the relation. (2.) Husband and wife, being joined together by the ordinance of God, are not to be put asunder by any ordinance of man. Let not man put them asunder not the husband himself, nor any one for him not the magistrate, God never gave him authority to do it. The God of Israel hath said, that he hateth putting away, Malachi 2:16. It is a general rule that man must not go about to put asunder what God hath joined together.
Next week’s entry will explore why divorce came into being during Moses’s time.
For now, perhaps these verses and this type of explanation should be made more a part of courses undertaken in preparation for marriage. We normally think of the marriage ceremony in church as defining the indissoluble character of such a union.
The greater headline to take away is that the ceremony is secondary in importance to the symbolic fusion of husband and wife in the same way that Adam and Eve were bonded together as two people, the rib once again ‘united’ with the rest into one ‘body’, functioning as one entity together in love.
That pertains to secular wedding ceremonies, too, whether those couples believe it or not.
This is why it is so important we make a careful, deliberate decision before undertaking the commitment and consequences of the marital contract.
Next time: Matthew 19:7-9