Christ Maintains His Supremacy Over Moses . . Matthew 19.3-12 On Marriage and Divorce

By Ron Halbrook

As Jesus prepared for His kingdom, He constantly maintained His supremacy over Moses. Not that He would rebel against, overturn, and utterly destroy the Law of Moses. He said on one occasion before asserting His supremacy over Moses’ Law, “Think not that I am mine to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). Christ then spoke, not as one subject to Moses’ authority and who thus can only expound Moses’ Law, but as one who possessed primary authority himself. Six times in Matthew 5:17-48, He refers to portions of the Law which the multitudes had heard read, then added, “But I say unto you . . . .” Each time, His own law was shown to be higher, holier, and mightier than the Law of Moses.

The Father in heaven testified to the authority of Christ by the miracles Jesus performed. In Matthew 9, when Jesus pronounced a man’s sins forgiven, “certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth.” Jesus said, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.” Later He sent twelve disciples out proclaiming, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and the Father worked miracles through them confirming that message (Matt. 10).

When the Pharisees questioned the conduct of His disciples for violating traditional rules of the Pharisees, Jesus directed them to read the Law and observe that it had not been broken. But more than that, He claimed to be the very giver and Lord of that Law, thus one with the Father – rather than merely subject to it like men. “For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day” (Matt. 12:8). This does not mean He could break it, but certainly means He could apply it perfectly. The Lord of the sabbath is necessarily the Lord of the Law itself and of Moses himself!

In Matthew 17 on the mount of transfiguration the Father announced, in the presence of Moses, that the authority of Jesus was to. eclipse that of Moses. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.”

“And (But) I Say Unto You”

The Pharisees were not so interested in hearing Jesus as in hanging Him. They constantly tried to draw Jesus into their sectarian disputes – to ensue Him in some charge – to embarrass Him as a teacher of the Law – to destroy confidence in Him. The Jewish sects argued over whether Deuteronomy 24 allowed a man to put away his wife (1) only for some moral uncleanness in her, or (2) for a broader range of faults and accusations. In either case, we must remember that the text allowed the man to put her away and marry mother, but also provided her a legal document guaranteeing her right to marry another. “She may go and be another man’s wife” (Deut. 24:2).

Therefore the Pharisees tried to slip the noose around Jesus’ neck by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (See Matt. 19:3-9). Whereas in Matthew 5 Jesus referred to what the multitudes had heats read from the Law (“ye have heard . . .”), He refers the educated Pharisees to what they had read with their own eyes:

Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one. flesh. What therefore God bath joined together, let not man put asunder.

But the Pharisees were aware that for Jesus to return to that rule was to deviate from Moses’ Law. In this case, a return to the original is an innovation! Thinking Jesus has overstepped His authority, they now attempt to snatch the rope and fell their victim. “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?”

The Master Teacher has now given the Pharisees enough rope that they may hang themselves upon their own perverse stubbornness.

He with unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: But from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

Moses’ Law required stoning of a man’s wife if she was found guilty of immorality (Dent. 22:20-22; cf. Lev. 18). If a man thought he had other grounds to put away his wife, the Law required that he give her “a writing of divorcement” which guaranteed her freedom to become “mother man’s wife” (Dent. 24:14). Thus God did not encourage divorce, but limited and restricted it, forbidding some of its harsher features. Even allowing divorce at all was a temporary concession to the stubbornness of the times, until the Messiah’s kingdom would fulfill His will. The Pharisees in trying to convict Christ from His own mouth had succeeded only in highlighting their own stubbornness!

Christ now asserts His supremacy over Moses and re-enacts the original law of marriage. After referring to the temporary concession of Moses’ Law, Jesus points to the original law which stands in contrast to that concession. “But from the beginning it was not so.” He continues contrasting his own law with that of Moses. “And (or, ‘But,’ as Marshall’s Interlinear trans.) I say unto you . . . .”

“Certainly Jesus had lifted the whole subject of marriage and divorce to a new level, far above the petty contentions” of the Jewish sects (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 155). The Jews argued over the grounds of divorce in a text that allowed remarriage of both parties and the Pharisees tried to draw Jesus into the controversy. Instead, Jesus shows the whole system over which they contended was now antiquated by its fulfillment in the Messiah. The rule of His kingdom was higher, holier, and mightier than Moses’ Law and so eclipsed the very dispute at hand.

Christ maintained the permanency of marriage, He did not allow any divorce in which both parties might remarry! The only divorce and remarriage He allowed at all was on the ground of immorality. Only one who put away his mate because of fornication could remarry without committing adultery. The force of “except it be for fornication” is,. Whosoever shall put away his wife for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth not adultery. But whosoever marries the fornicator “which is put away doth commit adultery.”

Is It “Not Good to Marry”?

The disciples, apparently puzzled, “asked him again of the same matter.” Jesus repeated His law (Mk. 10:10-12; Mark omitted the exception clause because it added nothing to the point he was making, or Jesus did not repeat it because the rule and not the exception was what bothered the disciples). Realizing the stringency of Christ’s law, the disciples surmised that “it is not good to marry” (Matt. 19:10). “‘ Christ’s doctrine on marriage not only separated His … from Pharisaic opinions of all shades, but was too high even for the Twelve ‘(Bruce)”‘ (Ibid.). Jesus rejected the disciples’ conclusion. He added that it may be necessary for physical reasons or permitted (not commanded) “for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” -i.e., to devote one’s life wholly to the kingdom.

Moses’ Law Or Messiah’s Law?

Some maintain that in Matthew 19:9 Jesus was only teaching what Moses’ Law said. Such a view is in error. (1) The Pharisees knew Jesus not only had avoided their squabble, but had also pronounced an innovation to the provision of Moses’ Law. They quoted the Law in verse 7, in contrast to the law stated by Christ. (2) In verses 8-9, Christ admitted that Moses allowed something which He Himself would not allow. Christ contrasts His own law with that of Moses. He is not merely explaining Moses.

(3) The disciples were so striken by the difference between Moses’ Law and Messiah’s Law that they concluded, “It is not good to marry.” They knew Jesus went further than Moses! But they did something we must all guard against – they went further than Jesus. That is exactly what some are doing when they argue that Jesus only ex-plained Moses’ Law and that the phrase “except for fornication” does not apply in Messiah’s reign.

(4) A study of the Law proves Jesus went further than Moses, asserting His own authority over Moses by binding a law higher, holier, and mightier than Moses’ Law. It is not true that Moses allowed divorce only on the ground of fornication as Matthew 19:9 does. Let us notice several things in Moses’ Law that are different from the law of marriage and divorce stated by Jesus in Matthew 19.

Deuteronomy 11:1-11 provided that (a) if a man falsely charged his new bride with immorality, he was penalized: and, “he may not put her away all his days” – no divorce ever allowed on my grounds. (b) If the charge was true, was a bill of divorcement given her to guarantee her right to remarriage? To the contrary, “the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die.” (c) If any married woman committed adultery, she was stoned to death (v. 22; cf. Lev. 18:20, 29). (d) If a man and an unbetrothed maid come together in fornication (probably rape, here), when he took her in marriage he could “not put her away all his days” (vv. 28-29).

Deuteronomy 14:1-5 regulates divorce among God’s people. Apparently this protection was not extended to a captive woman taken for a wife by a Jew: “if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will” (Dent. 21:10-14; this refers to captives other than Canaanites, see 7:3). The regulation of Deuteronomy 24 required the man to provide a legal document specifying “some uncleanness in her.” Whereas he might divorce a captive woman simply because he found “no delight in her,” he was required to present some substantial charge against the native Jewish woman.

He must prove in literal terms “a thing or a matter of nakedness,” which is figurative for “a thing offensive” (Young’s Analytical Concordance, p. 1012); “indecency, improper behavior” (Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 789); “offensiveness, shamefulness; disgrace” (Davidson, Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, p. 613); not marital “Unchastity,” for the law “prescribes the capital punishment for adultery,” but rather some “immodest or indecent behavior” (Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. III, p. 275). This same word “uncleanness” (lit. “nakedness”) is used figuratively in Genesis 42:9 and 12 of “an unfortified part of a country” (Davidson, op. cit.), i.e. the flaws, weaknesses, or defects in the country’s defense. Just as a spy would be required to list specific flaws in the country’s defense, a husband was required to specify some disgraceful, immodest, or shameful feature in the woman’s conduct – a flaw in her character.

With the divorce bill in her hand, the divorcee could remarry (24:2).

One Jewish sect tightened Moses’ Law of Deuteronomy – 24 by permitting the man to divorce only if his wife committed adultery; both parties could remarry. Such tradition twisted Deuteronomy 24 plus the passages which prescribed death for adultery rather than a right to remarry! Another sect loosened Moses’ law of Deuteronomy 24 by allowing divorce of a woman who burned her bread or over-salted a meal. This violated the requirement for some indecency in character or conduct. It also circumvented the whole purpose and spirit of the law on divorce; the law properly used elevated marriage and the woman.

All Men Are Subject To Christ

Jesus avoided this controversy with its extremes on either side of the Law. He rose above it. Also, He outdated it by rising above Moses’ Law. Messiah’s Law was stricter, higher, holier, and mightier than Moses’ Law. As Jesus prepared for His kingdom, He often showed His supremacy over Moses. No one but Messiah could refer to Moses’ Law and then add in contrast, “And (but) I say unto you”! And the Father said, “This is my beloved son … hear ye him.”

Christ is both head of the church and preeminent over all creation – King of kings, Lord of lords (Col. 1:18-19; Rev. 1:5; 17:14; 19:16). All who disobey His Law, whether men in or out of the church, stand guilty before God (Rom. 2:6-11; “every man,’, “every soul”). Some men loosen Messiah’s law on marriage as it applies to the world, claiming that those in the world can play marriage-merry-go-round with any number of mates just so they keep the one they get caught with at baptism. Others try to loosen the law for those both in and out of the church. Then some swing to an opposite extreme and tighten the law, removing the one exception Jesus allowed.

No “explanations” changed Moses’ Law; none will change Messiah’s Law. In contrast to all these, Jesus speaks, “And (but) I say unto you.” “Hear ye him.”

Guardian of Truth XXVII: 14, pp. 426-427, 431
July 21, 1983