Notes Matthew chapter 19
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
On Divorce and the Unmarried State 19:1-12
19:1. When Jesus had finished saying these things (for the formula, see commentary on 7:28) refers back to Jesus’ conversation in the previous chapter.
and went … to the other side of the Jordan. Jesus had hitherto been reasonably safe in Galilee. Now he journeys to Jerusalem in Judea (Luke 9:51), although not directly, but through Perea, the district east of Jordan (Mark 10:1; dia tou= along, through). In this Jesus avoided going through Samaria (as was usual). He will only return to Galilee after His resurrection (28:7).
2. and he healed them there. The gospel according to Matthew is characterized by the emphasis it lays on Jesus’ teachings, whereas Mark tells more about His miracles. But on this occasion it is Matthew who tells of the healing, while Mark stresses the teaching (Mark 10:1).
3. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” This was a question of current interest and opinions were divided. The Jews regarded marriage as a sacred duty, about which noble thoughts were entertained. But meanwhile the wife was regarded as a possession and she had no legal rights. Divorce is also discussed in Matt 5:31. There was no difference of opinion on the right to divorce, but on whether it might happen for all kinds of reasons, for instance burning the dinner (Hillel). The Pharisees who now come to Jesus wanted to draw from Him an opinion that would get Him into difficulties. Apparently they had been sent from Jerusalem, but they might equally well have been local religious leaders.
4. at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’. The Lord created one man and one woman, so that one man should have one wife. In other words, the creation of man and woman is at the same time the institution of monogamous marriage (Gen 2:24). According to its original institution, marriage is indissoluble, but the hardness of the human heart was the occasion for the setting-up of the divorce procedure (a concession). Cf. v.8.
5. For this reason means: because God made mankind male and female.
a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife. The words of Moses in Gen 2:24 are a revelation from the Lord and may therefore be quoted as the words of God. A man will leave his father and mother in order to cleave to his wife. The word ‘leave’ (Gk. kataleip) contains the idea that he will do so ‘totally and completely’; ‘Unite’ (Gk. pros-kolla) literally means ‘join’, ‘glue’. The marriage union is a new, more tender relationship, which replaces the old family ties.
6. So they are no longer two, but one (litt. one flesh). The unity of man and wife is both spiritual (a new relationship, v.5) and corporeal (one flesh). They are one in their common interests and each has the other’s body at his disposal (1 Cor 7:4). This by no means indicates that individuality is diluted, in the same way that individuality does not become diluted when we are united with Christ. Marriage is the strongest and most tender bond of friendship, a friendship where love reigns in all areas (both spiritual and corporeal). Ultimately it is in the act of sexual love that the two become one flesh (1 Cor 6:16). This, then, is the moment when God unites a man and a woman. It is the sealing of a new relationship. It was true not only for Adam and Eve, but for every marriage.
7. “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that … The Pharisees introduce Deut 24:1 as if it were a command of Moses and want to know now whether Jesus knows better than Moses. Would He put Himself above Moses? If a woman obtained such a certificate of divorce she was free to remarry.
8. Moses permitted you to divorce. Jesus answers that we are not concerned with a commandment here, but with settling a hopeless situation. Moses did not command divorce but permitted it to save a situation that had become chaotic and in which the continuance of the marriage seemed impossible. This is a concession, because the ideal has been abandoned.
because your hearts were hard. The laws of Moses were adapted, to a certain extent, to sinful human nature. In the beginning there was no divorce and no polygamy. The first to commit polygamy was Lamech, of the line of Cain (Gen 4:19). Later the people had fallen so far away to be able to obey the original law. There was a danger that the woman would be mistreated or even that attempts would be made to kill her in order to be free of her. In that case it was better, despite everything, to divorce. When we consider that the concession in Deut 24:1 is related to ‘hardness of heart’, it becomes clear that the situation with regard to marriage alters as prophecies such as Ezek 11:19-20 and 36:26 are fulfilled.
9. except for marital unfaithfulness. Jesus accepts no other grounds for divorce than fornication alone (for porneia, see commentary on Matt 5:32). Whoever divorces his wife for any other reason commits adultery. The position of the exceptive clause after ‘who divorces his wife’ and before ‘and marries another’ and Jesus’ remarks about divorce and adultery in Matt 5:32 , make it clear that the exception covers only divorce, and not remarriage.
Adultery severs the marriage bond (one flesh, v.6) fundamentally, and Jesus therefore concedes that it may be formally severed too. For the same reason Jesus goes further to say that the man who marries a divorced woman, i.e., one who is divorced for any reason, himself commits adultery. So Jesus asserts two propositions in one sentence. First, ‘divorce, except for unchastity, is adultery’, and second, ‘divorce and remarriage is (always) adultery’.
These commandments of Jesus are binding for all time until the resurrection from the dead. It will be different then (see Matt 22:23-33).
10. it is better not to marry. We gain the impression that the disciples were still pretty well imprisoned in the Jewish way of thinking. If it is so difficult to dissolve a marriage and not allowed to remarry, they regard it as a heavy yoke, that it were better not to put on. Whereas they should have thought: how can I use this divine institution to benefit my wife, myself, the children, my fellow men and the Kingdom of God?
From this moment the conversation is continued indoors, where the disciples were alone with Jesus (cf. Mark 10:10).
11. The answer relates to the remark made by the disciples in v.10: it is better not to marry. Also Jesus is speaking now about the desirability not to marry (cf. v.12 and Matt 22:33). But the reason that He gives (for, v.12) is quite different from that of the disciples (v.10). And it is not given to all men to regard the unmarried state as the better. Those to whom it is ‘given’ are those discussed in v.12c.
Not everyone can accept this word. ‘Accept’ (Gk. chre) is literally ‘make room for’, ‘make space for’ (derived from chra, place). In 2 Cor 7:2 it is translated as ‘make room for us’. Hence ‘accept’ here seems to mean more than an intellectual conception. It expresses also a moral act of the will.
those to whom it has been given. It is given, viz., by God. Just as only believers understand the Christian ethic, so too are special gifts only understood by those who are open to receive them and who receive them.
12. some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men. Jesus says that some people are born as eunuchs, i.e., that they are handicapped from birth, so that they lack all sexual desire; others have become so through human intervention, they have been castrated. In the East such people belonged to a special class (e.g. the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40). Both cases are exceptional.
others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. In the third place there are those people who are eunuchs in the spiritual sense. It is given to them (by the Lord) not only to subordinate their sexual desires to the demands of the spiritual life, but also to deny themselves married life completely so as to devote themselves completely to working for the Kingdom of God (for example Paul, cf. 1 Cor 7:7).
The one who can accept this should accept it. For ‘accept’, see commentary on v.11.
Jesus Blesses the Little Children 19:13-15
13. little children were brought to Jesus. The custom existed of bringing children to the synagogue, to the elders and the scribes, for their blessing. For this reason those who brought the children to Jesus must have esteemed Him highly. These children are very small and still have to be carried (see Luke 18:15, Gk. brephos = suckling).
the disciples rebuked those who brought them. All this occurred indoors (Mark 10:10). Apparently the disciples had already forgotten the incident recorded in Matt 18:1-5. Compare their attitude and that of Gehazi, 2 Kings 4:27.
14. Let the little children come to me. Jesus makes a stand for the children, for the weak and helpless. He does not want anyone to prevent their coming to Him.
belongs to such as these, i.e., the Kingdom of Heaven is for children and for those who are like children (cf. 18:1-5). The child, in His receptiveness and trust in his father, is closer to God than the adult, who wants to live independently.
15. When he had placed his hands on them. After having promised the Kingdom of Heaven to the children unconditionally (v.14), Jesus now blesses them by laying His hands on them. Just like the disciples, these children, who are unable to speak a word, who on account of their age, are not yet disciples and who cannot yet become disciples, have the intercession of Jesus and receive blessing from the Lord God.
The Rich Young Man 19:16-22
16. Now a man came up to Jesus. After blessing these unprejudiced children, Jesus is now approached by a rich young man. Luke tells us that he was a member of the ruling class (Luke 18:18) and Mark says that he came to Jesus and fell on his knees before Him (Mark 1:17).
“Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?” It is obvious that he knew he did not have eternal life and thought that Jesus (‘Teacher’) could answer his question. By ‘eternal life’ the rich young man means life in the coming age (the new world), which dawns at the coming of the Messiah.
17. Why do you ask me about what is good? … There is only One who is good. In the first instance, Jesus rejects the question of what good thing must be done. Only God possesses true goodness. (Ps 106:1;118:1,29;136:1). In so doing Jesus did not deny His divine sonship, but earnestly desired to make the man aware of it (cf. v.21: ‘follow me’).
obey the commandments. The way Jesus indicates for obtaining eternal life is the well-known one of keeping the Commandments.
18-19. “Which ones?” When the man asks ‘which ones?’, Jesus quotes some of the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue. It is remarkable that He summarises only commandments from the Second Table, which all deal with the duties of a man with regard to his neighbour. This is also apparent in the terminal summary ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19:18). We conclude that relationships with one’s neighbours are the criterion as to whether one lives by the Law or not (cf. Rom 13:8-10, ‘he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law’). Our neighbour is the person whom we associate with, whom we meet.
20. All these I have kept. One can obey the letter of the law, but still transgress spiritually. The man claimed without fear or doubt that he had not broken a single commandment. He demonstrates a high degree of selfrighteousness. His self-assurance can be attributed to his pharisaical upbringing. For the rabbis too taught that one can obey the law in one’s actions (SB I, 814). It is also possible that the young man was disappointed that Jesus did nothing more than quote the old commandments he thought he had kept.
the young man. A ‘young man’ (neaniskos) is usually someone between 24 and 40 (Bauer, s.v.).
21. If you want to be perfect. ‘Perfect’ (Gk. teleios) does not mean ‘perfect, better than others’ here, but rather ‘complete, attain the goal’. It is much more comparable to the old testamentary ‘tamim‘ (undivided) and suggests a total dedication to God (see commentary on 5:48).
sell your possessions and give to the poor. Jesus did not treat him as many other would have done, namely, by sending him away. He loved him (Mark 10:21) and saw the possibilities there were in him. Jesus saw where his great sin lay and showed him it by requiring him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. This is not a general commandment, but a commandment addressed to this rich young man in this particular situation (cf. for example Luke 19:8, Zacchaeus; Matt 27:57, Joseph of Arimathea). The man had become the victim of his riches. He thought that he had kept the commandments, but clearly he had not loved his neighbour (the poor) as himself.
Treasure in heaven, see commentary on 6:20.
Then come, follow me. The words ‘follow me’ also indicate that this is no general commandment. This is a summons to become a disciple in a restricted sense, i.e., a summons to go with Jesus on His journey.
22. he went away sad, because he had great wealth. The key to the young man’s life-problem was his money. He loved his possessions and his position more than Christ and eternal life (cf. Ps 62:10). This led to his going away sorrowfully without receiving the help he sought. He was offered help, but did not accept it. The young man’s reaction shows that Jesus had touched on his sensitive point, his love of money. Originally the young man was very enthusiastic, but when Jesus made His demand he went away sadly (or even annoyed).
On Riches and the Rewards of Discipleship 19:23-30
23. it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Directly after the meeting with the rich young man, Jesus talked to His disciples about riches (vv.23-26) and rewards (vv.28-30). From this it appears that the conversation with the young man held a lesson for them. Jesus did not speak of the rich man in a hard or condemnatory way. On the contrary, we read that he loved him (Mark 10:21). It is as if Jesus says: Do not condemn him too harshly. At the same time He warned the disciples to consider how hard it is for such people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
24. Jesus repeats the content of v.23 more pointedly and with an image.
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. ‘A camel going through a needle’s eye’ is a hyperbolic expression for something impossible (cf. the rabbinical expression ‘an elephant through a needle’s eye’, SB I, 828). This is also apparent from vv.25-26.
That the eye of a needle is a small door or that the Greek word kamlon is a clerical error for cable are later interpretations and detract from the keenness of this word.
25. “Who then can be saved?” The disciples’ reaction shows that they believed it completely impossible to be saved if those were the conditions. They were not thinking of the rich in the first place, but of people in general, and feared for their own salvation.
How the impossible can become possible, Jesus discusses in v.26.
26. With man this is impossible. ‘This’, i.e., a man’s salvation, is a work of God, not of men. The core of the young man’s error was that he thought he could acquire eternal life through his own efforts. The way of life is not a matter of being industrious, but of being saved.
27. We have left everything to follow you! The disciples had forsaken everything, i.e., their means of support and their homes. V.27 refers directly to v.21 (‘sell your possessions’). It is as if Peter is saying: the rich young man preferred to retain his posssessions and not to follow You, but we (disciples) have abandoned everything. What will our reward be?
28. Jesus did not treat Peter’s question as a selfish claim for remuneration, but took it seriously and took the opportunity offered to give the disciples a special promise (separate from the general promise of v.29). Jesus never spoke about wages as a motivation for humanitarian actions, but as a consequence of the trust and righteous reward of God (Matt 10:42;25:21,23).
at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne. The renewal (litt. regeneration) mentioned here is the rebirth of the world, the new world order (Isa 11:1-9; 65:17-25; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:12-13; Rev 21:1-5). This will commence when the Son of Man returns in glory.
you … will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. When the Son of Man returns the Twelve will share His throne (cf. Dan 7:9-10,13-14,27) and reign over the tribes of Israel. The Greek word krinein has both the restricted sense of judging (Matt 25:31 ff, 1 Cor 6:2) and the broader sense of ruling (Matt 20:21; Rev 20:4). Ruling over the Twelve Tribes of Israel presupposes a people of Israel subjected to the Messiah (cf. Matt 23:29).
29. everyone who has left houses or brothers … In contrast to v.28, Jesus here gives a general promise (cf. 2 Tim 4:8). He now speaks to His disciples in all places and of all times (‘everyone’). Many of the old manuscripts also have ‘or wife’, agreeing with Luke 18:29 (cf. Matt 19:12).
will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. Jesus speaks of a double reward: a hundredfold requital of family and possessions, which has already begun in this century (in the form of the family of the children of God and the Kingdom of God) and divine (eternal) life (a state, a being) in the coming age, when the Son of man is seated on the throne of His glory (cf. Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30).
30. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. This verse tells of the reversal of all values which will take place in the Kingdom. It is a general word, which gains different applications in different contexts. In Semitic languages, ‘many’ both means a great crowd and a totality (cf. Dan 12:2). In this connection, the first and the last (vv.27-30) tell of those who are first and last in rank (cf. Matt 20:27; Mark 9:35; 1 Cor 4:9). Jesus follows his answer to Peter and the others with a warning promise: the meanest, the most despised, the unlettered, children, whores, sinners, even the heathen, will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven by virtue of their faith in Jesus (Matt 5:3; 8:11; 19:14), while those who considered only themselves worthy, the Pharisees and the Jews in general, will be shut out (Matt 8:12) by virtue of their rejection of Jesus. Compare this principle with Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14.