Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 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’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
(Matthew 19:1-9 ESV)
In today’s passage Jesus travels to Judea beyond the Jordan – further south towards Jerusalem (and His impending death) than He’s ever been thus far in Matthew’s gospel. Not surprisingly the Pharisees came to Him and tested Him. This is not the first time they had tried to discredit Jesus [Matthew 12:38, 16:1]. But those previous attempts had failed with the result being that they themselves ended up being discredited.
The topic on this occasion is divorce. Notice that Pharisees question was designed to corner Jesus by getting Him to contradict the much revered man of God, Moses, who recorded God’s commands on this topic [Deuteronomy 24]. If they succeeded, the people would turn against Jesus.
Also Jesus was now in Judea, where Herod Antipas ruled. Herod had divorced his wife to marry his brother’s wife (we studied this earlier) and had John the Baptist killed because of his condemnation of Herod’s divorce and remarriage [John 14:1-12]. If the Pharisees could get Jesus to condemn divorce they might be able to get Herod, who had jurisdiction over this region, to kill Jesus too. As we’ve also learned: it was the Pharisees goal to have Jesus put to death [Matthew 12:14].
The Pharisees thought they knew Scripture but Jesus takes them to school by pointing out that they have misinterpreted God’s word. We’ll study Jesus’ explanation of divorce and remarriage tomorrow. For now, we should note that Jesus responded to a misinterpretation of the Bible by quoting other passages in the Bible (“have you not read”). In other words, he put their question in its proper context. He used this same tactic when Satan misquoted the Bible in order to get Him to commit sin [Matthew 4:1-16].
Many non-believers today use a similar strategy. They quote a Bible verse – or more accurately, misquote it – in an attempt to embarrass a Christian on a certain topic. Some favorite verses critics like to use are Leviticus 20:13 (homosexuality), Ephesians 5:22 (treatment of women), and Matthew 7:1 (judging others)
They problem is they always take those verses out of context. I know. I used to do the same thing when I was an rabid atheist and Bible-critic. As a result they are always wrong in their conclusions about what the Bible says on these topics. I knew very little Scripture but thought I understood it. I was wrong each and every time.
But the bigger tragedy is that most Christians don’t know their Bible as well as they should and can’t give a response that truly reflects God’s views. As a result these critics succeed in making Christians look foolish. This only drives them further away from the God who created them and loves them.
It is the job of every Christian to know their Bible thoroughly – not only the words but the meanings – so we can respond to inquiries – be they genuine or underhanded. This is not for our sake. But for the sake of those whose eternity might be influenced by the answer we give them.
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