Questions About Divorce, 1-12

19:1 Now when Jesus finished these sayings, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan River. 19:2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

The other side of the Jordan = Perea, not part of Judea but within the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. Perea was a region E of the Jordan, extending from the Sea of Galilee almost to the Dead Sea.

Mt 19:1–9 = Mk 10:1–12

Jesus was on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. The Trans-Jordan area was ruled by Herod Antipas. Recall that it was John the Baptist’s preaching against Herod’s adulterous marriage that led to him (John) being beheaded, Mk 6:14-29. This fact may explain why the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus with a question about divorce.

19:3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 19:4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 19:5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 19:6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Some Pharisees came to him to test him – ‘Knowing Jesus’ views, they could expect him both to incriminate himself by apparently making light of the “law” of Deut 24:1-4, and to lose popular support by condemning the divorce which was freely practised by his contemporaries. Moreover, among those contemporaries was Antipas, whose recent divorce had already drawn the first of John the Baptist, with disastrous results, Mt 14:3-12. So it was an explosive question.’ (France)

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife…?” – ‘It is important to remember that the issue was not “divorce” in the modern sense of a legally approved annulment of a marriage on the initiative of either partner (or both), but the right of the Jewish man (not the woman) to repudiate his wife by a simple”] unilateral declaration against which there was no appeal.’ (France)

‘In Jewish law a man had the right to divorce his wife (but not the wife her husband) by a simple declaration; there was no trial and no appeal. This was assumed to be the intention of Deut 24:1-4, but the ‘something indecent’ which that passage gave as the grounds for divorce left room for debate. Some teachers restricted this to adultery or other gross sexual misbehaviour, but in common practice, supported by some rabbis, it was virtually a matter of the husband’s whim, for any and every reason.’ (NBC)

I met a divorcee in her mid-thirties recently who initiated proceedings after only a two-year marriage because her husband failed to keep a tidy home and this showed his “profound disrespect for her,” because she had repeatedly asked him to keep things cleaner. I probed to see if there wasn’t anything more serious than that but there wasn’t. I asked if they had tried counseling and she replied, “Oh yes, as soon as he heard I was talking about divorce, he insisted we go for counseling. We went a few times. But my heart had already checked out, so I didn’t see any point in continuing.”

Craig Blomberg

‘Perhaps behind their question was the public scandal of Herodias, who had left her husband Philip in order to marry King Herod Antipas. John the Baptist had courageously denounced their union as “unlawful,” Mk 6:17ff, and had been imprisoned as a result.’ (Stott). Jesus’ questioners wondered if he would be as outspoken, especially at a time when he was, it seems, within Herod’s jurisdiction, Mk 10:1. In any case, it is clear that the Pharisees wanted to embroil Jesus in the Shammai-Hillel debate.

‘There may have been more than one motive behind their question. Divorce was a burning question, a crux of rabbinic discussion, and it may well be that they honestly wished for Jesus’ opinion on it. They may have wished to test his orthodoxy. It may well be that Jesus had already had something to say on this matter. Mt 5:31-32, shows us Jesus speaking about marriage and re-marriage, and it may be that these Pharisees had the hope that he might contradict himself and entangle himself in his own words. It may be that they knew what he would answer and wished to involve him in enmity with Herod who had in fact divorced his wife and married another. It may well be that they wished to hear Jesus contradict the law of Moses, as indeed he did, and thereby to formulate a charge of heresy against him. One thing is certain-the question they asked Jesus was no academic one of interest only to the rabbinic schools. It was a question which dealt with one of the acutest issues of the time.’ (DSB)

‘The rabbis were divided on what were legitimate grounds for divorce. The followers of Shammai held that a man could not divorce his wife unless he found her guilty of sexual immorality. The followers of Hillel were more lax, allowing divorce for many, including trivial, reasons.’ (Ryrie)

Jewish background to divorce and remarriage
David Instone-Brewer sheds some light on the Jewish background to this question.  Jesus was being asked his opinion about an issue that was widely debated in Jewish circles.  The debate is recorded in the Mishnah – a collection of debates about the meaning of the Law.  ‘Mishnah’ means ‘to repeat’ or ‘to memorise’.  The writings of the Mishnah were often highly abbreviated and stylized, in order to help with their memorization.  Details that were well-known at the time were often omitted.  (We find the same kind of abbreviation in the Synoptic Gospels – especially Mark.)  The abbreviation, however, sometimes led to ambiguity.  In the case of Deuteronomy 24:1, the text sets out the ground of divorce as (literally) ‘indecency of a thing’.  This, says Instone-Brewer, is as puzzling in Hebrew as it is in English.  The two groups of Pharisees therefore debated its meaning.  The Shammaites read the text as allowing for only one ground of divorce – ‘indecency’.  The Hillelites, however, understood it as setting out two possible grounds for divorce – ‘indecency’ and ‘a thing’.  They said that ‘a thing’ meant ‘anything’ – even something as trivial as burning a meal.

Instone-Brewer provides the following information on Mishnah brevity:-

Abbreviated version of the Pharisees’ debate, as recorded in Mishnah Gittin 10: ‘The House of Shammai say: ‘A man should not divorce his wife unless he found in her something indecent, as it is said: ‘For he finds in her an indecent thing’ (Deuteronomy 24.1)’. And the House of Hillel say: ‘Even if she burned a dish for him, as it is said: ‘For he finds in her an indecent thing’ (Deuteronomy 24.1).’

Expanded version, as it would be unpacked in the mind of a first century Jew: ‘The school of rabbis who follow the teacher Shammai teach: ‘If a man is basing his divorce on Deuteronomy 24.1, he cannot divorce his wife for anything except indecency.’ The school of rabbis following Hillel teach: ‘The text of Deuteronomy 24.1 also allows divorce on the grounds of any ‘thing’, which includes even a small thing like burning a meal, because the text contains both the words ‘indecent’ and ‘thing’.’

As noted, the Synoptic Gospels are, like the Mishnah, heavily abbreviated.  Matthew does, however, include two phrases that are omitted by Mark.  These are: ‘for any thing’ (v3), and ‘except for indecency’ (v9).  These show that the question (v3) was, in effect, “Do you agree with the liberal view of Hillel?”.  Jesus answers (v9) that the more restricted view of Shammai is correct.  (We note, in passing that since Jesus did allow some restricted grounds for divorce, his teaching cannot be invoke to support an indissolublist position).

Matthew added those two phrases because although they would have been ‘taken as read’ at the earlier date that Mark was written, his Christian readers would likely have been losing touch with their Jewish roots.

So, Jesus’ does not teach that it is always wrong to get divorced.  But he does remind his hearers that divorce implies the breaking of marriage vows – and that is always wrong.  Mal 2:15f is to the same effect: the Lord is not so much against the legal procedure of divorce as against marital unfaithfulness.  Jesus did not condemn all divorce; but he certainly condemned ‘easy’ divorces (and there are many of those around today).  And we, like our Master, must reserve any condemnation for the person who breaks his or her vows, rather than the partner.  And if the divorce is on biblical grounds, then we should support the partner in any desire to remarry.

(See also DJG, 2nd ed. art. ‘Divorce’, by the same author)

Six aspects of marriage from Jesus’ teaching in this passage

  1. Marriage is designed by God, v4.  Marriage is no mere social contract.  It is a God-given ordnance.
  2. Marriage involves a complementary relationship.  God ‘made them male and female’, v4.  This is not a unisex world.  By God’s plan and action the two sexes are equal, but different and complementary.  Homosexual relationships violate this difference and complementarity.
  3. Marriage is intended to be permanent.  ‘The two will become one flesh’.
  4. Marriage is exclusive.  The man is ‘united to his wife’; the two become ‘one flesh’.
  5. Marriage involves a decisive break.  It means ‘leaving’ as well as ‘cleaving’, v5.  It means a distancing from the old family in order to create the new family.  Of course, parents will still give and receive support.  But one’s primary allegiance is now to one’s spouse.
  6. Marriage is not for everyone.  The disciples were taken aback at the rigour of Jesus’ teaching, vv10-12.  It is a gift from God, and not everyone receives this particular gift, and are called to the equally challenging state of singleness.

(See the relevant passage in Michael Green, BST)

“Haven’t you read…?” – ‘See Gen 1:27; 2:23-24. Rather than aligning himself with either rabbinical position, Jesus cites the purpose of God in creation that husband and wife should be one flesh-the oneness of kinship or fellowship with the body as the medium, causing marriage to be the deepest physical and spiritual unity.’ (Ryrie)

‘Rather than enter this debate, Jesus again (as in Mt 5:32) declared that divorce, for whatever reason, was incompatible with God’s purpose for marriage. In so doing, he set the original intention of the Creator, expressed in Gen 1:27 2:24, above the provision of Deut 24, which was given only because your hearts were hard. The divorce regulations were a concession to deal with the result of sin, not an expression of the way God intended things to be. Divorce might be necessary, but it could never be good. The principle that the two become one flesh can be fulfilled only by unbroken marriage.’ (NBC)

In marriage, as in other things, when all else fails, read the instructions.

Jesus’ reply, according to France, is more prophetic than rabbinic, for he goes behind scribal debate to the essential principle of God’s will. The principle is that marriage is a creation ordinance, and is exclusive and unbreakable.

Male-female relationships

In vv4-6 Jesus makes three statements pertaining to male-female relationships:-

1. Heterosexual gender is a divine creation, v4
2. Heterosexual marriage is a divine institution, v5
3. Heterosexual fidelity is the divine intention, v6

(Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today)

‘Jesus made it quite clear that he regarded Deut 24:1, as being laid down for a definite situation and being in no sense permanently binding. The authorities which he quoted went much further back. For his authorities he went right back to the Creation story and quoted Gen 1:27 and Gen 2:24. It was his view that in the very nature of things marriage was a permanency which indissolubly united two people in such a way that the bond could never be broken by any human laws and regulations. It was his belief that in the very constitution of the universe marriage is meant to be an absolute permanency and unity, and no Mosaic regulation dealing with a temporary situation could alter that.’ (DSB)

Our Lord here appears to be explicitly affirming the historicity of Adam and Eve.  Some would argue, however, that we have here an instance of ‘accommodation’, where the teaching of the Bible assumes the beliefs that were current at the time.  In a similar way, it is said, the mustard seed was believed to be the smallest of seeds (see Mk 4:31), although in fact the orchid seed is yet smaller.  Again, seeds were thought to ‘die’ before they germinate, although this is, of course, inaccurate from a scientific point of view.  Once more, the idea that stars can ‘fall from the sky’ (Jn 12:23f) is not plausible scientifically, but is consistent with the perception that stars look like tiny points of light, and that meteors give the appearance that they can fall to earth (which, of course, they sometimes do, as meteorites).

And said – Note how the words of Gen 2:24, not attributed to God in the Genesis narrative, are nonetheless presented as what God ‘said’.

“United” – ‘glued’, ‘cemented’: ‘a beautiful metaphor, forcibly intimating that nothing but death can separate them.’ (TSK)

“One flesh” – If this is at the heart of marriage, ‘then divorce can be understood as an agonizing exception, rather than an attractive temptation Instead of arguing about the indissolubility or dissolubility of faltering marriages, it is better to look for indissolubility where it really belongs, in the characteristic unity of a good marriage Fidelity is to a husband or wife, not to an impersonal duty.’ (Helen Oppenheimer)

“No longer two but one” – ‘This is not to deny of course that they bring different contributions to the marriage—this is precisely what Genesis 2:18 points out with its phrase ‘a helper and counterpart for him’—nor is it to deny that each marriage partner has relationships and responsibilities in which the other partner is only marginally, if at all, involved. The intention is not in the least to water down what each individually brings to the marriage. But it is to deny—Jesus specifically denies—that the most important thing about them any longer is their separateness. At the most important level, he says, they are no longer two.’ (Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage)

‘It would be hard to find an expression which more completely showed that husband and wife belong inseparably together. Despite the enormous emphasis in the Bible on the parent-child relationship, this is never said of it. Parent and child always remain two individuals. But the most important fact about husband and wife in Christ’s teaching is that “they are no longer two”.’ (Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage)

“Joined together” – or, ‘yoked together’. ‘as oxen in the plough, where each must pull equally in order to bring it on. Among the ancients, they put a yoke upon the necks of a new married couple, or chains on their arms, to shew that they were to be one, closely united, and pulling equally together in all the concerns of life.’ (TSK)

“What God has joined together, let man not separate” – ‘To see divorce as man undoing the work of God puts the whole issue in a radically new perspective.’ (France) However, Jesus does not seem to be saying that man cannot separate what God has joined together (the indissolubilist position), but rather that he ought not to.

As Stott writes:

‘Here, then, are three truths which Jesus affirmed:

        1. heterosexual gender is a divine creation;
        2. heterosexual marriage is a divine institution; and
        3. heterosexual fidelity is the divine intention. A homosexual liaison is a breach of all three of these divine purposes.’

Stott, J., 2006. Issues Facing Christians Today 4th Edition. (Formatting added)

A divine yoke

‘The marriage bond is more than a human contract: it is a divine yoke.  And the way in which God lays this yoke upon a married couple is not by creating a kind of mystical union but by declaring his purpose in his Word.  Marital breakdown, even the so-called “death” of a relationship, cannot then be regarded as being in itself a ground for dissolution.  For the basis of the union is not fluctuating human experience (“I love you, I love you not”) but the divine will and Word (they “become one flesh”).’ (Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today)

Rights, or remedies?

Murray Harris (Navigating Tough Texts, p22f) says that the emphasis here is not on the wronged partner insisting on the right to a divorce.  In referring back to Moses, Jesus is insisting that divorce proceedings are not needed where hearts are not hard.  The first option to be considered is forgiveness and reconciliation.

‘we are brought back to the nature of Christian forgiveness. It is not a case of turning a blind eye to the sin committed as if it never occurred and endeavoring to forget it. Rather, it involves, first of all, the open acknowledgment of the sin and of the seriousness of the offense in light of marital vows of purity and all the persons affected. This will lead to a full confession of guilt before God and to one’s spouse. Evidence of genuine repentance is seen in a frank discussion between husband and wife of remedies to be put in place to reinvigorate mutual affection and love and to prevent any recurrence of the wrongdoing. Only then can the offended party say with wholehearted commitment to the other, “I forgive you!”’

Marriage and singleness

‘There is nothing in Christ’s teaching about the beauty of a single life (Matt. 19:11f) which undermines his teaching about the closeness and splendour of married life (Matt. 19:4–9). There is nothing in Paul’s teaching about the very real advantages of singleness (1 Cor. 7) which undermines his teaching about God’s gift of marriage (1 Cor. 7:7), the intimacy of marriage (1 Cor. 7:2–6), the sanctifying effect of marriage (1 Cor. 7:14) or the way marriage reproduces the relationship between Christ and his Church (Eph. 5).’ (Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice)

19:7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 19:8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 19:9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”

The trap had been set, v3; now it is sprung.

The Pharisees’ error at this point was that they took as command what Moses had intended as permission.

“Moses permitted” – Moses made a concession with regard to God’s intention that marriage be lifelong and monogamous (Deut 24:1-4)

‘Jesus…refuses to allow a necessary concession to human sinfulness to be elevated into a divine principle. The ideal is rather to be found in going back to first principles, to what was in the beginning. An ethic which is truly to reflect God’s will must be built, not on concessions, but on basic principles. This is a crucial element across the whole field of ethical discussion, and one which has not always been observed when Christians have failed to distinguish which are the “weightier matters of the law”…There is an undeniable tension between the absolute idealism of vv4-8 and the acceptance of a reality which falls short of the ideal in v9…, and the danger is that we will do as Jewish legalism had done and build our expectation on the concession rather than the ideal. But Christian ethics in a fallen world will always be subject to such tensions; sinful situations sometime make it impossible to implement the ideal, and in such cases we may have to choose between courses none of which leaves no room room for regret. What is important is that in so doing we do not lose sight of the ideal, and that we accept the “lesser evil” for what it is, and “evil,” even where it is the best course open to us in the circumstances.’ (France)

‘Jesus says that Moses ‘allowed’ divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. This means that Moses did not command divorce, but regulated an existing practice, and the form of the law in Deut 24:1-4 is best understood in this sense.’ (NBD)

‘What is unclear is whether Jesus thinks that the inauguration of the kingdom through his redemptive work will take away that hardness of heart or whether he considers this condition to be one that will only disappear in the next life.’ (DJG, art. ‘Law’.  The first of these alternative is favoured by the author of the article).

“Except for immorality” – This so-called ‘Matthean exception’ (see also Mt 5:32) has been thought by some scholars to be an attempt on Matthew’s (or his community’s) part to soften the total prohibition of divorce. It is more likely, however, that ‘Matthew is simply spelling out what any Jewish reader would have taken for granted, that marital unfaithfulness (which would include not only adultery but also premarital promiscuity) automatically annulled a marriage by creating another ‘oneflesh’ union.’ (NBC)

‘Let us consider the rationality of the exception. That feature has had scant attention from theologians and publicists, yet it will bear the closest scrutiny. In fact it is a key to much that is explanatory of the basic principle of the family. To begin with, the exception is not on its face an after-thought of some transcriber, but was called out by the very terms of the question of the Pharisees: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” This plainly called for a specification from Jesus of exceptions which he would allow to the rule against divorce. It is fortunate that the Pharisees asked the question in the form they did, for that put on Jesus the necessity of enumerating such exceptions as he would allow. He mentioned one, and but one in reply. That puts the matter of exceptions under the rule in logic: Expressio unius-exclusio alterius. All other pretenses for divorce were deliberately swept aside by Christ – a fact that should be remembered when other causes are sought to be foisted in alongside this one allowed by Christ. The question may come up, Whose insight is likely to be truest? Why, then, will reason stand by this exception? Because adultery is per se destructive of monogamic family life. Whoever, married, is guilty of adultery has taken another person into family relation. Children may be born to that relation are born to it. Not to allow divorce in such case is to force an innocent party in marriage to live in a polygamous state. There is the issue stated so plainly that “the wayfaring man need not err therein,” and “he who runs may read,” and “he who reads may run.” It is the hand of an unerring Master that has made fornication a ground for divorce from the bond of matrimony and limited divorce to that single cause. Whichever way we depart from strict practice under the Saviors direction we land in polygamy. The society that allows by its statutes divorce for any other cause than the one that breaks the monogamic bond, is simply acting in aid of polygamy, consecutive if not contemporaneous. Advocates of the freedom of divorce speak of the above view as “the ecclesiastical.” That is an attempt to use the argument ad invidiam. The church of Christ held and holds its views, not because ecclesiastics taught it, but because Christ taught it, and that in his teaching we have a statement out from the righteousness, wisdom, insight and rationality of the all-wise God.’ (ISBE)

“And marries another woman” – Roman Catholics, holding as they do an indissolubilist position, hold that the teaching of Jesus allows for divorce, but not remarriage. This verse contradicts that point of view. It would seem that among the Jews there was no such custom as separation without permission to remarry.

‘This clause has been very ill explained by many commentators; for they have thought that generally, and without exception, celibacy is enjoined in all cases when a divorce has taken place; and, therefore, if a husband should put away an adulteress, both would be laid under the necessity of remaining unmarried. As if this liberty of divorce meant only not to lie with his wife; and as if Christ did not evidently grant permission in this case to do what the Jews were wont indiscriminately to do at their pleasure. It was therefore a gross error; for, though Christ condemns as an adulterer the man who shall marry a wife that has been divorced, this is undoubtedly restricted to unlawful and frivolous divorces.’ (Calvin)

Christ’s law is good

‘The law of Christ tends to reinstate man in his primitive integrity; the law of love, conjugal love, is no new commandment, but was from the beginning. If we consider what mischiefs to families and states, what confusions and disorders, would follow upon arbitrary divorces, we shall see how much this law of Christ is for our own benefit, and what a friend Christianity is to our secular interests.’ (MHC)

19:10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 19:11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 19:12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it.”

France asks: ‘Was this a serious suggestion, or were these words spoken with a wry smile which the printed word cannot convey?’

“Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given” – Is ‘this statement’

(a) Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce? (in which case, divorce and remarriage might be an acceptable choice for many) or,

(b) the disciples’ response that ‘it is better not to marry!’?

France thinks that the second of these is more likely: abstaining from marriage (and therefore remaining celibate) is an option, but it is not for everyone.

‘To speak of a “gift” of celibacy is to assume that marriage is the norm, but that God has given to some people the ability, perhaps even the inclination, to stand apart from that norm. Jesus himself, if indeed he was not married, would be the prime example of this gift.’ (France)

‘Jesus’ demand for marital faithfulness without an ‘escape route’ dismayed the disciples. Who could live up to such a demand? Not everyone, Jesus agreed. Some do not have the ‘gift’ of marriage and are called to celibacy, either by their physical condition (whether congenital or man-made) or by their own choice in the light of the role to which they are called in the kingdom of heaven. In Jewish society it was very unusual to be unmarried (as Jesus was himself), so that this affirmation of voluntary celibacy is important. But marriage, with all its demands, remains the divine intention for those to whom it has been given.’ (NBC)

‘This saying evidently means what the disciples had just said, that it was good for a man not to marry. It might be good in certain circumstances, in times of persecution and trial, or for the sake of labouring in the cause of religion, without the care and burden of a family. It might be good for many to live as some of the apostles did, without marriage, but it was not given to all men, 1 Cor 7:1,7,9. To be married, or unmarried, might be lawful according to circumstances, 1 Cor 7:26.’ (Barnes)  Blomberg agrees that ‘this word’ refers to the disciples’ outburst.

Jayne Ozzane appeals to this verse to support her view that

‘to demand that [members of the LGBT community] be celibate for life because of their sexual orientation, and to only recognise one interpretation of scripture on the matter is cruel, unjust and ungodly. So much harm has been perpetrated by those seeking to “pray the gay away”, or by those denying the love of life-long committed relationships.  We refuse to see the Godly fruit of same-sex love, and instead pretend that the briers and thorns of depression, self-harm and self-hatred caused by harmful teaching is “God’s way”. Let me be clear – it is not! It may be what some people through conscience believe and chose to live out, but to teach that as a way of life is to completely misunderstand scripture and ignore what Jesus himself said in Matthew 19:11, where he said celibacy was “only for those to whom it has been given”. That is, a gift.’

By way of response, it simply needs to be pointed out that the topic under discussion between Jesus and his disciples is marriage and divorce involving a man and a woman.  In all other cases (including single people and LGBT people) celibacy is not merely one option, but the only option.

For there are some eunuchs – As France remarks, the word ‘for’ links what follows with what Jesus has just said about abstaining from marriage (and therefore remaining celibate).

France remarks further that that word ‘eunuch’ would been no less startling then as it is now.  Eunuchs were regarded with pity, or even horror.  But this is not the first, or last, time that Jesus has used vivid language to illustrate the life of the kingdom.  ‘The choice of this striking metaphor perhaps reflects a culture where marriage and the procreation of children was so much taken for granted as the norm that strong language is needed to question that assumption.’

‘This may be an example of Jesus’ wisdom teaching, in which he uses two concrete realities of everyday existence (those born eunuchs and those made eunuchs) to support a third spiritual or moral truth (those eunuchs for the kingdom).’ (Osborne)

The three modes of celibacy are: (1) heredity; (2) environment; (c) personal choice.

‘Jesus uses this graphic language figuratively (cf. Mt 5:29–30) to describe a call to singleness for the kingdom, although singleness too was generally outside the mainstream of Jewish social life. Cf. Isaiah 56:4–5.’ (Keener, IVPBBCNT, 2nd ed)

As France says, both question and answer are oriented to men; the application to celibate women must be inferred.

A broader application

Bruner thinks that this may suggest a broader view of spiritual gifting than we are used to:

‘If Jesus looked at all giftedness in at least this broad a way, then Jesus’ view of God’s charismatic gifting is wider than ours usually is: gifts are not restricted to an (inner) spiritual or psychological department in human life but are also (outer) physical and sociological realities; gifts are not only as personal as aptitudes and decisions but are also as physical as genes and as social as experience. Thus when we seek to know how God gifted us we can learn from Jesus to ask ourselves three questions: (1) How was I born? (2) What has God in my history given me? and (3) What decisions do I feel the will to make and the strength to keep? Jesus’ doctrine of gifts in this verse teaches us to review who we are—from our creation through our history to our present.’

Eunuchs because they were born that wayIt has been argued that Jesus is not referring to men who have been born without testicles (that would have been very rare).  He was, rather, referring to men with ‘stereotypically effeminate characteristics and behaviour’, like many gay men of today.  In other words, ‘Jesus said that some are born gay’.  It is noted that Jesus does not condemn such men, still less set out to ‘cure’ them, but rather he simply accepts them, mentioning them in the same breath as others who are to be honoured – those who have ‘renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven’.  This line of think involves importing a modern way of thinking into the ancient text.

William Loader, (Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church) writes:

‘Being a eunuch is not about sexual orientation, but about sexual potency. Eunuchs were not asexual. Indeed, Philo complains that some exploited their state to engage in all kinds of sexual activity. We can only speculate about how people might have understood the reference to those who were born eunuchs. Possibly it included those born with incomplete or ambiguous genitalia, who fall into the broad category of people who these days might call themselves intersex. The saying does indicate awareness that gender identity can be complex.’

By way of response, it should be noted that

(a) Jewish rabbis did recognise the category of eunuchs who were born without testicles (so Keener, IVP Bible Background Commentary);

(b) congenital conditions that lead to impotence do not only include absence of testicles, but also a wider range (usually of genetic origin, and affecting production or action of the relevant hormones);

(c) if it be agreed that some men are born without heterosexual proclivity (and that is all Jesus is talking about, not those born with homosexual proclivity), then it should nevertheless be noted that Jesus is precisely referring about those who have ‘renounced marriage’ (and, by clear implication) sexual activity.

‘To be “born a eunuch” appears to refer to those who are physiologically incapable of procreation; cf. the standard rabbinic distinction between a “man-made eunuch” and a “eunuch by nature” (m. Yebam. 8:4; m. Zabim 2:1). In the context of modern discussions about homosexual orientation it might be suggested that it includes also those who are psychologically disinclined to heterosexual intercourse and thus debarred from fatherhood, but evidence for such an understanding of homosexuality in the ancient world is hard to find. Most references to homosexual behavior in the ancient world are to what we now call bisexuality, the choice of some who are capable of heterosexual intercourse to find sexual fulfillment also (or instead) with members of their own sex. Such a choice could hardly be described as being “born a eunuch,” and the idea of an innate and irreversible homosexual orientation belongs to modern Western psychology rather than to the world in which Jesus lived.’ (France)

“Some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”NIV (1984) “Renounced marriage”.  Here NIV is paraphrasing the original ‘made themselves eunuchs’, recognising that the expression was not intended to be taken literally.  REB translates similarly.  GNB: ‘Do not marry’.

The most recent version of NIV has ‘there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.’

The major emphasis is on this third category (Osborne).

With most commentators, France thinks that our Lord is speaking here of a voluntarily chosen celibacy.  ‘Their choice is ascribed not to disinclination but to their perception of God’s will for them: the “kingship of heaven” means God’s sovereign authority, and it is in obedience to that authority that they have been prepared to stand apart from the normal expectation of marriage and fatherhood.’

‘Jesus Christ teaches that castration is not the only legitimate reason for celibacy. Some men may be called to voluntary celibacy because of the demands of their role in the kingdom of heaven.’ (Dictionary of Bible Themes)

‘Refers metaphorically to a voluntary decision to remain single and sexually abstinent. Jesus is not prescribing mutilation of the genitalia, as that would involve destroying God’s creation. Compare 1 Cor 7:8–9.’ (Faithlife Study Bible)

It is ironic that Origen of Alexandria, who was much given to allegorical interpretations of Scripture, took this text literally and castrated himself.

‘Jesus’ saying, “there are eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs,” is rightly understood by all interpreters as spiritual hyperbole… (Origen may have taken the text literally, if Eusebius, H.E., 6:8:1–2, is to be trusted; or “perhaps Eusebius was uncritically reporting malicious gossip,” Chadwick, Early Church, 109; in any case, Origen later interpreted the text spiritually.)’ (Bruner)

‘There is an area in which guidance is hard to find because of the risks involved even in raising the question. If Jesus Christ became man, as he did, he did not become mankind or the human race. He became a specific human being, with a unique human individuality. He became a Jew of the first century, born in Bethlehem to a particular set of parents. He is specific racially. He is specific in terms of family ties. He is totally specific and unique in his genetic composition. It is also implied in this that he is specific in his sexuality: he is either male or female. In the Bible, of course, the Lord is clearly male. That fact should serve to make us very careful in what we say in response to sensational films that seek to exploit for commercial gain the sexual aspect of the Lord’s life. In our concern to defend his purity we must be careful not to deny his sexuality, because we then run the grave risk of portraying him in homosexual terms. The Lord was not only human, he was male, and we must not overlook this fact. Nor need we suppress the fact that as such he would undoubtedly face temptations in this area as he would in every other area of his humanness. He was without sin, but he was not without temptation.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

An alternative view
A.E.Harvey (Eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom) remarks on the ‘shock tactic’ of Jesus introducing this third type:

‘The teacher is using the familiar threefold form: he passes rapidly over one and two in order to focus all attention on number three. Just as, in the parable of the talents, there is nothing particularly interesting about the first two servants whose entrepreneurial skills win the approval of their master, the entire weight of the story falling on the third who buried his money in the ground, so the two classes of impotent men are not intended to intrigue us in themselves but rather to arouse our curiosity about what the third class can be. Indeed it is more than curiosity. At that time and place it could have been virtual incredulity. The teacher continues, ‘and there are some eunuchs….’ But what third category could there possibly be? The two categories found in the Mishnah are exhaustive: a man was either born impotent or rendered so by violence or accident; nothing else was thinkable. Yet it is precisely the unthinkable which completes the saying ‘….who have castrated themselves’. In a society in which deliberate castration of either man or beast was not only repulsive to all social instincts but actually illegal, to what phenomenon could Jesus possibly have been referring?’

Harvey notes that our Lord’s words imply that there have already be actual instances of this (‘there have been…’).  He argues that, whereas voluntary celibacy was becoming widespread at a latter date (and some scholars wish to ascribe this very saying to the later Christian community), ‘in his own lifetime his followers can hardly have included people who had voluntarily and definitively renounced marriage in order to become disciples.’  [But this is to ignore John the Baptist (to give just one obvious example).]

Citing the example of Origen, Harvey states:

‘We cannot assume that self-castration was an obvious metaphor for celibacy. It was rather an extreme remedy against sexual temptation, a decisive blow in the struggle for self-control, a virtue prized as much among Hellenized Jews as among pagans.’

Harvey mentions that this third category introduces an example of ‘one of the distinctive traits of Jesus’ style of teaching, that of using a totally unexpected, sometimes morally or socially unacceptable, example of conduct in order to shock or challenge his hearers into a review of their own assumptions and priorities.’

Harvey urges us to take this saying at face value.  Jesus, he says, has in mind those pagans who castrate themselves for the sake of a pagan cult.  Examples would be ‘the pagan institution of Galloi, or eunuch priests of Cybele.’

‘If a person will give up even his manhood for such a cause, what should you not be prepared to do yourselves for the sake of the kingdom of heaven?’

‘Jesus, surprisingly, introduces the case of the eunuch priests, who could have no relevance to a discussion of Jewish law. So―was Jesus leading us up the path? Was this his interest at all? Then comes the decisive tap on the shoulder. Voluntary self-castration for the sake of the kingdom! Not, presumably, a variation on prostitutes and tax collectors having priority in the kingdom of heaven, even pagan priests taking precedence over pious Israelites: the flavour of idolatry would have been too strong for even Jesus to have contemplated that. But a clear sign that Jesus has led us up a particular path and has reached the point of showing us that his real concern is with something quite different. There are even people, he says, who by reason of their misguided pagan enthusiasm for ascetic worship go so far as to castrate themselves. How about that as a model for what you should be prepared to do for the sake of the true God and his kingdom! If that is the argument―and it would be entirely characteristic of Jesus―then the challenge is to see that, if there is a metaphor implicit in the idea of, making a eunuch of oneself’, it is not a restricted metaphor for celibacy, as traditional exegesis would have it, nor a metaphorical invitation to sexual continence in the manner of philosophical exhortation (as we find in Philo), but an open metaphor for any form of radical renunciation.  The demands of the kingdom override any attachment whatever―to sensual gratification, to family ties, even to the obligation to marry and found a family in obedience to the commandment. To be ‘eunuch priests’ for the sake of the kingdom of heaven is to have a will for total dedication and the renunciation of all lesser ideals, objectives and obligations.’

For Harvey, then, this teaching is not about celibacy per se.  Rather, it is about radical renunciation for the sake of the kingdom:

‘Celibacy, after all, is a relatively easy option for some: either a personality which makes a life-long partner hard to find, or a sexual orientation which abjures the search in the first place, have often deluded people into thinking that they had renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom. What Jesus was challenging us to consider was of an altogether more radical nature. The kingdom might demand an act of renunciation as absolute and life-changing as deliberate self-castration’

And, Harvey adds, it is just like Jesus to appeal to the majority by reference to a despised minority:

‘No other teacher that we know of addressed his teaching to the poor and not the well-todo, consorted with the disreputable in preference to the morally correct, challenged the virtuous by comparison with the capacity for generosity and heroic self-sacrifice latent in those generally regarded as sinners.’

It is only fair to Harvey to note how he concludes his lecture.  After noting the surprising nature of Jesus’ teaching here, he adds that:

‘perhaps it is ourselves we should be surprised at who still, after twenty centuries of Christian history, are capable of showing contempt and revulsion, or, more insidiously, some form of almost unconscious discrimination, against those who, for no fault of their own, are of a particular race, colour, gender or sexual orientation.’

“Because of the kingdom of heaven” – ‘Many foolishly explain this as meaning, in order to deserve eternal life; as if celibacy contained within itself some meritorious service, as the Papists imagine that it is an angelical state. But Christ meant nothing more than that persons unmarried ought to have this for their object, that, being freed from all cares, they may apply themselves more readily to the duties of piety. It is, therefore, a foolish imagination, that celibacy is a virtue; for it is not in itself more pleasing to God than fasting, and is not entitled to be reckoned among the duties which he requires from us, but ought to have a reference to another object. Nay more, Christ expressly intended to declare that, though a man be pure from fornication, yet his celibacy is not approved by God, if he only consults his own ease and comfort, but that he is excused on this single ground, that he aims at a free and unrestrained meditation on the heavenly life. In short, Christ teaches us, that it is not enough, if unmarried men live chastely, unless they abstain from having wives, for the express purpose of devoting themselves to better employments.’ (Calvin)

Bruner asks if Protestants, while rightly suspect of Roman Catholic dogma on a celibate priesthood, might be in danger of undervaluing this teaching.  ‘Serious disciples should be more frequently invited to consult themselves to see if they have the gift of single life in the exclusive service of the “overmastering” kingdom of heaven. For Paul has to be heard: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.… I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:32–35 NRSV). ‘

Bruner adds: ‘For long periods in the church’s history, celibacy was so prized that the dignity of married life needed Jesus’ rehabilitation. The Reformation recovered evangelical teaching. But Protestant Christianity, in its understandable reaction against exaggerated Roman values, has so honored marriage that at times single persons have been made to feel odd. A regular program of expository preaching will keep the church in Matt 19’s balanced honorings of both marriage (vv. 3–9) and of single life (vv. 10–12).’

‘Jesus dignified marriage; now he has dignified single life. Jesus sees both as gifts from God.’ (Bruner)

“The one who can accept this should accept it” – This phrase ‘is by no means…a statement that “you can take this or leave it” but rather a phrase parallel to: “He who has ears, let him hear” (e.g. Matt. 11:15). It is a challenge to be taught by Jesus and to accept his (admittedly tough) teaching.’ (Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage)

Support Christian singles

‘If many Roman Catholics have overly exalted celibacy as an ideal, most Protestants have drastically undervalued it. Christian singles need much more support from their married friends and their churches, who must value them as equally significant members of the body of Christ. In a society that constantly pressures people into hasty marriages, the church desperately needs to encourage all who sense God leading them to remain single, for however long or short a period of time, to remain faithful to his guidance.’ (Blomberg)

The history of marriage

In their history of marriage, The Sacred Fire: Christian Marriage through the Ages, David and Vera Mace have this oversimplified but delightful table of contents:

Marriage Is Good for Everyone (The Old Testament)
Marriage Is Good: But Not for Everyone (The New Testament)
Marriage Is Acceptable: But Sex Can Make It Sinful (The Early Church)
Love Is Romantic: But Not in Marriage (The Middle Ages)
After All, Marriage Is Good: Even for Clergy (The Reformation)
Christian Marriage as a Spiritual Companionship (The Puritans)

They might have added a final chapter—“Marriage is OK: But in Big Trouble (The Modern Church).”


Jesus and gender diversity
Justin Tanis writes:

Clearly Jesus knows that some people are born outside the binary gender system and people whose lives lead them beyond it. He speaks of multiple ways in which someone might become gender variant, and he does so with compassion and clarity. We are called to do likewise.

Jesus goes on to acknowledge a connection between the dominion of God and eunuchs. We see in the words of Jesus an acceptance and acknowledgement of gender diversity. Modern science and medical knowledge support Jesus’ concept that someone can become a eunuch in multiple ways, including being born intersexed and those who choose this status. (Cited by Davie)

In her contribution to Understanding Transgender Identities: Four Views, Megan DeFranza states that

Although later Christians would conclude Jesus was commending celibacy for single-minded service to God (like Paul’s recommendation in 1 Cor. 7:32–35), this does not explain why he would employ the enigmatic figure of the eunuch to make this point.

Uncontroversially, DeFranza says that the first type of eunuch referred to by Jesus would be a person born with what we would now call an ‘intersex’ condition.  The second type would be men who had been castrated (usually against their will), and were found as pagan priests, high-status slaves (often managing the households of aristocrats), or exotic sex slaves.

With regard to the third type (those who have made themselves eunuchs) some early Christians, writes DeFranza, might have viewed a literal self-castration as a praiseworthy self-sacrifice, analogous to martyrdom.  Others (both men and women) transgressed the norms of gender with regard to hairstyle, dress and comportment, believing that their new identity in Christ transcended cultural expectations regarding gender.  (Regrettably, DeFranza only references another of her own works in support of this).

For Augustine, the only positive aspect of eunuchism was as an exemplar of virginity.  DeFranza appears to be sympathetic to the idea that the (Roman) notion of male superiority prevented Augustine, and those who followed him, from seeing through the implications of gender ambiguity.

Later, monastic communities were peopled by monks and nuns who had ‘made themselves eunuchs’ for the sake of the kingdom.

Of course, castration in ancient times was usually performed against the individual’s will.  Nevertheless, it is significant (according to DeFranza) that the outrage that many modern Christians express against voluntary genital surgery was not shared by many of their ancestors, who saw the eunuch’s service to God as being of higher value than conformity to male gender:

Some ancient Christians believed one’s identity in Christ superseded gendered identity, leaving them free to disregard the gender expectations of their day. This is the exact opposite of what many conservative Christians today mean when they challenge transgender Christians to find their identity in Christ and take up their “God-ordained” role by living out the gendered expectations of society based on the shape of their genitals.

DeFranza adds:

While some rabbis ridiculed eunuchs for their inability to appear masculine (e.g., lack of beard) and perform according to masculine ideals (e.g., father children), Jesus—in a move paradigmatic of his ministry—sets up these outsiders as models of Christian discipleship.

It appears to this reader that DeFranza’s argument is flawed in a number of ways.  It side-steps the focus of the present passage (which has to do with marriage, divorce, and celibacy).  It normalises what was probably a minority (and certainly an unbiblical) view in the early church (that unsexed bodies were more virtuous than sexed bodies).  It rests on undue speculation (a word which even she employs at one point).

Jesus and Little Children,13-15

19:13 Then little children were brought to him for him to lay his hands on them and pray. But the disciples scolded those who brought them. 19:14 But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” 19:15 And he placed his hands on them and went on his way.
Mt 19:13–15 = Mk 10:13–16; Lk 18:15–17

“Of such is the kingdom of heaven” – ‘If it is right for infants to be brought to Christ, why not also to be received into baptism, the symbol of our communion and fellowship with Christ? If the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them, why is the sign denied which, so to speak, opens to them a door into the church, that, adopted into it, they may be enrolled among the heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven? How unjust of us to drive away those whom Christ calls to himself! To deprive those whom he adorns with gifts! To shut out those whom he willingly receives! (Calvin, Institutes,!VXVI7)

The Rich Young Man, 16-30

19:16 Now someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?”
Mt 19:16–29 = Mk 10:17–30; Lk 18:18–30

This account of ‘the Rich Young Ruler’ relates, as Matthew Henry points out, ‘a hopeful meeting’ and ‘a sorrowful parting.’

A man – According to Mk 10:22, ‘he had great wealth’. Mt 19:20 informs us that he was young, Lk 18:18 that he was a ruler.

“What good thing…” – Perhaps he was thinking of some conspicuous act of charity. Jews of the time believed that performing some single good act would guarantee salvation.

‘In Mark the man called Jesus ‘good’, and Jesus replied ‘Why do you call me good?’ In eliminating this part of the dialogue Matthew is guarding against the false deduction that, therefore, Jesus is not good and is not God.’ (NBC)

The very question stands in contrast to Jesus’ teaching that the kingdom of God must be received, v15.  It is a question that ‘suggests that behind a facade of security there was a heart which had lost much of its security.’ (Lane)

‘”What must I do to inherit eternal life?” is often understood as a desire to “enter the kingdom” in its realized presence. While this is certainly part of the meaning, it does not exhaust its thrust. Jesus’ final statement in Mk 10:30 (par. Mt 19:29 and Lk 18:30), “and in the age to come eternal life,” forms an inclusio with the young man’s question and clearly refers to the afterlife.’ (DJG)

N.T. Wright (Jesus and the Victory of God) understands this this as question about the restoration of the nation.  As Stein remarks, this looks like an attempt to squeeze a text into a pre-determined theological scheme: the question shows every sign of being an enquiry about the man’s personal entrance into the kingdom of God.

19:17 He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good.

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” – Matthew seems to be correcting his source here. ‘In Mark, Jesus’ reply to the so-called rich young ruler seems to deny his goodness; (Mk 10:18) Matthew rewords the comment so that Jesus merely inquires, “Why do you ask me about the good?” (Mt 19:17) Matthew is not contradicting Mark but trying to avoid a misinterpretation of him. Similarly, Luke reports Jesus as telling his followers to hate their parents; (Lk 14:26) Matthew explains that this means they must love God much more than family.’ (Mt 10:37) (Blomberg, DJG)

Cf. Mk 10:18.

But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 19:18 “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19:19 honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

‘In reply to the inquiry of the young man, Jesus directed him to the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth, Ex 20:12-16 as containing the substance of the whole-as containing particularly what he intended to show him that he had not kept.’ (Barnes)

Again, this part of Jesus’ response is intended to provoke reflection. The Ten Commandments ‘are the answer to the question about eternal life, not because a man can keep them and so earn eternal life, but because, if he honestly tries to keep them, he will be brought to recognise his bankruptcy and prepared to receive the kingdom of God as a little child.’ (Cranfield)

Jesus cites commandments only from the second table. It is be obedience to these that conformity to the first table is to be demonstrated. (Cranfield)

‘Paul had discovered the futility of striving to win life by keeping the law, Rom 7:24, but had this young man as yet? If “ruler” (Lk 18:18) is to be taken as a member of the Sanhedrin, the religious council of Israel, then his position becomes even more like that of Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant young theological students, doubtless from a wealthy merchant home.’ (Cole)

19:20 The young man said to him, “I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?” 19:21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 19:22 But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.

“All these I have kept” – Such a claim was not uncommon amongst Jews of the time, and yet it shows a profound misunderstanding of the commandments. The Rabbis spoke of those who had kept the whole Law from A to Z. (Cranfield) And yet the man shows unusual perception in acknowledging that keeping the commandments still leaves him in need of eternal life.

“Sell your possessions”

A radical but reasonable command…  ‘The command to sell all sounds quite unreasonable to us, but most in the ancient world would have heard it as radical but sound advice for those who were seriously devout. The Dead Sea Scrolls required adherents to the sect to contribute their possessions to the common treasury. Acts reports that members of the first Christian community in Jerusalem did the same to assist the needs of their fellow believers (see Acts 4:32–37; 5:1–11).’ (Garland, who adds that Jesus ‘is inviting him to join a community of believers who will take care of one another’s material needs. He will not be left destitute and forced to fend for himself.’)

…but not a universal command...  ‘The counsel to sell all is given to a particular person: we are not to conclude that it applies equally to all. To recognise this is not to draw its sting, but rather to begin to see its full seriousness, for material wealth is not the only possible idol.’ (Cranfield)

…yet none of us can escape its implications.  ‘This demand for physical renunciation of earthly wealth and comfort is made potentially of all of us, and may be made literally of some. Christ demands of us an initial renunciation of all, when we follow him, Lk 14:33. What he then hands back to us is completely at his disposal; henceforth, we but hold it as stewards for him; it is his to give or withhold at will, Job 1:21.’ (Cole)

‘Yet Jesus did not require all his followers to be destitute. His demands varied for different individuals and situations. But we should beware of using this truth as a convenient escape route. ‘That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command’ (R. H. Gundry).’ (NBC)

You will have treasure in heaven – See Mt 6:19-21; Lk 16:9; 1 Tim 6:17-19; Heb 10:34; 1 Pet 1:4,5. Not that giving to the poor makes a person worthy of heavenly reward, but rather that trusting reception of God’s good things cannot but express itself in acts of generous gratitude. The idiom used here was current in Judaism, and ‘allowed Jesus to enter the thought-world of his contemporaries. Here, however, it is stripped of its customary associations of merit (as if selling one’s property and giving the money received to the poor will earn a significant reward), since the promised treasure signifies the gift of eternal life or salvation at the revelation of the Kingdom of God.’ (Lane)

“Come, follow me” – ‘The command is at the same time a gift. Jesus offers himself to him: he is himself the answer to the man’s question, the way to eternal life.’ (Cranfield)

He went away sad – Here, as Cole points out, is the only recorded example of a person leaving Christ’s presence with sadness. Many came with sadness, such as those on the Emmaus Road, Lk 24:17, but were not left in the condition.

‘The conclusion to the interview with Jesus indicates that in the case of this man the Law had not yet fulfilled its function, for its historical task is to bring man’s satisfaction with this world to an end and the quicken within him a thirst for righteousness and life.’ (Lane)

No renegotiation of terms

He went away, ‘presumably in search of a second, more accommodating, opinion’ (Garland).  The same author adds: ‘Jesus will not renegotiate the terms, however. One can imagine the disciples standing with mouths agape as they observe this exchange. Jesus lets a good man slip away whose deep pockets could help advance the kingdom cause—or at least their meager treasury.’

When possessions become encumbrances

Annie Dillard tells of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Arctic in 1845. That odyssey was a turning point in Arctic exploration because of its well-publicized failure. The preparations made were more suitable for the Royal Navy officer’s club in England than for the frigid Arctic. The explorers made room on their ships for a large library, a hand organ, china place settings, cut-glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware instead of additional coal for their steam engines. The ornate silver flatware was engraved with the individual officer’s initials and family crests. Search parties found clumps of bodies of men who had set off to walk for help when their supplies ran out. One skeleton wore his fine blue cloth uniform edged with silk braid, hardly a match for the bitter arctic cold. Another apparently chose to carry with him the place setting of sterling silver flatware. What must he have been thinking to take sterling silver tableware in a search for help and food? One cannot imagine that any of these sailor adventurers would have said, as they neared death on the frozen landscape, “I wish I had brought more silver place settings.” Our hanging on to things that are ultimately useless will look no less foolish. Many cannot envision life without things they cherish. They are in danger of losing the only life that counts.

Garland (on Mark)

‘The well-to-do young man of Mt 19:16-22 was like many “First World” Christians today. We want God to affirm that we are religious enough without costing us anything more than we have already been offering him. We trust only tentatively the value of heaven’s kingdom and hence are prepared to sacrifice only little for it; but one who is not sufficiently convinced of the gospel’s truth to sacrifice everything (compare Mt 13:44-46) will not prove worthy of it. This is not to say that we are justified by our merit-we must receive the kingdom like a child (Mt 19:13-15). But genuine, saving faith is practically shown not by merely reciting a prayer but by living consistently with what we profess.

Jesus promises to more than make up for our sacrifices; do we believe him enough to sacrifice whatever our calling demands? As Craig Blomberg comments: “This entire episode should challenge First-World Christians, virtually all of whom are among the wealthiest people in the history of the world, to radical changes in their personal and institutional spending.”‘ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘Wealth can easily become an idol. In response to the young man’s question about how to have eternal life, Jesus told him to keep God’s Ten Commandments. Jesus then listed six of them, all referring to relationships with others. When the young man replied that he had kept the commandments, Jesus told him that he must do something more-sell everything and give the money to the poor. Jesus’ statement exposed the man’s weakness. In reality, his wealth was his god, his idol, and he would not give it up. Thus he violated the first and greatest commandment.’ (Ex 20:3; Mt 22:34-40) (HBA)

19:23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! 19:24 Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.”

“How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” – A textual variant reads, “How hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God”, but this must be regarded with suspicion, if only because it is the easier reading.

‘Wealth,’ remarks Garland, ‘can blind our moral judgment, harden the arteries of compassion, and lead to spiritual bankruptcy.’

Most things are easier for those with wealth and possession; but entry to the kingdom of God is harder. The original expression is broad, and refers to those who have ‘things’ or possessions.

‘In the OT there are two main attitudes toward riches: one regarding them as the sign of God’s favour, a reward for goodness, the other identifying the poor with the pious, the rich with the ungodly. Jesus’ attitude to the rich, as shown in this verse, is startlingly fresh. He neither covets their wealth, nor hates them. Instead he pities them – for the rich man is to be pitied because of his specially great temptations and the frighting handicap in relation to the kingdom of God under which he labours. It is so easy for him to feel a false security and rely on his possessions and become so taken up with them that he forgets what is infinitely more important.’ (Cranfield)

‘It was widely accepted that wealth was a wonderful blessing; it was a sign that God approved of a person and prospered that person’s business affairs.’ (Morris)

‘Most Jews expected the rich to inherit eternal life, not because their wealth could buy their way in, but because their wealth testified to the blessing of the Lord on their lives.’ (Carson)

‘When we tell prospective disciples today, “Just ask Jesus to forgive your sins and you can go to heaven,” we are not telling the whole truth of the gospel. Jesus is available for the asking, but accepting Jesus means accepting the reign of God and God’s right to determine what we do with our lives. When we invite our Lord to free us from sin, we are inviting him to rule our life; and while we may yet fall short in submission to his will, we must actively acknowledge his right to determine our lives, acting on the knowledge that he has begun to transform us by his Spirit. If we accept Jesus’ terms of unconditional surrender to him, however, he promises an unlimited supply of what truly matters.’ (Mt 19:23-30) (IVP NT Cmt’y)

Most Christians in the Northern Hemisphere simply do not believe Jesus’ teaching about the deadly danger of possessions…. An abundance of possessions can easily lead us to forget that God is the source of all good. We trust in ourselves and our wealth rather than in the Almighty.

Ronald Sider

The camel was the largest animal found in Palestine, and the eye of a needle the smallest opening in common use.

The saying is proverbial, and something similar is found in the Koran and also in the Talmud (with ‘elephant’ rather than ‘camel’). (Mounce)

There is no evidence to support two alternative (and softer) interpretations:-

(a) that kamelos (camel) should be read as kamilos (rope): the two words sounded the same in the days of koine Greek (Cole).  According to Garland, the words of ‘rope’ and ‘camel’ are also similar in Aramaic.

(b) that the eye of the needle was the name of a narrow gate in the city wall.  In this case, a neat ‘spiritual lesson’ would be available: we can enter the kingdom of God if we shed our burdens and get down on our knees.  No such gate existed in Jerusalem at the time; the gate so-named was put in much later.

Difficult?  No, impossible!  ‘The humorous picture of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle means, as the disciples rightly discerned, that it is not simply hard but impossible for a rich person to be saved. The answer lies in recognizing that the humanly impossible is possible for God. Salvation is not earned, either by wealth or by poverty; the kingdom of God overturns all human valuations and possibilities.’ (NBC)

Garland says, ‘If Jesus advised radical surgery on hands, feet, and eyes so that one can enter life, even if maimed (Mk 9:43–48), how much more should we get rid of possessions that anchor the soul to this world and will only fuel the flames of judgment?’

Kingdom of God is the exact parallel of ‘kingdom of heaven’ in v23, confirming that they are synonymous expressions.

19:25 The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?” 19:26 Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible.”

They were greatly astonished – because they had been brought up to believe that wealth, not poverty, was a sign of God’s favour.  If the rich, blessed by God, cannot be saved, then who can be?

‘Here was another shock for the disciples’ scale of values. The man was rich, moral and eager for eternal life, the ideal recruit to the disciple band. To see him sent away by Jesus astonished them. If such a man could not be saved, who could be.’ (NBC)

‘Jesus had a few relatively wealthy followers (e.g., Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Zacchaeus, and perhaps Matthew) and was happy to take advantage of their hospitality (cf. Luke 8:3). If it is not theoretically impossible that the rich can be saved (i.e., without giving up their wealth), it is practically the case that only a relative few are able by the grace of God to live with their riches in a way that does not compromise their full, undivided commitment to Jesus in discipleship. But to live with wealth in this way is tantamount to giving it all away…We should recognize that by the standards of first-century Palestine, most upper-middle-class Westerners and those on the Pacific rim would be considered wealthy. For all such persons the questions of wealth, discipleship, and the poor cannot be sidestepped if following Christ and his teaching means anything at all.’ (Hagner)

“Who then can be saved?” – ‘Sōzō, “to save”, normally in the Gospels refers to rescue from danger or illness, but here, where it parallels ‘to enter the kingdom of God’, it anticipates the later ‘theological’ meaning.’ (France)

Questions about salvation

1. The inquisitive question

Luke 13:23 – “Are only a few people going to be saved?”

Answer: it matters not if they are few or many, if you are not one of them.

2. The incredulous question

Matthew 19:25 – Who then can be saved?

Answer: God is able to save all, whoever they are.  Wealth is no aid, poverty no barrier.

3. The imperative question

Acts 16:30 – “What must I do to be saved?”

Answer: God delights to reply to such a person, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.”

Quit quibbling about salvation and receive it.

(Pickering, 1,000 Subjects, slightly adapted)

“With man this is impossible”

The difficulties in the way of the salvation of a rich man are

  1. That riches engross the affections.
  2. That men consider wealth as the chief good, and when this is obtained they think they have gained all.
  3. That they are proud of their wealth, and unwilling to be numbered with the poor and despised followers of Jesus.
  4. That riches engross the time, and fill the mind with cares and anxieties, and leave little for God.
  5. That they often produce luxury, dissipation, and vice.
  6. That it is difficult to obtain wealth without sin, without avarice, without covetousness, fraud, and oppression, 1 Tim 6:9, 10, 17; James 5:1–5; Lk 12:16–21; 16:19–31.


“But with God all things are possible” – He is able to save completely, for ever, Heb 7:25.

No human being can effect salvation.  But with God even the salvation of the rich is possible.  (See note on previous verse).

France explains: ‘Jesus’ reply echoes the thought of Genesis 18:14, and places “salvation” firmly in the category of the supernatural work of God (in contrast with the young man’s hope of attaining eternal life by “doing”). On this basis, while wealth may be a handicap, no earthly circumstances can determine a man’s fate.’

19:27 Then Peter said to him, “Look, we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” 19:28 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth: In the age when all things are renewed, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 19:29 And whoever has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 19:30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Peter must have been thinking, “Well, we disciples certainly don’t have any such hindrances of wealth!” Now what he wants is what has been called ‘a cost-benefit analysis of the Kingdom’.  What’s in it for us?

“We have left everything to follow you!” – Well yes, they had, but there ‘appears to be a note of self-congratulation in this announcement. It reflects the same tendency to think of the honours that will be received in the Kingdom before the nature of the mission has been understood that was encountered in Mk 9:33.’ (Lane, on Mark)

It’s interesting that Jesus does not criticise the disciples for their mercenary attitude.  Rather, he takes pains to reassure the disciples that despite all the difficulties and privations that may experience as his followers, they will gain much more than they may lose.  God will be in no-one’s debt.

“The renewal of things” – The word palingenesia occurs only once more in the NT, Tit 3:5. It means lit. ‘regeneration’ (so AV); ‘new birth’. RSV here translates it ‘the new world’. In a roughly parallel verse, Lk 22:30, Jesus refers to “my kingdom.” The word has ‘a long history in Hellenism, especially in Stoic circles where it was used to depict the rebirth of the universe, including human souls, after the cosmic conflagration. Philo used the term both for the restoration to life of individuals as well as of the reconstitution of the world after the Flood, while Josephus used to refer to the re-establishment of Israel after the Exile.’ (DJG)

A similar idea is found in Acts 3:21, where Peter speaks of the ‘restoration [apokatastasis] of all things’, Col 1:20, where we read of God plan to reconcile “all things” to himself through Christ, and Eph 1:10, which speaks of peaks of God’s desire to bring together “all things” in Christ.  2 Pet 3:13 and Rev 21:1 pick up the promise of ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ from Isa 65 and 66.  According to these scriptures, God’s plan is to renew the entire creation – both heavenly things and earthly things.  The prospect of a future earthly restoration dominates most of the OT teaching.  Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel expand this to include resurrection and an after-life.  The NT goes even further in speaking of heaven, without ever rejecting the earthly and physical dimensions of our hope.

‘Though the term itself is distinctively Greek, the concept of cosmic rebirth is very much at home in Jewish thought. In the OT language of restoration and renewal, and explicitly in Isa 65:17 and 66:22 which express the hope of a new heaven and a new earth, we encounter a notion found widely in Jewish apocalyptic, at Qumran and in the targums; also, the Kaddish Prayer: “Magnified and sanctified be his Great Name in the world that is to be created anew”). The birth of this new age is often associated with the pouring forth of God’s Spirit. (e.g., Isa 32:15; Joe 2:28-29) The NT also looks forward to the eschatological new birth, as Jesus answers the disciples’ question about the end of the age by warning of wars, famines and earthquakes as “the beginning of birth pains” (Mt 24:8) which point to the time of the coming of the Son of man. This ushers in “the age to come,” (cf. Mt 12:32) which elsewhere in the NT is also pictured as the new heaven and new earth. (cf. 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1,5)

The cosmic new birth represents a moral transformation of the world order accomplished by the power of God. At the end of this present age, “the Son of Man will send out his angels to weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil….Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Mt 13:41,43 NIV) Those who have served Jesus in lowliness will be exalted to his right hand in exaltation.’ (Mt 19:28) (DJG)

In Tit 3:5 palingenesia refers to individual regeneration, but here it probably refers to a restoration of things to a former, or to a better, state. This pair of references reminds us that the renewal of the individual is part of cosmic renewal. ‘It refers to that great revolution; that restoration of order in the universe; that universal new birth when the dead shall rise, and all human things shall be changed, and a new order of things shall start up out of the ruins of the old, when the Son of man shall come to judgment.’ (Barnes)

“His glorious throne” – ‘It is not to be taken literally, but is used to denote his character as a King and Judge, and to signify the great dignity and majesty which will be displayed by him. See Mt 24:30; 26:64; Acts 1:11; 17:31.’ (Barnes)

“You…will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” – This is linked by some with Acts 1:6f and Rom 11:26 to support the notion of a literal restoration of the Jews.  However, ‘this text, which seems particularly time-bound to modern readers, probably refers to the Twelve sharing in judgment on the unbelieving people of Israel in association with Jesus rather than to some kind of rule over a reconstituted ethnic Israel. The language is symbolical, but the symbolism points to some kind of community which corresponds to the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is saying in the strongest way possible that the old Israel is coming under judgment, and that the judgment will be in the hands of those who have been called by him as his close disciples. The implication is that there will be what we may call a new Israel.’ (DJG)

v30 ‘The “first” are those who because of their wealth, education, position, prestige, talents, etc., are highly regarded by men in general, sometimes even by God’s children.’ (Hendriksen)

‘This may be a quiet word of reassurance to the disciples that God does not see as men do; the young man might be a ruler in this world, but the disciples who had stayed faithfully by the Lord, in his time of testing, Lk 22:28, would be “rulers” in the world to come.’ (Cole, on Mark)

‘This entire episode should challenge First-World Christians, virtually all of whom are among the wealthiest people in the history of the world, to radical changes in their personal and institutional spending. The solemn warnings of Jas 2:14–17 and 1 John 3:17 demand much more serious attention, lest many professing Christians tragically find themselves damned on Judgment Day.’ (Blomberg)