by Al Maxey

Issue #192 ------- May 28, 2005
Therefore a man shall leave his father
and mother and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24 --- NKJV

What God Hath Joined Together
Considering Christ's Counsel in Matt. 19:6b

Following our Lord's transfiguration "on a high mountain" (Matt. 17:1 -- scholars have suggested three distinct possibilities -- Mt. Tabor, Mt. Hermon, and Mt. Miron), but prior to His triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem, Jesus "left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan" (Matt. 19:1). It is the understanding of many scholars, from a close examination of this passage and its parallel in Mark 10:1, that Jesus left Galilee with the city of Jerusalem in Judea as His destination, but that He traveled through the region of Perea, which was across the Jordan from Judea, so as to avoid passing through the hostile territory of Samaria. Thus, it is very likely that our Lord's statement in Matt. 19:4ff occurred in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas. If this was indeed the case, and there is good evidence that it was, this would prove to be an extremely significant factor in helping one to understand the questions addressed to Jesus at that particular time.

Herod Antipas, who reigned from 4 B.C. to 39 A.D., was an unusually immoral, crafty, and inhumane ruler. It was to this man that Pilate sent Jesus following His arrest, at which time Herod "ridiculed and mocked Him," dressed Him up in an elegant robe, and then sent Him back to Pilate for crucifixion (Luke 23:11). In the summer of 39 A.D., Herod Antipas was banished by the Roman Emperor Caligula to Lyons, in Gaul, where, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, he died in great misery.

It was Herod Antipas who was responsible for having John, the forerunner of the Messiah, beheaded (Matt. 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 3:19-20). John was arrested because he was condemning Herod for his marriage to Herodias, saying, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" (Mark 6:18). Herod had divorced his Nabatean wife in order to marry Herodias, whom he had taken away from his brother Herod Philip. This was in violation of the Law of Moses, which specifically stated, "Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonor your brother" (Lev. 18:16).

Herodias herself was also infamous for her incestuous marital relationships. She was first married to her step-brother, by whom she had a daughter, Salome. Later, she entered into a marriage with her uncle, Philip; then into a third marriage with Philip's brother, Herod Antipas. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Salome also broke with what was widely considered to be acceptable behavior in Jewish culture by openly renouncing her own marriage vows. This incident is reported by Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews (book 15, chapter 7, section 10).

It is safe to say that no one in this highly dysfunctional family was even attempting to achieve God's eternal ideal for marriage. When John exposed their ungodly and unlawful practices, it cost him his life. It is entirely probable, in light of Herod's sensitivity to criticism and his tendency to react harshly toward his critics, that the Pharisees who approached Jesus that day in Perea were hoping to lure Jesus into making some public statement against the lifestyle of Herod. Knowing how this would infuriate him, it could potentially lead to the downfall, possibly even the death, of this troublemaker named Jesus. If not His destruction, then perhaps His public humiliation before one or more elements of Jewish society would suffice to remove Him as a threat. It would not be difficult to imagine such thoughts running through the minds of those who put their questions that day to Jesus in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas.

As additional background information to the Matthew 19 account before us, it should be noted that during the time of Jesus there was a heated debate being waged among the Jews as to what constituted acceptable grounds for divorce. There was quite a diversity of opinion on this matter. This also would assuredly be on the minds of the legalistic Pharisees when they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (Matt. 19:3).

There were two main schools of thought on this controversial issue; an issue over which the Jews were very much divided. The Pharisees were undoubtedly confident that no matter how Jesus answered the question He was sure to incur the wrath of the followers of at least one of these theological positions. By seeking to involve Jesus in what was clearly a very sensitive issue, both religiously and politically, these antagonists felt confident that He would surely be adversely affected in one way or another by His response. "The Pharisees in this pericope have an agenda: they wanted Jesus to enter into a debate currently raging among two schools of Pharisaic thought" (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 463). The nature of the Lord's answer probably mattered little to these religionists; any response would certainly be sufficient to incite some faction of the Jewish population, and thus significantly reduce the popularity and effectiveness of Jesus. If His response resulted in the displeasure of Herod Antipas, then all the better!

The School of Hillel and the School of Shammai were representative of the two major positions of the Jewish people with respect to the very sensitive matter of what constituted "just cause" for a divorce. Both schools of thought permitted divorce. The disagreement was not over whether the dissolution of a covenant of marriage was permissible, but upon what basis it was permissible. Rabbi Hillel's school of thought was considered extremely liberal and progressive. Divorce was allowed for almost every conceivable cause. Their reasoning was based upon their interpretation of the statement in the Law of Moses, "If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him..." (Deut. 24:1). It was their understanding that the term "displeasing" was non-specific enough to permit the issuing of a certificate of divorce for virtually any cause. Indeed, Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews, stated that a man may "be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever" (book 4, chapter 8, section 23). Josephus, who lived during the majority of the first century A.D., was expressing the popular view of many during the time of Christ. He himself had been married three times, and divorced his second wife, by whom he had fathered three children, "not being pleased with her manners" (The Life of Flavius Josephus, sections 75-76). The venerated Rabbi Akiba stated, "If any man saw a woman handsomer than his own wife, he might put his wife away; because it is said in the Law, 'If she find not favor in his eyes.'" Under this liberal theology, even burning the husband's bread could be cited as "justifiable cause" for termination of the marital relationship.

On the other side of the heated debate stood the more conservative school of Shammai. Rabbi Shammai was far less flexible and lenient in his interpretation of Deut. 24:1. It was his understanding of this passage from the divine Law that divorce was permissible only on the basis of sexual infidelity. When a husband, for example, found "some indecency" within his wife, this clearly signified sexual misconduct by the wife which violated her marital covenant. This, and this alone, was regarded as just cause for divorce by the school of Shammai.

With the philosophy of the school of Hillel so popular among the general population, it is not surprising that the frequency of divorce during the time of Christ had reached scandalous proportions. Abuse of covenant partners abounded, God's original intent for marriage had been all but abandoned, and these sacred covenants were being daily cheapened and tarnished by the deplorable behavior of God's people. Although a few did indeed remain faithful to their God and sought to uphold His ideal for marriage, such as the Qumran community, which rejected the practice of divorce on any grounds, such men and women were noticeably in the minority.

This, then, was the social, theological and political climate which provided the backdrop for the question of the Pharisees to Jesus in Matt. 19:3. Jesus, much to their consternation, however, chose to respond to their question in a most unexpected manner. He determined to side with neither faction in the debate raging about Him, nor did He specifically speak out against the excesses of Herod. Instead, He chose a positive approach to the issue -- He directed their minds back to God's ideal, His original intent: "'Haven't you read,' He replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate'" (Matt. 19:4-6). The prophet Malachi employed much the same strategy. Before declaring God's hatred of divorce (Mal. 2:16), he sought to impress upon his people the fact that the Creator formed them all, and when they dealt treacherously with another of God's creatures they profaned a sacred trust (vs. 10).

"Jesus circumvents His interlocutors' focus based on Deut. 24 by appealing to the focus of Gen. 2. The ultimate issue should not be the right to divorce, but God's original desire" (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 463). By directing the minds of the Pharisees back to the original intent of the Creator, Jesus successfully side-stepped their plot to entrap Him that day. God's divine design called for the creation of both male and female, the latter being created specially for the former. It was the desire of the Creator for these two to join themselves together so closely and intimately they could, in a sense, become "one flesh." A separation of this union was never the intent of God. Rather than siding with either faction, both of which allowed divorce, Jesus declared that if men were truly seeking God's ideal there would be no divorce at all.

Considering Christ's Counsel

Having provided the setting for the comments of Christ Jesus, we now turn to one of those comments; one that has been the source of some controversy and debate down through the centuries. The statement in question is -- "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" (Matt. 19:6b). Some men have taken this verse to mean that when God joins a couple together in a covenant of marriage, nothing at all can ever terminate that marriage. In other words, they believe this verse teaches the absolute impossibility of divorce. Thus, if a mere human being seeks and secures a divorce against his or her mate, this divorce will NOT be recognized by God. The couple will remain married in the sight of God. Marriage is for life, they say, and thus cannot be terminated, although some of these conservative interpreters will allow a single exception in the case porneia (Matt. 19:9; 5:32).

When Jesus said, "let man not separate," the Greek verb He used, which we translate into English as "separate," appears as a present imperative, and is preceded by the Greek negative particle "me," which makes this a "prohibitive imperative" in Greek grammatical construction. Simply stated, this phrase signifies a negative command which serves the purpose of prohibiting the continuance of a specific act already taking place. This phrase could just as correctly be translated, "Therefore what God has joined together, stop separating." Maintaining that a person cannot separate that which was previously joined together by God, completely fails to perceive the significance of this Greek phrase. Marriages were being terminated, and the Lord Jesus acknowledged that reality. His command to them was, "STOP doing it!" The intent was to forbid the continuance of what was. Jesus did not declare the impossibility of divorce, He declared its unacceptability.

"God is the Author of union; man, of division" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 15). "Divorce is not only 'unnatural,' but rebellion against God. God and man are so far apart on this issue that what God unites, man divides" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 412). "Jesus dealt here with the sanctity of marriage by focusing on the God-ordained unity of the couple" (ibid). There is much in our Lord's teaching in this whole section from Matthew 19 that would be profitable for further study, but the main point I would stress in this current study is that Jesus does not take sides in such legalistic and legislative squabbles among factionists, but rather directs the hearts and minds of His hearers to the original design of deity -- one man for one woman for life! When both parties to a covenant of marriage have this as their priority, divorce will never enter the picture; it will never even be considered. Problems in the relationship will be resolved, rather than one or both parties retreating from one another and leaving the marriage in ruins. This is the ideal, but it was not happening. Jesus challenged them to consider how these covenants should be, and, in light of that divine design, to stop this callous casting off of one another.

The Lord Jesus is not stating man cannot separate this sacred union, rather He insists men ought not do so, for it violates the spirit and intent of God's design for marriage. To insist, as do some, that a marriage is not truly severed because the Lord has prohibited such dissolutions is little different than claiming a dead man has not truly been severed from life, or the realm of the living, since God has prohibited murder. The prohibition declares the act unacceptable, and even sinful, but it does not render it impossible or unachievable, nor does it negate the inevitable consequences which may result from said action. Jesus didn't say, "The joke's on you! You're not really divorced, because God doesn't recognize such divorces. Your new marriages aren't really marriages, because God doesn't recognize such marriages. You're all living in adultery if you are remarried." Jesus could have said that (plenty of men seem to be saying it today), but He didn't. He simply acknowledged that covenants were being broken and new covenants were being made, and He declared such covenant breaking and relationship hopping a violation of God's ideal for marriage. He told them it was time to stop such behavior and return to God's original design and intent for these relationships.


In the church today, especially among those disciples who have a tendency to be extremely, almost fanatically, legalistic and patternistic in their interpretation and practice, there is a devilish doctrine being promoted to the great harm of people already experiencing the trauma of one of life's greatest heartbreaks. Those men and women who have suffered the breakdown of a covenant of marriage are being further victimized by deluded disciples who inform these persons that God does NOT recognize their divorces, NOR does He recognize any subsequent marriage. They tell these men and women that they are still married to their first spouse in the sight of God, and thus they are never free, for as long as either spouse lives, to remarry (since their first marriage has never ended). If either spouse remarries, then the second union is simply "living in sin" (a phrase, by the way, that never appears in Scripture with reference to a remarriage).

Some poor couples, who are in marital unions other than their first, have even been told that they must abandon their new spouses if they hope to "get to heaven." Thus, trauma is heaped upon trauma, all in the name of "sound doctrine." Baloney!! This isn't even remotely what Jesus was saying in Matt. 19:6 ... or anywhere in Scripture, for that matter. Second unions are called "marriages" in Scripture. The spouses are referred to as "husbands" and "wives." A "divorce" is just that -- a complete dissolution of the covenant of marriage. That which had become one is now two again! The Bible does not even remotely teach what these people suggest. Their doctrine is as twisted as the meanderings of a serpent seeking a rat ... and just as disgusting and deadly.

The teaching of our Lord is very clear. God's original intent for men and women was that they would seek a single covenant of marriage, and they would remain faithful to that covenant for life. That is His ideal. Sadly, sin has complicated the lives of mankind, and the ideal is often painfully missed. Just because God establishes an ideal, does NOT suggest it cannot be missed. The ideal is that a man will not murder another man. God never intended for men to murder one another ... but it happens! And when it does, the victim is truly dead. It would be absurd for one to suggest the victim was not dead because God had commanded, "Thou shalt not murder." The same is true with marriage. God has established an ideal, but when those covenants fail, they are truly terminated; just as dead as a victim of murder.

The counsel of Christ is --- Stop it!! This frivolous fracturing of relationships must cease; it is contrary to God's original intent, and it only brings pain and suffering in its wake for the victims. Again, Jesus does NOT declare the impossibility of divorce, only that it is unacceptable. When covenants break down, someone is culpable, and that, by the way, is the focus of His additional teaching in the Matthew 19 passage. For those who might want to pursue that focus further at this time, please read carefully the following issue of these Reflections:

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Washington:

I had not realized you were, among other things, a Poet. Thank you for sharing this one -- Help Them Be One -- in your last issue. I can tell it came straight from your heart, and that you are indeed doing what you say you will do -- "My pledge to the Father, my pledge to His Son: I'll work with Your people, I'll help them be ONE." How pleased He must be to have one like you.

Daddy's Shoes

Little feet that barely walk,
With years of growing ahead;
Little toes that waggle and wiggle,
When tucked at night into bed.

They run, they play, they track in mud,
But of all the things they could choose,
These little feet are proudest when
They stand in Daddy's shoes.

Happy Father's Day
I Love You, Daddy

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, The more I see the direction the church is taking in what is often called the "ultra-conservative" ranks, the more I am seeing the Church of Christ for what it actually is. What may have started off as a good idea -- uniting God's people -- has ended up with a very small number, called "US," blindly thinking we are God's only people, and that anyone who thinks differently isn't. I don't know when Churches of Christ took the wrong turn, but whenever it was, it was a critical and devastating one. Back in 1980, I wrote an article in our bulletin pleading for brethren not to make the children's Bible hour into a fellowship issue. This put me in conflict with my old friend and editor of Contending for the Faith, Ira Y. Rice, Jr. He and a few others wrote me up in his paper (and a few other publications). Ira would not allow me to defend my position. I continued to write to him and finally he wrote back and told me he would never allow me to defend myself in his paper and that I needed to go back to my former church (the United Methodist Church). Perhaps one day we, in Churches of Christ, will realize that we have too long been just another denomination that has had an overdose of arrogance, and that we are in need of an attitude adjustment. All I can say is, "Thank God for His grace." We had better be putting our trust more and more in that grace! I appreciate you, brother! You have a courage that I can only dream about. May your number grow!

From a Minister in Missouri:

Dear Bro. Al, God bless you! I get a lot of good from your Reflections. In today's issue -- "Divine Barrier Busting" -- I was reminded of what is going on in many of the Christian Churches. Acts 2:38 is off limits!

From a Reader in Florida:

Excellent, brother Al. Excellent indeed! And in great need in the church today!

From a Reader in Michigan:

Another powerful bull's-eye, my brother! Even "little ol' me" has experienced some of what you wrote about in "Divine Barrier Busting." The web site for the NBC-TV show Revelations lists my own web site on their resources page, but the Church of Christ Web-Ring won't touch it. They don't like it when you don't condemn others like they do. They condemn those that don't condemn! But, I do think they're a dying breed.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

What a lovely ray of sunshine you brought to our lives! You are deeply appreciated, brother! May God continue to richly favor you and all your efforts to bring peace to Jesus' Body.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, Isn't it interesting that the way of love and grace flowing from the Cross is much easier and more comforting than rule keeping -- and yet we hang on tenaciously to the latter! Even this side of death we could be free and joyous as we anticipate what awaits us. How, then, can we choose biting and devouring each other? It's like tearing a beautiful butterfly apart in order to explain its beauty. Keep chipping away, brother. I loved your concluding poem, and I appreciate your loving spirit. May God help His poor wayward children find their way home by way of the Cross.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, It seems the MarsList is a brotherhood Gestapo!! Get a brown shirt, jack boots, armband, and march to THEIR beat and maybe they will let you join! Thanks for your efforts, brother!

From a New Reader in California:

I enjoyed your commentary on The Prophecy of Obadiah. I'm currently reading through the Bible (a chapter a day), and sometimes some of the prophets stump me as to what they are referring to (past prophetic fulfillment or future prophesy), so I appreciate your insight. Please add me to your mailing list for Reflections.

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, I appreciate so much your determination to keep striking a blow for unity. I believe that your article "Divine Barrier Busting" is far more of a Christian Affirmation than some others I have read recently. I think it is of utmost importance to continually seek God's guidance in how we worship Him, as opposed to codifying a set of practices which may or may not have worked in the past. The question I think we should be asking on a daily basis is, "How can I best glorify the Master today?," instead of, "How did my brothers glorify the Father in the first century?"

From a Minister in Texas:

I just completed a class series on Unity here in Lubbock using Ephesians as the foundational text. I began with the tensions among the 1st century churches, and then gave a quick survey of the text, and then the last two weeks were spent in a quick survey of the "Restoration Movement" over the past century. It was quite enlightening to prepare for this class, and also to listen to the observations from the class members. For the most part, modern churches have ignored the prayer of Jesus as recorded in John 17. If unity was that important to the Son of the living God, should it not be a top priority for US?!!

From a Reader in Kentucky:

Brother Al, I have been a new reader of yours over the past two or three months. If you ever had a kindred spirit, it is me. I appreciate your comments so much. I copy them for my very busy husband, who is an attorney. We attend ------- Church of Christ where his main mission in life is to serve Christ as well as shepherd a flock of 650. Our flock has been divided for some time now into exactly what your articles have recently been about. Do we clap? Do we raise hands? Do we allow ...? Etc. Etc. May God continue to give you the grace you need to present Him as He truly is, and the courage to continue doing what you are doing!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I seem to feel your frustration when reading your last Reflections: "Divine Barrier Busting," but feel you fell into a well-laid trap. One of the things I have loved about you is your very straight-forward presentation of the issue. Your article is a bull's-eye, but the trap is naming those who are the cause for division. You are involved in probably the most influential work I have seen in the church EVER, and if you just keep presenting the message, God will continue to be glorified. Though difficult, let the attacks against you run as rain from your back and know, in the language of Star Wars, the force is strong within you. Love you, and stay strong in your work!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Bro. Al, In the past few weeks I have read your Reflections with great interest. I am moved by your insight, and am challenged on so many topics by your analysis. I am especially interested in unity, and am so taken with the things you have been saying that I too have often thought. As I have continued to pray, study and reflect on who we are and what we have to do in the world, I have grown bolder. I think that soon I too shall be thought a "heretic" among my own brothers. Where will I go when my brothers will no longer accept me as a brother and the din of their rejection becomes great? Jimmy Allen first introduced me to the very sublime biblical truth of salvation by grace, and I shall never forget his wonderful influence on my life as I was preparing to preach the gospel. I was a contemporary with Mike Cope while at Harding. As young men during the mid-70's, we spoke of one day changing our direction, and moving the people of God from cold, sad keepers of legalistic standards to bold, but loving, proclaimers of the cross. We just wanted God's people to be like JESUS.

From a Reader in West Virginia:

Al, Great article on the "Christian Affirmation" (Issue #190). I share many of your concerns regarding the thinking expressed in that document. When will we realize that the "patterns and practices" horse is dead?! This would not even unite two sects of our own folks, let alone the broader Christian world. I always enjoy your writing. It is good to think with you, brother!

From a Reader in Texas:

Bro. Al, I am a little behind in the reading of your articles, and I just read "Breakfast On The Beach" (Issue #189). I thought it was a wonderful article, and it answered many questions that I had about that incident on the shore of Lake Galilee, as well as allowing me to understand the heart of Peter a little better. Peter felt inadequate, but he didn't let that take him out of the race. I wish more of us today could say that. So often, because we fear failure, we don't even try to do the things we should. Oh how strong the church would be today if we all would take up that same warrior spirit Peter had.

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Bro Al, the article on "Divine Barrier Busting" was, in my opinion, your best work thus far. The poem was very moving!! I saw myself in the article as I have tended to put up a wall and shut out those who might not agree with "God and ME" in matters of opinion. Surely we can be more benevolent with each other!!

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