To Whom Does Matthew 19:3-12 Apply?
In order to sort out the proper application of the discussion on divorce in Matthew 19, one must take into account several contextual indicators. First, observe that in the context of the passage, Jesus addressed Himself to Jews (vs. 3—“Pharisees”)—not Christians. He answered their question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” (vs. 3).
Second, if Jesus’ answer applies only to Christians (as some claim), then He did not help His Jewish inquirers and, in fact, He completely dodged their question. But He made clear that His answer did apply to them and to everybody else, for three reasons:
He said, “Have you not read” (vs. 4) and “But I say unto you” (vs. 9). He was speaking to them!
He used the term “whosoever” (vs. 9)—an all-inclusive term that means anyone and everyone.
In verses 4-5, He appealed to Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24 for His answer to their question. The instruction from Genesis predates the Mosaic period in its original context. Consequently, the teaching of Genesis (i.e., that God has intended from the very beginning of time for one man to be married to one woman for life, with the only exception being fornication) is teaching that applies to mankind and humanity in general.
Though (a) during certain time periods (e.g., Mosaic), people grew lax in their sensitivity to this Divine guideline, and though (b) God “winked at” this lax behavior (Acts 17:30), such is no indication that people today are free to ignore the laws of God on divorce and remarriage (Hebrews 13:4).
Third, notice the disciples’ reaction to the stringent nature of Jesus’ declaration: “[I]f the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (vs. 10). In other words, if a man is obligated to remain married to his first spouse (with the only possibility for divorce and remarriage being the sexual unfaithfulness of that mate), then the man ought to think twice, deliberating long and hard, before he decides to get married the first time. In marrying, he is committing himself to a lifetime with the same woman (in God’s sight). It may very well be preferable to live single than to risk permanent marriage to a mate who creates misery and is unpleasant to live with (but who remains sexually faithful). This is the gist of the disciples’ remark to Jesus. They understood Jesus’ instruction to be very restrictive. But they then drew an erroneous conclusion by proposing the propriety, even priority, of celibacy.
Fourth, in response to the disciples’ remark, Jesus noted in verse 11 that not everyone can live as they suggested (i.e., single and celibate). The implication is that some, more than others, possess a greater need for companionship and the sexual relationship that accompanies that marital companionship. (Notice that sex is perfectly permissible in God’s sight—after all, He designed it! But, if one desires to indulge, the participant is under obligation to conform to divine guidelines, limiting and confining sexual activity to a scriptural marriage relationship). Jesus then elaborated upon three classes of men (vs. 12) who would be able to pursue the celibate life which the disciples proposed: (1) those who are born physically defective and, consequently, are unable to function sexually; (2) those who are born physically normal, but who are then surgically rendered unable to perform sexually. Though odd to the modern mind, it was a common practice in ancient cultures to render impotent various individuals who sought to function in official capacities, e.g., wards in charge of royal bedchambers, servants who lived in the palaces of royalty, etc. (cf. Genesis 37:26; 40:2,7; Daniel 1:3; Esther 1:10; 2:21; 1 Kings 22:9; 2 Kings 8:6; 9:32; Acts 8:27); (3) those who simply choose to forego sexual relations and marriage in order to devote themselves completely to religious matters (like Jesus and Paul).
Fifth, Jesus’ concluding statement, “he that is able to receive it, let him receive it” (vs. 12), pertains to that which He had been discussing, i.e., the choice to live celibate. He could not have been referring back to the statement of verse 9. Such would be a contradiction. For, on the one hand, He would have been declaring emphatically that those who divorce/remarry unscripturally are guilty of committing adultery, and then, turning right around and minimizing this declaration by suggesting that a person does not have to abide by the stricture if he does not want to. If people are free to decide their own guidelines for marriage, there was no need for Jesus to have even mentioned the matter in the first place. But when has God ever laid down any regulation with the implication that men do not have to obey if they do not wish to? The “saying” (vs. 11) with which He took issue, maintaining that it should not be set in concrete or urged upon mankind indiscriminately and universally, was the saying of the disciples—that men ought to refrain from marriage and live celibate lives. Jesus’ statement in verse 9 is clearly universal in its application and import. The disciples’ statement in verse 10 is clearly limited in its scope and application to the three classes of individuals that Jesus delineated. Only those three categories of persons are in a position (physically, and/or mentally) to “receive this saying” pertaining to abstinence from marriage.