When one studies the parallel account of this in Mark 10 (specifically verse 10), it appears that Jesus did not just speak on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage publicly. It seems likely that Matthew 19:1-9 is the public context where the Pharisees and others were present, and thus Matthew 19:10-12 may be a record of a more private setting where Jesus and His disciples were the only ones present. Let us study those three verses at this time.
Matthew 19:10 - "His disciples said to Him, 'If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.'" Without a doubt, the apostles understood Jesus' words and they found the prospect of being permanently bound in an unhappy marriage to be an unpleasant thought. If sexual immorality on the part of one's spouse was the only reason for divorce (and it is), then they thought it might be better not to marry in the first place than to take the chance of getting into an unhappy marriage that could not be ended without sin.
Jesus responded as follows - "All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given" (Matt. 19:11). Understanding this sentence is a challenge due to the fact that it is difficult to know what exact "saying" Jesus is referring to. There seems to be three possibilities:
View #1: Jesus is referring back to 19:9,
View #2: Jesus is referring to the disciples' statement in 19:10, or
View #3: Jesus is prefacing His words in 19:12 with this comment.
We will consider these three views in a moment, but first let us hear Jesus' word from Matt. 19:12 - "For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it."
Since the first and third views essentially lead to the same conclusion, we will consider them together. If Jesus' comment in 19:11 is referring to either verse 9 or verse 12, then Jesus is trying to point out the fact that some will not accept His teaching. It is unwise to automatically assume that Jesus' thoughts in 19:11,12 are optional because of the phrase, "He who is able to accept it, let him accept it." Admittedly, in English this does indeed sound like an optional matter, but Jesus used similar terminology elsewhere in dealing with matters that definitely were not optional (e.g., Matt. 13:9). It is absolutely true that many will not accept Jesus' teaching in this overall context, and thus they will not comply with it.
But, there will be true disciples who will accept and apply His teachings on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. Jesus explains that it will be difficult for some to do so. He illustrates His point by referring to three different kinds of eunuchs: (1) Those who are born eunuchs (that is, they are incapable of sexual intercourse because of a birth defect), (2) Those who are made eunuchs by men (this is not heard of today, but it was common then for servants of kings to be neutered to protect the women of the royal family and to help prevent the eunuchs from conspiring against the king), and (3) Those who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom's sake (that is, for the sake of the church). This doesn't mean that they literally neuter themselves. It simply means they will behave as eunuchs and not have sexual relations. If View #1 or View #3 is correct, then it would seem that Jesus is referring to those who have married and divorced without a Scriptural reason. If they cannot be reconciled to their true spouse, then they must live a life of celibacy (like a eunuch would). This is the case because, if they remarry, they would be living in adultery!
View #2 of 19:11 interprets verse 12 in an entirely different way (although the conclusions reached do not contradict anything stated previously). If Jesus was referring to the disciples' statement from verse 10 when He said, "All cannot accept this saying," then He meant that not all men can accept their conclusion about it being "better not to marry." Some strongly desire marriage, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this (cf. I Cor. 7:8,9). If this view is correct (and I believe it is), then Jesus is not talking about marriage, divorce, and remarriage in Matt. 19:11,12; He is addressing the subject of celibacy (and His position is in agreement with everything Paul wrote on the matter in I Corinthians 7). It is acceptable for one to behave like a eunuch for the sake of the church and choose to never get married, if that is his desire, but such cannot be bound upon others (cf. I Tim. 4:1-3). Jesus Himself lived as a eunuch in this manner, as did the apostle Paul. This view easily explains why Jesus made the comments about some not being able to accept their saying in Matthew 19:10. Only those who were predisposed toward celibacy would choose to accept a eunuch's way of life (never marrying or engaging in sexual activity).
This concludes our study of Matthew 19:1-12. However, let us give brief attention to Jesus' teaching on this same subject as recorded in Matthew 5:31,32 - "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery."
In this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as He continued His discussion on adultery and lust. Under the law of Moses, a husband was permitted to divorce his wife if she found "no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her" (Deut. 24:1). But what exactly did Moses mean by that? Some Hebrews believed the focus was on the "uncleanness" (which they viewed as sexual immorality). Others interpreted the passage much more loosely, believing Moses' focus was upon a wife not finding favor in her husband's eyes (which could have been caused by something as trivial as burning toast). Regardless of the interpretation, those living under the Old Law were to give their divorced spouses a certificate indicating such.
Jesus' teaching on this matter was much stricter than what was recorded in Deuteronomy 24. But what exactly did the Lord mean when He said - "Whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality (i.e., fornication) causes her to commit adultery"? There are two possible ways in which this phrase can be understood: (1) Some scholars believe a better rendering would be - "causes her to become an adulteress." This could mean that since she is a divorced woman she would be viewed as an adulteress; that is, she is given the reputation of being an adulteress once she is divorced. (2) Given the culture of Jesus' day, a divorced woman would almost feel forced to find another husband. Thus, to divorce a woman who was innocent of sexual immorality was to "cause" her to commit adultery since it is assumed she will find a new husband to care and provide for her.
Ultimately, if a husband divorces his wife for a reason besides fornication, then he has sinned and is partly to blame if she commits adultery by remarrying. The woman is also partly to blame for remarrying without God's approval. Finally, the new husband is also partly at fault for marrying a woman who is still bound to another man. Certainly this woman is still bound to her first husband (at least in God's eyes), otherwise why would Jesus teach that "whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery"? How could the new "husband" be committing adultery if the divorced woman he "married" was free to remarry with God's approval? The answer is: He couldn't! Thus, she wasn't free to remarry! Jesus' teaching here harmonizes well with what He said in Matthew 19. Marriage is a life-long commitment, except in cases of sexual infidelity--period.
Before we conclude, let us consider three practical lessons that should be emphasized on this important subject.
(1) "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled, but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4).
Marriage is the most intimate of all human relationships, but many people ignore the sanctity of it today. Millions avoid marriage and live together without it. Many enter marriage lightly and abandon it at the first difficulty (often destroying the lives of children who are forced to grow up in an unstable environment). Many are untrue to their marriage vows and treat them with disdain. Many divorce and remarry time and time again, showing disrespect for the permanency and meaning of marriage. But just because many ignore the sanctity of marriage doesn't mean that God does. God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Marriage is sacred to Him, and it should be to us.
(2) God's word must be taught.
It is able to build us up and give us an inheritance among all those who are sanctified (Acts 20:32). If one chooses to ignore this Biblical subject and not teach others, then he is serving Satan (although admittedly it would be better for one to be silent than to teach some of the false theories that circulate today on this subject). Young people, if you choose to get married, that is great, but make sure you choose wisely. Choose a Christian mate and do all you can to ensure that your marriage will not falter.
(3) "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
Jesus said, "What God has joined together, let not man separate." God allows divorce and remarriage for only one reason. We must recognize what God permits and grant what He allows (after all, He is the One who ordained the marriage relationship; surely He alone has the right to regulate it as He sees fit). We must realize that just because man can be divorced in the eyes of civil law for almost any reason doesn't mean that God accepts those reasons. We must understand that most people who get divorced today are not Scripturally eligible to get married again. We must respect God's will in all things!
Dear listeners, if you've made mistakes in the past, face up to them and take appropriate action. Don't try to justify yourself if you're living in a sinful relationship! If you've been married and divorced and you didn't divorce your spouse because of sexual immorality, then you have no right in God's eyes to marry again. If you have remarried and your first marriage wasn't ended because of your spouse's sexual immorality, then you are currently living in sin and you stand condemned before God for your continued adultery (cf. Col. 3:5-7; I Cor. 6:9,10). If you are in such a "marriage," then you must forsake it to please God! That is what true repentance demands (e.g., the thief must stop stealing, the murderer must stop committing murder, and the adulterer must stop committing adultery). Friends, it is not easy for me to preach this message, but I believe it to be God's truth, and I can preach nothing else. The Bible teaches that God will forgive all the sins of those who obey the gospel, but that doesn't give a person the right to continue living in those sins. If they do, then they have not truly repented.
May we, like John the baptizer, have the strength to faithfully preach and practice the truth on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, even if it costs us our lives (cf. Matt. 14:3-12)! May we realize that no earthly relationship (no matter how physically pleasurable or desirable) is worth an eternity in hell! Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.