For the Record
by Joel Beeke
People in the news are often asked to give their views on hot issues of the day. Matthew 19 presents such a scenario: Christ is at the height of His public ministry, when “great multitudes followed him” (v. 2 KJV) and pressed for His views. Christ speaks “for the record” on several issues that have surfaced many times in Christian history and on which Christians have often disagreed.
Christ is traveling “the coasts of Judaea” (19:1) where another band of Pharisees decides to put Him to the test, asking Him to weigh in on the controversial practice of men divorcing (“putting away”) their wives “for every cause.” In an age of no-fault divorce, we can guess what the Pharisees had in mind (v. 3).
Christ insists that the marriage bond is intended by God to be monogamous and permanent. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (v. 6), He says firmly.
The Pharisees respond with an objection they are sure cannot be overruled: “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” (v. 7). Christ answers that Moses never commanded anyone to put away his wife, he only “suffered” this practice. Backing the letter of Moses’ law, Christ insists that the only just cause for divorce is fornication or “uncleanness” (Deut. 24:1), that is, some form of sexual sin.
Christ’s view of marriage and divorce shocks even the disciples. They respond, “If the case of a man be so with his wife, it is good not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). They were probably thinking Jesus’ restrictions on divorce would limit too severely a man’s freedom in marriage.
Instead of refuting their words, Christ invites the disciples to consider the possibility of remaining unmarried so they can devote themselves to the service of God more completely. He cites the example of eunuchs, some of whom were born with impaired sexual organs, while others were subjected to castration. Others, however, “made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake” (v. 12).
About the same time, some parents come to the Lord Jesus, asking Him to bless their little children with the laying on of hands and prayer. The disciples discourage these parents in the strongest terms; clearly, they regard the parents’ proposal as sentimental folly and a waste of Jesus’ valuable time. The Gospel is for grown-ups, not for children carried in their parents’ arms.
Christ quickly sets the record straight. These parents are doing what every believing parent ought to do: take their children to Jesus. Children have a place in the kingdom of heaven. Christ’s words and deeds are a fulfillment of Isaiah 40:11: “He shall gather the lambs with his arm.” The children of believers need Christ’s blessing upon being nurtured within the fellowship of Christ’s church as the community of the new covenant.
On another occasion, an apparently earnest young man comes to Christ to pose a question: “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). As pious as the question sounds, it betrays an entirely erroneous understanding of Christ and His Gospel. Eternal life is offered not to those who do good things, but to sinners who believe on His name.
Christ challenges this young man on two points: his view of Christ, and whether good works can be done to merit eternal life. On the first, Christ asks, “Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God” (v. 17). The young man is left to draw his own conclusion about the true identity of Christ.
On the second, Christ initially seems to agree with salvation by good works. But then He reminds the young man that the standard of the Law is perfection: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor” (v. 21). In doing so, Christ puts His finger on the secret sin of this young man: his attachment to his great possessions. Not even the hope of eternal life is enough to break that attachment.
Christ is not insisting that all Christians take a vow of poverty. His directives to the young man are related to the question he posed. Even so, the desire for riches is a trap into which many fall (1 Tim. 6:9–10) — not just the wealthy.
Again, the disciples are “exceedingly amazed” to hear that wealth can be such an obstacle to faith and salvation. But Christ offers them a most consoling word: “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).
Chapter 19 concludes with Christ warning His disciples to expect more surprises in the future. God’s ways are not our ways, as Isaiah 55:8 says. As followers of Christ and citizens of a heavenly kingdom, let us measure things according to new standards, denying ourselves for Christ’s sake and letting God