Matthew 19:8 What does, “Because of your hardness of heart” really mean?

Matthew 19:8 “Because of your hardness of hearts Moses permitted you to put away your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.”

Follow the illogical argumentation: Moses, speaking on behave of God, permitted divorce, which is thought by many to be a sin in and of itself.  And we are to believe that God acted in this fashion because adulterers were insisting upon their adultery? Are we to believe that God gave hard hearted, treacherous sinners this benefit?  These men sought release from their marriages so that they could join with other women without being guilty of adultery.  Are we to think that God gave in to such an evil request?  God demands righteousness from His people…adultery in the Old Testament was grounds for stoning to death.  If God’s people insisted upon committing sin and refused repentance, then they could expect His wrath manifested through death, captivity or severe living conditions until they repented.

Nevertheless, many seem to believe that this is precisely what Moses did, and then they believe that Jesus is here undoing it and reverting back to the way God intended marriage from the beginning.  Such a viewpoint would make it difficult to take seriously the immutability of God.

If this understanding is incorrect, then what did Jesus mean with His use of this phrase?  Our Lord’s use of this phrase is consistent with the rest of Scripture.  Since the fall of Adam men have had hard hearts.  As the hard heartedness of mankind is born out in marriage, God has responded with a license for divorce.  God through Moses did not provide this license to placate the wicked but to protect the innocent marriage partner.  When a godless, treacherous spouse is forced to keep their marital vows they would horribly abuse and even often murder their innocent spouse to escape [a la King Henry VIII].  Once a spouse’s hard heartedness erupts into treachery against their marriage partner either party can petition for divorce because the divorce action does not break the covenant, but rather protects the innocent marriage partner from further treacherous actions by the guilty spouse who has already broken the marriage covenant by failing to keep the conditions of the covenant (Primarily: fidelity and to love and to cherish).

In response to a question, Jesus was addressing a particular problem that men of means and position were regularly practicing. They were wanting to commit adultery while maintaining their standing in the community, so they were divorcing their wives so that they could take for themselves another woman. Jesus was informing them that their scheme was transparent to God. Calling unlawful divorces lawful did not suddenly make their adultery virtuous. Using divorce as a diversion, they were committing adultery. Jesus realized that it was adultery for two reasons: First, their motive was adultery (they desired relations with women who were not their wives). Secondly, these men were illegitimately using God’s provision of divorce as a cover to commit adultery. Remaining faithful to their husband the wives had not broken the marriage covenant. Thus the divorces were merely legal rouses intended to give the appearance of legitimate proceedings paving the way for a subsequent “legal” remarriage all of which was done so that these men could commit adultery while maintaining their status in Jewish society.

Jesus saw right through their rouse and in the process of disclosing their true sin of adultery Jesus pointed out that getting an illegitimate divorce paves the way for nothing but adultery.  Because these Jewish leaders were attempting to use that which was legal (legitimate divorce) as a cover for that which was forbidden (adultery) many have interpreted Jesus’ remarks to be a comprehensive teaching against divorce.  Sadly, this interpretation has created a prohibition where God made provision for legitimate divorces.  And God did so for the protection of the innocent partners of men and women whose hard heartedness has caused them to become traitors to their own spouse.

Therefore, with devastating results much of the church has used Matthew 19:8 to remove or reverse Moses’ law that permits legitimate divorces even in the light of Jesus saying, “…until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).  Indeed it is wrong, as Jesus was pointing out, to call an unlawful divorce lawful, and it is equally wrong to call a lawful divorce unlawful (Deut. 24:1, 2 & Jeremiah 3:1). Having done so has resulted in untold tens of thousands of believers suffering needlessly under the tyrannical abuse of a covenant-breaking spouse.

Both scripture and logic have been turned upon their heads as the conditions and promises in the marriage covenant have been eradicated when they exist as protections for the marriage partners.  This illogical and unbiblical interpretation exposes the godly or innocent marriage partner to the very harm for which God’s Mosaic license intended to shield.  And to add insult to injury, the offenders are protected by the church’s misinterpretation of our Lord’s words.  The covenant breaker maintains dignity as they cannot be put out of the marriage for having broken its conditions, they maintain financial protection, and they maintain access to their innocent partner, access to their children, access to all relations and friends. They use deception to ruin the good name of the innocent spouse; forget not that this evil is done from the innermost position of spouse giving it credibility to those outside the marriage.  The hard hearted spouse uses cruelty, manipulation, deception and slander to attack the innocent spouse and to hide their own sin and shame.  Their wicked behavior causes friends and family to view the problematic marriage as a ‘he said, she said’ private matter between the married couple thus leaving the innocent partner without any support.  Most people will not know what or who to believe and they will cast aspersions upon both the innocent and guilty parties in the marriage. Everything about this interpretation is injurious to the innocent party, while the guilty party comes off looking better than had the truth been fully disclosed in open divorce proceedings.  All of this intentional confusion and chaos plays into the hands of the wicked spouse who is the only beneficiary of the church’s misinterpretation of Jesus’ position on God’s permission for divorce.

The church’s shameful reversal of God’s provision for divorce forces unequally yoked believers to wrestle with pigs in the mud and expose themselves to bad company. It prevents them from following so many wisdom passages in Scripture such as:

“The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands” (Prov. 14:1).
“He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov. 13:20).
“Leave the presence of a fool, or you will not discern words of knowledge” (Prov. 14:7).
“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord and so bring wrath on yourself from the Lord?” (2 Chron. 19:2)
“A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left” (Eccl. 10:2).
“He cuts off his own feet and drinks violence who sends a message by the hand of a fool.” “Like one who binds a stone in a sling, so is he who gives honor to a fool.” “Like an archer who wounds everyone, so is he who hires a fool or who hires those who pass by” (Prov. 26:6, 8 and 10).
“Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, for he will despise the wisdom of your words” (Prov. 23:9).
“A foolish son is destruction to his father, and the contentions of a wife are a constant dripping” (Prov. 19:13).
“Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you, reprove a wise man and he will love you” (Prov. 9:8).
“Peter said, ‘Behold, we have left our own homes and followed You.’ And He (Jesus) said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life’” parenthesis mine (Luke 18:28-30).
“For I (Jesus) came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” parenthesis mine (Matthew 10:35-36).

Oh, dear members of the body of Christ, I pray that God will help each of you rediscover God’s provision for divorce to all believers who are unequally yoked to unbelievers in their marriages.

“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)

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About Joe Porter

By the abundant lovingkindness and grace of God I have been in Christ for nearly 40 years. I live to love and serve God in whatever capacity He has in mind. And can do no other but to follow my conscience as scripture and reason guide me threw the shadow lands. I raised 5 children one of whom now sees clearly as he walks on streets of gold. God has blessed me after all these years with a godly, prudent wife. I cannot imagine a greater gift on the earth. I have a Masters of Divinity from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. I own a business in Nebraska, but I live to serve God. I have preached in three different churches for a period of 10 years. I love preaching God's word. Because of my divorce I am not currently serving in any official capacity, but I know that the Lord has a ministry for me. My goal is to write a book on the topic of divorce when unequally yoked, and this blog is a step in that direction. No brother or sister in Christ should divorce their spouse solely upon the advice they find here or anywhere else for that matter. Immerse yourself in God's word, and go before the Lord--wait upon Him and He will make it clear when the time comes that you are called to repent of your unequally yoked marriage. Christ's continued blessings, Joe View all posts by Joe Porter

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