After Jesus finished His marital teachings, the disciples responded by saying that it would, “be better not to marry” (Mt. 19:10). The two schools of thought on divorce, before Jesus, came from the Shammaites and Hillelites. The Shammaites believed that one could lawfully divorce only for fornication (or a serious matter).
The Hillelites believed that one could lawfully divorce for just any reason whatsoever.
The Hillelite divorce was by far the most common in the first century B.C.E. and it is unlikely that many of the ordinary people chose to follow the Shammaite teaching on divorce (Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, pp. 110-112). In fact, it can be easily sustained historically that the majority of first-century Jewish divorces were “any matter” divorces (ibid., p. 117).
Since the disciples had lived in a time where one could divorce for just any reason, they believed that it would be better to just never marry at all if they now had to take marriage seriously. There are differing views as to why the disciples responded in such a way. For example, some believe that the disciples response was a typical overreaction and misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching.
It wasn’t uncommon for the disciples to overreact with an exaggerated or misunderstood response (e.g., Mt. 16:22; 19:13-15, 25; 26:6-9; Mk. 9:38-40; Acts 10:9-16; etc.). While the Jews considered the ending of a marriage for any reason a man’s privilege, Jesus taught that unless men had a moral ground, it was adultery.
This would have been quite a shock even to the disciples. Thus, this response of the disciples possibly exposed their bitter attitude. In other words, “If I have to take the marriage seriously, then I might as well not marry at all!” From this perspective, it could be that the disciples were bitter and gave an overreacted response.
On the other hand, the disciples’ response may have been one of humility and maturity. Perhaps they realized that if one had to dedicate time and genuine effort to marriage (unlike what had been the norm), then it would be better not to marry at all in order to dedicate their time to the Lord without distraction. In fact, Jesus went on to say:
“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.” (Mt. 19:12).
Some claim that the phrase “let him who is able to accept it, accept it” is a statement familiar to “he who has ears let him hear.” In other words, some do not believe that Jesus is giving an option here. However, Jesus certainly is giving an option. Otherwise, it would be a sin to ever marry at all.
Remember, the response here is that it would just be better to not marry at all and Jesus taught that not all could accept that. Jesus taught that some will choose to remain single and never marry in order to follow the Lord in order to serve the Kingdom more fully than they could if they were married (Mt. 19:11-12). This is what Paul would later write to the Church at Corinth.
“But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction” (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
Therefore, from this perspective, it is possible that the disciples were responding in maturity realizing that in marrying they wouldn’t be able to dedicate themselves to the kingdom like they could if they choose to never marry.
That being said, what we can know is that the response of the disciples didn’t have to do with repentance or being forced to remain single after an unlawful divorce since the disciple’s response was in regards to never getting married at all.
Their response was not in reference to marriage after divorce. Furthermore, Jesus responded by saying that, “not all can accept this” (Mt. 19:11). Jesus never taught that some must remain single for their own soul’s sake. On the contrary, He taught that some will choose to remain unmarried and never get married for the kingdom’s sake so they can purely focus on the kingdom without distraction.
Even though both Jesus and Paul taught that it might be ideal for certain people to never marry due to certain situations and circumstances, neither of them taught forced celibacy and they both saw celibacy as a choice and not an obligation or law (Mt. 19:10-12; 1 Cor. 7:35; 1 Tim. 4:3; etc.).
– Kevin Pendergrass
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