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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 19

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

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Matthew recorded increasing polarization in this section. Jesus expanded His ministry, but as He did so opposition became even more intense. The Jewish leaders became increasingly hostile. Consequently Jesus spent more time preparing His disciples. Jesus revealed Himself more clearly to His disciples, but they only understood some of what He told them. They strongly rejected other things He said. The inevitability of a final confrontation between Jesus and His critics became increasingly clear. The general movement in this section is Jesus withdrawing from Israel’s leaders (Matthew 13:54 to Matthew 16:12) and preparing His disciples for His passion (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 19:2).

B. Jesus’ instruction of His disciples around Galilee 16:13-19:2

Almost as a fugitive from His enemies, Jesus took His disciples to the far northern extremity of Jewish influence, the most northerly place Jesus visited. At this place, as far from Jerusalem and Jesus’ opponents as possible, Jesus proceeded to give them important revelation concerning what lay ahead for Him and them. Here Peter would make the great confession of the true identity of Jesus, whereas in Jerusalem to the south the Jews would deny His identity. In this safe haven Jesus revealed to the Twelve more about His person, His program, and His principles as Israel’s rejected King.

Verses 1-2

5. The transition from Galilee to Judea 19:1-2 (cf. Mark 10:1)

Matthew marked the end of Jesus’ discourse on humility (ch. 18) and reported Jesus’ departure from Galilee for Judea. This is the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus moved into Judea for ministry. Until now all of Jesus’ public ministry following His baptism and temptation was in Galilee and its surrounding Gentile areas. Now Jesus began to move toward Judea, Jerusalem, and the Cross.

Evidently Jesus departed from Capernaum and journeyed through Samaria, or perhaps around Samaria, [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 709.] and into Judea to Jerusalem. Then He proceeded east across the Jordan River into Perea northeast of the Dead Sea. From there He went to Jerusalem again. Leaving Jerusalem Jesus visited Ephraim, traveled farther north into Samaria, headed east into Perea, and returned to Jerusalem. The following ministry took place during this last loop in Perea and Judea. [Note: Hoehner, Chronological Aspects . . ., pp. 62-63.] Great multitudes continued to follow Him, and He continued to heal many people. Jesus did not abandon His ministry to the masses even though the nation had rejected Him as her Messiah (cf. Matthew 22:39).

"Even as He journeys to Jerusalem to suffer and die, He manifests His royal benevolence in healing those who come to Him." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 220.]

These verses conclude a major section of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 13:54 to Matthew 19:2). This section has highlighted Jesus’ reaction to Israel’s rejection of Him. Jesus continued to experience opposition from the ordinary Israelites, from the Roman leadership of the area, and from the religious leaders within Israel. His reaction was to withdraw and to concentrate on preparing His disciples for what lay ahead of them in view of His rejection. However, He also continued to minister to the needs of the masses, primarily the Jews, because He had compassion on them.

Verse 3

The Pharisees again approached Jesus to trap Him (cf. Matthew 12:2; Matthew 12:14; Matthew 12:38; Matthew 15:1; Matthew 16:1; Matthew 22:15; Matthew 22:34-35). This time they posed a question about divorce. In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus had taught the sanctity of marriage in the context of kingdom righteousness. Here the Pharisees asked Him what divorces were legitimate. Perhaps they hoped Jesus would oppose Herod as John had done and would suffer a similar fate. The Machaerus fortress where Herod Antipas had imprisoned and beheaded John was nearby, east of the north part of the Dead Sea. Undoubtedly the Pharisees hoped Jesus would say something that they could use against Him.

Both the NASB and NIV translations have rendered the Pharisees’ question well. They wanted to know if Jesus believed a man could divorce his wife for any and every reason. The Mosaic Law did not permit wives to divorce their husbands.

There was great variety of opinion on this controversial subject among the Jews. Most of them believed that divorce was lawful for Jews, though not for Gentiles, but they disagreed as to its grounds. [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:332-33.] The Qumran community believed that divorce was not legitimate for any reason. [Note: J. R. Mueller, "The Temple Scroll and the Gospel Divorce Texts," Revue de Qumran 38 (1980):247-56.] In mainstream Judaism there were two dominant views both of which held that divorce was permissible for "something indecent" (Deuteronomy 24:1). Rabbi Shammai and his school of followers believed the indecency was some gross indecency though not necessarily adultery. Rabbi Hillel and his school interpreted the indecency more broadly to include practically any offense that a wife might have committed, real or imagined by the husband. This even included a wife not cooking her husband’s meal to his liking. [Note: For a fuller discussion of the two major views, see Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:333-34.] One of Hillel’s disciples, Rabbi Akiba, permitted a man to divorce his wife if a prettier woman caught his eye. [Note: Mishnah Gittin 9:10.] Josephus was a divorced Pharisee, and he believed in divorce "for any causes whatsoever." [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 4:8:23.] In many Pharisaic circles "the frequency of divorce was an open scandal." [Note: Hill, p. 280.]

Verses 3-12

1. Instruction about marriage 19:3-12 (cf. Mark 10:2-12)

Matthew evidently included this instruction because the marriage relationships of Jesus’ disciples were important factors in their effective ministries. Jesus clarified God’s will for His disciples, which was different from the common perception of His day. He dealt with the single state as well as the essence of marriage and the subjects of divorce and remarriage.

Verses 3-34

A. Jesus’ instruction of His disciples around Judea 19:3-20:34

The primary emphasis in this section of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ instruction of His disciples to prepare them for the future. Specifically, He emphasized the importance of the first becoming last and the last first: humble servanthood (cf. Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16).

Verses 3-46


This section of the Gospel continues Jesus’ instruction of His disciples in preparation for their future (Matthew 19:3 to Matthew 20:34). Then Jesus presented Himself formally to Israel as her King with His triumphal entry (Matthew 21:1-17). This resulted in strong rejection by Israel’s leaders (Matthew 21:18 to Matthew 22:46). Consequently Jesus pronounced His rejection of Israel (ch. 23). Finally He revealed to His disciples that He would return to Israel later and establish the kingdom (chs. 24-25).

Throughout this entire section the Jewish leaders’ opposition to Jesus continues to mount in intensity, and it becomes more focused on Him. Reconciliation becomes impossible. Jesus revealed increasingly more about Himself and His mission to His disciples and stressed the future inauguration of the kingdom. Between these two poles of opposition and inauguration God’s grace emerges even more powerfully than we have seen it so far. Matthew never used the word "grace" (Gr. karis), but its presence is obvious in this Gospel (cf. Matthew 19:21-22; Matthew 20:1-16).

". . . despite the gross rejection of Jesus, the chronic unbelief of opponents, crowds, and disciples alike, and the judgment that threatens both within history and at the End, grace triumphs and calls out a messianic people who bow to Jesus’ lordship and eagerly await his return." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," pp. 410-11.]

Verses 4-6

Jesus’ opponents based their thinking on divorce on Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where Moses permitted divorce. Jesus went back to Genesis 1, 2 as expressing God’s original intention for marriage: no divorce. He argued that the original principle takes precedence over the exception to the principle.

Jesus’ citation of Genesis 1:27; Genesis 2:24 shows that He believed that marriage unites a man and a woman in a "one flesh" relationship.

"The union is depicted in the vivid metaphor of Genesis as one of ’gluing’ or ’welding’-it would be hard to imagine a more powerful metaphor of permanent attachment. In the Genesis context the ’one flesh’ image derives from the creation of the woman out of the man’s side to be ’bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (Genesis 2:21-23); in marriage that original unity is restored." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 717.]

"One flesh" expresses the fact that when a man and a woman marry, they become whole, as Adam was a whole person before God created Eve from his side. It is a way of saying that, as unmarried individuals, Adam and Eve were each lacking something, but when God brought them together in marriage they became whole.

God was the Creator in view (Matthew 19:4) though Jesus did not draw attention to that point (cf. John 1:3; Colossians 1:16). The phrase "for this cause" (Matthew 19:5) in Genesis 2:23-24 refers to becoming one flesh. Eve became related to Adam in the most intimate sense when they married. When a man and a woman marry, they become "one flesh," a whole entity, thus reestablishing the intimate type of union that existed between Adam and Eve.

". . . the ’one flesh’ in every marriage between a man and a woman is a reenactment of and testimony to the very structure of humanity as God created it." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 412. ]

Note too that it is the union of a man and a woman that Jesus affirmed as constituting marriage, not same sex marriages.

In view of this union, Jesus concluded, a husband and wife are no longer two but one (Matthew 19:6). God has united them in a "one flesh" relationship by marriage. Since God has done this, separating them by divorce is not only unnatural but rebellion against God. Essentially Jesus allied Himself with the prophet Malachi, as well as Moses, rather than with any of the rabbis. Malachi had revealed that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

". . . the argument here is expressed not in terms of what cannot happen, but of what must not happen: the verb is an imperative, ’let not man separate.’ To break up a marriage is to usurp the function of God by whose creative order it was set up, and who has decreed that it shall be a permanent ’one flesh’ union." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p. 718.]

Jesus focused on the God-ordained and supernaturally created unity of the married couple. The rabbis stressed the error of divorce as involving taking another man’s wife. Jesus appealed to the principle. He went back to fundamental biblical revelation, in this case Creation. He argued that marriage rests on how God made human beings, not just the sanctity of a covenantal relationship between the husband and the wife. This covenantal relationship is what some evangelical books on marriage stress primarily. Marriage does not break down simply because one partner breaks the covenant with his or her spouse. God unites the husband and wife in a new relationship when they marry that continues regardless of marital unfaithfulness.

Verse 7

Jesus had not yet answered the Pharisees’ question about how one should take the Mosaic Law on this subject, so they asked Him this question. Granting Jesus’ view of marriage, why did Moses allow divorce? In the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 passage to which the Pharisees referred, God showed more concern about prohibiting the remarriage of the divorced woman and her first husband than the reason for granting the divorce. However the Pharisees took the passage as a command (Gr. entellomai) to divorce one’s wife for any indecency. God intended it as only a permission to divorce, as the passage itself shows.

Verse 8

Jesus explained that the concession in the Mosaic Law was just that, a concession. It did not reflect the will of God in creation but the hardness of the human heart. Divorce was not a part of God’s creation ordinance any more than sin was. However, He permitted divorce, as He permitted sin.

"Moses regulated, but thereby conceded, the practice of divorce; both were with a view to (pros) the nation’s (hymon) hardness of heart: since they persist in falling short of the ideal of Eden, let it at least be within limits." [Note: M’Neile, p. 273.]

The divorce option that God granted the Israelites testifies to man’s sinfulness. Therefore one should always view divorce as evidence of sin, specifically hardness of heart. He or she should never view it as simply a morally neutral option that God granted, the correctness or incorrectness of which depended on the definition of the indecency. The Pharisees’ fundamental attitude toward the issue was wrong. They were looking for grounds for divorce. Jesus was stressing the inviolability of the marriage relationship.

Notice in passing that Jesus never associated Himself with the sin in the discussion. He consistently spoke of the peoples’ sin as their sin or your sin, never as our sin (cf. Matthew 6:14-15). This is a fine point that reveals Jesus’ awareness that He was sinless.

What was the indecency for which Moses permitted divorce? It was not adultery since the penalty for that was death, not divorce (Deuteronomy 22:22). However, it is debatable whether the Israelites enforced the death penalty for adultery. [Note: See Henry McKeating, "Sanctions Against Adultery in Ancient Israelite Society," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 11 (1979):57-72.] It could not be suspicion of adultery either since there was a specified procedure for handling those cases (Numbers 5:5-31). Probably it was any gross immoral behavior short of adultery, namely, fornication, which includes all types of prohibited sexual behavior. Even though divorce was widespread and easy to obtain in the ancient Near East, and in Israel, the Israelites took marriage somewhat more seriously than their pagan neighbors did.

Verse 9

Jesus introduced His position on this subject with words that stressed His authority: "I say to you" (cf. Matthew 5:18; Matthew 5:20; Matthew 5:22; Matthew 5:28; Matthew 5:32; Matthew 5:34; Matthew 5:39; Matthew 5:44; Matthew 8:10; Matthew 16:18; Matthew 16:28). His was the true view because it came from Him who came to fulfill the law. Matthew recorded only Jesus’ words concerning a man who divorces his wife, probably because in Judaism wives could not divorce their husbands. However, Mark recorded Jesus saying that the same thing holds true for a woman who divorces her husband (Mark 10:12). Mark wrote originally for a Roman audience. Wives could divorce their husbands under Roman law. Matthew’s original readers lived under Jewish law that did not permit wives to divorce their husbands.

There are four problems in this verse that account for its difficulty. First, what does the exception clause include? The best textual evidence points to the short clause that appears in both the NASB and the NIV translations, "except for immorality" or "except for marital unfaithfulness." [Note: Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, pp. 47-48.]

Second, what is the meaning of porneia ("immorality" NASB, "marital unfaithfulness" NIV, "fornication" AV) in the exception clause? Some interpreters believe it refers to incest. [Note: E.g., J. A. Fitzmyer, "The Matthean Divorce Texts and Some New Palestinian Evidence," Theological Studies 37 (1976):208-11.] Paul used this word to describe prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:13; 1 Corinthians 6:16. Others believe porneia refers to premarital sex. If a man discovered that his fiancé was not a virgin when he married her, he could divorce her. [Note: E.g., Mark Geldard, "Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce," Churchman 92 (1978):134-43.] Even though the Jews considered a man and a woman to be husband and wife during their engagement period, they were not really married. Consequently to consider this grounds for a divorce seems to require a redefinition of marriage that most interpreters resist. Still others define porneia as adultery. [Note: E.g., T. V. Fleming, "Christ and Divorce," Theological Studies 24 (1963):109; and Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 225.] However the normal Greek word for adultery is moicheia, which Matthew used back to back with porneia previously (Matthew 15:19). Therefore they must not mean the same thing. It seems unlikely that porneia refers to spiritual adultery in view of 1 Corinthians 7:12.

The best solution seems to be that porneia is a broad term that covers many different sexual sins that lie outside God’s will. This conclusion rests on the meaning of the word. [Note: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "porne . . .," by F. Hauck and S. Schulz, 6:579-95. See also Joseph Jensen, "Does porneia Mean Fornication? A Critique of Bruce Malina," Novum Testamentum 20 (1978):161-84.] These sexual sins, fornication, would include homosexuality, bestiality, premarital sex, incest, adultery, and perhaps others. Essentially it refers to any sexual intercourse that God forbids (i.e., with any creature other than one’s spouse).

A third problem in this verse is why did Matthew alone of all the Synoptic evangelists include this exception clause, here and in Matthew 5:32, when the others excluded it? To answer this question we must also answer the fourth question, namely, what does this clause mean?

Some scholars believe that Matthew simply added the clause himself to make what Jesus really said stronger. They assume that what Mark wrote represents what Jesus really said. This view reflects a low view of Scripture since it makes Matthew distort Jesus’ words.

Another answer is that the exception clause does not express an exception. This view requires interpreting the Greek preposition epi ("except") as "in addition to" or "apart from." However when me ("not") introduces epi it always introduces an exception elsewhere in the Greek New Testament.

Another similar answer is that the exception is an exception to the whole proposition, not just to the verb "divorces." [Note: Bruce Vawter, "The Divorce Clauses in Mt 5, 32 and 19, 9," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 16 (1959):155-67; idem, "Divorce and the New Testament," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 39 (1977):528-48.] In this case the porneia is not involved. We might translate the clause as follows to give the sense: "Whoever divorces his wife, quite apart from the matter of fornication, and marries another commits adultery." Thus in this view, as in the one above, there is no real exception. The main problem with this view, as with the one above, is its unusual handling of the Greek text. One has to read in things that are not there.

A fourth view is that when Jesus used the Greek verb apolyo ("divorces") He really meant "separates from" and so permitted separation but not divorce. [Note: G. J. Wenham, "May Divorced Christians Remarry?" Churchman 95 (1981):150-61. See Tim Crater, "Bill Gothard’s View of the Exception Clause," Journal of Pastoral Practice 4 (1980):5-12.] Therefore there can be no remarriage since a divorce has not taken place. However in Matthew 19:3 apolyo clearly means "divorce" so to give it a different meaning in Matthew 19:9 seems arbitrary without some compelling reason to do so.

Other interpreters believe Jesus meant that in some cases divorce is not adulterous rather than that in some cases divorce is not morally wrong. [Note: John J. Kilgallen, "To What Are the Matthean Exception-Texts [5, 32 and 19, 9] an Exception?" Biblica 61 (1980):102-5.] In the case of porneia the husband does not make her adulterous; she is already adulterous. However the text does not say he makes her adulterous or an adulteress; it says he makes her commit adultery. If the woman had committed porneia, divorce and remarriage would not make her adulterous. However divorce and remarriage would make her commit adultery. The major flaw in this view is that in Matthew 19:9 it is the man who commits adultery, not his wife.

Probably it is best to interpret porneia and the exception clause as they appear normally in our English texts. Jesus meant that whoever divorces his wife, except for some gross sexual sin, and then remarries someone else commits adultery (cf. Matthew 5:32).

"On any understanding of what Jesus says . . ., he agrees with neither Shammai nor Hillel; for even though the school of Shammai was stricter than Hillel, it permitted remarriage when the divorce was not in accordance with its own Halakah (rules of conduct) (M[ishnah] Eduyoth Matthew 4:7-10); and if Jesus restricts grounds for divorce to sexual indecency . . ., then he differs fundamentally from Shammai. Jesus cuts his own swath in these verses . . ." [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 411.]

Divorce and remarriage always involve evil (Malachi 2:16). However just as Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of man’s heart, so did Jesus. Yet whereas Moses was indefinite about the indecency that constituted grounds for a divorce, Jesus specified the indecency as gross sexual sin, fornication. [Note: See Craig L. Blomberg, "Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, and Celibacy: An Exegesis of Matthew 19:3-12," Trinity Journal 11NS (1990):161-96.]

Why then did Mark and Luke omit the exception clause? Probably they did so simply because it expresses an exception to the rule, and they wanted to stress the main point of Jesus’ words without dealing with the exceptional situation. Since Matthew wrote for Jews primarily, he probably felt, under the Spirit’s inspiration, that he needed to include the exception clause for the following reason. The subject of how to deal with divorce cases involving marital unfaithfulness was of particular interest to the Jews in view of Old Testament and rabbinic teaching on this subject. Mark and Luke wrote primarily for Gentiles, so they simply omitted the exception clause.

Verses 10-12

Some scholars who believe that Jesus meant to discourage remarriage in Matthew 19:9 interpret the disciples’ statement in Matthew 19:10 as evidence that they understood Him in this light. [Note: E.g., Francis J. Moloney, "Matthew 19, 3-12 and Celibacy. A Redactional and Form-Critical Study," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 2 (1979):42-60.] If a person has to remain unmarried after he divorces, it would be better if he never married in the first place. However this is probably not what Jesus meant in Matthew 19:9. The evidence for this is His reference to eunuchs in Matthew 19:12 as well as the inferiority of this view as explained above.

Probably the disciples expressed regret because Jesus had come down more conservatively than even Rabbi Shammai, the more conservative of the leading rabbis. Jesus conceded divorce only for sexual indecency, as Shammai did, but He was even more conservative than Shammai on the subject of remarriage. He encouraged the disciples not to remarry after a divorce involving sexual indecency whereas Shammai permitted it. His encouragement lay in His clarification that marriage constitutes a very binding relationship (Matthew 19:4-6). The disciples thought that if they could not divorce and remarry, which both Hillel and Shammai permitted, they would be better off remaining single.

Jesus responded that not everyone can live by the strict verdict that the disciples had just passed in Matthew 19:10, namely, never marrying. He did not mean that it is impossible to live with the standards He imposed in Matthew 19:4-9. If He meant the latter, He eviscerated all that He had just taught. Some could live by the strict verdict that the disciples suggested, namely, eunuchs whom God graciously enables to live unmarried.

Jesus identified three types of eunuchs (Matthew 19:12). Some eunuchs were born impotent or without normal sexual drive and therefore remained unmarried. Other eunuchs were eunuchs because others had castrated them, most notably those eunuchs who served in government positions where they had frequent access to royal women. Still other eunuchs were those who had chosen an unmarried life for themselves so they could serve God more effectively. Thus in answer to the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus’ encouragement to remain unmarried presented an unreasonably high standard (Matthew 19:10), Jesus pointed out that many people can live unmarried. He was one who did. For those so gifted by God it is better not to marry. Those who can accept this counsel should do so.

However neither Jesus nor the apostles viewed celibacy as an intrinsically holier state than marriage (1 Timothy 4:1-3; Hebrews 13:4; cf. 1 Corinthians 9:5). They viewed it as a special calling that God has given some of His servants so they can be more useful in His service. Eunuchs could not participate in Israel’s public worship (Leviticus 22:24; Deuteronomy 23:1). However they can participate in the kingdom and, we might add, in the church (Acts 8:26-40; 1 Corinthians 7:7-9). Evidently there were some in Jesus’ day who had foregone marriage in anticipation of the kingdom. Perhaps John the Baptist was one, and maybe some of Jesus’ disciples had given up plans to marry to follow Him (cf. Matthew 19:27). Jesus definitely was one for the kingdom’s sake.

To summarize, Jesus held a very high view of marriage. When a man and a woman marry, God creates a union that is as strong as the union that bound Adam and Eve together before God created Eve from Adam’s side. Man should not separate what God has united (cf. Romans 7:1-3). However, even though God hates divorce He permits it in cases where gross sexual indecency (fornication) has entered the marriage. Jesus urged His disciples not to divorce (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:10), and if they divorced He urged them not to remarry (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:8; 1 Corinthians 7:11; 1 Corinthians 7:27). However, He did not go so far as prohibiting remarriage (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9; 1 Corinthians 7:28). He encouraged them to realize that living unmarried after a divorce is a realistic possibility for many people, but He conceded it was not possible for all (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:9). A primary consideration should be how one could most effectively carry on his or her work of preparing for the kingdom (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

Matthew did not record the Pharisees’ reaction to this teaching. His primary concern was the teaching itself. He only cited the Pharisees’ participation because it illustrated their continuing antagonism, a major theme in his Gospel, and because it provided the setting for Jesus’ authoritative teaching.

Verse 13

It was customary for people to bring their children to rabbis for blessings. [Note: Carson, "Matthew," p. 420.] The Old Testament reflects this practice (Genesis 48:14; Numbers 27:18; cf. Acts 6:6; Acts 13:3). The disciples rebuked those who brought the children to Jesus for doing so (Mark 10:13; Luke 18:15). The evangelists did not reveal why the disciples did this. However the fact that they did it shows their need for Jesus’ exhortation that followed. They were not behaving with humility as Jesus had previously taught them to do (ch. 18; esp. Matthew 19:5). Moreover Jesus’ teaching about the sanctity of marriage (Matthew 19:4-6) did not affect how they viewed children. The Jews cherished their children but viewed them as needing to listen, to learn, and to be respectful.

Verses 13-15

2. Instruction about childlikeness 19:13-15 (cf. Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)

Another incident occurred that provided another opportunity for Jesus to emphasize the importance of childlike characteristics in His disciples (cf. ch 18). Instruction about children follows instruction about marriage.

Verses 14-15

Jesus welcomed the children. This attitude is harmonious with His attitude toward all the humble, dependent, needy, trusting, and vulnerable people who came to Him. Furthermore children coming to Him symbolized people with the characteristics of children coming to Him. Jesus did not want to discourage anyone like them from coming to Him. He did not say the kingdom belonged to children but to people who are similar to children. Children provided an excellent object lesson that Jesus used to illustrate the qualities necessary for entering and serving in the kingdom.

The difference between this lesson and the one in chapter 18 is that there the focus was on the childlike quality of humility that is so important in a disciple. Here Jesus broadened the lesson to include other childlike characteristics all of which are important.

Verse 16

3. Instruction about wealth 19:16-20:16

Again someone approached Jesus with a question that provided an opportunity for Jesus to give His disciples important teaching (cf. v.3). This man’s social standing was far from that of a child, and he provides a negative example of childlikeness. Previously the disciples did not welcome children (Matthew 19:13), but here they can hardly believe that Jesus would not welcome this man of wealth (Matthew 19:25).

Verses 16-17

A rich young man asked Jesus what he needed to do to obtain eternal life. Luke 18:18 identifies him as a ruler. Matthew presented him as a rather typical obsessive-compulsive personality who probably never knew when to stop working.

The term "eternal life" occurs here for the first time in Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Daniel 12:2, LXX). However the concept of eternal life occurs in Matthew 7:14. Eternal life is life that continues forever in God’s presence as opposed to eternal damnation apart from God’s presence (Matthew 7:13; cf. Matthew 25:46).

The young man’s idea of how one obtains eternal life was far from what Jesus had been preaching and even recently illustrating (Matthew 19:13-15). He demonstrated the antithesis of childlike faith and humility. He thought one had to perform some particular act of righteousness in addition to keeping the Mosaic Law (Matthew 19:20). He wanted Jesus to tell him what that act was. He was a performance-oriented person.

Jesus’ question in Matthew 19:17 did not imply that He was unable to answer the young man’s question or that He was not good enough to give an answer. [Note: See B. B. Warfield, "Jesus’ Alleged Confession of Sin," Princeton Theological Review 12 (1914):127-228.] It implied that His questioner had an improper understanding of goodness. Jesus went on to explain that only God is good enough to obtain eternal life by performing some good deed. No one else is good enough to gain it that way. Jesus did not discuss His own relationship to God here. However, Jesus implied that He was God or at least spoke for God. The young man had asked Jesus questions about goodness that only God could adequately answer.

The last part of Matthew 19:17 does not mean that Jesus believed a person can earn eternal life by obeying God’s commandments. Obedience to God’s commandments is a good preparation for entering into life. However obedience alone will not do.

Verses 16-22

The encounter with the rich young ruler 19:16-22 (cf. Mark 10:17-22; Luke 18:18-23)

Verses 18-20

The rabbis had added so many commands to those in the Mosaic Law that the young man did not know which commandments Jesus meant. Jesus listed the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, and fifth commandments, in that order, plus part of "the greatest commandment" (Leviticus 19:18). All of these commandments deal with observable behavior.

"Jesus did not introduce the Law to show the young man how to be saved, but to show him that he needed to be saved [cf. James 1:22-25]." [Note: Wiersbe, 1:72.]

The fact that the young man claimed to have kept all of them reveals the superficiality of his understanding of God’s demands (cf. Matthew 5:20; Philippians 3:6). Moreover, having lived an upright life he still had no assurance that he possessed eternal life. This is always the case when a person seeks to earn eternal life by his or her goodness. One can never be sure he or she has done enough. This young man may have been rich materially, but he was lacking what was more important, namely, the assurance of his salvation.

Verses 21-22

By referring to being "complete" Jesus was referring to the young man’s statement that he felt incomplete (Matthew 19:20; cf. Matthew 19:16), that he needed to do something more to assure his eternal life. Jesus did not mean that the young man had eternal life and just needed to do a little more, to put the icing on the cake (cf. Matthew 23:8-12). Earlier Jesus had told his disciples that perfection, the same Greek word translated "complete" here, came from following Him (Matthew 5:48). He repeated the same thing here.

What this young man needed to do was to become a disciple of Jesus, to start following Him and learning from Him. God’s will did not just involve keeping commandments. It also involved following Jesus. If he did that, he would learn how a person obtains eternal life, not by good deeds but by faith in Jesus. To follow Jesus this rich young man would need to sell his possessions. He could not accompany Jesus as he needed to without disposing of things that would have distracted him (cf. Matthew 8:19-22). Such a material sacrifice to follow Jesus would gain a reward eventually (cf. Matthew 19:29; Matthew 6:19-21). Jesus was assuming the young man would become a believer after he became a disciple.

"So attached was he to his great wealth that he was unwilling to part with it. Such is the insidiousness of riches that, as Bengel notes, ’If the Lord had said, Thou art rich, and art too fond of thy riches, the young man would have denied it.’ He had to be confronted with all the force of a radical alternative." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 559.]

The young man was not willing to part with his possessions to follow Jesus. He was willing to keep the whole Mosaic Law and even to do additional good works, but submitting to Jesus was something else. Jesus had put His finger on the crucial decision this young man had to make when He told him to dispose of his possessions. Would he value his possessions or following Jesus to learn more about eternal life more highly? His decision revealed his values (cf. Matthew 6:24).

"His real problem was lack of faith in Christ, whom he considered a good Teacher but who apparently was not to be regarded as one who had the right to demand that he give up all in order to follow Him." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 145. See Alan P. Stanley, "The Rich Young Ruler and Salvation," Bibliotheca Sacra 163:649 (January-March 2006):46-62.]

This passage does not teach that salvation is by works. Jesus did not tell the young man that he would obtain eternal life by doing some good thing, but neither did He rebuke him for the good things that he had done. He made it very clear that what he needed to do was to follow Jesus so he could come to faith in Jesus.

This passage does not teach that a person must surrender all to Jesus before he or she can obtain eternal life either. Jesus never made this a condition for salvation. He made giving away possessions here a condition for discipleship, not salvation. We have seen a consistent order in Matthew’s Gospel that holds true in all the Gospels. First, Jesus called a person to follow Him, that is, to begin learning from Him as a disciple. Second, He called His disciples to believe on Him as the God-man. Third, He called His believing disciples to continue following Him and believing on Him because He had an important job for them to do.

Verses 23-24

"Truly I say to you" or "I tell you the truth" introduces another very important statement (cf. Matthew 5:18; et al.). Jesus evidently referred to a literal camel and a literal sewing needle (Gr. rhaphidos) here. His statement appears to have been a common proverbial expression for something impossible. I have not been able to find any basis for the view that "the eye of the needle" was a small gate, as some commentators have suggested. Jesus presented an impossible situation.

"We should recognize that by the standards of first-century Palestine, most upper-middle-class Westerners and those on the Pacific rim would be considered wealthy. For all such persons the questions of wealth, discipleship, and the poor cannot be side-stepped if following Christ and his teaching means anything at all." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28, p. 562.]

Probably Jesus referred to the kingdom of God in Matthew 19:24 for the sake of variety since He had just spoken of the kingdom of heaven in Matthew 19:23. Also by using God’s name He stressed God’s personal authority. He proceeded to contrast two kings: God and Mammon. While some interpreters take the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven as two different kingdoms, usage argues for their being synonymous. [Note: See my comments on 3:1-2.]

Verses 23-30

The teaching concerning riches 19:23-30 (cf. Mark 10:23-31; Luke 18:24-30)

Verses 25-26

The disciples’ amazement was due to the Jewish belief that wealth signified God’s favor. "Saved" is a synonym for entering the kingdom (Matthew 19:24) or obtaining eternal life (Matthew 19:16, cf. Mark 9:43-47). The antecedent of "this" in Matthew 19:26 is salvation (Matthew 19:25). In other words, man cannot save himself (cf. Matthew 19:21). Nevertheless God can save him, and He can do anything else. Jesus characteristically pointed the disciples away from man’s work to God’s work. Joseph of Arimathea was exceptional in that he was both rich and a disciple (Matthew 26:57).

Verses 27-28

Jesus’ statement encouraged Peter to ask a question. It may have occurred to him when Jesus told the rich young man that if he followed Him he would receive treasure in heaven (Matthew 19:21). He asked Jesus what those who had made this sacrifice could expect to receive.

Jesus assured the disciples very definitely-"Truly I say to you"-that God would reward them for leaving what they had left and following Him (Matthew 19:28). The "regeneration" or "renewal" (Gr. palingenesia) refers to the establishment of the messianic kingdom (Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 4:2-6; Isaiah 11:1-11; Isaiah 32:16-18; Isaiah 35:1-2; Isaiah 65:17; Isaiah 66:22; cf. Acts 3:21; Romans 8:18-23). Then the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne (lit. throne of glory, cf. Matthew 25:31; Daniel 7:13-14). This is a very clear messianic claim. Jesus equated Himself with the Son of Man, the judge of humanity (Daniel 7:13). Moreover the 12 disciples will then sit on 12 thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel (cf. Isaiah 1:26; Daniel 7:22).

"In the O.T. krinein [to judge] often means ’govern’ (e.g. Ps. ix. 4, 8)." [Note: M’Neile, l 282.]

Since there were 12 chief disciples or apostles (Matthew 10:2-4), it seems clear that Jesus had these individuals in mind. "Israel" always means Israel, the physical descendants of Jacob (Israel), whenever this term appears in the New Testament. The reward of these disciples for forsaking all and following Jesus would be sharing judgment and rule with the great Judge, Jesus, in His kingdom (Psalms 2). This judgment will take place and this rule will begin on earth when Jesus returns at the Second Coming (Matthew 25:31-46).

"This is clearly a picture of the millennial earth, not heaven. Late in Christ’s ministry, He supports the concept that the kingdom, while postponed as far as human expectation is concerned, is nevertheless certain of fulfillment following His second coming." [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p. 146. See also David K. Lowery, "Evidence from Matthew," in A Case for Premillennialism: A New Consensus, p. 180.]

How much the rich young man gave up to retain his "much property" (cf. Matthew 19:21-22)!

"The Lord thus confirms the promise He had already given to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and enlarges it to include all of the apostles. They are to be rulers over Israel in the kingdom." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., p. 229.]

There is a vast difference between earning salvation with works and receiving a reward for works. Salvation is always apart from human works, but rewards are always in response to human works.

Verse 29

Not only the 12 Apostles but every self-sacrificing disciple will receive a reward for his or her sacrifice. Jesus meant that everyone who makes a sacrifice to follow Him will receive much more than he or she sacrificed as a reward. He did not mean that if one sacrifices one house he or she will receive 100 houses, much less 100 mothers or 100 fathers, etc. If a disciple leaves a parent to follow Jesus, he or she will find many more people who will be as a parent to him or her in the kingdom. God is no man’s debtor. Additionally that person will inherit eternal life. That is, he or she will enter into the enjoyment of his or her eternal life in the kingdom as heirs for whom their heavenly Father has prepared many blessings.

"We must remember that eternal life in the Bible is not a static entity, a mere gift of regeneration that does not continue to grow and blossom. No, it is a dynamic relationship with Christ Himself [cf. John 10:10; John 17:3]." [Note: Dillow, p. 136.]

Other passages that present eternal life as something the believer must work to obtain are Matthew 19:16; Mark 10:17; Mark 10:30; Luke 10:25; Luke 18:18; Luke 18:30; John 12:25-26; Romans 2:7; Romans 6:22; and Galatians 6:8. Eternal life is quantitative as well as qualitative.

Verse 30

This proverbial saying expresses the reversals that will take place when the King begins to reign in the kingdom. The first and last are positions representing greatness and lowliness respectively. The rich young man and the disciples are cases in point. The young man was rich then but would not have received many blessings in the kingdom had he been a believer in Jesus. The disciples, on the other hand, had given up everything to follow Jesus, but they would have a great wealth of blessings in the kingdom.

This statement introduces the parable of the workers and their compensation (Matthew 20:1-15). Jesus repeated it at the end of the parable but in reverse order (Matthew 20:16). This structure shows that the parable illustrates the point stated in this verse. Here He evidently meant that many of those in the first rank of priority then-for example, the rich, the famous, and the comfortable disciples-will be last in the kingdom. Their reward will be small because they were not willing to sacrifice themselves to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Conversely those whom the world regarded with contempt because of the sacrifices they had made to follow Jesus would receive great honor in the kingdom for making those sacrifices.

"The principle taught in this account is that neither poverty or wealth guarantees eternal life. . . .

". . . what guarantees eternal life is following Christ (in faith), and what guarantees eternal rewards is living according to His commands (obedience)." [Note: Bailey, in The New . . ., p. 39.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 19". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/matthew-19.html. 2012.
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