X. Ministry on the Way to Jerusalem (Matthew 19:1–20:34)


X. Ministry on the Way to Jerusalem (19:1–20:34)

19:1-3 After a time of performing miraculous healings, Jesus was approached by the Pharisees with a theological question. However, they weren’t interested in having a sincere discussion; they wanted to test him. They asked, Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds? (19:3). In other words, can a man quit his marriage when he gets tired of his wife? Is it OK for a couple to get divorced for “irreconcilable differences”?

Divorce is a difficult subject—and one that has affected virtually every American, either directly or indirectly. Today, divorce is easily attainable, and since so many marriages end in it, many couples hedge their bets by signing a prenuptial agreement to protect themselves. Jesus’s response to the Pharisees was not easy for the disciples to hear (19:10), nor is it popular in today’s culture—even among many Christians. But the question is this: Are you willing to listen to what the Son of God has to say on this subject?

19:4 Among the Israelites of Jesus’s day, there were both conservative and liberal views of divorce taught by the rabbis. The liberal perspective said a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason—including if she burned his dinner. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to take a side to stir up controversy.

Jesus didn’t offer a mere opinion, though. He pointed them to God’s Word: Haven’t you read? He hit the Pharisees right between the eyes by essentially asking, “Don’t you know your Bible?” He showed them that the only reason they were posing a question about divorce is because they didn’t understand marriage. Before we can talk about divorce, then, we need to understand what marriage is. What does Scripture say? In the beginning God made them male and female (see Gen 2:24). At the dawn of creation, God made one man for one woman, with no escape hatch.

19:5 Jesus also said this meant that a man would leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. As a result, the two would become one flesh. In marriage, a man and woman come together to make a new reality that God calls “one flesh.” Thus, human relationships outside of the marriage bond are to be considered secondary—including the couple’s relationships with their parents. Unfortunately, too many couples never get around to becoming one flesh in this sense. They’re stuck together by cheap glue rather than divine cement.

Numerous husbands and wives spend too much time protecting their own turf: my career versus your career, my money versus your money, my dreams versus your dreams. Yet, the purpose of marriage is to advance God’s kingdom rule on earth for his glory. This doesn’t mean losing individuality. Rather, it means working together with your spouse for a joint goal. Husbands and wives need a bigger agenda that unites them: God’s agenda. However, following it takes time, energy, humility, and sacrifice.

19:6 Since they are no longer two, but one flesh, man shouldn’t destroy what God created: What God has joined together, let no one separate. God intended marriage as a permanent relationship between one man and one woman. And since marriage was created by God, only he can sanction divorce.

19:7-8 The Pharisees didn’t give up. They wanted him to explain why Moses would command Israelite men to give divorce papers to their wives (19:7; see Deut 24:1-4). Jesus answered: Moses permitted . . . divorce . . . because of the hardness of your hearts, but it was not like that from the beginning (19:8). Here Jesus emphasized two things. First, Moses permitted divorce; he did not command it. Second, the place to start is in the beginning—with God’s creation of marriage, not with Moses’s discussion of divorce.

19:9 Given the permanence of marriage, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery. So, if a husband or wife commits adultery (or abandons their mate; see 1 Cor 7:15), the spouse has a permissible reason for divorce—though this doesn’t mean that divorce is required. Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 6:1-6 the principle of having the church adjudicate legal disputes among believers; therefore, the church ought to determine the biblical permissibility of divorce for its members.

The Bible knows nothing of “no-fault” divorce—only “major-fault” divorce. If God’s Word gives you permission to divorce, then you have permission to remarry another Christian. According to Jesus, though, if a divorce is illegitimate, it leads to an illegitimate remarriage. To remarry after an unbiblical divorce is to commit adultery.

Christian couples should never let the word divorce enter into their conversations. They ought to view the marriage bond as sacred, sacrifice as necessary to make it work, and seek godly counsel from the church.

19:10-12 Upon hearing Jesus’s teaching, the disciples concluded, It’s better not to marry (19:10). But Jesus insisted that not everyone can accept this—that is, only certain people can remain unmarried (19:11). First, there are those who are eunuchs . . . from their mother’s womb. It’s natural for those born with diminished sexual desire to remain unmarried. Second, there are eunuchs who were made by men—a reference to those who in ancient times were literally made eunuchs to guard a king’s harem. Third, there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven (19:12). In other words, God has given to these individuals the gift of celibacy. They are so committed to the Lord’s work that it overrides desire for sexual fulfillment. Thus, not marrying is intended for those who are able to abstain from it. Otherwise we should not deny ourselves marriage and the fulfillment of sexual desire in marriage.

19:13-15 When children were brought to Jesus so he might bless and pray for them, his disciples rebuked the parents (19:13). But Jesus rebuked the disciples right back: Leave the children alone. Why? He doesn’t want anyone to stand between him and children. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (19:14) implies you have to be willing to humble yourself like a little child to come to Jesus as your Savior and experience his kingdom rule as Lord.

19:16-19 A man who wanted to earn a standing with God came to Jesus, viewing him merely as a good teacher, and asked, What good must I do to have eternal life? (19:16). But Jesus wanted to clarify things. He asked, Why do you ask me about what is good? . . . There is only one who is good (19:17). In other words, to be good Jesus would have to be God. And since he is God incarnate, he has the authority to answer the man’s question.

If he wanted to enter into life, Jesus told him to keep the commandments of God (19:17-19). God’s laws represent his perfect, holy standard. If a person can perfectly keep the commandments, he will indeed merit eternal life. The problem is that we are all sinners unable to meet the standards of a righteous God (see Rom 3:23). God gave us his laws, in fact, to show us we couldn’t keep them and to drive us to the Savior.

19:20-22 The man naively claimed to have kept them all (19:20). So Jesus pushed a little further and told him to sell his belongings, give to the poor, and follow him (19:21). At that point, the young man realized he didn’t meet God’s standard of perfection. In essence, Jesus had told him, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (19:19), but the man had many possessions and was unwilling to part with them for the sake of a neighbor in need, thus revealing that he was indeed a sinner. And rather than acknowledge his sinfulness and come to Christ for salvation, he went away (19:22).

19:23-24 When the rich young man departed, Jesus observed, It will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven (19:23). Why? The rich often trust in and are attached to their wealth. People who focus on storing up riches in this world easily allow this world to distract them from thoughts of the world to come. As Jesus said, we should collect “treasures in heaven,” for they cannot be destroyed, stolen, or lost (6:20). Spiritual wealth is eternal, so be rich toward God. Disciples are not to pursue the things that unbelievers treasure. Doing so will keep them from getting their full rewards.

19:25-27 The disciples were shocked, asking, Then who can be saved? (19:25). Jesus reminded them that the impossible is possible for God (19:26). He is able to overrule harmful attachments in our lives when we place our faith in him. Peter, ever the bold disciple, reminded Jesus that they had left everything to follow him (19:27). Peter himself had set aside his perhaps prosperous fishing business (see 4:18-20). So what will there be for us? (19:27)—that is, “What’s the payoff for our commitment to you?”

19:28-29 Jesus assured his disciples that in the renewal of all things—that is, during his millennial reign—they would hold positions of authority, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (19:28). Moreover, this is true of everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for Jesus’s sake. Thus, all Christians who truly identify with Christ and forsake worldly gain to obtain heavenly gain through serving him, will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life (19:29). To “inherit eternal life” is not only to enter eternal life but also to receive its benefits.

19:30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first means there will be a great reversal in the kingdom. Many who are viewed as successful in this world will be paupers there, while many of the paupers in this world will be granted greater authority in the kingdom. So don’t let earthly success or worldly gain prevent you from sacrificing as necessary to serve the Lord in light of the rewards to be received in the world to come.

20:1-9 In 20:1-16, Jesus told a parable about a landowner and the laborers who work in his vineyard. Early one morning, he hired a group of workers for a denarius—one day’s wage (20:1-2). Later that day, he obtained some more workers without giving them a contract but simply promising to pay them what was right (20:3-4). He did the same thing several more times, even hiring a group at five o’clock (20:5-7). When the day was done, he paid everyone the same amount, starting with the last and ending with the first (20:8-9).

20:10-16 Those hired in the morning were upset because those hired late in the day received the same pay (20:10-12). They felt they’d been treated unjustly, but the vineyard owner insisted he had treated them fairly. He’d paid them what was promised. However, while he had been fair with them, he had been generous with others (20:13-15). He asked, Don’t I have the right to do what I want with what is mine? . . . The last will be first, and the first last (20:15-16).

Through this story Jesus was teaching that God is both fair and generous. We should rejoice when God is gracious toward others and not resent it. While the Jews expected better treatment from God because of their background as God’s people, the Gentiles would be objects of his compassion as well.

20:17-19 Jesus predicted for the third time his suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day (20:18-19; see 16:21; 17:22-23). He wanted his disciples to understand it as his mission—the reason he had come. And this would be the basis for their future ministry and message. When Paul later summed up the gospel, this was what it was all about (see 1 Cor 15:3-4).

20:20-21 Christian discipleship is to be expressed by humbly identifying with Jesus Christ and serving others, but the disciples still hadn’t learned this lesson. It seems that after hearing Jesus’s promise that they would “sit on twelve thrones” in the messianic age (19:28), two of the disciples tried to work out an even better deal for themselves. The mother of Zebedee’s sons, James and John, asked Jesus to let her boys sit on his right and left in his kingdom (20:20-21).

Now, in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 10:35-45), he describes John and James asking Jesus. It appears, then, that this request was their idea, and their mother was simply asking on their behalf. Also, it’s important to understand that the seats to the right and left of a king were reserved for those in positions of special authority. The New Testament describes Jesus sitting at God’s right hand (see Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20; Col 3:1: Heb 1:3; 8:1; 1 Pet 3:22).

20:22-23 The disciples were a lot like many of us. The brothers’ request suggests they wanted privilege and power without service and commitment. Jesus knew they didn’t understand what they were asking: Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink? By this he meant the suffering he was about to endure. They said they could, and Jesus agreed that they would. James would be martyred (see Acts 12:1-2), and John would experience exile (see Rev 1:9). But the seats at Jesus’s right and left are reserved for those sovereignly appointed by his Father.

20:24-27 When the other ten disciples heard this discussion, they became indignant with the two brothers (20:24). Maybe this was righteous indignation. Or maybe they were simply upset that they didn’t come up with the same idea first! Regardless, Jesus saw it as another opportunity to teach about discipleship.

Among the Gentiles, people in positions of authority lord it over others and act as tyrants (20:25). But there is a fundamental difference in how the church is to view power and authority: Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (20:26). In the dog-eat-dog world of earthly success, you reach greatness by stepping on others. In the kingdom of God, you reach greatness by serving others in love.

Notice that Jesus didn’t rebuke their desire to be great (“Whoever wants to become great”; 20:26). Sometimes people think being a Christian means having no aspirations, but Jesus didn’t condemn the aspiration for greatness. Rather, he condemned the worldly method for achieving it. So dream big. Ask God how you can use your skills and talents to make the biggest possible kingdom impact. But realize that when it comes to the people of God, servants—not celebrities—are on top.

20:28 God’s Son didn’t merely demand servanthood, he demonstrated it: [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. God exalted Jesus and gave him the name above all names, but Jesus attained this greatness by humbling himself as a servant and suffering unto death to save others (see Phil 2:5-11). The Son of God chose the way of sacrificial service, so why would you expect a different path for yourself?

20:29-34 As Jesus traveled from Jericho to Jerusalem, two blind men sitting by the road began crying out, Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David! (20:29-30). Clearly, these men recognized his messianic authority, and with that authority came the supernatural right to heal. So though the crowd told them to keep quiet, they wouldn’t be distracted (20:31). No one could keep them from Jesus. When he asked them what they wanted, they displayed bold faith by requesting their sight (20:32-33). Jesus healed them, and they followed him (20:34).

Don’t let others keep you from crying out to the Lord either. Pursue him until you hear a word from him, in spite of voices that try to keep you quiet. And when he comes through, follow him in even deeper faith and greater service.