Expository Sermon on Matthew 19
Bellevue SDA Church 6/9/2018
©2018 by Maylan Schurch
(To hear the audio for this sermon, click the triangular “play” button on the line below.)
Please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 19.
I think that I’ve mentioned before that when I was a boy growing up on the prairies of South Dakota, I had a dog named Poochie. I think I’ve also mentioned that Poochie was not a playful dog. If you picked up a stick and threw it, Poochie would watch you with a serious gaze, but he would never run after it. He was just an all-work-and-no-play dog. He kept our farm absolutely free of rats – I never once saw a rat on our farm.
But even though he didn’t appear to be, Poochie was very interested in us kids. Nothing would persuade him to romp playfully ahead of me as I strode through the pastures, but Poochie still cared. He probably would have defended us with his life if he had needed to.
The main reason I know that Poochie cared about us was that every weekday he would keep watch for us to return from school. Our school was a one room Adventist elementary school about 2 miles straight east of our farm. Dad would drop us off at school in the morning, but if the weather was nice, we would often just walk home. And as we came up over the hill just before our farm, we would see Poochie, always sitting in the same place, watching us gravely. He would never jump up and down and wag his tail. He would just sit there. And once he saw that we were safely home, he would go about his other duties – probably sniffing out rats.
One day I decided to surprise Poochie. I don’t remember who was with me on that day as we walked home – probably all four of us–my two sisters and my brother. I told them that just before we got to the hill, we would leave the road and walk the rest of the way in the shallow ditch, on the far side of the road from the house. We would have to be very quiet, and we would walk in the ditch until we got well past the house, and then we would try to sneak up on Poochie and scare him.
Knowing how smart Poochie was, I didn’t have much hope that the plan would work. But we did our best to keep quiet, and sure enough, we crept along the ditch, and entered the farmyard behind Poochie, and he was still staring fixedly in the opposite direction at the hill where we were supposed to appear. I still remember how astonished he was to see us behind him. As usual, he didn’t express extreme emotion, but he turned quickly around. I wasn’t close enough to see if he rolled his eyes out of, if dogs do roll eyes people. He just stared at us for a few seconds, like he was saying, “Now what was that all about?” And he went about his duties.
As I was studying Matthew 19 for today’s sermon, it occurred to me that there are three times in this chapter when Jesus intensely surprised His disciples. Each of those three times He said or did something which they did not see coming.
In fact, that seems to be something Jesus always did – surprised people. And the reason He surprised people was that humanity had drifted so far from the gates of Eden that we had forgotten how to be selfless, and had ended up being selfish.
This morning I’d like to go through this chapter and study those three disciple-surprisers, and see if they apply to us in some way. I think they do. Let me show you what I mean. Let’s start with verse one.
Matthew 19:1 – 3 [NKJV]: Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
The Bible doesn’t say why the Pharisees brought this question up. It says that they were “testing” Him, but usually you can kind of tell what they’re driving at. Maybe it had to do with something I discovered when I studied the article on “divorce” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is a very thorough and complete Bible dictionary. It contains articles from scholars of many different denominations, including Adventist scholars like Gerhard Hasel and Larry Geraty.
According to this encyclopedia’s article on divorce in the Bible, just before the time of Jesus there were two influential rabbis, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. These two rabbis disagreed about when it’s okay for a man to divorce his wife. Rabbi Shammai was very cautious, and said that the only reason a man can divorce his wife is because of adultery. But Rabbi Hillel said that there were a number of reasons a man can divorce his wife – including if she burned his toast!
Now, both Hillel and Shammai had died by the time this Matthew 19 discussion happens, but the strict Pharisees seem to approach life cautiously, the way Shammai did. The Sadducees were more flexible, like Hillel. So maybe the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to agree with their interpretation of the divorce matter, to score points over the Sadducees.
Anyway, notice something very interesting. I’ve always tended to look at this passage as sort of a general divorce ruling for men and women. And that’s probably the way we should take it. However, notice how the Pharisees asked the question. They said, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
So they are focusing on the men. According to the Bible encyclopedia article, men were the ones who did the divorcing. The article’s authors think that there was probably also some way that women could do this too, but it’s just not mentioned in the Bible. As you can probably guess, this was a very male-dominated culture.
Divorce has been a topic of discussion and debate for centuries. Just a few weeks ago, one of the major denominational leaders of the Southern Baptists took a lot of heat for saying that abused wives should still stay with their husbands. In fact, right now, some of the other leaders are trying to get him removed from being a seminary president, which is now his current position. So the matter of divorce is complicated.
But let’s carry on with the story here in Matthew 19 a, notice what Jesus’ first surprise is.
Verses 3 – 6: The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
So Jesus brings those Pharisees back past all the details toward God’s ideal. Every marriage should remain unbroken.
But the Pharisees aren’t finished yet.
Verse 7: They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
Sure enough, that’s what Moses did, back in Deuteronomy 24, as part of laws God gave to this often rebellious people whose consciences had been coarsened. Watch how Jesus responds.
Verses 8 – 9: He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
So again, Jesus repeats God’s ideal. At the same time, He is very merciful in situations like this, such as when a woman who was caught in the act of adultery was brought into His presence.
And notice how the disciples react.
Verse 10: His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Notice what they seem to be saying here. They’re still looking at this from a man’s point of view. And they seem to be going along with the idea that a man can just up and divorce his wife for a lot of different reasons. It seems like they are unpleasantly surprised when Jesus tells them there is only one reason for divorce.
So to paraphrase what they seem to be saying, we could put it like this: “Wow. If divorce is as restrictive as this, guys had better not get married at all.”
Just for the record, I don’t agree with that Southern Baptist leader. If abuse is happening, there needs to be a separation, and maybe even a permanent one. I think that what Jesus wants to get across in this chapter is that marriage is sacred, and should be entered into carefully, and God should be brought into each marriage.
Okay. So what should we do in response to this? Well, Jesus said that Moses allowed divorce because people are hardhearted. So I think that says to me is that I must beg the Holy Spirit to soften my heart, and my spouse’s heart.
And there’s even a promise we can claim for this. It’s in Ezekiel 11:19 – 20, and it’s quoting God directly: “Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God.”
So it’s perfectly possible for God to heal hardheartedness. In Psalm 51:10 – 11, David begs for this to happen: Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence, And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
So I think that would be a good resolution for all of us married people, as we move through the month which is traditionally thought of as a wedding month. Ask the Lord to soften your heart.
Now let’s look for Jesus’ second disciple-surpriser.
Matthew 19:13 – 15: Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray, but the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” And He laid His hands on them and departed from there.
So why were the disciples surprised here? For some reason, they tried to shoo away parents wanted Jesus to put His hands on the children and pray for them.
Again, looking into the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, under the article “Children,” there is a lot of evidence that Jewish people cherished their children, and did their best to teach them God’s ways. Both boys and girls were given religious instruction. The Friday evening times of welcoming the Sabbath involved the whole family, and so did the Passover meal.
There’s a good chance that the disciples were simply overwhelmed with all the people coming to see Jesus, as it mentions back in verse one. “Great multitudes followed Him.”
And because there were so many people surging around, evidently the disciples looked at all those hopeful parents crowding in with their little children, and decided to rank these kids below the grownups. Which is more important, a little child safe in his or her parents’ arms, or that poor leper over there who desperately needs healing?
Well, it seemed that Jesus doesn’t rank one higher than the other. Maybe it was a genuine surprise to the disciples to discover that God truly loves every single person exactly the same. Remember, these disciples had grown up in a culture where the Jews were the “clean” people, and the Samaritans and the Gentiles were unclean. And part of your responsibility as a faithful Jew was to make sure that you stayed separate from those unclean ones.
But as these disciples watch, Jesus not only tells them to let the children come close, but He actually ranks them the highest in the kingdom of God.
By the way, I’m sure the Lord is grateful for everyone who works with children, in our Sabbath school divisions, in our Pathfinder club, and in the upcoming Vacation Bible School program in early July. And I know that He appreciates parents who will make sure that their children don’t miss an opportunity to come closer to Jesus in programs like this.
So make sure you register your kids for vacation Bible school. There is an announcement in the bulletin which tells you how to do this.
So what should we do, now that we have seen the second thing which surprised the disciples? First we need to be nice to children. My mom and dad sent my three siblings and me to church on Sabbath morning, but they did not attend themselves. Dad was just so very shy, so he stayed home, and mom loyally stayed home with him. (But after he died, back in 1994, she immediately started attending church again.)
So at church, the kindness of the grownups was even more important. We kids could tell that these people appreciated us. They got us involved, they asked us to do things, they provided opportunities for us to get together with other kids from other churches. And this made a great deal of difference in my growing up years.
Another thing we can do is to listen to people. I don’t know if it’s my imagination, but people’s attention spans seem to be shrinking. I’ve learned to adapt to this. Rather than saying long sentences, I try to use short sentences.
So if somebody starts telling you the story out in the foyer, lock your eyes on to their face, and resist the temptation to wave at a passing friend. Several times I’ve mentioned Dr. Chuck Kimberly, who was a master at doing this. When I was talking to Chuck, Chuck gave me this very full attention, with the utmost courtesy.
Our clothing bank on Wednesdays is a very busy place, but Marion Burtt and her team do the best they can to listen to peoples’ stories. Miriam will sometimes share these at prayer meeting that evening. Often these are staggering tales of discouragement, and often they are stories about dilemmas that no one except the Lord would be able to fix. But Marion and the clothing bank staff listen, and I’m sure this heals the hearts of the storytellers to some degree, and gives them courage to go back into their life and keep trying.
Now let’s take a look at this chapter’s final disciple-surpriser.
Verses 16 – 22: Now behold, one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” So He said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to Him, “Which ones?” Jesus said, “ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And of course the disciples have been standing around watching this discussion. Once more, they are about to be extremely surprised.
Verses 23 – 26: Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
So, why were they surprised? Well, you and I have read to the end of the book, and know more than they did. Remember, none of these disciples except possibly Matthew, and maybe Judas, ever had any real money. And tax collector Matthew would have given his up, along with his profession, to follow Jesus. All their lives, these disciples had been accustomed to walking along the streets in Jerusalem and seeing vastly rich Pharisees dressed in the best robes and the newest sandals–and most likely overweight. Because in those days, if you were overweight, that meant you were blessed by God. He had given you plenty to eat.
And in any culture, in any era, money has been important. It’s so important that Jesus had to warn several times against worshiping money. In my pocket I have my billfold. I used to carry around a larger wallet with more things in it, but now I’ve stripped down to this thin little leather billfold. Inside is some cash, and also a credit card and debit card.
The best thing I can do for myself is to figure out some way of not stressing out or obsessing or worrying about money.
One way to do this is to remember Jesus’ earnest comments about not worshiping money, and comments about laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and comments here in this chapter about how deadly an obsession with money can be when it comes to your eternal salvation. It is excruciatingly hard for a money-lover to get into heaven. And when Jesus says, “With God all things are possible,” what He is probably implying is that God will have to do some dramatic things to money-lovers in order to prepare their souls for an eternity in which there will be no use for money.
So what can I do, in a practical way, to loosen money’s grip on my heart?
First of all, I need to become a partner with God. God has promised to honor us if we honor Him with our tithes and offerings. We need to treat our money as though we are investing it for someone else – which is God. Thanks to all of you who have been faithful in returning your tithes and in giving your church budget offerings and other kinds of offerings. Thanks for supporting our Sunset Lake fund, and their vacation Bible school fund, and our student scholarship fund, in the Children’s Offering.
One thing I’ve discovered from decades of personal experience, is that if I become a partner with God the way He tells me to – if I faithfully return my tithes and give my offerings, I don’t need to worry about money. I do need to be careful in spending it, and I do need to not spend more than I have, but I can lay my financial burdens on His broad and very capable shoulders.
And because God is so powerful and so caring, fewer and fewer surprises (money or otherwise) will loom up before me, because I know that He is near.
Let’s pray for softened hearts in our relationships. Let’s make our children top priority, as Jesus does. And let’s treat our money as though it belongs to God, and we are its managers.