Teachings About Marriage
1. And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee, and came into the borders of Judea, across the Jordan.
2. And many crowds followed Him; and He cured them there.
3. And the Pharisees came to Him, tempting Him, and saying to Him, “Is it permitted for a man to send away his wife for every cause?”
4. And He answering said to them, “Have you not read that He who made [them] from the beginning made them male and female,
5. And said, ‘On this account shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh?’
6. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What, therefore, God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
7. They say unto Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a document of divorce, and to send her away?”
8. He says to them, “Moses, because of your hard-heartedness, permitted you to send away your wives; but from the beginning it was not so.
9. And I say unto you that whoever shall send away his wife, except over scortation, and shall marry another, commits adultery; and he who marries her that is sent away commits adultery.”
The decline of marriage
Jesus has just finished speaking about what it means to be “great” in the kingdom of heaven. He illustrated this by placing a child in the midst of His disciples, urging them to become as little children. He then added that they should “humble themselves” as a little child — the very opposite of any attempt to exalt themselves.
In their early years, little children store up precious memories of how it feels to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven. Their tender hearts are open to the gentle and direct influences of heaven. As Jesus said at the beginning of the previous chapter, “their angels continually look at the face of My Father in heaven” (18:10).
The gentleness of children is then contrasted with the hard-heartedness of the unforgiving servant — a man who was unwilling to forgive a minor debt even though he himself had been forgiven an enormous debt. Between the two episodes (setting a child in the midst of the disciples and the story of the unforgiving servant), Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive someone who sins against me. Up to seven times?” “No,” says Jesus, “seventy times seven,” which means always and forever (see 18:21-22).
With these important teachings about forgiveness in mind, the gospel narrative now turns to the subject of marriage. Although marriage was God’s first blessing (Genesis 1:28), over the course of time it came to be seen as merely a convenience for men who wanted women to serve them as their domestic slaves, preparing meals and producing children. No longer seen as a sacred blessing from God, marriage had lost its grandeur and beauty; the beautiful ideal of two souls becoming as one was lost. Husbands no longer regarded their wives as their noble companions, but rather as their domestic servants. 1
Hardness of heart
This brief history of marriage and its decline provides an important context for the next episode. As Jesus comes into the land of Judea, He is approached by the religious leaders who ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (19:3). Their question regards the proper interpretation of a well-known law: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she find no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, let him write her a certificate of divorce, put it in her hand, and send her out of his house” (Deuteronomy 24:1). This law seems to sanction divorce for any cause. However, not all of the religious leaders agreed. In fact, there was a dispute between two rabbinical schools of thought. One of the schools (Hillel) was teaching that it is literally true that a wife could be divorced for any cause; but an opposing school (Shammai) was teaching that a woman could be divorced only for adultery. 2
This was obviously a trick question, designed to trap Jesus into taking one of the sides in the debate. Because it was a “hot button” issue at the time, Jesus answer was sure to offend someone. Rather than get trapped in this literalistic debate, Jesus uses this opportunity to teach a higher lesson. “Have you not read,” He says, “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 put asunder” (19:6). Not content with this answer, the Pharisees press on, saying, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce and put her away?” (19:7). Jesus’ response is simple and straightforward: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (19:8).
Jesus here refers to the “hardness of heart” that had set in over the years. Jesus is very careful about His choice of words. He says that Moses permitted it. This is to make it clear that this command came from Moses, as a permission, but that it is not the Lord’s will. 3
Many of the laws in the Hebrew scriptures were given in their literal form in accommodation to the states of the people, for it was all that they could understand at the time. But just because a law is written in the scriptures, the literal words of that law does not necessarily reflect the Lord’s will for all people at all times. Laws that permitted men to take many wives, or to divorce their wives whenever they wished, were permissions granted on account of the hardness of their hearts, less they perpetrate even more grievous evils. 4
We know for example that the famous law regarding revenge, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:20), was given so that human beings, in their cruelty, would not retaliate beyond the offense that was given. Similarly, the many laws about animal sacrifice were given, not because God delights in the slaughter of animals, but because it was better than the sacrifice of children. 5
All of these permissions were granted because of the hardness of people’s hearts — that state of inordinate pride, self-love and arrogant self-confidence which is the very opposite of humility. In this state of mind people become unyielding and rigid, unwilling and therefore unable to see anything beyond their own world view. As a result there is no understanding of others, no forgiveness and no mercy. In the Word, it is called a “heart of stone.” (Ezekiel 36:26). 6
One indication of “hardness of heart” is a propensity to focus on our own understanding of truth, to the exclusion of love. Whenever we do this, we have a tendency to become stern, austere, harsh and unyielding. But when truth and love are united in us, and in our lives, we become gentle, soft-hearted, and compassionate. A mere understanding of truth does not become wisdom until it is filled with — or “married to” — goodness. This can be compared to the influence that a woman can have upon her husband as they become more and more one soul in the marital relationship. The wife can help her husband transform his innate hard-headed, hard-hearted intelligence into the true wisdom of a husband. 7
The marriage relationship, then, can be a transformative experience. It can transform a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. This is also true for every human being — whether married or not. This is because the marriage relationship between one man and one woman represents the deeper spiritual relationship between truth and goodness that takes place in every human soul. To the extent that the truth we know is united with goodness, we become more and more a human being — more and more an image of God. As it is written, “Male and female He created them. In the image of God He created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Truth must be united with goodness. If we were to “put away our wife” (goodness) for any reason — that is, divorce ourselves from, love, mercy, and forgiveness — our hearts would remain hard, proud, unyielding, and full of self-love. On the other hand, as we become “one flesh” with these tender qualities, our hearts are softened; we become yielding and receptive to what flows in from the divine.
What God has joined together
In the previous chapter, Jesus instructed His disciples about the importance of humility by setting a child in their midst. And in the story of the unforgiving servant we saw the vital link between humility (awareness of our debt to the Lord) and forgiveness. Now, in this next chapter, the teaching continues in an area of human life where humility and forgiveness are of utmost practical importance — marriage.
Humility is directly related to the ability to see our own evils, to acknowledge them, and to pray for the power to overcome them. Without this essential virtue, a marriage relationship will eventually deteriorate into contempt and criticism, whether spoken outwardly or harbored silently in a hardened-heart. Moreover, without the spirit of humility, each strives for mastery over the other, seeking to have the upper hand, insisting on having the last word. Whether openly through physical coercion and verbal abuse, or secretly through various forms of manipulation, each will strive to dominate the other. The relentless desire to exert control inevitably leads to heated arguments and bitter strife, or to stubborn resistance and icey silence. Either way, what God intends to be our heaven on earth becomes a living hell at home. 8
But this need not be the case. As Jesus says, “From the beginning it was not so.” The beginning of a marriage, like the infancy of our lives, is a time of tender, spontaneous love. Hearts are soft and forgiving. But over the course of time, especially as selfishness sets in, hearts can begin to harden and grow cold; two people who once promised to love each other forever now begin to think about separation and divorce.
How, then, do we overcome “hardness of heart”? Or to say it differently, how can we transform a contemptuous, haughty attitude into an attitude that is humble, respectful and open to the viewpoints of others? As Jesus has shown, there is only one way. It is through the process of temptation. In the combats of temptation, the truth that we know is put to use. As a result, the love of self is subdued, contempt for others is put aside, and the Lord’s mercy flows in. A heart of stone is taken away, and a new heart is given. As it is written, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). This is what can happen to anyone who is willing to “take up one’s cross and follow Jesus” — that is, live according to the truth that Jesus teaches.
We can see, then, that Jesus uses this opportunity to teach eternal lessons about marriage — not only about the marriage between one man and one woman, but also about the marriage of truth and goodness that must take place within every individual. Whether married or not, this internal marriage takes place through the process of spiritual temptation, the perennial combat of truth against falsity, good against evil. While Jesus does not reveal these more interior teachings, it is all there, contained within spiritually loaded phrase, “because of the hardness of your hearts.”
Temptations serve to break up our arrogant self-confidence — our “hardness of heart.” As our hearts begin to soften, we come to realize that without God we can do nothing. Through this process we become truly human. During these times of trial, we come face to face with the question, “Do we truly believe this or not?” And if we do believe, the only way to demonstrate our belief is to we put it to use, even when our lower nature is being stubbornly resistant. If we are successful in subduing our lower nature while compelling our will to apply the truth, the result is an internal marriage of the truth we know with our desire to live according to it. This is the very marriage that God had in mind from the very beginning of creation — a heavenly marriage of goodness and truth within us. This, then, is the spiritual meaning of the words “What God has joined together, let not man separate” (19:9). 9
Is it Better Not to Marry?
10. His disciples say to Him, “If the case of the man be so with the wife, it is not expedient to wed.”
11. But He said to them, “All do not take in this word, but [they] to whom it is given.
12. For there are eunuchs who were so born from the mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of the heavens. He that is able to take it in, let him take it in.”
As we have seen, Jesus uses external situations to teach more interior spiritual lessons. In this case, He is teaching not only about the external marriage between a man and a woman, but also about the marriage of truth (represented by “a man”) and goodness (represented by a “woman”) — an internal marriage that can take place within every individual. Therefore, when Jesus teaches that “a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife,” we need to understand this at both the natural and spiritual level. The spiritual message is that every human being must leave behind inherited tendencies to evil in order to receive a new will (“a wife”), that is, a new will that loves what is good. All of this is contained within Jesus’ literal statements. 10
But the religious leaders were not ready for those kinds of explanations. They demanded specific “yes” and “no” answers for their trick questions. So, Jesus gave them what they needed to hear. He tells them, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” This was the clear, unequivocal message they needed to hear. Even if marriages were no longer considered sacred, they were still covenants for life. Jesus knew how destructive it would be for society if wives were simply put away for any reason. Therefore, He reinforced the teaching that the only reason for divorce could be adultery. Moreover, he took it a step further, saying, “And whoever marries her who has been put away also commits adultery” (19:9).
It’s easy to imagine that the disciples were confused. Jesus, who seems to be so open, so loving, and so forgiving about so many things, comes across as unusually firm about the law regarding divorce. So, they say to Jesus, “If such is the case, it is better not to marry” (19:10).
It should be remembered that it is the disciples — not Jesus — who suggest that it is perhaps better not to marry. Throughout the history of the Christian church there have been people who have believed that a celibate life is a higher spiritual path than a married one. Even Paul, who chose celibacy over marriage, said, “I wish that all men were as I myself [celibate] … and I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).
Though Paul acknowledges that it is not a sin to marry, he does not recommend it. His anti-marriage advice continues: “Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife…. For those who marry will face many troubles in this life and I want to spare you this” (1 Corinthians 7:27-28). And then, to sum it all up, he writes, “So then, he who marries a virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better” (1 Corinthians 7:38).
While some argue that Paul recommends celibacy only because there is an immediate crisis, others claim that he definitely teaches that celibacy is a higher path — not just for Paul’s time, but for all time. This is perhaps because Jesus Himself seems to teach the virtue of celibacy, especially when He adds these words: “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” (19:12). It would seem, at least on the surface, that Jesus might indeed be recommending celibacy.
But we need to explore the inner meaning of Jesus’ words.
Jesus is here referring to three types of men: those who have no sexual interest in women because they were born with undeveloped testes (“eunuchs who were born thus”); those who no longer have sexual interest in women because their testes were removed by others (“eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men”); and men who no longer have sexual interest in women because they have removed their own testes for religious purposes (“eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake”). In each of these cases the common denominator seems to be no sexual interest in women.
But if this is really Jesus’ point, why does Jesus have such a high regard for marriage? Why does He, in the preceding episode, take the religious leaders back to the original plan of creation, reminding them that in the beginning God made people male and female and joined them together so that they would become “one flesh”? And why would He bless them and tell them to be fruitful and multiply? Obviously, God is not against marriage, nor is He against sexuality in marriage.
The “eunuch,” then, is a only symbol of spiritual purity — not a recommended religious path. In sacred symbolism a “eunuch” represents an individual who strives to shun adulterous lust out of love and respect for marriage. Such people have no desire to be united with evil, because they know that it is contrary to God’s will. Thus they have become spiritual “eunuchs” for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. 11
When God created the world, and everything in it, He said it is “good.” And when He created man and woman on the sixth day, blessing them, and commanding them to be fruitful and multiply, He said. “Behold, it is very good” (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, it makes sense to conclude that God considers marriage, sexuality, and the production of offspring as a part of His plan. He wants us to marry, to have beautiful sexual relations with our marriage partner, and to produce offspring. Nothing could be simpler, or more wonderful.
Celibacy, on the other hand, is a deviation from God’s order. It prevents us from experiencing the highest happiness and the greatest blessing given to humanity: marriage. The marriage relationship — spiritual and physical — is the container of all heavenly and earthly joys. Sexuality in marriage is the most intimate physical relationship that can take place between a husband and wife. It is no wonder, then, that God has blessed this relationship with the highest of all physical delights — for it corresponds to the delight that the soul experiences when good and truth are united. 12
When Jesus responded to the question about putting wives away, He said, simply, “from the beginning it was not so.” These words remind us that the experience of falling in love and entering the marriage relationship brings us back to the innocence and purity of our childhood, where we can once again be “naked and not ashamed.” It is a time to be open with one another about all things, to love one another deeply and tenderly, and to promise eternal fidelity to each other. In many ways it is a lovely symbol, and perfect representation of our relationship with God — childlike, innocent, trusting, open, and eternal. Jesus compares this to three kinds of eunuch: the eunuch from his mother’s womb; the eunuch made so by men; and the eunuch who makes himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven.
The three types of eunuchs perfectly describe three ways of achieving a marriage relationship that is free of licentious desires. In the highest, most heavenly way, the love flows from a heart that has been newborn from the Lord. The relationship is innocent, chaste, and pure — without lust. Though there are sexual feelings, they are focused only on the beloved. These are “eunuchs who are born thus from their mother’s womb.”
The next type of eunuch describes the individual who learns the truths of revelation and applies them to life. These are the truths that help him to rise above every evil affection, especially those lusts that would destroy a marriage relationship. Because the term “men” in the Word signifies “truths,” these are the kinds of people who are described as “eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men.” 13
The third type of eunuch commits himself to marriage out of obedience. The commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” is enough. This is not the same as rising above licentiousness through truths given in the Word (“made eunuchs by men”); nor is it the same as developing a new heart that detests the very thought of adultery.
Nevertheless, “eunuchs” of this type are still welcomed by the Lord. These are “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” 14
The kind of struggle represented by the second and third stages can be painful and difficult. Nevertheless, if we want to enter into true marriage, must be willing to cut away every illicit desire and every wandering lust. Only then can we experience true marriage love.
The description of three kinds of eunuchs is Jesus’ response to the statement of the disciples, who said to Him, “If such be the case, it is better not to marry.” While deeply embedded in spiritual language about eunuchs, Jesus’ response is clear. It is better to marry. But it’s even better to cultivate a chaste love for one’s spouse, purified of lustful desire. In His description of the eunuchs, Jesus is not talking about sexual abstinence. Rather, He is talking about cultivating a love for one’s spouse, devoid of licentiousness, and in accordance with the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” 15
Jesus, of course, knew that most of this would be beyond the understanding of His disciples, so He ends this illustration with the words, “”He who is able to comprehend, let him comprehend” (19:12).
Let the Little Children Come to Me
13. Then were there brought to Him little children, that He should lay [His] hands on them, and pray; but the disciples rebuked them.
14. But Jesus said, “Let the little children come to Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of the heavens.”
15. And laying hands on them, He went thence.
As we progress through these three stages in our marriage relationships, and in our lives, and if we strive to trust in the Lord through every stage, we will repeatedly return to that beginning state in which we are again like innocent, trusting children. Therefore, the very next episode begins with these words: “Then little children were brought to Him that He might put His hands on them and pray” (19:13). This represents the return of our innocent, trusting states — the “little ones” that Jesus spoke of in the preceding chapter.
These “little ones” never leave us, though they may be forgotten, apparently lost, and covered over by the love of self and cares of the world. It is therefore necessary that these tender states in us be once again drawn out; this happens whenever we feel touched by the hand of the Lord. “Then little children were brought to Him, that He might put His hands on them.”
The disciples are still confused and do not fully understanding what Jesus is doing. Like Peter, who rebuked the Lord for saying that He would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things (17:21), the disciples now rebuke those who bring little children to Jesus. Peter did not understand that the Lord’s temptations would be necessary for the salvation of the human race, just as our temptations are necessary for our regeneration. Nor did he realize that the “little children” that Jesus touched represent those tender aspects of ourselves that the Lord touches from time to time. This occurs especially after the combats of temptation when we realize that we have no power of our own, and that we are completely dependent upon the Lord — very much like children who are completely dependent on their parents.
This is our return to innocence, where we are once again like little children. Therefore, Jesus says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of heaven” (19:14). It is an invitation to each of us to come to the Lord, as His children, entirely dependent on Him for our spiritual sustenance. As the “little ones” in us feel the touch of His spirit, we receive His life. Therefore, this episode ends with the words, “And laying hands on them, He departed from there” (19:15).
The Rich Young Ruler
16. And behold, one coming said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good shall I do that I may have eternal life?”
17. And He said to him, “Why callest thou Me good? None is good except One, God; but if thou willest to enter into the life, keep the commandments.”
18. He says to Him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “This, that thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not bear false witness,
19. Honor thy father and mother; and, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
20. The young man says to Him, “All these things have I guarded from my youth; in what am I yet lacking?”
21. Jesus declared to him, “If thou willest to be perfect, go, sell thy belongings, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
22. But when the young man heard the word, he went away sorrowful; for he had many possessions.
The divine narrative now continues with the story of a rich young ruler who asks, “What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” (19:16). Note the emphasis here upon action rather than attitude. In the preceding series, the primary focus has been upon an attitude of humility. Even forgiveness, though it is expressed in certain physical actions, is essentially an attitude. The rich young ruler, however, lives under the delusion that heaven can be merited by certain external actions, rather than a fundamental change of attitude. Therefore he asks, “What good thing shall I do . . .”
The young man’s need for a change of attitude is made very clear in Jesus’ response to his question. When the young man addresses Jesus as “Good, teacher,” Jesus points out that no person, from himself, is good. All goodness is from God alone. Therefore, He says, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (16:17). In other words, we should not take merit for the good that we do, since all good comes from God.
Nevertheless, Jesus says to the rich young ruler, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (19:17). This catches the young man’s attention, for he certainly seems desirous of doing “the right thing” so that he may get into heaven. Therefore, he asks, “Which ones?” as if certain commandments are of more help than others in meriting heaven. Jesus tells him explicitly: “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.” (19:19). This is good news for the young man, who replies: “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” (19:20)
The young man still believes that he can merit heaven by all of his “doing.” He seems to be quite proud of himself, perhaps even bragging, when he says, “All these things I have kept from my youth.” He has not yet come to acknowledge that the good he does derives from God, and that without God, He can do nothing. It is this humility which he lacks. But rather than tell him this directly, Jesus responds in the language of parable, saying, “ 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” (19:21). We read, however, that this is too much for the young man who goes away sorrowful, for he has great possessions” (19:22).
In the context of all that has preceded, Jesus’ words, “sell what you have” mean that we should get rid of the belief that our riches are our own, acknowledging instead that without God, we are indeed poor. But in so far as we do this — that is, in so far as we attribute all that we have to God — we become rich indeed. In acknowledging our spiritual poverty, God can fill us with the kingdom of heaven. “This is what Jesus means when He says, “give to the poor” (acknowledge our spiritual poverty), and you will have treasure in heaven (God will fill us with every spiritual blessing). It is another way of repeating the opening words from His Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3).
All of this, however, depends on whether or not we are willing to “follow” Jesus, that is, do His will. This is what is meant by Jesus’ invitation to the rich young ruler at the close of this episode, “Come, follow Me.”
Who then can be saved?
23. And Jesus said to His disciples, “Amen I say to you that with difficulty shall a rich [man] enter into the kingdom of the heavens.
24. 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 into the kingdom of God.”
25. And when His disciples heard [it], they wondered greatly, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
26. But Jesus looking at [them] said to them, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.”
The rich young ruler knew many truths and had “kept them” from his youth. In this regard, he was spiritually “rich.” We, too, are blessed to know spiritual truth, and even more blessed when we live according to it. But true blessing only comes when we acknowledge that every truth we have, along with the ability to understand it and apply it, is from the Lord alone. As long as we remain puffed up with pride and self-importance, no matter how much we know (spiritual riches), we can never enter the kingdom of God. As Jesus puts it, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (19:24).
Earthly wealth has never been, and never will be, a hindrance to the kingdom of God. 16
Conversely, physical poverty has never been, and never will be, a guarantee of admission. But pride of intellect and arrogant self-confidence will surely keep us out of heaven, while genuine humility, contriteness of heart, and trust in God, will surely open heaven’s gates. Ultimately, all of our knowledge, along with our achievements and successes, are useless unless we acknowledge that it is all from the Lord. This is what Jesus means when He says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples hear this, they are “exceedingly amazed” and say, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). The disciples are amazed because they have never thought beyond the idea of personal merit. They have grown up in the traditional belief that people are saved by a rigid adherence to religious laws. But Jesus is teaching them something new. The rich young ruler has kept all the commandments. That’s good, but it’s not enough. Something more is needed. While keeping the commandments is commendable, they need to be kept with a right attitude. And that attitude is the humble acknowledgment that even the power to keep the commandments is from the Lord. It is for this reason that Jesus responds to their question, “Who then can be saved?” with this answer, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (19:26). 17
Sitting on Thrones
27. Then Peter answering said to Him, Behold, we have left all and followed Thee; what then shall we have?
28. And Jesus said to them, Amen I say to you, that you who have followed Me in the regeneration, when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of His glory you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
29. And everyone that has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or fields, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit eternal life.
30. But many [who are] first shall be last, and the last first.
Peter is watching and listening intently. Remembering that Jesus told the young man to “Sell what you have … and follow Me,” Peter says to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You.” He then adds, “Therefore what shall we have?” (19:27). Peter’s question,“What shall we have?” reveals that he doesn’t quite understand what Jesus is teaching. Peter still thinks of heaven as a reward — as something you receive for doing the right thing. His question is not very different from that of the young ruler who asks, “What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?” For both Peter and the rich young ruler — as for each of us — it takes time and maturity to discover that the rewards of heavenly life consist in the delights of doing good — without any thought of reward. 18
Jesus, nevertheless, not wanting to discourage Peter or the disciples, says, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (19:28). This must have sounded like wonderful news to the disciples, who all along had been hoping that Jesus would fulfill His role as Messiah and become the new King of Israel. And now, along with this exciting declaration, Jesus tells them that each of them will sit on a throne “judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Though they have been with Jesus for quite some time and have been listening to His preaching about humility, they are still in a natural state, susceptible to worldly ambition, and probably delighted to hear that they will be sitting on thrones in the coming kingdom. 19
Jesus often speaks in accommodation to the merely natural state of His disciples. While He knows that the future holds no literal thrones for them, He also knows they will indeed sit on a different kind of throne — the throne of divine truth. From these thrones, they will have new perceptions; they will be able to identify evil tendencies in themselves, and notice false ideas arising in their minds. And then, like kings summoning their soldiers to battle, they will summon up truth to combat and overcome these spiritual invaders. 20
When Jesus says, “You will sit on twelve thrones,” He means that whenever we are willing to be led by the divine truth (the Son of Man), we will be able to dispel the evils and falsities that attempt to invade our mind. Our power will be like that of a king, for it will be power from divine truth. Nevertheless, we must never claim that power as our own. The moment we do so, we will instantly lose all power. 21
As the disciples come to realize that all power is from the Lord, they will have real spiritual power. This is what Jesus promises the disciples, even though His language is clothed in worldly appearances. Jesus’ words contain a great and wonderful promise for each of us — not just for the disciples. As we continue our spiritual development, successively letting go of all attachments and possessions (honor, reputation, and materialistic gain), we will receive in exchange, wondrous heavenly blessings. This is what Jesus means when He says in the next verse, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit everlasting life” (19:29).
Returning to the connections between episodes, it should be noted that Jesus has just delivered a wonderful discourse on the beauty and sanctity of marriage (19:4-8). Therefore, it would not be reasonable for Him to suddenly switch gears and now speak against it, encouraging husbands to leave their wives in order to follow Him.
Unfortunately, in the history of Christianity, people have taken these words literally; they have actually abandoned their wives and their children in order to follow Jesus.
It should always be remembered that Jesus speaks in parables, using physical objects (seeds, water, houses, etc.) and relationships (wife, brother, father, etc.) to signify spiritual realities. 22
In this case Jesus is speaking about the false concepts and negative emotions that we are to leave behind in order to follow Him. The “houses” signify our old ways of thinking — our belief systems; “brothers and sisters” signify the specific thoughts and affections that are within these belief systems; “father and mother” signify the inherited tendencies toward falsity and evil we have acquired from parents; “wife and children and lands” signify additional tendencies toward falsity and evil acquired and passed on during our lives. 23
Thus, in order to follow Jesus, all this must be left behind — not literally our brothers and sisters, wives and children, but rather everything signified by these terms: our selfish habits of thought, our focus on earthly rather than heavenly rewards, our tendencies towards evils of every kind. All this is what we must leave behind if we are to inherit “everlasting life” (19:29). Clearly, this must have a spiritual meaning, for everywhere else Jesus urges us to love one another, especially parents, spouses, children, neighbors — and even our enemies. Jesus, then, is not calling is away from loving others; rather He is calling us away from those selfish loves that destroy our relationships with others.
As this episode draws to a close, Jesus provides the answer that the rich young ruler has been seeking. The original question was, “What good thing shall I do that I might have eternal life.” And the answer is simple: We must, of course, keep the commandments. But we must also be willing to give up everything that prevents us from receiving the kingdom of heaven. In order to do so, we must become as a child — humble, obedient, and willing to be led. Certainly, this is the very opposite of what the disciples understand by “sitting on thrones” where they envision themselves as ruling, commanding, and judging over others. But the disciples are still in training, and Jesus is patient with them — just as He is with us. For now, it is enough for them to look forward to pre-eminence and glory in His coming kingdom.
But it will be like no kingdom on earth, and they should expect surprises. Therefore, Jesus closes this episode with a warning about seeing themselves as “first” in the coming kingdom. Jesus says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30).