Keep It in Context (A Basic Study for Understanding Matthew 19:9)

By Timothy Sparks


For this study, it will be beneficial to define the following:
I. “context”
II. “in context”
III. “out of context”

I. We begin with a definition of “context” from the following sources:

    A. Google:

“the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed”

Origin: “late Middle English (denoting the construction of a text): from Latin contextus, from con– ‘together’ + texere ‘to weave.’” [Thus, “to weave together.”] (definition of “context”)

    B. Merriam-Webster:

“1. the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning

2. the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs :  environment, setting • the historical context of the war”

    C. Cambridge Dictionary:

“the situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it” 

II. Second, we look at a definition of “in context”:


“1:  in a sentence with other words • To really know a word, you must be able to use it in context.

2:  while thinking about the group of conditions that exist where and when something happens • We need to consider these events in context”                                                (

III. Third, we notice a definition of “out of context”:

Oxford Dictionaries:

“Without the surrounding words or circumstances and so not fully understandable” (

Today, we use “out of context” in the following way: “He took my words completely out of context.” If we do not take the situation and circumstances of Jesus’ statement into consideration, we can easily take Jesus’ words out of context.

The word “background” is a synonym for “context” and means, “the circumstances or situation prevailing at a particular time” (

Once we realize that Matthew writes to Jews, we should not be surprised that we need at least a basic knowledge of God’s Hebrew Law under which the Jews lived during Jesus’ lifetime. Within the context of marriage, there were specific circumstances prevailing during Jesus’ time concerning sexual immorality.

To understand the context of Jesus’ statement in Mt. 19:9, we must consider God’s law concerning sexual immorality within marriage—a ruling which Jesus would neither change nor contradict during his lifetime:

1. “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10, NKJV).

2. “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel” (Deut. 22:22, NKJV).

The context of Mt. 19:9 does not have Jesus changing the death penalty into the divorce penalty. Jesus does not give favorable permission to divorce. Within the context of that time, it is clear that God ruled out divorce for sexual immorality when he commanded the death penalty. Jesus agreed with his Father (Mt. 5:17-19; Jn. 7:16; 8:7). Considering the background, it is also clear that Jesus ruled out divorce for nonsexual reasons when he uses the phrase “not over fornication” in reference to divorce for nonsexual reasons. When we know that the Father ruled out divorce for sexual reasons and the Son ruled out divorce for nonsexual reasons, it becomes clear that the Father and the Son ruled out “every reason” (Mt. 19:3) for which a Jewish man might divorce his wife.

While often misunderstood as “an exception,” once we know the context of Jesus’ words, it becomes clear that Mt. 19:9 is not an exception clause authorizing divorce but an exclusion clause addressing nonsexual divorce. Knowing the Jewish background can help us understand that Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19 (written to Jews) is in complete harmony with Jesus’ teaching written to Gentiles: Mark 10 (written to Romans) and Lk. 16:18 (written to Greeks). All three accounts are in harmony with the beginning. As Jesus points out very clearly, the beginning is the precise context that provides the answers to the questions about divorce (Mt. 19:4, 8). Therefore, we have to get it right from the beginning.

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