Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 19:12

This is hopefully the first in an irregular series on difficult Biblical passages. I do this for several reasons. There are admittedly some passages in the Bible which are somewhat hard to understand, or open to all manner of interpretations – some better than others. Believers may well have honest questions about such texts.

Also, I find that sadly there is a woeful level of biblical illiteracy amongst God’s people. It seems increasingly that many Christians do not even have a basic understanding of God’s word. Indeed, one can ask how many Christians have even read the entire Bible through at least once. Far too few I suspect.

Of course I am not claiming here to offer the one correct interpretation of these tough texts. But I will seek to draw upon the wisdom of those who have gone before: Christian thinkers, theologians, interpreters, commentators, and so on. Hopefully at least some light will be shed on these difficult passages.

My first text just happened to be part of my morning reading, so I will begin with that. The full context of this verse is Matthew 19:1-12. In it Jesus answers a question about marriage and divorce, and he reinforces God’s desire for permanence in marriage.

After giving a strong and restrictive word against divorce and remarriage, his disciples reply in verse 10 with these words: “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” The reply found in the next two verses comprises the difficult passage:

“Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it’.”

I have heard all sorts of strange explanations of this passage, even some which would seek to use it to justify homosexuality! So what exactly is Jesus getting at here? The short answer is that Jesus is simply stating that celibacy may well be an option for some of his followers.

Of course in first century Jewish culture this was a pretty radical concept. Jews back then considered marriage and the bearing of children to be a duty. The unmarried Jesus would have been a rare exception in that culture. Marriage is certainly God’s norm, but as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 7, both marriage and singleness are gifts of God.

As to the three categories of eunuchs which Jesus mentions, the first two are to be understood in a literal sense, while the third is evidently metaphorical in intent. The first category has to do with those who are born without the physical capability – in other words, those who are, for various reasons, impotent.

But some apologists for homosexuality seek to twist this passage into support of their cause. They want to argue that Jesus meant some people are born with a same-sex attraction, and therefore heterosexual marriage is not for them. But there are big problems with this view.

As R. T. France states, it is of course anachronistic to read back modern Western notions of homosexual orientation into this passage. No first century Middle Easterner would have thought in those terms. Also, back then homosexuality most often meant what we today call bi-sexuality: primarily men who had sex with both women and other men. There was no thought of people being born with some inherent, unalterable homosexual orientation. (The Gospel of Matthew, Eerdmans, 2007, pp. 724-725.)

The second category would have to do with castration and the like, a common practice for those who worked in harems. Those men who worked with women in high positions in the royal court were usually castrated. We have an example of this in Acts 8:27: the Ethiopian eunuch.

The third category has to do with an individual’s choice. While self-castration may be a very slight possibility here (something which would have been abhorrent to Jews), it most likely should be understood in a figurative sense: it has to do with choosing celibacy over marriage.

That is, some people are willing to remain single for the sake of the Kingdom. That is why Jesus could say it would not be accepted by all, and only those to whom it has been given (i.e., the gift of celibacy) would be able to receive it.

In 1 Corinthians 7:7, 17 Paul also talks about this gift of singleness. Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus were all single men in a culture overwhelmingly geared toward marriage. Thus celibacy is certainly the exception to the rule, but it is a valid gift and calling of God nonetheless.

As D. A. Carson comments, we must recognise that “neither Jesus nor the apostles see celibacy as an intrinsically holier state than marriage (cf. 1 Tim 4:1-3; Heb 13:4), nor as a condition for the top level of ministry (Matt 8:14; 1 Cor 9:5), but as a special calling granted for greater usefulness in the kingdom.”

Looked at in this way, Matthew 19:11-12 is not too difficult to understand. Sure, there will always be theological revisionists who will seek to distort such passages in order to promote their agenda, such as the homosexual activists. But usually each text, considered in its context, and compared with other biblical passages, can be found to be more clear and straightforward than first thought.

Stay tuned for more such tough passages. In fact, if you have a passage you have been stuck on, why not send it through in the form of a comment, and I will see what I can do with it. I do not – and cannot – claim an infallible interpretation for any of these texts, but I am happy to take a stab at them.

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29 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 19:12”

  1. Excellent.

    And you are so right that there are disturbingly high levels of biblical illiteracy amongst Christians.

    I remember some stats that came out many years ago (about 12yrs) that were frankly disturbing. Roughly 1/3 of Anglicans had read the New Testament in its entirety and less that 10% had read the entire Bible.

    As the Scripture explains and reveals the meaning of Scripture, biblical illiteracy, leaves folks hopelessly vulnerable to every wind of ‘doctrine’ or the ‘spirit of the times’.

    There has been a general apathy for the Bible, because, it seems to be widely believed that the pastor will reveal all!

    Folks should ecouraged to feel responsible for their own Biblical knowledge.

    Stuart Mackay, UK

  2. Thanks Bill to bring light into that passage.

    Someone ask me this morning if the text of 2 Tim 2.2:

    “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.”

    means (1) that the faithful men will become able to teach by being entrust with the Word or (2) that the faithful men are able (gifted), and to such men should Timothy entrust the doctrine to be taught.

    I think the greek text favors the second reading; that is, not anyone can become a teacher but only the gifted men; these need to be trained in the Word. What do you think ?

    Pascal Denault, Montréal

  3. Looking forward to more of your unpacking difficult texts, thanks Bill.
    Stan Fishley

  4. At this juncture I have particular thought outside that expressed by Bill. However, I was intrigued and perhaps disappointed when Bill says “… wisdom gone before: Christian thinkers, theologians, interpreters, commentators and so ..”

    How can biblically based people rule out Holy Spirit presence and guidance from one who is who is now and not a mere human ‘gone before’?

    Ray Robinson

  5. You state “There was no thought [in the first century] of people being born with some inherent, unalterable homosexual orientation”. However evangelical, anti-gay Robert Gagnon has stated on his website that there were theories in the Greco-Roman world that homoerotic attractions in some cases were due to conditions present at birth.

    Also, it is possible that Jesus was referring to gay men when he mentioned “born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12). In Bible times, such men were anatomically whole but were unable or unwilling to have sex with women. They were either not interested in sex or were attracted to other men.

    The “Born Eunuchs” site has a very detailed look at eunuchs in the ancient world (quoting many sources) and claims that “born eunuchs” were gay men.

    Ray Collins, Sydney

  6. Bill,

    You say, “Of course I am not claiming here to offer the one correct interpretation of these tough texts.”

    I think you can and should speak more strongly than that. I know it is your humility speaking, but others when they say things like that are implying that there is no correct interpretation.

    I also firmly believe that, as you actually have in your discussion, we should always be clear about what this can and can’t mean. When we stick to solid Biblical hermeneutics there are very few passages that we have to say, well, we’re not really sure, and none of them are particularly crucial.

    Most of the time someone comes up with a novel inrterpretation they are breaking the straightforward rules of grammar, interpretation, history, and disregarding large swathes of Scripture.

    In this particular verse I cannot see much room at all to disagree with your conclusions.

    God Bless,
    Michael Hutton, Ariah Park

  7. Thanks Ray (R)

    But with all due respect, I found your comment rather odd, if I am reading it correctly. Where in this article did I “rule out” the need for reliance on the Holy Spirit? That is obviously a given. But I hope you are not suggesting that one’s reliance on the Spirit somehow means that we have no need of anyone else. If so, why are we given teachers and pastors in the Body of Christ? Also odd is your dismissal of ‘mere humans’ who have gone before. Are you really suggesting we have no need of Paul, Peter, James and John, or Augustine or Aquinas or Luther or Spurgeon or C.S. Lewis, to name but a few mere humans who hare no longer with us?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  8. Thanks Ray (C)

    But your comment is a perfect example of what I have been taking about: theological revisionism, and seeking to push a modern and quite foreign political/social agenda onto a first century biblical text. This is the height of both arrogance and anachronism. No reputable New Testament scholar would want to push the homosexualist agenda as you are seeking to do here.

    As to Gagnon, he does not say this was certainly the case, but offers it as a possibility. But even if so, you do not go on to share all of his remarks. He clearly states that even if some of these eunuchs were considered to be those with a same-sex attraction, it would still not undermine God’s purposes for human sexuality, which is heterosexual marriage – the subject of the verses immediately preceding our difficult passage. Says Gagnon, “Jesus did not give homosexually oriented persons the option of sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman”.

    Sorry, but I am just not buying into your desperate and spurious attempts to push a homosexualist agenda onto the early Gospel writers, or the thinking of those living in first century Palestine.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  9. Thanks Michael

    Yes your point is well taken. I was trying to avoid two wrong extremes here. I of course am not falling for the postmodernist and deconstructionist claims that truth cannot really be known, and that all we have are competing interpretations, none better than another. The other thing I was seeking to avoid was to claim some sort of infallibility here, that I and only I have the one correct understanding. So yes it is a fine line between rejecting total hermeneutical scepticism on the one hand, and becoming arrogant and having an over-inflated view of one’s own understanding on the other. I think the Biblical balance is there somewhere in the middle.

    Having said that, yes, it seems here that the meaning is relatively clear, certainly as seen in context – despite how the homosexual revisionists are seeking to twist this passage to their own ends.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. I just watched a 3 DVD series from Robert Gagnon and he makes the point that even pro-homosex scientists don’t really buy into the ‘born gay’ myth. The point is, even if it was true, it makes no difference. Christians especially need to be aware of this.

    The following quote includes part of the quote he used in making that point (if that makes sense)

    Even non-theologians know that there is no intrinsic link between biological causation and morality. A just-released article on the genetics of sexual orientation, written by two “essentialist” and pro-homosex scientists, Brian Mustanski and J. Michael Bailey, concedes:

    Despite common assertions to the contrary, evidence for biological causation does not have clear moral, legal, or policy consequences. . . . No clear conclusions about the morality of a behaviour can be made from the mere fact of biological causation, because all behaviour is biologically caused. (Sexual and Relationship Therapy 18:4 [Nov. 2003], 432)

    The fact that there is some genetic or biological influence on homosexuality does not reduce us to moral robots. We may not have asked to feel a given way, but we are responsible for what we do with such feelings. Christian faith does not operate on a model of biological determinism. It operates on the model of a new creation in Christ, in which sinful, biologically related urges are, and are to be, put to death.


    I can highly recommend the series.
    “Love, the Bible, and Homosexual Practice”: A 4-Hour 3-DVD Presentation by Robert Gagnon (2008)
    You can buy it via the following link (although you have to search through a bit – the site’s not set up that well)


    Mark Rabich

  11. Hi Bill, I am picking up on your offer to examine other difficult passages. I would love to hear your view on Rom. 8:13 “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”

    There’s been a lot of rhetoric on the work of the Spirit in other areas, e.g. being baptized, filled, “slain”, tongues, prophesying etc but I have hardly heard much on How do we cooperate with the Holy Spirit to mortify the deeds of the body. And perhaps why you think Paul chose to use the word body (Soma) instead of flesh (sarx). But more importantly, How do we engage the Holy Spirit to crucify the deeds of the body?

    Thank you for your encouragement and relentless pursuit to fight the good fight of the Faith!

    Mark Suredhran

  12. Hi Bill
    More and more these days we hear of Christians getting divorced and it is something I struggle to come to terms with. I would really love to see you unpack this one.

    I have a friend who is in his forties and has never been married. He is a committed Christian and his heart is to follow God in every way. To that end he has kept himself pure all these years. He recently started dating a woman who divorced her husband several years ago after years of constant emotional (and possibly physical) abuse. Many people in her church were aware of this and some encouraged her to leave and others to stay. After putting it off for years and after several breakdowns she eventually divorced this man for the safety of herself and her children. My friend is in a real dilemma over this scripture in Matthew. If he marries this woman are they committing adultery?

    Some might say that her husband has in a sense betrayed the marriage vow. I would be interested in your thoughts on this

    Kevin Clark

  13. Bill, I welcome this opportunity to ask you about a passage that is somewhat controversial: Matt 18:18, Jesus’ comment about binding and loosing. Traditionally, in most pentecostal churches this has been taught in the context of spiritual warfare, i.e. binding (disallowing) the strategies of the enemy and loosing (allowing or praying down) the opposite/the answer. I have believed this teaching for years but have recently been challenged to have another look at it. I would greatly value your comments.
    Thank you for your passionate pursuit of truth.
    Marj Lucas

  14. Thanks Kevin and Marj

    Ah, now you are rolling out the heavy weight passages! Both topics are indeed complex and worth looking at more closely. Stay tuned.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. I too am curious about the binding/loosing passages (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). I have never given them much thought until reading Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell (which I know you did a review on). While his explanations seem to make sense, a further study/review would be much appreciated.
    Doriel Josic

  16. As to the supposed biological/genetic pre-disposition to homosexuality; there is an excellent book on the subject, refuting the allegation, written by a husband and wife team. He is a biochemist and she a journalist, whose names escape me. The title of the book is: “My genes made me do it”; probably available on a Google search.
    Dunstan Hartley

  17. Thanks Dunstan

    Yes it is this one from the New Zealand couple:

    Neil and Briar Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Do It. Huntington House Publishers, 1999.

    It is a very good book indeed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  18. I would be interested in your thoughts on Acts 5: 1- 11. Do you think this was natural or supernatural?


    Rod Blackwell

  19. Thanks Rod

    Yes another good passage worth doing an article on at some point. It raises a number of tough questions actually. Hopefully I will get to it soon!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  20. I appreciate your clarity in exegeting this difficult passage. Some scholars have argued that earlier in life, the apostle Paul was once married. Do you agree with this? I’m not sure myself.
    Ross McPhee

  21. Thanks Ross

    Hey, you just want me to write another article on difficult Bible passages, don’t you?! But I can give you the short answer here. There is actually one NT text which gives considerable weight to the view that Paul was married: 2 Cor. 12:7 – that is, if we interpret Paul’s thorn to mean his mother-in-law!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  22. Thank you so much for your take on this verse.

    On first read, this verse can APPEAR difficult, but it is not at all, and I am so glad that you were able to break it down in sections as you did.

    It pains to know that there are some out there trying to twist Jesus’ words to support the sin of homosexuality (and that’s all it is, just like every other sin. Why people blow it out of proportion I am not sure of). Hopefully those researching this verse will hit this website first and others that are similar before they hit the false ones.

    Ron Willis

  23. Bill,

    Thank you for your clarification of this verse. This one was a little puzzling for me. It’s probably true that far too many Christians have and read the Bible completely. I’ve completed the Bible and I’m now going back through it to make clearer some of the verses. But I think plainly it boils down to the most used statement by Jesus ‘he who has ears let him hear, he who has eyes let him see and he who has heart let him understand’. It having a true relationship with God and praying before I read the Bible I can better define what is being said to us as children of God.

    Thank you again.
    Curtis Marner

  24. Thank you for this excellent explanation with the understanding that celibacy is a gift just as marriage is.

    Please would you explain what Jesus meant when he said that the pharisees testified that they were the children of their forefathers who murdered the prophets by decorating the prophets’ graves (Matthew 23:29-31)?

    I would like to look up other difficult passages on your website and titles would be helpful on the search page because I don’t know the passages by verse numbers.

  25. I just don’t see how there can be any other interpretation of Matthew 19:11 and 12 except the acceptance of marriage as the natural state. Jesus clearly points out the exceptions.

  26. Hi, Bill:
    I recently listened to an 18-CD set on the Dead Sea Scrolls by John Bergsma, who did his doctorate in this area. Bergsma was initially a Calvinist Minister, now a Catholic, and a very easy listen. His material can be accessed via Paroysia Media. He is able to demonstrate that the Essenes were a respected sect, probably led by a Temple priest closely linked to the Pharisees. They were looking to the advent of the Messiah and encouraged their closest adherents to lives of prescribed holiness, which entailed celibacy. They expected Messiah to appear at any time, and that He would dine with them. Bergsma considered the gospel text related to Jesus’ approval of the Essenes’ striving for holiness, essentially opting for the celibacy of eunuchs.

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