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Discipleship and Divorce

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1 And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them. 2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7 ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

One of the reasons we preach through books of the Bible at Crosstown is because we believe God is the one who decides what we, as a church, need. We come to Mark 10 where we find Jesus’ teaching on divorce. This is one of the most controversial issues within Christianity. It is probably a controversial issue within our church. For this reason it is tempting to not address it. But this is the next passage in our study of the Gospel of Mark. So we trust that this is the passage God wants us to hear today.

The Pharisees Test Jesus

The occasion for this teaching was created by the Pharisees, who approached Jesus with a question about divorce. But they had not come with their question sincerely. They did not intend to believe whatever Jesus taught on this subject. They came “in order to test him.”

Is it possible that we sometimes bring our questions to Jesus, not because we sincerely want to obey what he commands, but because we want to find flaws in his teaching that give us reason not to believe? Many people do this in particular with this question of divorce. Every serious Bible scholar agrees that Jesus is very conservative when it comes to divorce. So we must begin today by asking ourselves this question: Do we really want to know what the Bible teaches on this subject? Or are we looking for an excuse to believe what we want to believe?

The goal of the test

Now the Pharisees had a specific goal when they came to Jesus to test him with the question about divorce. Verse one tells us that Jesus had now entered “the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan.” This is territory that is under the jurisdiction of Herod.

And it was this Herod who had John the Baptist arrested and later murdered. Why? Because John had opposed Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who had been his brother Philip’s wife (Mark 6:17). The Pharisees are quite certain that Jesus will be of the same opinion as John on this matter. And so by asking him to share his viewpoint they are hoping he will end up with the same fate as John.

The content of the test

This “test” from the Pharisees consists of one simple question. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2). But when we compare this verse with its parallel in Matthew we find a slightly different question. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matt 19:3). The issue raised in Mark appears to be over the legitimacy of divorce. But in Matthew divorce seems to be presupposed and the debate is over what constitutes legitimate grounds for divorce. In Mark the question seems to be, “Is it ever lawful to divorce?” but in Matthew the question is more specific, “Under what circumstances is divorce permitted by God?”

It appears that Matthew’s account fits more with what was debated within Judaism during Jesus’ day. There were two main viewpoints about divorce, but they both agreed that there were legitimate grounds for a marriage to be dissolved. It is possible that Mark intends for us to read the question the same way as it is presented in Matthew. But it is just as possible that Mark intends for us to focus on the broader question. Missing in Mark is the “exception clause” recorded by Matthew (“whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” [Matt 19:9]). If we wish to know what legitimate grounds there are for divorce according to the Gospel of Mark, the answer is simple. There are none.

This means we either have to harmonize what Matthew has to say about the grounds for divorce with what Mark has to say, or we can conclude that they both have different emphases in their presentation of Jesus’ teaching. I don’t think there is any contradiction between the two Gospels on this point. Rather, Mark wants us to see in Jesus’ teaching on divorce something about the nature of Christian discipleship. Our relationships and commitments to others are related to our relationship and commitment to Jesus.

Jesus on Divorce

Jesus responds to this test from the Pharisees with a question of his own. This is a typical Jewish way of dialogue, but Jesus is masterful at it. He shows his opponents just how they misunderstand the commands of God. And when we misunderstand God’s commands we will inevitably misunderstand discipleship.

Divorce permitted in the Bible

The Pharisees have asked whether or not divorce is permitted by God. Does God give an “out” to marriage? Jesus’ response is to look at what Moses commanded (v. 3). Moses, as the great lawgiver of the Scriptures, would be the right source for answering a question about the “lawfulness” of a matter. Jesus is not interested in contradicting Scripture. He believes the Bible is authoritative. We are to get our instructions from the Scriptures.

The Pharisees respond this way, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away” (v. 4). They are referring to what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 24:1-4)

The Pharisees have asked if it is ever permissible for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus has said we can look to the Scriptures to find the answer. And the Pharisees brought up a passage that clearly makes allowance for divorce. It would appear the issue is settled.

But Jesus is not willing to end there. The Pharisees answered, “Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife” (v. 4). And they are right. But this is not what Jesus had asked them. He wanted to know, “What did Moses command you?” Deuteronomy 24 neither commands nor prohibits divorce. It only assumes divorce. The only command in that text is the prohibition against a man remarrying his ex-wife if she marries another man after her divorce. According to Jesus, we are mistaken if we read into the provisions for divorce and see them as permissions for divorce. 

Commands of concession

In verse five we are told why Deuteronomy 24 is the wrong place to go when considering the lawfulness of divorce. “And Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.’”

The concept of a hard heart comes from the Old Testament, and hardness of heart refers to the stubborn rebellion of people against the will of God. It is a refusal to believe God and to submit to him. Jesus will later rebuke his own disciples for their hardness of heart because of their refusal to believe those who saw him after his resurrection (Mark 16:14). A hard heart is the natural response of mankind toward God. So we will not find what God expects of us regarding divorce in Deuteronomy 24 since it was written to accommodate for the persistent disobedience of men.

You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for making a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat. The same is true of marriage and divorce. The exceptional measures necessary when a marriage fails are of no help in discovering the meaning and intention of marriage.[1]

Does it seem strange that God would make concessions like the ones he made for divorce in Deuteronomy 24? This isn’t the only place he does that. In 1 Samuel 8 the nation of Israel demands a king and God consents to their request though he points out that this request for a human king is a rejection of him from being their king (1 Sam 8:7). But in Deuteronomy 17 he had made provisions for a human monarchy. “When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you . . . you may indeed set a king over you whom the LORD your God will choose” (Deut 17:14-15). In one sense we might say that all of God’s commands are concessions toward a sinful, rebellious people. Because we are sinners, we fail repeatedly to live up to God’s ideals.

So God issues commands to curb the depravity of our hearts. He legislates the behavior of kings. He legistlates the practice of divorce. His commands are interventions of grace so that we are not as wicked as we might possibly be. The legislation regarding divorce in Deuteronomy 24 is not to legitimize divorce but to protect women “from being treated as an object in subordination to the man’s interests.”[2]

But if we want to know what God’s will is on divorce we cannot turn to Deuteronomy 24 or any other passage that regulates the practice of divorce. To know what God actually commands, Jesus takes us back to “the beginning of creation” (v. 6).

The design of marriage

Jesus is calling his disciples back to the ideal world of the Garden of Eden. Here we find what God commands regarding the commitment of marriage. He reminds us of the origins of marriage. Since God is the one who designed marriage, he is the one who also defines marriage. Jesus shows us that any violation of God’s design for marriage is a violation of God’s commands regarding marriage. So what was his design?

First, Jesus quotes from Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 5:2. “God made them male and female.” The two genders are highlighted to show us that both are included in the image of God. Both play an important role in reflecting God. The genders are meant to complement each other in the grand design of God. And neither is complete without the other.

So God created two genders that depend upon each other to reflect the image of God for which they were created. The logical conclusion then is verses 7 and 8, citing Genesis 2:24. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” It is possible that Jesus quoted this verse to argue that the two genders are unified in marriage. Jewish commentary on the previous Old Testament texts Jesus cited states that the first person was a mixture of male and female. God then removed the female part from Adam to form Eve.[3]

At any rate, the point Jesus makes is crystal clear. The uniting of a man and woman in marriage is a unifying act designed by God in the creation of humanity. The two are meant by God to become one. The seriousness of this union is highlighted by the fact that man and woman are to come together by leaving father and mother. One commentator notes that “since honoring parents is next to honoring God, for a man to forsake them and cling to his wife stresses the supreme sanctity of marriage.” Furthermore, the language of “leaving and holding fast” is covenantal language.[4] Every wedding truly is “holy matrimony.”

Jesus draws the conclusion for us. “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (vv. 8-9). What God has joined together. Jesus teaches us that the union of a man and woman is an act of God. We are the passive actors when we stand at the marriage altar. That means we dare not take lightly the breaking apart of a marriage. If you mess with marriage you have messed with God.

It is not surprising then to read what Jesus added to this discussion later when questioned by his disciples.

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (vv. 11-12)

Simply put, we have no right to end marriages. So if we divorce our spouse and marry another person, we have committed adultery because in God’s eyes we remain married to our first spouse.

Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v. 2). His answer to that question should be quite obvious by now. If we want to know if God ever looks favorably upon divorce the answer is a resounding “no.” Divorce is a sinful, man-made destruction of the creative design of God.

Responding to Divorce

Is that all we can say about what the Bible teaches about divorce? No, it is not. We cannot know everything the Bible teaches regarding divorce and remarriage from this passage alone. Again, Mark has a specific aim here, so there are other things to consider. For one, we have to consider the “exception clause” found in Matthew’s account (Matt 5:32; 19:9). Mark is showing us only what the biblical ideals are for marriage and commending them to all of Jesus’ disciples.

So we need pastoral sensitivity when dealing with the difficulties of a troubled marriage. When we hear Jesus’ narrow teaching on this subject it is tempting to either apply this teaching mindlessly to all marital situations or to rebel because of specific marital situations we have all encountered that we feel must be the exception to what we read here. But while we most certainly must not come to our convictions from our personal experiences, we should be just as careful not to apply the Scriptures without serious compassion and grace.

So what to do? We need to let the Scriptures order both our faith and practice, and when it comes to divorce we find ourselves at the wrong place if we are asking at what point we are free to divorce. If you have that idea in your mind it will not be difficult for you to cross that line should you ever find yourself there. The Christian commitment is “until death do us part.” Period. In a day of rampant divorce even among professing Christians, those words that traditionally conclude our marriage vows need to be taken seriously once again.

Conclusion: A Hard Saying

It is true that Christians disagree over the details about what the Bible teaches concerning divorce and remarriage. But one thing is certain: Jesus had much more stringent views on divorce than what was popular in his day. This is why the disciples questioned him further on this matter once they were alone with him (v. 10). Matthew tells us that having heard Jesus’ teaching the disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt 19:10).

But as we noted, Mark conveys Jesus’ teaching here not primarily to give us the details about divorce and remarriage. He is concerned more about discipleship and how our commitment to Christ will affect everything in our lives, beginning with our marital commitments. Let me summarize this passage with three points.

We are called to return to the ideals of marriage

First, Jesus calls his disciples back to the ideals of Eden. He is in the region of Judea “beyond the Jordan,” where Moses once stood dispensing commandments for God’s chosen people before they crossed over the Jordan to inhabit the land of Israel (see Deut 11:31–12:1). As such he is the new lawgiver. Though he does not contradict what the Bible commands elsewhere, he does do away with divorce legislation written to accommodate the sinfulness of men. What makes Jesus radical in his views on divorce is that he expects his disciples to follow God’s ideals.

God’s ideals will not be achieved without difficulty

Second, he expects these ideals to be pursued even though the same sinfulness remains. He does not command us to stay married by making it easier to stay married. Sin remains a threat for all people, and Christian couples are no exception. Let us be clear. Following God’s ways in our marital commitments will require a radical devotion to Jesus. It will not be easy.

The ideals of marriage are made possible by the gospel

Finally, the only way these ideals can be achieved is through the hope of the gospel. You see, this kind of commitment in our marriages will require an amazing amount of forgiveness and grace. But the reason Jesus can expect this of his followers is because they are themselves recipients of radical forgiveness and grace. He urges us on to healthy marriages all because of the gospel we embrace when we follow him. No excuse for divorce can compare to the grace we have been shown in the gospel. This is why divorce has no place in the marriages of Jesus’ disciples.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 301.

[2] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, eds., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 196.

[3] Craig S. Keener, And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 40.

[4] Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 197.

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