Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Towards the end of last year, I preached on the subject of marriage. And I explained to you that it is session’s policy to address the subject of marriage in a particular way at least once every two years. And this is because, as I said then, “Marriage is a relationship where there is the potential for much that is beautiful and God-glorifying but also for much that is miserable and ungodly.”
So I preached to you back then from Ephesians 4-5 on the topic of remaining married when things are tough. But I indicated to you at that time that it would be good for us also to consider the very basic principles of marriage, but that we would do so when we got to this passage in our study of the Gospel of Mark. Well, here we are.
We live in a culture where marriage itself is not seen as important, and where many of those who do marry divorce for all sorts of reasons. And this is no wonder given that ‘experts’ say things like, “Letting go of your marriage – if it is no longer fulfilling – can be the most successful thing you have ever done. Getting a divorce can be a positive, problem-solving, growth-oriented step. It can be a personal triumph.”
And sadly, while we would like to think that things are different in the church of Christ, increasingly, they are not. Studies about divorce rates among those who claim to be Christians make for unpleasant reading. Christians also are divorcing for all sorts of reasons. When I preached on marriage last time, one sister told me about a woman she had recently met whose husband had been very ill for many years. And her pastor eventually told her that she deserved some happiness and should move on and so she divorced him.
And this is disturbing in the light of where we ended last Sunday. Those of you who were present will recall that Jesus called on His disciples to live ‘SALTY’ lives. In a world where there is much moral decay, disciples of Jesus have a calling to ‘preserve’ the standards of God. But if Christians no longer understand and teach and practise what God expects in terms of marriage and divorce, then we can hardly expect the world to recognize that what it is doing is wrong.
So it is timely then that we come to this part of God’s Word because in these words JESUS ELEVATES MARRIAGE IN RESPONSE TO A QUESTION ABOUT DIVORCE. And we will simply consider the QUESTION of the Pharisees and then the RESPONSE of Jesus to the Pharisees and the disciples, and then two other important and connected passages of Scripture that need to be taken into account in this discussion.
So first of all, the QUESTION of the Pharisees.
Jesus is continuing His journey to Jerusalem where His eventual arrest and execution will take place. And once again, He is teaching a crowd. But some Pharisees come to Him with a question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And we are told that they asked this question in order to test Him; they want to get Jesus into trouble with this question.
1. Back in chapter 6 of Mark, we read about the execution of JOHN THE BAPTIST. And do you remember why John was arrested? He was arrested because “he had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herod and Herodias had ‘fallen in love,’ as the saying goes, and they had divorced their spouses so they could marry each other. So it could be that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus to say the same as John did so that they could report Him to Herod.
2. But even if they were not politically motivated in this way, there was a significant RELIGIOUS CONTROVERSY about the divorce question going on among the Jews. In answer to the question of the Pharisees, Jesus asks them about the command of Moses. And they reply, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” And Jesus then says, “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” and He then points them to the institution of marriage at creation.
a. Now congregation, there is SOME TRUTH to what the Pharisees say in v4. And this is made even clearer in the parallel account in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.”
i. So already, we have our first lesson: God’s design is marriage, not divorce. Divorce exists only as a Divine concession or allowance for human weakness.
A. And this is clear also from our earlier reading in Malachi. There God rebuked the people of Israel because there was divorce going on among them. He said, “I hate divorce.”
B. It was only because of the hardness or stubbornness of hearts that refused to stay married, and the coarseness and harshness of the people, which led to women being kicked out of the home without even any evidence that they had been married, that Moses made this concession.
C. Already then, brothers and sisters, the idea that divorce is just what happens sometimes is wrong; God hates divorce.
b. And so, the PHARISEES were guilty of at least two things:
i. First, they ought to have developed a theology of marriage from God’s design in Genesis, rather than from Moses’ concession in the law.
ii. And second, they misused the command of Moses that they were referring to.
c. Let’s see this as we turn to the passage the Pharisees are talking about in DEUTERONOMY 24:1-4, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.”
i. If you look at WHAT THE PHARISEES SAY, both in Mark and the parallel passage in Matthew, the EMPHASIS is on the reasons why a husband might send his wife away and the need for him to give her a certificate of divorce. There was major disagreement about what were and what were not legitimate reasons to send a wife away. Some took a narrow view and some took a wide view. And this is the area they were trying to trap Jesus in.
A. But look at the EMPHASIS OF THE LAW. The only command or instruction is in v4. And that command is that if a man sends his wife away for this reason and she marries another and then her second husband sends her away or dies, she is not allowed to return to her first husband. Let me repeat that.
1) Previous to this law, men were sending their wives away, the wife then remarried, then later, if her second husband sent her away or he died, the first husband might take her back and marry her again. But Moses is saying this has to stop; it is “detestable in the sight of the Lord.”
2) So the focus here is not what reasons might he send his wife away for or the certificate of divorce. That is just a description of what was already happening. What Moses is saying is that if this situation happens, the husband may not remarry his wife.
ii. But secondly, note the reason why the man was sending his wife away: He was displeased with her because he found “SOMETHING INDECENT about her.” Now, there are all sorts of discussions about what “something indecent” means but what it cannot mean is actual adultery. And this is because adultery was punishable by death, according to Leviticus 20:10. An adulterer was not to be sent away but executed together with the other party.
A. But if you look at ch. 23:9-14, just above, rules are given about various unclean things in the camp of Israel, including the location of the toilets, for example; they had to be outside the camp. And in v14, the reason for these rules is that the Lord moved about the camp and He should not have to see anything “indecent.”
B. And the word translated as “indecent” there is the same word in 24:1.
C. For this reason then, “something indecent” probably refers to rude behaviour of one sort or another, but not actual adultery. Husbands were sending their wives away because of ‘rude behaviour.’
iii. But thirdly and lastly, from v4, note why the man could not remarry his wife in these circumstances. It was because the woman had married again and thus “HAS BEEN DEFILED.” If she had not remarried, he was free to take her back. No third party had come between him and his wife. They were free to reconcile. But if she has remarried, she “has been defiled.”
A. So follow the logic with me: The man is being told in v4 that he may not remarry her because what he did in v1 led to her being defiled. It is because he sent her away for the reasons he did that it became possible for her to remarry, which brought about an adulterous situation, because she was now one with a third person. And that is why those two could not remarry. This woman was defiled for her first husband.
B. And so, while there is some concession in this law, the command given actually reinforces the design of God that marriage is supposed to be permanent.
iv. So again, the mistakes of the Pharisees were that they should have built their theology of marriage from Genesis and not from this concession, but also, rather than see how even this concession reinforced God’s design for marriage, they took bits out of it to come up with a theology of marriage that was wrong.
3. So turn back with me now to MARK 10. For in Jesus’ time, things were even more complicated. You see, in Jesus’ time, those who committed adultery were not being put to death as the law required; they were being divorced. And you might immediately be thinking, but didn’t the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery to Jesus? And they told Him that the law required her to be stoned and asked Him what He thought? But again, we are told there that this was a trap. They had seized on this woman as a kind of ‘open and shut case’ of what the Law required, because they had seen that Jesus was friendly towards sinners, so they hoped that He would say something contrary to what the Law required and they would have Him. But the fact is that in Jesus’ day, adulterers were not being put to death for their sin and had not been for some time. Instead, they were being divorced. And everyone accepted that adultery was an obvious reason for divorce. The argument among the Jewish Rabbis was are there just a few other reasons for divorce or could you divorce for any reason at all? And these Pharisees were hoping to draw Jesus into that debate to cause Him trouble.
Now, we have already looked at some of JESUS’ RESPONSE TO THE PHARISEES to help us understand their question. But we focus on His RESPONSE to them and the disciples to see Him elevate marriage.
1. Congregation, here is God’s theology of marriage. “At the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” … Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
a. As you read threes words, what would you say is the essence of marriage? It is ONENESS – “the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one.” And remember also what we read earlier from Malachi, “Has not the LORD made them one?”
i. And congregation, this is not just saying that occasionally a married couple enjoy sexual intimacy. It is saying that in the eyes of God, a man and a woman who have married are no longer two but one. They were two but God has joined them together as one. There was Bob and there was Jane but now, in the eyes of God, there is Bob-Jane.
ii. God’s ideal is a monogamous, intimate, permanent marriage. There is no thought of divorce here. And the Fall does not change that as Malachi makes quite plain.
b. People of God, we believe in a God of ELECTION. Eph. 1:4, “He chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world.” And we believe that God PRESERVES THE FAITH OF HIS PEOPLE – those that God has elect in Christ, He will bring to eternal life. And the biblical picture of our relationship with Jesus Christ is? Marriage.
i. Will Jesus Christ divorce those He has married? No.
ii. Will God ‘divorce’ those He has elect unto eternal life? No.
iii. Does He have legitimate reason to divorce us? Are we unfaithful to Him? Every day.
iv. But He has forgiven us by the blood of His Son so that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
v. And so, as a reflection of God’s unbreakable love for us, marriage is to be life-long.
But now we must take a brief look at TWO OTHER PASSAGES that are relevant to this discussion, before we end with THREE SMALL POINTS OF APPLICATION.
1. And the first is in the parallel passage in MATTHEW 19 that we have already referred to. In v9, Jesus says, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” And the words “except for marital unfaithfulness” have come to be known as the exceptive clause.
a. If you look back at v6, you will see the same words from our Mark passage that come from Genesis 2. And the last sentence is, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.” As we have seen, marriage is to be lifelong. This warning makes clear, however, that it is possible for as third party to separate what God has joined together. And that is by the sin of marital unfaithfulness.
i. Now, the term marital unfaithfulness is used rather than just adultery to include any type of forbidden intercourse, such as adultery or homosexuality or bestiality. But again, as we have already noted, sins of that sort were so serious that according to the law for Israel, those who committed them were to be executed. However, by the time of Jesus, adulterers and the like were not being put to death. They were being divorced.
ii. So, with the words of v9, JESUS IS FAR STRICTER or narrower than any of the Rabbis. Against those who would argue that there are only a few legitimate reasons to divorce, Jesus says, No, there is only one legitimate reason for divorce – marital unfaithfulness. If you divorce your wife or she divorces you, for anything other than marital unfaithfulness, and you remarry, you commit adultery. Marital unfaithfulness and marital unfaithfulness only separates what God has joined together; Marital unfaithfulness breaks the oneness. And so, in the case of Marital unfaithfulness, divorce is permissible.
A. But note, it is permissible, not required or even suggested. What we have already heard about how God views divorce still stands.
iii. And as a consequence of what we have seen in Matthew 19, in OT times, adultery would have resulted in the adulterer being executed. As a result, because their spouse was dead, the ‘innocent’ spouse was free to remarry. Similarly then, because divorce is now the NT equivalent of execution, the ‘innocent spouse’ is free to remarry.
2. So turn now to 1 COR. 7:10-16.
a. In Corinth, there were many marriage between believers and non-believers. Some taught that the believer should leave such a marriage because the unbeliever would be a bad influence on them. But Paul says it is actually the other way around: v14, “The unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her husband.
i. So, from vv12-13, if the unbelieving spouse wished to remain married, the believer could not divorce him or her. They were to stay together so that the unbeliever could be influenced by the Christ-like behaviour of the believer.
ii. But, as we come to v15, “If the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances.”
iii. And so, following on from the logic of Matthew 19, if what God had joined together was now separated beyond repair, again, the believing spouse was free to remarry.
Well, three very brief points of application as we conclude:
1. Firstly, VERY FINE CHRISTIANS DISAGREE ON SOME OF THESE MATTERS; probably even some of us.
a. Some believe that divorce is out of the question completely. Some understand 1 Cor. 7 differently and think that adultery is the only legitimate reason for divorce. Some think that while divorce is legitimate in terms of adultery and abandonment, remarriage is out of the question.
i. Well, after Paul addressed the matter of believers having different views from one another, he said, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
ii. And may that be our prayer and our practise toward each other, also.
2. But secondly, FROM MATTHEW 19, having heard the essential teaching of Jesus, which is that marriage is lifelong and that things like unhappiness and incompatibility or even rude behaviour that stops short of adultery are not reasons for divorce, the disciples said to Jesus, “It is better not to marry.” It seemed to them that there was so much potential for unhappiness in marriage, which they had just learned from Jesus was inescapable, that it was better not to marry at all.
a. Well, Jesus acknowledged the truth in their words. Marriage is not a bed of roses. The fact is though that the celibate life is not easy either, so few choose it. Most will marry.
b. The point then, you unmarried single folk, is marry someone who you can remain with for the rest of your life. Don’t go into marriage thinking that you can get out by divorce.
i. Ladies, look for a man you can gladly submit to, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, etc.
ii. Men, look for a woman who you can eagerly love and cherish, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, etc.
c. And when you marry, or if you are married now, and it is a poorer time or a worse time or an in sickness time; a time of hardship in marriage, pray for God’s grace to persevere, remember the patience that God shows you in Jesus Christ, and by all means ask for help if that is possible.
3. But thirdly and lastly, A WORD FOR YOU MEN:
a. From Deut. 24, who was the one sending the spouse away with a certificate of divorce in Deut. 24? Was it he or she? It was he. “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…”
b. And in Malachi, who was God angry with because of divorce? He or she? It was he. “The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her.”
c. And to whom did God give the warning about not separating what God has joined together? He or she? It was He. “What God has joined together, let no man separate.”
d. Now, this is not to say that wives do not commit adultery. But statistics will surely reveal that men are far more guilty of this sin than woman.
e. And the tragedy of this statistic is that when God instituted marriage, which one was told to leave the parents and be united to the other, he or she? It was he. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife.” But since not long after that, man after man has wounded his wife by uniting himself to another woman in adultery or has seen fit to send his wife away because she does not please him. What a gross abdication of our calling to love like Christ.
So thinking back to our calling to be the salt of the earth, oh how we need ‘salty’ men – ‘salty’ women also, yes, but especially salty men; men who imitate the devotion of Jesus Christ to His bride. Brothers and sisters, for the sake of our spouses and for the sake of our children and for the sake of the gospel, may we commit ourselves to lifelong marriage. Amen.