Having just preached on one of Jesus’ more controversial teachings, I wanted to make my manuscript available to the faithful believers at Southside Baptist Church so that it may be of help to them–and hopefully it will be of help to others as well. Ironically, this is around the 15th anniversary of a seminary paper I wrote on this same topic while in a New Testament Survey class under one of my father’s in the faith, Dr. Ken Easley.
May the Lord be pleased to expand our understanding of His glory and our need of Him!
Two Shall become One (Mark.10:1-12)
Before we read our Scripture, let me begin with a few cautions. Any sermon you hear ought to be listened to carefully. If that’s true for any sermon, it’s especially true of this one. The topic we address today is incredibly prone to misunderstanding.
Divorce is no easy subject because many of you have experienced the pain it can mete out. Many of your parents divorced. Many of you have divorced. Simply bringing up the topic can evoke deep-seated feelings associated with the uprooting of our most intimate relationships—husband and wife, parents and child.
The Church has responded with extreme errors. At times, she’s been too harsh, saying divorce and remarriage are never permissible for any reason, making divorcees feel like second-class Christians, as if divorce is equivalent to the unpardonable sin—and that’s wrong, and no better than divorce itself.
At other times, the Church has overcorrected and become too soft, as if it’s no big deal, saying divorce and remarriage are permissible for any reason. In doing so, the Church has compromised the holiness of marriage and God’s intentions for it.
Both errors seem like the proper approach in the moment, but both are destructive in the long run. So what’s the right answer?
Mark 10:1-12—“ And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him a-gain. 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.” (English Standard Version)
Mark tells us Jesus is making His way into Judea by way of the area “beyond the Jordan” (v.1a), also known as Perea. He’s teaching the crowds (v.1b), and the Pharisees show up “to test him”. They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (v.2). Matthew’s Gospel adds the phrase “for any cause?” (Matt. 19:3), further evidence they’re trying to trap Him.
The Pharisees throw Jesus into the debate between the Hillel and the Shammai views. All Jews agree divorce and remarriage is allowable in the case of adultery. The debate is whether there are any other permissible reasons. The Pharisees are trying to provoke Jesus, perhaps hoping to see Him martyred like John the Baptist. Remember Herod Antipas had married his own sister-in-law, and John had denounced the union and was beheaded for it. So what can we say about divorce?
1. Our view of divorce must come from the Bible and not our individual feelings (vv.3-8). Jesus answers the Pharisees, “What did Moses command you?” (v.3). The idea is, “Who cares about Hillel and Shammai? What has God said?” They answer, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away” (v.4). They’re referring to Deuteronomy 24, which contains the much contended word that divided the two sides.
Deuteronomy 24:1—“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.
The word indecency is the debated word; and it comes down to emphasis, or should we say emphasis. The Hillel view said divorce and remarriage are permitted for “any indecency”. Examples they gave for divorcing a woman included burning the toast, talking to a man, or exposing her ankles while twirling. The Shammai view said divorce and remarriage are permitted for “any indecency,” usually understood to be sexual immorality.
But Jesus didn’t side with either. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (v.5). That’s important because upon closer inspection of what Moses writes (Dt.24:3-4), God never commands divorce in cases of indecency but only acknowledges that divorce happens because of sinful hearts.
Jesus then quotes Scripture too but a Scripture that predates the Mosaic Law and predates the need for the Law because there was no sin in the beginning. Jesus says, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ” (v.6; cf. Gen. 1:27). “ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (vv.7-8; cf. Gen.2:24).
Jesus is retightening the screws of God’s original intention for marriage so tightly it shocks the disciples, “And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter” (v.10).
2. Marriage is a lifetime covenant (vv.5-9). As a covenant, marriage reflects God’s covenant keeping character. This is why Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (v.9). The concession Moses made for divorce was not to open the door wide for divorce but to discourage and warn against it. Why is Jesus so adamant on this point?
3. Marriage is a work of God (v.9). Even if a husband and wife are not Christians, marriage is still a work of God’s providence and evidence of God’s law written on the heart (Rom.2:14-16).
4. Divorce is never pleasing to God. There is no such thing as a divorce that pleases God and brings Him honor (Mal.2:16). To say otherwise would be like saying there are times when lying or stealing please God. Of course, God can take divorce and work good out of it, but that does not give us permission.
Yet, sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. For example, God commanded Israel not to intermarry with pagan idol worshipers (Dt.7:3-4), but many did it anyway. In Ezra 10:3, the solution was to divorce the pagan wives. But this does not mean Christians should divorce unbelievers today. In the New Testament, we are commanded to stay if the unbeliever agrees to it (1 Cor.7:13).
5. Marriage can be dissolved because of sexual immorality (vv.10-12). In Matthew’s Gospel, we find what the Church calls the “exception clause” for divorce, meaning divorce in such cases may not be sin for one of the spouses. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt.19:9; cf. 5:32). Notice we’re saying sexual immorality can dissolve a marriage, but it doesn’t have to.
The reason sexual immorality can dissolve a marriage is because it strikes at the most unique and intimate aspect of marriage. Therefore, sex outside of marriage is the vilest threat to its holiness. In the Old Testament, the penalty for adultery was death (Lev. 20:10). That would end the marriage!
But Jesus uses the Greek word porneia, a word covering every kind of sexual sin. It would include a husband raping his wife for example. And thinking of sexual immorality this way should at least make us sympathetic to the possibility of allowing divorce in cases of persistent physical abuse because such behavior is so far removed from what it means for a husband to love his wife as Christ loves the Church and a wife submitting to her husband as unto the Lord (Eph.5:25-33). All sin erodes the foundation of marriage, but these are like an earthquake. And spouses are faced with the decision: Do I renew this broken covenant or dissolve it.
6. Marriage can be dissolved because of desertion (1 Cor. 7:15). The nature of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood is so different from the Old that the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to give a second “exception clause” for divorce.
1 Corinthians 7:15—But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.
7. Divorce should never be easy to obtain. Even when divorce is permissible, is it always the best option? No, it should always be the last option. Spouses should persistently aim for reconciliation.
Since divorce is permissible in cases of sexual immorality and desertion by an unbeliever, we believe remarriage is permissible in such cases. But what about remarriage after an unlawful divorce?
8. Remarriage after an unlawful divorce leads to adultery (vv.11-12). “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). The disciples exclaim in Matthew’s Gospel, “It is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10b). Jesus agrees: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11). Staying married is a supernatural act of God’s providence.
9. Remarriage might be permissible if a divorce occurs prior to conversion. We are stretching Scripture to the edge, so we want to be careful. But my personal conviction is that if you were an unbeliever at the time of your divorce, then remarriage is permissible without being adultery.
Colossians 2:13-14—And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumci-sion of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.
There is no record of debt against a Christian for pre-conversion divorce and no legal demand that a Christian remain unmarried.
10. Remarriage does not consign someone to perpetual adultery. Only the initial consummation of the new marriage is adulterous. Otherwise there would be no room for God’s grace and God’s forgiveness for the sins of divorce and adultery. The gospel would not be good news for those who have sinned in this way. But there are no scarlet-Ds or scarlet-As on the chest of those who repent of their sin and trust Christ for pardon.
1. Don’t marry an unbeliever (2 Cor.6:14-15)
2. Don’t consider divorce an option
3. Don’t underestimate the struggles of marriage
4. Remember that marriage is about Christ and not you
1. Make sure it’s your last option
2. Make sure it’s for biblical reasons
1. Make sure your prior divorce had biblical grounds
2. Resolve all issues from the previous marriage (as far as it’s up to you)
3. Make sure you are humble about your divorce (this is evidence of true repentance)