Thursday, June 05, 2008

Jesus Speaks About Divorce: Mark 10:1-12

Audio available here.

When we introduce the subject of divorce, an uncomfortable silence comes over the room. Today, in the average Baptist church on a typical Sunday morning, it would be a rarity to find one person who has not been affected by it one way or another. There are those who have been divorced, those whose parents have been divorced, those whose children have been divorced, and those whose siblings have been divorced. Few, if any, of us are not in one of those categories. But beyond these immediate connections, we are surrounded by friends who have been divorced, celebrities who have been divorced, and leaders who have been divorced. It affects us all. Every year, more than one million children in America watch their parents’ marriage come to an end. Recent studies have shown that divorce in America has become a market driven industry. There is much money to be made out there in providing goods and services to the countless individuals who are determined to get out of their marriages. A recent study by Georgia State University set out to measure the cost of “family fragmentation” by analyzing the expenses associated with welfare, health care, criminal justice, education, and lost tax revenue from individuals who are more likely to be poor or to be imprisoned for a part of their wage-earning lives. These researchers determined that divorce and unwed parenting costs American taxpayers 112 billion dollars per year. But as politicians debate with one another about how to combat the declining economy, little is said about matters of morality such as this. While divorce rates have declined somewhat over the last few years, so have marriage rates. Since the first “no-fault” divorce laws were put in place in America, we have seen an alarming decline in family-related statistics. In 1970, 72% of the American population were married. In 2002, that number had fallen to only 59%. While many of you were married early in life and have celebrated milestone anniversaries, today people are marrying much later, and are not seeing as many milestones. Recent studies show that the number of married couples who celebrate their fifth anniversary is 82%, but the figures drop drastically: Only 65% reach ten years, 52% reach fifteen years, 33% reach 25 years, 20% reach 35 years, and sadly only 5% reach 50 years. It seems that many people, having seen so much divorce in their lifetimes and felt the pain of it so often, are giving up on marriage altogether and opting for cohabitation, promiscuity, and alternative definitions of family. So, as difficult and uncomfortable a subject as divorce is for us to discuss, we see from these statistics that the need to have such a discussion has never been greater.

In our passage today, Jesus is confronted with a question about divorce. As we explore the text, we will come to understand God’s intention for marriage and be called as Christians to pursue a higher calling in marriage than the world around us expects.

I. The question being asked: “Whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife.” (vv1-2)

Now, before we get into the question and its answer, we need to observe a few important details about the setting of this question.

A. Who Asked The Question?

Jesus was asked this question by some Pharisees. It has been some time since we encountered the Pharisees in the text, so let’s remind ourselves of who they are. The name Pharisee means something like “separatist.” They were a prominent and powerful group of Jewish laymen who sought to apply Biblical instruction to every aspect of life. This required them to engage in endless discussions of interpretation, as they sought to explain in a detailed way what every statement of the law required. In doing so, they created “a fence around the Law” consisting of oral teachings which they hoped would protect any pious Jew from breaking God’s law in any situation that arose. These oral laws were later codified in the Mishnah and became as binding as the Bible itself. For instance, the Sabbath commandment was expanded to include 39 prohibitions of various kinds of work that could not be done on the Sabbath. This kind of detailed application of the Law quickly gave way to legalism, that system of determining a person’s righteousness by their rule-keeping without regard to the condition of their hearts.

And so, as they were intent on doing with every element of life, the Pharisees sought to draw lines about the issue of divorce. It should be admitted up front that the Law said very little about divorce. In Leviticus 21, the priests were forbidden to marry divorced women, indicating that divorce was practiced in ancient Israel. In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, we have one of the only clear Laws regarding divorce in the Old Testament. There it says, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that 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 from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against 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 husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.” We can easily see that this Law does not command, endorse, or sanction divorce, but rather serves as a restraint against the casual dismissal of a wife, and a protection for the rights and dignity of women. It would also prevent men engaging in “wife-swapping” back and forth. But from this statement, the opinions of the Pharisees had divided into two primary schools of thought. The first, the school of Rabbi Shammai, emphasized the words “some indecency”, and concluded that divorce must be permissible in the case of sexual unfaithfulness. After all, the Law prescribed a punishment of death for adultery, and death would end the marriage covenant enabling the living partner to remarry. So, rather than pursuing death in the case of adultery, the followers of Shammai interpreted that they could instead simply issue a certificate of divorce. The second school of thought was that of the Rabbi Hillel. This interpretation focused on the words “finds no favor” and concluded that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. If she spoiled dinner, if she talked so loudly that the neighbors could hear her, or if she insulted him publicly, or any other reason that she was no longer favorable to him, he could give her a certificate of divorce. And so they bring the matter to Jesus to find His opinion on the question. But as we will presently see, this was no question of serious curiosity, for we are presented with their motive.

B. Why Did They Ask the Question?

Mark tells us that when they asked Jesus this question about divorce they were “testing Him.” It is interesting to note that this word for “testing” is used four times in the Gospel of Mark. Three of those times it occurs with reference to the Pharisees questioning Jesus: in Mark 8, regarding a sign from heaven; here in Mark 10 about divorce; and in Mark 12 about taxes. But the fourth time it is used is in Mark 1, referring to Jesus being tempted by Satan. It is as if “Mark means us to ask, ‘Where did I see this kind of testing before? Why, it was when Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness!’”[1] They were seeking the same thing Satan was seeking – to discredit and disqualify Jesus from fulfilling His messianic mission. If they can catch Him in a trap here, and put Him on the spot, then by His own words He would be discredited in the yes of the public and the crowds would turn away from him.[2] If Jesus were to side with Shammai, then those who follow Hillel would be offended at His strict handling of the oral tradition. If He sided with Hillel, then the followers of Shammai would turn away branding Him a liberal. But if we go one step further in our exploration of the setting, we will see that more than just Jesus’ reputation is at stake. The answer to this question may cost Him his life. We see that as we ask …

C. Where Did They Ask the Question?

From verse 1, we know that Jesus had left Capernaum in Galilee and moved southward into Judea and beyond the Jordan. This would put him in the region known as Perea, which was the territory governed by Herod Antipas. That is significant for understanding the trap that the Pharisees sought to set for Jesus. You may recall from Mark 6 that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded for his denouncement of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Herodias had been married to the brother of Antipas, Herod Philip. But it came about that on a journey to Rome, Herod Antipas stopped off to lodge with Herod Philip and Herodias, and during that stay Antipas and Herodias took a liking to each other. Herodias divorced Philip and persuaded Antipas to divorce his wife as well so that the two could be married. John the Baptist began to preach openly and often that this was not right, and ultimately this led to his death.

Now, Herod was no fan of the Pharisees and the feeling was mutual. The Pharisees despised him because he was not even a Jew in the purest sense. He was an Edomite, and what’s worse, he was a puppet of the Roman Emperor. His authority in Israel was a constant reminder to the Jewish people that they were under enemy occupation. But a common enemy will bring people together in surprising ways. And back in Mark 3:6, we read that that the Pharisees had begun to conspire with the Herodians (those who supported the government of the family of Herod the Great) as to how they might destroy Jesus. Therefore it is not hard for us to imagine that the timing and location of this question was intended to lead Jesus to the same end that John the Baptist met. If they could get Jesus to denounce divorce, it would be perceived as an attack on Herod Antipas, and like John the Baptist, Jesus would also be put to death.

From these considerations, we see that the issue for the Pharisees was not really divorce, but Jesus Himself was the issue. Nevertheless, without apology, Jesus addresses the question at hand, and it is in His answer that we find the wisdom of God so desperately needed in our own day.

II. The Answer that Was Given (vv3-12)

Ultimately, it does not matter what Oprah, Dr. Phil, USA Today, or Entertainment Tonight think about marriage and divorce. It does not matter what coworkers around the water cooler at the office think, or well-meaning but misguided friends and family members think. For that matter, neither does it matter what I or any other pastor thinks about the subject. What matters is what Jesus Christ says about it, and it is to His words that we must now turn.

B. Jesus Answers With Biblical Commands (vv3-9)

“What did Moses command you?” Jesus says. The Pharisees were viewed by many as experts on matters of religion and righteousness, but Jesus says that the answer to this question and every other important question of life is not found in their opinions but in the eternal and unchanging Word of God, which is authoritative and sufficient for all matters of godly living.

The Pharisees, you will note, dodge the question by altering it. “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.” That wasn’t the question. The question was not what did he permit, but what did he command. The passage to which they are referring is obviously Deut. 24, and as we have already seen, the only commandment it offers is that a man who divorces his wife may not remarry her after she marries another. But the Pharisees assumed this meant that it was OK with Moses for a man to divorce his wife. But Moses gave no such permission. Jesus said that Moses wrote this “Because of your hardness of heart.” In other words, Moses understood that some people will stubbornly refuse to submit themselves to biblical commands. They are determined to pursue the desires of their sinful nature and will not be averted by Biblical teachings. Moses recognized this, and more importantly God recognized it. The Law of Moses does not originate with Moses. It originates with God and is passed down to men through Moses. And because God knows that some people will do what they want to do with no regard for biblical commandments, immorality can be restrained or legislated through circumstantial laws. The law given in Deuteronomy 24 neither authorizes or sanctions divorce, but protects innocent people from being victimized by unscrupulous men who are driven by lust, greed, and pride.

However, this law does not reflect God’s higher and purer purposes for marriage, and Jesus points this out by turning their attention beyond the circumstantial laws to God’s original design for humanity as found in Genesis. In vv6-8, Jesus ties together Genesis 1:27 which says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them,” and Genesis 2:24 which says, “ For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Because God has created men and women with equal dignity and worth as co-bearers of the divine image, each needs the other in a complementary way to live out God’s purposes for humanity. And when they come together as husband and wife, God makes the two into one flesh. Jesus says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.” The two individuals have become, by God’s design and by God’s miraculous work, a single unity. No longer is their “his” and “hers”, “me” and “you”, but a unique and spiritually significant “ours” and “we.” And from this Jesus draws an important an authoritative command: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” Therefore, those who enter into marriage must not do so lightly, but they must understand that they are submitting themselves unto the Lord by covenant vows and entering into a divinely designed and divinely accomplished indissoluble union. To later seek to dissolve that which God has made indissoluble is to arrogantly defy an act of God.[3]

Now, it is important for us to understand that Jesus ends the public discussion here. What more can He say than to you He hath said? This is God’s purpose for marriage, and in addressing it from this perspective, Jesus points us away to the excuses we are inclined to offer for divorce, and toward the intention which God has in marriage. And just as we are left scratching our heads about the severity of this word, so were His disciples. When they got behind closed doors with Him, they began to ask him more questions about this. And this is good advice for all of us – get alone with Jesus and open God’s word and inquire further about the matter if you have more questions. Mark has preserved for us Jesus’ further discussion in private with the disciples. We don’t know all the questions they asked, but whatever they were, …

B. Jesus Answers with Biblical Consequences (vv11-12)

So permanent is the marriage union in the eyes of God, that to divorce and remarry another is to commit adultery. The sin of divorce is compounded and other parties are now implicated in the matter. This is true for the man who initiates divorce, and it is true for the woman. In Jewish law, there was no provision for a woman to divorce under any circumstances, but Jesus recognizes that this is not the case everywhere. And God’s design for humanity is not bound by uniquenesses of Jewish culture. The same is true for men and women, wherever and whenever they are found: to divorce and remarry, Jesus says, is to commit adultery.

Now, this is not all that needs to be said about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but we should note that it is all that is said here. But we still have questions. We are undoubtedly left uncomfortable after such pointed words, and many will want to say, “But, my circumstances were unusual, and therefore, I must have some sort of excuse.” Surely God’s word must say something more about exceptions. But before we turn to other passages that may address exceptions, we must understand that a goodly number of Christian people in the first century had only this text. They could not compare Mark with Matthew or with First Corinthians, for Mark was all they had. And Mark is sufficient for us to understand that God views marriage as a permanent covenant that humanity must treasure, safeguard, and persevere in joy and love in the midst of hardship. No marriage is easy, because marriage brings two sinful people together. None of us are married to perfect spouses, because there is no such thing. Within a relatively brief span of time, the romantic fantasies that entertain the minds of young lovers evaporates and they are left with the reality of living together with someone who is hard to live with. That is a universal experience in which none of us are unique exceptions. And every single person, every married person, and every widowed person, divorced person, and remarried person must come to grips with that reality.

But what about exceptions? In the parallel passage in Matthew 19, Jesus says that remarriage following divorce is adultery “except for immorality.” The word translated “immorality” there is the Greek word porneia, which has a broad meaning covering the entire catalog of sexual sin. In some cases, the context helps us determine a more precise meaning, such as adultery. That may be the case in Matthew 19, but understand that Jesus is not saying that adultery is a license for divorce, or that it necessitates divorce. Reconciliation is possible, if both parties are willing to submit themselves to the Lord and exercise difficult grace in those circumstances. But where adultery or some other kind of sexual betrayal has occurred, the offending party has already sought to dissolve the marriage covenant through his or her actions. Under Old Testament Law, one found guilty of adultery could be punished by death. So the divorce and remarriage following adultery is treated as if it followed the death of a spouse. That doesn’t make it right or change God’s intention for marriage. It only means that in such cases, one should not look upon the innocent party as an adulterer.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives permission for remarriage when a believer has been abandoned by an unbeliever. But he warns the believer against pursuing a divorce. As long as the unbeliever is willing to continue in the marriage, the believer must continue. If the unbeliever leaves and pursues divorce, the believer is to let them go. Also in the same chapter, Paul admonishes husbands and wives to never seek divorce, but if it becomes inevitable, to not seek remarriage to another. This may be the case when a partner in marriage is being abused. I would never counsel someone to subject themselves to continued abuse in marriage, but to separate from their spouse with the intention of bringing the spouse to repentance so that reconciliation may occur. I give the same advice to those in other difficult circumstances. Separation can have a disciplinary and reconciling purpose, carried out in the same manner as church discipline should be.

But then we come to the reality that many have divorced and in some cases remarried, giving no thought to Biblical commands or Biblical consequences, and are faced with the difficult question of what to do now. First and foremost, we must confess our sins before God. The Greek word most often translated as confess in the NT is the word homologeo, which means literally, “To say the same thing.” That means we must agree with God that what we have done is wrong. As long as we try to excuse and justify ourselves, we distance ourselves from grace. God’s love and grace is demonstrated to us in the death of Jesus Christ for sins. To say that our sins are small and no significant matter at all is to say that the Savior and the Death He died is small and insignificant. We must humbly and contritely acknowledge our sin before the Lord and seek His forgiveness. We must stop the blame game and recognize that since we are all sinners by nature and by choice, there are no real innocent parties. Where sin affects our lives, we must take responsibility for our own part in the matter, call it what it is before God, and receive the grace that Christ died to afford us.

If a person divorced but not remarried, then he or she must commit themselves to reconciling with the former spouse. If that former spouse has already remarried, then we leave them in peace in their current relationship, accept God’s forgiveness, and move forward as God directs. But if a person has divorced and remarried already, and now finds themselves in guilt and fear about what they have done, we must recognize that two wrongs don’t make a right. It would not please God for you to divorce the present spouse in order to pursue the former. We must accept God’s grace and commit to view the present marriage from God’s perspective as a permanent union that cannot be torn asunder.

Perhaps a person is considering putting an end to their marriage because they feel that the hurt is too deep and the differences too great for the marriage to survive. We would encourage to you seek godly counsel together. Separation may be in order while the wounds are healed, and should be done immediately if one’s personal safety or the safety of one’s children is in jeopardy. But as Christian people we must eliminate the word divorce from our vocabulary. And all of God’s people, whatever their present state, must recognize God’s design for marriage and fight with all our strength and all divine enablement to preserve marriage, whether it is our own, or our loved ones and friends. We must not allow ourselves to become another statistic, but by God’s grace and strength, we must stand out as shining exceptions to the cultural norm. We must determine that marriage is worth fighting for. And we must set a guard over our mouths that we wouldn’t give cavalier advice to those in difficult marriages, but rather encourage and admonish them to persevere in the midst of hardship.

In Malachi 2:16, God says, “I hate divorce.” Indeed, God hates all sin, but time and time again in Scripture we find that God does not hate sinners. Jesus is a friend of sinners, and it doesn’t matter what our sin is, He invites us to Himself where we can find forgiveness for past sins and a new life in which we are divinely empowered by the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to live out God’s purposes. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, Jesus died for your sins. They received their full punishment on His cross, and if you will turn to Him as Lord and Savior He will cleanse you from the failures of your past and give you a brand new future of abundant and eternal life with God.

If you are a Christian today, and the Word of God is piercing your conscience about a past sin, be it adultery, sexual sin, divorce, or any other matter, then we would beckon you to cast yourself on the mercy of God and receive His forgiving grace as you commit to live out His will in His way by the power of the Spirit who lives within you. And let this text be a clarion call to every married person and every person who desires to marry to fight for the preservation of marriage.



[1] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Mark (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1999), 156-157.

[2] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975), 375.

[3] Hendriksen, 379.

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