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.”
Has there ever been an institution as simultaneously praised and criticized as is marriage? Has there ever been a dynamic of life that is so loved by so many and so abhorred by so many others as marriage? Perhaps an indicative criticism of marriage is that which we find in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. In this novel, Grimes is essentially being forced into marrying the daughter of his employer, a girl named Flossie Fagan. Here is his lament about this fact:
“You know,” said Grimes, “look at it how you will, marriage is rather a grim thought…My first marriage…didn’t make much odds either way…But there have been moments in the last twenty-four hours, I don’t mind telling you, when I’ve gone cold all over at the thought of what I was in for…Oh, why did nobody warn me?…I should have been told. They should have told me in so many words. They should have warned me about Flossie, not about the fires of hell. I’ve risked them, and I don’t mind risking them again, but they should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that…journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children…There’s a home and family waiting for every one of us…What is this impulse of two people to build their beastly home?…”
…“It has always been a mystery to me why people marry,” said Mr. Prendergast. “I can’t see the smallest reason for it. Quite happy, normal people…Have you ever thought about marriage—in the abstract, I mean, of course?”
“Not very much, I’m afraid.” [said Paul]
“I don’t believe,” said Mr. Prendergast, “that people would ever fall in love or want to be married if they hadn’t been told about it. It’s like abroad: no one would want to go there if they hadn’t been told it existed. Do you agree?”
This is unsettling and, in Waugh’s customary way, it is even humorous, but it is, of course, fundamentally false. Contra the claim of Prendergast, people have been yearning since the beginning of people to be with other people in a loving relationship. In the beginning of Mark 10, Jesus reminds us that this yearning is good, that it is from God, that it is rooted in creation itself, and that it is a blessed and even miraculous union. In our fallen world, marriage has become difficult for nothing calls for the end of our own selfishness and pride quite so much as marriage does. But the current challenge of marriage in a fallen world among us selfish people does not cancel out the beauty of marriage and the joy of marriage, a beauty and joy that we can begin to see and embrace as Christ Jesus has his way in our lives.
I want to offer an apologetic for marriage as a beautiful thing, a miraculous thing, and something that we should strive hard to honor and protect.
Marriage is the union of one man and one woman who are created in the image of God.
Our text begins with a challenge. It appears, on the surface, to be merely a question about divorce and what conditions legitimate divorce. Beneath the surface, however, there is a malevolent desire on the part of the Pharisees to catch Jesus and to trap Him.
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.”
It must be understood that the Pharisees are baiting Jesus into an argument that had been raging among the Jewish teachers for many, many years. There were two schools of thought concerning divorce. Here is how Danny Akin summarizes these schools:
- The more conservative school followed Rabbi Shammai and said the only ground for divorce was adultery (sexual immorality).
- The more liberal school followed Rabbi Hillel and said divorce could be granted for “any indecency.”
In many ways, that debate is the same debate that is occurring in the church today: when is divorce justifiable? Ronald Kernaghan has pointed out that, among the Jews of that time, all legal power and privilege was given to the man and none to the woman. He notes that “a husband could divorce his wife, but a wife could not divorce her husband. Women did not have the right to initiate divorce.” Kernaghan goes on to argue that the divorce customs of that time were rooted primarily in a peculiar reading of Genesis 2 and an overemphasis on the fact that in that chapter woman is created out of the side of man. Genesis 2 is a beautiful passage, but these teachers took the creation of Eve out of the side of Adam to mean that Adam was superior and that Eve, and, by extension, women, had no rights over or even alongside men. “…Genesis 2 is the fundamental justification for Jewish and Christian teachings about the superiority of men,” writes Kernaghan.” I hasten to add that this is a misreading of Genesis 2, as we will see. However, their particular twisting of that teaching was being used to create an oppressive system by which men could almost casually dispose of their wives but a wife could never file for divorce against her husband. With this in mind, Jesus’ answer is most fascinating.
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.’
This is a subtle but deft move Jesus makes and, in typical fashion, Jesus cuts through the fog and gets to the underlying issue. In response to their shady system that itself rested on a shady interpretation of Genesis 2, Jesus quotes Genesis 1. Here is the full text of what Jesus quotes in part from Genesis 1:
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
In doing this, Jesus is not pitting Genesis 1 against Genesis 2. Rather, Jesus is pitting Genesis 1 against the Pharisees’ misuse and misapplication of Genesis 2. And how is He doing this? He is doing this by responding to their question and its implicit assumption of the superiority of the husband with an answer that proclaims that both husbands and wives share the image of God and are therefore equal in the eyes of God. Put another way, Jesus is responding to their murky and flawed assumptions about the insignificance of the wife by making a positive statement about marriage as a beautiful institution established by God between men and woman who alike bear His image!
He is saying that marriage is the union of one man and one woman who are created in the image of God. Marriage arises out of the fundamental divine act of creating man and woman. Marriage is the binding together of two divine-image-bearers! It ought not be a selfish power structure which leaves an escape hatch for one privileged member. It is a good and sacred estate with three parties involved: God, man, and woman.
This, then, is the fundamental definition of marriage: one man and one woman brought together by the one true God. The creation account excludes tinkering with or altering this definition. As a matter of divine act, marriage must be between man and woman and it must be blessed by God. When these conditions are met, there is a marriage and there is the miracle of marriage!
So there is the basic building block of marriage: God bringing a man and a woman together.
Marriage is a powerful union in which God makes two people one person.
Then Jesus speaks of the miracle of marriage.
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.
I say “miracle” because no other word so aptly describes it. In marriage there is a mathematical miracle: two become one! Jesus speaks of the creation of a new family unit: “a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife.” This aspect of marriage is absolutely essential. I have done a lot of marriage counseling over the years and I simply cannot tell you how often it is that one of the parents of either the husband or the wife plays a destructive role in the marriage itself.
Mom and dad, you should be there as a constant source of encouragement and help to your child in his or her marriage. They should know that they have parents who are rooting for them and who will help them in any way they can. But your role is not to be the micromanager or the meddler in your child’s marriage! Husband, wife, hear me: your parents should be a constant source of encouragement and help to you and to your spouse, but for you to involve them in the marriage to the extent that it keeps you and your spouse from becoming one is unjust and inappropriate. Husband, if you are faced with a life challenge and your first inclination is to call your momma then somehow you have never really left home! There is a woman in your life that you should turn to first: your wife! Wives, I say the exact same thing to you.
Many years ago I encountered one of the more extreme cases of this I have ever seen: a husband who had never left his mother. His mother still controlled his finances. His mother told him what to do in life. His mother, not his wife, was the primary woman in his life. I will never forget when this man’s son accepted Christ and wanted to be baptized. The family met with me and we talked and we prepared ourselves for the baptism. The wife called me distraught and informed me that her husband had taken their son by himself to the next state over so that their son could be baptized in his mother’s church because his mother asked him to do that. I will never forget the look of dejection and heartbreak on that wife’s face. The next week the father called me and asked if I could now baptize their son in our church so that his wife could see it! I will spare you the details of that conversation, but it did not go well.
You are to be your own family now. This does not mean rejecting and abandoning your parents, but it certainly means boundaries. Furthermore, this does not just apply to meddling parents, it applies to other parties that you involve in your marriage. I am speaking of things as grotesque and wicked as adultery or as seemingly innocent as the over-involvement of friends who may not be calling you into immoral behavior but who are so overly-involved that they are short-circuiting the “two-becoming-one” dynamic that God intends for you and your spouse. The miracle of marriage works between (1) God, (2) you, and (3) your spouse. When outside parties are allowed into the marriage union itself it destroys this. That is why unfaithfulness, infidelity, is so pernicious. I do not know who sent this to me, but the following was emailed to me some years ago:
Jake was dying. His wife, Becky, was maintaining a candlelight vigil by his side. She held his fragile hand, tears running down her face. Her praying roused him from his slumber. He looked up and his pale lips began to move slightly.
“Becky my darling,” he whispered.
“Hush my love,” she said. “Rest, don’t talk.”
He was insistent. “Becky,” he said in his tired voice, “I have something I must confess.”
“There’s nothing to confess,” replied the weeping Becky, “Everything’s alright. Go to sleep.”
“No, no. I must die in peace, Becky. I…I had an affair with your sister, your best friend, her best friend, and you mother!”
“I know, sweetheart,” whispered Becky, “let the poison work.”
Well! There you have it! Allowing others to short-circuit and demolish your marriage will breed resentment on the part of the offended spouse who will, in turn, desire to dissolve the union.
But when it is you and your spouse and God, something miraculous happens: “the two shall become one flesh.” This is the miracle of marriage! The two become one! Your two hearts become one heart. Your two minds become one mind. Your two sets of ambition become one common ambition. Two truly do become one!
I love the scene in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in which Levin, recently marriage to his beloved wife Kitty, begins to realize just what marriage is. Here, Levin and Kitty have had an argument and as Levin sulks about it he ponders his reaction to Kitty’s anger at him.
He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began. He felt this from the agonizing sensation of division that he experienced at that instant. He was offended for the first instant, but the very same second he felt that he could not be offended by her, that she was himself. He felt for the first moment as a man feels when, having suddenly received a violent blow from behind, turns around, angry and eager to avenge himself, to look for his antagonist, and finds that it is he himself who has accidentally struck himself, that there is no one to be angry with, and that he must put up with and try to soothe the pain.
What a beautiful way of putting it! Marriage is a powerful union in which two people truly become one person!
For this reason, divorce is a kind of dissection, the cutting into two of something that was one.
After making a positive statement about the nature of marriage, Jesus next turns to divorce.
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.”
We get hung up on the particular exception clauses or lack-thereof for divorce, but, in doing so, we miss the overriding truth that we must stare squarely in the face: if marriage is making two people one person then divorce makes one person two. In that sense, divorce is a kind of dissection. Here is how C.S. Lewis put it:
As a consequence, Christianity teaches that marriage is for life…[Christians] all regard divorce as something like cutting up a living body, as a kind of surgical operation. Some of them think the operation so violent that it cannot be cone at all; others admit it as a desperate remedy in extreme cases. They all agree that it is more like having both your legs cut off than it is like dissolving a business partnership or even deserting a regiment. What they all disagree with is the modern view that it is a simple readjustment of partners, to be made whenever people feel they are no longer in love with one another, or when either of them falls in love with someone else.
I think that is spot on. One of the reasons I think it is spot on is because I have listened to a lot of folks who have walked the hard road of divorce and this is how the vast majority of them will describe it: as something painful and something that deeply wounded them.
Christians argue all of the time about when divorce is permissible. I understand that, but can we just stop for a moment and agree on this: divorce is a product of living in a fallen world, is never God’s ideal for us, and is something that we should fight hard against? Again, setting aside the specific question of exceptions, can we not all agree that easy, casual, disposable-marriage divorce simply because two people are going through a period of unhappiness dishonors the sacredness of marriage? I am talking about people who stop feeling warm fuzzies and butterflies and who decide, on that basis, that they need to divorce. Consider this fascinating study that was conducted a few years back:
The popularly held notion that divorce is the answer to marital unhappiness was recently debunked by a team of leading family scholars at the University of Chicago. Their study discovered that people who divorce their spouses when marriages get rocky are less likely to find happiness than those who stay married. They found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were any happier than unhappily married people who stay married. Researchers, led by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, also determined that 80 percent of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that their marriages were happy five years later. Divorce didn’t reduce symptoms of depression or raise self-esteem compared to those who stayed married, the study found.
“In popular discussion, in scholarly literature, the assumption has always been that if a marriage is unhappy, if you get a divorce, it is likely you will be happier than if you stayed married,” said David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values. “This is the first time this has been tested empirically, and there is no evidence to support this assumption.”
Surely we can all agree that casual divorce must be condemned as a product of an arrogant age that has lost a sense of sacredness and of accountability to God. But what of more difficult situations? What of adultery? What of spousal abuse? What of a marriage in which children are being abused? What of abandonment? What of situations that are not casual and, at least on the part of one spouse, are not rooted in selfishness?
Concerning the exceptions surrounding divorce, allow me to offer some bullet-point thoughts:
- In Mark 10 Jesus does not offer exceptions for divorce.
- In Matthew 5 Jesus appears to offer an exception in the case of adultery or sexual immorality (32But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery).
- Some see in 1 Corinthians 7 an exception on the basis of abandonment (15But 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). This is called “the Pauline exception” or “the Pauline privilege.”
- If there is a legitimate exception offered by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 it might suggest that the exception of sexual immorality in Matthew 5 is not to be read as an exhaustive list since all scripture is inspired by God.
- The Bible does not address certain specific cases (i.e., the abuse of children) unless one believes that the communication of the sexual immorality exception in Matthew 5 is intended to be exhaustive.
- There are times when Christians might have to prioritize competing goods. For instance, how does one balance (a) biblical prohibitions against divorce with (b) biblical calls for the protection and training up of children (Proverbs 22:6). Put another way, what if by not divorcing a spouse then violates another command such as the command not to cause a little one to stumble by keeping the child in an environment in which they are abused or in which a dominant spouse corrupts them (Mark 9:42)?
- In such legitimate cases of competing goods the believer must make a careful, prayerful decision ever and always with an eye towards honoring God and allowing no room for selfishness or pride.
- In such cases, the church needs to be understanding and supportive while never abandoning its mission to call all parties involved to Christ-likeness and, where needed, to repentance.
What I am wanting to do is (a) honor the teachings of Jesus and of the scriptures and (b) try to recognize the complexities of life in a fallen world in which people oftentimes find themselves in what appears to be a lose-lose situation. We must maintain radical fidelity to the Word of God while wrestling with such murky situations.
Jesus loves and Jesus heals broken people.
But what of those who have not divorced because of such gut-wrenching and ambiguous situations? What if you committed adultery and left your spouse for another and now you deal with the shame and guilt of that? What if you simply and casually walked out? What if you decided that you no longer wanted to be an adult, that you wanted to go sow your wild oats and that your marriage did not fit with that scheme? What if you are simply wrong in how your marriage ended and you know it? To you I would like to say the following:
- You must own the terrible wickedness of your sin. We cannot apologize for asking this. If you have callously destroyed your marriage and the act rests squarely at your feet, own it. Even if you have remarried and you just want to forget it and move on with your life. Stop dressing it up as something it is not and own it.
- Apologize to the offended spouse. Whether you walked out last week or ten years ago, you must make a sincere apology and, if possible, restitution to your offended spouse.
- If you have not remarried, cry out to God and see if remarriage is possible with the spouse you left.
- If you have remarried, learn from your past mistakes, love and honor your spouse, and never dishonor your former spouse.
- Know that Jesus loves you and will forgive you if you come to Him in repentance and faith.
Hear me: Jesus loves you. Jesus died on the cross to forgive you. His forgiveness is not to be abused and perverted into license: “Oh, I will just walk out on my spouse and Jesus will have to forgive me.” Remember that the same scripture that says, “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16) also says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).
But Jesus came to forgive us and to heal us and to restore life to us. If you are to blame, acknowledge it before God, repent, and you will receive the mercies of God! Know that grace is offered to you! We do not wish to minimize the significance of divorce and the seriousness of divorce, but neither do I wish to minimize the significance of grace and the sweet mercies of Jesus Christ!
You are not a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God if you have been divorced. You are a human being created in the image of God and, like all human beings, the arms of Jesus Christ are open to you if you will come.
You are loved!
You can be forgiven!
Whether or not we have been faithful to each other, Jesus will be faithful to us.
 Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 1956), p.131-135.
 Daniel Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.201.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.187, 189.
 Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. (New York, NY: The Modern Library, 2000), p.548.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2001), p.105.
 USA Today, July 11, 2002. Referred to In: On Mission. Nov.-Dec., 2002, p.9.