The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached November 22, 2020*
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.” – Mark 10:1-12
My wife and I have recently sought to change some things about our diet. I have a family history of diabetes and other problems related to diet, so we thought it would be wise to consider some changes we could make. Which is weird for me because I hate diets. I love rich food, I love fatty foods, and I really, really hate diets. But I also don’t want to get diabetes. So, here we are. But we aren’t zealots about it. I’m not lovingly counting each spinach leaf I eat each day. And if we are invited over to someone’s house and they serve us some delicious meal that is technically off-limits for us, we will happily indulge. Paul told the Corinthians that when they go over to someone’s house they should eat whatever is placed in front of them without raising any questions (10:27), so we are just trying to be Biblical! Our diet isn’t that important to us. We will follow it as a general rule, as much as we can, but when it becomes too difficult we cheat. And we are happy with that.
But I wonder how many people in our city today think about their faith like that. It’s a nice lifestyle to live by, generally. But where it becomes too obtrusive, too cumbersome, we can simply set it aside. While that might be a fine framework to have for a diet, does that work for the Christian faith? Can we set aside our convictions, the commands of Scripture when they appear to be inconvenient?
If you are a Christian, you cannot do this for two reasons:
1. Christ is your King. You are not at liberty to decide which commands apply to you and which don’t. If I were to leave church today and go steal one of your cars, I would not be able to tell the police officer, “Yes, I know this is technically illegal, but I don’t want to believe that law applies to me.” The law dictates what is legal or illegal, regardless of my own preferences. But Christ is not running some representative democratic government that enshrines laws based on popular opinion or has His power restrained by a system of checks and balances. He is the sovereign emperor of all the cosmos who does according to His will and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have you done?’ (Dan 4:35).
2. Christ is your Savior. If Jesus were only your King, that would be terrifying news. But, wonder of wonders, your King is also your Savior. Jesus left His heavenly throne to become a man, to become humiliated, abused, harassed, and killed; to take the punishment and judgment your sins deserved. Now, all who are weak are weary, porn-addicts and prostitutes and liars and self-righteous Pharisees, all can come and have their entire slate wiped clean, expunged totally. But this forgiveness produces love for the One who has paid so great a price, and this love constrains and compels us to want to obey our Lord.
Paul explains these two realities well, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” 1 Cor 6:19-20. You are not your own, Jesus is your King. But He has bought you with a price–the price of His own life. He is your gracious, gentle Savior just as much as He is your mighty Lord.
Today, we will be pressing in to one of the most personal and difficult of teachings of Jesus, a teaching that will not let us approach it with a posture of convenience. Today we will think of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and marriage. And while other teachings might be able to skim along the surface of life, marriage and divorce burrows down into our very hearts. How you treat your spouse reveals a great deal about who you really are. And in that, and in how we respond to this teaching, we will discern what we really believe about Jesus being our Savior and King. Will we submit to Him, even when it is difficult? Even when it is hard?
Here is one approach to marriage and divorce:
“Your marriage can wear out. People change their values and lifestyles. People want to experience new things. Change is a part of life. Change and personal growth are traits for you to be proud of, indicative of a vital searching mind. You must accept the reality that in today’s multifaceted world it is especially easy for two persons to grow apart. 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.” So writes John Adams and Nancy Williamson in their book Divorce: How and When to Let Go.
What does the Bible teach about divorce? Today we will be examining Jesus’ teaching on divorce, but before we begin I want to speak a pastoral word of encouragement. I know that many people in this room have either experienced a divorce first-hand, or have had someone in their family experience a divorce. I know that each story is extremely personal, often complicated, and comes with a great deal of baggage. My job today is to unpack what Jesus wants us to know about divorce and marriage in general. But what this teaching looks like applied to each of our individual lives and stories requires wisdom—this is one of the reasons God gives elders to His church. The Bible doesn’t give us detailed explanations of what to do in every case, every scenario—it gives us iron-clad, clear commands that need finesse, wisdom, and grace in sifting through the intricacies of life to discern how to apply them. Divorce is complicated and painful. If at the end of this sermon you feel at a loss of what to do with your experience of divorce or someone close to you, please seek out one of our elders to help in whatever way we can.
What Does Jesus Teach About Divorce?
“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark 10:2. The Pharisees are hoping to trip Jesus up by ensnaring him in a long-standing debate that had been raging in Judaism for sometime about the grounds of divorce. Jesus responds with a question, “He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away,” Mark 10:3-4.
The one place in the whole of the Old Testament that mentions divorce—what the Pharisees are referencing here—is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In Deut 24:1 we are told that a man can write a certificate of divorce to a wife if he “finds some indecency in her.” There were two major interpretations of this: one stated that the “indecency” found in a wife was her participating in an illicit affair of some sort, the other believed that the “indecency” was anything that the husband simply did not like about his wife. So, for the first, a divorce was permissible only on grounds of adultery, while the other viewed divorce as being permissible on any grounds whatsoever, with one Rabbi even advocating that a man could divorce his wife if he simply found another woman more beautiful.
Jesus definitively sides with the more conservative reading of Deuteronomy, that divorce is only permitted in cases of adultery. But notice how Jesus first responds, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Mark 10:5-9. Divorce was a concession due to the “hardness of heart,” but it was never a part of God’s original design. Jesus is saying we cannot have a cavalier view towards divorce, assuming that it is just a normal part of life and marriage.
We cannot be continually checking the dip-stick of our own happiness in marriage and assume that if our levels are low for long enough we can evolve beyond our covenant of marriage. There are some instances where, due to the hardness of heart, due to the effects of sin, where someone chooses to make the costly decision of divorce—but this should be a rare, reluctant decision. We don’t undertake the pain of chemotherapy or amputation unless circumstances are dire. The human body was not designed to have limbs chopped off or be poisoned by radiation—it is only exceptional circumstances that might lead us to do so. So it is with divorce.
When is a divorce permissible?
In Mark, Jesus is approached by His disciples asking him to explain this teaching on divorce more fully. He responds, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery,” (Mark 10:11-12; cf. Luke 16:18). It would appear that Mark and Luke teach that divorce and a subsequent remarriage is never permissible. However, Matthew’s account has Jesus explain, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery,” (Matt 19:9; Matt 5:32). Why don’t Mark or Luke include the exception clause here like Matthew does? This is likely because Mark and Luke assume that everyone already knows that divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality was already permissive. The debate of the day was not over whether or not adultery was a legitimate grounds for divorce—everyone knew that it was legitimate—it was over whether smaller issues were legitimate. So, Jesus teaches that on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness, a divorce can be permitted.
The apostle Paul echoes this teaching in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 7:10-11), and adds, “To the rest I say (I, not the Lord),” [by this, Paul is simply saying that Jesus did not speak on this issue, but he is still speaking authoritatively as an apostle of God], “that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him,” 1 Cor 7:12-13. In the Corinthian church, many people have come to faith who were previously wrapped up in different forms of pagan beliefs. Some of these people were already married when they were converted and now were uncertain about what to do with their spouse who didn’t believe. Paul does not advocate that they get a divorce, but remain as they are (cf. 1 Cor 7:27). The key phrase here is whether or not the unbelieving spouse “consents to live with” the other. In Roman society, “Divorce was instantaneously effective whenever one party renounced the marriage,” (Stein, BECNT, on 1 Cor 7:15-16). Unlike Jewish society, if one member no longer wanted to be married there were no legal barriers preventing the divorce from happening. So Paul explains, “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved,” (1 Cor 7:15a). Thus, Paul advocates that abandonment by a spouse provides a second permissible ground for divorce.
What about abuse? In all cases of abuse we would advocate for the endangered spouse to be separated from the abuser for a time and for the elders and any necessary authorities to be brought in to discern what is happening. Further, while this is somewhat contested today, I believe that in some cases of unrepentant abuse the abusive spouse has created a dangerous, unsafe home for the spouse and children and has thus not “consented to live with” the other spouse, because to continue to live with them poses a threat to the life of the spouse and children and thus there could be legitimate grounds for both divorce and remarriage in cases of abuse.
Pressing into the specifics of this is where the need for pastoral oversight and shepherding is needed. Dear friend, if you are in an abusive relationship, if your spouse has threatened you with violence, used violence, used their physical stature to domineer over you and intimidate you, you need to tell an elder here. If your spouse has used emotional manipulation, blackmail, or gaslighting to coerce you to do what he or she wants, you need to tell an elder here. Sin thrives in the darkness, it wants to remain hidden. If your marriage has soured into this, it does not necessarily mean that the only option is divorce, but this is why God has given you shepherds. Let us serve you. And this is why, not only for cases of abuse, but for any reason for pursuing a divorce, our membership covenant requires all of our members to first seek out an elder and speak with them before pursuing a divorce.
A divorce is a terribly costly act to take. And while there are exception clauses, a Christian is never commanded to divorce; it is something that in a few instance is permitted, but is by no means the default answer. In summary: aside from unfaithfulness and abandonment, Christians are not permitted to seek a divorce. If we seek a divorce for any other reason (falling out of love, irreconcilable differences, etc.) we are sinning. And if we remarry after pursuing an illegitimate divorce, we are committing the sin of adultery.
God’s Design for Marriage
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 for marriage. Jesus endeavors to recover God’s will for marriage, not to argue about possible exceptions to it. His opponents ask what is permissible, he points to what is commanded. – Edwards, PNTC
“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Mark 10:6-9. Jesus goes back to the creation story of Genesis to find the blueprint for marriage. He cites Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 before adding His own commentary, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.
1. One man + one woman
a. Notice that Jesus cites Genesis 1:27, “God made them male and female,” before citing Genesis 2:24. Genesis 1:27 doesn’t have anything to do with marriage, so why would Jesus cite that? To show that the design of marriage necessarily is heterosexual. If anyone ever tells you that Jesus never addressed the issue of homosexuality, this would be a good place to go.
2. The most important relationship
a. Gen 2:24, A man leaves his father and mother to take his wife. No other relationship in a person’s life is of more importance than their marriage.
a. Hold fast to your wife. One flesh.
b. Sexual union is the unique expression of marital intimacy, the full and total union of two people physically. But it is just a representation of what has happened with the whole life—total transparency, Gen 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
c. A husband and wife should enjoy regular times of sexual intimacy. 1 Cor 7:3-5, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
a. Mark 10:9, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
b. Never use the word “divorce” in your marriage. We never want to give our spouse the impression that our presence is contingent or temporary.
c. Marriage is hard, but that doesn’t mean that its wrong. John Piper’s “the first 25 years are the hardest”
5. A Picture of the Gospel
a. Christ and the Church, Eph 5:31-33, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.”
b. Marriage is meant to reflect the ecosystem of love and grace we find in the gospel. Whenever we are thinking of the thing that bothers us most about our spouse, “How has Christ treated me?”
c. “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Col 3:13
If you have had an affair, an illegitimate divorce, there is forgiveness. There is hope, there is healing. You have not committed the unpardonable sin.
Are you considering a divorce? Dear friend, count the cost. Divorce is a painful, painful step that comes at a high cost. But friend, also consider the beauty of what marriage could be. Your marriage now may be at a dry place, but the Lord can help. Stay faithful, seek the Lord, keep in step with Spirit, reach out to the church for support and wisdom, and see what God can do with your marriage.