The Disciple and Divorce


A sticky wicket?

If you were to turn in your Bible to Mark 10 you would probably notice a title over verse 1 put in place by the translation team. Depending on the version in your lap, that title may read something like “Marriage and Divorce,” “Jesus’ teaching about divorce,” or, as the one I’m looking at simply announces, “Divorce.”

The topics of marriage and divorce can invoke a number of different knee-jerk responses. Some reading this may be tempted to tune out, close the window and move on because of disinterest or perceived inapplicability. Others may be nervous or uncomfortable because or the personal nature of this topic.

There are many understandable reactions. But I think we can agree that, in the day-in-age in which we’re living, God’s people need more clarity on issues surrounding marriage and not less. And that’s true regardless of our current marital status.

We go to his Word because we’re desperate for truth, guidance, courage, comfort, healing, and for his grace. And we trust that, by the power of his Holy Spirit, we will all receive just what we need when we do that now.

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But 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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, “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” (Mark 10:1–12).

Setting the trap

In an argument or debate, the use of loaded questions is a way to trap your opponent by disguising assumptions and accusations in the form of a question.

For example: Is your neighbour still complaining about your body odour?

It’s a trap! Either way you answer, you’re admitting you stink or you stank!

That’s what the Pharisees are trying to do to Jesus in Mark 10. They load up a question full of landmines wanting him to embarrass and discredit himself: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

To understand how this is a loaded question, we need to appreciate the context in which it’s asked. In the 1st-century, there were two main rabbinic schools of thought on the issue of divorce. The less popular view was that a husband could give his wife a certificate of divorce in the case of sexual immorality.

The second, and more widely held, view was that divorce could take place if the husband was offended for basically any reason—a bad meal, perceived insubordination, or anything else. In fact, a well known Jewish historian of that era, Josephus, divorced his wife for “not liking her behaviour.” His words!

So, there were two views on divorce in the 1st-century: The adultery-only camp and the whatever-reason camp. Now, notice that in both the permissibly of divorce was generally unquestioned. It was allowed, accepted, and mainstream.

It’s against this cultural backdrop that the Pharisees ask Jesus: “What’s your view?” It’s a trap. Whatever his response, he’s going to make enemies. And that’s precisely what they want.

I think there’s another factor at play here that’s worth considering. Mark sets the scene for the debate by writing: “Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan.” This means that the group are now in the territory governed by Herod Antipas, the same Herod that, back in chapter 6, had John the Baptist imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Do you remember the charge?

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (vv. 17–18).

John spoke out against Herod’s understanding of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and it had him, ultimately, killed.

Maybe I’m of a conspiracy theorist, but I think the Pharisees had that incident in the back of their minds when they asked Jesus to publicly state his views on divorce.

The world’s confusion

All that to say, Mark is ushering his readers into the world’s confusion surrounding this topic. Just as today, people in the 1st-century suffered from a trivialization of marriage. Their understanding of what it is and what it is supposed to be had fallen a long ways form God’s ideal.

The confusion of the world is highlighted when Jesus points his examiners back to the Mosaic law (the authority to which they confessed to submit) and they respond by quoting from Deuteronomy 24: “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away” (v. 4).

Let’s fact-check that claim, shall we? Is that what Moses said?

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 (Deut. 24:1–4a).

Now that we’ve read it, did Moses give permission for divorce in the passage the Pharisees are quoting? No way. And Jesus points this out to the Pharisees immediately: “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law” (v. 5).

The people were already sinfully divorcing their wives when Moses wrote that law. He’s not permitting anything. In his law he’s trying to stop the bleeding of sin by forbidding certain remarriages and maybe even strengthening the second marriages.

The Pharisees viewed Moses' permission as God's desire, but Jesus viewed it as a divine concession.

This is a perfect example of what we call eisegesis, that is, the Pharisees were reading into Scripture what they wanted it to say, justifying what they had already decided was appropriate, and, in effect, trivializing the institution of marriage.

The world we live in today is no less confused about marriage. If we were to walk around any North American city and survey random people, I have no doubt we’d hear evidence of marriage trivialization. From the matter-of-fact assertion that marriage before living together is like buying a car without a test-drive to the casual description of “falling out of love” to the idea that personality compatibility is a chief cornerstone of a solid marriage relationship. I think we can agree that our world, and not excluding the church, is just as confused when it comes to marriage as was 1st-century Israel.

Our God’s instruction

Jesus cuts right through the world’s confusion starting in verse 6 and contrasts it with God’s instruction. Rather than the trivialization of marriage, our Lord highlights the permanence of marriage. He does this by taking the Pharisees back past Deuteronomy, past Exodus, and all the way to the first two chapters of Genesis.

Jesus replied, “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’” That’s Genesis 1:27 which emphasizes the distinction of genders. Then Jesus moves to Genesis 2:24:

‘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 flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.

It’s hard to miss what Jesus is emphasizing in his response to the Pharisees: “united … no longer two, but one … joined … one flesh.” The husband and wife, while they are distinct, when God joins them in marriage, there is a miraculous oneness made, something that goes beyond contracts and vows.

And since this one-fleshness is divinely created, humans are incapable of un-creating it! Think of a master welder who perfectly combines two pieces of metal, melting the edges together to form a strong bond. Then imagine giving that newly made single-piece of metal to a toddler and watching him try and rip them back apart. Impossible!

Marriage is not an agreement of temporary convenience that may be pulled apart at will. We don’t possess the power to separate something God has joined. While the world trivializes out of confusion, God’s instruction is that of a divine permanence.

The twelve disciples need clarification on this latest teaching and, once their away from the crowds, they ask Jesus for it. He replies plainly:

“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” (vv. 11–12).

According to Jesus, divorce is wrong, but remarriage after divorce is worse because it propagates sin.

Now, many of you are thinking to yourselves, “But isn’t there biblical grounds for divorce given elsewhere?” You’re right, there are. In fact, in Matthew’s description of this same account in the 19th chapter of his gospel, Jesus includes one:

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:8–9).

There we have one possible permission for divorce already. So, did Mark just forget? Did this little detail slip his mind. Obviously not.

What is the A/author doing?

Mark’s recording of this teaching of Jesus is structured in such a way as to serve the point he’s making in his gospel account as a whole. This is an important Bible-reading concept for us to wrestle with and understand: Authors all have an agenda and shape their writing to meet that agenda.

Imagine a young teacher decides to go to a concert downtown Toronto on a weeknight. At work the next day, she’s asked about the show by three different groups of people: co-workers in the staff room, her 6th graders in class, and her parents via text message.

To each audience this teacher is going to report honestly and accurately her experiences the night before but, obviously, the descriptions provided will be tailored to the expectations and needs of the three different audiences.

To her co-workers she may talk about the music, the dancing, the night of freedom from grading. To the young students, some of that may be confusing or not understandable. So, the teacher may describe for them the venue, the art of music that was played, and the diversity of the attendees. Finally, to her parents, the teacher may focus her report on the safety precautions she took on her trip, the security at the concert, and the lack of incident she had driving to and from the city.

It’s one event—a concert in Toronto—being retold to different audiences, the needs and expectations of whom shape the recounting of the story. This is done without a single report being necessarily inaccurate or intentionally deceptive.

Now, imagine if there had been a group of three teachers that had gone to that concert together. This adds another layer of variables as each has their own perspective of the evening out. Again, none necessarily more or less true than the others.

We can think of the gospel accounts in the same way. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all are describing the same historical happenings, but, inspired by the Holy Spirit, they are shaping their accounts to serve an agenda and to meet specific needs of specific audiences.

Mark is writing to 1st-century Roman believers and describing for them what it looks like to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ often in the face of a culture that doesn’t appreciate them. And Jesus’ teaching on divorce fits into that agenda.

A comprehensive view of the Bible’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage must take into account the entirety of Scripture (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, etc.). This is not a task we’re undertaking in this post. Instead, we want to understand what Mark is communicating.

Throughout the first nine chapters of Mark’s gospel there has been a reoccurring theme of sacrifice and it culminates in the gut-shot demand of 8:34: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” At this point of the book, Mark has the readers examining almost every facet of their lives, prepared to give it all up for the sake of following Jesus.

But, Jesus, in chapter 10, almost pumps the breaks on that mentality of sacrifice. In case anyone would imaging that self-denying, cross-carrying discipleship includes the trivialization or abandonment of marriage, Jesus says “think again.” Instead, our Lord emphasizes the divine oneness in marriage and its permanence. “What God has joined together, let man not separate.”

The disciples’ commission

While we’ve seen in this passage, the world’s confusion and God’s instruction, we close by acknowledging the disciples’ commission: Follow Jesus “one-fleshed”!

This is the assignment of anyone who would come after Jesus, anyone who desires to live a God-honouring Christian life. We are to follow Jesus “one-fleshed” celebrating and revering the unique unity that husband and wife share.

Let me suggest some ways this applies to four different groups in this room.

To those unmarried but anticipating marriage: Do not settle for a spouse who is not a self-denying cross-carrying disciple of Jesus. Next to your decision to trust Christ for your salvation, your one-flesh partner is the most important decision you will make in your Christian life. Please do not compromise on who it is you’re praying for and who it is you’re looking for. And, in the meantime, focus your energy on becoming the type of disciple that your future spouse will benefit from.

To those unmarried and uninterested in marriage: Whether you’ve never been married or your marriage ended, the Lord has you feeling content in your singleness. Praise God. The Apostle Paul would cheer you on and so do I!

I ask that you give your church family a biblical model of God-honouring singleness. The church can at times seem to make the mistake of holding marriage up as either the culmination of sanctification or, at least, a necessary part of it. Scripture says both states—marriage and singleness—are gifts from God.

To those who have lived through the trauma of divorce: Know that there is healing, forgiveness, comfort, and encouragement available in our great God. He is near the brokenhearted. Like a loving Father, he cares when we hurt. Cast it all on him and leave it with him.

I would encourage you to ask the Lord to help you with any bitterness or disillusionment you have with the institution of marriage and I would challenge you to use your experiences to help others avoid confusion and see the potential beauty of marriage.

To those married and together following Christ: Honour that oneness. Ask God for the grace and strength to hold tight, remembering that marriage is for my holiness more than for my happiness. Commit yourself anew today to following Jesus “one-fleshed” and to committing to your spouse, by sacrificing yourself for your spouse, by pursuing holiness together with your spouse.

There’s a lot of confusion out there when it comes to marriage. Let’s cling to God’s instruction, celebrate the permanence of marriage, and, with his help, follow Jesus “one-fleshed,” together.