What did Jesus say about divorce?

divorce gospel of mark marriage

As a pastor, one of my favorite things to do is to teach the Word of God.  I love studying it, meditating on it, and presenting it to others in various ways.  The Lord has granted me opportunities to teach His Word in the church, in the university setting, through camping ministries, and online.

 There’s a curious practice I’ve observed in some contexts where the Word of God is taught.  It seems to me that certain passages of Scripture are routinely emphasized while others are regularly overlooked.  To me, it seems obvious why that’s the case.  I suspect that one of the primary reasons that phenomenon is so common is because God’s Word has a habit of telling us what we need to hear even when that may be the thing we are least interested in hearing.  God’s Word touches on all the difficult subjects and it purposely challenges us in order to prompt us to pursue holiness.

 When I’m putting together a sermon series, one of my favorite things to do is to select a book of the Bible and then preach through it, verse-by-verse, without skipping the hard stuff.  But even when we take time to look at the harder topics, I also want to make sure that our hearts are being pointed to Jesus who is the ultimate solution for our present-day struggles as well as our past mistakes.

 That’s how I feel about the subject of divorce as it’s addressed in Mark 10:1-12.  This passage isn’t the only place in Scripture where this topic comes up, but it is one of the main passages.  As we look at it together, whether you’re single, married, separated, divorced, or re-married, I’m certain you’ll receive benefit from this passage as you allow the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart through it.

 I will mention one additional detail before examining the words of this Scripture.  I am well-acquainted with the subject of divorce.  My wife and I got married right after I graduated from college, and our marriage has been healthy and good.  Neither of us is divorced, but the majority of my growing-up years were spent in a home that was deeply impacted by this subject.  The Lord blessed me with two wonderful parents.  They divorced when I was 8 years old and I will never forget what they went through and likewise, the ways our entire family was impacted by this sensitive subject.

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.

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  (Mark 10:1-2)

 As Jesus traveled from place to place, continuing His teaching ministry to the people of Israel, he went to the region of Judea where crowds gathered to listen to Him teach, much as was the case when He visited other places.  People found Him interesting and insightful.  He was the best teacher they had ever heard.  The words He communicated addressed their deepest longings and curiosities, but as had become the pattern, His teaching wasn’t received well by the religious leaders of the region.

 We’re told in this passage that the Pharisees weren’t interested in hearing His teaching.  They just wanted to test Him.  They hoped to expose Him as a fraud.  They also wanted to trap Him in His words or provoke Him to say something that might turn the crowds against Him.  The subject of divorce seemed contentious enough that it might offer them an ideal opportunity to cause problems for Jesus, so they asked Him if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife.

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.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.  (Mark 10:3-5)

 During the days of Moses, Moses was certainly respected by many people because it was clear that God was working through him, but at the same time, the people of Israel that Moses was attempting to lead had hard hearts and were more than happy to ignore godly counsel.

 The people Moses led seemed highly influenced by the patterns, preferences, and practices of the world in which they lived (much like we are today).  Pagan thoughts regarding marriage were seeping into the practices of God’s covenant community and it was becoming common for men to divorce their wives casually and flippantly for essentially any cause.

 As a concession to try to restore some sense of order among the people of Israel, Moses required more formality if someone was bent on divorcing their wife.  He required a certificate of divorce to be issued to formalize the matter and required more thought and intention to go into the act than had typically been the case.

 But please understand that this was a concession and not the ideal.  Jesus pointed out to the Pharisees that Moses ordered this because of the hardness of heart that was so common among the people of Israel at the time.  But from the start, God intended marriage to operate differently.

“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)

 To clarify how marriage was designed to operate, Jesus took these teachers back to the foundation of creation when God first created a man and a woman.  He quoted from Genesis 2 and explained that when a man marries his wife, he should leave his family of origin to begin a new family with her.  He should hold her close.  Protect her.  Provide for her.  Unite with her in the most intimate way and never leave her.  

 That’s the ideal.  That’s the way God designed marriage to operate, but that’s something we’ve all struggled to live up to ever since.  In fact, culturally speaking, this remains one of the biggest struggles of our day.

 When following up in private with His disciples, Jesus gave them additional details.

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 10:10-12)

 Jesus explained to them that these leaders and others who were looking for excuses to divorce their spouses for any reason so they could marry other people were in fact committing adultery.  This was an act of marital unfaithfulness that rejected God’s original design for marriage.

 That being said, is divorce forbidden in all circumstances?  Does Scripture clarify or elaborate on this teaching elsewhere?

 Before looking at some of the other passages that speak of marriage and divorce, let me first say that there is no requirement in Scripture that a person divorce someone else even if they have just cause to do so.  There appear to be certain well-defined circumstances where it is allowed, but even though it is allowed, it’s never spoken of as a requirement even if you have just cause.

 In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, He allows for divorce when sexual immorality has occurred.

“But 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.”  (Matt. 5:32)

 Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church allows for divorce when an unbelieving spouse abandons their marriage partner.

“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.”  (1 Cor. 7:15)

 So it appears that there are two concessions where divorce is allowed.  There are also circumstances where a temporary separation might be permitted with the goal of eventual reconciliation.  Some would argue that this may be an appropriate way to handle conflicts that are particularly heated but don’t demand full divorce.

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”  (1 Cor. 7:10-11)

 Each of these concessions is important to consider, but please understand that while they are allowed, God’s ideal is still emphasized to us in the earliest pages of Scripture.

 Even still, I think anyone who has ever been married can testify that marriage takes a lot of work.  Good marriages don’t happen by accident, they happen by practice.  As each spouse learns to elevate the needs of the other, they have the opportunity to grow in holiness as they practice servanthood and sacrificial love just as Jesus demonstrated toward us.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,”  (Philippians 2:3-7)

 If you’re married, thinking about marriage, separated, or divorced, please understand that while we all can acknowledge the ideals we’re given in Scripture about how marriage is supposed to operate, we aren’t perfect people and we aren’t married to perfect people.  While you can control how you choose to handle your side of the marriage covenant, you can’t control what the other person does with their side.

 And if there’s some element of Christ’s teaching that you understand now, but didn’t understand at an earlier season of life, please show yourself some mercy.  You can’t go back in time and rewrite what took place years ago.  Be kind to yourself as you attempt to live out these Scriptures from this day forward.

 In a very real way, choosing to get married is an act of faith.  You’re entrusting yourself and your well-being to someone who may or may not do good things with your trust.  There’s a very real risk involved, so is it worth it?

 In the months leading up to my wedding day, I was in the process of finishing my bachelor's degree in education.  I was doing my student teaching at the time at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, PA.  I really enjoyed the teachers I worked with, but I also remember some of the conversations we had during our lunches in the teachers’ lounge.  When it became known that I was about to get married, two teachers who had recently been divorced emphatically told me, “Don’t do it!”  Obviously, I didn’t listen to their counsel.

 Just the same, it was a risk for my wife to marry me and a risk for me to marry her.  She can’t control what I do, and I can’t control her.  We have both granted each other the power to break each other’s hearts painfully and severely.  I know many friends and family members who are well acquainted with that pain.

 So again I ask, is the risk worth it?  I think it is, but I also encourage others to mitigate that risk as best as possible by marrying someone who consistently demonstrates a genuine love for Jesus and a sincere willingness to obey Christ’s teaching without making excuses for lapses in judgment.

 And whether you’ve experienced a healthy earthly marriage or not, please understand there really is a perfect marriage still in store for you if you’re united to Jesus Christ by faith.

 The greater point of earthly marriage is to illustrate the perfect eternal union between Christ and His church.  The body of believers is referred to in Scripture as the “bride” of Christ, and He will never let us down, hurt us, act unfaithfully toward us, abuse us, or abandon us.

 His word assures us of the perfect union with Him that believers have to look forward to as our eternal reality.

“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  (Eph. 5:25-27)

Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,

“Hallelujah!  For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. 7 Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; 8 it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:6-9)

© John Stange, 2024


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