WHAT GOD HAS JOINED TOGETHER, LET NOT MAN SEPARATE
The embracing of “homosexual marriage” represents a wholesale rejection of God’s design for man and woman as clearly laid out in the Bible. It embraces a worldly, man-centered way of thinking and even displays pride for being at the forefront of the ever-changing currents of American culture. Support for “homosexual marriage” is sometimes viewed as radical, but in fact this cultural shift is merely a waterless spring, promising people freedom but actually leading them to be enslaved to corruption.
Now there is a need to be radical, but not radical in terms of departure from the Bible. The kingdom of God is radical in an entirely different way, because it is set against the principles and practices of this sin-plagued world. There is a great danger for Christians, a danger of absorbing the values prevalent in our day and in so doing departing from God’s design. One essential area in which we must avoid acquiescing is in marriage. When Jesus addresses divorce in Mark 10, he does so in such a way that cuts through all of the murky thoughts on marriage being spread around today. In Mark 10, he is pressed on the matter of divorce, and in response says clearly and without hesitation that divorce is a rejection of God’s design for marriage, and as such is the result of hard-hearted rebellion against God.
Context for the Question on Divorce (1-2)
As we begin Mark chapter 10 we remember that two times Jesus has reminded us of where he as the Messiah is headed. Mark 8:31 says that “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Mark 9:31 says that he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
If you recall, Jesus has been in Galilee, at Capernaum. Mark 10:1 says, “He left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again.” When we see Jesus move from one region to another here, we are seeing him move toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world, where God established the temple. It is also the hotbed of opposition to Jesus, and it is the place he must go to die—for the sins of Jews and of people from every nation who repent of their sins and follow him by faith.
But Jesus, in making this move, is also entering the territory under the jurisdiction of Herod. In chapter 6 we saw that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist and at that time thought Jesus must be a resurrected John. In 8:15 Jesus warned his disciples, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” So Herod is clearly an enemy of Jesus. For the Pharisees, this presents a great opportunity: if they can just make it plain that Jesus is as radical and treacherous as John, perhaps Herod would do away with Jesus also. It is notable that John lost his head for confronting Herod on the issue of divorce and remarriage; and now once Jesus enters Herod’s territory, we read in verse two: “And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
We see their malicious intent from those words: “and in order to test him.” This is not an innocent and honest question. No, this is like Satan, in chapter 1, tempting Jesus in the wilderness. This is like the Pharisees in chapter 8 seeking from Jesus a sign from heaven. And it is like in chapter 12 when they will come and ask if they should pay taxes to Caesar. They are questioning Jesus in order to trap him. They do not believe Jesus is who he says he is—the Christ, the Son of the Most High God—and they come not that they might gain understanding from him, but that he might like a bird unwittingly get caught in a snare they have laid for him with their words. So they ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Or you might say, “Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife?” Anytime you are reading the Gospel of Mark and see reference to something being “lawful,” know that there is some sort of conflict at hand.
And this, incidentally, is the same sort of question being asked in the United States today: “Is it lawful for a man to marry a man, or for a woman to marry a woman?” But the question of our passage today pertains to the divorce of a married man and woman, and we will see that marriage between a man and woman is the only type of marriage recognized by the Bible.
Jesus’ basic answer to that question of whether divorce is lawful is this. He says that divorce is a rejection of God’s design for marriage, and as such is the result of hard-hearted rebellion against God. That is the gist of his answer. Now we need to follow the logic of how Jesus gets to this answer. As we do this we will come to understand some basic principles of marriage, which apply to a myriad of life situations and ethical questions being discussed today. So there are four steps we will take to follow to the argument.
1. Moses Gave Instructions concerning Divorce in order to Regulate a Sinful Reality (3-5)
Jesus answers this question thrown at him from the Pharisees by asking them a question in return. Verse 3: “What did Moses command you?” He does this to expose the basis for their faulty reasoning so that he might demolish it. The Pharisees think they are standing on pretty solid ground because they can quote from one of the five books of Moses. They point to Deuteronomy 24 and say, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”
Now let’s turn to Deuteronomy 24 so we can see what they are talking about. Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the Bible, and the passage begins at verse 1.
1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates 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 man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.
The debate among Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day was not really whether divorce is permissible, but under what circumstances it was permitted. Divorce was assumed based on Deuteronomy 24. One school of thought was that divorce is permissible only in the case of the husband finding “unchastity” in his wife, while another held that divorce was allowable for almost any reason.
But how does Jesus respond? He says in verse 5, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” What really is the commandment in the passage? It is not to write a certificate of divorce. Even the Pharisees realize this, which is why they say that Moses “allowed” a man to write a certificate of divorce. There is really no command in the passage in Deuteronomy until verse 4. The command there is that the woman whom a man has divorced and then she goes on to marry another—that same woman cannot be remarried to her first husband because she has been “defiled” by her second marriage.
Moses really is not giving permission for divorce here. And, by the way, when they are talking about Moses, we have to remember that they are talking about words Moses received from God himself. What is happening in Deuteronomy 24 is that the law given to God’s people—the nation of Israel—is taking into account the fact that sin has entered all of humanity through Adam, who disobeyed God in Genesis 3, plunging all of his descendents into a state of depravity and rebellion against God. That includes you and me. And these verses recognize that when a sinful man and a sinful woman marry, they are going to have troubles, and sometimes this leads to divorce.
Because the divorce was traditionally initiated by the husband, not the wife, and because provision for a woman at that time largely came through her husband, the mention of a certificate of divorce is merely a regulatory control on the practice of divorce, particularly to protect the wife. Her husband at least needed to give it to her in writing.
What Jesus is saying in Mark 10:5 is this: God through Moses saw how hard-hearted and sinful and rebellious you are, and he saw that this condition leads you to divorce your wives. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was only written to deal with the wreckage of lives that results from the situation. It gave no approval of divorce. It did not say that divorce is lawful. It only took into account the situation and regulated the aftermath of destructive sinful actions.
2. God’s Creation Design for Marriage is the Standard for Life in the Kingdom of God (6-8)
From this point in the discussion Jesus goes on to show what a truly biblical basis for understanding marriage and divorce really should be. Disciples of Jesus are not, like the Pharisees, to draw principles for living from regulations given to mitigate some of the harmful consequences of sin. Rather, they are to walk in step with God’s will and purpose for marriage. Look at verses 6-8:
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.
Jesus is essentially saying that they are going to the wrong part of the books of Moses to find principles for marriage. They need to go back to the beginning of creation, before sin entered the picture. So he quotes from Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, both before Adam and Eve fell into sin in Genesis 3. He pairs the creation of humans with the institution of marriage. He says it is because God made them male and female that he instituted marriage. So a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.
We see several principles here from Genesis. I will name five. The first is that marriage is between a man and a woman, not a man and a man, not a woman and a woman, not a human and an animal. This is important, particularly because of the homosexual marriage debate you hear about in the news every day. In the very creation of man and woman, even down to the design of their bodies, God made man and woman to be joined to one another. All of the talk about homosexual marriage fails to recognize that marriage is something God has defined for all of humanity for all of history. It doesn’t matter you are a state or nation, a legislator or judge, a governor or president; you do not have any authority to say what marriage is or is not. God has established marriage. The government and individuals can recognize marriage, but they cannot redefine it. By the definition of what marriage is, it cannot exist between people of the same sex.
A second principle is that marriage is between only one man and one woman, not between one man and multiple women, or between one woman and multiple men. Some of you will object: but there is polygamy in the Bible! But I will reply: show me where the Bible commands or approves of this as God’s design. It never does. That is why we have to read the Bible on its own terms. Polygamy, like divorce, is something we find present in certain periods of biblical history, but only after the fall of humanity into sin. Marriage is designed for one man and one woman.
A third principle we find is that marriage is the only context for sexual expression. The two becoming one flesh certainly includes sexual union. All other sexual activity is condemned throughout the Bible. This includes sex of an unmarried man and woman, sex between or with children, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, masturbation, prostitution, lustful looks and pornography, dressing to provoke sexual desire or jealousy in others, trashy romance novels and sexual fantasies, sexual religious practices. The list could go on. The point is that marriage is the only proper context for all sexual expression. It is a powerful gift God has given to bring great joy and pleasure to a husband and wife. This also means that husbands and wives must not neglect to cultivate love in the marriage bed.
A fourth principle is that the husband and wife have specific roles in marriage. This comes from the reference to the man leaving his parents in order to join with his wife and thus begin a new family unit. God has made it clear, even in the order of creating first man, then woman, that the husband is to be the leader in the marriage. You can read more on this in places like Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Corinthians 11:3, 1 Timothy 2:8-15, and 1 Peter 3:1-7.
And our fifth and final principle is that marriage is for life. Jesus says, “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” This sort of change is more than a mere change of status, like you would say on Facebook that you are “single” or “in a relationship.” There is something deeper and more essential that changes when a man and woman marry. Paul speaks of the lifelong nature of marriage in Romans 7 when he is arguing that the law is only binding on a person as long as he lives, and that believers have died to the law. He says in verses 2 and 3:
For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
So marriage is for life. And it is this last principle that Jesus draws attention to in the third step of his argument.
3. God Inseparably Joins a Husband and Wife in Marriage, and God Ends This Union by Death (9)
Look at verse 9. This is the conclusion Jesus makes from Genesis 1 and 2: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Marriage is not simply a man and woman coming together. It is God, joining them together. There is something supernatural happening when a man and woman take vows and consummate it in the marriage bed. And because God is the one who joins them, only he has the right to separate them. As Paul mentioned in Romans 7, death is the way that God ends the one-flesh union of a husband and wife. What this means is that, contrary the civic laws in our land, there are no such things as divorce rights. Neither husband nor wife has the right to end what God has joined together. Divorce is not a legitimate human activity. And it should go without mentioning, but neither is suicide or murder a legitimate way to end a marriage. Because God has joined them together, only God has the right to separate a husband and wife, and he does this through death—which is why we say, “till death do we part.” This leads to the fourth and final step in Jesus’ argument.
4. Divorce Does not End the Union of Marriage (10-12)
As we have seen several times before, when Jesus’ disciples don’t understand something, they ask him in private and he graciously gives them an explanation that the crowds don’t get. So this is what they do in verse 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.”
Here is where Jesus gives an understanding of how God views divorce and remarriage. When a man divorces his wife, God does not consider that union to have ended, because he has not ended it by death. Typically the certificates of marriage in Jesus’ day would have explicitly released a person so that he or she is free to remarry. But Jesus says here in verse 11 that if the divorced man remarries another woman, he is actually still committing adultery against his first wife! Even though he divorced her! So we find that divorce does not end the union of marriage.
And then in verse 12 Jesus says the same thing for the wife. Mark may have included this second statement due to his Roman audience, who would have been much more familiar than Jews with divorce initiated by the wife. Or Jesus may have had in mind Herod’s wife Herodias, who moved Herod’s hand to have John the Baptist killed for confronting them on their marriage. Herodias had divorced Herod’s brother Philip in order to marry Herod. And she did not like John’s prophetic condemnation of that marriage.
But either way it is clear: neither husband nor wife can legitimately divorce. And when they do, in God’s eyes the divorce does not actually end the union that he has made. This is the last step in Jesus’ argument. If you didn’t get all of the steps, you can remember the summary of his response: Divorce is a rejection of God’s design for marriage, and as such is the result of hard-hearted rebellion against God.
This message may hit some of you hard. Jesus’ teaching here might have brought up some deep pains. And it may not be only with divorce. All sexual sin is rooted in a rebellion against God and a rejection of his design for marriage. And I have not yet met a person who is not guilty of one type of sexual sin or another. As we seek to apply these truths to our lives, we must remember that issues of sexual sin, as well as issues of divorce and remarriage must be handled with gospel grace in the church.
I am getting this from our text from last week. Mark 9:42 reads: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin…” All I am looking at is that phrase, “one of these little ones who believe in me.” Consider how God regards disciples of Jesus: like children. When a child disobeys, yes, there will be discipline. But you don’t get future obedience from him by relentlessly beating him. Brother, sister—God knows that you are weak. That’s why he calls you a child. He will be firm with you, but he will also be gentle. Fellow Christians, we are children and we are also sheep. We wander easily and need a lot of correction.
And I think what this means is that when a brother or sister has sinned in rebellion against God’s design for marriage, and repents of it—that is very important, repentance is necessary—we have to show a lot of grace and ask God for wisdom on applying the truth of the gospel to the situation.
If you are divorced, or if someone close to you is divorced, I want you to hear me—I want you to hear the Bible—saying, “Divorce is not the unforgivable sin.” Remember back in Mark 3 when the scribes accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan? So often we get hung up on understanding what the unforgivable blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, and we miss what Jesus says right before it. Listen to Mark 3:28: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter.” Did you hear that? “All sins will be forgiven the children of man!” You cannot describe for me a situation of sexual sin, marriage, divorce, or remarriage that is so messed up with sin that Jesus cannot redeem his people out of it. If you have sin of any kind—and all of us do—his arms are open wide, waiting for you to come to him for mercy. Whatever that sin is, he died for it.
We have to ask for God’s wisdom in dealing with these things. Just because the gospel is a gospel of God’s grace to you in Jesus Christ does not mean it is going to be easy. It may mean that if you are homosexually active, you will need to leave that relationship and lifestyle never to go back. It may mean that if you are divorced, Jesus’ command to you is that you should not go out and marry someone else. It may mean that if you are looking for a husband or wife, that divorced person you really like is not an option for you to marry. This is what I mean when I say it is not easy.
But what if you are divorced and have already remarried? Am I telling you to divorce your second husband or wife? No. I don’t think we should compound sin with more sin. But pray for God to sanctify your marriage. You cannot always go back and fix what has happened, but you can move forward in grace. Repent of the sins of your past and cling to Jesus in faith that you might walk in new obedience. More important than being joined as one flesh with a husband or wife is being joined to the Lord and becoming one spirit with him. If you are a disciple of Jesus, he is calling you to embrace God’s good design for marriage: for the sexual, one-flesh, lifelong, monogamous union of husband and wife. And he is calling you to grow in holiness by his grace. Remember that after Jesus made atonement for sins, on the third day he rose from the dead. He can give new life to you too.