Sermon text: Mark 10:1–12
 Then He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan. And multitudes gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught them again.
 The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him.
 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.”
 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
 In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter.  So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.  And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
If there was ever a time in which the teaching of our Lord in this passage needs to be heard, it’s now. It was back in 1948 that Pitirim Sorokin sounded the alarm. He had founded the department of sociology at Harvard University. Sorokin showed that in 1910, the divorce rate in America was ten percent. But from 1910 to 1948, it soared from ten to twenty-five percent. In his capacity as a historian of culture, Sorokin argued that no society can survive if a quarter of its households are destroyed by divorce. The family unit is the most foundational social unit of every society, and when it is broken up, society disintegrates. As one cultural commentator pointed out, “Sorokin traced the rise and fall of civilizations and concluded that the weakening of marriage was a first sign of civilizational collapse.”[i]
The divorce rate peaked to about 50 percent in the 1980s. Since then, that rate has somewhat decreased. Recent studies show that about 40 percent of marriages end in divorce. But before we get too encouraged, we should note that this decline is not necessarily due to a higher view of marriage or an increased commitment to biblical values. Several trends are contributing to the lower rate. Co-habitation is more prevalent than ever in American history, and fewer people are getting married early in life because they disregard marriage and do not esteem it as an honorable institution. But regardless of the cultural drift, the standard of God remains the same. And His Word says, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4).
It’s evident that our Lord Jesus Christ, though He never married, had a high view of marriage. As a member of the Godhead He was the Author of the institution of marriage itself. And in our text, He faces another altercation with the Pharisees, who try to entangle Him in controversy as they again grasp for any pretext to condemn Him. So as we open up these words, our outline will be as follows: (I) verses 1–4 gives us an accommodated concession; (II) verses 5–9 specify an original ordinance; (III) and in verses 10–12, we are given an authoritative clarification.
I. An Accommodated Concession (vv. 1–5)
We are told that the scene of this interaction between our Lord and the Pharisees was, according to v. 1, when “He arose from there and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan.” The Lord bid His final farewell to the hill of country of Galilee—specifically from Capernaum—and “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). The Suffering Servant was on His way to the place where He would be betrayed, handed over to the Gentiles, and put to death. He was advancing like a lamb to the slaughter, and He knew it.
Soon He would be slaughtered for all the sins of His people, including sins associated with divorce and remarriage. Yes, even those sins. So no matter how we interpret His words that follow, we should keep in mind that His teaching on this topic is situated within the gracious framework of the gospel. So if you, brother or sister, have been through the heart-wrenching pains of divorce, I urge you, for the sake of the wellbeing of your soul, to receive Christ’s teaching in this passage within the context of His redeeming work. His law comes to you within the structure of the covenant of grace. His words come to you drenched in the redeeming blood of His cross. His denunciation of divorce in this passage is meant to serve as a curb to prevent it, as a preemptive deterrence. It is not meant to swallow up believers who have been through it with unending remorse, shame, or condemnation. Contrary to how some Christian circles treat divorcees, it is without any hesitation that I can assure you that divorce is not the unpardonable sin. Jesus scathed the sins associated with broken marriages even as He was on His way to make atonement for those sins on behalf of everyone who lives by repentance and faith in Him.
Well, in the midst of the Lord’s movement toward Jerusalem, verse 2 says, “The Pharisees came and asked Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him.” The question was not about whether divorce was ever permissible; the controversy was over the grounds for divorce. Moses had clearly permitted it, so that question was not in debate. What they were asking was whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, or only on the ground of sexual immorality.
This is made clear in the parallel passage in Matthew 19:3, which gives us the fuller account of what the Pharisees asked. There, the question is worded like this: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” [κατὰ πᾶσαν αἰτίαν] That is the issue. All Jewish interpreters agreed that divorce was sometimes permissible. Even the strictest Jewish groups among the Qumran Essenes permitted divorce in some cases.[ii] And they all held that if divorce was permissible, remarriage would also be. So, the question of the Pharisees was, to paraphrase it: ‘What constitutes the lawful grounds for divorce that makes remarriage justifiable?’
The Pharisees themselves were divided on this. Their question was a manipulation tactic intended to stir up discord and further hatred toward Jesus. It could have also been a trap to incite Jesus to speak against the adultery and divorce of Herodias, which was the very thing that had caused Herod’s sword to come down on the neck of John the Baptist.
We read in verses 3–4 that Jesus “said to them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.’” They were referring to the only passage in the Torah which makes provision for divorce, which is Deuteronomy 24. This is what Moses wrote in vv. 1–4a:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD.
Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife over what he calls “uncleanness.” Some translations render it, “indecency.” The issue over which the debate raged in Jesus’s day was about what that uncleanness or indecency was.
It has become popular among Christians to take the view that it is adultery. But the problem with that is that the Law proscribed the death penalty for adulterers rather than divorce. Leviticus 20:10 says, “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.” It was a capital crime and if Moses’s instructions were followed, the execution of the offender would preclude the need for a bill of divorce.
So what was the “uncleanness” then? Well, there were basically two schools of thought among the rabbis. The school of Shammai represented the conservative view. Shammai taught that the “uncleanness” was any form of unchastity, or sexual misconduct, that came short of adultery. But by the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman occupation and had difficulty applying the death penalty to adulterers (since Roman law was more lenient in this regard). In this context, divorce became the common procedure for adultery as well as other forms of unchastity. Those who sided with Shammai held that unchastity or adultery are the only grounds for a lawful divorce.
The school of Hillel was more liberal. They interpreted “uncleanness” as anything that caused a husband to be displeased with his wife. He could divorce her if she burned his food, spoke to men on the street, or spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s parents. Another rabbi came along in this school by the name of Akiba and he taught that a man can put away his wife if he found another woman to be more attractive.[iii]
The majority of Pharisees sided with Rabbi Hillel. They opted for easy, no-fault divorce. This was the most prevalent view among the Jews at the time, thus the majority opinion had a rather cheap and lax view of marriage. Jesus cuts through their façade and clarifies the true meaning and spirit of what Moses commanded.
He teaches that this passage from Deuteronomy was not a positive prescription for healthy conduct but an adaptive concession due to the prevalence of sin and the damages it causes in human relationships. In verse 5, He says, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” In other words, Moses said what he did not as a commended ideal but as an accommodated concession. His instruction in Deuteronomy 24 does not reflect God’s perfect plan for marriages but is accommodated to the context of a fallen humanity—to deal with societal evil. It was intended to prevent further evils from accompanying the inevitable prevalence of divorce that would break out among sinners in a world where sin introduces wounds and breaches and brokenness into relationships.
Moses’s concession to serve a certificate of divorce served at least four purposes.
First, it upheld the sanctity of marriage as a covenant in society. Since marriage is a covenant in the eyes of God, He ordained that civil law reflect its covenantal status by making it a legal contract. Because of this, a man could not put away his wife on a whim, in the heat of the moment, or by a mere word; he needed to obtain a legal certificate of divorce through a formal, public process that would be ratified by judges in accord with civil law. A contract, pointing to a solemn covenant, had to be annulled.
Second, to uphold the relative permanence of marital commitments in both marriage and divorce. This formalizing, public process required thought, reflection, and determination to pursue; it would invoke a sense of public accountability, and serve as a deterrent to divorce, for the sake of curbing it. It safeguards against hasty divorces. Further, in Deuteronomy 24 specifies that the woman who is put away cannot return to her prior husband to be his wife or have intimate relations with him, for such would be an abomination to the Lord. Once the divorce is issued, it stands permanent. This highlights its serious character and urges Israel to take marriage and divorce seriously. Even second marriages stand and must be taken seriously. It all has a kind of permanence about it which calls for respect and reverence toward it as an institution of God.
Third, to protect women who would be sent away. In a patriarchal society, if a woman was divorced by her husband, she could bear tremendous social stigma, making it difficult, if not impossible to get remarried. This would effectively condemn these women to social shaming and poverty, since women were not the breadwinners in ancient society. Moses’s provision protected women, especially the innocent. It demanded that the first husband formalize a divorce to give them a clean break—to make a new start possible. It also made a legal provision in society that made it possible for the woman to remarry and return to normality in life as a functioning part of society.
Fourth, Moses made divinely-authorized provision for the innocent party to divorce and remarry if their offending spouse ruptures the marital covenant. An innocent spouse did not have to perpetually suffer on account of the other’s unchastity or desertion. The formal divorce would give them a clean break and a new start.
The Pharisees, sadly, did not approach Moses’s instructions with the desire to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Instead, they distorted Moses to justify their laxness and infidelity. So Jesus exposes their disingenuousness and pulls the mask off their ulterior motives. In their rabbinic teachings, they were overly concerned with how they may justify divorce; but Jesus shows that our primary concern should be regarding how we may uphold and cherish and honor and reverence the sanctity of marriage as an ordinance of God. So He takes the matter back to…
II. An Original Ordinance (in vv. 6–9)
The Lord takes the discussion back to “the beginning of the creation” in verse 6. He returns to and clarifies God’s original creative purpose. This was before the fall, before the sin and the enmity which wrecked the perfection of God’s good world. This was the world of which God had said, “it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). And in that world, divorce did not exist. And since that perfect world is reflective of God’s perfect will, that means God’s perfect, preceptive, revealed will—at least in an idealistic sense—is that there would never be divorce. As the prophet Malachi said, God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). The broken hearts, the emotional anguish, the distraught children—God hates it even more than any of us do. Divorce only exists in the world because sin is in the world.
So let’s put this in perspective. The Pharisees misused Deuteronomy 24 to justify their flippant views of marriage. They were using the Torah’s emergency plans for a marriage gone awry as their primary guidelines for what marital commitment looks like. But Jesus emphasizes that if we desire to learn God’s plan for marriage, we should not start there. To use an illustration, if a pilot desires to fly an airplane, he should read the manual of operations. He should not merely consult the instructions on what to do in an emergency crash landing and think that it adequately equips him to understand how the plane was intended to work.[iv] Deuteronomy 24 is not an adequate or comprehensive instruction manual on God’s will for marriage. It is his emergency provision for divorce. God’s marriage manual starts in the beginning, where He established marriage as a creation ordinance, designed to reflect His goodness and love and faithfulness.
Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24 in verses 7–8: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.” Marital union is the most intimate bond that exists in the whole world. Two are made one, not ontologically to the obliteration of their distinct personhood, but covenantally in a bond made by a vow unto death. They are made one functionally as a societal entity, as a cohesive unit, and as an intimate companionship of loving surrender unto the other. To separate them through divorce would be, in effect, to a cut an entity asunder. Thus “whoever divorces his wife,” said John Calvin, “tears himself in pieces.”[v]
The Lord Jesus declares the practical import of the Genesis text: “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” That summarizes the force of the original ordinance as ordained by God. Jesus goes back to the beginning to appeal to the ideal.
The creation account lays a solid foundation that reveals God’s perfect will and condemns all deviations from it. And it does this in at least five ways:
First, it upholds the goodness and value of marriage. For it was in the beginning that God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Gen. 2:18). Marriage was ordained from the beginning for good: for mutual companionship of husband and wife, for their mutual help and support of one another, for their reciprocal happiness, for the multiplication of mankind, for the propagation of holy seed within the Church, and to prevent immorality.[vi]
Second, it condemns non-necessary divorce. In an idealistic manner, the creation ordinance of marriage condemns all divorce; in a realistic manner adapted to our fallen context, it condemns all non-necessary divorce.
Third, it ordains the only valid context for physical intimacy. The creation account establishes the exclusive covenantal commitment that sanctifies the intimate self-giving of the body in mutual love. All acts of sexual engagement outside of this sacred bond are condemned as damnable.
Fourth, it defines marriage as monogamous. Thus it condemns polygamy. God made Eve to be Adam’s companion, and the two are made one flesh. Again, I emphasize, two are made one. In God’s perfect world, there are not three or four or more joined to this perfect marriage. Eve was made to be Adam’s sole intimate helper; as the gift of God, she was fully adequate to that task. When we read of polygamy in the Old Testament, it is to be understood as a deviation from God’s ideal.
Fifth, it condemns sodomy. The creation account teaches that the One who ordained marriage is the One who defines it. Human government cannot re-define what God has already defined and established in the created order. God established marriage to be a union of a man and a woman. “God made them male and female.” There are only two genders and they are determined by God; they cannot be re-defined by people—not by nominal nomenclature, not by genetic manipulation, and not by surgical mutilation.
So the creation account clarifies God’s perfect will for marriage and sexuality. It refuted the deviations of the Pharisees, and it refutes the corruptions and perversions that abound in our day as well. We need to remember these Genesis foundations as we face the challenges of an increasingly corrupt society. God’s standard does not change.
And what the Lord Jesus Christ is teaching us is that a biblical worldview must begin with God as Creator. The One who made reality is the One who determines and defines its meaning. No man has a right to overturn the nature of reality as it exists in the created order. Gender binary, monogamous marriage, and family units inhere in the very structure of this world as God created it. For man to redefine and corrupt the sacred ordinance of marriage is to blasphemously assume to himself the prerogative of the Creator, to vaunt himself into the place of God, and to invoke upon Himself divine judgment. What God has established, let not man seek to pervert it.
The Lord’s words were strong. They were more forceful than what any rabbi was saying in those days, because he had a higher view of the sanctity of marriage. Naturally, the disciples were as impacted as they were perplexed about His teaching, leading to…
III. An Authoritative Clarification (vv. 10–12)
Verses 10–12: “In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” What He’s saying is that if a marriage is absolved on grounds that are not biblically justified, the divorce is not a true absolution in the eyes of God. Just because society gives a man or a woman a right to divorce and remarry does not mean God does. Anyone who divorces and remarries without biblical justification commits an act of adultery in so doing and incurs great guilt before the Lord.
The words of verses 11–12 are stated as if they are absolute. No exception is mentioned. This is because they are intentionally hyperbolic as Mark records them. Whether divorce was permitted in the case of sexual immorality was not at issue among the Jews. All Jewish interpreters agreed that immorality was just grounds for divorce. It would have been superfluous for Mark to record that fact, seeing that it was generally understood, and was not necessary to his purpose in this passage. Mark intended to highlight the sanctity of marriage as a rebuke to the rampant sin caused by trivial or low views of it. It was not his intention to specify the just cause for divorce, which was the focus of the Pharisees.
But in Matthew chapters 5 and 19, the Gospel writer does qualify Jesus’s statement. In Mathew 19, which relays the same event as Mark 10, Jesus says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” So the prohibition is not absolute: there is an exception. And in Matthew 5:31–32 He says, “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
This is Jesus’s authoritative interpretation of Moses. Here He specifies that “sexual immorality” is a just ground for divorce. The Greek word is πορνεία, and it broadly covers all forms of unchastity, fornication, and adultery. The reference in this context is primarily to adultery, but also applies to gross sexual perversions that violate the one-flesh union of the marital covenant. When fornication has occurred as defined by Jesus, the innocent party is justified in procuring a divorce and finding another spouse, granted that they marry in the Lord.
The apostle Paul gives another exception to the rule in 1 Corinthians 7:15. There he writes, “if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” Here, the apostle, inspired by the Spirit of Christ to give authoritative guidance to the Church, adds that desertion is also a just cause for divorce. If a spouse departs and refuses to fulfill their marital vows, behaving like an unbeliever, then the believer who has been abandoned may lawfully—with the permission of God—procure a divorce, after which they are free to remarry in the Lord.
Those are the only just grounds for divorce. Any other ‘ground’ or motive is not permissible before the Lord. This by the way has been the position of the majority of Protestant and Reformed pastors, scholars, and theologians; there has been such a strong consensus about it that it has even obtained confessional status, being outlined for instance in chapter 24 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Therefore, if a person pursues divorce on grounds other than adultery or desertion, the divorce is not justified. Hence, remarriage for that person is not either. If they divorce and remarry without biblical grounds, this would be the case that Jesus evidently refers to. They commit an act of adultery.
What should they do, then, if after they are remarried, they come to their senses and recognize that they sinned and that their previous divorce was illegitimate? Should they leave their second spouse? Absolutely not. They should sincerely repent of their past sin before the Lord. But they should not add to that sin by rupturing another marriage. Remarrying illegitimately was an act of committing adultery but to remain in that subsequent marriage is not ongoing or perpetual adultery. Though the second marriage was not justified by a biblically-warranted divorce, that does not mean that it’s not a binding covenantal commitment before the Lord. The subsequent marriage was contracted by solemn vows before God and witnesses. The marriage stands. It is as much a covenant as it is a one-flesh union. It would therefore be further sin to divorce again. Deuteronomy 24:3–4 confirms this when it recognizes second marriages and forbids a person who has been twice married from returning to the former spouse. Even Moses taught that second marriages are binding.
Someone might be wondering at this point if their previous divorce was truly lawful in the sight of God. You may even realize that it was not lawful. What should you do now? Here is my advice: go before the Lord in prayer and apologize. Cry out to Him in deep repentance and contrition of heart. And commit your ways to the Lord in your current marriage. Express your repentance to God by renewing your commitment to love, to cherish, to be faithful to your current spouse until death do you part. Demonstrate the sincerity of your repentance before God by making correlating restitution in your current marriage relationship—by loving your spouse with all your heart for Christ’s sake. Be resolved to refrain from falling into the sins into which you fell in your previous marriage, that led to or contributed to your divorce. And with reliance on God’s grace, seek to cultivate faithfulness in your current state to love your current spouse with true Christlike and superlative love.
To those who are unmarried, who are single and desire to marry, the Lord’s words are equally applicable to you. You see with what esteem your Lord upholds the sanctity of marriage. You can also see—all around you in our culture—the disastrous consequences of marriages that have ended in tragedy. I implore you to allow the high regard for marriage and the sober reality of divorce to produce in you a fearful sense of carefulness as you contemplate your future spouse. As you look to the Lord and consider potential prospects for marriage, remember that this is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make in your life. J. C. Ryle said,
Of all relations of life, none ought to be regarded with such reverence, and none taken in hand so cautiously as the relation of husband and wife. In no relation is so much earthly happiness to be found, if it be entered upon discreetly, advisedly, and in the fear of God. In none is so much misery seen to follow, if it be taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, wantonly, and without thought.[vii]
Make piety your priority in seeking a spouse and proceed carefully; don’t make a single move toward marriage without fear and trembling and prayer and study and counsel from people you respect and who know you well.
And finally, to us who are married: what a sacrosanct relationship the Lord has placed us in! You have covenanted yourself to a relationship that entails no small obligation. Your spouse is made one flesh with you. You are to pour out your body, your heart, your soul, in love to your spouse. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved and gave Himself for the church. Wives are to love their husbands by showing respect and humble submission for conscience’ sake. May the Lord help us to love our spouse out of the love with which Christ has loved us! Are you tempted to love your spouse less when they are a sinner in your eyes? Don’t forget you are a much greater sinner in God’s eyes. And yet His love is so magnanimous, so invincible, so enduring, that His covenant with you, dear believer, is from everlasting to everlasting! Remember that your Lord will never break His vows to you. Do, then, follow in His steps and emulate His loving faithfulness.
Finally, friends, we know that marriage is not the ultimate end. It is a shadow of a greater reality: of the relationship between Christ and His church. God instituted marriage to be a reflection of the gospel. All the goodness and blessing that comes with marriage is but a faint shadow of the goodness and blessing of being united to Christ. He made a bond with you in blood, Christian, not just till death do you part, but a bond that death now cannot put apart. Not even death can sever you from His covenant love. When it comes to our union with Christ, what God has joined together no man will ever be able to put asunder! So as you enjoy the blessings of marriage in this life, let them turn your eyes upward to the greater blessings of the wedding supper to come, where the Lamb will consummate His intimate love with His church. And as you suffer through the pains that accompany marriage in this fallen world, know that those pains remind us that this life is not what we ultimately live for. All such pains and griefs on this earth accentuate a corresponding antithetical perfection that awaits us when our great Bridegroom comes again.
[i] R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “The Case Against Homosexual Marriage,” https://albertmohler.com/2004/01/15/the-case-against-homosexual-marriage (accessed 10/28/2023).
[ii] James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 300
[iii] R. Kent Hughes, Mark, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 254.
[iv] See James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 301.
[v] John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 380.
[vi] The Westminster Confession of Faith 24:2.
[vii] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark (London: William Hunt, 1859), 199.