How are we to live as members of Christ’s kingdom? Right throughout the gospel of Mark, the Lord Jesus has made clear — by the things he’s said and by what he’s done — that he’s the Christ, God’s Anointed King, who is able to deliver his people from their sin and misery and to give them everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom. We’ve seen too that the way to enter his kingdom is through repentance and faith: turning in repentance from our sin and unbelief and turning with faith to the only Saviour of the world. But once we’ve become members of his kingdom, how should we live? How are we to live as members of Christ’s kingdom?
Last week we learned that we’re to be servants of all, loving and serving our neighbour. ‘If anyone wants to be first’, the Saviour said, ‘he must be the very last and the servant of all.’ So, we’re to spend our lives loving and serving the people around us. However, we also saw last week that we’re to be tough with ourselves, ruthless with ourselves even, because we must cut out of our life whatever sinful habits might lead us or someone else astray. You’re to cut sinful habits out of your life; and keep yourself pure and free from the stain of sin.
What else must we do? What more can we say about life in Christ’s kingdom? Well, today’s passage is about marriage. Whereas those who belong to the unbelieving world will treat marriage lightly, those who belong to Christ’s kingdom will honour marriage.
And so we read in verse 1 that the Lord and his disciples left that place — that is, Capernaum — and they went into the region of Judea and across the Jordon river. And crowds of people came to see him. And — ‘as was his custom’, Mark tells us — he taught them. You see, not only is he our Great King who was sent to deliver us from our sin and misery, but the Lord Jesus is also our Great Prophet who teaches us about life in his kingdom.
And we read that some Pharisees came too. But they didn’t come to learn from the Lord Jesus; no, they came in order to test him. We’ve seen before how they doubted the Lord and opposed him; and we’ve seen before how they used to complain about him and his disciples; and they would try to test him with their questions and even to trap him into saying something which might get him into trouble. And that’s what they’re doing now: they’ve come to test him by asking him about his views on divorce.
Some of the commentators remind us that King Herod has put John the Baptist to death for criticising his marriage to Herodias, who had divorced her husband in order to marry Herod. And so, it’s possible that the Pharisees were hoping that the Lord might say something which would get him into trouble with Herod. In any case, they did not come to learn from the Lord, but to test him.
And they tested him by asking him about divorce. They asked:
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
In other words:
Is it okay with God for a man to divorce his wife?
That’s their question; and if you know anything about the way Jewish rabbis work, you won’t be surprised that the Lord answered their question by asking another question. They asked him:
Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
And he replied by asking:
What did Moses command you?
Now, when he mentions ‘Moses’, he’s referring to those books of the Bible which were written by Moses and which contain the Law of the Lord. In other words, he’s referring to the first five books of the Bible, which were written by Moses. And, of course, we believe that those books — as well as the rest of the Scriptures — were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So, the Lord Jesus is really asking the Pharisees what the word of God says about this matter.
And we have their answer in verse 4 where they say that Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away. They’re referring to Deuteronomy 24 which refers to divorce and how — if a man’s wife become displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her — he may write a certificate of divorce and send her away. She’s then free to marry someone else. However, if her second husband also divorces her or if he dies, the woman’s first husband is not allowed to marry her again. That’s what Deuteronomy 24 is about.
The meaning of ‘something indecent’ was the subject of debate among Jewish rabbis. Some said it referred to immodest behaviour, while others said it referred to anything the husband found displeasing. So, spoiling her husband’s dinner was regarded by some as sufficient ground for divorce. Matthew’s version of this conversation between the Lord Jesus and the Pharisees perhaps reflects this debate, because Mathew tells us that the Pharisees asked the Lord whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason? You know: Can I divorce my wife for spoiling my dinner? But no matter what ‘something indecent’ means in Deuteronomy 24, the fact is that the Pharisees believed it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. In other words, they think it’s okay with God for a marriage to end in divorce. But are they right? Are they correct? Well, let’s look at the Lord’s response in verses 5 to 9.
The Lord’s Response to the Pharisees 1
Firstly, in verse 5, the Lord explained that the reason the Lord gave them this law in Deuteronomy 24 is because your hearts are hard. Because your hearts are hardened by sin — which prevents husbands and wives from loving one another the way that they should; and which prevents them from loving the Lord the way that they should — because your hearts are hardened by sin, the Lord God — as a concession to you — permitted husbands to divorce their wives. But here’s the thing: just because God permitted divorce, just because he allowed it, doesn’t mean that he approves of it.
That’s the Lord’s first point. And, of course, the hardness of our hearts is at the root of all our problems, isn’t it? If Adam had not sinned in the beginning, then there would never have been any need for divorce in the world; and Adam and Eve and every husband and wife after them would have loved one another perfectly. But once sin came into the world, God announced that from that time on there would be trouble and conflict in the home. The woman would desire to overpower her husband and to dominate him, while the man in turn would try to overpower and dominate his wife. In other words, there would be this conflict in the home. Instead of loving one another with a perfect love, Adam and Eve — and every husband and wife after them — will compete with one another and will argue with one another and will fight with one another. We’ll be like this with one another, because we’re sinners who sin continually against the Lord and against one another, so that instead of loving and serving one another, we sin against each other. And so, because we live in a fallen world, and because we’re sinners whose hearts are hardened by sin, husband and wives who once loved each other more than they loved anyone else in all the world, turn on one another and they begin to despise one another. And so, because our hearts are hard, and we sin against one another like this, the Lord God permitted divorce. But just because he permits it, doesn’t mean he approves of it.
The Lord’s Response to the Pharisees 2
And that leads me to the Lord’s second point, where he directs our attention to the beginning of creation when God created Adam and Eve. Do you remember? The world that God made was good, even very good. But there was something which was not good. The Lord declared that it was not good for the man to be on his own. And so the Lord announced that he was going to make a helper suitable for the man. He was going to make for the man someone who would help him fulfil the work that God had given him to do on the earth. By himself, the man would be continually frustrated because he would be unable on his own to do his work and to fulfil his calling. And so, the Lord was going to make this suitable helper for him. And so we read how the Lord put Adam in a deep sleep; and he then took one of his ribs; and from that rib, he made a woman; and the Lord brought her to the man. And when he saw her, Adam said:
This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.
And then in Genesis 2 we read these words which the Lord Jesus quotes in Mark 10:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
That was God’s original plan for marriage; that the Lord’s will for marriage. His will for marriage is for a man to leave his parents and the home he grew up in and to be united to his wife so that they become one flesh. And the Lord Jesus adds that they are no longer two, but one. Before they were married, they were two separate beings; now that they’re married, they have become one couple. So, this was God’s original plan for marriage and this is his will for those of us who are married: that we should be united like this in a life-long union which can only be broken by death.
A child’s relationship with his or her parents will change over time, because in the early years, children will live with their parents who will care for them and provide for them when they’re young and helpless. But when children are older, they will move out of the family home in order to be married or to live in their own house. A child’s relationship with his or her parents will change over time. That’s normal and to be expected; and wise parents will prepare for the day when their children will move out of the family home. But the relationship between a husband and wife is meant to be permanent; it’s meant to be a life-long commitment that should only be broken by death. And so, the Lord adds:
Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.
They’ve been joined together by God, because God is the one who has formed the marriage union and given it to us for our benefit. And since he’s the one who unites men and women together like this, no one should separate what he has joined together.
That is God’s will for those who are married; and therefore if we ask what God has commanded in respect to marriage and divorce — and not what he permits as a concession to us because of our sinfulness — if we ask what God has commanded in respect to marriage and divorce, we have to say from what we read in Genesis and from what the Lord says here in Mark’s Gospel that God commands married couples not to divorce, but to remain married for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health; till separated by death.
Now I should add that probably all of us knows someone whose marriage has broken down and who has even suffered a divorce. And I say ‘suffered a divorce’, because any marriage breakdown is awful; and divorce is awful; and it’s a painful experience for everyone who is affected by it. I remember my minister at home preaching from Malachi 2:16 which is translated in the NIV as:
‘I hate divorce’, says the Lord God of Israel.
And my minister was very wise, because he asked the congregation who else hates divorce? Who else hates divorce? And he answered his own question by telling us that all those who have been through a divorce hate divorce, because they know how painful it is.
So, we always need to be sensitive and sympathetic to those whose have suffered a divorce and whose marriages have broken down. Instead of condemning them, we need to be sensitive to them and understanding. And we should remind them that divorce is not the unpardonable sin which the Lord talks about in the gospels. There’s a sin which is unpardonable, which the Lord will never ever forgive. But it’s not divorce; and the person who has been through a divorce needs to be reminded that God is gracious and compassionate; and he does not treat us as our sins deserve; but he’s willing to pardon all of our sins for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. Whatever we have done wrong in our lives — and we all sin in many different ways; and even though the rest of us may not have been divorced, there’s not one of us who is married who has not sinned against the Lord and against our spouse — but whatever we have done wrong in our lives, God our Father is willing to pardon us if we trust in Christ the Saviour and confess our sins.
But having re-assured everyone of the grace of God, we still need to insist that God’s will for marriage is that those who are married should remain married, because they are no longer two, but one. And, of course, given the times we’re living in, I should also point out that God’s will for marriage is that it is between one man and one woman. It’s a life-long bond between a man and a woman.
The Lord’s Response to the Disciples
Since the Lord’s words were so completely at odds with what everyone else thought at that time, the disciples wanted to ask him about what he said. And so, in verses 10 to 12 we have the Lord’s response to the disciples. And this is what he said to them:
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.
When a Jewish man issued his wife with a certificate of divorce, he was declaring that she was free to marry again. But what the Lord Jesus is saying here is that if a divorced man marries another woman or if a divorced woman marries another man, they are committing adultery against each other. And they’re committing adultery against each other, because their one-flesh union cannot ever be broken. Despite their divorce, they are still united by this unbreakable bond.
Now this is not everything that the Bible teaches about divorce; it’s not even everything that the Lord Jesus teaches about divorce. So, in Matthew’s account of this conversation — which we find in Matthew 19 — the Lord said:
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.
So, there’s an exception: if the marriage has ended because of marital unfaithfulness, the innocent party may marry again. The same exception appears in Matthew 5:32 where the Lord said:
anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
The Apostle Paul gives another exception in 1 Corinthians 7 which is sometimes referred to as ‘deliberate desertion’. So, Paul describes the case of a married couple who were both unbelievers when they were married, but since their marriage, one of them is converted to faith in Christ. Under those circumstances, what should the believer do? Now that this person is a Christian, should he or she leave her unbelieving spouse? Paul says no, because the marriage bond is meant to be unbreakable. But, says Paul in verse 15, if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. If he’s unwilling to live with the believing spouse, then they should separate. I should add that some Christians say that a spouse who is irresponsible or abusive has also — in a sense — deserted their spouse, because they’ve given up their duty to love and care for their spouse. This would give the innocent party grounds for divorce.
Both of these exceptions — marital unfaithfulness and deliberate desertion — are mentioned in the chapter on marriage and divorce in our church’s Confession of Faith which says:
The sinful character of man is such as tends to look for excuses to justify the divorce of those whom God has joined together in marriage. However, only adultery or deliberate desertion — which cannot be remedied by the church or the civil authority — is a sufficient ground for dissolving the marriage bond. Divorce proceedings are to be conducted in a public and orderly manner so that the parties concerned in it are not left to decide the matter as they see fit.
So, how are we to live as members of Christ’s kingdom? Whereas those who belong to the unbelieving world — or those who belong to this present evil age, as Paul puts it in Galatians 1 — treat marriage lightly so that they will either not marry, but live together, or they will marry and think nothing of ending the marriage in divorce and marrying again, the members of Christ’s kingdom are to be obedient to their Father in heaven and they are to regard their marriage as an unbreakable bond which God has formed and which brings them into a one-flesh union with their spouse. Believers who are married would do well to erase the word ‘divorce’ from their vocabulary; and whenever the Devil whispers the word ‘divorce’ to them and tries to persuade them that they would be better off divorced rather than remain in an unhappy marriage, they must stand firm against his wicked schemes and refuse to pay attention to his evil suggestions, because the Devil hates us and wants to ruin our lives, whereas our loving Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares for us, has made clear to us that the best thing for his children is to remain married.
And our loving Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares for us, gives his Spirit to his people to help us to walk in his ways and to do his will. And so, whoever is in an unhappy marriage must rely on the Holy Spirit to help them not only endure an unhappy marriage but to transform their marriage and make it better. They must rely on the Holy Spirit to help them to be loving, faithful and dutiful to their spouse, for this is God’s will for you. And you can rely on the Holy Spirit to help your spouse to be loving, faithful and dutiful to you, for this is God’s will for your spouse. And the God we believe in is a God of hope, who promises to work together all things for our good; and who is able — because he is both mighty and wise — to bring great good out of every evil that befalls us.
And, of course, we not only have the Holy Spirit to help us, but we have God’s word to guide us. Instead of turning to self-help books and to the wisdom of the world, we should turn to God’s word, which has been breathed-out by God and is useful for teaching us and rebuking us and for correcting us and for training us in righteousness. God has given us his word to guide us and to show us how to live as members of his kingdom.
And not only do we have the Holy Spirit to help us and God’s word to guide us, but we have the fellowship of God’s people to encourage us and to comfort us. And we have the elders of the church to support us and to exercise faithful church discipline when necessary.
What has God commanded? God has commanded that marriage should be a life-long commitment of one man and one woman. That is his will for marriage. And he’s given us his Spirit to help us and his word to guide us and his church to support us. And relying on them, we can trust that the Lord will help married couples to remain united as long as they both shall live, and to regard their marriage as a blessing, for this is God’s will for us and this is how the married members of Christ’s kingdom should live.