What Jesus Said About Divorce

Last Sunday I preached from Mark 10:1-12/Matt. 19:1-9 on Jesus’ instruction about divorce.  I have received a tremendous amount of feedback asking for this sermon’s availability on podcast. Until we can get the podcast loaded, I thought I would post this amended version of my manuscript from Sunday. I think the sermon is better, making clearer explanation/transition/application, so listen to that if you get a chance.  Also, I have not documented the numerous sources I used in preparing this manuscript.  In short, the church needs to have a prophetic voice against the world’s flippant, cheapened view of marriage and ease of divorce. At the same time, the church needs to reach out to those dealing with the pain of divorce and be a reflection of the love and grace of Jesus.  As always, I am humbled and honored that anyone would want to read/listen to my blog/messages. God bless!

A major magazine published an article entitled, “Is Anyone Faithful Anymore?”  In it, the story is told of a young married woman having lunch with eleven of her friends.  During conversation, one of the women asked, “How many of you have been faithful throughout your marriage?”  Of the twelve women, only one raised their hand.  That night, the young woman went home and told her husband about the conversation.  She revealed to him that she was not the one who raised her hand saying they had been faithful.  Her husband was shocked and devastated.  But she quickly replied, “But I have been faithful.”  “Then why didn’t you raise your hand?” the husband asked.  “I was ashamed” was her reply.

How did we get to a place in society where someone would feel ashamed that they were faithful to their spouse, instead of the other way around?  The reason is that the cultural agenda of our society is “self-fulfillment,” “self-realization,” and “self-actualization.”  So pervasive is our society’s preoccupation with these matters that we have made commitment to one of the most sacred institutions conditional on the question, “Am I getting fulfillment from this?”  In regard to marriage, authors John Adam and Nancy Williamson wrote a book titled, “Divorce: How and When to Let Go” where they write:

“Your marriage can wear out.  People change their values and lifestyles.  People want to experience new things.  Change is a part of life.  Change and personal growth are traits for you to be proud of, indicative of a vital searching mind.  You must accept the reality that in today’s multifaceted world it is especially easy for two persons to grow apart.  Letting go of your marriage- if it is no longer fulfilling- can be the most successful thing you have ever done.  Getting a divorce can be a positive, problem-solving, growth-oriented step.  It can be a personal triumph.”

When self-fulfillment becomes our guiding principle in life, we call failure “success,” disintegration “growth” and disaster “triumph.”  What a tragedy!  The elevation of one’s own self-fulfillment as the ultimate good functionally reduces the Word of God into an optional guidebook to meet one’s emotional needs.  What a huge error to replace the inerrant Word of God with a humanistic values system.  More important than self-fulfillment, or even our own happiness, is obedience to God’s Word.

All of that said, God cares about our well-being.  He wants us to enjoy life and be satisfied and be fulfilled.  But the path to fulfillment is not marked by signs that say “my happiness first” or “self-realization.”  Prov. 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end of the path is destruction.”

Confusion About Marriage in Jesus’ Day

We need to understand the context to which these words were said.  We cannot understand these words in Mark without looking at the more detailed passage in Matt. 19:3-9 which gives us the background of Jesus’ day on this issue.

Matt. 19:3 states, “Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”  Their question is clearly based on Deut. 24:1- “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 indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…” In Jesus’ day there was a great deal of confusion about marriage and divorce based on differing opinions of this verse- namely what constituted “indecency?”  In general, there were two schools of thought that stood on opposite extremes of the issue: Rabbi Shammai and Rabbi Hillel.  The Shammai school took a very rigorist stand on divorce and said that it was not allowable for any reason at all.  The Hillel school took a very loose stand and interpreted the word “indecent” in Deut. 24:1 to mean anything from the wife burning the toast to becoming plain and ugly over the course of marriage.  In short, anything was justifiable grounds for divorce.

So the question arises partly out of confusion, but also out of the Pharisees desire to entrap Jesus as Matthew notes they were “testing” him.  Why use divorce to trap Jesus?  Recall that it was the issue of divorce and remarriage that landed John the Baptist in jail.  He openly told Herod that he should not have his wife, who was not his first wife.  In anger, Herod threw John in jail.  Perhaps the Pharisees are hoping to get Jesus to say something about divorce that will get back to Herod and get Jesus put in jail.  Jesus in his masterful wisdom confounds the Pharisees by showing the true teaching of Scripture about divorce and turns the subject back to the heart of the matter- the nature of marriage. The Pharisees have turned the sacred institution of marriage into a farce.  Some of them are saying you can get a divorce for any reason and all of them are using the institution of marriage to carry out their evil and selfish plan to get rid of Jesus.  The real heart of the matter isn’t the argument of grounds for divorce, it’s the nature of marriage itself.  Jesus says the reason you all have such trouble with divorce is because you have forgotten what marriage is all about.

Confusion About Marriage in Our Day

Can we say anything differently for our day?  We have made a mockery of marriage.  I fear we really don’t understand what we are monkeying with when it comes to marriage.  Realize that marriage is an institution.  What does that mean?  For 6,000 years of recorded human history marriage is the one institution that all peoples in virtually all cultures for all of time have generally honored and practiced as the thing that maintains society and allows it to have a future.  What our society is doing with gay marriage, cohabitation among unmarried couples, and the non-commital, disposable approach to marriage puts us in uncharted waters.  Society has never done on the same scale what we are doing today.  And the world is doing it with apparently little thought as to what altering marriage will do to society today and certainly tomorrow.  Like in Jesus’ day, we have made a mockery of marriage.  We have made it a plaything to suit our sinful and selfish desires.

The Permanence of Marriage

The Matt. 19 text makes it clear that Jesus is not at all in favor of divorce. His response to the Pharisees in Matt. 19:4-6 reveals that Jesus opposes divorce because of the permanence of the marriage bond- “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘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 they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”  Consider these two aspects of the permanence of marriage:

  • A Physical/Intimate Bond

A husband and wife become “one flesh.”  This means they share the deepest form of human relationship.  I was amazed at the instant and close bond I formed with my children when they were born and how that bond continues to grow.  But it will never be as close as the bond I have to Jamy.  Such closeness and intimacy implies that this is a union that is not to be broken.  From the very beginning in Scripture there was no thought of separating the marriage union.  We see it here in Jesus quoting from Genesis and we see it in Malachi:

2:14-16- “The LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. ‘For I hate divorce,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel… ‘So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

God’s ideal was and is, monogamous, intimate, and enduring marriage. Henry Ford, on the occasion of his 50th wedding anniversary, was asked his rule for marital bliss and longevity.  Ford replied, “Just the same as in the automobile business, stick to one model.”

  • A Spiritual Bond

Another thing that Scripture teaches about the permanence of marriage is

what it represents spiritually.  Why did God create male and female and have them bond through the institution of marriage?  Was it for the purpose of procreation?  No, although that is one aspect of marriage.  The purpose of marriage is to illustrate the relationship we have with Jesus.  The bond of marriage represents the bond of the church to Christ.  In Eph. 5, Paul spoke of a wife submitting to the leadership of her husband and a husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church. He summarizes in Eph. 5:32- “This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.”  So the sacredness and permanence of marriage is seen in the most important relationship it represents- our relationship to Christ.

The Permission for Divorce

So we come to the most difficult aspect of the passage- the issue of divorce.

Given what we have just learned about the importance and permanence of marriage, divorce is a difficult and undesired thing.  But Moses did give an allowance for divorce in Deut. 24 and the Pharisees were pressing Jesus about it. As usual, Jesus shows where the Pharisees have interpreted the Scripture wrong.  Notice in Matt. 19:7 the Pharisees say Moses “commanded” divorce.  But Jesus corrects them and says he “permitted” divorce.  The Pharisees wanted to interpret the Scripture in a way that would make it easy on them and allow them to fulfill their selfish/sinful desires.  But Jesus always sees the Scripture differently. It calls for great commitment and sacrifice.  This is needed in all walks of life as we follow God, especially our marriages.  Jesus tells them that Moses permitted divorce because of the hardness of the people’s heart.  So, divorce wasn’t something you just walked in and out of, it was reluctantly given as a permission because of the weakness of people.

Jesus explains why divorce is permitted and the reason he gives is adultery.  Remember in the OT that if adultery was committed, the marriage was terminated not by divorce, but by death!  But by Jesus day, the Roman legal system had made death sentences hard to obtain, so there were two rabbinical schools arguing about divorce.  Everything here hinges on the word “unchastity.”  It is the Greek word porneia, which was used for prostitution and basically any kind of sexual immorality.  To me the plain teaching of this text is:

  1. If you divorce and remarry for any reason other than marital unfaithfulness, you are the one who becomes the adulterer.  Jesus puts this in such stark terms to teach the importance of the marriage union.
  2. If marital unfaithfulness occurs, divorce is permissible, but not commanded.  If you discover your spouse is unfaithful, you have grounds for divorce but not a license to do it.  Given the importance of marriage, my personal belief is that God would want a couple in this situation to earnestly seek God’s forgiveness and to reconcile to one another.
  3. The whole point in Moses’ day for a woman to receive a certificate of divorce was for her protection and not for the man’s convenience.  A certificate of divorce basically gave social safeguards for a woman.  This means that the security of a wife and children is very important. If a woman is in a situation where she is being abused and the children are endangered, it is clear God does not expect her to stay in that situation.

Finally, as bad as divorce is, it is not the unpardonable sin as some in the Christian community treat it.  If there is divorce in your life there is forgiveness and restoration in Jesus.  Sadly, blended families, divorcees, and single parents are many times kicked off the edge of the cliff through the judgmentalism that can occur in church.  The church needs to be a place where all people can come and seek the Lord and be loved by believers.





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One Response to “What Jesus Said About Divorce”

  1. Excellent message. Here is an interesting take on divorce from George Barna. It is somewhat dated (2008) but is still relevant: http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released?q=divorce