Let No Man Seperate
Divorce is not something we talk about within our culture. You can ask questions about someone’s wedding, but the conversation can become awkward when you begin to ask questions about divorce. Today’s passage can bring up tough questions. To some people, these questions are personal. We all know someone who has had a divorce. The United States of America has one of the highest divorce rates in the world. The divorce rate in the USA is declining but so is the marriage rate. On average, 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. This rate varies based on age (particularly age when married), state you live in, and religious affiliations. The average marriage in the USA is 8.2 years. Then you can start to think about the impact this can have on family units, particularly children. 21% of children are raised without a father. Children with divorced parents are more likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to attempt suicide, four times as likely to have social problems, and have a greater risk of living in poverty. These statistics can be helpful to understand the effects of divorce, but we are not to live by statistics but by the word of God. What does the Bible teach us about divorce?
When looking at such a sensitive topic, we need to realize the limitations of preaching compared to Biblical counsel with a couple or individual. The Bible is sufficient to be able to counsel men and women through these tough questions. However, for me to look at these case studies while preaching would not be helpful. Each case requires Biblical wisdom and compassion to apply the Bible to individual people’s lives. We also need to be reminded of what the Bible emphasizes. There are a handful of verses that specifically speak about divorce and remarriage (they are important). But the Bible has hundreds of verses that explain that Christ’s grace is sufficient for all those who put their trust in him. All divorce is a result of sin, now I am not saying all divorce is sin, but every divorce is to do with sin. But for those who have not been divorced, we also need to realize that we can become puffed up and proud. We can look upon others arrogantly, but we can be the ones who are sinning. In all of this, we need to be reminded of the great promise of forgiveness as the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF 15.4) beautifully puts it, “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”
I. The question of divorce (1-5)
Jesus leaves Capernaum and goes to the region of Judea. The crowds gather around him, and once more, he begins to teach them. The Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him a question. However, we are told the motive of their question is not to find the truth but to test Jesus. The question relates to divorce. We need to note a couple of important things here. The Pharisees test Jesus just as Satan tested Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1:13). This is not a coincidence, but as Jesus explains in the Gospel of John that they are just like their father, the devil (John 8:44). The second important piece of information we need to understand is that they are in the religion where Herod Antipas is ruler. As you can remember, Herod Antipas is the one who beheaded John the Baptist because he divorced his wife and remarried his brother’s wife, Herodias. John had been telling Herod Antipas, “It is not lawful for you to have Herodias as your wife.” (Mark 6:14-29). The Pharisees most likely asked this question of Jesus to be placed in the same situation as John the Baptist. Then Herod would act and destroy Jesus for them.
The Pharisees asked their question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This question was one of the significant divisions in various schools of Rabbis. Jesus does not turn to the different Rabbi’s teaching but back to the Law given to Moses. We can learn a lot from how Jesus interacts with people. Often he does not jump right into the question but will ask another question back to the original people or person that asked the question. Jesus turns it around to ask, “what did Moses command you?” Their question is, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” They then summarize their understanding of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which explains:
“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, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 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, 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 various schools of the Rabbis read this Law found in Deuteronomy and came to different conclusions. What does it mean when the man finds some “indecency in her” or the second man who “hates her.” The Hillel school described indecency as anything that could bring shame, dishonor, or even if the husband was displeased with her, even if she spoils a dish for him. The second opposing view was the Shammai school which argued that “indecency” was more sexual infidelity, particularly adultery. The Hillel school, “no-fault divorce,” was the standard view of the day, mainly that the man could write a certificate of divorce and send his ex-wife away. This is where the same account in Matthew can be helpful. The question recorded in Matthew is not only if it is lawful, but “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause? (Matt 19:3). Even the most conservative Jewish school of thought said that divorce is permissible. The Pharisees even give an answer which would have pleased Herod Antipas, a man can write a certificate of divorce for any reason.
Jesus’ response is not to address the woman who was divorced but the Pharisees. Jesus explains that Law is because of man’s hard heart. Some laws are written to stop sin, but others are written when sin happens. Now we do need to note one thing about their response, mainly it is the man who has the power and authority to write the certificate of divorce. However, one of the main points of this law was to protect the woman. Even if she is divorced, she can remarry. The Pharisees read the Law in Deuteronomy 24 as permission to divorce, but the Law was more specifically to preserve the woman’s rights in the event of divorce. The Law was written because of their hard hearts. This Greek word, “hard hearts,” is used in the LXX in Deuteronomy 10:16. This section of Deuteronomy reminds the Israelites of God’s purpose of the commandments, for God’s glory and the people’s good. Jesus explains the Law is because you have uncircumcised hearts, that man is stubborn and stiff-necked.
II. The designer of marriage (6-9)
Jesus uses what the reformers would explain as letting Scripture interpret Scripture. The Pharisees turned to man’s interpretation, which benefitted man’s sinful hearts. However, Jesus explains the principle behind the Law by turning back to creation. To best understand divorce, we must first understand God’s design for marriage. James Edwards, the commentator states, “The divine intention for marriage cannot be determined from a text about divorce.” God’s design for marriage can be explained in 4 parts.
1. Male and Female
Jesus does not start in Genesis chapter two, where we see Adam meet Eve, but right back to Genesis 1:27. Both male and female are made in the image of God. This principle is lost in the Pharisees’ understanding of Deuteronomy 24, and we will see this in verses 10-12. Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27, which recalls the following verses. A good Pharisee would memorize Scripture. Just if I was to say, “We the people…” this reference is not merely three words but points us to the whole American constitution. So too, Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27, the entire section is to come to mind. Without preaching a sermon on the text, I would encourage you to read and study in your own time. God blesses them. God commands them to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion over the world. God gave them all that they needed to do all this, and God pronounced everything very good. To understand marriage, you need to realize that God is where it all begins.
2. Leaving and Cleaving
The second point Jesus explained was that a man would leave his father and mother and hold fast or be united to his wife. We see several critical Biblical principles of marriage, that marriage is between one man and one woman. And marriage then establishes family units that are vital to the health of society. If you want to ask what is best for society, even sociologists from different backgrounds would say healthy families mean a healthy society. Again, more could be said about this, but for the time, we will move on. Furthermore, the Pharisees had a wrong understanding of marriage, mainly that man is to leave his family and hold fast to his wife, but in divorce (as they understood it), they can send her away with no reasoning. The Pharisees might have been trying to keep the fifth commandment to honor their father and mother yet were not honoring their wives.
3. Two become one
Jesus continues to quote from Genesis chapter two, which shows the bond of marriage. The simple principle is that marriage ties two people together. They become one flesh. This has many implications but shows the permanence of marriage. Marriage is not a contractual agreement that has a timeframe. Sadly, this is how many people talk about marriage. Gone are the marriages based upon the Common book of prayer marriage vows, “to death do us part.” Often marriages are ended because the couple explains they are no longer compatible (43% of divorce). Marriage for the Pharisees was not lifelong in their understanding. It was up to the man to determine how long he wanted it to be—mainly, centered around his subjective view.
4. God joined together
Underneath all of this is the simple principle that marriage is designed by God, not a man-made institution. Jesus explains what “God has joined together.” Marriage is not then made for man but the glory of God. The Pharisees thought it was up to the man if they could get divorced rather than what God had designed. Marriage is an image of Christ and the church (Eph 5:31-32). Paul explains that marriage is a mystery ordained by God in the garden of Eden but ultimately points to Christ and his church. Marriage is one of the most beautiful images of intimacy between two people who become one flesh. It is an image of Christ’s love, sacrifice, patience, and compassion. However, society often views marriage as the Pharisees did, as a short-term agreement for personal gain, rather than a lifelong commitment of faithfulness between one man and one woman, before God. Thus, Jesus explains what God has joined together, let no man separate.
III. The question of remarriage (10-12)
Once the disciples were alone with Jesus, away from the crowds, they asked him about the matter of divorce. These verses can be challenging for us to swallow. Before we get to the actual words, we need to highlight something quite a shock to those who would have heard the words from Jesus’ mouth. As you can remember, the Pharisees asked the question, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” the question specifically asked if a man could divorce his wife. There is no mention of the woman’s right to divorce her husband. However, Jesus does explain that both men and women have equal rights when it comes to divorce. This would have been a shock to Jewish ears.
However, Jesus explains that if a husband or a wife divorces their spouse, then they remarry, they commit adultery. Jesus builds upon the previous statement that what God has joined together, let no man separate. The one-flesh principle. Paul explains in Romans chapter 7 that if the spouse dies, the other person is free to remarry. Many Bible verses reflect this principle that those who initiated the divorce should not remarry or be reconciled with their spouse (1 Cor 7:10-11, Rom 7:3, Luke 16:18, Matt 19:9, Matt 5:31-32). This is where it becomes complicated, and wisdom is needed to apply God’s word in the individual’s life. For example, what happens if a person gets a divorce and remarries another spouse, and then becomes a Christian? If you have questions about this, I would recommend a book by Dr. Jim Newheiser, “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage.” So, without getting caught in the weeds, maybe I can summarize five statements that are prioritized.
- Marriage should be held in honor and kept undefiled (Heb 13:4)
- Divorce is permissible (but not required) upon biblical grounds (Adultery or abandonment (Matt 19:9, 1 Cor 7:15))
- Reconciliation after divorce is encouraged but not required (1 Cor 7:11)
- Remarriage is possible for some but should be sought with Biblical wisdom (cf. 1 Cor 7:32-40)
- Remaining unmarried is a way to serve and glorify God (Mark 10:10-12, 1 Cor 7:6-7, 11)
Marriage is designed by God, and we should seek to understand his word. The Bible, I believe, is clear on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. However, that does not mean marriage, divorce, and remarriage are not messy. Real-life is complicated and dealing with sinners (which we all are) is always complicated. We should be cautious not to be like the Pharisees who sought to interpret Scripture in their way. We should seek to understand what God has said in his word and, when we do not understand it to turn to other portions of Scripture to understand it.
IV. Live the life God has called you
Looking at a complex topic like divorce is always challenging, whether we have been divorced or know people who have been divorced. Sometimes we can get caught up with the exceptions to the rule and the main rule or principle is lost. We need to be able to explain that marriage is good because it is designed by God. Divorce is bad because of man’s sinful heart, but because of man’s sinful heart, divorce might be permissible. However, some of the Law is not to prevent us from sinning but also to help us to deal with sin. We do need to be able to read complex passages like these and affirm what the Bible says. We also need to make sure we read the whole Bible. Divorce is not always sinful but does not make all divorces right. Yet, just because we have never been divorced does not mean we are not sinners. We all need to be reminded of the truth I explained before, that no matter what box you tick, married, single, widow, divorced, we all need Jesus. We all have committed sins that have had consequences on our lives. King David is a prime example of this. He committed adultery with Bathsheba and then had Uriah murdered. However, he still sought God’s forgiveness (Ps 51). Paul commands those to live the life that God has called them (1 Cor 7:17, 24). Jesus’ teaching can show us how we can live life to Glorify God and how we have not glorified God and then shows our need for the cross. We need to be reminded once more of WCF 15:4, “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation; so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”