Seeking to test Jesus, the Pharisees came to Him with questions about divorce and remarriage. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark, showing how Christ’s response reveals His commitment to the truth, rather than public opinion.
Let’s turn our attention now to Mark 10:1–12, and I’ll ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
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.”
Beloved, this very difficult and weighty matter that you’ve just heard from the lips of our Lord is the Word of God. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, as we now turn our attention to the sanctity of the institution of marriage, which You have been pleased to give to Your people for our well being, we pray that You would pierce through the hardness of our hearts, cut through the cacophony of noise that we hear from the secular culture, that we might understand these things concerning marriage according to your Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Calamitous Status of Marriage
At the turn of middle of the twentieth century, the Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin, noted as the leading historian in the western world, wrote a book sounding an alarm about the impending disintegration of American culture and civilization. The central thesis of Sorokin’s book was drawing attention to the crisis affecting this nation with the radical proliferation of divorce and the breakup of the American home occurring between 1910 and 1948.
He pointed out that the divorce rate in America in 1910 was 10%—that is, 10% of marriages ended in divorce. That number increased dramatically from 10% to 25% in 1948. Sorokin, as a historian of culture, said that no civilization can survive for any period of time when one-fourth of the marriage units of the nation are disintegrating. He was very much concerned about this calamitous situation when the divorce rate reached 25%.
Of course, today, that’s old news. Now, it’s well over 50%. The divorce rate is so high that for the first time in American history, and arguably even in Western history, generations of young people are repudiating the institution of marriage altogether and opting to cohabit without a marriage contract to unite them to each other. In the culture in which we live, it is commonplace for young people to live together rather than to be married, and to do so without any societal sanctions against them. It’s a matter of course.
Let me say this in all candor: it’s a matter of course in the pagan society, but for Christians ever to cohabit outside the institution of marriage is a gross and heinous sin against God. It is something that should be absolutely unheard of in the Christian community. You know as well as I do, however, that this practice is now taking place widely within the church. So often, even professing Christians take their cue on how we should live, not from the Word of God, but rather from the culture around them, following the customs that are acceptable in pagan culture. We are called as Christians to march to a different drummer.
The Pharisees Test Jesus
Our text today brings us to some of the controversy that rises up historically over the question of marriage and divorce. Notice in chapter 10, we read that as Jesus makes His way with His disciples from Galilee down to Jerusalem, He enters the region of Judea in the Jordan area where John the Baptist had been practicing baptism. The multitudes gather to Jesus again and He teaches them, and then the Pharisees come with the question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Notice in the text it says that the question is raised, “‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him.” The Pharisees are not coming to Jesus because they really want to know His view on marriage and divorce. They come to Jesus with this question about the legality of a man divorcing a woman, and we are told that they bring this question to test Him. What’s the test? Mark doesn’t tell us, but it can be one of two things.
On the one hand, if Jesus says that it is not lawful for a man to divorce his wife and to marry another, they are asking that question in the territory where Herod Antipas is the Tetrarch. He had John the Baptist executed because he publicly decried the illegitimate divorce and remarriage of Herod to Herodias, which we’ve already looked at in the text of Mark. Now they come to Jesus and say, “Is it alright for a man to divorce his wife?” If Jesus says, “No,” that message will go straight back to Herod, and the Pharisees can hope that the same fate that befell John the Baptist might now befall Jesus. That’s probably what the test was.
An Ongoing Theological Controversy
The other possibility is that, at this time in Jewish history, there was an ongoing theological controversy among the rabbis concerning marriage and divorce, and that dispute had to do with the understanding of Old Testament legislation regarding divorce. Let me go back into the Old Testament for a moment and read the passage that was in view among the rabbis. In the Torah, in the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24, we read these words, beginning in verse 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 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. (Deut. 24:1–4)
In the legislation of Deuteronomy, the rules for divorce are set forth, and God says that the violation of those rules is an abomination to God. Here was the dispute among the rabbis: what constitutes the unclean thing mentioned in Deuteronomy as the legitimate grounds for divorce? Other translations read “shameful thing.”
The specific sin of adultery is not in this text in Deuteronomy. The Jews already had a provision for adultery, and that was execution. So, if a man’s wife in the Old Testament committed adultery, he didn’t have to bother with a divorce. He could have her stoned to death, and that would be the end of it. That law was still in effect when Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph wanted to be merciful and put her away privately, so that the scandal of alleged adultery wouldn’t accompany her name. That indicates how this viewpoint was still in existence by the time of the birth of Jesus.
Two Rabbinical Schools of Thought
The theologians debated about the “unclean thing,” and there were two schools of thought among the rabbis: the conservatives and the liberals. Ladies and gentlemen, there are always conservatives and liberals in those who interpret the Word of God—and in everything else as far as that is concerned.
The Shammai school, which was the conservative school, argued that the only thing that would justify a divorce would be some shameful act of sexual infidelity. Anything less than that was not to be viewed as grounds for divorce, and the couple, even though they may have been fighting and unhappy, would have to stay together.
On the other hand, the Hillel school was the liberal rabbinical school, and they took a much broader view of interpreting what Deuteronomy meant by the “unclean thing.” The advocates of the Hillel school said, “Anything that a woman does that embarrasses her husband, disgraces him, or even displeases him would be under this broad rubric of shameful or unclean thing.” So the Hillel school gave virtually any grounds for a legal divorce. Rabbi Akiva observed that if a wife even broke a dish that her husband liked, that “shameful act” would be legitimate grounds for divorce.
So, you have the narrow view on the one hand and the extremely liberal view on the other hand. We know that in the days of Jesus, the prevailing view was the view of the school of Hillel. The liberals had, for the most part, won the day. That’s why Herod Antipas could get away publicly with his illegitimate divorce.
Ultimately, it’s either a political trap that they’ve laid for Jesus or a theological trap. If Jesus sides with the liberal school, suddenly the Pharisees will become conservatives and say Jesus is going against the law of Moses. If He sides with the conservative school, then they can say Jesus is going against public opinion. There’s no way that Jesus can win as this trap has been set for Him, either politically or theologically.
Responding to the Trap
Jesus was not much concerned with public opinion or political correctness to appease the theologians or the politicians. His meat and His drink were to do the will of the Father. He was concerned with truth and holiness. Let’s hear how Jesus responds to this question. He asks, “What did Moses command you?” Jesus points them right back to the Word of God, and they answer saying, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and to dismiss her.”
The one thing that both schools of thought took out of that was, however divorces were to take place, it was absolutely essential that there be a certificate given to the woman. That certificate was necessary to prove that she was duly divorced, so that she would be able to be remarried. Questions about marriage and divorce always have the attending question of remarriage associated with them, and both rabbinic schools of thought agreed that the certificate of divorce was necessary.
Jesus answered them: “Because of the hardness of your heart, he (Moses) wrote you this precept, but from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife.” He’s referring back to the institution of marriage in Genesis. “The two shall become one flesh, so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore”—here is our Lord’s conclusion—“what God has joined together, let not man put asunder or separate.”
Division about Divorce
As plainly as it seems that Jesus answers the question set before Him, you would think that it is clear and that the Christian church would be united in their view of marriage and divorce and have a completely united understanding of what Jesus taught in this passage. However, we still have battles everyday between conservatives and liberals on the question of divorce. I might add to it that there is ongoing controversy in interpreting exactly what Jesus was actually saying in His answer.
There are many theologians and churches who will not permit divorce on any grounds, and they call attention to this passage. They say: “In this text, Jesus abrogates the Old Testament provision that was given begrudgingly by the Author of marriage, God. He allowed this practice of divorce on certain grounds only because of the hardness of the hearts of the people.” They say that God accommodated human wickedness to let people out of marriages that were defined by hardened hearts, giving some respite to people having to suffer under such conditions.
Jesus points the Pharisees beyond Deuteronomy. He goes back to creation and says, “That provision is not the way it was intended.” When God instituted marriage originally, there were no provisions for divorce. None. Marriage was intended to be forever. The marriage vow does not say, “As long as we stay in love, as long as we get along, as long as we remain faithful,” rather, the marriage vow is, “As long as we both shall live.”
At this point, I’m carrying coals to Newcastle. People know that “as long as we both shall live” is what they promised when they got married. On their wedding day they weren’t making plans for divorce because they understood that sacred institution instituted by God is indeed regulated by His commandments, and Jesus said originally that there were no provisions for divorce. Because He said that, many theologians claim: “Jesus abrogates the loophole of Deuteronomy and is now restoring the original view of marriage. So, in Jesus’ view, there are no grounds for divorce whatsoever.” That would be an enticing understanding of this text, except for one major problem.
The Exceptive Clause
In the parallel treatment of this question in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew talks about the Pharisees bringing this same test before Jesus. When Jesus answers the question there, listen to what He says in Matthew 19:8: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” It’s the same point that is recorded by Mark. He continues, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
In Matthew’s account, we have in the God-breathed New Testament what we call the exceptive clause, where Jesus still permits divorce, but He defines the permissible grounds for divorce. The permissible grounds are defined in terms of Jesus’ interpretation of the Mosaic law, where Jesus interprets the “unclean thing” in terms of what this text identifies as sexual immorality.
Most churches, though historically not all of them, allow for divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality in light of the exceptive clause. Many churches define that sexual immorality strictly in terms of adultery or marital infidelity. Any other grounds are denied except for those added by the Apostle Paul in the case of a marriage where one partner is a Christian and the other a non-Christian, and the non-Christian leaves the Christian, abandoning and deserting the marriage. This is the other reason given for dissolving a marriage in most churches, the desertion of the unbeliever.
This is why it’s so important that when divorce cases are brought to the church, the church has to make a decision as to who is the guilty party. If that decision is made and a person seeks to divorce their spouse without biblical grounds, the church institutes church discipline and calls that person to repentance. If the person refuses to repent and goes ahead with the divorce, then that person is to be excommunicated and called an unbeliever for the sake of the partner who has been deserted or abandoned. That is a whole other question to be treated later.
What Kind of Sexual Immorality?
I wish everybody would agree on this, but now, even among churches that grant divorce on the grounds of sexual immorality, the question is, What is encompassed in the term that Jesus uses in this text? The term that Jesus uses is the Greek word porneia from which we get the English word pornography. Jesus said, basically, “The only grounds for divorce is the commission of porneia.” Now, what is porneia?
Greek lexicons, such as Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, give a full treatment of the term porneia. Many scholars believe the term porneia is only a synonym for adultery. Other scholars argue that the Greek word porneia encompasses more than actual adultery, and it should be interpreted by the term “sexual immorality.” I’m aware of a situation recently where a husband was addicted, by his own admission, to the worst kind of pornography, and his wife, seeking reconstruction of her marriage, finally abandoned hope and divorced her husband on the grounds of sexual immorality. Some churches say, “No, that’s not legitimate.” I took the position that it does fall under porneia. When a man has a sexual affair that comes short of adultery, he is still guilty of sexual immorality, and it doesn’t depend on what the meaning of “is” is.
God’s Provision for Divorce
In any case, where Jesus lands on this is at the point of a sexual violation of the sanctity of the marital union. Let me quickly ask, Why does God even permit that? One of the things that I deal with all the time in the church is when one partner, whether the man or the woman, goes out and commits adultery. The other partner finds out about it and is ready to sue for divorce. The partner comes back and says, “I’m so sorry,” and repents in tears.
If a husband does that, what is the wife’s responsibility? Must she take him back? If you ask most evangelical Christians, ninety-nine out of one hundred will answer by saying, “Yes, if the guilty spouse repents, then that person must be accepted back in the marriage.” I disagree. I think if the guilty spouse repents, the innocent spouse is now obligated to receive that spouse as a brother or sister in Christ, but not as a spouse, because God gives the provision for ending the marriage if the trust that is at the very heart and foundation of that marital union is violated.
Sometimes pressure is put on the innocent party by people who say, “It’s not right for you to divorce your husband, no matter what he’s done.” Beloved, we cannot take away rights from people that Jesus gives to them, or that God gives to them. I’ve heard ministers say to people, “Yes, you’re allowed to get a divorce, but I think you should take the higher ground and stay.” Then guilt is heaped on someone whom God allows to pursue divorce.
The big problem in our day is people, even in the church, who get divorced over every reason in the world other than the ones the Bible allows. That God allows us to end our marriages when they have been violated by sexual immorality is an amazing condescension to human sin, but that condescension does not go so far as no-fault divorce or divorce on the grounds of incompatibility.
In closing, let me say this: how this principle is applied to real concrete situations is one of the most difficult questions the church ever has to address. I’ve always advocated that every church should have a group of experts in biblical ethics who study and give a verdict on each case that comes before it, because I’ve never seen two cases that are the same. It takes the wisdom of Solomon to apply these principles to concrete life situations.
We have lost touch with something that God has called holy, a gift from His hand, that is at the very foundation and fabric of human society. There is no more basic unit to civilization and culture than the family. Though the whole world goes crazy with that institution, let every Christian determine to be committed to the sacred institution of marriage. Let’s pray.
Forgive us, O God, when we do what our hardened hearts want us to do, rather than doing what You command. Thank you that marriage is given to us to minister to our loneliness, to complete our humanness as male and female. Thank you for that which is so sacred, and forgive us when we despoil that which is holy. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.