July 15, 2012

Pastor Joe Wittwer

Follow the Leader!

#6—Divorce and remarriage


We’re working our way through the gospel of Mark, and we’ve come to a story in which some religious leaders ask Jesus about divorce: is it ok to divorce for any reason?

The US Census Bureau says that roughly one in every two marriages ends in divorce—43% of first marriages and 55% of other marriages.  With the advent of no-fault divorce laws and the relaxation of moral standards, the percentage of divorces is double what it was a generation ago. Almost all of us have been affected by divorce.  And if it has happened to you personally, you know how painful this subject is.  

So they asked Jesus about divorce; what did he say? That’s where we’re headed.  Let’s pray!


How do you like the heat and what did you do for relief?


Worship and Communion

Introduction and offering:

Open your Bibles to Mark 10:1—and I want to remind you to bring your Bible to this series.  We’ll be referring back to the text quite a bit and it will help you to see it in its context.  

ILL: How many of you know what this is?  A spark plug.  How many know what it does?  That only makes sense it its context: an internal combustion engine like this.  

The Bible, like any other writing, can only be understood in its context.  That includes the external context of culture, language, and history, and the internal context of the larger story (the Bible itself).  We get in trouble when we try to understand the Bible outside its context—just looking at one verse or one story by itself, without understanding its setting in the Bible and history.  It’s like looking at a spark plug without any idea of a car.  Bring your Bibles—get familiar with your Bible!

    In Mark 10, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure; He is training them to be His followers.  Jesus uses a question by the Pharisees to train His followers how they should think about marriage and divorce.  

    We are going to use the SOAP method to think about this Scripture, which lots of us use each day when we read the Bible.


  • Scripture: read the Bible.

  • Observation: what does it mean?  

  • Application: what does it mean to me?  

  • Prayer: pray it back to God.

So let’s dive in.


Mark 10:1–12

1 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

2 Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

3 “What did Moses command you?” he replied.

4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

    I want to begin by acknowledging how shocking this sounds.  We live in a culture where divorce for any reason has become common, and so Jesus’ words are jarring, even upsetting to many people.  All I ask is that you give Jesus a fair hearing—and to do that, we need to do some observation work.

Observation: what does it say?

    It says in verse 2 that the Pharisees tested Jesus with this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  This raises several questions.

    Why did they ask if it was lawful?  They weren’t asking about civil law; they were referring to God’s law. What does God want—does God allow divorce?  There is a difference between being legal and being moral.  Something can be legal and not be moral; it can be legally acceptable by the state but morally unacceptable to God.


  • Sex outside of marriage is legal; God says it is wrong.

  • Abortion is legal; many Christians believe it is wrong.

  • Getting drunk is legal; God says it is wrong.

  • And as we’ll see, divorce is legal; Jesus says it is wrong.

Their question, “is it lawful” wasn’t about civil law, but about God’s law.  What does God think about divorce?

    Why did they ask if a man can divorce his wife and not vice versa?  In that culture, generally only men were allowed to divorce; it was rare that a woman was allowed to divorce her husband.  Women were second-class citizens and didn’t have the same rights as men.  What did Jesus think about that?

What was the test?  How were they testing Him?  There was a long-standing Jewish debate about divorce that centered on Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (the 5th book in the OT)

Deuteronomy 24:1–4 If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord.

This is the only Old Testament legislation on divorce.  Notice first that divorce is not encouraged, commanded or required.  The point of this legislation was to forbid a man from remarrying his former wife if she has remarried another man.  It is believed that this law was to discourage frivolous divorce, people trading spouses back and forth.  Once you divorced and remarried, there was no going back to the first marriage—so think twice before divorcing. By this point, divorce was happening, and this regulated it without condoning or commanding it.  

    Second, the cause or grounds for divorce is if the wife “becomes displeasing” to her husband “because he finds something indecent about her.”  (Verse 1)  What does this mean; what constitutes something indecent?  This was the big debate and it was still being debated in Jesus’ day by two well-known rabbis.  Rabbi Shammai argued that it referred strictly to sexual sin as the only legitimate ground for divorce.   Rabbi Hillel took the more liberal view that anything that displeased a husband was grounds for divorce.  So a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast, or if she sassed him in public, or if he just found someone he liked better.  Human nature being what it is, you can guess which view was more popular.

    This was the test: “Where do you fall on the divorce debate, Jesus?  Divorce for any reason, or for only one?”  Either way, Jesus would make enemies, but if he took Shammai’s side—only one reason for divorce—He would make a lot more enemies and erode His popularity with the masses.  He took Shammai’s side.  But He did even more than that.

    In verse 3, Jesus pointed them back to the Bible.  “What did Moses command you?”  As followers of Christ, when we are faced with difficult questions, we need to go back to the Bible.  “What does the Bible say?” We must go beyond our own opinions and try to be true to the Scripture. Jesus pointed them—and us—back to the Bible.  They referenced the Deuteronomy 24 passage and answered that Moses permitted them to divorce their wives.   Jesus responds,

5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Jesus once again implicitly claims authority that supersedes the Mosaic law.  “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”  He does that here, explaining that Deuteronomy 24 was given as a concession to their hard hearts, but it does not express God’s intentions for marriage.  They want to talk about reasons for divorce; Jesus wants to talk about God’s reasons for marriage.  Jesus takes them back to Genesis 1 and 2, the creation story.  

Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

By starting here, Jesus puts men and women on equal footing.  Both genders are created by God and in the image of God.  As the creation of God, the woman is not man’s subject but his equal.  Male and female are full partners in marriage.  Then Jesus quotes:

Genesis 2:24 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

This is the marriage ordinance given at creation.  Notice these things.

    A man leaves his father and mother.  He exchanges one primary relationship for another.  What is the most important relationship before marriage?  Your parents.  The fifth of the Ten Commandments is to honor your father and mother.  This command was considered second only to the command to honor God.  What is your most important relationship after marriage?  Your spouse.  Your most important social duty was to your parents, and yet here, it is surpassed by marriage, making marriage second only to obeying God.  So marriage is the highest, holiest and most important of human relationships.  The only allegiance that surpasses it is your relationship with God.  Marriage is primary, your highest relationship.

    A man is united to his wife, or cleaves to his wife.  The word means to glue together, to permanently bind together, and indicates the permanence of marriage.  Marriage is permanent.  

    They become one flesh.  This speaks of the sexual union, but also of the intimacy of marriage.  Marriage is intimate.

    Marriage, as defined by God in Genesis 2:24, is


  • Heterosexual: a man and a woman.

  • Monogamous: one man with one woman.

  • Primary: it is your highest human allegiance.

  • Permanent: you cleave—you are glued together.

  • Intimate: the two become one.

God’s ideal is monogamous, intimate and permanent marriage.  Then Jesus seals the deal:

9 Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Ultimately, it is not the man or the woman who controls marriage; it is God.  It is God who joins us together—He is the Lord of marriage, not us.  

    So they ask about reasons for divorce, and Jesus talks about God’s intentions for marriage.  They want to argue about Deuteronomy 24:1, but Jesus sets that discussion back into the larger context of the whole Bible.  This is a great example of what I was talking about earlier—the importance of knowing the context, particularly, understanding one verse in the context of the whole Bible.  By taking Deuteronomy 24:1 all by itself, they completely lost the plot.  

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

Jesus has set the bar high, and the disciples are concerned; they want clarification, so they ask him privately about this.  Jesus’ answer is shocking.  If you divorce and remarry, you commit adultery; and that goes for both the man and the woman.  

If you took these two verses alone, you would conclude that there are no grounds for divorce, that anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery.  We need to do what Jesus did, and look at the larger context of the whole Bible.  I’ve listed on your outline the major verses that deal with divorce and remarriage.  I’ll let you read them on your own, but let me summarize.

Basically there are three positions Christians take based on their understanding of what the Bible says about divorce:


  1. God never allows divorce.  In a poll of evangelical pastors, only about 10% held this view.

  2. God allows divorce for one or two specific reasons.  In that same poll, 64% of evangelical pastors held this view.  And this is my view as well.

  3. God allows divorce for many reasons.  That leaves about 26% who hold this view.

There are minor variations on each of those positions, but those are the major positions, and thoughtful Christians hold them based on their understanding of Scripture. What’s interesting is that all four base their positions on the same verses; they each interpret those verses differently.  What does that tell us?  We need to base our opinions on divorce on the Bible, but we ought to hold those opinions with humility and charity, knowing that good Christians may disagree with us.

I said that I hold that middle view, that Scripture allows divorce and remarriage for a couple reasons.

First reason: marital unfaithfulness or adultery.  In Matthew’s version of this story, Jesus says,

Matthew 19:9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

“Except for marital unfaithfulness.”  Scholars call this the exception clause.  The one exception Jesus makes for divorce and remarriage is marital unfaithfulness.  Many scholars think that the reason this exception wasn’t included in Mark’s account is that it was understood and accepted by everyone.

    The other exception is found in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul says that if an unbelieving spouse leaves you because you are a Christian, you are “not bound”.  

1 Corinthians 7:15 But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.

There is some debate about this, but most scholars believe Paul means that you are not bound to the marriage, but are free to remarry.

    These are the only exceptions to Jesus’ teaching in Mark 10 that simply forbids divorce and remarriage.

    Are there other permissible grounds for divorce?  What about safety issues like physical, sexual or emotional abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, or severe mental illness?  I would not advise someone to stay in an unsafe relationship, but I would recommend protected separation first to see if there is any way to save the marriage.  What about cases of deception, emotional abandonment, financial disaster like crippling gambling debts…the list goes on and on.  I would hold up God’s standard—no divorce except for the two reasons given in Scripture—and then humbly take each case on its own merits.  We should try to do all we can to save the marriage and make it work, but sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils.  We hold up God’s ideals, but realize that we fail and sometimes we aren’t able to get there.

    The observations lead us to this:

The Big Idea: Jesus rejects the current notions of divorce for any reason, and takes us back to God’s intention at creation: one man, one woman for a lifetime.


So what should we do?

    1. Take God’s word on marriage and divorce seriously.

    Obviously, God’s standards are high, and in today’s culture we need to be reminded of those standards. God takes marriage and divorce very seriously; so should we.  

    But if we’re going to obey God’s word on this, we’ve got some work to do.  If we are going to promote a high view of marriage and prevent divorce, we need to do the following.


  • Be careful when choosing a mate.  It’s a lifetime decision, so don’t make it hastily.  Those who know each other well for a longer period of time before marriage have a much better chance of staying married.  Why?  Because there are fewer surprises.  Take your time.  Get to know that person well before you marry.

  • Prepare for marriage.  You can’t get a driver’s license without taking a test to demonstrate reasonable proficiencies behind the wheel.  But you can get a marriage license without any training or evidence that you know what you’re doing.  Most couples spend more time getting ready for the wedding, which lasts a few minutes, than they do for the marriage, which should last a lifetime.  We require pre-marital training of every couple we marry, and it’s excellent.  When I say we require it, I mean that we won’t do your wedding unless you complete the training.  We’ll train you on communications and conflict resolution and money management and sex—all the good stuff.  And we’ll hook you up with a seasoned couple who will train and mentor you.  Prepare for marriage.

  • Be the “right one.”  Everyone is concerned with finding the right one—Mr. Right or Miss Perfect.  But the Bible emphasizes that it’s more important to be the right one.  Behave like a Christian husband or wife.  Husbands, love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.  Wives, treat your husbands as you would the Lord if He lived in your home, with love and respect.  Stop worrying about how your mate behaves—you can’t change him or her.  And start concentrating on your behavior—you are the only one you can change.  Be the right one.

  • Seek help at the first sign of trouble.  Why is it that when our car acts up, we take it to a mechanic right away, and when our body gets sick, we see a doctor right away, but when our marriage gets rough, we don’t do anything except let it get worse?  If your marriage is sputtering, get help.  There are lots of ways to get help.

    • Read a book on marriage together and apply it.  

    • Take a marriage refresher course.  

    • See a counselor.  

    • Ask another couple to mentor you.  

    • Talk with a friend.  

There are lots of ways to get help, but don’t wait until there are two outs in the bottom of the ninth—get help early.  Did you know that couples who get divorced don’t argue any more frequently than couples who stay happily married?  Did you know that both groups argue about the same basic things: money, kids, sex, work, in-laws and time?  And in both groups, couples report having about 10 irreconcilable differences?  The difference between those who divorce and those who don’t isn’t whether they have differences, but how they handle them.  Those who stay married learn how to resolve conflict, how to live harmoniously in spite of the differences.  These are skills you can learn.  Get help and learn!


  • Be committed to your marriage. Marriage is a covenant; it is based on vows, promises that we make to each other.  The idea is that the commitment holds us when our emotions wouldn’t.  

ILL: John Adam and Nancy Williamson write in their book Divorce: How and When To Let Go:  

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.#

This is the common view of marriage in our culture.  It is all about me, about my fulfillment and happiness.  When my needs aren’t met, when I’m not happy or fulfilled, I am free to look for it elsewhere.  It is not until death do us part, but until I get bored or unhappy.  Friends, if we all bought that version of marriage, everyone would be divorced, because no marriage is perfect, no marriage is always fulfilling.  

    Marriage isn’t about me.  It’s about we.  We make promises and that commitment keeps us together for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part.  Committed marriage rescues love from the tyranny of immature emotions and selfishness.  Be committed to your marriage.  

Do everything you can to make your marriage great.  Building a great marriage is lots of hard work.  Many people give up way too soon.

I believe that one of the church’s prophetic roles in our culture is to hold high and model God’s standards for marriage.  At the same time, we must also:

    2. Extend compassion and grace to the divorced.

    We celebrated communion together—we all shared the bread and wine, regardless of our status, our failures, and our sins.  This is the gospel: that Jesus died to forgive all our sins and to reconcile us to God and each other.

    We’re all people and we’re all sinners.  And we’re all equally in need of the grace of God.  Divorce is not the unforgivable sin.  If you have ended your marriage for reasons other than those Scripture allows, admit it and repent and be forgiven. You can be forgiven, and you don’t have to be a second-class citizen in God’s kingdom.  You’re a forgiven sinner, just like me, just like all of us.   

One man said that you’d be better off to murder your spouse than to divorce her, because the church will forgive and restore a murderer, but a divorcee will always be a second-class citizen.  Sadly, the church’s legalism on this issue has often made this crazy statement true.  Jesus said that wrongful divorce and remarriage is an act of adultery.  If a married person confided to me that he was contemplating adultery, I would do everything in my power to dissuade him, and help him not to do it.  Wouldn’t you?  On the other hand, if a married person came to me and confessed that they had committed adultery, I would ask if he was genuinely repentant, and if he was, extend God’s forgiveness.  Then we would talk about how to move forward without repeating that mistake.  

Bottom line: We should do our best to obey God, but people fail and when we repent, God forgives us.  And we will forgive you too.  


Song and response time: Beautiful Things