When Jesus calls someone to follow him, he calls them to deny self, take up their cross, and follow him. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And discipleship covers every area of our existence, including marriage and family life.
With the opening of chapter 10, Mark records Jesus’ teaching concerning how being his disciple affects our view of marriage, children, and personal possessions. When you think about it, you can’t get more basic than that.
As Mark shows us, those who follow Jesus are called to a life that is radically different from the value system of the world. Our loyalty to God and his word means that we will have a view of marriage, children, and material possessions that is very different from those who do not follow Jesus. And if ever that was true, it is the case today, especially, perhaps, when it comes to marriage, sexuality, and gender.
In this study, we will touch on subjects that, one day, may result in lawsuits, fines, and perhaps even incarceration. This is already the case in certain parts of the world. In the United States and in the UK, I know of cases where people have lost businesses or have become bankrupt defending their right to principally and practically apply the biblical norm of the definition of marriage. University professors have lost their jobs for refusing to use a preferred gender pronoun when addressing a student who is confused about their identity. And pastors are being threatened with “hate speech” laws to cease and desist from identifying homosexuality as a sin. Israel Folau’s situation is going to become more and more common. Thus, the relevancy of Jesus’s teaching in Mark 10:1ff.
It is often argued that Christians should not be speaking out against abortion, homosexuality, nor anything associated with the LGBTQ arena because Jesus didn’t. That is both simplistic and erroneous. It is true that there is no record of Jesus speaking directly to these matters but he did not need to, for at least two reasons.
First, Jesus is God (John 14:8–9) and therefore, he has addressed these matters (Leviticus 18; Deuteronomy 22:5; etc.). Later, the apostles, moved by the Holy Spirit (who is “Christ in you”), condemned such behaviour.
Second, Jesus rarely addressed specific sins in his teaching. Rather, as here, Jesus taught first principles. And from these, legitimate applications are drawn. For example, Jesus never condemned rape or incest, but from his endorsement of every iota and dot of the law (Matthew 5:17–20), we can condemn such behaviour with the authority of Jesus. Jesus never addressed the matter of environmental pollution, yet his teaching that God is Creator leads to the legitimate appeal for us to care for his creation (Matt 6:19ff; etc.).
My point is that, when Jesus taught about marriage, he laid down first principles that make it clear that there are only two genders, one definition of marriage, and, when it comes to matters of sexuality, these are well defined. It is not as confusing as a confused world thinks it is. Disciple of Jesus, stand your ground. Do so graciously and as winsomely as possible. But stand your ground. It is solid ground in an otherwise world of morally shifting sand.
This passage does not exist merely for the sake of equipping us for chapter-and-versing our way through the Christian life. No, these questions are important because, by discovering the answers, we guard ourselves from simply using this passage as a proof text to win an argument or to develop a policy. Though what Jesus says is straightforward, and therefore provides a biblical basis for the question of divorce and remarriage, he was saying a lot more as well. And we need to discover and apply this. In fact, Jesus was using this confrontation to teach his would-be followers that Christian discipleship is a path of a very different value system. Jesus’ followers have a value system that is radically different from the world—even from the religious world.
The text tells us that it was Jesus’ “custom” to teach those who would hear him (v. 1). And he always taught the truth. He never shied away from saying the truth. He was committed to faithfully proclaiming God’s kingdom rules, as he did here. Those in his kingdom will treat the covenant of marriage with the honour that it deserves, and which God demands. His views on marriage are only controversial to those who have another standard by which they are living. His views on marriage (and gender for that matter) are only controversial to those who are seduced by the competing, and doomed, kingdom of darkness.
In this study, we will at least begin to examine Christian discipleship in marriage, or what following Jesus in marriage is to look like. And it doesn’t look like what the Pharisees presented!
Jesus had left Galilee. His ministry there had finished, and he wouldn’t be there again until he met with his disciples to instruct them post resurrection. He was now in Judea, on his way to Calvary.
What transpired in this first episode of Jesus in Judea was not much different than what had occurred in Galilee: Crowds gathered around him; he instructed them (undoubtedly about the kingdom of God, 1:14–15); the Pharisees pitched up; a controversial matter was raised; and the tension mounted.
In this scene, the issue at hand was that of divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ response to the question was controversial then, and it remains controversial in our day.
This text, as I hope to show you, is not merely dropped in because Mark had nowhere else to put it. Neither is it here because he had a bone to pick with those in the church of his day who were caving in on marriage. Fundamentally it is here because God, through Mark, wants to make it abundantly clear that Jesus is committed to the revealed will of God. Jesus doesn’t fudge on hard cases. Jesus doesn’t move the moral, ethical revealed goalposts that his Father has erected. In other words, we might say that Jesus doesn’t move with the times. Jesus is always relevant, even when he seems the most irrelevant.
We need this reminder. Ideas of marriage, gender, sexuality and the like are under assault in the West perhaps like no other time since the fall of the Roman Empire. The world, it would seem, has completely lost its mind (see Romans 1:19–32), which of course is bad news, and yet it is an opportunity for the good news (Romans 1:16–18). In other words, we don’t need to be ashamed to line up with Jesus—on anything—including his authoritative teaching concerning marriage, and specifically, as here, his teaching on divorce and remarriage. As Jesus teaches, right views of gender, sexuality, and marriage lead to right views concerning divorce and remarriage.
The question of divorce, and its related issue of remarriage, is very emotional for the simple reason that is deeply personal.
Divorce rips relationships, and can cause much damage, including trauma. Children who have experienced the divorce of mom and dad are always victims, in some way. Even what is called an “amicable” divorce is not without its heartaches and even long-term negative consequences. Among other reasons, therefore, God’s laws of marriage are in place to protect us from making a mess of things. Divorce is messy, regardless of how amicable it is.
Because of the deeply personal hurt and shame that usually accompany divorce, some tend to view it as an unpardonable sin. It seems like the Roman Catholic Church does so. And some Baptists come awfully close to making the same judgement. We need to be very careful here.
When it comes to the matter of divorce, we need to tread both truthfully (being honest with the Scripture) and tenderly (being Christlike with compassion). As we study this text, this is my commitment. I wish to be both truthful and tender. May we all be so.
The Tempting Question
In vv. 1–2, we read of the question with which Jesus’ critics tempted him:
And he left there and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again. And again, as was his custom, he taught them.
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Does God allow a man to divorce his wife? This is the question posed.
Having just recorded Jesus’ words concerning salt, this subject matter is not out of place. One way the world is preserved from natural decay is the preservation of the family—that is, doing family God’s way. Perhaps, therefore, Mark includes this here.
Again, as we have previously noted, Mark writes with a specific audience in mind: Christians (predominately Gentile Christians) living in Rome and its surrounds. Rome was not known for great family life. In fact, many suggest that the eventual fall of the Roman Empire was due to licentiousness, which destroyed the family, the otherwise strong fabric of any civilisation.
The question, as we will see, was intended as a trap, for when it came to the question of divorce, there was wide acceptance among the Jews of its practice. As Edwards records, “Schürer summarizes the Jewish position on divorce thus: ‘divorce was relatively easy in those days and the Pharisees and rabbis intended to keep it so.’”Hence, there was an agenda behind this question, a diabolical one. We see this in the words, “in order to test him.”
This word (“test”) occurs four times in Mark and in three of them, the Pharisees were the ones doing the tempting (cf. 8:11; 12:15). They were trying to trip him up. Diabolically, the first instance occurred when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness (1:13). Satan had changed his appearance, but he was here, nonetheless.
Before proceeding, we need to pause for a caution, for whenever the matter of divorce (and remarriage) is present, we will be tempted along several lines.
We may be tempted to be rash and harsh and judgemental. We may be tempted to compromise on what the Scriptures say about this. Truthful exposition, not pragmatic emotionalism or sentiment must be our first recourse. This subject calls for each of us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and, in most cases, slow to anger (James 1:19).
Is it Lawful?
Mark has made his readers aware that there is more here than meets the eye. The Pharisees had a slithering, sinister agenda.
The Pharisees sought to trip him up by either discrediting him before the people (if he broke with tradition) or by a diabolical attempt to have him destroyed, perhaps by Herod Antipas.
You will remember how John the Baptist lost his life by addressing the matter of marital infidelity, which included the divorce by Herod Antipas of his wife, and the divorce of Herodias of her husband so they could be remarried, to each other. So for Jesus to address this matter was certainly to stoke opposition by the most powerful Jew in the land, especially as he headed to Jerusalem, Herod’s residence!
It’s clear that the Pharisees assumed Jesus’ answer would contradict theirs. And, knowing that Jesus would not fudge on this issue, just like he would not budge on any other issue of conviction, they were seeking to set him up for destruction.
Further, the Pharisees were also seeking to discredit him as a rabbi. As in other cases recorded in the Gospels, they were hoping that he would contradict Moses, therefore losing credibility in the eyes of the people. This would make it easier to charge him with being a false prophet, thereby sealing his destruction. There was nothing innocent about this question. How would Jesus answer? Would he avoid certain controversy and even hostile conflict? Christian, disciple of Jesus, how will you and I answer the many questions in our day concerning, marriage, divorce, sexuality, and gender? Are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus?
There was a wide debate occurring at the time between two rabbinical schools with two widely different allowances.
The school of Shammai argued that divorce was only permissible in the case of adultery, while the school of Hillel argued for a more liberal policy allowing divorce for the most trivial of reasons. But divorce, per se, was not under debate in the wider Jewish culture.
What was true in those days is what is also true in ours: Divorce was far too easily accepted and therefore increasingly common. In fact, according to Deuteronomy 24:1–4, this was the case as far back as in the days of Moses. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) but apparently the Jews didn’t. And neither does much of our society, including many in the church.
Perhaps there is no more divisive matter than that of divorce (and remarriage). In fact, a entire new denomination arose because of the question: the Church of England!
It is interesting how historians speak of the Reformation in England who are oblivious to one driving motivation: The king wanted to divorce his wife.
Henry VIII asked this same question of the religious leaders of his day, “Can I divorce my wife?” (In fact, his wasn’t as much a question as a demand.) They gave him the same answer that Jesus did. He subsequently threw his proverbial toys out of the cot and started his own church. This allowed him to divorce time and again. Very sad.
Why the Controversy?
This question of divorce and remarriage is so deeply personal that it is bound to cause discomfort, hurt feelings, and even offence. Divorce causes so much hurt and damage to so many people that it arouses a wide range of responses: defensiveness, guilt, hopelessness, etc. Many who have been divorced feel like they are being judged.
And as much as this is true in much of the world, it is equally true of the church. In our families, divorce has touched almost all of us. In our congregations, divorce and remarriage are widespread. Some who have been divorced, and some who have been remarried, have been poorly responded to. Among Christians, there is a lot of confusion because of contradictory positions on this. Even among elderships there is often no unanimous interpretation.
Because it is potentially explosive, many churches choose to bury their heads in the sand and avoid the issue altogether saying, “To each his own.” The matter is not clear, we pretend, and so each person must make up his own mind. After all, who are we to judge?
Such an approach is irresponsible, for the Bible addresses the matter of marriage, divorce, and remarriage and, to be frank, it is not that complicated. The solution is neither to be heartlessly hard nor spinelessly soft; rather, as Christians, we must be scripturally sound and sensitive. This is helpful to all.
I am aware that some of our own church members have been divorced, and some have remarried. In some cases, there was scriptural warrant while in others, there was not. Those of the latter may feel despair: “What must we do?” If this is you, I believe that the word of God has answers for you. The word of God offers you hope. The word of God offers you joy. As someone has written, “This isn’t the unforgiveable sin. And if you’ve messed up, you shouldn’t be afraid to say you messed up, just like we’re not afraid to say where we’ve messed up in other parts of our lives.”
In other words, there is no area of our lives where the gospel does not apply—including when a marriage has ended in divorce; including when a remarriage should not have taken place. What an opportunity for the gospel!
The Truthful Answer
In vv. 3–9, Jesus offered a truthful answer:
He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast 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 not man separate.
As in other confrontations with Pharisees, Jesus answered their question initially with a question of his own. He knew that Moses was revered among the Pharisees, so he put it back to them. The assumption implied is that, whatever Moses said, Jesus said. The question, in other words, is an implied endorsement of Moses. How would they answer?
Proof Texting and Missing the Point
We all like our proof texts—those one-liners from Scripture that seem to settle the debate. But we have also probably known how our proof text sometimes fail to secure the victory we thought was ours. So here.
The Pharisees’ favourite proof text for the allowance of divorce was Deuteronomy 24:1–4. In that passage, God prescribed that, if a husband divorced his wife because she “found no favour in his eyes because of some indecency” then he was to give her a certificate of divorce. She was free to remarry but the husband who divorced her could never remarry her.
The Pharisees, like most of Israel, interpreted this concession as widespread permission for divorce (hence the Shammai-Hillel debate).
Knowing this, Jesus asked, “What did Moses command you?” Their answer was not surprising but it was revealing.
Jesus went to the heart of the matter when he responded, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this commandment.” Interesting. Jesus personalised this when he spoke of “your heart” and “he wrote you this commandment.” The Pharisees were not alive when Moses wrote this. But their attitude was. Jesus confronted them with their hardness of heart (their being destitute of spiritual perception) that was motivating this encounter. As John records, Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:24–25).
Deuteronomy 24 doesn’t say this; it does not give any reason motivating this precept. So, how could Jesus say this? Because he was there, and he knew how Israelite men were treating Israelite women. In Deuteronomy 24, God doesn’t specifically say that their hearts were hard. But when you consider the intent of the law, it becomes clear. And Jesus knew this.
This precept was for the purpose of protecting a wife who otherwise would be mistreated. There is no legitimatising of the husband sending her out of his house (v. 1). Rather, God was stressing that she was to be cared for. Again, God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), but he also hates injustice. So, he prescribed a means by which a divorced wife would be treated with dignity, rather than as property merely discarded.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees did not go down well with them. And neither will his further explanation soothe their wounded feelings—and egos.
In Jesus’ response he was making the fundamental point that they should focus on marriage, not on divorce. As one writer put it, “You do not learn to fly an airplane by following the instructions for making a crash landing; you will not be successful in war if you train by the rules for beating a retreat.” This, by the way, is a fundamental reason that I will not perform a wedding ceremony for any couple who has an antenuptial agreement spelling out terms of divorce. If the possibility of divorce is on their mind, they should not marry.
Moses didn’t only write Deuteronomy, he also wrote Genesis, which includes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, the verses Jesus quoted here. If the Pharisees had done a better job of studying biblical theology, rather than merely self-righteously proof-texting, they would not have confused God’s concession for divorce with God’s intention for marriage. Rather than being preoccupied with divorce, they would have focused on God’s revelation concerning the lifelong permanence of marriage. Not godly marriage, but pragmatic divorce was their concern. Self-centred divorce rather than self-denial was their concern. Clearly, they had no salt (9:50) and therefore little emphasis on matrimonial peace.
Jesus continued: “But from the beginning of creation.” Do you see what he was doing? Jesus, unlike the Pharisees, did not cherry-picking Scripture. No, he submitted to the whole counsel of God. He interpreted Scripture as we should: in the light of the big picture. Jesus was teaching us the importance of, among other things, first principles. The big picture helps us to deal with tangential (though important) matters. His response, clearly, didn’t focus on divorce; rather, he focused on marriage. And in his answer was a wealth of relevant truth.
As observed earlier, these few words uttered by Jesus fully settled questions of gender, sexuality and what constitutes a marriage. Look no further if you need answers to the wild debates today about that which is essentially non-debatable.
If Christians learned to consistently apply the practice of first principles, we would have less sexual sin, gender confusion, and sexual compromise in the church. We would have better marriages and less divorce in the church. For you see, the big picture keeps us focused in an otherwise tumultuous world.
The big picture focuses us on our faithful Creator, which provides stability when we are tempted to sin in these areas (1 Peter 4:12–19). God’s intention for this world keep us focused on his kingdom. God’s intention for marriage in this world guards us from the lie that Christians are overpopulating the world. God’s creation of marriage provides us with a definition of marriage that remains throughout history. And God’s creation of male and female defines only two boxes we can tick: male and female.
We need to be careful. The culture, since it is under the sway of the evil one (1 John 2:15–17; 2 Corinthians 4:4), throughout history has sought to rewrite God’s creation order. In our day, gender, sexuality, and marriage are being culturally conditioned and hence redefined while God’s word concerning these matters is jettisoned. But even though these issues may be more at the forefront in our day, Jesus and his disciples faced the same problem in theirs. And Jesus exemplified how to handle it: Go back to Scripture. God’s word, not society and not majority rules, is what defines these issues.
God on Gender
Jesus’ answer provides us with biblical grounds for defining gender. And the categories are not confusing.
In reading my commentaries this week (most of which were written before 2000) I noticed that not a single writer addressed the matter of Jesus on gender. They didn’t need to. But over the past decade, sinful degeneration has been at such a rate that, today, a responsible pastor must address this. Jesus said, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” At the risk of being criticised for being a social simpleton or, worse, a bigot, I want to make clear that Jesus’ answer settles the gender question once for all.
I have great sympathy for those who are confused about their gender because of irresponsible, failed parenting; especially such parenting grounded in rebellion to God. Some children are raised in such a way that it is small wonder they are confused. We should have deep compassion for those who, due to biological or physiological factors, are confused about gender. Of all people, disciples of Jesus should be the most compassionate in ministering to them. I think of Caster Semenya, who is not confused that she is a woman, but physiological abnormalities have put her front and centre in a debate whose pain must be unbearable. And though disciples of Jesus cannot condone her lesbian lifestyle, we can have empathy for her situation. We should pray for her.
We live in a terribly sinfully broken world and we need to be sensitive to those who, in unique ways, are affected by this. The disciple of Jesus must not be guilty of hardness of heart. Let us say the hard thing, but let us do so as softly as is appropriate.
On the other hand, there is a militant transgender movement that calls for our confrontation. Compassionate confrontation, to be sure, but firm resistance, nonetheless.
The push in the transgender movement is out of defiance of God’s creation order. This is destructive to individuals and it is destructive to society. As the disciples of Jesus hold firm to God’s creation order, we rub salt into the world, and even into the moral wounds of the world. But, like an antiseptic, healing can come through this. That is, if our approach is gospel driven.
Gender and the Gospel
One of the most loving things we can do for those who have bought into the lie of a fluidity of gender is to point them to these words of Jesus, who points us to the words of God penned by Moses: “God made them male and female.”
I realise that, for most, this may seem like merely throwing water on a duck’s back. I understand that many will dismiss the word of God. Yet, all true evangelism begins with God. We describe the evangelistic approach in the categories of God, man, Christ, response. We begin with God, for the gospel is the good news of what God has done for believing sinners through his Son, Jesus Christ. God is the starting point of the gospel. As John Piper has said, God is the gospel.
The only lasting, true hope for the gender confusion of our day does not lie with Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro. It lies with the gospel-saturated, gospel-enthused, gospel-passionate, gospel-believing church. We need to unapologetically and yet winsomely point sinners—all sinners—to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that we must know God and we must know his word. If we don’t, we are sitting ducks against the devil and his world system, who are on the hunt to destroy God’s creation.
We must not lose sight of the power of the gospel to transform lives and minds. God can and does save those who are caught in confused, sexual sin. And we must prepare ourselves to face these issues.
In Preaching to a Post-Everything World, Zack Eswine explains how he came to pastor a church, whose pastor (his friend) had recently committed suicide. He recounts how the church began to heal and to grow. They soon needed a bigger building in which to meet. He then writes about what began to happen:
In the midst of these realities, something remarkable happened. Non-Christian people began to visit, and we began to visit them. Then the question came: “Pastor, I have a friend who is a transvestite. He dresses as a woman, and he has had the surgeries that give him the appearance of being a woman. Pastor, he wants to seek God. Can I bring him to church next week?” “Yes, of course,” I said. “We know the sin is clear. But where else should such a person go who wants to find God?” I was nervous and invigorated all at the same time.
My questions were numerous for these personal reasons:
What happens when a person who has a surgically altered gender turns to Jesus as his or her Lord and Saviour?
How does a sermon prepare people for the question, much less the answer?
What role do sermons have for such a variety of people with experiences, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs so deep and varied? How does a sermon help people grieve?
How does a sermon handle the tragic and unexplained? My questions arise also because of my calling. As a teacher of preachers, how do I join others in helping the next generation navigate the post-everything?”
I recently spoke to a pastor who, for the first time in his ministry, had a polygamous family walk into church. He had never had to wrestle with such questions in his pastoral ministry, but it is now becoming a reality.
We should be prepared to wrestle with such issues. How can we be equipped for the confused and even chaotic days in which we live? My answer: Listen to what is happening in our world, while listening more carefully to what God says in his word. We may not discover all the answers; however, we know the ultimate answer: the gospel of God.
The Lord Jesus lived a perfect life amid a very imperfect because sinful world. He obeyed God’s word despite the most intense temptation imaginable. He was sinless, which meant that he could be God’s acceptable sacrifice for our sins. He then died on the cross, shedding his blood to ransom rebellious sinners like you and me. He rose from the dead, proving that the Father had accepted his sacrifice. And this was God’s plan from before the beginning of creation.
Think about that. Perhaps you have sinned sexually; perhaps you have sinned by living in a way that contradicts how God made you to live; perhaps you have sinned by an unbiblical divorce; perhaps you have sinned by an unbiblical remarriage. We must not make light of this. Yet we must reckon—deeply–that God knew all this before he created this world. And he prepared for it. He prepared a way to bring about redemption, to bring about forgiveness to those who confess and repent of their rebellion against rules. Those who do so while trusting the Lord Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour from the wrath of God will be saved. They will become a new creation, for their good, unto good, to the glory of God (Ephesians 2:8–10).
We are all sinners who need the Saviour. Repent and believe on Jesus Christ, now. And then begin to follow Jesus, in every area, embracing the gender in which he lovingly made you, and following his rules for sexuality and for marriage.