In the late 1950s, a great American football coach, Vince Lombardi, was forming his team, the Green Bay Packers, into one of the best in history. One day, following a miserable on-field performance, Coach Lombardi pulled his team together. He held up a football and said, “Men, this is a football.” It was his way of saying, “If we will succeed, then we need to get back to basics.” Something similar was taking place here in Mark 10.
The Pharisees, and it would seem the entire nation of Israel, was in a spiritual mess. This was affecting their view of marriage. Just as there can never fullybe a separation of church and state (because one’s religious convictions will always filter out into the public square), so there can never be a separation between church and home. That is, one’s religious convictions will also affect one’s family life. So it was in Jesus’ day when it came to the question of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. And so it remains in our day.
How did Jesus address the controversy about divorce? He held up the football of the doctrine of marriage and said, “People, this is marriage.” Like Vince Lombardi, Jesus returned to first principles. We need to do the same.
In this study, we return to this passage to examine three aspects of Jesus’ teaching: marriage defended, marriage defined, and marriage depicted.
As we have seen, something diabolical was taking place here. The Pharisees were seeking to set a trap for Jesus. They desired his destruction and he knew this (8:31; 9:30–31). In this attempt, the religious leaders sought to trap him by questioning him about divorce (v. 2). No doubt they were hoping for the same outcome experienced by John the Baptist: execution. After all, it was dangerous to go up against King Herod. Herod’s father had tried to kill Jesus when he was a hidden baby. Now that king’s son had a greater opportunity. You can be sure Satan knew this. So, how would Jesus respond? He turned the conversation to a lesson about marriage.
The diabolical critics wanted to talk about divorce; Jesus replied, “Let’s talk about marriage.” The Pharisees desecrated marriage; Jesus chose to defend marriage. This is always the most appropriate approach to the subject. For, if we grasp God’s plan and purpose for marriage, then questions about divorce, and subsequent questions concerning remarriage, are approached with greater sobriety, with greater reservation, and with a greater degree of compassion.
It is a large understatement to say that we live in a day of great confusion when it comes to human sexuality and therefore marriage. This week USA Today published an article titled, “My daughter thinks she transgender. Her public school undermined my efforts to help her.” It was a sad and tragic account of confused people messing with the heart and mind of a young person while threatening her parents with taking their daughter away from them because they would not recognise their daughter as their son.
The issue of same sex marriage, and the growth of the LGBTQ+ movement, is front and centre before our culture. This week, my daughter took her three children to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. At the front desk of the Young Readers’ Centre, there was a display promoting children’s LGBTQ+ books. We have the same kind of open acceptance in our own country.
But this issue is also very much front and centre before the church. Last night, here in Johannesburg, there was a debate at Fontainebleau Community Church addressing the question, “Does the Bible restrict marriage to a man and a woman?” The man arguing against this professes to be a Christian and is representative of many in our country.
As disciples of Jesus, we must be prepared to speak into this culture confusion. But we must do so both intelligently (we need to know what the Bible says), and with integrity (we need to behave in a way that gives us credibility when we speak). Let me explain.
First, we need to speak intelligently. We need to be equipped from Scripture, with Scripture, concerning what constitutes a marriage; concerning how God has designed human sexuality; concerning God’s determination of gender. We cannot get by with flippant and calloused, “God made them Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” That is neither helpful, nor particularly Christian. It may get some laughs and some loud, amens; it probably won’t get you a hearing, at least not from those who are interested in serious discussion, and certainly not from those who need help. Do the hard work of studying, reading, and thinking.
Second, we need to speak with integrity. It’s clear our culture is decaying. It’s in great need of the powerful preservative of a robust Christianity—that is, a Christianity that is faithful to Christ Jesus the Lord. And since he is Lord, he is Lord of all, including matters of sexuality, marriage, and singleness.
When we think of the moral decay of our society, we are quick to run to an ever-growing acceptance of a sexual ethic, which has little to do with a scriptural ethic. And I am not only speaking about matters of the LGBTQ+ movement. No, I am speaking about the marital ethic in our churches.
Many in the church are quick to shout amen when sins such as homosexuality and lesbianism are confronted. But I want to suggest that perhaps we would better serve those who need help, and better serve the church (which also needs help!), if we refocused by going back to the beginning, as Jesus did here. We need to talk about marriage—as depicted, defined, and defended by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And then we need to obey him in our marriages.
Christian churches are not as well known for healthy marriages as they should and could be. Divorce is far too common among those who claim to be Christians. Further, many Christian marriages are very unchristian because husbands, and in some cases wives, are involved in pornography, which according to Jesus is tantamount to adultery. Many husbands mistreat their wives, and vice versa. In such cases, it is hypocritical to shout down those inclined toward gay marriage while a huge log remains in one’s eye.
Yes, the church needs to speak to issues of LGBTQ+, but we must do so in such a way that we will be heard. We need to be winsome in this war for truth. After all, to win some is to be our goal. We should desire to rescue people from their sin, from their alienation from God. How we do so matters. Integrity matters.
With this in mind, we need to unpack the teaching of Jesus in this passage. In other words, what does integrity in marriage look like? For it’s clear that this is precisely what is on the mind of Jesus. Jesus was deeply concerned about the inviolability of the marriage covenant. He saw marriage as until-death-parts husband and wife. As Jesus taught, husbands are to cleave to, not leave, their wife.
In his response to the Pharisees, we learn to be able to say, “Thisis marriage; and therefore, thatis not marriage.” Mark provide us with what we need to know if we will firmly, and graciously stand our ground.
Discipleship and Marriage
Those who claim to be a disciple of Jesus Christ are required to deny themselves, take up their cross and be willing to suffer scorn—or worse—as they follow his teachings on marriage.
I would venture to say that the test of our discipleship, at least in the culture of the West, surrounds this very question and its related issues of gender and sexuality.
I face little to no risk of being arrested for preaching Jesus Christ crucified and risen again. I don’t fear preaching that Jesus is Lord. However, I do face potential legal action for preaching the lordship of Christ when it comes to his teaching on gender, sexuality, and marriage, as do you.
Keep in mind that, in this passage, the Lord Jesus Christ was teaching his disciples what faithful discipleship means when it comes to these very questions. Contrary to the naysayers, Jesus did address issues of gender, homosexuality, and same-sex “marriage.” And those who claim to be his disciples need to listen, learn, and loyally follow him.
So, in dependence upon God, let’s learn, be equipped, and be faithful.
As we have seen, Jesus went back to first principles. He quoted Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to establish that marriage, as created and intended by God, is to be indissoluble. It is to be binding and permanent. Therefore, to focus on divorce is like focusing on how to have a crash landing when you sign up for flying lessons, or like teaching an army at boot camp how to retreat from battle. It is to lose before entering the race. It is to fail before seeking to win.
It is important that we establish what constitutes a marriage.
We must begin with the fundamental issue of what constitutes a marriage. And who says so?
If we take the Bible seriously, we need to reject the idea that marriage is merely a social construct. Rather, marriage is God’s good creation. It is God’s good gift and he alone determines what is and is not marriage (see Genesis 2:18ff).
“Good” is an operative word here. That is, a relationship between individuals is only good to the degree that it conforms to God’s standard.
As I examine Scripture, it’s clear that, since God established, created, and ordained marriage, he alone defines it. What elements do we find in the first account of marriage?
The Elements of Marriage
There are at least three important elements in a biblical definition of marriage.
First, marriage is between two human beings. Jesus’ answer, commencing with the quotation of Genesis 1:27 points to this.
By quoting both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, Jesus highlighted that, among other observations, marriage is only legitimate between human beings. God’s definition excludes a human being marrying an animal, or from marrying anything else but a fellow human being. You might think that this is a silly observation, but I would simply say, watch this space. Crazy times are here.
When God created the good gift of marriage, he did so because it was not good for man (human beings) to be alone. In this case, the male human was alone, and God sought to do something about it. God therefore populated the earth with animal life and brought representatives before Adam, who exercised dominion by naming them. As he did so, Adam realised that neither animal life nor plant life could fill the need for man’s aloneness.
Perhaps the animals passed by Adam as couples. It became clear to him that each had a counterpart physiologically, and yet “for Adam, there was not found a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:20).
Again, it’s clear that God is making the point that humans must only marry humans. But there is more here as well, as seen in the term “a helper fit for.” This brings us to another, deeply important, point.
Second, marriage is between two humans of the opposite sex. This has huge implications for the times we face.This seems clear from the words of both Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24, quoted by Jesus. Though some argue against using Genesis 2:24 as proof of this, it seems clear that this verse very much proves the point.
When Jesus sought to establish the principle of the indissolubility of marriage, he could have gone directly to Genesis 2:24. This verse establishes, quite clearly, the permanence of the marital relationship. However, Jesus went back further and first quoted Genesis 1:27: “God made them male and female.” Why did he do this?
Some say that Jesus was establishing the value and equality of women with men since, in those days, questions of marital rights weighted more heavily for husbands than for wives. The problem with this argument is that Jesus left out the first part of the verse: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” It is those words that give weight to the rest of the verse—“male and female he created them”—concerning the shared dignity of men and women. So, there must have been something else on Jesus’ mind. What was it?
Jesus was reiterating the creation principle that marriage is the joining of two individuals of the opposite sex. Same sex “marriage” is not marriage.
By referring to Genesis 1:27, Jesus was establishing that marriage involves joining opposite biological and physiological genders. In other words, Jesus was telling us that sexual differences are a part of the marriage equation. Sexual differences are necessary for marriage.
Marriage is expressed in the joining together in sexual intercourse of two physiologically (and, I would argue, biologically) diverse humans. This is not the only requirement for the establishment of a marriage, but it is a necessary requirement if two people will become one flesh, as defined by God. As Sprinkle says of the biblical evidence, “the [biblical] authors go out of their way to ground sexual difference in something, or Someone, outside of culture.” Heterosexual marriage is the only legitimate marriage according to God’s word; it is so by God’s design, not by traditional-social construct.
Further, Genesis 2:24, which Jesus also quoted, seems to teach the necessity of sexual differences to make a marriage.
The phrase, “hold fast to” means to glue upon or glue to. It means to join oneself to closely, to cleave to, or to stick to. In this context, it refers to sexual intercourse (cf. Matthew 19:5; 1 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 5:31). This, therefore, argues that marriage is to be only heterosexual.
Moses wrote about man and woman, husband and wife, becoming one flesh. In this context, this clearly refers to the physiological joining of a husband and wife in sexual intercourse.
It has been argued that “one flesh” involves more than merely the physical. I agree. It would include a oneness in psyche, in purpose, in finances, etc. But though it means more than physiological oneness, certainly “one flesh” does not mean less than that.
But lest we move on too quickly, we must pause to consider how divorce is therefore such a destructive thing in the sight of God. Before arguing against same sex marriage, we need to be committed to God’s blueprint of the permanence of a heterosexual marriage.
Another phrase in Genesis 2, though not quoted here, nevertheless helps us to understand this. Genesis 2:20 reads, “for Adam, there was not found a helper fit for him”
The phrase “fit for” (or “comparable to”) in Genesis 2:20 strongly argues against same sex marriage.
The word “fit” or “comparable” means “corresponding to” or “like opposite.” The woman was made “like” the man in that she was human and “opposite” as in “different physiologically.” The idea is that of complimentarity. When Moses wrote this, he was referring to the marital union between opposites.
It can be noted that, when we speak of electrical sockets and plumbing materials, we still use terminology of male and female fittings. The two different pieces are fit together.
It is clear that the only legitimate marriage intended and recognised by God is heterosexual marriage. Homosexual “marriage” is not an option. When governments pass legislation defining marriage as both heterosexual and homosexual, they trespass God’s word. And this is serious.
This is not a hateful stance to take; it is a God-glorifying, and hence loving, stance that makes way for human flourishing. I remember when then then-President Barack Obama made the announcement that his view of marriage had “evolved” and that he now supported gay marriage. It was a sad day. After the US Supreme Court allowed for gay marriage, the White House was lit that night with “pride” colours. While many were celebrating, even more were lamenting, not because people had now been given more civil rights, but because going against God’s order is never good—either in the short or in the long run.
The “pride” colours signify a rainbow, which is both ironic and offensive. The reason God sent the flood was because the imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was evil continually (Genesis 6:5). After God brought judgement upon the world, he signified to Noah and his posterity (which includes you and me) that he would never again destroy the earth by water. The rainbow was the sign of this promise. The rainbow speaks of God’s covenantal faithfulness. That rainbow appears in the book of the Revelation 4:3 and 10:1, where it surrounds the throne of God. Again, it points to divine covenantal faithfulness. God keeps his promises. To use the symbol of the rainbow to celebrate overturning God’s order is to make a symbol of rebellion. That can’t end well.
Third, in marriage, husband and wife must come from different families. The marriage of Adam and Eve was necessarily different from the ones that Moses was writing about, and their children could not immediately follow this rule, nevertheless family difference became the norm long before Moses penned these words. In fact, according Levitical law (Leviticus 18–20), a person could not marry within his or her blood family.
The Constitution of Marriage
We have looked at the biblical parameters for a legitimate marriage: human similarity, sex difference, and family difference. Now we need to ask and answer, what constitutes a marriage?
More than a One-Night Stand
For many, sexual intercourse constitutes the establishment of a marriage. The Bible, however, doesn’t teach this. Though there is a sense in which sexual union brings about a one-flesh experience (1 Corinthians 6:16), this is not the same as the establishment of a home through marriage. If so, then rape and incest would be the basis of the forming of a marriage.
By the way, this is the reason we must to be careful about assuming that, when two people have sex and a pregnancy results, the couple must marry. That might be a traditional approach; it is certainly not grounded in any Scripture of which I am aware (see Exodus 22:16–17).
Make no mistake: Having sex with someone outside of marriage is a serious sin, but it does not form a marriage. Sexual intercourse is a requirement for the establishment of a marriage, but like the practice of the Jews, it consummates what has already taken place (see Matthew 1:18–25).
Consent, Commitment, Consummation
Biblically, marriage requires willing consent, willing commitment, and willing consummation. These are the constituent parts of the marriage covenant. Each of these is present in the first wedding (Genesis 2) and substantiated by later Scripture (see Genesis 24:52–60; Proverbs 2:17; Malachi 2:10–16).
In other words, a person cannot be married against his or her will. Marriage requires willing commitment—hence the exchanging of vows. Promises must be made, and promises must be kept.
We can summarise this way: Marriage requires willing covenantal consent sealed by sexual consummation. When these requirements are met, a marriage has been established by God. Such a marriage is therefore responsible before God. It is to be treated as indissoluble.
Note carefully that this definition does not include an officiator, a state license, the church, or a lot of money. There is no mention of dowry and no mention of a wedding venue or reception.
I don’t know when the state got involved in issuing marriage licenses, but there is nothing in the Scripture that calls for this. Without a marriage license, legal protections may be forfeited, but the marriage can still be legitimate in God’s eyes. The is true in various fields. For example, a church can be a church in accordance with God’s word and definition while not seeking to be a legal entity. Without pursuing legal recognition, life may be more difficult, and some benefits will be forfeited, but the church remains. So it is with marriage.
One couple in our congregation is facing this challenge right now. Because of some home affairs policies, they are not able to be issued a marriage license. Does God expect them to not marry because of a beouacratic policy? I don’t believe so. If they are humans, from different families, of opposite genders, and if they are consensual parties to a covenant of marriage, until death parts them, they can and should be married.
Now, I am not suggesting that we defy human government. (Romans 13:1–7 cautions against that.) I am saying that this is a sphere in which government may legislate to safeguard the parties but that government has no right to dictate what defines a marriage. That is way above its pay grade. God has done so; government, as his minister (Romans 13:4), must rule under his rules. We should be careful of giving to government authority that God has not given to it (Acts 5:29).
But there is another tradition that Christians have embraced under the mistaken impression that the Bible demands this—namely, that the church, or at least its minister, marries a couple. Unfortunately, this is also not a biblical concept.
Now, don’t get me wrong: It is quite appropriate for Christians to be married in the presence of their church family, and it is wonderful when an elder can officiate (which is probably an unhelpful word). Since marriage pictures Christ and the church, a church wedding is a wonderful thing. What a blessing when a couple exchanges vows before those with whom they regularly worship and serve their Lord and Saviour. Since the couple is covenantally committed to the congregation, and the congregation to them, it is appropriate for the congregation to hear the vows and to help the couple to keep them. Godly congregational accountability is a wonderful blessing.
But again, the church does not marry the couple. God does, by their following his directives in making a lifelong covenant to love one another. Note Jesus’ words: “What Godhas joined together, let not manseparate.” Marriage is God’s dominion, not man’s.
As an aside, marriage is a creation gift passed on to all humanity—Christian and non-Christian alike. God expects a covenantal commitment, regardless of whether the people are Christian. And, God will hold the couple accountable.
Finally, it does not take a lot of money for a couple to get married. It takes a lot of integrity. It takes a commitment to give your word and to keep your word. And that is often expensive. It is costly. But disciples of Jesus are willing to pay the price. Jesus expects us to.
Allow me to share what I think is a legitimate concern. Wedding venues litter our land. We should not be surprised that, as society grows more secular, so will the concept of marriage. When I first came to our church, over 25 years ago, I was frequently contacted by people in the community to perform wedding ceremonies and to dedicate babies. I refused to do so if they were not church members, for good reasons.
But this does not happen much anymore. Perhaps it is because word has spread that I won’t do it, though I doubt that. Rather, I think the primary reason is because weddings have become so commercialised that the thought of being married in a church building is not attractive to most people. And with reference to baby dedications, well, secularisation has made this less of a concern for parents. For many parents, letting the child choose their religion is in vogue.
Wedding venues are not the problem. The problem is that the covenantal emphasis has been replaced with an emphasis on ceremony and celebration. There is nothing wrong with either, but they need to be kept in their proper place.
I have married four daughters. I understand that, when it comes to this, I am somewhat of a Neanderthal. Nevertheless, I want to make the appeal that, since marriage pictures Christ and the church, Christians should consider having your ceremony before the church. I don’t necessarily mean at the church building; I do mean including your congregation to witness your vows.
The concept of a dowry given to the bride or her family has some biblical roots (Genesis 24:53, 59–61; 29:16–28; 31:41; 34:12; Exodus 22:16–17; 1 Samuel 18:25; 2 Samuel 3:14; 1 Kings 9:16; Judges 1:14–15). The purpose was to provide security for the wife should the husband die or abandon her. Like so many biblical laws that seem chauvinistic, it was in fact for the protection of women.
Many cultures have practiced this—some better than others. My concern is that too often, certainly in our context, a dowry (or lobola, as it is known in South Africa) becomes a hindrance to marriage rather than a help. The question is, does one need to pay lobola for a marriage to be considered legitimate?
If doing so is tantamount to making a covenantal commitment, then I would have to concur. But I think motives must be carefully examined by all parties. If someone cannot afford lobola and so he and his fiancée run away to make a marriage covenant, they are married. There may be severe relational ramifications, but a legitimate marriage has taken place.
The More the Marry-er?
One other question related to all of this is, how many marriages can you have? What do we say to the practice of polygamy? If a man has two or more wives, should they all be considered legitimate marriages?
This is a huge subject, and time will not allow a thorough investigation into all the examples of polygamy in Scripture. However, if we accept the definition of marriage we have looked at, then yes, these are legitimate marriages.
The question is often asked, if a polygamist gets saved, should he remain married to his wives? Assuming he and his wives have entered the marriage consensually and covenantally, I believe he and they should remain married. I am not suggesting that this is Plan A from God, but it is a legitimate marriage and it should be treated accordingly.
Let me conclude by observing that a sinful choice does not nullify a valid contract or covenant. You may purchase a car you cannot actually afford, but you are still liable for contractual obligations. So it is with polygamy.
Having said this, we need to realise that Plan A was always one male and one female. The Old Testament history saw a moving away from this. But the New Testament clearly returns to that plan. Because of the gospel, there has been a new creation. This takes us back to Genesis 1–2. What do we find before the fall? We find monogamous marriage. In the new heaven and new earth, that pattern continues, in the sense that Jesus Christ is a monogamous husband married to one bride, the church. One other evidence of the primacy of monogamous marriage is God’s requirement for an elder to be the husband of one wife. If God requires this of the church’s leadership, and if the leaders are to be spiritual examples to the congregation, the assumption is that this should be the pattern for every Christian.
When Jesus answered their question, he caused such a stir that his disciples needed special counsel! In the words of Matthew, they concluded that, if what Jesus was saying was true, then people were better off not getting married. Peter, whom we know at this time was married, was perhaps sobered by all of this. It is good to be sobered about marriage. As the traditional marriage ceremony says, marriage is not to be entered lightly or unadvisedly, but soberly, and in the fear of God. We are probably correct to conclude that Jesus was indeed seeking to put the fear of God into his disciples about marriage.
But why was this so important to Jesus? Why did he defend scriptural marriage against easy divorce? Because of what marriage was designed to depict.
In Ephesians 5:29–32, Paul makes it patently clear that God designed human marriage to depict the inviolable, one-flesh relationship between Jesus Christ and his bride, the church. That is why divorce is so serious, for it mars the picture. It sends the erroneous message that the relationship between Jesus and his bride is not secure, when, in fact, it is eternally secure!
In other words, human marriage is to depict the gospel—the good news that Jesus Christ loves his chosen people, his bride, to such an extent that he laid down his life for her. He bled and died for her. She came from his bleeding side. Human marriage is to depict the unconditional and unending love between Jesus and his bride. It is to depict that he cleaves to his people—forever joined—and no one, or no sin, or no power can separate them from him, or him from us. That is the reason that marriage matters. That is the reason we need to talk about marriage as God defines it. And this is the reason we need to defend it and to depict it in accordance with God’s word.
Non-Christian, the questions we have addressed today are important, but the most important question you are facing is, are you married to Jesus Christ? Have you answered his invitation to the wedding by repenting of your sin and believing on the one who lived the perfect life you could not, who died the death that you deserve, and who rose from the dead with the power to forgive you as he raises you from spiritual death? Do so today. Say yes to his marriage proposal today and be joined forever to Jesus Christ your groom who loved you and gave himself for you.
Christian, a cursory understanding of history points to the destruction of civilisations through the breakdown of the family. Our society is heading that way—the way of decay. And so this is a perfect time for the church’s salt to be appropriately rubbed into our culture (9:50). It is the perfect time for the local church to believe and behave like faithful disciples. It is the perfect time for us to follow Jesus in our approach to these increasingly controversial matters. And a firm grip on what our Lord taught in Mark 10:1–12 will go a long way towards achieving this.
May our convictions about marriage, and related matters, depict faithfulness to Jesus. May our marriages depict the marriage between Jesus Christ and his bride, the church.