The problem of divorce in society is nothing new. The issue presented as many challenges in the first century as it does now in the twenty-first century. Today it seems that there are as many views concerning God’s law of divorce as there are people worth asking. Within the religious world there are numerous views from no reason for divorce to any reason for divorce as long as there is repentance. The necessity of such a study should not be lost upon us, since most people have either been involved in or affected by divorce. Therefore, the teachings of Jesus concerning divorce are extremely relevant. In Mark 10 Jesus dealt with the question of divorce.
First Dialogue (Mark 10:1-9)
The question- testing Jesus
Jesus is teaching in the land of Judea and the people are gathered to Him to hear His teaching, as was their custom. The Pharisees approach Jesus in order to test Him. This, of course, is nothing new for the Pharisees have been testing Jesus repeatedly concerning His teachings, looking for a flaw and a way to discredit Him. The Pharisees ask Jesus a question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Before we go on in the reading, it is important to understand what Jesus is addressing. Jesus is not giving a full discourse on marriage. Jesus is not giving laws regarding when someone is allowed to remarry. Jesus has been asked if it is lawful to put away a spouse. This is the question He is answering: Is divorce (putting away) lawful? Thus, the title of the lesson is “Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce” and not on marriage or remarriage.
Jesus’ response–law of Moses
Jesus responds to the question by pointing the Pharisees to God’s law that was given through Moses. Jesus is not going out on a limb at this point and teaching His view of divorce. Jesus is not saying “thus say I concerning divorce.” Jesus immediately directs the Pharisees to the scriptures. Let us reflect for a moment that this needs to be our answer concerning this topic or any other spiritual issue. The question is not what does someone say about divorce. The question must always be, “What do the scriptures say concerning divorce?” Jesus immediately responds that the people must look for God’s authority to answer this question.
Pharisees’ response–the wrong answer
The Pharisees respond to Jesus that Moses permitted one to write a certificate of divorce and to put her away (divorce) her. This is interesting because it seems that up to this point the Pharisees have now answered their own question. The Pharisees asked if it was lawful to put away. Jesus asked what Moses said and they respond that Moses said they could put away with the certificate of divorcement. With this being the case, I believe we need to consider why this is not the end of the story? Why does not Jesus walk away and say that your question is answered? I believe the answer to this question will help put us on the right track concerning God’s law concerning divorce. I propose to you that the Pharisees have given the wrong answer, and that is why the teaching of Jesus continues. Nowhere did Moses teach that one could divorce for any reason so long as a certificate of divorce was given.
The only place in the law of Moses that we read about the giving of a certificate of divorcement is in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This is what the Pharisees are giving as their answer concerning what Moses’ law taught. The Jews had understood Deuteronomy 24 to be teaching that divorce was lawful for nearly every reason. Jesus is going to correct their understanding of Deuteronomy 24 to make it in harmony with God’s law.
First, let us consider Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The first three verses are statements of the conditions that might come about and the fourth verse is the remedy when such conditions are met. Unfortunately, most of the versions do not do a very good job in showing that these first three verses are conditions. The NIV and NRSV do well in showing this to be the case. Notice the “if” statements: “if a man marries;” “and writes her a certificate of divorce;” “if after she leaves;” “and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce.” Verse 4 tells the people what to do, “then her first husband is not allowed to marry her again.”
Deuteronomy 24 was contingency law. This means that the legislation was given in case such a circumstance came about. Now, we would read this and it would seem pretty far-fetched that this would be a problem. But it was a problem and that is why the law was given. As Jesus says in Mark 10:5, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this commandment.” The people were putting away their wives, and after they had married another, they would put them away so that the first husband could have her back. God was putting a stop to this by giving this commandment in Deuteronomy 24. Recognize that the people were being hardhearted toward their wives, not hardhearted toward God. We will consider this more later.
Now, many have come along and declared that since the woman was allowed to repeatedly remarry in Deuteronomy 24, that anyone who is divorced today is also allowed to remarry for any reason. But this is a horrible flaw in reasoning. There is no permission given in this passage at all. Moses is giving legislation as to what to do if in this situation, not condoning the situation. A similar situation concerning contingency law is found in Deuteronomy 22:28-29. “If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.” Was Moses teaching that it was okay to seize a woman who is a virgin and rape her so long as he paid fifty shekels of silver and married her later? Of course not! This is legislation given so as to know what to do if the situation arose, just like Deuteronomy 24. Moses was not teaching that it was okay for the woman to repeatedly get married. He was simply describing a possible situation.
This type of contingency law is also found in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 Paul says, “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” Is the Lord teaching that divorce is okay as long as you do not remarry? Of course not! The command is to not divorce. The Lord is simply telling us what we must do if we find ourselves in such a circumstance. He is not giving approval to the action. Many times we are doing what the Jews were doing to the law of Moses. The Jews read this passage and said that this means we can divorce and remarry as long as we give her a certificate of divorce. That is not what God was authorizing at all. The Jews’ understanding of the law concerning divorce needed to be corrected.
This is not the first time that Jesus had to correct the Jews concerning divorce. He had done it earlier in Matthew 5:31-32. Notice verse 31, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'” That is not what Moses said, but what the Jewish teachers said. Jesus corrects their interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 in verse 32 that divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality is committing adultery.
Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce
Jesus is also correcting the Jews’ interpretation here in Mark 10 as well. In Mark 10:6 Jesus now straightens out the Jews concerning God’s law on divorce. Jesus says that from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female and said that they were to leave their parents, be joined together, and become one flesh. In verses 8-9 Jesus drives home His point: the two people are no longer two, but are now one flesh. The two have been joined together by God, and what God has joined together, let no man separate. This is the law that was given from the beginning in Genesis 2 and it is the law that was to be followed by all mankind from creation. I believe we speak in error when we say that there was a different law concerning divorce under the old covenant than now under the new covenant. While I do not have time to extensively prove this point fully, I want us to consider that the law concerning divorce has never changed. God’s law is stated in Genesis 2. This is the same law that was in effect under Moses. The Jews had distorted what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 24 and Jesus now clarifies that law. Jesus is not giving a new teaching here in Mark 10, in Matthew 5, or in Matthew 19. Jesus is teaching the law of Moses concerning divorce. The Jews had given the wrong answer to Jesus’ question, “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees responded that they could divorce for any reason. Jesus now shows them what Moses commanded, and it is the same thing that was commanded in the garden of Eden. There is a consistency in God’s law. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, taught the same thing that Jesus taught in Matthew 19, Matthew 5, and Mark 10, as Moses taught to the people of Israel , as God Himself spoke in Genesis 2. This is the same law. Shall we truly suggest and believe that divorce was okay under the old covenant but now is not? The Lord clearly declared through His prophet Malachi, “I hate divorce!” That has never changed.
Will we suggest and teach that God changed the law of Moses because the people were unwilling to accept God’s teaching? Since they had hard hearts, for some reason God decided to be more lenient? That is not the nature of God! People today have hard hearts! Should we suggest that God will be more lenient because of our stubbornness and sinfulness? Of course not, for God does not change His laws because of human stubbornness. Moses gave Deuteronomy 24 because of the way the men were treating their wives. The contingency law was given to curb their wife-swapping activities. Such actions were not permission to act that way toward their spouses. God’s law concerning divorce has not changed and applies to all people under the new covenant, outside of the covenant, under the old covenant, and before the covenants. “The two shall become one flesh.” That is the implication of the statement. Yes, “one flesh” has a reference to the harmony and unity that must exist in a marriage. Yes, “one flesh” has a reference to a uniting in sexual relations. But the primary meaning, as taught to us by Jesus Himself, is that “one flesh” means no divorce. What God joins together, man is not to separate. This is what must be taught more strongly than ever: what God has joined together, we are not to separate. It is time, brethren, that we quit talking about divorce and start talking about mending and reconciliation. It is time that we stop looking for loopholes to separate and start looking for ways to love our spouses that caused us to marry the person in the first place.
Second Dialogue (Mark 10:10 -12)
The disciples enter the house, and it is clear that this teaching shatters what the Jewish leaders have been teaching. The disciples ask Him again about the matter. Now, Jesus will be very clear for us. Whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery. Friends, this teaching is as plain as I believe it can possibly be. This is God’s rule: If you divorce and marry someone else, you have committed adultery. I believe we need to see that there are two sins that are described: divorce and marrying again. If you divorce and marry another, you have committed adultery. Now some want to ask, “What if I divorce and do not remarry?” Paul dealt with that in 1 Corinthians 7:10 “Do not depart.” Further, Jesus dealt with it right here, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” Divorce is not lawful, and remarriage is not lawful.
Now, you may be asking where the exception clauses are. Are there other rules governing divorce? Yes, there are other teachings, but before we consider them, let us be impressed with the permanency of marriage. Jesus does not speak of marriage as something that is to be taken lightly or consider easy to discard. When we are married, we are married and we are suppose to stay that way. Unfortunately, sin enters into the equation and because of sin and hard hearts, proper marriages and love are not always maintained. One exception where divorce is allowed is found in Matthew’s account of this incident. In Matthew 19:9 we are told that sexual immorality is a reason for divorce. If one person has sexual relations with another other than his or her spouse, the spouse has the right to put the fornicator away for sexual immorality. This is not an exception to be taken lightly. God did not give this exception to create loopholes for hardhearted people to try to take advantage of. I have heard of scenarios where people, knowing this exception, have intentionally driven their spouse into the arms of another. I do not think this exception would apply to those who use this exception in a premeditated fashion to free themselves. The exception is meant to be straightforward and applied simply: If your spouse commits fornication, you have the option to put that spouse away.
Exception–1 Corinthians 7:15
There is one other situation where an exception is given concerning divorce, which is found in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul tells us in verse 12 of that chapter that he is dealing with a topic that Jesus did not speak upon. The circumstance is that of a believing spouse being married to an unbelieving spouse. The rule is given in verses 12-13, “let him not divorce her” and “let her not divorce him.” This is the same law that we have seen from the beginning. Again, Paul, Jesus, Moses and God all agree on the law of divorce. Let there be no divorce for what God has joined together; let not man separate. However, we are given contingency law again in verse 15. “If the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.” What situation is Paul describing? It seems the problem in the marriage has arisen over the fact that one is a follower of Christ and the other is not. This has led to such problems that the unbeliever wants a divorce. What is the believer to do? Paul says that the believer can sign the papers and accept the divorce. The believer is, therefore, by means of the putting away, no longer bound to the responsibilities of being a spouse to the one who has departed. Notice: The believer is not to depart. This is simply contingency law for if the unbelieving spouse departs.
Notice that we have not talked about the authority for remarriage. Do not assume too much that once divorced, one has the right to remarriage. Remarriage needs to have authority from God as much as divorce. In 1 Corinthians 7:15 there is not authority for remarriage. Though no longer bound to the duties as a spouse, Paul does not grant the right to remarriage. Verse 11 seems to be in effect: they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled.
In Matthew 19:9 there is the inference that only the one who puts away the fornicator can remarry. No one else is given the exception. If anyone divorces and remarries it is adultery, except the one who divorces and remarries because of sexual immorality.
The overriding law of God concerning divorce is that divorce is not to occur. It also should be noted that there are no other exceptions that I am aware of for divorce. Human emotions can be brought in about falling out of love, what a terrible person someone is, how they are an alcoholic, or any other scenario. Though we may think up lots of problems, we have seen the only two reasons given for divorce. This teaches us that we ought to think two or three times before we get married, because marriage is permanent. God has joined you together and that is all there is to it. Let us take marriage seriously and the sin of divorce seriously.
If you have found yourself in this situation, that you have been divorced and remarried not for the cause of sexual immorality, you may be living in an adulterous relationship. I encourage you to study these words of God and let me or another leader here know of your situation so that we can help you find the best way to get back into a right relationship with God.