by Daniel Harrell
For more than a year now we’ve been walking through the red-letters of Mark’s gospel; those places where Jesus has something to say. I skipped ahead for Easter to the end, trusting that didn’t spoil the story for most of you. I’m circling back now, wanting to work through chapters 10 through 13 before we call it a sermon series. If I don’t finish by Church Fathers time in July (this year starting with the letter J), we’ll pick it up in the fall and definitely be done before the leaves change. If you’re tired of Mark (which I trust you’re not since you come to church to hear about Jesus), the bad news is that next week’s bicentennial guest preacher, Mark Dever, will be speaking from Mark chapter 9, a passage on which you’ve already heard from me some months back. Had I known that Mark was going to preach from Mark I might have skipped that chapter, but since you come to church to hear about Jesus, why skip anything? That goes for tonight’s passage too. It’s a troubling one for people in troubled marriages. Jesus draws a very hard line. “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
You may recall Gordon Hugenberger preaching about divorce when he walked us through the book of Malachi a couple of years ago. That sermon is still available for download. In it you’ll hear the statistics: The majority of marriages in America will not make it to their 25th anniversary. The currently divorced population is the fastest growing marital status in America. 1 out of 5 people in America are divorced. One half of all children of married parents have watched their parents split. For many children and spouses, death is easier to deal with than divorce. At least when your spouse dies you can leave up the photos. Christians do tend to hang on to bad marriages longer than others do, but according to the statistics, the same percentage of Christians end up getting divorced anyway.
Among the reasons I hope that you attend or belong to Park Street Church is because of its deep devotion to Jesus, to Scripture, to grace and to the gospel. Which brings us back to our text for tonight. If Park Street Church is so devoted to Scripture, what’s can divorce ever be allowed? The obvious answer is that grace is sufficient for all sin, but there’s more to it when it comes to divorce. It is the case that in Scripture, God sometimes allows what He does not condone. Polygamy is another example, as is slavery. Polygamy, slavery and divorce all occur among the righteous in the Bible, even though none are ever said to reflect God’s will or design. In Deuteronomy 24, Moses allows a husband to issue a certificate of divorce to his wife (and vice versa) on grounds of indecency (a Hebrew word related to nakedness and shame). This same law also allowed remarriage. What was not allowed was divorce on other grounds. In Malachi 2:16, where many Bibles have God saying, “I hate divorce” (which is no doubt the case), the better translation of the Hebrew (as Gordon pointed out in his sermon) should have God saying that “the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, covers (or wears) a garment of violence (or injustice).” In other words, you are not allowed to divorce just because you don’t love your husband or wife anymore.
Throughout the Old Testament, God’s relationship to his people is described as a marriage, with God portrayed as the husband who unabashedly adores his wife. Israel, on the other hand, gets portrayed over and over as the unfaithful spouse. And thus regretfully, in both Isaiah and Jeremiah, God issues Israel a certificate of divorce on account of their indecency. In Jeremiah 3, the Lord says, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries.” By the time we get to Jesus’ day, this certificate of divorce was clearly being abused. Not unlike no-fault divorces easily available in America today, some Pharisees held that a husband could divorce his wife over anything he didn’t like about her, right down to the way that she cooked his dinner. In Matthew, Jesus reiterates both Deuteronomy and Malachi, stating that “everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a woman so divorced commits adultery too.” As with God himself, infidelity was the only permissible grounds for divorce. But even in the case of infidelity, divorce is never commanded. In Matthew’s Christmas story, a righteous Joseph sought to divorce Mary upon discovering her to be pregnant with someone else’s baby. The Bible tacitly commends Joseph for intending to divorce Mary quietly so as not to drag her name through the mud. But then God sends an angel to straighten everything out. Divorce was not the solution.
Here in Mark’s gospel, the issue is not so much divorce in general as it is a specific divorce. Jesus has entered the region of Judea where Herod Antipas is still the tetrarch or governor. Herod Antipas had wrongly married Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, also named Herod. John the Baptist had denounced the marriage as adulterous. Herodias divorced her first Herod only so that she might marry his more powerful half-brother. Hers was not a lawful divorce nor theirs a lawful marriage. To silence John the Baptist, Herod had him arrested. Later Herodias (via her daughter) seduced Herod into having John the Baptist beheaded to shut him up for good. The Pharisees saunter up to Jesus and innocuously ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” But theirs was a loaded question. If Jesus agreed with John the Baptist, then maybe he would lose his head too. It was no secret that the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead.
Jesus smelled their trap. So in classic Jesus fashion, he turned their tables by asking them “what did Moses command?” The Pharisees answer by restating the concession regarding divorce (but you’ll note they never mention the only permissible grounds for divorce since they had no intention of losing their own heads). Jesus responds with the reason behind every concession: “It was because you are so hard-hearted that Moses wrote you this law.” Jesus’ forceful retort is yet another censured slap against human sinfulness stretching back to the last chapter―another millstone necklace, another appendage to amputate. But rather than continuing down the hellfire and brimstone trail, he quickly shifts from what Moses conceded to what Moses commanded. He moves the discussion from divorce to marriage. From Deuteronomy back to Genesis. He says, “At the beginning of creation, God ‘made humans male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ It follows that they are no longer two, but one. Therefore don’t let anyone separate what God has joined together.” God may allow divorce on the grounds of sexual offense because human hearts are so hard (and then only to protect the offended party), but he never condones it.
Unable to trap Jesus, the Pharisees slink away. But the disciples remain curious. What did Jesus think about the royal divorce and remarriage? To his disciples, Jesus lays it out straight: “If a husband divorces his wife to marry another woman, he commits adultery against his first wife. If a wife divorces her husband to marry another man, she commits adultery too.” You can’t divorce your husband just because you want to marry someone else. This was not permissible grounds. Like John the Baptist, Jesus denounced the marriage as adulterous. And like John the Baptist, Jesus would eventually get executed with Herod’s consent too.
This helps explain the odd placement of this passage here in chapter 10. Back in chapter 8, on the heels of Peter declaring Jesus to be the Son of God, Jesus announced that as Son of God he must suffer and die on a cross. Peter didn’t like that part, so Jesus called him Satan, which Peter didn’t like either. In chapter 9, the disciples asked about the long-expected return of Elijah the prophet who would blaze the trail for the coming Messiah. Jesus told them that Elijah had already returned in the person of John the Baptist. A suffering Elijah had blazed the way for a suffering Messiah.
And that wasn’t all. Jesus added that if anybody would follow him, you would have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it. But denying yourself to follow a suffering Messiah has never been for suffering’s sake. You deny yourself and take up a cross for the sake of love. Jesus said there is no greater love than the love that lays down its life for another. This also helps explain the odd placement of this passage here in chapter 10. Jesus changed the subject from divorce to marriage because as much as anything on earth, marriage provides a crash course in denying yourself for the sake of great love. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave his life for her. Wives are called to love their husbands and give themselves up too. And yet because this is so impossible for hard-hearted people (the only kind of people who ever go for marriage), husbands and wives are also called to rely on God. God is love. And what love demands, God provides. This is why I like to say that love is not the cause of marriage as much as its outcome. When troubles threaten to rip your marriage apart, it is God who gives the strength to die again to yourself again for the sake of love. And once you die to yourself for the sake of love, the only outcome can be resurrection.
Granted, Jesus died and rose to save sinners, but that doesn’t mean that all sinners are saved. You can refuse the love. You can decide to try and save yourself, even though that never works. Likewise in marriage. It takes two people (and Jesus) to make a marriage, and both people (and Jesus) to save a marriage. You can’t stay married by yourself. I don’t say this to justify what happened to me, there is much for which I was to blame. But because divorce did happen to me, I work that it might not happen to others. I try to help couples see that divorce is not a solution to their marital problems. Fixing your marriage is the solution to your marital problems. And as long as both want to do that, with God’s help, any marriage is fixable.