Marriage, divorce and remarriage

Good evening. Let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, we thank you for your Word. Thank you that you tell us that all of it is breathed out by you, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. Teach, reprove, correct and train us now, we pray. In Jesus name. Amen.

So we’re back to this series on the central chapters of Mark’s Gospel, which we’ve called ‘CROSS ROAD: What it means to live for a crucified Lord’. Which is a very apt theme for an evening such as this, when we’ve participated in these baptisms. Through baptism we’re called to a life of radical repentance, faith and obedience to Jesus. And that, of course, applies in the area covered by our passage this evening – marriage, divorce and remarriage. That’s my title. And our passage is Mark 10.1-12. If you’re using one of the church Bibles, it’s there on page 845.

Not least because our own culture has made such a mess of this, at the cost of an ocean of suffering. This is an area on which it’s vital that we get our minds in line with the mind of Christ. And that can be very challenging, because our minds get formed by our culture, and there can be a chasm between Christ and our culture. Not everything about Christian discipleship is contrary to our culture. There’s much that we can faithfully affirm and enjoy, but in some things following Christ faithfully is deeply counter-cultural, and this is one of those. That chasm between our culture and the teaching of Jesus can be a shock, and there’s nothing new about that. In fact, what Jesus says here was profoundly shocking even in the context of a Jewish culture with strict sexual ethics.

So Mark 10.10 says that after Jesus’ public Q and A on this, in private the disciples asked him again about this matter. Instead of softening what he had said, Jesus doubled down on it. And the parallel account in Matthew 19 tells that the shocked reaction of the disciples was to say (Matthew 19.10):

If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.

Jesus is clear with them that those who don’t follow him won’t accept what he says. But he challenges the disciples to grapple with it and take it on board. He says (Matthew 19.12):

…Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.

And that’s what the early church did. It took on board this teaching of Jesus, through the teaching of the apostles. The result was a sexual revolution and a new understanding of marriage that transformed the lives of women, men, children, families and societies for good. We need such a new sexual revolution today, for all our sakes. So we need to listen afresh to the teaching of Jesus. Take a look at Mark 10.1:

And [Jesus] 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.

Now there’s a lot that could be said on this passage, and we don’t have time for all of it now, but before we get to the substance of what Jesus says here, let me make a number of other quick fire observations that it would be good for us to bear in mind. These are the words of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – God himself. So this is truth, and we should obey it. Why should we obey it? Not only because it comes from Jesus, but because God’s law is for our good. And the other side of that coin is that disobedience is destructive. Disobedience to God’s commands on marriage have wreaked havoc on countless lives. The sexual chaos of our culture is devastating. We are all caught up in it in one way or another. And in fact it is often the poor who suffer the most. There are too many privileged and prosperous people enjoying the benefits of marriage for themselves and their families, whilst advocating its destruction. But none of us can stand in judgement. The Bible and our own experience make it clear. Sin is universal, not least in this area.

But whatever we’ve done, the wonder is that the price of our sin has been paid by the blood of Christ. When we come to him in repentance and faith (whatever we’ve done) forgiveness is free. However, there are consequences of sin that continue. Our debt is cleared, but the damage is done, and we have to deal with that. It is always far better to avoid sin than to clear up the mess afterwards. If we find ourselves shocked by the teaching of Jesus, we should not reject it, but we should do the hard work of re-examining our own thinking, and letting it be reshaped by the Word of God, trusting that he knows better than us. We must not interpret one Scripture so that it contradicts another. God does not contradict himself. On marriage, divorce and remarriage in particular, Matthew 19 does not contradict Matthew 5, Mark 10 or Luke 16. We don’t have time to look at the detail of that now.

The apostles including Paul, the early church, and indeed the Church of England at the time of the Reformation and for centuries until recently, all followed this teaching of Jesus. All of this might well raise questions in your mind. These are of course sensitive issues that can be very close to the bone for us, and touch us at a deep level. We all need to think these issues through thoroughly, and get clear on what we believe and why. So if you’d like the opportunity to consider these issues further and in more detail, let me or another member of staff know, and we can make that happen in whatever way is most suitable – whether that’s a one-to-one conversation, or an opportunity for more teaching and discussion.

What, then, did Jesus teach? It is simple enough, even if it is explosive, and its implications immense and far-reaching. Let’s look at this, under three headings.

1. A GOOD QUESTION WITH A BAD MOTIVE

The question is there in Mark 10.2:

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

Now I said earlier that this was a Jewish culture that today would be regarded as shockingly rigorous on sexual ethics. So it’s worthwhile just to spell out what was the common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees. It was that marriage is between a man and a woman, that sex was created by God for marriage alone, and that therefore all sex outside marriage is contrary to God’s law and so is immoral. And whatever debates there have been on the question of divorce and remarriage, until very recently, this has been the common ground shared by all Christians and all churches across the world for two thousand years. We need to be clear that the liberalism on this issue that has invaded the church in recent years is unprecedented in the whole of Christian history. So Jesus and the Pharisees did have that common ground, but not a lot else. Their question is not a sincere query. It’s intended as a trap. Mark says they ask it to test him. Earlier in his Gospel Mark records how after Jesus has healed a man on the Sabbath (Mark 3.6):

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel…against him, how to destroy him.

There is a vicious hatred behind this question, of which Jesus is well aware. But nonetheless, it’s a good question that we all need to think through.

Is it lawful [and it’s God’s law that is in view – is it lawful…] for a man to divorce his wife?

I say it’s a good question – and it is, but even so there’s a slant to the Pharisees’ question that’s revealing. It’s as if they’re wanting to know how much it’s possible to get away with without breaking the law. And we have to be careful to avoid that same kind of thinking in our minds. When it comes to living in obedience to Christ, our question should not be “how much am I allowed to get away with?” but “what, in this situation, will be the course of action that is most pleasing to my Redeemer and Lord?” Anyway, far from being trapped, Jesus uses this hostile question to spell out his teaching on marriage, divorce and remarriage. And it’s more radical than any of those listening would have imagined. The debate at the time was over whether a man (not a woman - there was not parity of treatment) – whether a man could divorce his wife and remarry even for a trivial reason (for instance if she burned his supper or he saw a prettier woman) or whether divorce and remarriage was only allowable when the wife had sexually misbehaved. That divorce and remarriage was lawful in certain circumstances neither side of the debate doubted. But Jesus leapfrogged that whole debate and went much further. And first he replied to them with another question, about the teaching of the Scriptures as they knew them – our Old Testament. So:

2. GOD’S ANSWER FROM THE OLD TESTAMENT

This is Mark 10.3-8. From Mark 10.3-5:

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.”

God gave the Old Covenant law through Moses. The law the Pharisees refer to is in Deuteronomy 24. And actually what it is doing, while recognising the fact of divorce and remarriage, is to add a restriction to who a man can remarry if he is twice divorced. And why is it there at all? Because of the hardness of your heart, says Jesus, because of sin. It is not at all what God intends. What is God’s plan for marriage? In their answer to Jesus the Pharisees completely overlooked God’s fundamental teaching about marriage, which is in the foundational early chapters of Genesis. That’s where Jesus takes them next. So he says, first quoting from Genesis 1.6:

But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’

That too, of course, was not controversial at the time. That humanity is made up of men and women, and that maleness and femaleness is a given, has always been self-evident until our culture’s questioning of it, which is unprecedented in human history. What Genesis adds is that the living God created them so. And Jesus is making it clear that that reality underlies the nature of marriage. In the light of that, he then quotes Genesis 2 and adds his own comment. This is Mark 10.7-8:

‘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.

This is the essence of marriage. A man and a woman leave their parents. They commit themselves in a very profound way to one another – hold fast to one another; cleave to one another (to use the old word). And they become a new union – one flesh. Two become one. Sex is the physical expression of that – the physical union of the husband and the wife, from which children are born into the world. But this one-flesh union goes deeper than the physical. So this is the basic building block of a society according to God’s plan. These are the Maker’s instructions. Marriage is between one man and one woman, for life – only parted by death. God knows best. He knows what is for our good. That is the foundational teaching of the Old Testament – which is itself God’s word written, and which Jesus here directly repeats and endorses. But he goes further than the Old Testament in spelling out the implications of that for divorce and remarriage. Jesus repeatedly in his teaching significantly tightens up how we should apply fundamental Old Testament principles – going far beyond how they’re applied in practice in Old Covenant law. And the same is true here. So we’ve seen God’s answer from the Old Testament. Now:

3. JESUS’ AUTHORITATIVE APPLICATION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT

Jesus makes a further comment before drawing out the implications of what God says about marriage to the question of divorce. So he says in Mark 10.9:

What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

The one-flesh union of husband and wife that takes place in marriage is an act of God that changes the relation of the man and the woman. It is not the doing of men and women. It is something that God does. And it is permanent, broken only by death. So men and women (and indeed the wider society) should not act to undo what God has done. That is to act against the living God. And in fact, whatever might be the position in man-made law, and whatever the physical separation between them, it is in reality not possible for the union of husband and wife to be broken, except by death. To use the traditional word, that union is indissoluble.

It’s not the same thing, but a good analogy is with another kind of indissoluble relationship – the blood relation between family members. So take the example of a brother and a sister. They might not get on. They might be torn apart and live separately. They might never speak, or see each other. But none of that can ever change the fact that they are brother and sister. Their relationship is indissoluble. According to the Son of God, so it is in marriage, between a husband and wife. That makes sense when we take on board that marriage reflects in a very deep way the permanent, indissoluble, covenant relationship between God and his people, the church. Other parts of the Bible spell that out – Ephesians 5 for instance. But is that the right way to understand Jesus, when he says What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate? The way Jesus now goes on to apply this teaching to the question of divorce and remarriage confirms that it is. The disciples, it seems, are already disturbed by what they’ve heard from Jesus. They seem to realise that the implications would be far-reaching. So away from the crowd, they pursue the issue with him. Mark 10-12:

And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Don’t miss the revolutionary parity between husband and wife here. Jesus will not tolerate any sexual double standard, with one rule for men and another for women. Like the Old Testament, Jesus knows that in wider society, divorces followed by remarriage will happen. But he says that such remarriages inescapably have the character of adultery about them. So among those who are committed to following him as their Lord (that is to say, among Christians, in the church) such remarriages should not happen. Why is that? Is divorce and remarriage (let alone adultery) the unforgiveable sin? Certainly not. Read Psalm 51, for instance, for confirmation of that. The point is that, as we’ve seen, in God’s sight the first marriage cannot be undone. Until one of the parties to it dies, it exists, even if the husband and wife are apart, and even if in the eyes of the State they are no longer married.

So, with this strong, and even shocking, teaching Jesus instigated a positive sexual revolution which formed the Christian understanding of marriage, and to which we must hold fast, even against intense pressure, for our own good, for the good of the church, and for the good of our confused, chaotic and hurting society. So remember: we’re all in the same boat; we’re all sinners in need of redemption, whatever the particular circumstances of our own lives and relationships. Jesus poured out his blood on the cross out of love and compassion for you, and for me. When we come to him in repentance and faith, there is forgiveness. But obedience is best, and is for everyone’s good. So the church must model that repentance, faith, and a better way through obedience. And the further our society strays from Jesus and his teaching, the more important it is for the church not to fall in line, but to be radically different.

For some of us, even if we’ve heard what Jesus is saying and we determine to obey him, our situation can feel complicated. We may have a lot of thinking, Bible study, prayer and talking to do. There are one or two ideas for further reading on the outline in the service paper. But please don’t suffer or rage or just ponder and puzzle in silence. We do best working on this together. As I said at the start, please let me or another member of staff here know if you’d like to think or talk further. We’ll lay on whatever might be helpful. Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of marriage, which you have designed to be at the heart of a healthy society. Forgive us for our great failure to live up to our calling in this area. Thank you for your love, compassion, grace and forgiveness. Thank you that your teaching is for our good. Teach us to understand it more deeply, to bear witness to it, and to live it out more thoroughly. For the honour and glory of your name, and for the good of all. Amen.

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