Mark 10:1-12

What Jesus Says About Divorce

Marriage is no human idea.  It came from the very heart of God who said in the very beginning, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him.”  Marriage unites two unique people as “one flesh” before God. We are told in the New Testament that not only is marriage the deepest human relationship that exists, it is actually a picture of the relationship between Jesus and his Church.

And therefore we honor marriage and hold it in high esteem.  We treat marriage as one would treat a precious antique vase.  We put it on display for all to see.  We are careful with it and protect it.  But sometimes that vase falls from its pedestal and lies broken on the floor.  What are we to do?  This shouldn’t have happened!  What went wrong?  Is there a remedy?  How are we to think about this broken vase?  This is the subject of the passage this week.  Divorce.

Divorce is a relevant topic for us to consider.  It is relevant because it is part of life in a sin-broken world.  However, it is not a relevant topic to consider because divorce is as prevalent in the church as it is in the world.  This is not true.  As has been well documented in several places including in this article, divorce rates are actually lower amongst conservative Christians who attend church compared with those who have no religious affiliation.

#1 The Pharisees are setting a trap for Jesus.

1And 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.  2And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  Mark 10:1-2

Jesus has now moved south of Galilee and is in the region of Judea.  Once again we see that crowds of people have been drawn to Jesus and once again we see the relentless efforts of the Pharisees to undermine Jesus.  They want to hear his view on divorce.  They are not actually seeking what might be gained from listening to him but they pose this question as a “test.”  Divorce, as it is in our day, was a controversial topic.  There were many opinions floating around in the Jewish world of that day as to what constituted valid grounds for divorce.  At one end were the conservatives (School of Shammai) who taught that divorce was only allowable for certain sexual sins.  And on the other end (School of Hillel) were the liberals who taught something very close to the “no fault” divorce we find in our day.   This passage from the Jewish Mishnah captures well the debate that existed in the ancient Jewish world:

The School of Shammai say:  A  man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, “Because he hath found in the indecency in anything.”  And the School of Hillel say: [He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him, for it is written, “Because he hath found in her indecency in anything.”  R. Akiba says:  Even if  he found another fairer than she, for it is written, “And it shall be if she find no favour in his eyes.” (Misnah, Gittin 9:10)

The Pharisees want to know — whose side are you on?  What do you have to say about this controversial topic?

#2 Jesus points them back to Scripture.

3He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.”  Mark 10:3-4

Jesus does not respond with “I mostly agree with Rabbi So-and-So but I think Rabbi Such-and-Such also has some good points to consider as well.”  No!  He asks them a question:  “What did Moses command you?”  In other words, “What do the Scriptures say?”  We can learn something here about how to respond to controversial topics.  Even Jesus responded here by simply pointing to Scripture.  We should do the same.

The Pharisees repeat back to Jesus what Moses had written.  The primary passage in the Old Testament that deals directly with divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and indeed, this is the passage the Pharisees cite.  Here is the passage in it’s entirety:

1“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”  Deuteronomy 24:1-4

The Pharisees note that in this passage Moses does not command divorce but he does allow it.  The grounds for the divorce in this passage is that the husband has found some “indecency” in his wife.  The question which became the subject of debate for the Pharisees, and later recorded in the Mishnah passage already quoted, was “What constitutes an indecency?”  Is it adultery?  Is it bad cooking?  Matthew’s account of this exchange captures this well as he records more fully the question the Pharisees asked Jesus — “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause? (Matthew 19:3, emphasis added).”

#3 Jesus attributes divorce to hardness of heart.

5And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” Mark 10:5

There is no indication here that Jesus abrogates the Word of God spoken through Moses.  He does not set it aside but seeks to place it in its proper context.  Jesus says that Moses gave these instructions because of your “hardness of heart.”  Sin entered the world.  Sometimes the vase falls off the pedestal.  Deuteronomy is a passage of concession to life in a sin-broken world, but it is does not reflect God’s intention for marriage.

#4 Jesus lays out God’s design for marriage from the beginning.

6“But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ 7‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” Mark 10:6-9

To understand God’s intention for marriage, Jesus cites two other Old Testament passages — Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  Here again we see Jesus’ use of Scripture to speak into this issue.  He does not cite current cultural expectations about who should marry or how they might divorce.  He roots his argument in the creation account.  We see that Jesus’ view of gender, marriage, and divorce are not shaped by the times in which he lived but by Scripture.  This is to be the enduring “norm” for how we understand these issues as well.  And what do we learn from these Genesis verses?  We learn that gender — male and female — are part of God’s design for us.  We learn that when a man enters into the covenant of marriage, his primary and closest relationship will not be with his parents but with his wife.  We learn that in the eyes of God, marriage unites two unique people as one flesh.  We learn that it is God who does the work of marriage in uniting man and woman together.  We learn that if it is God who joined them together, no one should separate them.

#5 The disciples need help to understand this matter.

10And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:10-12

On the heals of Jesus’ public ministry, comes his private ministry to his disciples.  Once removed from the crowds they ask Jesus to clarify this difficult teaching.  The plainest reading of these verses would seem to indicate that Jesus makes no allowance for divorce or re-marriage.  But when we read Matthew’s account of this teaching, it seems that Jesus does make one allowance.   Matthew 19:9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Why the difference between Mark’s account and Matthew’s account?  John Stott is helpful at this point:

“It seems far more likely that its absence from Mark and Luke is due not to their ignorance of it but to their acceptance of it as something taken for granted.  After all, under Mosaic law adultery was punishable by death (although the death penalty for this offense seems to have fallen into disuse by the time of Jesus) so nobody would have questioned that marital unfaithfulness was a just ground for divorce.” (John Stott, Christian Counter Culture, p.96-97)

Divorce for Sexual Immorality

Matthew 19:9 is known as the “exception clause.”  Jesus allows for, but certainly does not command, divorce in the case of sexual immorality.  Sexual immorality is so serious it can sever the permanent union of marriage.

The word that is used in Matthew 19:9 for sexual immorality is the Greek word porneia.  This is the word from which we get the word pornography.  There is some debate as to exactly what Jesus meant by porneia.  Is this a synonym for adultery?  Are other sexual sins included in this?  Debate continues among Bible scholars and therefore we must approach this topic with humility.

Divorce for Abandonment by an Unbelieving Spouse

So Jesus allows for (but does not command) divorce in the case of sexual immorality.  There is one other passage that can be added to the “exception clause” for divorce and it is found in 1 Corinthians 7:15 – “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”  The context for this verse is a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever.  And Paul says if the unbelieving spouse abandons the believing spouse, then the believing spouse is free to pursue a divorce.

And so we see the New Testament allows for divorce in two cases: sexual immorality and abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.  The Scriptures do not lay out for us every situation in which divorce is allowable.  And so again we might approach this topic with humility looking to the Lord to give guidance.

Our church sits first and foremost under the authority of Scripture and what God has revealed there.  And under Scripture we have the Westminster Confession of Faith.  I hold the Westminster Confession to be a faithful exposition of Scripture and so I find it helpful to consult the Confession on this topic.

Westminster Confession of Faith 24.6: “Although the corruption of man be such as is apt to study arguments unduly to put asunder those whom God has joined together in marriage: yet, nothing but adultery, or such wilful desertion as can no way be remedied by the Church, or civil magistrate, is cause sufficient of dissolving the bond of marriage.”

Notice the Confession accepts the “exception clauses” in allowing for divorce in cases of adultery (sexual immorality) and willful desertion (abandonment).  Yet divorce is not automatic.  The Confession wisely adds this little phrase “as can no way be remedied by the Church or civil magistrate.”  If someone believes they have grounds for divorce, they should first go to the church.  If the church cannot remedy the situation, and there are clear grounds for divorce, a divorce can be pursued.


Regarding the topic of remarriage after divorce I find John MacArthur helpful: “Simply stated, when divorce is permitted, remarriage is permitted; where divorce is forbidden, remarriage is forbidden.”  (Source: p.222 in Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage by Jim Newheiser who quotes MacArthur, The Divorce Dilemma, p. 81).  If there are biblical grounds for divorce, I believe there are biblical grounds for re-marriage.

What about other cases for divorce?

Determining biblical grounds for divorce is admittedly a difficult topic.  The Bible is not as clear on this topic as some might desire.  This is why we need wisdom from the Holy Spirit.  This is why need godly church leadership who take seriously what the Bible says and who love the flock committed to their care.  I won’t here attempt any sort of list of what is allowable and what is not, but let me give one example.  I believe a case could be made that spousal abuse in some instances falls under the exception clause found in 1 Corinthians 7:15, and therefore is grounds for a biblical divorce.  But again, we need wisdom from the Spirit and guidance from the church in helping us navigate these issues.

A Word To Those Who Have Experienced Divorce

Divorce is a particularly painful topic for those who have experienced it whether first-hand or second-hand. It can be a source of shame within the church.  We might know someone for a quite a while before we discover that they were previously divorced.  Let me share with you someone who has experienced divorce first-hand.  The prophet Jeremiah writes about him: “She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce (Jeremiah 3:8).”  Who is he writing about?  God!  God wrote Israel a certificate of divorce and sent her away.  He knows first-hand the brokenness of divorce.

To those who have experienced divorce allow me to remind you of Paul’s words in Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  If you look this verse up in your Bible, notice there are no asterisks anywhere in the text.  Paul does not say there is no condemnation except for those of you who have been divorced or committed adultery or anything else! The blood of Jesus is sufficient to take away everyone of our sins.  We rest in this!

Discussion Questions

  1. What motive do the Pharisees have in asking their question about divorce?
  2. How does Jesus rely on Scripture to give them an answer?
  3. The Pharisees quote what Moses said on the topic of divorce.  Read and summarize this Old Testament passage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
  4. What does Jesus mean by saying divorce is allowable “because of your hardness of heart” (v.5)?
  5. Jesus refers to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24.  First, what does this tell us about Jesus’ view of Genesis?  Would he have quoted Genesis if he believed it were a work of fiction?  Secondly, what do we learn about God’s original design for marriage from these verses?
  6. How should marriage (and if you are married — your marriage!) more fully reflect God’s original design?
  7. Compare Mark 10:11-12 with Matthew 19:9.  What exception does Jesus provide in Matthew?  Why does Jesus say that sexual immorality is grounds for divorce?
  8. Why do you think divorce continues to be a controversial topic today?
  9. What is one thing you want to be sure to remember from this passage?


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