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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Lord Jesus reorients people to God’s design for marriage
Text:Mark 10:1-12 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 4
Hymn 7:9 (after the law)
Psalm 128
Psalm 45:1,4,5
Psalm 92:1,2,6

Readings: Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Hebrews 13
Text: Mark 10:1-12
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ Jesus,

Our text is an intimidating passage in some ways for a preacher.  There are a lot of strong opinions when it comes to the topics of marriage, divorce, and especially remarriage after divorce.  No matter what the preacher says, there will be those who wish he said it differently.  It’s a risk that must be taken. 

On the other hand, this passage also has some clear truths concerning which we should all be able to agree.  This piece of the Word gives sound direction for us on how God views marriage.  There is positive teaching here.  There is revelation here concerning our Saviour and his redemptive work.  That’s what we need to place our focus on this morning.

All of us have been affected one way or another by the institution of marriage.  Though some of us have been affected by divorce, we’ve all grown up in the shadow of our parents’ marriages.  Some of us are married today.  Others want to be married at some point in the future.  Our church is full of married people and those who are single are affected by marriage relationships too, though some more than others.  And all of these marriages and their circles of impact involve fallen people.  The fall into sin dramatically wounded the institution of marriage.  Just think of how Adam threw his wife under the bus when confronted by God in the garden.  He was just the first one.  Dysfunction and trouble affect all marriages – and a lot of it is the direct result of sinful hearts, minds, and wills. 

Our Saviour came into this world not only to save souls, not even only to save souls and bodies, but also to redeem all of life, including marriage.  He is the one who restores creation, who brings it back into God’s precise purposes.  We see him beginning that work already in our passage from Mark 10.  So, this morning, I preach to you God’s Word summarized with this theme:

The Lord Jesus reorients people to God’s design for marriage

We’ll consider:

1.      The Pharisaical distortion of that design

2.      The Saviour’s recovery and fulfillment of that design

At the beginning of our passage, Jesus is again on the move.  He’s journeying towards Jerusalem and his date with death.  His travels brought him across the Jordan river.  And he’s still drawing in the crowds.  This brought him again into the role of a rabbi – teaching the Word of God as it should be properly understood.  

Rabbi Jesus caught the attention again of the other rabbis, the established respectable teachers among the Jews.  Mark relates that some of the Pharisees came to challenge Jesus.  The Pharisees had done this before on several occasions.  The last time was in chapter 8 when they tested Jesus by asking him for a sign from heaven.  He told them there would be no sign and then he went on to warn his disciples of the yeast (or better: the leaven) of the Pharisees.  Their teachings poison and corrupt. 

This time around these Pharisees pick a divisive issue with which to test the renegade rabbi.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  As always with these people, this was not a genuine question.  It wasn’t as if they had been sitting around, mulling this over, and said, “You know a good person to ask would be Jesus.  Let’s go and see if he can help us figure this one out.  I’m sure Jesus can teach us something helpful on this.”  It was nothing like that.  Instead, it was more like, “How are we going to trip up Jesus and show the people that he’s a fraud?  How are we going to expose him for the false teacher that we know he is?”  “I know,” says one of them, “there’s that topic of divorce.  That’s always a thorny issue.  He’ll trip up on that one for sure.  If he says that it’s okay, we’ll nail him.  If he says not, we’ll nail him too.  We’ll give just him enough rope to hang himself.” 

According to Matthew 5 and the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord Jesus had touched on this subject before.  Perhaps they had heard that he was less than orthodox on this question.  They knew that it was a sensitive subject and they were hoping to exploit that for the purposes of getting rid of Jesus or least discrediting his ministry.

Now look at how Jesus begins to answer them.  Early in his ministry, he was tested and tempted by the devil.  Then he replied with God’s Word correctly understood.  He does the same here.  He goes back to the Word of God.  Let me ask you:  is there a better way of dealing with such questions?  The Son of God could have spoken an authoritative word on his own, but instead he goes back to what has been written.  When we deal with difficult questions, we might offer our own opinions, but we’re not God.  But like the Saviour, we can and should go back to the Bible.  We ought to do that, not merely because of his example, but especially because we are united to him through faith and the Holy Spirit.  We are grafted into him like a branch grafted into a tree.  And because this tree is rooted in the Word of God, so we will be too.  Then also because we share his anointing as prophets.  What do prophets do?  God’s prophets echo what God himself has said in his Word.  Back to the Bible always has to be our starting point, just as it was for our Lord Jesus. 

Thus he asks the question, “What did Moses command you?”  Let’s go back to the Bible.  We have to notice the exact wording of the question here, because it is important.  “What did Moses command you?”  Not:  what did Moses say?  Not:  what did Moses suggest or allow?  But:  command.  That’s critical. 

You’ll begin to notice why when you look carefully at the answer of the Pharisees.  Their thoughts go right away to Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  In their minds this is the only place in the Torah, in the Law, that comes close to being what Moses commanded regarding divorce.  But even they recognize that what Moses said there was not really a command, but more of a permission.  “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”  This was a concession to a tragic reality, not a definite prescription on what you must or must not do. 

According to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, Jewish men were permitted to give a bill of divorce to the wife who became displeasing because of something indecent in her.  The words “something indecent” have been endlessly debated through the ages.  Jewish rabbis had a wide variety of interpretations.  Some were relatively strict, restricting this to some form of sexual immorality.   Others were quite elastic, even allowing a Jewish man to divorce his wife if she burnt his supper or if he found a more attractive woman.  Regardless of what school was followed, divorce was relatively easy.  Marriage was not held in the highest esteem by the Pharisees and many of the other Jews.

Before 1968, the only legal ground for divorce in Canada was adultery.  The Divorce Act changed that.  It allowed couples to be divorced for a variety of reasons, including cruelty and a separation lasting longer than three years.  In 1986, the Divorce Act was amended to say that couples could petition for a no-fault divorce after only one year of separation.  Today divorce is relatively easy.  It is becoming less common, but only because fewer people are getting married.  No-fault divorce is the law – you can get divorced for whatever reason you want, so long as you’ve been separated for one year. 

The Jewish rabbis had their man-made interpretations and perversions of God’s Word.  The Canadian government has its own law.  And both are distortions of God’s design and purposes.  Even Deut. 24 was a concession and restriction on wrong practices already existing.  Loved ones, we should never forget that divorce is an ugly, terrible thing.  It should only be an absolute last resort in this sinful world.  It ought not to be an easy way out.  In fact, when faced with marital strife, it would be ideal to keep it off our list of options.  It’s a word that really shouldn’t even be in the vocabularies of Christian couples.

In verse 5, Jesus explains the true sense of Deut. 24.  Moses wrote that into a fallen world to fallen people with hard hearts and stiff necks.  It was to restrict an evil.  This was something allowed, but not something endorsed and encouraged by God.

Then the Lord Jesus goes back to the Word to explain what God does endorse and what he does encourage.  He goes back to the Bible to reorient these people (and us) to what God wants for marriages.  In this way, the Lord Jesus was not only acting as a rabbi or as a prophet, but more importantly as our Redeemer and the one who restores what has been vandalized by sin. 

He goes back to Genesis, to what Moses wrote there.  The rabbis didn’t think about that part of the Torah.  But Jesus does.  He’s not a selective Bible user – his attention goes to the whole of God’s revelation and that’s how he presents it accurately and faithfully.  Again, loved ones, think about your union with him and the impact that should have on how you read the Bible too. 

Jesus begins at the beginning.  He begins before the fall into sin.  Genesis 1 said that God made them male and female.  That was alluding to the fact that God made them to be together.  They were created to complement one another.  Not compliment, as in to say nice things about one another (though they should do that!), but complement with an ‘e,’ as in to fill one another out and make one another complete.  When the animals were paraded in front of Adam and he named them, surely he noticed that many of the species had two distinguishable sexes.  Some of them were indistinguishable – like squirrels.  It’s hard to tell male and female squirrels apart.  At least I can’t do it.  But then there are other species, like say cardinals, where it’s obvious that there is a male and a female.  Adam would have noticed that.  And no doubt he would have noticed that there was nothing comparable for him.  No suitable helper was found for him, says Scripture.  So God made the woman.  And right afterwards God officiated at the first wedding ceremony.  So, says Jesus here in Mark 10, marriage is God’s idea.  It was part of a good creation. 

Moreover, our Lord Jesus quotes from Genesis 2:24 to make the point that the marriage relationship was designed by God to be an intimate bond.  The man leaves his parents and he literally gets glued to his wife.  He’s so united to her in such a way that the Bible says the two of them become one flesh.  In verse 8, our NIV translation only has “one flesh” mentioned once.  But in the Greek original, the second half of verse 8 repeats that.  It says, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.”  The repetition is for emphasis.  In a contemporary English book, the words “one flesh” would be underlined, in bold, italics, and capitalized.  If it was on a sign, it would be in the brightest neon colours:  ONE FLESH.  It’s insistent that something radical has happened to these two people.  They are no longer two individuals, but one couple.  Now “one flesh” has a physical aspect to it.  It does refer to the sexual relationship, but that sexual relationship points to a deeper spiritual reality.  They are not just one physically, but also spiritually.  There is a kind of unity that goes beyond human understanding.  It’s the closest relationship possible between human beings – it even transcends the relationship between parents and children.  Before the fall into sin, no one and nothing could come between the man and the woman.  This is the way that it should be.  This is Jesus’ vision for the restoration of marriage in his kingdom, for those under his rule.  For us.

And not only is it a vision for him, it’s also reality.  From his side, our Lord Jesus perfectly fulfills this ideal in his marriage relationship.  Our Lord Jesus is the great bridegroom.  The church is his bride.  There is unfaithfulness on the part of the bride in this age.  We’re easily led astray from the one who loves us.  But the groom, the husband, he’s perfectly faithful.  Jesus is the husband who never lets anything come between him and his bride.  Loved ones, his faithfulness is part of the good news and we ought to be encouraged by that this morning too.  With his faithfulness, all our unfaithfulness is covered.  Moreover, in God’s sight, his faithfulness is our faithfulness.  It’s yours.  And because our Saviour is faithful in his marriage, those who have union with him through faith are also going to strive for faithfulness in their marriages.  His vision of one man and one woman where nothing can come between them – that vision is going to be shared by us.    

So with his teaching and his own ministry Jesus reinforces the fact that marriage was God’s idea and that marriage is a mysterious one-flesh relationship.  Then in verse 9, he tells us what Moses really commanded.  The Pharisees quoted what Moses allowed in Deut. 24, now Jesus quotes what Moses commanded in Genesis 2.  “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  Marriage is not only God’s idea, his design, but it’s also his work.  God joins together a man and a woman.  He puts them in this intimate relationship.  So no human being should presume to come along and take God’s work apart, separating what he has joined together.  It would be the height of arrogance.  It would be another attempt to degod God, to take him off his throne.  Attacking the institution of marriage, and particularly attacking individual marriages, that’s an attack on God.  It’s an affront to his authority.  A slap in his face.  God put them together and nobody has any right to take them apart except for God himself through death or the return of his Son.  One man and one woman together for life.  That’s what Jesus wants to brings people back to.  He wanted to do that then, and he still wants to do that now.  Then and now, God hates divorce and he hates it when people are flippant and casual and easy-going about divorce.  Why?  Because marriage is a holy institution of God.

If it were a human creation, or a social convention, we could perhaps afford to be more relaxed about it.  We could treat it like we do friendships oftentimes.  We all know that friends come and go in life, and the older you are and the more you’ve moved around, the more you realize it.  We grow to live with that reality.  But you can’t treat marriage the same way.  This idea of “falling out of love,” or “moving on,” or “growing apart,” is foreign to the Bible’s understanding of marriage, it’s foreign to God’s design for it.  Those are worldly concepts -- the Bible teaches us differently.  Marriage is not a disposable relationship – it is supposed to be indelible, inerasable, as long as husband and wife both are alive.                                            

That’s really the emphasis of our Lord Jesus throughout this passage.  It’s also the lens through which we have to view the last two verses.  Those verses are introduced by verse 10.  The Pharisees have gone their way, but the disciples are left with lingering questions.  They want some further teaching from Jesus on the question of divorce.  They’re in a private house somewhere and one of the twelve puts the question to him. 

What follows are probably some of the most controversial words in Mark’s gospel.  They’re especially controversial because the parallel in Matthew 19 words things slightly differently.  Matthew 19 does provide valuable light to properly understanding what Jesus was teaching in the entire biblical scheme of things.  If this were a biblical theology lecture on marriage & divorce, we would spend a lot time comparing these two passages.  However, I’m not preaching on Matthew 19, but Mark 10.  Our focus here needs to be on what Jesus is saying here in Mark.  The Holy Spirit gave us these exact words in this exact place for an exact reason.  What is it? 

“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.”  As they’re given here, these words are not difficult to understand.  They may be difficult to accept, but they are not hard to understand.  Jesus says that if you’re a man and you get divorced, and then marry somebody else, you have committed adultery against the woman that you were married to.  It’s simple.

And then verse 12 is also simple, “And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”  Jesus says that if you’re a woman and you get divorced, and then marry somebody else, you have committed adultery.  Again, it’s not difficult to get this. 

Whenever we try to understand the full meaning of a Bible passage, we do need to take into account the context.  Here in Mark 10, the immediate context involves the Jewish religious leaders who had drifted away from God’s purposes for marriage and had allowed for easy divorce.  The Lord Jesus is correcting that, reorienting people to God’s plan and design where marriage is a permanent, intimate bond.  That’s the emphasis in this passage. 

But there is more to the context because as I mentioned a moment ago, Matthew 19 does say more.  And like I said, while I’m not preaching on Matthew 19, what it adds does have a bearing on how we understand Mark 10.  In Matthew 19, the Lord Jesus added an exception clause.  He said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery.”  That means that marital unfaithfulness is a legitimate grounds for divorce.  It also means that the innocent party divorced under such circumstances is free to remarry and when that happens there is no adultery.  First Corinthians 7 is also part of the broader scriptural context here.  It adds another exception: abandonment.  According to what the Bible says elsewhere then, marital unfaithfulness and abandonment are valid reasons for divorce, and the innocent parties in those situations have the freedom to get remarried.  Of course, they are not obligated to, and they may certainly choose not to.  In every situation it would be preferable to work towards reconciliation, but the freedom is there to enter into another marriage. 

Now how does that affect our understanding of Mark 10:11-12?  Again, remember the emphasis in Mark 10.  It’s on the inerasable nature of marriage in the face of Pharisaical distortions.  Against those distortions, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Mark recorded Jesus’ words as a general principle or a general rule.  Generally speaking, we may say with Jesus in Mark that remarriage after divorce is against God’s will.  But a general principle does not rule out exceptional circumstances.  The exceptional circumstances are what we find in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7.  Only under those exceptional circumstances would remarriage after divorce not be adultery.  Otherwise it is, regardless of what our culture says. 

Loved ones, we ought not to get distracted by all kinds of debates about anecdotal situations.  I realize that we live in the real world, but we should first listen carefully for Jesus’ main point here.  Listen for it and then put it into practice for ourselves as we live in this real world.  The main point is essentially what we find in Hebrews 13:4, “Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed be kept pure...”  The world around us has devalued marriage, treated it like garbage.  People even sometimes talk about having “starter marriages,” like they would have a starter home.  It’s sad.  And when it rains in the world, it often drips into the church.  Sometimes those drips start getting pretty big and ugly.  Thankfully, I think divorce is still relatively rare in our Reformed churches.  It happens, but not much.   My prayer is that none of us will ever contemplate getting divorced.  That’s not to say that we won’t or don’t have problems and challenges.  We have had those, and we do, and we will.  But how do we as people redeemed by Christ work our way through those problems?

The Word must be our guide.  The Word teaches us that God hates divorce and so should we.  Jesus teaches us that we ought not to separate what God has joined together.  Now that’s not to say that separation in the sense that we usually understand it is wrong or unhelpful.  Jesus was speaking about divorce, not separation or a cooling off period.  There may be situations where a husband and wife remain married, but are unable to live together under the same roof.  It would be good if they could, but they need to work through some issues apart from one another.  They should have as much time and space as they need to do that.  But divorce?  Let no one pull apart what God has joined together.  Divorce should not be an option.  As much as it rests in our power, we should work towards reconciliation and healing in broken and faltering marriages.  Those who are in union with Christ will want to follow his teaching in this respect too. 

Brothers and sisters, I can’t say everything there is to say on this subject this morning.  Our text limits us and so does the time.  Much has been said and written on this topic.  And not everyone agrees.  But all authors and preachers, at least those who are Reformed, will agree on this:  marriage is an institution of God that should be treated with respect.  We should not enter into marriage glibly, nor should we think that marriage is something that should be easily dissolved.  As the Redeemer of our entire life, that’s where our Lord Jesus wants to bring us.  AMEN.


O God in heaven, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

We thank you for your Word of truth.  Your Word challenges us, confronts us, comforts us.  Sometimes we find your Word difficult to accept, but we know that it is your Word and we trust you. 

Father, we thank you for your work of creation.  We praise you especially for the good and beautiful institution of marriage.  We thank you for the great joys that come into our life through marriage.  We also trust your providential care for us when we encounter difficulties and trials in marriage.  We trust your providential hand for those of us who want to get married too, and for whom you have said, “Not yet,” or perhaps even “No.” 

Our Lord Jesus, we praise you for the right and true teaching you gave to the people in our text and to us.  You are our chief prophet and teacher.  Thank you for reorienting us once again, for showing us the way in which marriage should be.  You’ve done that with good teaching, but also with the love you have for your own bride, for the church, for us.  Help us to live out of union with you. 

O Holy Spirit, we pray that you would continue to help us to grow.  Live in us and help us to love the Word that you inspired, shape us with it, and make us more and more Christ-like.  We pray that you would help us in our marriages too.  Help husbands and wives to love one another and to be committed to each other.  O Spirit, we pray that you would also give your help to those who struggle in their marriages.  Help them to look heavenward for strength and perseverance. 

O Triune God, please bless our marriages.  Keep us from sin in them.  We pray that none of us would experience the tragedy of divorce.  Help us to be true to one another and above all to you.  

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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