Mark 10:2-16, Genesis 2:18-24

5 October 2003

Greyfriars Church


What constitutes acceptable grounds for divorce? This is the question that the pharisees had for Jesus. Well, what do you think? How about this?

A farmer went to see a marriage counsellor and said that his wife wanted a divorce. 'She says our marriage is over', he said.

'I see,' said the counsellor, 'and does she have good grounds?'

'Oh, aye,' said the farmer, 'about twenty acres which her dad gave her.'

'No, no,' said the counsellor, 'I mean, does she have a good suit?'

'Oh, yes,' replied the farmer. 'Though she mainly keeps it for special occasions.'

'I'm sorry,' said the counsellor, 'What I'm trying to say is, what kind of case has she got?'

'Oh, right,' said the farmer. 'It's a leather one, not terribly big. I bought it for her a couple of years ago.'

'Look, let's start at the beginning,' said the counsellor with a sigh. 'What exactly is the problem in your marriage?'

'Well,' said the farmer, 'My wife says that I don't understand her, but I can't think why!'

I'm going to focus today entirely on the first part of our gospel reading, Jesus' teaching on divorce, since it goes hand-in-hand with our reading from Genesis. It will be a great help if we could all have that passage from Mark open in front of us: Mark chapter 10 which is on page 1014 of the church Bibles.

Just as signposts along the way as we explore this teaching I've divided the sermon into three sections which I've called the Heart of the Matter, the Heart of Marriage and finally the Heart of Man.

The Heart of the Matter

First, Jesus takes us to the heart of the matter.

In verse 6 of our passage Jesus quotes from the beginning of the book of Genesis. This Genesis text, part of which we had read to us earlier, is foundational to the Bible's teaching on a number of subjects which are controversial in our world and our church today, such as divorce and remarriage, sexual permissiveness, civil partnerships, homosexuality in the church, the marriage of homosexuals, and even the authority of women in the church. So it's good for us to see how Jesus uses that teaching to address one of the tricky issues of his own day.

We're told that the pharisees had come to Jesus and tested him by handing him one of their hot potatoes to see if he dropped it. There was a bit of controversy around amongst theologians of the time about what constituted acceptable grounds for divorce, and the pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was made of. Which faction would he side with?

In a similar way my colleagues at work enjoy testing me with questions like, "are they all homophobes in your church?" They want to see what I'm made of; to provoke me. Perhaps you face similar testing. When well-handled, even these encounters can give us wonderful gospel opportunities, and Jesus is a master at dealing with the provocations of the pharisees.

Notice that he doesn't immediately state his position. First he gets them to state where they stand, so that they have a position to defend: What did Moses command you?ref. Second, instead of getting bogged down in the details he goes right back to the fundamental teaching on the subject. When asked about divorce in the modern world Jesus replies at the beginning of creation...ref. He returns to the heart of the matter.

Sometimes it's important to get back to fundamentals, isn't it? We moved house three weeks ago, and I've been doing a bit of plumbing. At first I just planned to make a few changes to the existing system. But it soon became apparent that the existing system was in a right old mess: pipes were going everywhere, in and out of the walls and round and round, into the garage and out again. There were taps everywhere but most of them didn't work. Some pipes were in use and some weren't, but it was hard to work out which. Bits had been added on again and again over the years until the system had become unmanageable. It was a right old mess.

Instead of simply adding more onto an already over-complex system I decided to take it all out and replumbed it from scratch: from the main stopcock upwards.

Sometimes our theology can get like that, can't it? Over the years more and more bits get added on, with exceptions and complications and opinions from all over the place, that after a while we don't know what we believe. In Jesus' day the issue of divorce had become like that, so rather than start where the pharisees are he chooses to go back to basics. To rebuild the theology from the fundamentals upwards. He goes back to first principles; the heart of the matter.

The point is that we cannot sensibly discuss divorce until we have a sound understanding of what marriage is. We need to go back to first principles, and by going right back to the beginning Jesus gives us a definition of marriage: God's definition of marriage.

The Heart of Marriage

So, what is the heart of marriage? Well, we find Jesus' definition of marriage in verses 6 to 9. In giving us this definition Jesus is upholding God's gold-standard for human relationships.

The heart of the matter is that the heart of marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. Marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. I'll justify that statement by taking it backwards, in the order that Jesus formulates it in verses 6 to 9.

a man and a woman

First, God's creation ordinance is that marriage is between one man and one woman. Look at verse 6, at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female'ref. It's interesting that Jesus chose to insert this sentence here. It comes from Genesis chapter oneref and doesn't actually form part of his main quote which is from Genesis chapter two. Therefore, he has deliberately chosen to emphasise it at this point.

But that's slightly strange, isn't it, because the fact of marriage being between a man and a woman doesn't really seem to have much bearing on the matter under discussion, which is divorce. The reason he mentions it can only be because it forms part of his definition of what marriage is: marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman.

To digress for a moment onto a current hot potato in the Anglican church. It's sometimes said that Jesus never addresses the homosexuality debate, that is, he never discusses the rightness or wrongness of homosexual relationships. Well, he comes pretty close to discussing it here, doesn't he. When Jesus formulates his definition of marriage by going back to the beginning, to first principles, he chooses to emphasise God 'made them male and female'ref, and a man will be united with his wiferef. I hope it's not too facetious to point out that the Genesis model to which he appeals is of Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

As I said, this Genesis passage is the foundation for the Bible's teaching on a number of controversial subjects today. And it teaches us first that marriage is between one man and one woman.

a union

The second thing that Jesus teaches us is that marriage is a union. Have a look at verses 7 and 8.

'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one.ref

Notice how Jesus goes out of his way to emphasise the union at the heart of marriage. The Genesis passage says simply they will become one fleshref. Jesus emphasises this by saying the two will become one fleshref. And in case we didn't get it he reiterates: they are no longer two, but oneref.

People getting married these days often seem desperate to maintain their independence, even to the extent of drawing up a pre-nuptial agreement to specify exactly what belongs to whom in the relationship, and even exactly what sort of behaviour is expected of each party. Marriage is treated more like a contractual negotiation than a union of souls.

But at the heart of marriage is a union. Marriage is not a simple contract between two individuals, it is a becoming one in the profoundest possible way: they are no longer two, but oneref.

The Genesis passage speaks of the union as becoming one fleshref. This highlights the sexual nature of the union. One reason we are so confused about issues like this in our church and in our world today is that we have forgotten what sex is for. The Apostle Paul discusses this in 1 Corinthians chapter 6 where he insists Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."ref. Even a so-called casual sexual encounter has the profoundest effect on the participants: it results in this one-fleshness. It is a uniting act.

So a sexual relationship is the means by which a marriage bond is formed, whether or not a formal marriage ceremony has taken place. It is the glue that sticks two people together as one. Not just "one" on a physical level, but "one" in the sight of God: it is a mystical union. In verse 9 Jesus tells us that God, in some way, joins people together in marriage. Marriage is a union between two people in the profoundest possible sense. It is initiated by sexual intimacy, and completed by God's action.

It is vital that we hold on to this truth—that we go back to the heart of the matter—as we seek to speak into the debates that are raging in the church, and to speak into the society around us. We have a message about sexual promiscuity; we have a message about the government's ideas for civil-partnerships scheme; we have a message about the significance of marriage. Our message is that sex really matters! It is the most profoundly significant transaction that can happen between two people, and to treat it otherwise is an abuse of ourselves, our partner, and ultimately an abuse towards God.


Back to the definition of marriage: it is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. We've dealt with the man and woman bit, and the union bit. What about the indissoluble bit?

Well, Jesus talks about that in verse 9, therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.ref

In other words the union at the heart of marriage is permanent. It is indissoluble, because God has made it so. Only an event as significant as the death of one of the partners can break the marriage bond. The apostle Paul endorses this fact as he makes an argument in Romans chapter 7.

By law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.ref

Only death can release us from the union that marriage creates. Contracts do not get more indissoluble than that.

One reason for the phenomenal rate of marriage breakdown in this country is that people enter too lightly into marriage, despite the words in the marriage service that say that it is "a state not to be lightly entered in to." It is a contract for life.

I once almost found myself bound to a contract that I didn't want to bound to. When we bought some new windows for our previous house I inadvertantly signed one of the zillion pieces of paper without reading the terms and conditions in the small print. Big mistake. It committed us to paying an insurance premium for ten years, with no right to cancel. Thankfully there was a statutory cooling-off period and I managed to get out of the contract, otherwise we'd still be paying for it.

The terms and conditions for marriage, however, state that it is for life, and there is no cooling-off period.

It's our responsibility to make the terms and conditions of marriage clear to people, and to encourage people not to undertake it lightly.

Let's hold up the heart of marriage in the church and in the world. Let's do it by our teaching and by our example.

The Heart of Man

So, we've looked at the heart of the matter: the importance of returning to God's fundamentals when considering the matter of divorce. We've looked at the heart of marriage in the form of Jesus' definition: marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. Now I just want to say a few words on my final heading, the heart of man.

Perhaps you feel that Jesus' teaching is too rigid, that it's too hard-line and clear cut to be of any relevance in the modern world. Are you uncomfortable with such an uncompromising line?

Well, it's worth noting that the disciples found this teaching pretty hard to cope with too. We see their concern in verse 10 where they question Jesus further about it. And Matthew, in the parallel passage in Matthew chapter 19 tells us what they had to say about it: The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."ref. They were astonished!

What does Jesus say in response? Does he say, "yes, I suppose you're right, perhaps I overstated the case a bit" ? On the contrary, he reiterates his statement even more explicitly. Look at verses 11 and 12.

He answered, "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."ref

Jesus, in response to their skepticism, reiterates his teaching on the exclusive union and permanent nature of the marriage bond.

Yes, this is hard, uncompromising teaching. Like the disciples many will be astonished at it. But as a church committed to teaching the truth about God and about people we have no option but to hold up this model of marriage as the God-given ideal.

Jesus has held up for us God's gold-standard: the heart of marriage. But in the world we live in people make bad choices; people fail and people sin. The heart of man is hard.

Because of their hardness of heart God gave the Israelites in their law a pastorally realistic rule: under some circumstances divorce was permitted. In verses 4 and 5 we read,

The pharisees said "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away". "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied.ref

The Mosaic law no longer applies to us, but the New Testament, which does apply to believers, allows two grounds for divorce.

First, Jesus, elsewhere, allows divorce in the case of marital unfaithfulness by the other partner. In this case violence has been done to the union between them, and it's better to cut the losses

Second, the Apostle Paul allows couples to divorce in the case that one partner becomes a Christian believer but the other doesn't, and the unbelieving partner does not wish to stay with the believer.

These concessions are a pastorally realistic response to the hardness of our hearts. And our hearts are hard in many ways. When Jesus holds up the gold-standard for Christian behaviour he says Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.ref Which of us can achieve that? Yet it is our goal. When we fail we come to the Cross where Christ makes us new again.

In the same way we strive to uphold the gold-standard for marriage, yet because our hearts remain hard we will sometimes fail. At those times the Cross should be especially dear to us. We will need it more than ever. And there is no sin in our lives that Jesus has not already borne on that cross.


We've looked at how Jesus answered the pharisees by getting to the heart of the matter in Genesis chapter 2, and how that passage is foundational to many of the issues we face as a church.

We've looked at What Jesus has to say about the heart of marriage: it is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman.

And finally, we've looked at the heart of man. The hardness of our hearts will prevent us from attaining God's gold-standard, but we uphold it nonetheless. And we thank God for the Cross of Christ by which our hearts are made brand new.

It would be appropriate, perhaps, to finish the sermon by discussing some ways in which we can maintain our marriages. But that's a whole sermon o its own. In fact it's a course on its own, as I note that the Marriage Course is running again this term. Suffice it to say that undertaking regular maintainance for our marriages is crucial to avoiding divorce.

Instead I'll finish with a plea for us, in the light of Jesus' teaching, to uphold God's gold-standard for marriage in our churches and in the world. Let's pray for the marriages of our friends and our leaders, and let those of us who are married resolve to set an example for the world in the quality of our married lives.