1 And he arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan: and the people resort unto him again; and, as he was wont, he taught them again.
2 And the Pharisees came to him, and asked him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting him.
3 And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you?
4 And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away.
5 And Jesus answered and said unto them, For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
6 But from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female.
7 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife;
8 And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
10 And in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter.
11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.
12 And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.
13 And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
15 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16 And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
There was a young man who was preparing to perform his first wedding ceremony. He was nervous. He was afraid that he would get to the middle of the ceremony and forget the rest of it and not know what to say. So he talked with an elderly minister about what to do. The older man said, “Well, son, if you forget the ceremony, then just quote scripture until you remember the ceremony.” So he went into the wedding service a bit confident, but sure enough right in the middle of the ceremony he forgot what came next. He decided that he would start quoting scripture and lo and behold he forgot all the scripture he knew except one verse: Luke 23:34, which says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
I almost feel that way sometime. You know that marriage and the family are fighting for their life in America today.
In the decade between 1970 and 1980, the divorce rate in America doubled. The divorce rate among middle-aged people increased 80% while the population in that group increased only four percent. Today almost half of all marriages end in divorce. That means that you can drive down the streets of almost any city, including Tyler, Texas, and you can know that in every other home they are either facing or will soon face a major domestic problem.
We are not surprised then to know that Jesus speaks very forthrightly concerning the subject of marriage and divorce. He addresses himself to that subject in the book of Mark 10:1-12. Marriage and divorce was a volatile issue in Jesus’ day as it is in our day. This is indicated by the fact that the scribes and Pharisees went to him and asked, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” And they asked this question to test him. They were not really interested in information; they were trying to put Jesus on the spot in an embarrassing situation. They knew how volatile the question was. They knew that in the crowd that was gathered that day that there would be lots of different kind of people. There would be those who were happily and those who were unhappily married. There would be those who were married to one person and in love with someone else. There would be those who had gone through a divorce and had remarried, and they were suffering from guilt and frustration because of that experience. There would be those who were not yet married but anticipating the time when they could be happily married.
There would be all kinds of people in the crowd that day and there are all kinds of people in this congregation today. They listened from different perspectives and from different experiences. So the scribes and the Pharisees thought that they would put Jesus on the spot. They had argued with Jesus about every other burning subject and he had always won. Now they would come with the most crucial of all issues—the most decisive of all issues—marriage and divorce. Surely they could win here.
Jesus was accustomed to those hot issues. He had the ability to take a very controversial subject and turn it around and use it as a great teaching opportunity. That’s exactly what he did on this occasion. They came to him and asked, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” Jesus said to them, “What did Moses command you?”
They said, “Well, Moses permitted divorce.” Jesus said, “That’s right, but he did it because of the hardness of your heart. Because your hearts and your minds were rigidly set against God.”
Divorce was permitted as an accommodation for human weakness and human sin. But from the beginning, it was not so. It was not a part of the original plan of God. It was not a part of the ideal of God for marriage. And then Jesus went on to say, “For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife; and they twain shall be one flesh … What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Then he ended the discourse. He and his disciples went away into a house and the disciples were not satisfied. There were still some questions in their minds about marriage and divorce. So they began to ask him some more questions about this same subject.
In verse 11 he said to them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.”
This is an amazing and a marvelous teaching from Jesus. There are some great truths that we can draw from it. Truths that will help us in our lives today regardless of our perspective, regardless of our past experiences, regardless of where we may have come from up to this point. If you are taking notes and as I encourage you to do, then there are at least five truths that I want us to deal with in this sermon.
The first is this that marriage cannot satisfy our need for God. The Bible teaches us that God created us with at least two basic needs for fellowship. The first is a need for fellowship with God himself. And the second is a need for fellowship with a companion. Having created man in his own image intending that he should enjoy eternal and complete fellowship with God in the garden, God recognized that there was something else missing from man’s life and so God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him” (Genesis 2:18). So he created woman and brought them together in marriage. So in the garden there were two basic needs for fellowship that must be recognized. The first is that man has a need for fellowship and a relationship with God. Second, a need for companion in marriage. We dare not think that one can substitute for the other.
There is a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts that can never be satisfied, can never be filled by anyone other than God. If we think that a mate, a spouse, a companion can satisfy the deep longing, the deep loneliness and dissatisfaction in our heart that has been created for God and God only, then we make one of the tragic mistakes of marriage. There are a lot of people who enter into marriage because there is a loneliness and there is an emptiness in their heart and they don’t realize that it is loneliness and emptiness for God. They get married thinking that if they can just get married they will be fully, completely satisfied.
After they have been married they discover that it is not so. They think there is something wrong with their mate. The problem is not with their mate—the problem is with their heart. Until we are right with God we can never have a marriage that is completely satisfying and fulfilling.
In Berlin there is a painting in one of their galleries. It was intended to be a painting of Fredrick the Great speaking with his generals. The man who started to paint the picture started by painting a beautiful background in the picture and then painted the generals of Fredrick the Great, but he failed to take into account that before he could finish the picture he would die. So he never got around to painting Fredrick the Great. There is the beautiful background, the generals of the army, but where Fredrick the Great should be there is a blank space. There is a vacancy, there is nothing there. It is that way in many marriages. In many lives. The background is there. The other person is there but there is a vacant place, an empty spot where God belongs. Until God is in our lives, until God is painted in and put in place, there will always be a loneliness, there will always be an emptiness, and the picture of life and the relationships of life will never be complete till God is in his place. Jesus underscores the fact that God is to be a vital part of our lives, including in marriage, when he paints this picture for us and says to us that marriage can never satisfy our need for God. The first great need of your life and mine and of your marriage and mine is that we give our hearts fully and completely to God.
There is a second truth. The goal of marriage is not just permanence, but oneness. It is not just that a relationship shall last, but that a relationship shall be a total commitment of a man and woman to one another heart and mind and body and soul, a total commitment of ourselves to one another.
That doesn’t come quickly or easily.
It’s a strange thing that we recognize that in every other area of life, we must work and strive and that it takes time to achieve what we want. But when we enter into marriage we think that satisfaction and success ought to come easily and automatically. If a man is going to be a physician, if he is going to be a teacher, if he is going to be a mechanic, he knows that it takes time. It takes training, it takes discipline. It takes mistakes and errors and correcting the mistakes. Only in time and with great effort can he achieve success. But we think that just because we stand before the altar and say, “I do,” that suddenly we ought to be successfully married.
A wedding ceremony and a marriage is a beautiful and a sacred experience. But at best it is just a promise of what can be.
And a good marriage cannot be performed for us—it is something that we have to achieve. It is something that we have to work at.
1. Marriage is a work of art that is accomplished over a long period of time.
Two people begin the relationship with a conviction of permanence and then they work toward oneness, a total commitment of their hearts and lives to one another. There are several things that can help us as we move toward the ideal of marriage and that oneness in the relationship. The first thing that will help us is humility. It is to recognize our own fault and our own failure. The first thing that we do when there is a problem in the marriage is to begin to think about the other person. How can we remodel them? How can we change them? How can we alter them? But if we are as humble as we ought to be, we will recognize the sin and the failure and the weakness in our own life first. And then try to be the kind of person we ought to be. It is far more important to be the right person than it is to find the right person in marriage. If we can start with ourselves and have enough humility to recognize our faults and our failures, we can achieve that oneness. We ought never to expect of the other person what we cannot offer ourselves, and that is perfection in marriage.
Following humility you need honesty. When you recognize your own sin, your own failures, your own inadequacies, you not only confess those to God and ask his forgiveness, you have enough honesty to confess those faults to your mate and ask their forgiveness as well. When we have enough honesty, enough courage, when we are wiling to make ourselves vulnerable enough to say to the other person, “I was wrong, I am sorry, forgive me,” we open the door to all kinds of possibilities in building a oneness in a relationship.
You also need flexibility. Nothing and no one is static in life. We are always changing. We change with age. We change with every new person we meet, with every new experience we have, with every new career we begin. There are all kinds of changes taking place in your life and in mine. If we are going to live together in the marriage relationship, there must be a great flexibility as we continue to adjust to one another. There is no possibility that we can continue to live together exactly as we lived together in the past because we are always changing. And flexibility, adjustment to one another, is a continuous experience.
2. Marriage requires continual affirmation of our partner.
We must continually affirm our partner of our love for them and their worth. The novelist Harold Bennett said that marriage nearly always results in the death of politeness. What a tragedy that we should enter into a marriage with a person whom we say we love with all of our heart and mind and soul, and then begin to so take them for granted. That we cease to show those common courtesies, those acts of kindness and politeness that we show to the most casual friend or the rankest stranger that we know. Don’t take your mate for granted.
Former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neil ran for his first public office in 1935 for the city council in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At that time he was a senior at Boston University. And as he was leaving the voting polls and walking down the street an old longtime friend of his shouted to him, “I voted for you even though you didn’t ask me.” “Oh,” he said, “Mrs. O’Brien, I’ve known you all of my life. I carried your garbage out. I mowed your grass. I shoveled the snow for you in the wintertime. I didn’t think I had to ask you to vote for me.” She looked at him and smiled and taught him one of the most basic lessons in politics: “Tip,” she said, “it’s nice to be asked.”
You know, we just take each other for granted. After being married for a while, can forget to say “Thank you.” To say “I love you.” To say “You are beautiful.” We just take each other for granted. We need to remember that in marriage as well in politics, it’s nice to be asked. And it is nice to be told. The goal of marriage is not just to last, not just to endure, but also to achieve a total commitment to one another that it might be the oneness that Jesus talked about. They are no longer two, but they are one flesh.
Marriage cannot substitute for God in our lives. The goal of marriage is not permanence, but oneness.
3. Marriage was never intended to be a duet but a trio.
Did you notice what Jesus had to say in verse 9? “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” He suggested that God was to be vitally involved in this relationship. There was a man and there was a woman involved. But God was also there and God joined them together. And it is the plan and design of God that marriage should include man, woman, and God. We cannot really give ourselves to one another to achieve the oneness that marriage is to bring until we first give ourselves to God.
Until I have given myself fully and completely to God through Jesus Christ I am incapable of fully and completely giving myself to my wife in oneness. It doesn’t matter how wonderful, good, or happy your marriage may be. If one of you is not a Christian, if one you has not yet made a total commitment of your life to Jesus Christ, your marriage is not as good as it should be. It is not as wonderful and as full and as rich as God intended it to be. Give yourself fully and completely to Jesus Christ and then you can give yourself fully and completely to one another.
God never intended that it should be a duet; he always intended that marriage should be a trio. You know, I almost never encounter a serious problem in marriages where both spouses are fully committed to Christ. Most problems arise because of pride, selfishness, or just plain meanness on the part of one or both of the people involved. When we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, it takes a lot of the abrasiveness out of life—not all of it, but it takes a lot of the abrasiveness out of our lives and it makes us kinder and sweeter and more sensitive to one another.
And when we are kind and understanding and sensitive we are able to build the kind of relationship that we ought to have. Marriage cannot take the place of God. He intends that two people be joined together and that he be vitally involved in that relationship and that the relationship grow to a total commitment to one another as well as to God.
4. Divorce is a sin.
What about marriages that fail? This is the fourth emphasis. That was the Pharisees’ question. What about divorce? Is it possible? Is it permissible? Jesus said, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses gave us the right to get a divorce.” But Jesus said, “Let me tell you why. It was because of hardness of your heart. It was because your mind and your heart were rigid and set against God.” In short Jesus was saving to us that divorce was and is an accommodation to the human weakness and to human sin. And it is a violation of the ideal of God.
There is no way that we can deal with this passage realistically or healthily without recognizing that divorce is a sin. That divorce is a violation of a divine ideal that God set forth. But let me hasten to say what while divorce is a sin, it is not the unpardonable sin. It is not the only sin.
We must not treat those who have been divorced as lepers, as untouchables. Though divorce is a sin, there are many other sins in our congregation. That is not my sin, but I have my sins. It is different from the sin of lust. It is different from the sin of profanity. It is different from the sin of drunkenness. It is different from the sin of dishonesty, but it is a sin nonetheless and it needs to be dealt with as all of those sins in our lives must be dealt with.
How do you deal with the sin of divorce? The same way you deal with the sin of drunkenness or the sin of profanity or the sin of lust. Or any other sin. You deal with it in contrition—a deep sorrow for what you have done wrong. You deal with it in confession. If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. Through contrition and confession we receive the cleansing and the forgiveness that God offers to us.
It is a sin, but it is not the unpardonable sin. And the grace of God reaches down to the divorcee just as much as he does to the alcoholic or to the thief or to anyone of the rest of us.
I think we need to remember that nowhere in the Bible is there a systematic discussion of divorce. Nowhere in the Bible is there a clear or a complete doctrine of divorce set out. Therefore there will always remain unanswered questions about it. The only position for the church, the only position for you and for me, whether we are dealing with ourselves or with other people, is the position of forgiveness and acceptance and rejoicing in the grace of God. That grace is sufficient to wash away our sins.
5. We can get a second chance.
The fifth truth has to do with remarriage. The disciples were not satisfied. All of their questions were not answered. That ought to say something to us. If they didn’t have all of their questions answered it is doubtful that we would have all of ours answered. And so, when they were in the house, they questioned Jesus further about this. And he said to them, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband be married to another, she committeth adultery.”
What do we do with this incisive teaching of Jesus on divorce and remarriage? It is there. We can’t cut it out. How do we deal with it? There are two or three suggestions. Number one, I want you to note that Jesus holds the woman as responsible as he does the man. The Jewish law allowed for men to divorce their wives but didn’t grant the same right to women. Jesus elevated women to a place of equality with men and that involved not only equal privilege but equal responsibility. Both spouses are responsible. I think it is also worth noting what Jesus said here to underline the sanctity of marriage and the home. We are not to get rid of our mates like we would take off a coat and cast it aside. He is saying that there is something basic and sacred in the marriage relationship that is to be preserved.
At the same time, there is bound to be some place for failure in marriage, and the possibility of remarriage. There is just bound to be. I read this interpretation this week. I think it may be right.
Nobody can be dogmatic. If one person divorces another with the intention of marrying somebody else—that is to say, if a relationship between two people who are not married precipitates a divorce between one of them and their current spouse, then the second marriage results in an adulterous relationship. That could make sense to me. But when two people just for some reason cannot live together and they divorce and they seek the forgiveness of God and the grace of God and they open their lives up to God, there is bound to be the possibility that God could bring somebody into their life later on and they could have a happy and fulfilling relationship.
People often marry so young and they are so foolish and they don’t make the wise decisions that they ought to make. People change after they get married. They oftentimes change for the worse and we never believe how bad that “worse” could be. Two people can be forever and eternally bound together in an insufferable relationship that ultimately destroys both of them. I’ve talked to so many people and in many instances one was unwilling to change and the relationship absolutely destroyed the other person. In some instances the relationship has deteriorated to the point that there seems to be no way of redeeming it. Oftentimes the choice is not between right and wrong but between the lesser of the two evils.
Divorce is wrong. So is alcoholism. So is beating your wife. So is verbal abuse. And so is two people keeping the relationship together at all costs even as it destroys them.
When I study the grace of God I discover that God is a God of second chances. Jonah the prophet rebelled against God. God gave him a second chance. Simon the apostle denied Jesus three times and Jesus gave him a second chance. Mark the missionary quit and went back home and God gave him a second chance. If God gives rebellious prophets the same chance, if he gives cowardly denying apostles a second chance, if God gives quitting cowardly missionaries a second chance, it makes sense to me that he would give people who have failed in marriage a second chance.
What else is the grace of God all about? If we accept that we’ve sinned, that we’ve failed, we open ourselves to the grace of God and he will cleanse us, forgive us, and give us a second chance.
Marriage cannot substitute for your relationship to God. Don’t try to make it a substitute. Remember the goal is not just keeping your marriage together but growing to oneness—with God a part of the marriage. It is not a duet; it is a trio. Unless God is there, marriage can never produce the beautiful harmony that is intended. Marriages fail and when they fail all we can do is to confess our failure and claim the forgiveness and the grace of God. We have to believe that if we were sincere and genuine in our efforts to build a marriage, if we do fail, that God’s grace will be sufficient to give us a second chance.
We eventually come back to where we started. What we need most of all is to start with total, complete surrender of ourselves to God, welcoming him and receiving him into our hearts. Until that happens nothing can ever satisfy the loneliness or the emptiness that is within us. There is a God-shaped vacuum in you and no thing and no person can ever fill it. We are restless until we rest in him.