License to Lawlessness

1 And 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.

And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 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. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Mark 10:1-12 ESV

In chapter 10, Mark begins his record of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Having completed His lecture to the disciples regarding greatness in the Kingdom, Jesus departed Capernaum in Galilee for the last time and headed to “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 19:1 ESV). This would have put them in Perea, a region just east of the Jordan River. What makes this location so significant is that Jesus was returning to the area where His ministry had begun more than three years earlier. According to John’s gospel, this was the place where Jesus had been baptized by John.

These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! – John 1:28-29 ESV

Jesus has come full circle. He has returned to the place where He received the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the verbal commendation of His Heavenly Father.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:17 ESV

And as always, Jesus immediately found Himself surrounded by large crowds. His reputation had grown and wherever He went, the news of His presence spread and attracted people like moths to a flame. And Jesus didn’t disappoint. He gave the crowds what they had come to expect: insightful teaching and miracles of healing. But there were others in the crowd that day whose interest in Jesus was more sinister in nature. Mark indicates that the “Pharisees came up and in order to test him” (Mark 10:2 ESV). These men had persistently pursued Jesus, following Him everywhere He went and hoping to expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be. They were unimpressed by His miracles or message. They denied His claims to deity and debunked His miracles by claiming He did them by the power of Satan. But the one thing the Pharisees had been unable to do was to break Jesus’ captivating hold over the people. It galled them that He had become a celebrity among the lower classes, and they were constantly looking for ways to destroy His popularity. That’s why Mark indicates that they came to “test him.”

And this time, they chose to broach the particularly controversial topic of divorce. It should not go unnoticed that this entire scene takes place in Perea, a region under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. He was the Roman-appointed tetrarch of Galilee and Perea and the self-proclaimed “king” of Israel. This was the very same man who had put John the Baptist to death for having publicly criticized his unlawful marriage to his brother’s wife (Mark 6:17).

Perhaps these men were hoping that Jesus would take a hardline stance just as John the Baptist had done, forbidding divorce for any reason whatsoever. If so, this news could be used against Him. After all, Herod had already put to death one trouble-maker for his more conservative view of divorce.

But there is a far more likely motivation behind their question to Jesus. Divorce had become commonplace among the Jews because of their interpretation of the Mosaic Law. They believed that God had given them a “get-out-of-jail-free” card. And it was based on the following command found In the book of Deuteronomy.

“Suppose a man marries a woman but she does not please him. Having discovered something wrong with her, he writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house. When she leaves his house, she is free to marry another man. But if the second husband also turns against her, writes a document of divorce, hands it to her, and sends her away, or if he dies, the first husband may not marry her again, for she has been defiled. That would be detestable to the Lord. You must not bring guilt upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as a special possession.” – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NLT

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to understand that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. But God had not intended this law to provide men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. Yet, that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

So, when the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they were hoping He would say no. This would have put Jesus at odds with the prevailing opinion of the day. And He would be contradicting the Mosaic Law. But Jesus saw through the thinly veiled ploy and answered their question with one of His own:

“What did Moses command you?” – Mark 10:3 ESV

And they quickly respond with their preferred interpretation of the Deuteronomy passage.

“Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” – Mark 10:4 ESV

In a sense, they were saying that what was good for Moses was good for them. Their justification for no-fault divorce was written in black-and-white ink right in the Mosaic Law. But they were missing the whole point. And this would not be the first time Jesus addressed this topic. He had done so in great detail in His Sermon on the Mount. But in that case, He tied it directly to the topic of adultery.

“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:27-30 NLT

And Jesus followed this up with another closely related and equally abused law of God.

“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 NLT

Now, here was Jesus having to address this very same issue again. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong but they had separated the idea of adultery from divorce. Yet Jesus would not allow them to do so. For Jesus, this entire discussion revolved around the condition of the heart. That’s why He told them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (Mark 10:5 ESV). The law concerning the certificate of divorce had been provided because of the sinfulness of men’s hearts. The fall of Adam and Eve had resulted in the contamination of the entire human race with sin. And even the people of Israel, chosen by God and set apart as His people, could not stop sinning and satisfying their own selfish desires. 

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce.

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral justification for the divorce. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to a perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that it was permissible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is that unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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