When the Pharisees challenged Jesus on the topic of divorce, He did the same thing we should do when facing difficult issues: return to first principles. Alistair Begg reminds us that marriage is a creation ordinance instituted by God as a pattern for all humanity. Marriage, in all its successes and failures, requires God’s grace to redeem, restrain, and restore our human weaknesses.
Well, we’re going to return again to the study we began this morning in Mark chapter 10, but I would like, first of all, to read from Proverbs chapter 5. So, we’re going to Mark 10 but via Proverbs chapter 5. Mark 10 is on page 715. Proverbs chapter 5, in the church Bibles, is on page 452.
We read then, first of all, from Proverbs 5:
My son, pay attention to my wisdom,
listen well to my words of insight,
that you may maintain discretion
and your lips may preserve knowledge.
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey,
and her speech is smoother than oil;
but in the end she is bitter as gall,
sharp as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
her steps lead straight to the grave.
She gives no thought to the way of life;
her paths are crooked, but she knows it not.
Now then, my sons, listen to me;
do not turn aside from what I say.
Keep to a path far from her,
do not go near the door of her house,
lest you give your best strength to others
and your years to one who is cruel,
lest strangers feast on your wealth
and your toil enrich another man’s house.
At the end of your life you will groan,
when your flesh and body are spent.
You will say, “How I hated discipline!
How my heart spurned correction!
I would not obey my teachers
or listen to my instructors.
I have come to the brink of utter ruin
in the midst of the whole assembly.”
Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
Should your springs overflow in the streets,
your streams of water in the public squares?
Let them be yours alone,
never to be shared with strangers.
May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be captivated by her love.
Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress?
Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife?
For a man’s ways are in full view of the Lord,
and he examines all his paths.
The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him;
the cords of his sin hold him fast.
He will die for lack of discipline,
led astray by his own great folly.
Father, help us now, as we think these things through. The clarity of your Word is what we need; the moving of your Spirit is what we long for, so that we might receive the Bible, as it is the very Word of God, that it might correct, rebuke, restrain us, constrain us, and lead us each in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake. Amen.
Well, I chose to read Proverbs 5 as a cross-reference to what we began this morning in Mark chapter 10. Proverbs, of course, is a wonderful book. Derek Kidner refers to it as a book in which the writer, Solomon, seeks “to put godliness into working clothes.” In other words, there’s an intense practicality about the way in which he writes concerning the nature of what we referred to this morning as a kind of “holy worldliness.”
And in the chapter we’ve just read, he very clearly and very quickly warns his son, or his sons, about the seductress. He points out the dreadful price that will be paid for infidelity. He then encourages very clearly the enjoyment of marriage, and he sets the enjoyment of marriage in direct contrast to the pathetic alternative, which is to go down this path that leads to death. And in the course of all of that, it is perfectly clear that the Bible is discreet but not silent on the matter of sexual delight in marriage. Some have failed to understand this, and as a result, they have settled for a marriage which might be described simply as a kind of sensible, businesslike arrangement, only to discover that human passion inevitably seeks other outlets. And the inherent warning that is contained in Solomon’s words is both a warning on the one hand and an encouragement on the other hand to settle for nothing less than that which God has made our wonderful provision in the gift of marriage as he has established it and as he expects it to be enjoyed.
Now, that’s enough on Proverbs 5. We come back to Mark chapter 10. If you were not present for our previous study, then I encourage you to get the recording—not because it’s particularly good but because it will save me from repeating myself dreadfully and annoying everybody who was here this morning for the first part.
Let it suffice for us to note that in responding to the question posed to him by the Pharisees here in Mark chapter 10, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus, we have seen, takes these individuals, these religious leaders, back to first principles. And he makes it perfectly clear what we endeavored to understand this morning: that marriage is not a human invention, nor is it a social convention, but it is, as we said earlier, a creation ordinance. And because it is a creation ordinance, it is relevant to and it is binding upon all of God’s creation.
I sought to make that clear this morning by making sure that we didn’t fall foul of the idea that we were talking simply about marriage within the framework of Christian convictions. There is a great wonder in that and a great enjoyment in that—the kind of Ecclesiastes concept of “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken,” which is more often than not used in a marriage ceremony and is pressed into service as saying, “We have the man, we have the wife, and we have the third party”—namely, Jesus himself. And that, of course, is true. But since marriage is a creation ordinance, God is concerned about Muslim marriage, he’s concerned about Hindu marriage, he’s concerned about pagan marriage, he’s concerned about secular marriage. He is concerned about marriage, because it is built into the very fabric of humanity.
And that marriage, as we saw this morning, is heterosexual, it is monogamous, and it is lifelong. Heterosexual, monogamous, and lifelong. And it is in that context—and only in that context—that men and women are allowed, are enabled to discover, the benefits of what it means to live in a one-flesh union. Therefore, it is imperative that those who love the Bible and seek to live in obedience to it will then teach those under our influence what the Bible says concerning these things—and not least of all, in this climate, teach our children, as soon as it is sensible and realistic, that there is a right time for everything, that there is a right place for the enjoyment of everything, and when it comes to the issues of sexual fulfillment, there is only one place and there is only one time that God permits all this to unfold. And that is within the context of a relationship which is heterosexual, monogamous, and lifelong.
Now, the only thing that I’d like to add to that before moving on is something that I’m assuming that you are with, but just in case you’re not, let me state it: namely, that for a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bible makes it clear that marriage should only be with someone who is also a believer. And if you want to follow up your thinking on that, you can read 2 Corinthians 6, and you can tease it out from there. But suffice it to say that I acknowledge what is a very important foundational principle when it comes, again, to the training and guiding and instructing of our children and those under our care. We can acknowledge that those who have not followed God’s plan and pattern and principle in this have sometimes been able to testify to the fact that God has overruled their disobedience. But we must also be humble enough to acknowledge that in time without number, such testimonies are not forthcoming, because the protestation on the part of the believer about marrying the unbeliever which said, “But they will come around. They’ve promised me that when I marry him that he will begin to listen, that he will begin to read, that he will begin to attend.” And I’ve always said to the girl, “If when he’s trying to secure your hand in marriage he will not do these things for you, there is very little likelihood that he will do so after he has got what he wants.” And sadly, the truth is there for our observation.
Now, we got as far as verse 9 this morning, and Mark goes on to record the fact that there was further discussion when Jesus and the disciples got back to the house. And what you have in Mark chapter 10 is a parallel passage to what is recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 19. And you may just want to put a finger into Matthew chapter 19, so that if I make mention of it, you can actually confirm that what I’m saying is there. And in the Matthew record of these things, Matthew tells us that Jesus’ followers, when they heard what he had to say concerning this, remarked to him that it surely is a better idea not to get married at all. Because the striking nature of Jesus’ words made it sound as if it was virtually impossible to proceed along these lines. And Jesus addresses that in his conversation with them.
And in the verses that we were left to consider—verse 10 and 11 and 12—when they asked Jesus in the house, “He”—verse 11—“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.’”
Now, what ought to be obvious here is that Jesus is assuming as a matter of course that a divorced party will remarry. Otherwise, there would be no adultery. The assumption is that the divorce takes place, and as a result of remarriage where there is no ground for divorce, the result is adultery. And what is most striking about this is the categorical nature of this statement.
And for myself, I think it is very important that when we read our Bibles like this, when we come to statements like this, that we ought to sit quietly before them and allow them to register in our thinking and to settle in our minds in all of their bold simplicity, in all of their telling clarity, before we immediately begin to reach for clarifying passages of the Bible to help us to discover exceptions to this categorical statement.
The Lord Jesus understood that the stability of society, that the security of family living, that the enjoyment of relationships within a marriage, was directly tied to the institution of marriage being upheld according to God’s design. So that when the institution of marriage is overturned, when the Creator’s clear statements are rejected, there are ramifications which follow, as we said this morning.
And when we read the Bible and we read in the Old Testament, we discover that God, in a similarly categorical statement, makes clear in the prophecy of Malachi that he actually hates divorce. Not that he hates it as a process, but he hates it because of the sinful causes of divorce and because of the sinful consequences of divorce.
So our first concern in coming to a passage like this is to allow the passage to say what it says, without equivocation, and to realize that what Jesus has done here in this question posed by the Pharisees, in going back to first principles, is describe for us, is illustrate for us, create a pattern for us, of seeing that our first responsibility is to be about the business of sustaining marriage according to God’s design rather than seeking to dismantle marriage according to our own human desires.
With that said, it is clear that we must always interpret Scripture with Scripture. And that’s why I’ve said you should have your finger in Matthew chapter 19. Because there in Matthew chapter 19, in that account, Matthew makes explicit something which Mark and Luke simply assume. And if you are looking there at the passage, you will see just exactly what it is to which I’m referring. It’s verse 9: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife”—and here is the exception clause—“except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Now, Mark doesn’t say that; Luke doesn’t say that in his passage. Some people say, “And that’s…” You know, they go into all kinds of explanations for it. I’m a fairly simple soul, and my observation is simply this: that Mark and Luke could leave it alone because this exception was already widely understood within the framework of Judaism. In the Jewish context, people knew that divorce on account of marital unfaithfulness was allowed, was permissible.
And if you can only think of one place in the New Testament, you’ll be thinking of a helpful place. Where? In the birth narratives, in the story of Joseph and Mary. And it says quite straightforwardly that when Joseph discovered the fact that Mary was pregnant, he decided “to put her away privily,” as the King James Version puts it. Why? Because he recognized that apparently a violation had taken place in the context of Judaistic betrothal, and therefore that it was permissible for him to do such a thing.
So what Mark and Luke presume, Matthew articulates: that divorce was permitted on account of sexual immorality. Why? Well, clearly because the one-flesh union has now been violated. That which God has said, “Let not man put asunder,” that which “God has joined together,” that which God has said is to take place within a monogamous, heterosexual, lifelong companionship, has now been violated. It has been broken. It will never be the same again. And so, that marital unfaithfulness, that immorality, made divorce permissible. Permissible, but not prescribed. Something that is permitted is not necessarily prescribed.
And that is why, in contemporary experiences of that kind of marital breakdown, our first concern must always be with repentance, with forgiveness, with restoration, and with reconciliation. Because it is permitted, it is not mandated. And therefore, it is not something that should be rushed to. The pathway of reconciliation may be the hardest path, but it’s probably the best path.
Now, in the New Testament, you only have one other exception. We’re not going to work it out tonight. I’ll point it out to you. Many of you will know where it is, and that is, the exception that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 7. And there he’s making reference to the departure of the unbelieving partner in a marriage. The initiative is taken on the part of the person who doesn’t believe: whether they began together as unbelievers in marriage, and the husband or the wife became a follower of Jesus, and the unbeliever resented this now—said, “You know, you used to be this and that and the next thing, and since you’ve started all this “all I once held dear” stuff and “knowing you, Jesus,” is the greatest thing—since you’ve started that, I can’t tolerate it. And furthermore, I’m not going to tolerate it. And that’s why I’m leaving you.” Paul says there not that the believing spouse should be an initiator in that demise, but that if that is the case with which they are confronted, that the believing party may allow the unbelieving partner to go, and in that context, the offended-against, believing spouse is then free to remarry.
So, you have this categorical statement by Jesus; you have the exception in relationship to sexual immorality; you have the exception in relationship to the unbelieving spouse. Now, I should just pause and tell you that not everybody who loves Jesus and loves the Bible agrees with my position on this. My concern is not that you agree with my position, but my concern is that you study the Bible and come to an understanding of what it teaches so that you might live in obedience to it.
The plain statement of Jesus is the plain statement of Jesus. And we cannot set aside the clarity with which he speaks. Whenever someone divorces his wife or a wife divorces her husband without biblical grounds—of which there are only two—then, to remarry is an act of adultery. It’s impossible to read what Jesus is saying there and understand it in any other way, isn’t it? “Anyone who divorces his wife”—forget the exception clause for the moment—“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.”
Now, inevitably, in relationship to this question, there are all kinds of legitimate considerations that need to be dealt with on an individual, personal basis. And it is impossible, within the orb of a monologue like this—for me or, frankly, for anyone else—to articulate all the variable factors that are represented in the nuances of marital breakdown and infidelity and remarriage and everything else. Suffice it to say that as a pastoral team, we spend a significant amount of our time trying to unravel many of these things and work the principles through with men and women. And some of you know that. And there are good stories, and there are not-so-good stories concerning it.
But of this we need be in no doubt: in no doubt as to God’s divine ideal in the marriage bonds, an ideal which is clear and which is permanent. We need not, either, be in any doubt as to the frailty of our humanity—the fact that we err and stray from his ways. As the [Book of Common] Prayer says, “We wander from his ways,” and so on; that we’re frail in our humanity, that is not in question either. Nor that we should be anything other than straightforward, sensitive, and sympathetic, in counseling other people in relationship to these things.
And I’m sure that one of the reasons that we have the story recorded for us, in John chapter 8, of the woman who was taken in adultery is in order that we might realize ourselves just how vulnerable each of us is. “What do you say, teacher, about this woman caught in the act of adultery?” Once again, the Pharisees are up to their same nonsense. “They were using this question,” John says, “as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.” How pathetic are these people, that they will take the extremities of people’s lives—their pain, their emptiness, their disfigurement, the man with the withered hand, a woman caught in this entrapment, and so on—and use this as a mechanism for trying to catch Jesus out!
And then you have this strange, this enigmatic, this mysterious, little scene that unfolds: Jesus bending down and writing on the ground with his finger. And
they kept on questioning him, [and] he straightened up and [he] said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” [And] again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
[And] at this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first.
It’s an interesting little observation, isn’t it? They’ve been around long enough. They know.
The older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. [And] Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you …. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
In other words, “Repent and believe the good news. I am the king; submit to my kingship: go and sin no more.” It’s not the acquiescence to the woman’s activities, but it is a clear and straightforward reminder, isn’t it, that those of us who think we stand, should take heed lest we fall.
Let me conclude in this way, at least for now: I think what I find most difficult about these two verses here in Mark chapter 10 is in reckoning with this whole notion of a second marriage beginning in adultery. I’m not saying that I… I understand that. If there is no biblical ground for divorce—so there’s no biblical ground for divorce—someone gets divorced and then marries, the marriage is adulterous. ’Cause there was no basis for divorce. But here’s the question: Does that then mean that that marriage, to the end of life, must be regarded as an ongoing adulterous relationship? I’m going to tell you what I think—and again, you’re sensible people, and you must study the Bible for yourselves. I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
The fact that to marry was to commit adultery is not the same as saying that that then renders that marriage invalid ad infinitum. Because it is a marriage. It is now an exclusive relationship between this man and this woman. It is now a permanent relationship involving them both. And if you think about it, a significant number of first marriages are such that they should never have been made. But once they’re made, they have to be honored. And in the same way, with second marriages involving a person who’s been divorced for reasons not permitted in Scripture, though the second marriage should not have been formed, it has been formed, and therefore, it ought still to be honored by godly devotion within it and by godly devotion in the care for it.
Now, the reason I get there is because I’m thinking this way: When we read our Bibles, all of us have our eyes opened to discover that we have done, or we are doing, things that we ought not to have done—that we have done things that we didn’t realize the first time around was actually a flat-out denial of a clear instruction of the Bible, let’s say. Or perhaps we are doing things, and suddenly we read our Bibles, we say, “Oh, I’m not supposed to be doing this.” So what do you do? Well, you repent, you confess your sins to God, and you seek his forgiveness. Because after all, there are many decisions in life, for all of us, that should not have been made. And many of those decisions have brought us into experiences that it just isn’t possible for us to undo. It’s physically impossible to go back, pre-whatever-it-was. So what are you going to do? You can only trust God. You can only take him at his Word. You can only acknowledge, “That was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that.”
And the insinuations of the Evil One are such that he would then want to use that as a significant thorn in the flesh of a genuinely repentant, contrite believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And therefore, he has to be resisted in all of his accusations and in all of his insinuations—insinuating that you have now sinned yourself beyond the realm of God’s forgiveness, insinuating that you must now limp all your way through life on the strength of what has happened here because you’ve done these things.
And may I say, parenthetically, that in saying all that I’m saying now, in my mind at least, all that I’m saying provides no legitimatization for the skillful individual trying prospectively to position the pieces on the chessboard of your immoral infidelity as a means of somehow or another getting, as it were, God and the Bible in checkmate—the kind of nonsense that says, “Well, I know it’s wrong for me to do this, but it doesn’t matter. I can do what’s wrong because I can always afterwards just ask for his forgiveness.” Somebody who says that gives every indication that they’re probably not a believer at all. For the same grace of God that reconciles us to himself transforms us by the Holy Spirit.
So please don’t misunderstand my desire here to try and make this clear for those among us who are finding ourselves saying, “Well, wait a minute. I know I did that. God knows if I could go back and turn back time, I would change things. There are so many things that I would do if I could go back pre-this, pre-that, pre-the-next-thing, but I can’t.” So what are you going to do? You’re gonna take God at his words. You’re gonna come to the Table, where the emblems of his forgiveness, where the emblems of his goodness, are available to us; where the reminder that “God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, he died for us.”
And don’t you think it’s just possible that one of the reasons that Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus is so that we might read that genealogy and say, “Can you believe some of the people that are in here? Do you know what she did? Do you know what he did?” This is the genealogy of the Son of God! How amazing is the grace of God that is able to sweep into his unfolding purposes for us even our mistakes and our disappointments, even our rebellions! For nothing that happens to us is fortuitous. We’re not being swept on the sea of chance. We’re not held in the grip of blind, deterministic forces. Our times are in God’s hands.  And he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor does he repay us according to our iniquities.
So once again, as everywhere, we’re back where we need to be, saying, “Oh, how the grace of God amazes me!” His grace that redeems our life from the pit and crowns our lives. His grace that not only redeems but restrains us. Restrains us. The only reason that some of us are not part of the statistics of these things—the only reason—is the restraining grace of God. Read Psalm 73 before you go to sleep tonight. The psalmist says, “But as for me, my feet had almost slipped.” “As for me, my feet had almost slipped. My steps had merely stumbled.” But “I am [continually] with you; you hold me by [your] right hand.”
You see, when we grasp that, then that will help us with the woman taken in adultery. When we grasp that, then that will help us with the person who struggles with these things, with the person who lives with those deep-seated regrets. That will save us from the Pharisee. That will save us from it! Not cause us to mitigate in any way the clarity of the instruction of the Bible, not to stand back from the unequivocal statements that it makes, but it will allow us to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The grace that redeems, the grace that restrains, and the grace that restores—that restores. Restores to us the years the locusts have eaten. Restores to us the joy of our salvation.
Let me tell you something: if you are in Christ tonight—if you are in Christ tonight—then your life is hidden in his hand. It is impossible to read Christian biography without recognizing that some who have been in Christ have fallen deeply into sin, have gone badly astray, but God’s restraining and restoring grace has kept them from ultimately falling.
He “is able … to present [us] faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy.” How could that possibly be? I have so many black marks in my book. So many places with the red crosses. So many occasions in my life that speak to willful disobedience, to inadvertent sin. How could I possibly be presented “faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy,” unless the basis of that presentation were in the work and life of Christ himself? “O how the grace of God amazes me!”
So again, let me finish as I did this morning: if you’re on the fringes of fiddling around with this stuff, playing with it in your mind, run—and run fast—into the arms of Christ, and run away from every seductive influence. And if you have never run to Christ, then that’s your starting place, and if you have, then that is our abiding place.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, teach us what it means to take seriously the instruction of your Word. You know all of us; you know where we are in these things. And we thank you that “when Satan tempts [us] to despair, and tells [us] of the guilt within,” we’re able to look up to the one “who made an end of all [our] sin,” and we rest in Christ. And in his name we pray. Amen.
 See Psalm 23:3.
 Derek Kidner, Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 17 (Tyndale Press, 1964; repr., Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 33.
 Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 19:10.
 See Malachi 2:16.
 Matthew 1:19 (KJV).
 Mark 10:9 (KJV).
 Mark 10:9 (NIV 1984).
 Graham Kendrick, “Knowing You” (1993).
 See 1 Corinthians 7:15.
 John 8:4–5 (paraphrased).
 John 8:6 (NIV 1984).
 John 8:7–11 (NIV 1984).
 See 1 Corinthians 10:12.
 Romans 5:8 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 31:15.
 See Psalm 103:10.
 See Psalm 103:4.
 Psalm 73:2 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 73:23 (NIV 1984).
 See Joel 2:25.
 See Psalm 51:12.
 Jude 24 (KJV).
 Emmanuel T. Sibomana, “O How the Grace of God Amazes Me.”
 Charitie Lees Bancroft, “Before the Throne of God Above” (1863).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.