August 17, 2017

Jesus on Marriage and Divorce (1): Divorce for Any Reason?

by Jim Oesterwind

One writer recently observed, “A divorce is like an amputation: You survive, but there’s less of you.”[1] Another concludes, “Divorce, as a cure, is far worse than the disease.”[2] Marriage is under attack like never before in our country. People minimize God’s institution of marriage by deciding that they will just live together without any marital commitment. I am sure you are all aware of the problems of same-sex unions and polygamy. These all are threats to true marriage, but one of the most harmful is divorce.

The Gospel of Mark provides clear teaching from the Lord Jesus on the subject of marriage and divorce. To fully understand his teaching, it is important to understand the historical backdrop of the day in which Jesus lived. The ‘divorce for any reason’ culture of our day is no new thing — the culture of the first century (nearly 2,000 years ago) held very similar views to our own.

After his Galilean ministry, Jesus left Capernaum in the region of Galilee to minister in Judea and Perea. Luke 9:51-18:34 and John 7:1-11:54 provide information about His ministry there. For reasons of his own and unknown to us, but under the supervision of the Spirit, Mark leaves out this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Thus Mark 10:1 begins with Jesus leaving Perea, east of the Jordan River, and entering Judea for the final time in His earthly ministry. He comes to Judea from the farther or other side of the Jordan and the crowds surround Him.

Before Jesus can gain a foothold in Judea, the Pharisees confront Him and ask, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife” (10:2)? This verse also explains the motive for the Pharisees’ confrontation with Jesus. They were tempting or testing Him. They asked their question to entrap or discredit Him in front of the multitudes of people. But why would they do this? They knew that sinful people would have desired a ‘divorce for any reason’ culture because of their hard hearts in a perverse culture.

Ultimately, the Pharisees didn’t want to lose their influence over the people. They were envious of the popularity of Jesus. This theme runs throughout the Gospels. When they ask this question, they desire a simple answer of “Yes” or “No”. Pastors should not fail to see the irony in this. Often when people come to pastors with the same sort of question, they also want them to affirm their own desires. Had Jesus offered a simplistic negative answer, the Pharisees would have taken the opportunity to show that Jesus was opposed to Moses in Deuteronomy 24.

There was wide disagreement when it came to the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 by the Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day, just as we find wide disagreement on the issue of divorce among religious teachers today. Jesus deftly takes command of the situation and answers a question with a question:

And he answered and said unto them, What did Moses command you? And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. (Mark 10:3–4)

Where in Scripture did Moses permit divorce? See Deuteronomy 24:

When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1–4)

Key to understanding this passage is the phrase ‘some uncleanness’, a term that lacks precise definition. What does it mean? If ‘some uncleanness’ is broadened, it may be interpreted as meaning a divorce may occur for any reason. Marriage is and has always been under attack by the evil one. Culture in Jesus’ day just as in our own day had devolved to the point that people were looking for a way out. ‘Some uncleanness’ literally means “nakedness of a thing” according to a marginal note in the New King James Version of the Bible. It is indecency. The confusion over meaning may be summed up in two schools of thought:

  1. Some Pharisees permitted divorce only if the wife had been unfaithful to her husband.
  2. Some Pharisees permitted divorce for whatever reason; even if the wife burned the toast or the husband found someone better looking.[3]

Human nature prefers the second viewpoint. Divorce for any reason was the norm by the time Jesus was teaching the multitudes that day. Matthew adds this to Mark’s perspective:

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? (Matthew 19:3)

That’s human nature! Sinful man wants a lax attitude toward divorce; he desires divorce for every cause. The Pharisees were moving quickly to discredit Jesus and even get Him killed. Remember what happened to John the Baptist, Jesus’ forerunner. Herod divorced his wife in order to marry Herodias. Herodias abandoned her husband, Herod’s brother, to marry Herod. John condemned them and was executed in a grisly manner over this issue earlier in the Gospel of Mark (6:14-29). The Pharisees might like to see Jesus face similar dangers.

Jesus answers a question with a question, “What did Moses command you?” He told the Pharisees in essence: “You guys are bound by the authority of God’s Word. Don’t you know what the Scriptures teach?” The Pharisees basically answer by saying, “Moses gave us the right to divorce for any reason.” Jesus agrees that Moses wrote the passage they point toward, but He doesn’t agree with their interpretation. Who do you want interpreting the Law of Moses? Will you listen to Pharisees driven by envy or the Law Giver Himself? Will you listen to the creature or the Creator?

The Pharisees are saying, “Moses gave us the right to divorce for any reason. All we need to do is write up the divorce certificate, and it’s done!” Deuteronomy 24 had become a way out for these men. They were driven to find an exception clause but not the heart of God. They were legalists looking for an escape route by following the law by the letter, but not the spirit.

As we close the first part in this series, is this not happening today? Why do homosexuals plead for acceptance and claim a theological system to back it up? They do so even to the point of calling what is abominable to God an act of love. Moses wrote under the inspiration of God to restrain divorce, not to allow men to run rampant with it or consider it a privilege. Our understanding of divorce in our culture must be tempered with a thorough understanding of the Biblical world and the desire of Jesus’ heart.


Jim Oesterwind is the pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Antioch, CA. He blogs at http://www.pastoralpondering.blogspot.ca/.

  1. Margaret Atwood, Marriage Partnership, Vol. 7, no. 4. []
  2. Diane Medved, psychologist and author of The Case Against Divorce, Marriage Partnership, Vol. 8, no. 2. []
  3. Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary : Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002). 83-84. []


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