What God Has Joined Together, Let Not Man Separate

Part 1

As we come to the end of our series on marriage — this week and next week — it is fitting that we think together about the implications of the meaning of marriage for divorce and remarriage. For many of you who have walked through a divorce and are now single or remarried, or whose parents were divorced, or some other loved one, the mere mention of the word carries a huge weight of sorrow and loss and tragedy and disappointment and anger and regret and guilt.

Few things are more painful than divorce. It cuts to the depths of personhood unlike any other relational gash. It is emotionally more heart-wrenching than the death of a spouse. Death is usually clean pain. Divorce is usually dirty pain. In other words, the enormous loss of a spouse in death is compounded in divorce by the ugliness of sin and moral outrage at being so wronged.

The Devastation of Divorce

It is often long years in coming, and long years in the settlement and in the adjustment. The upheaval of life is immeasurable. The sense of failure and guilt and fear can torture the soul. Like the psalmist, night after night a spouse falls asleep with tears (Psalm 6:6). Work performance is hindered. People don’t know how to relate to you anymore and friends start to withdraw. You can feel like you wear a big scarlet D on your chest. The loneliness is not like the loneliness of being a widow or a widower or person who has never been married. It is in class by itself. (Which is one reason why so many divorced people find each other.)

A sense of a devastated future can be all-consuming. Courtroom controversy compounds personal misery. And then there is often the agonizing place of children. Parents hope against hope that the scars will not cripple the children or ruin their marriages some day. Tensions over custody and financial support deepen the wounds. And then the awkward and artificial visitation rights can lengthen the tragedy over decades. And add to all of this that it happens in America to over four out of every ten married couples.

Responding to Divorce

There are two ways to respond lovingly and caringly to this situation. One is to come alongside divorced persons and stand by them as they grieve and repent of any sinful part of their own. And then to stay by them through the transitions and help them find a way to enjoy the forgiveness and the strength for new obedience that Christ obtained when he died and rose again.

“Few things are more painful than divorce. It cuts to the depths of personhood unlike any other relational gash.”

The other way to respond lovingly and caringly is to articulate a hatred of divorce, and why it is against the will of God, and do all we can biblically to keep it from happening. Compromises on the sacredness and life-long permanence of marriage — positions that weaken the solidity of the covenant-union — may feel loving in the short run, but wreak havoc over the decades. Preserving the solid framework of the marriage covenant with high standards may feel tough in the short run, but produces ten thousand blessings for future generations. I hope that both of these ways of loving and caring will flourish at Bethlehem.

The Covenant Remains until Christ Removes

One of the reasons that I have emphasized the ultimate meaning of marriage so much in this series is that the meaning of marriage is such that human beings cannot legitimately break it. The ultimate meaning of marriage is the representation of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church.

To live this truth and to show this truth is what it means, most deeply, to be married. This is the ultimate reason why marriage exists. There are other reasons, but this is the main one. Therefore, if Christ ever abandons and discards his church, then a man may divorce his wife. And if the blood-bought church, under the new covenant, ever ceases to be the bride of Christ, then a wife may legitimately divorce her husband. But as long as Christ keeps his covenant with his bride, the church, and as long as the church, by the sustaining grace of God, remains the chosen people of Jesus Christ, then the very meaning of marriage will include: what God has joined, only God can separate, not man.

Getting Serious about Sacredness

Oh, how I pray that one of the effects of this series will be to make us as a people profoundly serious about the sacredness of marriage. The world treats this diamond-like just another stone. But in fact, marriage is sacred beyond what most people imagine. It is a unique creation of God, a dramatic portrayal of God’s relation to his people, and a display of the glory of God’s covenant-keeping love. Against all the diminished attitudes about marriage in the world — Jesus’s world and our world — Jesus’s words about marriage are breathtaking. This is the work of God, not man, and it does not lie in man’s prerogative to end it.

Jesus Knows His Moses

In our text in Mark 10:1–12, the Pharisees came to Jesus and asked him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” That’s the question. Today, people don’t even ask the question. It is assumed. It’s not only lawful but easy and cheap. Just Google the word “divorce” and see what you get (“Easy Online Divorce,” “Simple Divorce Online,” “No Fault Divorce, $28.95,” “Easy Online Divorce, $299”). Let me say cautiously and seriously: those who scorn the design of God and the glory of Christ, and build their lives and businesses and whole industries around making divorce cheap and easy are under the wrath of God, and need to repent and seek his forgiveness through Christ before it is too late.

Jesus knew that the Pharisees, in general, were an adulterous generation (Matthew 12:39). He knew how they defended their divorces. So he leads them to that very place and asks them in Mark 10:3, “What did Moses command you?” He takes them to Moses. But they should be careful here. Moses didn’t just write Deuteronomy, which they are about to quote. He also wrote Genesis. Verse 4: They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” That’s true. It’s a reference to Deuteronomy 24:1.

“The ultimate meaning of marriage is the representation of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church.”

What will Jesus say in response to this defense of divorce? Verse 5: Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” This is amazing. It implies, in other words, there are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time. Divorce is never commanded and never instituted in the Old Testament. But it was permitted and regulated. Like polygamy was permitted and regulated, and certain kinds of slavery were permitted and regulated. And Jesus says here that this permission was not a reflection of God’s ideal for his people; it was a reflection of the hardness of the human heart. “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.”

Back to Creation

Then Jesus takes the Pharisees (and us) back to God’s will in creation and quotes Genesis 1:27; 2:24 and shows us the way it was supposed to be. Verses 6–8: “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.’” That’s the end of his Scripture quoting. Now the question is: What will he do with it? Clearly, Jesus sees a tension between Deuteronomy 24 and Genesis 1 and 2. The but at the beginning of verse 6 (“But from the beginning of creation . . .”) means: God’s will about divorce in Genesis 1–2 is not the same as his will expressed in Deuteronomy 24.

So the question is “Which way will Jesus go?” Will he say: Well, there is still hardness of heart today, even in my disciples, and so Deuteronomy expresses God’s will for Christians today? Or will he say, “I am the Messiah, the Christ”? The Son of Man has come into the world to gather a people who by faith in him and union with him display the true meaning of marriage in the way they keep their marriage covenant? Will the emphasis fall on the fact that in the church there is still hardness of heart, or will the emphasis fall on the fact that the old has passed away and the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)?

Jesus’s Three Conclusions

Jesus draws three conclusions in verse 8b and verse 9. He first says in verse 8b, “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” In other words, since God said in Genesis 2:24, “The two shall become one flesh,” therefore Jesus concludes for his day and ours: “So they are no longer two but one flesh.” Marriage is that kind of union — very profound, just as Christ and the church are one body (Romans 12:5).

Then the second conclusion Jesus draws is that this union of one flesh is the creation, the work, of God, not man. He says in verse 9, “What therefore God has joined together. . . .” So even though two humans decide to get married. And a human pastor or priest or justice of the peace or some other person solemnizes and legalizes the union, all that is secondary to the main actor, namely, God. “What God has joined together. . . .” God is the main actor in the event of marriage.

Then, third, Jesus draws the conclusion at the end of verse 9: “Let not man separate.” The word translated “man” here (“Let not man separate”) is not the word for male over against female, but the word for human over against divine. The contrast is: if God joined the man and woman in marriage, then mere humans have no right to separate what he joined. That’s Jesus third conclusion from Genesis 1 and 2. Since God created this sacred union with this sacred purpose to display the unbreakable firmness of his covenant love for his people, it simply does not lie within man’s rights to destroy what God created.

Finished with the Pharisees

That’s the end of Jesus’s conversation with the Pharisees about divorce. He has more to say to his disciples, but he is done with the Pharisees. They ask no more. He tells no more. They came with their question. Jesus gave his answer. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” And Jesus answers: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” No. It is not lawful. It contradicts the ultimate meaning of marriage.

Of course, someone might say, it has always contradicted the meaning of marriage — even when the permission of Deuteronomy was written. But Jesus is not thinking that way. He is calling his followers to a higher standard than the compromise with hardness of heart in Deuteronomy.

Jesus Didn’t Come to Reaffirm Moses

Jesus did not come to simply affirm the Mosaic Law. He came to fulfill it in his own consuming, forgiving, justifying obedience and death, and then to take his ransomed and forgiven and justified followers into the higher standards that were really intended when all of Moses is properly understood. Remember Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

And then he gives six examples of what this radical obedience will look like in his disciples. Here are just two: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder . . . but I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:21–22). “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart’” (Matthew 5:27–28). And there are four more like this in Matthew 5.

Jesus Came to Fulfill Moses

In other words, Jesus came not only to fulfill the law in his own work, he came to take his people to a radical understanding of the law and a radical obedience to the law that is not based on law but on himself, and therefore reflects the fullness of what God wills for us — and especially reflects the gospel, the covenant-keeping work of Christ at Calvary for his church. Marriage among Christians is mainly meant to tell the truth about the gospel — that Christ dies for his church who loves him, and never breaks his covenant with his bride.

“Jesus came to give you the power to stay married, or to stay single so that you keep your promises.”

In essence, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You are permitted to divorce.’ But I say to you, ‘I have come to conquer the hardness of your heart. I have come to die for your sins. I have come to count you as righteous. I have come to show you the drama that marriage was meant to represent in my sacrificial, covenant-keeping love for my sinful bride. I have come to give you the power to stay married, or to stay single, so that either way you keep your promises and show what my covenant is like, and how sacred is the covenant bond of marriage.”

So when the Pharisees are gone and Jesus is in the house with his disciples, he puts the matter even more bluntly and more radically. Mark 10:1–12: “And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”

Mark does not report how stunned the disciples were at these words; Matthew does. I will try to show more fully from two important passages in Matthew 5:32; 19:9 and three in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11, 12–16, 39 and one in Romans 7:1–3 why I think we should take Jesus at face value here, and counsel against all remarriage after divorce while the spouse is living. That’s what I think Jesus calls us to as his followers. Keep your marriage vows in such a way as to tell the truth about the unbreakable covenant love of Christ.

Divorce and the Gospel

But in closing today I want to emphasize that what Jesus says here in verses 10–12 is incredibly good news — even to those who have been divorced and are remarried. Here’s why: Jesus says, “Don’t divorce your spouse and marry someone else. If you do, you’ve committed adultery.” Why is it adultery? Ultimately, it is adultery because it betrays the truth about Christ that marriage is meant to display. Jesus never, never, never does that to his bride, the church. He never forsakes her. He never abandons her. He never abuses her. He always loves her. He always takes her back when she wanders. He always is patient with her. He always cares for her and provides for her and protects her and, wonder of wonders, delights in her. And you — you who are married once, married five times, married never — if you repent and trust Christ — receive him as the treasure who bore your punishment and became your righteousness — you are in the bride. And that is how he relates to you. “Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10:43).

The radical call of Jesus never to divorce and remarry is a declaration of the gospel by which people who have failed may be saved. If Christ were not this way, we would all be undone. But this is how true, how faithful, how forgiving he is. Therefore, we are saved.