The Perfect Servant in Mark’s Gospel: His Itinerary

We continue our journey with the Lord and His disciples to the cross (8:22-10:52). This was a time of instruction. The disciples had acknowledged the Lord’s Messiahship (8:27-30) but were not clear on His Mission (8:31-33). The Lord repeatedly assured them of the necessity of His own sacrifice and suffering, and showed how His pathway had deep relevance for their service.

If they were to be great in serving, they must imbibe the spirit of the cross (9:30-10:31) by self-sacrificially serving God (9:30-32) and others (9:33-10:16). This is the antithesis of serving self (10:17-31).

In our last two articles we saw how we must serve others in the Spiritual realm. There are no little people, no little acts of service, and no little sins (9:33-50). The cross teaches us these realities. Self-sacrificial service toward others must also find its expression in the Natural realm. Here Mark introduces two aspects of natural life: marriage and children (10:1-16). Consider our:

Attitude to Marriage (10:1-12)

The Lord and His disciples came “into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan” (v1 KJV). Their increasing proximity to the religious centre (Jerusalem) and the Lord’s ongoing preaching to the crowds brought another challenge from the Pharisees.

They asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” (v2 KJV). Was it permissible for a man to divorce his wife? This was an important question but, as was often the case with the Pharisees, it did not come from a genuine heart. They asked “in order to test him” (v2).[1] Culturally and religiously, the subject of marriage and divorce was hotly debated. Differing conclusions were promoted by opposing religious schools. John the Baptist had lost his head for having the temerity to challenge Herod Antipas’ relationship with Herodias (6:14-28). It is likely that the Pharisees hoped to use the Lord’s answer to set Him at odds with religious and civil authorities.

The Lord responded, “What did Moses command you?” (v3). What authoritative statement did Moses make concerning marriage? They responded, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” The Lord answered, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment” (vv4-5).

They had asked if it was permissible to instigate a divorce. The Lord’s answer showed that they were approaching the issue from the wrong direction. They were asking if there was a loophole which would enable a man to escape his marriage commitments without breaking God’s law. The Lord’s response was to redirect their whole approach to the subject. Instead of focusing on the possibility of a loophole, He asked them about the positive commands of God’s Word. “What did Moses command you?” (v3).

They remained determined to search for the escape route: “Moses allowed [permitted] a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away” (v4). They cited from Deuteronomy 24:1-4, a passage in which Moses was not encouraging divorce but regulating divorce proceedings. Moses’ instructions were intended to give protection for a woman who was the victim of a divorce. The Lord reminded them that these directions were only given because of their “hardness of heart.” The regulation of divorce should never have been needed because, ideally, divorce should never have happened.

The Lord did not regard divorce as ideal and He did not want them to do so either. He directed their attention back to the pre-fall institution of marriage: “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” (vv6-9).

Bypassing the whole issue of what Moses permitted, the Lord directed them to consider the divine pattern. God, who instituted marriage, chose the partners (“male and female”), the process (“a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife”), and the product (“the two shall become one flesh”). Finally, the Lord stated the overarching principle (“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”).

Divorce is certainly not what God wants (Mal 2:16). Divorce is separating what God has joined together; it is opposing God’s ideal. The Lord intended to change the Pharisees’ whole approach to marriage (and Scripture). The Pharisees, true to form, were looking to the letter of God’s Word but ignoring the spirit of it. They were happy to exploit a “legal loophole” but, in doing so, they were minimising God’s real desire for marriage. Here is an important lesson: as we interpret Scripture, we must learn to lay appropriate emphasis upon what is truly, positively pleasing to God.

The disciples, alone with the Lord, asked Him again about the issue. The Lord said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (vv11-12). Marriage partners are “joined together” by God and are in covenant relationship with one another. When a person instigates a divorce, he not only shatters God’s ideal but he sins against his spouse by being unfaithful to his marriage vows.

Spiritual greatness, on the other hand, involves self-sacrificial service toward others. It is clear, therefore, that my default position should not be to seek an escape route from my responsibilities toward God or commitments to others. True servant character has very practical implications.

This section does not include all that Scripture teaches on divorce and remarriage. However, what it does say should warn us against minimising God’s ideal. What God permits in non-ideal circumstances is not always what He desires for His people. Imbibing a Christ-like attitude of loving, self-sacrificial service toward others – the attitude of the cross – will ensure that I am never the cause of divorce (cp. Eph 5:22-33).

[1] This and all remaining Scripture quotations are from the ESV unless otherwise noted.