Jesus, the Pharisees, and Divorce

“And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”” (Mark 10:2 ESV)

Sneaky question, this.  As we will soon find out, the Pharisees new perfectly well that it was “lawful” for a man to divorce his wife.  They refer back to Deuteronomy 24.1-4 without any hesitation.  They didn’t want an answer to their question, they wanted to trap Jesus with it.

There were two schools of thought in Jesus’ day as to why a husband could divorce his wife.  One school–influenced by the rabbi Hillel–claimed that one could divorce one’s wife for virtually any reason at all.  She burnt the meal while preparing it?  That’s a divorce!  The other school–influenced by rabbi Shammai–held that only actual shameful conduct allowed a husband to divorce his wife.

Richard Lenski, in his commentary at Mark, points out that the Pharisees could trap Jesus in three ways with this question:

  1. If he sided with Hillel, they could accuse him of being morally lax.
  2. If he sided with Shammai, they could reproach him with his own friendly treatment of sinners.
  3. If Jesus said that he was against divorce in every case [which no doubt they were REALLY hoping], they could accuse him of being against the Mosaic Law which did allow divorce.

As he always did, Jesus easily sidesteps their perfidy. He points back to a verse before the verse in Deuteronomy (Gen 1.27).  He explains that the Mosaic allowance for divorce was not God’s desire, it was an allowance for the hardness of human hearts. Indeed, it’s quite revealing that Jesus says “the hardness of your hearts.”  No doubt the Pharisees did not appreciate the inference there.


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“Where Their Worm does not Die”

“And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47–48 ESV)

What do you suppose that Jesus meant when he described hell to his listeners as a place where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched?

First let’s just point out that Jesus seems to believe that hell is an actual place.  He does not seem to think that hell is a metaphor for getting what we deserve in life, nor does he imply that hell is a state of mind.  Jesus seems to think that hell is a physical place that is not a good place to be [whether the fire is metaphorical, I do not know , but there is a difference between fire as a metaphor and hell as an actual place, Jesus seems to leave room for fire to be a metaphor, he does not appear to leave room for hell as a metaphor]  I’m not exactly sure what he means by where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched, but I’m sure I do not want to go there and find out.

Jesus is verbatim quoting the very last verse in the book of Isaiah here, so it’s important to us to understand what that passage was referring to, in order to understand Jesus’ words here.  Isaiah writes:

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”” (Isaiah 66:24, ESV)

The one’s who have rebelled against me are the same people who are now in a place where their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched. 

What is sin if not rebellion against God?  God tells me the way that I ought to live, and I refuse to live that way, I choose to live my own way.  This is rebellion against God and God must and shall punish it.

In our passage, Jesus connects sin right back to these people in Isaiah who rebelled against God, the same thing that happened to the people in Isaiah, will happen to those who persist in sin and/or cause others to fall into sin.

Here’s the thing, we are all this way!  Paul describes everyone as slaves to sin:

“What then? Are we better off? Not at all, for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under the power of sin, as it is written, “No one is righteous, not even one; no one is understanding; no one is seeking for God.” (Romans 3:9–11 MOUNCE-NT)

Fortunately for us, Jesus himself made a way for us to escape our slavery to sin:

“It is the righteousness of God available through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. (For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and continue to fall short of the glory of God.) They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an atoning sacrifice by his blood, obtainable through faith.” (Romans 3:22–25 MOUNCE-NT)


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“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42, ESV)

In the Greek language, the words that I have in bold in the verse above are just one word: skandalı́zō [or σκανδαλίζω if you’re a Greek stud]. Skandalı́zō means “to be an obstacle or stumbling block to someone or something.” I imagine the meaning of this verse to be something like this: someone who believes in Jesus, a “little one”, is going along his merry way in life, and along comes someone else who by wordsor deed ends up blocking the “little one’s” path to Jesus; perhaps they encourage apostasy or perhaps they lead that person astray, or perhaps they mislead that person away from following Jesus and towards sin. Jesus condemns the one who is a stumbling block in the strongest terms.  A millstone was a great round stone used for crushing grain into flour, and if you hung it around someone’s neck and tossed them into the sea, they would certainly drown.  Jesus is very serious here.

One’s own hands, feet, and eyes can be a stumbling block also, but we need to be careful to understand that the stumbling block in all four cases (skandalı́zō is repeated four times in these verses) is in regards to sin. Indeed, the word skandalı́zō in this context means “to cause to sin.”

Jesus sees something dark and foreboding about sin, something that is so important to understand, so necessary to comprehend, that he warns his listeners about causing themselves or someone else to sin four times! Why is sin that important? I’m glad you didn’t asked.

Sin separates mankind from God, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” Paul writes (Rom 3.23).  The wage or payment for sin is eternal death, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, ESV).  What Jesus is after for us in this passage, is our own good.  He wants us to have eternal life, he does not want us to be enslaved to sin and so experience death, and yet this is exactly where we find ourselves, slaves to sin.  Freedom from sin, freedom from being a stumbling block to ourselves or others, comes by faith in Christ.  Do you see why Jesus was so strong in his condemnation of causing ourselves or someone else to sin?  He wants the best for us, he wants to give us life.

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Jesus Really Really Wants to Keep you out of Hell.

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (Mark 9:43, ESV)

We are in Mark 9.42-50 and the first thing that we are faced with is Jesus’ repeated attempts to keep his hearers out of hell. Four times Jesus connects sin with destruction and/or hell, the first time is in connection with “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,” the other three times are directed towards the individual: “If your eye causes you…” “if your foot causes you…” etc. The end result each time is either destruction or hell.

The word that we translate “hell” is really the word “gehenna,” and this was “the place or state of the lost and condemned” [Complete Word Study Bible – CWSB]. It was connected with a place and that was the valley of Hinnom which ran south and southwest of Jerusalem.  At one time it had been used by unfaithful kings of Judah to sacrifice their own children to the false god, Molech.  At the time of Jesus it was a garbage dump which burned continually from the fires set to consume the rubbish that was deposited there. “In the NT Gehenna is presented always as the final place of punishment into which the wicked are cast after the last judgment.” [CWSB]

Jesus warns his hearers that if their eye, or hand, or foot caused them to stumble into sin, it would be better if they did not have that eye or hand or foot, rather than to have it and go to hell.  This is very powerful imagery.  Jesus is saying that it is better to metaphorically be disabled, than it is to have a normal healthy body and yet continue in sin so that one is cast into hell.

Notice also that Jesus connects sin and hell without any explanation, so both he and his listeners understood that unconstrained sin was intimately connected with destruction and hell, and this applied to the individual.

The antidote, or the opposite of hell is life.  One avoids death and receives life by avoiding falling into sin.  Jesus here exhibits the Old Testament view of righteousness, that when someone is righteous, they will demonstrate that righteousness by what they do, by how they act, and by how they follow God’s law.

Hell is not necessarily a literal place of fire.  John Calvin comments:

When he says that they shall be tormented by “fire,” this mode of expression, as I have formerly remarked, is metaphorical. And this is clearly evident from the succeeding clause; for worms will not be formed out of the earth to gnaw the hearts of unbelievers. The plain meaning, therefore, is, that the wicked shall have a bad conscience as an executioner, to torment them without end, and that torment awaits them greater than all other torments; and finally, that they shall tremble and be agitated in a dreadful and shocking manner, as if a worm were gnawing the heart of a man, or a fire were consuming it, and yet thus consumed, he did not die.

I don’t know if hell is a literal place of fire, or a metaphorical place of torment, what I do know is that Jesus did not want his hearers to go there, and so he warns them again and again and with very strong words.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I’m going to take Jesus’ word for it.

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When “Someone” Surprises You

“John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” (Mark 9:38–39)

I love John’s statement to Jesus here in Mark 9.  “Listen, Jesus, so we saw ‘someone’ trying to cast out demons in your name.  Can you imagine that?!?  He wasn’t even one of your disciples and he thinks he can do mighty works in your name.  Unbelievable, am I right?”

Jesus:  “No, John, you’re wrong.”

John: “Wait.  What?”

The disciples were laboring under the cultural assumption that you had to actually follow a rabbi, to live with him, to know him intimately, in order to then do the works that the rabbi did.  This “someone” was breaking all the rules!  Sure, he gave lip service to Jesus, but he wasn’t one of the disciples. (Notice how John puts it, “he was not following us.”  Not “you, Jesus,” but “us.”  Perhaps a little bit of ego on the part of the disciples here since just  a few verse prior they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.)

I love Jesus’ response.  “Listen John, if ‘someone’ is doing a mighty work in my name, they’re not going to turn around and bad mouth me behind my back.”  What Jesus communicates is that John and the rest of the disciples don’t know everything that he is up to, and they would be wise not to assume that they do.

This seems to me to be the heart of this little incident.  The disciples thought they understood how Jesus worked, but they didn’t.  This is also often our problem.  We put God into a box shaped the size of our own understanding and say to ourselves, “here is what Jesus can do, and here is what he will not do.”  Jesus comes along and dumps our box out and says, “your box is too small.”

This is always and everywhere our problem.  We want to limit Jesus’ work to something that fits into our understanding, and of course, Jesus is not the least bit limited by our limitations of him.  He’s always doing stuff that amazes us, and sometimes doing stuff that upsets us. Usually this happens when he uses someone that we don’t think he should be using.

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“We Groan”

For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,” (2 Corinthians 5:2, ESV)

The longer we live in this world, the more clear it becomes that there is something wrong with it.  Through life experience, through sadness, through loss and grief, disappointment and despair, we discover that, no matter how good we have it in this world, there is something wrong, something broken.  D. A. Carson sums things up this way: ”

There is no escape from the brute reality that, however wonderful your experiences in this broken world, others suffer experiences far more corrosive, and you yourself cannot ever believe that what you are experiencing is utterly ideal.

It is this realization that Paul is writing about when he says, “in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.”  We want permanence.  We want freedom from grief, loss, and disappointment.  We want to escape the brokenness all around us, and we are all this way.  We all have this longing whether we acknowledge it or not. Mark Buchanan eloquently puts it this way:

We hear the groaning in all things. In orphans. In refugees. In housewives. In businessmen. From history professors, from folk musicians. In the sated. In the famished. In the sleek, the sick, the wounded, the pampered. In victims and victors. We hear it in haiku poetry, in country–and–western laments, in street marches, in hunger strikes. We hear it in the rocks beneath the earth’s crust as they tremble and slip, in the wood joists of our houses at night as they shiver and pull, in the bones of our bodies as they shudder and twist. We hear it in our guts. We hear it in our heads. We hear it in our hearts.

Paul will summarize this truth elsewhere in this way: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:23, ESV)

We groan, we await eagerly, for heaven, for immediate presence with God.  This groaning is an instinct inside of us that God himself has put there when he gave us the Holy Spirit. It is a signpost and marker and reminder that we are not home yet.  Here is Mark Buchanan again:

The instinct for heaven is just that: homesickness, ancient as night, urgent as daybreak.  All your longings–for the place you grew up, for the taste of raspberry tarts that your mother once pulled hot from the oven, for that bend in the river where your father took you fishing as a child, where the water was dark and swirling and the caddis flies hovered in the deep shade–all these longings are a homesickness, a wanting in full what all these things only hint at, only prick you with.

When you have those moments, dear reader, when you tell yourself “this isn’t the way the world should be,” or when you see the sky at sunset awash in purple and orange and yellow and red, and then suddenly it’s all gone, embrace it.  This is homesickness and its okay to be homesick, indeed this is exactly what God wants. We are just living in the shadowlands here, home awaits.

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“Swallowed up by Life”

For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:4, ESV)

I love what Paul does here.  He is explaining to the believers in Corinth that what awaited them when Christ returned or they died (whichever came about first), was an eternal body (clothes metaphorically) that God himself had prepared for them.  Then these words “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” 

Do you see what he does there?  He flips everything upside down and topsy-turvy.  He is talking about death as if it were life!  Indeed, if the broader culture had penned these words they would have been written like this, “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by the grave.” What Paul writes is unexpected (from a cultural standpoint) and surprising, and yet Paul seems to really really believe this.  (See “For We Know“)

How is it that Paul can write about death as if it were life?  I’m glad you didn’t asked. Paul is undoubtedly alluding to Isaiah 25.8:

He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.

Paul calls death life because God is going to swallow up death forever, because death, just like everything else in this world is subject to the authority and command of God and when he sums up history in Jesus Christ, he will do away with death.  This is our hope of eternal life and this is why Paul can write “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

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