In City on a Hill, Phillip Ryken asserts that “a Church for post-Christian times is a teaching church.” He goes on to say that “the only church that will survive in post-Christian times is a church with a passion for God’s Word.”1 As elsewhere, in Mark 10 Jesus sets a pattern for the teaching church (v. 1).
There are a few things you can’t miss about Jesus’ teaching. He taught with authority. His teaching was saturated with love (v. 21) and mercy (vv. 47–48). He didn’t seem to stick to a script but taught according to the needs of the audience. He answered questions and responded to circumstances. He didn’t avoid difficult issues. As He and His disciples marched toward Jerusalem Jesus tackled three difficult issues: marriage, money, and ministry.
Discipleship and Marriage
The question of divorce is extremely relevant given the failure rate of marriages today. A recent study reveals that 33 percent of Americans who marry will divorce. This statistic seems to show little variance between believing and unbelieving demographics. George Barna, the director of the study, noted that Americans have grown comfortable with divorce as a natural part of life. “There no longer seems to be . . . a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage.”2
Even with the changing cultural norms regarding divorce, the topic still evokes strong emotions in the church. This was true in Jesus’ day as well. The question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife” was put to Him as a test (10:2); it seems to have no good answer. If Jesus said yes, His opponents could accuse Him of advocating divorce. If He said no, they could say that He was ignoring the law of Moses, which allowed for divorce. Jesus’ approach to this topic is extremely helpful. The Pharisees focused on the exception to the rule—divorce—while Jesus focused on the institution of marriage.
Jesus began to answer the Pharisees’ question on divorce by asking what the Old Testament had to say about it. The text to which the Pharisees appeal is Deuteronomy 24:1–4. Commentators do not always agree on the grounds that Moses here provides for divorce.3 What is clear is that in the Old Testament divorce was not difficult. Even so, this provision was given, not as an indulgence to capricious men but as a protection to undervalued women. A man who would dishonor his marriage vow at least had to provide a certificate stating that the marriage was over and that his ex might marry again and not be left destitute.
But Jesus’ point is that divorce was permitted (not commanded) due to hardness of heart. “Divorces were permitted, not because they were lawful, but because Moses had to deal with a rebellious . . . nation.”4 The overwhelming evidence in the Old Testament is that God does not delight in divorce (Mal. 2:13–17). In the New Testament, the divorce loophole is tightened. There are only two biblical grounds for divorce. A spouse who has committed adultery has dissolved the marriage and set the other at liberty (Matt. 5:31–32).5 Paul also seems to allow for divorce in the case of radical desertion (1 Cor. 7:10–16). While there is some disagreement on this point,6 it is clear that the grounds given for divorce in many marriages today are not scriptural.
Jesus brought up grounds for divorce to touch on possible exceptions that prove the rule. God’s rule for marriage is lifelong monogamous, heterosexual commitment (10:6). Jesus elaborates on this rule by first pointing out that there was no divorce before the Fall: “From the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). This is a powerful ethical principle. In Genesis 2 God opens a window into perfect humanity’s family life: Adam and Eve remained exclusively faithful to each other. Anything other than this perfect picture is a deviation from God’s intention.
Second, Jesus elaborates on the “one flesh” principle (10:6a, 8). Men and women are two unique fleshes, two distinct but complementary parts of humanity. They were made to fit each other, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In marriage two fleshes become so joined that they can no longer be called two but one.
Third, Jesus teaches the rule of marriage by comparing marriage with the filial bond (10:7–8). We may wonder, “What could be stronger than the bond between parents and their children?” Jesus’ answer is, “The marriage bond.” For the purpose of marriage a man shall leave his father and mother to be united to his wife.
Fourth, Jesus teaches the rule of marriage by emphasizing that God makes the marriage (v. 9). Something happens in marriage that goes beyond the two people involved. God joins man and woman together into one flesh. Who are we to separate that union?
One advantage of studying human failures, divorce being just one example, is that we see more clearly the integrity of God. “You have played the harlot with many lovers,” says the Lord. “Yet return to me . . . for I am married to you” (Jer. 3:1, 14). Such commitment on God’s part provides unshakable ground for the faith of His followers.
Discipleship and Materialism (10:13–31)
At this point in His public ministry, Jesus is looking for committed disciples. As He briskly approaches His darkest hour He speaks candidly about what it means to enter the kingdom of God as a disciple (vv. 15, 23). A disciple is a person who follows Jesus to learn from Him in order to be like Him (Luke 6:40). At the heart of Mark 10 Jesus echoes His earlier call to “Come, take up your cross and follow me” (cf. 8:34). The main lesson is: Discipleship is a total sacrifice. One of the great obstacles to discipleship is materialism. In this passage Mark gives both positive and negative examples of discipleship as it touches on the theme of materialism.
Examples of True Discipleship
Peter exemplifies all true disciples when he says, “We have left all to follow you!” (v. 28). Jesus agrees. They have left houses, families, and lands for the sake of the gospel (v. 29). Disciples realize that no sacrifice is more important than following Jesus. A few verses earlier Jesus compared discipleship with childhood (10:13–16). Children often demonstrate total commitment. There is nothing a loving child wouldn’t give up for a loving parent. My six-year-old child would spend all the money in her bank account to buy me a cheeseburger if that’s what would please me. Even following painful discipline godly children remain lovingly committed to their parents.
An Example of Non-Discipleship
By contrast, the rich man of verses 17–22 exemplifies all who despise discipleship. In response to his question, “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus uses the commandments as a checklist to identify that heart-idol that was keeping the rich young ruler from committing to Christ. He found it in his riches. To this ruler, money was more important than God. For now, at least, “he went away sorrowful” knowing that he could not be a disciple. He knew that he wasn’t just a bad tither; he wasn’t a Christian! Some of us may be more deceived. What is it that we will not let go of? Consider the following list of heart-checking demands: Give up your career plans to raise a godly family. Ask for a demotion at work so that you can spend more time with your kids. Give at least 10 percent of your income to God’s work. Stop overeating. Give up electronic devices that lead you into temptation. God isn’t necessarily calling us to do all these things. But He does demand that we put nothing before Him, whether reputation, relationships, comfort, control, or security.
Jesus speaks specifically here to the discipleship stumbling block of money. Jesus is not saying that wealth and religion are antithetical; the Bible’s patriarchal and monarchial history disproves such a notion. This man was not too rich. He just loved his riches too much. The same might be true of you whether you make twenty thousand, two hundred thousand, or two million dollars per year. Wealth is such a dangerous idol because it can provide us with a sense of freedom, identity, and security—three things that come only truly through the gospel.
The rich man’s failures can also help us to identify false standards of discipleship. Sometimes we might take a “simple majority” approach to discipleship. Doing more Christian than non-Christian things does not make you a disciple. Beware also of a “big-ticket item” approach to discipleship. Sadly, those who with an unbelieving heart do such “big-ticket” activities as worshiping, tithing, witnessing, or volunteering will still hear Christ say those dreadful words: “I never knew you” (Matt. 7:23).
The Radical Nature and Reward of Discipleship
When Christ hit His disciples with God’s view of discipleship they were literally driven to despair: “Who then can be saved?” (v. 26). If you have listened to Jesus’ teaching and thought, “I’m the model of discipleship,” then you have utterly missed the point. Jesus was clear when He said, “With man, it is impossible” (v. 27). “But,” says He, “not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
Jesus said if you have left all for Christ you will not miss any of it. Jesus speaks of a hundredfold gain in this life and eternal life in the age to come (vv. 29–30). These rewards are not without cost (v. 30); it’s just that the cost is worth it. Jim Elliot knew the cost of discipleship. He was a bright, well-educated man who gave up everything he had for Christ. He was killed, along with four others, while attempting to evangelize a brutal South American tribe. But because he had already done the math of discipleship he could write, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
Such a perspective prepares us to hear Jesus’ final hard theme of this chapter.
Discipleship and Ministry
It is said that repetition is the mother of all learning, a fact Jesus obviously knew well. In this passage, for the third time in as many chapters, Jesus predicted His approaching suffering (vv. 32–34). Twice before these words had gone over the disciples’ heads (8:32; 9:32) so He lovingly repeated them. He was preparing His disciples for the unimaginable. With every passing day, Jesus was getting closer to the cross. He was “going up to Jerusalem” (v. 32). Up to this point Mark mentions Jerusalem in the context of people coming from Jerusalem; often Jesus’ enemies. But now He is going up to Jerusalem to face His enemies for the sake of His people.
In this passage Jesus gives us a beautifully succinct statement expressing the purpose of His ministry. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). At the heart of this passage is the service of Christ. Three distinct but related aspects of this service are highlighted in the last half of Mark 10.
The Service of Christ Predicted (10:32–34)
This first point will be very uncomfortable if we understand it. In our minds examples of service might include raking the widowed neighbors’ leaves or clearing the table after a meal. But the service of Christ is intimately connected with suffering. In Jerusalem Jesus would experience betrayal, injustice, mockery, degradation, and physical pain. Jesus is the one whom Isaiah predicted would be “despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). Significantly His passion prediction forms the theological basis for His teaching on service and sets the pace for understanding Christian suffering (cf. Mark 10:38–40). Christian service is a calculated giving of one’s life, patterned after Christ’s service. Many of the disciples who were following Jesus to Jerusalem would endure similar fates as their Master.
The Service of Christ Reflected (10:35–45)
As Jesus expressed His humiliation, the disciples expressed their desire for exaltation. All twelve of them were guilty in this regard, not just the two who had asked for personal favors (v. 37). When the ten heard about what the two had done they were angry. They didn’t want someone else asking for (or receiving) anything they couldn’t have. When we say, “That’s not fair,” what we often mean is, “I’m upset that I missed out.” We tend to have such an egocentric concept of greatness. As such we miss opportunities to make God’s kingdom great. Christians need to see themselves as part of something bigger than themselves. But like the disciples we often only care for how this kingdom benefits us.
In the face of the disciples’ failure Jesus teaches several things about service. First, service entails real suffering. Jesus equates the ministry of the Christian with His own ministry. The disciples would be baptized with His baptism and drink the cup that He drank. Second, Jesus says that true disciples refuse to rule with a heavy hand. Jesus knows that the disciples have a tendency to lord it over others. We’ve already seen how they have abused their leadership position (cf. 10:13; 9:38; 6:36). Jesus says that leaders in the church lead without making those they’re leading feel oppressed. Christian service is selfless. Bishop J. C. Ryle said, “Let all who desire to please Christ watch and pray against self-esteem.”7 Christian service is kingdom-focused, people-oriented, and self-abasing.
The Service of Christ Demonstrated (10:46–52)
Sometimes godliness is sooner caught than taught. Jesus, while on the way to the cross, stopped to heal an ordinary beggar. That is service in action! Jesus teaches that mercy—voluntary, unconstrained care for those who are hurting—is at the heart of Christian service. Bartimaeus had no right to Christ’s mercy. Neither do we. But to God’s glory Christ came to serve hurting sinners who had completely de-merited his help.
As with Christ’s service to Bartimaeus, so Christian service is a combination of word and deed. Jesus neither drops a few coins in Bartimaeus’s cup, nor does He simply say, “Your sins are forgiven.” He heals Bartimaeus physically and teaches him to keep his faith fixed upon the Savior. Bartimaeus’s response paints a striking portrait of true discipleship: “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road” (v. 52).
1. Philip Ryken, City on a Hill: Reclaiming the Biblical Pattern for the Church in the Twenty-first Century (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2003), 25.
2. Accessed on February 11, 2010 from http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/15-familykids/42-new-marriage-and-divorce-statistics-released.
3. There has always been some question about what it means for a man to put away a wife upon the discovery of “some uncleanness in her” (v. 1). Many interpreters understand this to mean nearly anything. In fact, quarrels in marriage often begin over such small things. Some of these quarrels end in separation.
4. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), vol. 2, 378.
5. Under the Old Testament administration an adulterer would be stoned, clearly ending the marriage (Deut. 22:22).
6. Some see Paul’s counsel here as merely freeing the deserted from the bondage of having to try to abide with the deserting spouse. Others see this as a legitimate ground for divorce and therefore remarriage (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 24.6).
7. J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Mark (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1985), 218.
Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. According to Ephesians 5:22–33, how does human marriage communicate the gospel?
2. What light do such passages as Jeremiah 3 and Ezekiel 16 shed on marriage and divorce?
3. How can Jesus’ teaching on divorce be applied to a people in the following walks of life: single, married, divorced?
4. How does the rich young ruler’s answer to Jesus’ questions betray a superficial understanding of obedience (v. 20)?
5. How can wealth be dangerous to true religion?
6. How is God’s long-suffering shown in the fact that Jesus announces His passion on three different occasions?
7. How can we avoid ambition in its older definition (inordinate desire for honor) while embracing ambition as it is understood today?
8. What can we learn from Bartimaeus?