Jesus’s Most Important Redundant Words
It struck me recently that some of Jesus’ most important words for us today were arguably almost redundant when he first said them.
In Mark 10:1-12 (and Matthew 19:1-12), the Pharisees are trying to test Jesus. Desiring to catch him out, they bring up one of the big contentious issues of their day: divorce. Jesus’ response is well known. Rather than debate a point of law with the Pharisees, he goes back to creation, back to Genesis, to God’s design for marriage and makes his case from there.
Jesus’ basic point is simple enough. In marriage, God unites two to become one and no human should seek to separate what God has joined together. To support his case, he quotes Genesis 2:24, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh’. It’s this concept of the two becoming one flesh that Jesus is drawing on to support his position on divorce.
But Genesis 2:24 isn’t the only part of the creation narratives that Jesus quotes here. He also quotes Genesis 1:27, ‘God made them male and female’. Strictly speaking, as far as I can see, Jesus didn’t need to include that quote. His point about not separating what God has joined is rooted in Genesis 2:24, and Genesis 1:27 has nothing to add on that point. In formal terms, Jesus’ use of Genesis 1:27 in this conversation is redundant.
And yet, for us, the inclusion of this additional Genesis verse is vitally important. By quoting these words, Jesus gives us an insight into his perspective on two of the biggest debates of our day.
Sexuality and marriage
When Jesus thinks of marriage, he thinks of God’s creation of male and female. The juxtaposition of Genesis 1:27 – ‘male and female he created them’ – and Genesis 2:24 –‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife…’– shows that Jesus viewed the creation of two different types of human, men and women, as a key reason for the existence of marriage.
The fact that Jesus retains the original ‘Therefore’ at the beginning of his quote of Genesis 2:24, placed immediately after the quote of Genesis 1:27 in Mark’s account, further strengthens this point. The word ‘therefore’ means ‘this thing I’m going to say is true because of what I’ve just said’. The thing he’s going to say is that a man and woman unite in marriage. The thing he’s just said is that God created men and women. Jesus is saying that marriages exist because God created men and women. He couldn’t make it any clearer: he believes that marriage is, by definition, the union of a man and a woman.
This is of huge significance to us. At a time when the church is tearing itself apart over the question of whether to bless and accept romantic and sexual unions of two people of the same sex, we need to hear Jesus’s words. The claim that Jesus has nothing to say about same-sex marriage just isn’t true. When trying to help people understand what marriage really is, Jesus explicitly stated that it is the union of a man and a woman. He could have made this point simply by quoting Genesis 2:24. After all, the union in that verse is clearly of a man and a woman, and yet, he decided to put it beyond doubt by also quoting Genesis 1:27.
To be a follower of Jesus is to submit to him in our thinking and our living. Any person who wants to take following Jesus seriously has to take what he says here seriously when considering the topic of same-sex relationships.
Gender and identity
Jesus’ double Genesis quote also helps us understand how he would answer one of the most contested questions of our day: what does it mean to be a man or a woman?
One popular view in our culture says that to be a man or a woman is to feel like a man or a woman. Our bodies don’t reveal who we really are; only our internal experience of gender can do that. A popular move on this view is to make a separation between the terms male/female – which are thought to refer to body types – and man/woman – which refer to true identities, based on internal realities. So, you might be born with a male body, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a man. Only you can know who you are. What really matters is what you feel inside.
But Jesus’s words here show us that he sees no division between these two sets of terms. He places Genesis 1:27 – using the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’ – alongside Genesis 2:24 – using the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ – side by side, taking for granted that they refer to the same thing.1 Jesus saw no distinction between males/females and men/women. For him, to be a male is to be a man and to be a female is to be a woman.
And we can be confident that Jesus would have understood these words to refer to primarily bodily realities. In Genesis 1, the creation of humans as male and female (Genesis 1:27) flows immediately into the command to procreate (‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’, Genesis 1:28). Why? Because to be male or female means to have a body that is structured towards playing one of two roles in procreation. The Bible points to the same definition of maleness and femaleness as is used by biologists to classify creatures across the species.2
This means that Jesus’ words on marriage also offer us his perspective on one of the most contested questions of our day. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? For Jesus, it means to have a male or a female body. God determines who we are and communicates that to us through the body he gives us.3
Jesus offers us answers to the biggest questions of our day. Followers of Jesus need look no further than Jesus himself to find clear guidance on what marriage is and who we are as men and women. The implications of how we live this truth out may be a little more complex, but the truths themselves are made clear by Jesus, and all through a redundant quote from the Old Testament. Maybe Jesus knew his words wouldn’t prove to be redundant after all.
- 1 In Mark 10:7 and Matthew 19:5, the word translated ‘wife’ is the standard Greek word for ‘woman’ which, in certain contexts, can take on the meaning ‘wife’. The same is true of the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24.
- 2 Lawrence Mayer & Paul McHugh, ‘Sexuality and Gender Findings from the Biological, Psychological, and Social Sciences’, The New Atlantis 50 (2016) 10-143: ‘There is no other widely accepted biological classification for the sexes’ (p.90).
- 3 This remains true even when we acknowledge the reality of intersex conditions or differences of sexual development (DSDs). In most intersex conditions, an individual is clearly male or female with their body exhibiting only minor variations from the expected form. In cases where there is genuine ambiguity over biological sex, this is best understood as a very small number of people being a blend of both sexes. Importantly, there is no third body structure that can play a role in reproduction and so there is no third sex. For more, see Preston Sprinkle, ‘Intersex and Transgender Identities’, Living Out.