I’ve gotten this question from a number of readers lately. It seems there’s a fresh questioning of the traditional view blowing across the Churches — a very good thing.
I have read your book, “But If You Do Marry,” and wanted to ask how you came to the conclusion that adultery is “covenant breaking.” It has troubled me that the traditional approach seems to present a double standard for this sin, requiring celibacy for the “guilty party,” but I couldn’t deny that the lexicons define adultery as “sexual intercourse involving someone who is not one’s spouse.” Can you tell me what convinced you to view adultery instead as the “one time” sin of covenant breaking rather than the potentially “continuous” sexual sin?
Dictionary definition or metaphor?
Well, there are several reasons. (And this won’t strictly follow the book, which I wrote many years ago.) Let’s start with some context. How else is “adultery” used in Matthew?
(Mat 12:39 ESV) 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.”
(Mat 15:19 ESV) 19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”
(Mat 16:4 ESV) 4 “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” So he left them and departed.
(Mat 19:9 ESV) 9 “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
(Mat 19:18-19 ESV) 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Clearly, Jesus sometimes uses “adultery” in a figurative sense and sometimes in a literal sense. His figures of speech borrow heavily from the Old Testament, in which covenant breaking by Israel is often referred to as “adultery.” For example,
(Jer 3:7-10 ESV) 7 “And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. 8 She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the LORD.”
(Eze 23:37 ESV) 37 For they have committed adultery, and blood is on their hands. With their idols they have committed adultery, and they have even offered up to them for food the children whom they had borne to me.
Therefore, the dictionary definition does not control. That’s the whole point of a metaphor — what is being described is like the dictionary definition but not literally the same. This is always the case in figurative language.
Moreover, when Matthew first quotes Jesus’ speaking about divorce and remarriage, he immediately precedes the discussion with Jesus’ teaching on lust–
(Mat 5:28-29 ESV) 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
Jesus speaks of “adultery” and yet is plainly using the word in a non-literal sense. First, adultery can only literally speak to a married man or woman, and obviously enough lust is also a problem for single men. Is Jesus intending for “adultery” to be taken so literally that the lust of unmarried men isn’t in mind?
Well, yes and no. Obviously, the principle applies to single men, but I believe Jesus is setting up the next passage, to make the point that a married man has no business looking for his next wife while married to his first wife. His covenant of faithfulness to his bride includes faithful eyes (metaphor for the heart or the intentions of the mind) as well as faithful genitalia. It’s not enough to divorce your wife before having sex with your girlfriend. You commit “adultery” when you allow yourself to be attracted to another woman while married.
When read this way, we immediately see that Jesus is remaining true to the Old Testament context. He is speaking of Deut 24 —
(Deu 24:1-4 ESV) “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”
If a husband divorces his wife and she remarries, he may not remarry her after her second husband dies or divorces her. This seems to ban wife-swapping practices. It preserves the dignity of the wife as someone who can’t be traded back and forth for sexual favors, like a prostitute. Going through the legality of a formal divorce does not sanctify the abuse of your wife.
(And this passage also prohibits what some preachers insist on: divorcing a spouse in order to return to the first spouse.)
With this in mind, Matthew 5 becomes much more clear. We should take Jesus to be commenting on an abusive interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. He is, after all, in the midst of a discussion of how to read the Torah more truly.
He is discussing what is unfaithfulness to your wife. Hence, while you’re married, you may not be shopping for your next wife, forming romantic relationships, or even looking lustfully at other women. Don’t even think about sex with other women! And therefore don’t use Deuteronomy 24 as somehow justifying putting your wife away to marry someone else.
That’s the main point, in light of the Old Testament background and the immediate context of Matthew 5. (Today is not the day to discuss the exception clause; but that’s not the point. It’s an exception to the point. The point is to be faithful to your wife, even to the point of not desiring other women.)
If that’s a correct interpretation, then Jesus would want a newly divorced couple to reconcile. The husband may not put away his wife and then marry the woman he fell in love with while still married to his first wife. The divorce does not sanctify his unfaithfulness to his wife.
Therefore, as Paul urged,
(1Co 7:10-11 ESV) 10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
That is, neither the husband nor the put-away wife should remarry, because to do so prevents reconciliation — and leads to the temptation to put away a wife to marry someone the husband had no business becoming attracted to while married to his first wife.
But there does come a point where reconciliation is impossible. The point is not that a divorced person may never remarry, but that you should not divorce in order to remarry because you have no business being unfaithful to your wife, even in your secret thoughts.
In Matt 5:28, Jesus’ point is not that actual adultery has taken place but that something just like adultery has taken place. You can’t commit actual adultery in your heart. Adultery is, by definition, a physical action. No sex = no literal adultery.
Hence, in Matt 5:28, by “adultery” Jesus means “unfaithfulness.” And to someone steeped in the language of the Old Testament, “unfaithfulness” is “covenant breaking.” And unfaithfulness is also the concept underlying Deut 24: you may not pretend to be faithful to your wife by using the divorce laws to sanctify wife-swapping. She is entitled to much more than that from you.
Thus, we should read Matt 5:32 this way:
(Mat 5:32 ESV) 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her [unfaithful to her marriage covenant], and whoever marries a divorced woman [makes her unfaithful to her marriage covenant].
So does the grammar support such an interpretation? Yes.
The first “commits adultery” phrase is best translated “makes her the victim of adultery” according to the New International Commentary —
[Makes her the victim of adultery] is the natural meaning of the passive of μοιχεύω, which is generally used in both classical and biblical Greek as an active (or middle) verb with the woman as direct object (where the woman is the subject in Jer 3:9; Hos. 4:13–14 the verb is active, not passive as here); note LXX Lev 20:10, where the man and the woman are described as ὁ μοιχεύων καὶ ἡ μοιχευομένη (the previous clauses having spoken of a man who μοιχεύσηται someone else’s wife, accusative case); the verb has just been used in that way in v. 28, with the woman (αὐτήν) as direct object. The more traditional translation “causes her to become an adulteress” (on the assumption that her assumed subsequent remarriage makes her party to an adulterous act; so BDAG 657a), thus depends on an unnatural sense for the passive.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007).
μοιχάομαι (moichaomai), μοιχάω (moichaō): vb.; ≡ Str 3429; TDNT 4.729—1. LN 88.276 (dep.) commit adultery (Mt 5:32; 19:9; Mk 10:11, 12+); 2. cf. LN 88.289–88.318 become an outcast, formally, “become adultered”; note if the prior verses are taken as passives, then the person becomes a social and moral outcast, for another interp, see prior
James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
And so, my interpretation — “makes her unfaithful to her marriage covenant” — is supported by the Greek because the verb is passive. The passive of “commits adultery” is difficult to translate because English offers no passive verb for “commits adultery.” If we were to use “adulter” to mean “commit adultery” then the translation would be “be adultered.” Or perhaps we could translate “covenant-violate” for “commit adultery,” making the passive “be covenant-violated.”
In both cases, the verb is passive, so that the person spoken about — the divorced wife or her second husband — is the object of the verb, with the person guilty of adultery being the first husband who wrongfully put her away.
The first use of “commit adultery” (one word in the Greek) is aorist and hence punctiliar, that is, it refers to an event happening once rather than continuously. Hence, the sin against the wife occurs at a moment in time, and not continuously as she engages in sex with her second husband. This further supports the translation as covenant violation or unfaithfulness rather than “engages in illicit sex.”
The second use of “commit adultery” is present tense, passive, which may be linear or continuous, but does not have to be. The durative nature of the verb is taken from context.
Given that “divorces” and the first use of the verb are aorist, and hence plainly referring to a singular event (not a lifetime of activity), the context insists that the second use of “commits adultery” is not continuous but refers to the end result of the divorce (point in time) and the wife’s being subjected to unfaithfulness (point in time). See Carroll Osburn, “The Present Indicative in Matt 19:9,” Restoration Quarterly, Vol 24, No. 4, 1981.
Now, there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. What is clear is that the early church never required a divorced and remarried couple to divorce or become celibate in marriage as a condition to baptism. And yet divorce was a common practice in the Roman Empire. The early church did not read Jesus and Paul as declaring an improper divorce as void and so making a second marriage null.
Moreover, the use of the aorist voice in reference to the put-away wife’s “adultery” clearly contradicts the notion that she is committing adultery against her first husband each time she has sex with her second husband. That is plainly not the meaning.
And I believe we err when we take Jesus’ words out of the immediate context (dealing with lusting while married) and the larger scriptural context (especially Deut 24, prohibiting remarrying a former wife who remarried after being put away). Whatever our understanding might be, it has to fit within this context — rather than assuming that Jesus was legislating a new law contrary to his declaration —
(Mat 5:17-19 ESV) 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. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is not writing new legislation but explaining how the Torah should be interpreted in light of Kingdom ethics. And this forces us to interpret in light of Deuteronomy 24 and all the rest of the Old Testament — and the Old Testament plainly allows remarriage after a divorce.
Divorce is contrary to God’s will and the relationship of husbands and wives found in Genesis 2, as Jesus explains in Matthew 19, but we still have hard hearts and a divorce still ends a marriage and so allows remarriage.
Jesus is not banning remarriage, but teaching the wrongfulness of divorce — and more importantly — the attitudes that lead to divorce.
It is also important to notice that in the present passage the mention of divorce comes between two other issues, both of which are in some ways more basic. It may be stating the obvious to point out that if people knew how to control their bodily lusts on the one hand (verses 27–30), and were committed to complete integrity and truth-telling on the other (verses 33–37), there would be fewer, if any, divorces. Divorce normally happens when lust and lies have been allowed to grow up like weeds and choke the fragile and beautiful plant of marriage.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 47.
To cover the other relevant passages would, of course, require a book.