SOTM: Matthew 5:31-32 (Divorce, the Grammar)


(Mat 5:31-32 ESV) “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

“Marries” in v. 32 means, in the Greek, marries. Really. Therefore, if a divorced woman remarries, she really marries. There is nothing in the text suggesting that the marriage is void. Jesus says it’s a marriage, and therefore it’s a marriage.

“Divorces” in v. 32 means divorces. Really. The marriage is ended. Jesus is not saying that the original marriage continues. No, he quite plainly calls what happens a “divorce” not “an attempted divorce.”

“Sexual immorality” translates porneia, generally translated “fornication” or “sexual immorality.” It’s a bit surprising that Jesus doesn’t say “adultery,” and this has led to all sort of theories as to why. For example,

* Some take porneia to refer to incest, that is, any relationship that would make the marriage void under Torah, such as marrying a sister. But it’s far more likely that Jesus would have considered an incestuous marriage as no marriage at all. And this would have been a very unlikely circumstance among the Jews.

* Some take porneia to refer to the wife’s premarital sex, so that she comes to the marriage bed as a non-virgin. In such a case, the husband would have the right to divorce her or even have her stoned (Deu 22:20-21). Given that Deu 22:21 refers to the wife as guilty of ἐκπορνεῦσαι (ekporneusai), that is, whoring — an intensive form of porneia — the argument carries some weight.

* Some take porneia as referring to sexual sins that aren’t quite the same as adultery, as adultery was dealt with by capital punishment, not divorce. Hence, the word would pick up a woman being found in bed with a lover but with no proof of intercourse. And this is the majority view.

All of which brings us to “commit adultery.” I should first note that the verb is passive in both instances, which is nearly impossible to replicate in English, largely because we don’t have a single English word meaning “commit adultery.” In fact, to have a passive verb, you need a transitive verb meaning “commit adultery against.”

We might use a word such as “dishonor.” My wife dishonors me if she commits adultery against me. Thus, we could translate the passage —

31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her [to be dishonored] [Greek is a passive infinitive], and whoever marries a divorced woman [is dishonored] [Greek is a present passive or middle].”

The second occurrence of “commit adultery” in v. 32 raises the additional problem of being in form either passive or middle. Passive would be “is dishonored” as shown in the re-translation, but middle would be “dishonors” (intransitive) or even “dishonors himself,” although the middle voice is most typically translated intransitive in English.

In addition, we need to consider the mood, and in the first case, “commits adultery” or “to be dishonored” is in the aorist voice, referring to a particular moment (punctiliar) rather rather than continuous, and so the divorced woman is dishonored by the divorce itself and not the remarriage. Clearly, the grammar does not suit the theory that she commits adultery every time she has sex with her second husband. In fact, the text says she is sinned against (is dishonored) by the divorce, not by the remarriage.

The second occurrence of “commits adultery” is present tense indicative, and in the indicative mood, the present tense indicates neither continuous nor punctiliar time. Rather, it takes its sense of time from the context, and the context is clearly punctiliar. After all, “marries” is aorist (punctiliar), the first “commits adultery” is aorist, and “divorces,” although a present participle (is divorcing), clearly occurs at a point in time, not continuously. Hence, neither is the second husband charged with committing adultery whenever he has sex with his new wife. Whatever Jesus means, it’s a point-in-time event.

In short, the grammar plainly makes the divorce the moment when the wife is dishonored, that is, when she is sinned against — treated as though she were an adulteress even though she is not. It’s a sin committed just once — but nonetheless a most serious sin because its effect is continuous. When a man divorces his wife in that culture, without cause, she is sinned against both because she appears to have been an adulterous and, much more fundamentally, the husband has broken faith with her.

And this brings us to the meaning of “adultery.” Throughout the OT and the Gospels, “adultery” refers not only to the sexual sin but to breaking faith or violating covenant. For example,

(Jer 3:6-9 ESV) The LORD said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore?  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. 

(Mat 12:38-39 ESV) Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”  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. 

(Jam 4:4 ESV)  4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

As James shows, in Jesus’ context, “adultery” was a conventional idiom for being faithless to one’s covenant partner. It does not always refer to literal sex. Indeed, for the most obvious example of the metaphor, consider —

(Mat 5:27-28 ESV)  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  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.”

Jesus, in the same discussion, uses “adultery” to refer to a husband dwelling on the temptation to have sex with another woman. This is not literal adultery, but it’s a sin of the same nature.

And so, when Jesus says that the husband who divorces his wife without cause, causes her to have adultery committed against her (infinitive, passive, aorist) or “to be dishonored,” Jesus is not speaking of literal adultery but a sin of the same nature.

Remember: in these verses, Jesus is not making new law. He’s reading existing law more correctly — getting to the heart of God’s will as revealed in Torah. Therefore, he says, if it’s wrong to violate your covenant with your wife by having sex with another woman, then it’s also wrong to divorce her without cause — in order to have sex with another woman. Going through the formality of a divorce before you sin against her might satisfy the legalistic mind, but it’s still a sin against her — and obviously so.

Jesus is extending his earlier discussion of lust and the eyes. If you are married to a woman, and you allow yourself to lust after another woman, you do not make it right by divorcing her and then marrying the new woman before having sex with her. The divorce is just as adulterous as lusting after the other woman was — you’re not being faithful to your wife, and the divorce does not make it okay.

No other interpretation fits the context or the grammar.

But what about the second husband? Well, he is said to be “dishonored,” present, passive, indicative. Grammatically, this happens at the moment of the second marriage. Why? Well, the subject of the verb is the first husband. How has he dishonored the second husband? By making it appear that the wife is an adulteress and that the second husband is the one with whom she committed adultery. Thus, one Greek dictionary defines the word as —

become an outcast, formally, “become adultered”; note if the prior verses are taken as passives, then the person becomes a social and moral outcast

James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament), 1997. Lenski’s commentary on Matthew concurs.

And so, the old teaching that the marriage has not ended and so the wife commits adultery every time she has sex with her new husband, even though she is plainly the party sinned against, is simply not to be found in the text. This interpretation goes back to the decisions of the Council of Trent and fits with the mindset of Medieval Catholic Scholasticism very well, but it’s foreign to the words of Jesus — and even more importantly, to the heart of God.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:31-32 (Divorce, the Grammar)

  1. Gary says:

    Jay, I agree with your analysis. It is reasonable, straightforward and takes Jesus’ words seriously. Yet strangely your analysis would have been rejected out-of-hand by almost all Christians for centuries. The abhorrence of divorce and remarriage brought about in England a break with Rome and creation of the Anglican tradition as well as the beheading of several wives of Henry VIII (rather than simply divorcing them). Less than a century ago King Edward of Great Britain had to give up his throne because he chose to marry a divorced woman. How times have changed! Today we basically have no fault divorce. Divorced and remarried couples are now accepted without question or inquiry in mainline Churches of Christ as well as in most other denominations.

    A similar transition is beginning in Western Christianity regarding same-sex marriages. Conservatives will disagree with the reasoning but the reasoning in favor of the biblical legitimacy of same-sex marriages is much like your reasoning regarding divorce and remarriage. Paul’s words in Romans 1 can be treated with complete seriousness and respect and yet be limited in their application to heterosexuals who exchange or give up their heterosexuality for homosexuality. Conservatives aren’t ready to accept this understanding but it is reasonable, straightforward and takes Paul’s words seriously. This interpretation is gaining adherents with each passing day and will be the majority interpretation in our lifetimes.

    Most interestingly, your understanding of divorce and remarriage and my understanding of same-sex marriages both honor the foundational principles of Genesis 2:18. Those principles are that God has made us in such a way that it is not good for us to be alone and that he wants each of us to be able to have a suitable and appropriate life companion in marriage.

  2. [Any reason why your site comes up in mobile version half the time; makes it tough to read. Oh, well]

    Any thoughts on the view some espouse (no pun intended) that “divorce” actually means “put away”? I’ve heard some strong arguments on that, but haven’t been able to reach a personal conclusion.

  3. [Just found out that commenting forces it into regular view. I’ll just have to comment on every post! 🙂 ]

  4. Dwight says:

    In the Jewish world and in the scriptures one could be man and wife before being married. Man an dwife was when the two who were under the covenant/contractual relationship, but marriage was when they actually came together in union as one. In betrothment two became man and wife and one could commit adultery and be divorced even in that state even before they married. This concept is consistent through out the scriptures from OT to NT.
    Only divorce for the cause of fornication allowed them to remarry as this severed the man and wife state, but if they divorced for any other cause one of them committed adultery if they remarried another. We identify adultery as a sexual union outside of the marriage, so in Matt.5 when they divorce for any other cause than fornication and remarry they commit adultery because they are technically man and wife, but one of them is forming a sexual union outside of that which hasn’t been dissolved due to divorce for the cause of fornication.

  5. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Post on putting away will show up in a day or two.

    Mobile problem is new. I’ll look into it.

  6. laymond says:

    Whoever wishes to answer, If you drive your new $60,000 car to church, are you liable for causing “lust” ? one can lust for most anything.

  7. Profile photo of josh josh says:

    I’ve had the site come up mobile for quite some time. I assumed it was due to my internet connection. I’ve had the first page come up mobile, but the 2cnd page be normal, or the other way around or the blog article will be mobile or whatever. I use Chrome, but like I said, my issue could be on my end – although this is the only site where I’ve had the issue.

  8. Dwight says:

    Laymond, Is it a Aston-Martin or Mercedes Benz? Maybe, but generally most men don’t lust after a car on the same level as a woman, especially as you start reducing the clothing on her. While we can lust for everything and we do, just a search for car web sites as opposed to porn web sites itself and the continual visiting should show you the difference.
    Now having said that the burden of lust is placed on the one who lust, but the burden of not being a stumbling block can be on the one who is lust after if they make themselves such. Lewdness is listed as sin and what is lewdness..being lewd, which is obscene/ vulgar or syn.bawdy, blue, coarse, crude, dirty, filthy, foul, gross, gutter, impure, indecent, lascivious, obscene, nasty, pornographic, porny, profane, raunchy, ribald, smutty, trashy, unprintable, vulgar, wanton, X-rated
    Now in I Tim.2:9 a woman is warned against being immodest, but this has to do with a richness of clothing, as opposed to a common wear. This should warn us against over dressing, but strangley church is the place where you are encouraged to dress to impress.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    I always use chrome and it has been going to mobile periodically for probably a year, I get around it by clicking on menu then home usually straightens it out, while in mobile the recent comments are not available. Something I would like to see is a longer list of recent comments, when many comments are arriving in a short time it is sometimes a chore to back track to the last you have read even if you are being able to read every day. If you would perhaps not be able to read them for a week, I believe some comments would have slipped through and would never be located.

  10. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    I’ve made some changes in the mobile theme. I do not get the mobile theme on my computer – Windows 8.1 in Chrome, IE, or Firefox. Let me know if you still have problems.

  11. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:


    In reference to the SOTM series and the MDR question from March 2016, here is an article by Carroll Osborn in the Restoration Quarterly titled, “The Present Indicative in Matthew 19:9.”

    I actually found this article referenced in the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Matthew by Grant Osborne. Surprising.

    Carroll Osborn writes:

    Thus in Greek one seldom knows apart from the context whether the pres. indic. means I walk or I am walking. In other moods than indic., of course, the problem does not arise. . . . One must always bear that in mind for exegesis.”

    Thus, while it is true that in moods other than the indicative the present tense denotes continuing action, in the indicative mood itself no distinction can be drawn from the mood between the action which is continuing and that which is not. By way of analogy, the familiar present indicative in 1 John 3:9 hamartian ou poiei, “does not continue to sin,” derives its continuity not from the mood, but from the following hamartanein, a present infinitive which cannot mean other than “is not able to continue in sin.” Similarly, in 1 John 3:8, hamartanei, a present indicative, is used to mean that “the Devil continues to sin,” but the continuity involved derives not from the present indicative, but from the attendant ap arches, “from the beginning.” Too, 1 John 1:7 is understood correctly to mean “the blood of Jesus his Son continues to cleanse us from each sin,” but any attempt to base that continuity upon the present indicative is an abuse of Greek syntax. In this, as in the other examples, it is the context which must settle the matter of whether continuity is involved.

    And later:

    Thus it cannot be said that the present indicative in Matthew 19:9, or any other Greek text, “cannot mean other than continuous action,” for any such argument blatantly disregards the several idiomatic uses of the present indicative in which continuity is not explicit. Greek syntax requires that each occurrence of the present indicative be understood in terms of its context to determine whether continuity is involved. The context of Matthew 9:3-12 involves a discussion of a general truth, and in Jesus’ statement of that truth moichatai must be taken as a “gnomic present” in which continuity is not under consideration. Now continuity may or may not be involved, but it is not legitimate to appeal to the Greek present indicative to assert that it must be involved.

  12. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks. I’ll make sure this is referenced in my ebook.

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