Matthew 19:1-12Theme: An unbreakable covenant.This week’s lessons teach us about the permanence of marriage. LessonHere is where the chief difficulty comes for our being guided by this text. It is clear that Jesus calls remarriage after divorce adultery, forbidding it. But then he added what is usually referred to as the exception clause. “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9). Most people today understand “marital unfaithfulness” to mean adultery and conclude that this is the one valid grounds for divorce, since adultery will already have broken the relationship.
This is the majority view even among the most conservative commentators, at least in our day. But I want to argue strongly that this interpretation is wrong and that it is not what Jesus was referring to when he said “except for marital unfaithfulness.”
The Greek word for adultery is moicheia. It is the equivalent in Greek of the Latin words ad alterius torum, which mean “to another’s bed.” We have condensed the three Latin words into our single word “adultery.” This is what moicheia means, but it is not the word in this passage. The word that occurs here is porneia, which most older versions of the Bible rightly translate as “fornication.” It is broader than moicheia. Porneia refers to different kinds of sexual sin. It is based on the verb pernemi (“to sell”), referring to prostitution, first of all, but then also to other kinds of sexual conduct outside of marriage. The Latin term fornix has the same meaning. It refers to the arch of a temple which was where the temple courtesans collected. It has given us the word “fornication.”
If Jesus was referring to adultery as the one legitimate ground for a person getting a divorce, the text should have the word moicheia. That it does not suggests that we should look elsewhere for Jesus’ meaning.
What can that be? I would suggest that if the exception clause does not refer to adultery, the only thing it can reasonably be thought to refer to is impurity in the woman discovered on the first night of the marriage, in which case there would have been deceit in the marriage contract. Jesus would be saying (in full accord with the accepted views of the day) that although a man may divorce a woman immediately after marriage if he finds her not to be a virgin (in which case he was allowed by the law to remarry and was not to be called an adulterer), he is not permitted to divorce her for any other reason. If he does, he forces her into a position in which she may be forced to remarry, thereby becoming an adulteress, and he would become an adulterer if he remarried.
This is also the true meaning of the passage from Deuteronomy. The word translated “something indecent” (NIV) or “some uncleanness” (KJV) in verse 1 is actually the word for nakedness or nudity. It was associated with being unclothed for the purpose of sexual relations and thus also often with sexual sin or impurity, which is the case here. It cannot refer to adultery because adultery was punishable by death, if it was proved, and in that case there would be no need for a divorce. If the word does not refer to adultery, which is sexual sin after marriage, the only thing it can refer to is sexual sin before marriage, which is what we mean by fornication. In other words, Jesus was reinforcing the Old Testament’s teaching by his interpretation of Moses’ specific “divorce” regulation.
Someone may object that fornicators were also put to death in Israel. But although that was true for some types of unchastity before marriage, it was not true for all. If a girl had been sexually abused or simply unchaste before there had been an engagement, she was not punished by death and was free to marry, though the impurity had to be made known to the prospective groom beforehand.
Why does Dr. Boice hold a narrow view of reasons for divorce?
What is significant about the difference between the meaning of “adultery” and the meaning of “fornication”?
ReflectionWhy is this discussion of the clarity of the language important?
Exciting changes are coming to Think and Act Biblically! James Boice’s ministry continues today in multiple media formats, and the Think and Act Biblically devotional is only one. Starting Monday, July 7th, we will be syncing the radio broadcast The Bible Study Hour with this devotional. That means that the message you can listen to on Sunday will be expanded and further exegeted throughout the following week. Keep your eyes open for that change, and listen to The Bible Study Hour!