Scripture quotations taken from the NASB

Matthew 5:32 versus 1 Corinthians 7:28


Perhaps you're being forced to think about the subject and are desperate for an answer regarding your situation. It's unlikely you have the luxury of reading numerous books on the topic or the time to talk to a wide cross-section of counselors. If you did you'd discover that there are various interpretations of the relevant verses. Maybe each opinion covers its own unique situation. However, God has a straightforward answer because it's important. You must choose the best exegesis for the right solution. You have the help of the Holy Spirit because "His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie" (1Jo 2:27).

This booklet is to stimulate thinking and to shorten the discovery period. Otherwise, you may become disheartened when you come across interpretations such as "the Bible says its adultery so you sin if you do such-and-such." There is enough guilt already and a person honestly seeking answers will be further depressed by legalistic pronouncements which communicate condemnation.

Pharisees Test

Jesus deals with divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:3-23, Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18. His teaching was in response to the Pharisees' question about Deuteronomy 24:1-4. His answer quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. The references are from the Torah which is the Law from the first five books of the Old Testament.

Matthew 5:32 says "'everyone who divorces his wife . . . makes her commit adultery.'" The Pharisees tested Jesus on this because it seemed to contradict Moses' permission to divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. In Matthew 19:3 they asked "'Is it lawful?'" Their question on the subject is logical because in a similar Luke 16:18 context there is a connection regarding the Law. Luke 16:17 says "'it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.'" Was the Pharisees' purpose to get Jesus embroiled in controversy regarding divorce for "'any reason at all'" (Mt 19:3)? Perhaps the test was if Jesus said Moses was wrong then he would be seen as invalidating the Old Testament.

Jesus' response to their question was "'Have you not read?'" (Mt 19:4). He then refers them to Genesis. God's will is expressed in creation. Similarly his commandments communicate his intentions. So when you are in agreement "this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments" (1Jo 5:3). It becomes a matter of attitude and "doing the will of God from your heart" (Eph 6:6). It is indeed a matter of the heart. Jesus explained that the reason Moses gave was "because of your hardness of heart" (Mt 19:8).

Answered Them

The Pharisees questioned "whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife" (Mk 10:2). Undoubtedly they had heard Jesus teach about it. You could expect that his answer would be based upon scripture, for in Matthew 4:4 when he was tempted by the devil, his response was "'It is written.'" Additionally his statement on divorce is preceded in Matthew 5:31 by "'It was said'" and introduced by "'but I say to you'" in verse 32. There Jesus is not rewriting scripture but rather reaffirming it. However, is he giving it a more modern spin, or only reemphasizing existing truths which the current society has lost sight of?

Jesus answer to the Pharisees in Mark 10:11-12 was that adultery would occur. Jesus quotes Genesis as a basis for his answer to the Pharisees' question. It seems that the Pharisees got more than they bargained for. He cited Genesis 1:27 saying "male and female He created them." How would this answer the question of whether a divorce certificate is valid? The answer also requires Genesis 2:24. It says "for this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." Is this all they needed to know? Why weren't other verses included? Jesus quoted the last part of Genesis 1:27 but the first part which says "God created man in His own image" was left out. Also, Genesis 2:18-23 wasn't quoted either. It seems that they would be integral parts of the explanation. But maybe the essence of the answer is within Jesus' brief quotes themselves. However, proper exegesis demands that the context be considered. Perhaps the parts not quoted are implied and it was not necessary to include them all.

Created Them

If we decide the first half of verse 27 is necessary then we must evaluate it. God created man in his image. But in Genesis 3:19 God said to Adam that he was created from the dust of the earth. Obviously dust in not God's image. Genesis 2:7 says God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." It seems likely that God's image relates more to spiritual existence than merely physical.

Genesis 2:18-23 is in context with verse 2:24. "The Lord God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him'" (:18). She would be created from Adam's rib (:21) rather than from the ground Adam came from (3:19). The origin of the woman was from the only representative of the same species and God "named them Man" (5:2). But Eve was a helper in her own right because she was named so since she would become "the mother of all the living" (3:20). When God "brought her to the man" [Adam said] "'This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man'" (2:22-23).

God Joins

"In the beginning God created" (Ge 1:1). Jesus said "'from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female" (Mk 10:6). How long ago was the beginning? I wonder how long Adam had been alone before it was decided that being alone was not good (Ge 2:18)? Genesis 2:15 says God put Adam in the Garden of Eden to tend it. He even named the animals God brought to him (2:19). It is said that a dog is "man's best friend." But even it couldn't alleviate Adam's loneliness. When Adam was by himself God told him not to eat of certain trees (2:17). Eve was not present to hear this which may have been instrumental in her being deceived.

Jesus concludes his answer with "'they are no longer two, but one'" (Mt 19:6). Adam confirmed it saying Eve was "'bone of my bones'" (Ge 2:23). Hebrews 4:12 says God's word divides between the soul and spirit as if separating the joints and marrow. The marrow is the life-producing part in the innermost area of the bone. Therefore they shared the gift of life. Malachi said "Have we not all one Father? Did not God create us" (Mal 2:10)? "Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his" (2:15).

Jesus continues saying, "'Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate'" (Mt 19:6). What is now one due to God's work should not be undone. There is a sense that you cannot destroy something that God has created to be permanent. Genesis 2:24 says that a man leaves his father and mother. God had removed the rib from man (:22) and with it created the woman and Adam was to be "joined to his wife" (:24). Life is propagated by an unbroken leaving and uniting process.

The answer was immediately understood by the Pharisees. Their reply was to ask why then was Moses permitted to approve the use of the divorce certificate in the first place (Mt 19:7)? Why does it seem more difficult for us to understand today? It's because their advantage is that they were raised in Jewish society. Jesus was speaking to them as Paul "spoke to them who knew the law" (Ro 7:1). Jesus had only offered a few quotes but they knew what it meant.

God Unites

What does joining together to become one entail? The first phase might include how God prepares and introduces the two people in the first place. You could say it would involve the courtship and marriage ceremony experience. The second phase would include the maturation of the personal relationship over time. Such an interdependent relationship is the foundation of the family. This is why the Pharisees discerned that divorce was contrary to God's design.

Are there any Old Testament patterns that illustrate how God joins people together? In Genesis 24 there is the story of Isaac and Rebekah. God had given Abraham a promise regarding his offspring (:7). Because of this Abraham said to his servant that God would "'send His angel before you, and you will take a wife for my son from there'" (:7). "All who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God" (Ro 8:14). It is the Lord who makes a journey a success (Ge 24:21). This would apply to any Christian's life.

The journey begins with prayer. The servant prayed for God to make him successful (:12). We are to present our requests to God (Php 4:6). The servant was specific with his request because he asked "'may it be'" (Ge 24:14) in the situation he was in. Then it was God's turn to select "'the one you whom You have appointed'" (:14). There is a parallel with Adam and Eve where God "brought her to the man" (2:22). Finally you must watch closely to see what God does (24:21).

At some point a recognition by faith in the quest is offered such as the ring and bracelets (:22) and a confession that the "'the Lord has guided me'" (:27) is spoken. Details are shared with the other party because we see that Rebekah told her brother "'This is what the man said to me'" (:30). The opportunity to agree or disagree follows. The servant said "'tell me; and if not, let me know, that I may turn to the right hand or the left'" (:49). Their answer was "'The matter comes from the Lord'" (:50). At this point it was acknowledged that "'the Lord has prospered my way'" (:56). Then it was time to ask Rebekah "'Will you go'" (:58) and she said "'I will'" (:58).

By Covenant

The story ends when Isaac brought Rebekah into the tent (Ge 24:67). There is no ceremony mentioned. But we must be careful to observe the customs to properly understand how God joins. In Israel there were agreements between the families of the betrothed as well as the individuals themselves. Engagement was equivalent to marriage in many ways. In Genesis 29:19 Jacob made an agreement with Laban to marry his daughter. When the proper time had passed he said "'Give me my wife, for my time is completed'" (:21) A feast was given (:22) and a bridal week followed (:27).

Where are they scripturally joined? Malachi 2:14 explains that "she is your companion and your wife by covenant." A marriage covenant is more than a temporary convenience covered by a prenuptial agreement. When two parties made mutual promises to each other in the Old Testament they formally walked between two halves of an animal sacrifice (Ge 15:9-11). That sealed a contract which had certain terms. However, with marriage the person pledges his whole self. Hebrews 13:4 says "marriage is to be held in honor among all." Then God becomes a witness (Mal 2:14). Jesus became a witness when he observed "'you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband'" (Jn 4:18). It seems that the first five fulfilled the marriage vows whereas with the last they were unmarried.


Ezekiel 17 is a good example of a covenant. The king of Babylon made a treaty with Israel and it was executed by an oath (:13). But Israel's leader despised the oath and broke the treaty (:16). He broke the covenant (:18). "Will he who does such things escape" (:15)? "He shall not escape" (:18).

Israel was in a covenant relationship with God. "'My covenant . . . they broke . . . [even though] I was a husband to them'" (Jer 31:32). Israel ignored God's warnings, rejected his precepts, turned to idols, and behaved as other nations did (2Ki 17:15). In Malachi 2:10 they profaned the covenant of their fathers. It was a lasting covenant and was to have been propagated via the progeny of Israel because God was "seeking a godly offspring" (:15). But the covenant was broken by intermarriage (:11). Does this qualify as officially breaking the contract? In Jeremiah 33:20-21 God says if the terms of a covenant are violated then "'My covenant may also be broken.'"

In a marriage covenant there are guidelines (Jer 11:6). It is a covenant of love to be obeyed wholeheartedly (1Ki 8:23). It is kept by paying attention to the duties of the covenant (Jer 11:10) and by not forgetting the promises made (Ps 103:18). But it can be undermined by the wrong attitude (1Ki 11:11) and an unfaithful heart (Ps 78:37). This leads to forgetting the promises (Dt 4:23) and rebelling against the agreement (Hos 8:1). Then the violator will reject the other party and turn away (Dt 31:20).

Becoming One

The "one concept" is imbedded in God's creation. It was Jesus' desire to promulgate unity by giving them glory "that they may be one, just as We are one" (Jn 17:22). This involves a higher spiritual principle. Ephesians 2:15 says his purpose is "so that in Himself He might make the two into one man." Christ "nourishes and cherishes" (5:29) the church since "we are members of His body" (:30). In the same way "husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies" (:28). Husband and wife should be like "Christ and the church" (:32). "He who loves his own wife loves himself" (:28). This is similar to one of the two commandments upon which the Law and Prophets depend (Mt 22:40). It is "'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (:39).

Unity is the objective. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh" (Eph 5:31). The purpose of Christ caring for his body, the church, is the reason why the man leaves parents and unites with his wife. Paul says it is a "mystery" (:32). Furthermore, it is the same reason Jesus gave the Pharisees that divorce was unscriptural when he quoted Genesis 2:24. This quote is identical to Paul's in Ephesians 5:31. The two reasons are synonymous. Being a member of Christ's body is why a divorce between Christians is prohibited. So does such a divorce presume that the parties have lost sight of their standing and purpose in Christ?

A Mystery

Perhaps this is too hard for many to accomplish because the "mystery is great" (Eph 5:32). Is it too much to ask to live "'on earth as it is in heaven'" (Mt 6:10)? Maybe you'd have to be like Paul who wished "that all men were even as I myself am" (1Co 7:7). Even Matthew 22:30 states that a heavenly existence will be achieved where they will be "'like angels in heaven.'" Is it important to be aware of your spiritual existence? Romans 8:27 says there is a "mind of the Spirit", and a mind denotes intelligence. "'God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit'" (Jn 4:24). This implies you have spiritual intelligence which goes beyond the physical brain to accomplish things like loving your wife and neighbor as yourself.

There is other knowledge available so the mystery doesn't overwhelm you. First Corinthians 15:45 says "'The first man, Adam, became a living soul.' The last Adam became a life-giving spirit." But James 2:26 points out that "the body without the spirit is dead." That means that man has a spiritual dimension that transcends the body. Furthermore, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 "may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete." The body and spirit are distinctive parts. Something to think about is that since the spirit has intelligence, what you know and have become will be taken with you to heaven (or hell) afterwards.

The mystery must be taken out of it. You have heard it said that a successful marriage takes work. In our society people go to their daily work. A Christian's work is to "'believe in him'" (Jn 6:29) and his daily steps are a "walk by faith" (2Co 5:7). Therefore a good marriage is a regular exercise of daily faith. But "faith, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas 2:17) so "do not deal treacherously" (Mal 2:16).

What composes the works that will sustain a marriage? Ephesians 5:33 mentions the main ingredient. "Each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband." Without love you generate only noise (1Co 13:1). Therefore "live by faith" (Gal 2:20) which works through love (5:6). Love is insurance that you don't break the faith that Malachi warned about. First Corinthians 13:13 says there is "faith, hope and love . . . but the greatest of these is love."

By Cleaving

Genesis 2:24 directs a couple to cleave to each other in order to become one flesh. The meaning of "cleave" is to glue together. The process begins by them choosing to be together, promising that they will fulfill the covenant, and trusting that each will do his best. They will then function as one. God, also, is at work in this joining process as "a cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart" (Ecc 4:12).

It is worth considering whether being "one flesh" is literal or figurative. "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband" (1Co 7:4). It is a matter of ownership. "You are not your own" (6:19). "You have been bought with a price" (:20). Closeness and interdependence bonds a marriage together. There is the "natural use of the woman (Romans 1:27)" which synergistically makes the two one flesh. This is brought out in an unusual way. 1 Corinthians 6:16 says sexual relations with a prostitute joins them in one body. Even though there is a connotation of one literal body it makes more sense to regard it as figuratively representing a commitment between two people which brings them closely together. So when "one flesh" is used in Genesis and the Gospels it is a figure of speech denoting oneness.

Both Jesus and Paul quoted "a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh" (Gen 2:24). But we just saw that joining with a prostitute unifies their bodies. How can becoming one body be put in the same class as becoming one flesh? Perhaps an alternate definition applies to Paul's use. Nevertheless, we do get an insight from this dichotomy. Matthew identifies it. In verse 5:32 he says that unfaithfulness is grounds for a valid divorce. A husband (or wife) joining in one body with a person they're not married to causes the one flesh union to be broken. That shows how important the physical union is. It is a reflection of the state of the other ingredients in the marriage. Divorcing someone itself would be equivalent to the physical violation. So if the Exception Clause enables a person to extradite himself, why wouldn't a divorce by the other person free the innocent party from culpability as well?

Disciples Say

After answering the Pharisees the disciples questioned Jesus further. His answer was "'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery'" (Mk 10:11-12). Their reply was "'If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry'" (Mt 19:10). Jesus' use of the word "adultery" appeals to what he knew it would communicate to his audience. The disciples got the message but they overreacted. Jesus used figures of speech consistently in his teaching. When Jesus said "'Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep'" (Jn 11:11) the disciples responded "'Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover'" (:12). Jesus then clarified "'Lazarus is dead'" (:14). He also had to quash their reaction to his statement on divorce by saying it is "'given'" (Mt 19:11) to most to be married. He didn't respond by warning that when you do marry, make sure that it is for life, because you will go to hell if you divorce your wife. If that had been his meaning then committing adultery might refer to sexual acts of it. Jesus is not being so picayune that he is isolating a sexual act in this scenereo and magnifying it to make a point, but is figuratively using the word to show how serious it all is.

Consider what the disciples would conclude after they had a chance to contemplate what Jesus said. They would realize that it was wrong to be divorcing for superfluous reasons and that it would be equivalent to committing adultery. Their statement of not marrying at all would be interpreted as being the only practical way of avoiding the consequences. Does the context say that a divorce in the reestablished scheme of things would not be honored and that in a succeeding marriage they would be "living in adultery" because the original would still be in effect? Some would say that it is impossible to break a marriage covenant because that is why it is said that adultery occurs as a consequence of a divorce and remarriage since they must be still married for adultery to occur by definition. It doesn't appear to say that, or even imply that each occurrence of sexual relations in that context would be an act of adultery. This whole aspect is acceptable to someone if you are "'able to accept this'" (Mt 19:12). It connotes a responsible approach by Christians making Godly decisions in individual situations which is different than trying to keep laws which are no longer required by the New Covenant.

By Command

Did Jesus' answer to the Pharisees put him on record equivalent to making it a legal command? A command is a lawful order given by an authority. In scripture it is an "ordinance of God" (Ro 1:32). Laws are legislated and rules are either followed or broken with consequences. The purpose is that "the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us" (Ro 8:4). A requirement is what has been established as to have legal standing. In Abraham's case God said "Abraham obeyed Me and kept my charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws" (Ge 26:5). In Zacharias and Elizabeth's case "they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord" (Lk 1:6).

Do commands in the New Testament have a "do it this way or else" connotation? Paul categorized his teaching as "instruction as to how you ought to walk" (1Th 4:1). In the following verse he defined it as "commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus." In 1 Corinthians 7:10 he said "I give instructions, not I, but the Lord." The seriousness of it is shown by Jesus saying "'If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (Jn 14:15). It's not that we are ignorant of them because we "know the commandments" (Lk 18:20). The crux of the matter is whoever does not keep them has not come to know God (1Jn 2:3-4).

God had established the commandments in the Old Testament for Israel's good (Dt 10:13). Included in the requirements were offerings to atone for the sin of violating them (Nu 15:22-31). "The first covenant had regulations" (Heb 9:1) and blood was offered "for the sins the people had committed in ignorance" (:7). It sounds as though our obligations are just as demanding as those of the Old Covenant. All those who hope in salvation keep God's commandments (Ps 119:166). So when Jesus answered the Pharisees it seems that he was just reaffirming what everyone already knew. But there is a difference. In Ephesians 2:15 there is a change of direction. "By abolishing in his flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances . . . [Jesus makes] the two into one new man, thus establishing peace." "Now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets" (Ro 3:21). They are fulfilled in Jesus because salvation history culminates in his messianic appearance. Perhaps the Pharisees were expecting leniency from Jesus when they asked their question. We are only human, for Paul says "I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate" (Ro 7:15). However, many of today's Christians expect leniency and quote "you are not under law, but under grace" (Ro 6:14). We are covered by "the Spirit of grace" (Heb 10:29). However, if we know what we are considering would be sinful then we should not do it knowing that grace would cover us (Ro 6:1).


If Jesus had meant his answer to have a legalistic meaning he might have asked if "'You shall not'" (Ex 20:14) implied that any violation would be literal adultery. It is said, however, that the Ten Commandments are moral commands and not rules. To commit means to deliberately perform a premeditated act. Mark 10:11 says he "'commits adultery against her.'" He "'makes'" her do it. (Mt 5:32). Jesus' statements are consistent. In Matthew 5:17 he says "'I did not come to abolish [the Law] but to fulfill.'" He also said "'not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished'" (:18). Romans 7:12 also supports the law by saying it "is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good." Finally 1 Timothy 1:8 says "we know the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully."

Where, then, is the New Testament emphasis in all this? In Romans 10:4 Paul says "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." He is the fulfillment because his purpose existed before the Law was instituted since the promise was given to Abraham before the law was given. The ultimate goal of the promise, then, is to make redemption available thus completing God's plan. "All the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins" (Ac 10:43).

The Law therefore is only the vehicle which brings people to Christ (Gal 3:24). "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (:25). "But now we are released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter" (Ro 7:6). Also, we "were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ" (:4). "The righteousness of God [is] through faith in Jesus Christ" (3:22) which is "apart from the Law" (:21). But "do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law" (:31). Therefore "the requirement of the Law [is] fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit" (8:4). "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law" (Gal 5:18). However, even though the law will eventually pass away (Mt 5:18) Jesus' words will never pass away (24:35).

Adultery Is

"'Everyone who divorces his wife'" (Mt 5:32) is today considered the guilty party. She is the innocent party. He "'makes her commit adultery'" (:32). Adultery is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife. The assumption for this to happen is that she remarries. Since adultery is a sin then remarrying under unscriptural circumstances is sinful. Legalistic interpretation is that you cannot remarry unless the exception clause applies. Divorce would be acceptable for "'the reason of unchastity'" (:32). Legalistic exegesis would support that the adultery which occurs is due to the sexual relations in the new marriage while the previous marriage was still in effect.

Since the definition of adultery is illicit sexual relations then there must be an act of it. The Pharisees knew this for they tested Jesus by presenting a "woman caught in adultery" (Jn 8:3). The woman was apprehended "in the very act" (:4). But if the divorced woman never remarries then the sexual part is missing unless you assume she does remarry. However, once you start reading assumptions into the context then when do you stop?

The definition of "adultery" has another aspect. Jewish society enacted regulations to protect people like any other society. The husband had an exclusive right to his wife to ensure that children born to her were his own. Trespassing this would be categorized as such relative to his protection being violated. Could Jesus be labeling it in terms of its larger concern as opposed to its obvious sexual meaning?

Adultery Does

It takes an unscriptural attitude for one Christian to divorce another for selfish reasons. The world is full of unbiblical rationalization. "You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God" (Jas 4:4)? What if a marriage partner does leave? "'The land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord" (Hos 1:2). In Jesus' case "many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore" (Jn 6:66). "They went out from us, but were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have remained with us" (1Jn 2:19). It is a matter of faith, for those who left are ones "who did not believe" (Jn 6:64). But is leaving a valid option for a Christian? Malachi 2:15 says that one does not behave like that if he has the Spirit.

The result is that the divorce does away with the contract altogether. It's finalized, so when God said "I hate divorce" (Mal 2:16) he wasn't just saying that you can adulterate marriage but you can't destroy it. "She is not my wife, and I am not her husband" (Hos 2:2). It is based upon faith so "let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth" (Mal 2:15). Verse 16 warns "take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." This proves that destroying a marriage is possible."


Divorce and adultery is discussed in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:31-32. What can be learned from the context? The grouping begins by Jesus saying "'unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven'" (Mt 5:20). The section concludes by Jesus saying "'Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect'" (:48). There are six divisions in the grouping and each deals with an Old Testament command:

A pattern is established with each, beginning with "'You have heard'" and followed by "'But I say to you.'" There is a similarity with Jesus' dialog with the Pharisees. He began with "'Have you not read?'" (Mt 19:4) and continued with "'And I say to you'" (:9). The impression is that Jesus is appending his teaching to the original law.

There is a pattern in each group. Examples increase in severity which result in comparable exercise of judgment. It is remindful of James 1:15 where lustful thoughts lead to sinful actions which lead to death. Verses 21-26 are about anger. The parts deal with anger at a brother (:21), deliberate verbalization against someone (:22), and damaging criticism (:22). With the first there is only nominal sentencing, but with the next you are arrested and taken to court (i.e. the Sanhedrin). Then the most serious results in being in danger of "fiery hell" (:22). The last is the worst because "you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (:20). Sin prevents it. Therefore it had better be forgiven or else. That's why "if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father" (1Jn 2:1).

Matthew 5:27-30 discusses adultery. The sections are adultery in the heart (:27), violation with the right eye (:29), and sin involving the hand (:30). The eye snippet reminds one of "having eyes full of adultery that never cease from sin" (2Pe 2:14). Verses 33-37 deal with oaths. The parts deal with swearing in general (:33), swearing by the head (:36), and unlimited swearing (:37). Is not a marriage covenant taken by an oath of faith?

Each antithesis starts with the reaffirmation of an Old Testament command. Jesus said "'I did not come to abolish [the Law] but to fulfill'" (Mt 5:17). But then the antithesis builds announcing a goal which may seem unachievable. For instance verse 28 says that lustfully looking at a woman is committing adultery in your heart. It sets a godly standard to demonstrate what is eschatologically expected. Also, you are to go to great lengths to counteract these tendencies. Verse 30 says to cut off a part of your body if it will prevent you from going to heaven.

Figurative or Literal?

These teachings on personal relationships illustrate how your righteousness can grow. Obviously the examples don't cover every situation. Therefore they are only models by which you can pattern your own behavior. They are not a new set of laws to follow. If they were then they would have legal status and would be taken literally. Accordingly Matthew 5:32 is another example and is radicalized. The ideal is there and reflects God's will. But if the word "adultery" is taken literally then that legal connotation would nowadays accuse many people. However, if the word is used figuratively then it would be merely instructional. The figurative approach makes more sense when you consider verses 29-30. They direct to take out your right eye or cut off your right hand. These are just overstatements to get attention and make a point. Jesus' use of the word "adultery" in Matthew 19:9 was so exaggerated that the disciples responded in shock in verse 10 with "it is better not to marry." Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to add emphasis. It conveys the literal meaning but, in itself, is improbable to a degree because the figurative description is overstated. However, the reader understands the emphasis because the thought is conveyed. So if the statement can be taken literally and not as a figure of speech then it should be. In context here it is clear that the main subject is an adulterous attitude rather than acts per se.

There are situations provided in these groups to illustrate how you would fulfill certain obligations. For instance, a person is directed to leave his gift at the altar and be reconciled to his brother (Mt 5:24). Your conscience convicts you and you respond spiritually. You don't do it just to complete a requirement. "You are not under law, but under grace" (Ro 6:14). Jesus points this out by saying "'Woe to you . . . Pharisees . . . [who] have neglected the weighter provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others" (Mt 23:23). Grace is defined as unmerited favor and divine enablement. Jesus enables you to accomplish what you should do. He came to fulfill the law (Mt 5:17) and this is one of the ways he does it. Also "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Ro 10:4). He, himself, is the goal (i.e. end) to be appropriated. By depending upon this grace you no longer have to prove yourself through works every step of the way. So if we are bound by the law then the literal interpretation of the use of "adultery" could apply. However, since we have become alive to the Spirit and dead to the law a figurative interpretation to "adultery" would be more logical.


Paul was an authority on the Pentateuch and understood how God created man. As an apostle he stated God's command of "to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband" (1Co 7:10). However, "if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress" (Ro 7:3). This is reinforced by Jesus saying adultery is committed (Mt 5:32). But Paul says "if you marry you have not sinned" (1Co 7:28). Jesus' and Paul's teachings have to agree.

What are the ground rules? "The married woman is bound by law to her husband" (Ro 7:2) and is "bound as long as her husband lives" (1Co 7:39). "He cannot divorce her all his days" (Dt 22:29). But she would be able to remarry "if her husband dies [because] she is released from the law concerning her husband" (Ro 7:2). There are principles as with laws of nature. Even though Moses once permitted divorce, you couldn't return to your previous husband once you remarried (Dt 24:4). It's like once they "have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance" (Heb 6:6).


Similar scriptures should be compared for consistency to promote accuracy. Matthew 5:32 says "'everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery.'" Does she have to remarry to qualify for that label? The remainder of the verse states "'whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.'" If their society expected everyone to be married then maybe you could assume that she would remarry.

This should be compared to Luke 16:18 for consistency. It says "'everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.'" Remarriage seems to be the common theme in the two scriptures. Comparable verses are found in Matthew 19:9 and Mark 10:11-12. In all these verses three people are committing adultery: (1) the divorcing one, (2) the remarrying one, and (3) the one being divorced. Therefore, when exegeting you must adhere to remarriage as a condition for the occurrence of adultery.

But is the timing of the events made clear? For discussion purposes you'd have to assume that someone divorcing his wife would remarry soon afterwards because that would be the reason for it. The marriage would have been consummated before the divorced woman would even have had a chance to remarry. But then the "'immorality'" (Mt 19:9) qualification would activate. Since the exception clause would be in effect you'd expect the divorced woman would be free to remarry. However, hermeneutics requires a straightforward approach where "reading between the lines" is unacceptable. Hypothetical situations are not allowed. Therefore, according to the scriptures, she would commit adultery when remarrying regardless of whether the one who divorced her had already remarried. You say that's unfair? Your reply is that trying to be literal is "stretching a point?" Then you must devise a figurative solution which is hermeneutically satisfactory to counter the literal approach's complications.


What do the Epistles say on the subject? Paul says "if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband" (1Co 7:11). Some say you are still married "in God's eyes", but this verse means what it says (i.e. unmarried). Also the use of "husband" just designates who the person is. It could be called a cooling off period, but reconciliation is a command and permanent separation is unacceptable because "the wife must not leave her husband" (1Co 7:10). We are told to "make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way" (Mt 5:25). The rhythm of 1 Corinthians 7:11 might be saying you have a chance to rectify the mistake and "two wrongs don't make a right," so stop where you are, reevaluate, and take corrective action. However, this leaves the divorced person in limbo without closure. And reconciliation does not mean that the parties are frozen in this predicament the rest of their lives either. But what if the divorcing person remains unmarried (1Co 7:11)? Should what another person does dictate the destiny of your own life? Also, you would think that a statute of limitations would apply to the length of the reconciliation period. God gave Jezebel "time to repent" (Rev 2:21). When she didn't repent God said "'dogs will eat Jezebel in the district of Jezreel'" (1Ki 21:23). This was fulfilled in 2 Kings 9:35. The fact that Jesus brought up repentance in Revelation demonstrates that a time frame for it is a viable principle. There are timely consequences. A person will be "cut off" (Ge 17:14) if he violates an agreement.


Paul asks "Are you bound to a wife?" (1Co 7:27). In Greek, "bound" means to bind or tie. It is the tie that binds. The NIV translates "Are you married?" Then he asks "Are you released from a wife?" (:27). "Released" means destroyed or dissolved. The NIV tranlates "Are you unmarried?" Paul says for others to "remain even as I" (1Co 7:8) which is the Greek word "agamois." He probably isn't referring to himself as a widower. The Greek lexicon says "agamois" means unmarried or single. Therefore, it may mean never married, once married, or widowed.

If you are not bound to a husband then you are eligible. "If you do marry, you have not sinned" (1Co 7:28). Maybe you are still bound if the exception clause in Matthew 19:8 doesn't apply in your situation? What criteria are used to determine whether you are bound or not? What does the context tell us? Paul begins with "now concerning virgins" (1Co 7:25). But when he asks "are you married?" (:27 NIV) it doesn't apply to a virgin anymore. Then it asks "Are you released from a wife?" This widens the scope. Hypothetically that would mean that the person could either be a virgin or not. But that would be too fine a distinction. It is likely that unmarried means that the person isn't currently married. Two mutually exclusive situations are involved. Otherwise why would verse 28 ask both "if you marry" and "if a virgin marries?"

Therefore Jesus' reference to adultery (Mt 5:32) is figurative because, if it was literal, then there would be sin. So if someone criticizes you for believing otherwise, "'Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers'" (Lk 11:46).


In 1 Corinthians 7:15 the unbeliever leaves. To many people this means desertion. However, according to many writers the verb is the same one in Greek for divorce. It is apparent that this person doesn't believe in the marriage. If you have experienced the trauma of being an innocent party in this situation you undoubtedly tried to "'go and show him his fault'" (Mt 18:15). Also you may have asked others to intervene "'so that every fact may be confirmed'" (:16). Eventually the word gets around "'to the church'" (:17). If there is no resolution then what do you do next? Verse 18 says to "'let him be to you as a Gentile.'"

If 1 Corinthians 7:15 says to let the unbeliever leave and you are no longer responsible, is this the way to treat the guilty party? Is there some heavenly thread obligating you to a relationship? Matthew 22:30 says "'in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.'" Therefore, God is not keeping a master copy of your marriage certificate in heaven. Since your marriage partner has unilaterally abolished the agreement and no reconciliation is expected, why would God hold you in limbo? If the only alternative was "'not to marry'" (Mt 19:10) then it would only make sense "'for the sake of the kingdom of heaven'" (:12). But that would be taking it out of context. These choices were presented in response to the disciples' reply in verse 10. If you were once married then you could not "'accept this statement'" (:11) as applying to you.

Not Sinned

"Are you bound to a wife?" (1Co 7:27). You should know whether you are still married or not. Spiritually you belong to Christ "'because of your name'" (Mk 9:41). In our society the married couple goes by the same last name. With Christ there is the "fair name by which you have been called" (Jas 2:7). If you are divorced and your "ex" has changed her last name then it is totally denying any relationship. It is a two-way street. "If we deny Him, He will also deny us" (2Ti 2:12).

The Web site has Bible tools to exegete scripture. I used them to analyze the hypothetical statement "'unmarried' (Gk. agamois) usually means a widower." Someone wanting to constrain the discussion might want to limit "Are you unmarried? (1 Cor 7:27)" to just widowers so that divorced Christians wouldn't even be considered. According to a Greek lexicon "agamois" does indeed mean unmarried or single. "Unmarried" is used in 1 Corinthians 7:8, 7:11 and 7:27. The NIV uses "unmarried" in all cases, but in the last, the NAS uses "released" and the NKJ "loosed." Strong's Concordance defines "loosed" as a "single man, whether he has already had a wife or has not yet married." Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament concurs with "bachelors as well as widowers are included in "loosed." Furthermore, it states regarding "unmarried" in verse 7:8 that "it is hardly likely that Paul means only widowers and widows and means to call himself a widower." Therefore anyone using this misleading approach to precipitate a foregone conclusion is mistaken.

"If you do marry, you have not sinned" (1Co 7:28). How can anyone say that you are still married at this point so that when you remarry you commit actual adultery? All this information should leave you "fully convinced" (Ro 14:5) so that you do not feel guilty when you have to decide.