By Timothy Sparks
“But I say to you that who, suppose, may have dismissed his wife not over fornication and may have married another commits adultery. And the one having married a dismissed wife commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9, translation mine).1
Central to the issue of Jesus’ teaching about marriage, Jesus goes back to “the beginning” (Mt. 19:4-8; Gen. 1:27; 2:24) when God instituted marriage. He appeals to a time before God tolerated putting away or divorce, when “it was not that way” (Mt. 19:8). Jesus teaches the truth that always has been and always will be concerning marriage. People will continue to divorce and remarry, but it does not change the truth of God’s Word “from the beginning.” It really is that simple. Do we want to know how God wants marriage? Jesus says to go back to “the beginning” (Mt. 19:4, 8).
The background of God’s law (Deut. 22:22; Lev. 20:10) is crucial to understanding the context of Jesus’ statement “not over fornication” [MH EPI PORNEIA, Mt. 19:9–see also Reasons Mὴ Eπὶ (Mh Epi or Mē Epi) Should Not Be Translated “Except For” (Mt. 19:9)]. We now address whether Jesus gives permission to divide what God united (Mt. 19:6) in a situation of fornication.
Under the Old Covenant:
For adultery = Death penalty (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22)
For fornication during betrothal = Death penalty (Deut. 22:23-24)
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT = “FOR FORNICATION”
NON-CAPITAL PUNISHMENT = “NOT FOR FORNICATION”2
Theoretically, Jesus could have said:
“Whoever dismisses his wife OVER FORNICATION (EPI PORNEIA) and marries another does not commit adultery.”
This was not a lawful option. It would have been an act of disobedience to change the punishment for fornication from the death penalty to either putting away or divorce (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6). Rather, Jesus says, “Whoever may have dismissed his wife NOT OVER FORNICATION (MH EPI PORNEIA; thus, Jesus is addressing a nonsexual dismissal; the penalty of fornication was death) and may have married another commits adultery” (Mt. 19:9).
Stated another way:
1. Under the Old Covenant fornication during betrothal and adultery in marriage was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-24).
2. It would have been a violation of God’s law to change the penalty for fornication from death to putting away or divorce (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).
3. Jesus came to fulfill the law, to bring it to completion (Mt. 5:17-19).
4. The Old Covenant was not changed until Christ’s death (Heb. 7:12; 8:4; 9:15-17).
Therefore, Christ did not change the Old Covenant under which he lived but gave corrective teaching, calling people back to God’s will from the beginning (Mt. 19:6-9; Mk. 10:5-12).
1. Jesus gave clear and precise teaching to the crowds in the region of Judea beyond the Jordan (Mk. 10:1), giving permission for neither putting away nor divorce (please read Mk. 10:2-9).
2. After his definitive teaching, Jesus gave a conclusive summary to settle the matter: “And in the house his disciples asked him again about the same thing. And he said to them, ‘Who, suppose, may have dismissed his wife and may have married another commits adultery against her. And if a woman may have dismissed her husband and may have married another, she commits adultery'” (Mk. 10:10-12).
3. Similarly, Jesus revealed the strength of God’s law and then immediately stressed the result of remarriage after putting away: “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the law to fail. Anyone dismissing his wife and marrying another commits adultery; and anyone marrying a wife having been dismissed from a husband commits adultery” (Lk. 16:17-18).
Knowing the background of God’s law (Deut. 22:22; Lev. 20:10) is essential to a well-informed discussion concerning whether or not Jesus endorsed divorce for fornication. When we know the background of God’s law under which Jesus lived, we then know that Jesus would have violated God’s law if he had given permission to divorce for fornication. Rather than endorsing divorce for any reason, Jesus focuses on God’s law of marriage “from the beginning” (Mt. 19:4, 8) and emphatically states, “Therefore what God united, a human cannot divide” (Mt. 19:6).