A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:31-37.  A Christian’s righteousness: fidelity in marriage and honesty in speech.

c). The Pharisees regarded divorce lightly: Jesus took it so seriously that, with only one exception, he called all remarriage after divorce adultery.

This was the conclusion of his debate with the Pharisees, and this is recorded in the Sermon on the Mount. It may be helpful to see the two statements side by side.

5:32: But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

19:9: And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.

It seems to be assumed that a divorce would lead to the remarriage of the divorced parties. Only this assumption can explain the statement that a man divorcing his wife without cause ‘makes her an adulteress’. His action could have that result only if she married again. Besides, a separation without a divorce – in legal terms *a mensa et toro* (from table to bed) but not *a vinculo* (from the marriage bond) – is a modern arrangement unknown in the ancient world.

Since God instituted marriage as an exclusive and permanent union, a union which he makes and man must not break, Jesus draws the inevitable deduction that to divorce one’s partner and marry another, or to marry a divorced person, is to enter a forbidden, adulterous relationship. For the person who may have secured a divorce in the eyes of human law is still in the eyes of God married to his or her first partner.

Only one exception is made to this principle: *except on the ground of unchastity* (5:32) or *except for unchastity* (19:9). The so-called ‘exceptive clause’ is a well-known crux. Commentators are not agreed about either its authenticity or its meaning.

First, its authenticity. I would wish to argue, as do virtually all conservative commentators, that we must accept this clause not only as a genuine part of Matthew’s gospel (for no MSS omit it) but also as an authentic word of Jesus. The reason why many have rejected it, regarding it as an interpolation by Matthew, is that it is absent from the parallel passages in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Yet Plummer was right to dub ‘a violent hypothesis’ this easy dismissal of the exceptive clause as an editorial gloss. It seems far more likely that its absence from Mark and Luke is due not to their ignorance of it but to their acceptance of it as something taken for granted. After all, under the Mosaic law adultery was punishable with death (although the death penalty for this offence seems to have fallen into disuse by the time of Jesus; Dt.22:22; Jn.8:1-11. G.E. Ladd writes: ‘The Old Testament condemned adultery with the death penalty. The New Testament says that an adulterer is to be considered as one dead, and the innocent party is freed from his marriage vows as though his mate had died’); so nobody would have questioned that marital unfaithfulness was a just ground for divorce. Even the rival Rabbis Shammai and Hillel were agreed about this. Their dispute was how much more widely than this the expression ‘some indecency’ in Deuteronomy 24:1 could be interpreted.

The second question about this exceptive clause concerns what is meant by *unchastity*. The Greek word is *porneia*. It is normally translated ‘fornication’, denoting the immorality of the unmarried, and is often distinguished from *moicheia*(‘adultery’), the immorality of the married. For this reason some have argued that the exceptive clause permits divorce if some pre-marital sexual sin is later discovered. Some think that the ‘indecency’ of Deuteronomy 24:1 had the same meaning. But the Greek word is not precise enough to be limited in this way. *Porneia* is derived from *porne*, a prostitute, without specifying whether she (or her client) is married or unmarried. Further, it is used in the Septuagint for the unfaithfulness of Israel, Yahweh’s bride, as exemplified in Hosea’s wife Gomer (Ho.1:2, 3; 2:2, 4). It seems, therefore, that we must agree with R.V.G.Tasker’s conclusion that *porneia* is ‘a comprehensive word, including adultery, fornication and unnatural vice’. At the same time we have no liberty to go to the opposite extreme and argue that *porneia* covers any and every offence which may be said in some vague sense to have a sexual basis. This would be virtually to equate *porneia* with ‘incompatibility’, and there is no etymological warrant for this. No, *porneia* means ‘unchastity’, some act of physical sexual immorality.

Tomorrow: Matthew: 5:31-37.


The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.