A Forgotten Adultery


I am not writing on this subject because I particularly enjoy it; I am writing because there is a void--practically everyone is ignoring it. You certainly do not hear it proclaimed over radio or television. And I am writing because I am challenged by individuals who attempt to avoid what is crystal clear.

In the whole discussion about divorce and remarriage (this term when used here refers to a marriage to someone else after a divorce as opposed to reconciliation to the original spouse), one fact is glaringly absent. We will soon consider the statements Jesus made concerning the subject, and everyone of His statements ends with adultery being the consequence of divorce and remarriage. Most discussions revolve around adultery causing divorce, but Jesus never said that, certainly not in that sequence. Of course, I am assuming that the Bible does record what Jesus did say on the subject and that this is authoritative.

Before us is one of the most successful efforts you can find anywhere to undermine and neutralize Jesus' teaching. It appears that the spiritual leaders of our time have invested their time in refuting what Jesus actually said. They have succeeded to the degree that almost any churchgoing individual (at least in my experience) whom you ask will tell you that there is an exception clause. And it is very convenient for someone who wishes to divorce to claim the exception. And why not, since it has been variously explained, and since there is no dogmatic definition of the exception? It certainly must permit the divorce and remarriage that I wish to pursue. I will not allow any other conclusion, and for you to suggest otherwise is to rob me of my happiness. So the argument goes. And it is to the extent that even though some decry the frequency of divorce and remarriage in Christian circles, the way these Scriptures have been handled has allowed virtually every Christian divorce to fit the 'exception'--there are no Christian divorces which one may disapprove. As long as that is the case, improving the divorce and marriage statistics is an illusion.

The content

Following are the statements Jesus made on this subject. I am not concerned about all the details of each verse here (I have written on them elsewhere), but I want you to notice how each statement ends. In fact the main verb in each statement is "commits adultery." And it comes as the consequence or result of the previous activity of divorcing and remarrying. It should not be difficult to see that: it is easily observed.

      Matthew 5:31-32 "And it was said, 'Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (All Scriptural quotations are New American Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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

      Mark 10:11-12 And He said to them, "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."

      Luke 16:18 "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.

On one hand, it is difficult to understand why this has been so well covered up. But people, including Christian leaders, have been persistent in trying to undermine what Jesus said. We, generally speaking, must have the freedom to divorce and remarry. And therefore we cannot tolerate what Jesus actually said. So we spend our time not in trying to understand what He said but in trying to find loopholes. And if they are absent, we will create some. Isn't that what grace would do? In our wildest imaginations we might conclude so, even when wisdom would dictate otherwise.

And we are not even considering here the frequent surveys and their revelations about the damaging effects of divorce and remarriage. I could cite actual life stories, because of our church's children's ministries, about the instability, lack of organization, disconnectedness, feelings of being unloved, bad examples, etc., experienced by victim children who are being fed and clothed but who in many other ways are finding that life is a mess. Surely God did not have this in mind for the family. And surely this is not the result of righteous living.

So why would Jesus say that divorce and remarriage results in adultery? One easy way to dismiss the conclusion is the old discussion about whether that means that the new couple lives continually in adultery. And to even acknowledge today that Jesus said what He did may not have much impact, because 'adultery' as a word is hardly in our vocabulary any more; however, as an activity it is entertainment. It has a name, but it is hardly anything remarkable and surely nothing terrible!

Some have tried to present this as though Jesus said that someone who divorces and remarries becomes promiscuous. This is surely not the case. Jesus did not say that someone who divorces and remarries could not possibly be faithful to a new spouse and so would be sleeping around even though now again married. There are readily available examples of couples in a remarriage situation being faithful sexually to each other. But Jesus did say that these various individuals would commit adultery. He was speaking of something bigger than sleeping around while in the second, third, or fourth marriage.

The value physically

Adultery appears in various lists of sins in the Bible; for example the following:

      Jeremiah 7:9-10 "Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal, and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, 'We are delivered!' - that you may do all these abominations?"

      Hosea 4:2 There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing, and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed.

      Mark 7:21-22 "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness."

      Mark 10:19 "You know the commandments, 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'"

      Romans 13:9 For this, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

      1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

So can we agree that adultery is a sin? It may seem that I am picking on adultery; I am not except that it is the consequence that Jesus assigns to divorce and remarriage. The book of Proverbs speaks of avoiding the adulteress or adultery at least eleven times. Of course, avoiding an adulterer would be just as important, but we can understand the terminology since Solomon was instructing his son.

Adultery is numerous times referred to in the Bible as the actual physical sexual act between two individuals, at least one of whom is married to someone else, so that the act of adultery is the violation of a marriage. But it is also used often figuratively as a description for someone who supposedly has a relationship with God and is unfaithful to God, unfaithful in the sense of worshipping and serving false gods of choice. And the term serves the purpose of spiritual unfaithfulness very well, because in both Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church God's relationship with His people is framed as a marriage.

The value spiritually

The following are some passages using the term figuratively:

      Isaiah 57:3 "But come here, you sons of a sorceress, Offspring of an adulterer and a prostitute."

      Jeremiah 3:8-9 "And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. And it came about because of the lightness of her harlotry, that she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees."

      Ezekiel 6:9 "Then those of you who escape will remember Me among the nations to which they will be carried captive, how I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes, which played the harlot after their idols; and they will loathe themselves in their own sight for the evils which they have committed, for all their abominations.

      Ezekiel 16:32 "You adulteress wife, who takes strangers instead of her husband!"

      Hosea 3:1 Then the LORD said to me, "Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the LORD loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes."

      James 4:4 You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

There are still more statements; some of them are difficult to categorize as either physical or spiritual, and some may even be both. So regardless what else we conclude about adultery, we should agree that a key feature is unfaithfulness. 2 Timothy 2:13 points out that while we may be faithless, God is always faithful. He is faithful to His people, and He is faithful to His word. We sometimes wish His blessings in our life while we would prefer He not be faithful to His word, since we are not, and that is spiritual adultery on our part. Notice Jeremiah 3:8 above in which Israel is designated as faithless and committing adultery. The immoral act is intimate friend with the moral defect and will manifest itself in other relationships of life as well. It's unwise to trust an adulterer. And I have wondered how an adulterer teaches faithfulness to his children--it has to be difficult, if even possible.

So the physical adultery, namely the unfaithfulness exhibited in a divorce and remarriage, pictures unfaithfulness to God. If only we took this picture as seriously as God does. We easily dismiss it because we conclude it is only a picture. But how can we demonstrate God's relationship with His people if we ourselves are unfaithful? We can't, of course, ever demonstrate that faithfulness perfectly, but having the very relationship in place that God has designated as the picture has value.

The cost

On at least some occasions when Jesus spoke on divorce and remarriage at least some of His audience was familiar with the Mosaic law. What was the penalty for adultery? I'm not referring to this in an attempt to revive this penalty in our judicial system--I am only referencing it in order to expose God's view of it, and it is a serious matter.

Consider the following:

      Leviticus 20:10-12 'If there is a man who commits adultery with another man's wife, one who commits adultery with his friend's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. If there is a man who lies with his father's wife, he has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death, their bloodguiltiness is upon them. If there is a man who lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed incest, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.'

      Proverbs 6:32 The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; He who would destroy himself does it.

      Proverbs 22:14 The mouth of an adulteress is a deep pit; He who is cursed of the LORD will fall into it.

      Ezekiel 16:38 "Thus I shall judge you, like women who commit adultery or shed blood are judged; and I shall bring on you the blood of wrath and jealousy."

      Malachi 3:5 "Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me," says the LORD of hosts.

      Hebrews 13:4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge.

      Revelation 2:22 'Behold, I will cast her upon a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds.

Should I be trying to justify an act that God punishes? There are those who wish I would. It is obvious that adultery does not serve God's pleasure. Instead, He judges it, even if people do not. Should I be trying to rationalize an act that God judges? Should you be trying to find a way to commend an act that God consistently opposes and that pictures a person's unfaithfulness to Him? If adultery had no negative social consequences, it would still be repugnant as a figure of broken relations with God.

      Exodus 20:14 "You shall not commit adultery.

When all has been considered, discussed, and concluded, there is still the commandment which appears several more times in both Old and New Testaments. Is there anything about that commandment which is unclear? Does "not" need to be defined more precisely? And it is this particular act Jesus named as being the consequence, the result, the apodosis of divorce and remarriage.

The picture

God created Adam and Eve and placed them into the paradise He had planted. The pleasures available to them were practically endless. They enjoyed perfect fellowship with God. There was only one opportunity for them to ruin that fellowship, and they took it. But God was faithful, even when they were not. The very day (Genesis 3:15) they disobeyed Him, He initiated a cosmic struggle out of which His Son, Jesus Christ would emerge victorious. And those who believe in Him would experience reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) and ultimately restoration to paradise (Revelation 22:1-5).

Marriage was intended to be a picture of God's relationship to His people. As Adam and Eve had one opportunity only to ruin their perfect fellowship with God, so we are given one opportunity to ruin the picture of relationship with God. To divorce is to take that one opportunity and to rip apart the picture. Reconciliation can fix the picture, can put it back together.

Divorce is serious, but remarriage (marriage to someone other than one's original spouse) prevents the original picture from ever being fixed and puts another picture in its place. The remarriage puts the last nail into the coffin, puts into concrete a picture of unfaithfulness, because from now on there is no possibility of reconciliation ever. In the art gallery of your life, from now on regardless of what else happens or regardless of what else you do, the picture of unfaithfulness will dominate the chief viewing location. Other pictures may be present, but this picture will overshadow them all.

At issue here is not whether you might be faithful in the new relationship. At issue here is not whether you might experience true love in the new relationship. At issue here is not whether you become promiscuous at this stage in life. The picture has been hung, and that is that. Is it any wonder that statistics are what they are and that effects on children in such situations are what they are?

At issue here is not whether you are the innocent party in the divorce--this has occasioned various arguments of fairness which are irrelevant here. Frankly, I don't think I have ever met a divorced person who was the cause of the divorce; in their stories they are virtually always innocent. But that doesn't change the picture. And it should be noted that though you may be the innocent party in the divorce, you are never the innocent party in the remarriage--you enter that by choice.

But, you might ask, is a picture really that important? Apparently so, at least in the mind of God. Look at Jesus' words again. He is saying that whenever you commit the acts of divorce and remarriage, circumstances notwithstanding, your picture from that point on portrays unfaithfulness. Adultery is unfaithfulness.

So what do you want to do with your life? Do you want to live so that your desires are met, so that you are happy? Is that the highest good? Or do you want to live for the glory of God? Do you want your life to be defined by theological and spiritual realities? It may not be the life of greatest pleasure, but it is the life of deep joy. Face it: as we can observe in the book of Ecclesiastes, even if you have what you think you want, that will never give you satisfaction. Only a life lived in service to God can do that. So that should trump other desires.


As a last ditch effort, someone will ask, But God will forgive adultery, will He not? Forgiveness is in Jesus as Ephesians 1:7 says. But to receive forgiveness of sins and to premeditatively plan to construe Scripture, if possible, to appear to support sin are two quite different concepts. Let us not test the Lord in this. He has made known His will, and we will live by it, one way or another. If we honor with obedient lives what He has said, we will know the blessing that accrues to those who are faithful. If we subvert and rationalize what He has said, we will know the penalty that He chooses to apply. Each person decides as an individual.

If adultery is in your past or present, I suggest you repent of it, as 1 Corinthians 6:11 suggests is possible. You should also disavow it and purposely pursue and promote the faithfulness which is possible for any person who knows forgiveness in Jesus Christ. I extend to you the right hand of fellowship as I would to any person who seeks to walk in truth. You, as a believer, are needed in the fellowship of the church, exercising your spiritual gifts for the edification of all.

Should we discriminate against people who discover that they have failed in this matter? No. Let the person without sin cast the first stone. We should be forgiving, loving, and accepting. But at the same time we should promote the truth about the most precious human-to-human relationship on earth. Let us speak the truth in love. Let us promote the picture that proclaims that reconciliation with God is possible.

For further discussion, you may contact the author at arlieandruth@cox.net.