Vol. 6, No. 3
Since You Asked
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Does Matthew 5:28 of KJV justify divorce and the right to remarry? What is meant by "adultery of the heart"? Please explain this verse in context. Thank You, Carol F. Chambers
The Greek word for "adultery," moicheuo, that appears in Matthew 5:28 is used in other passages where it clearly means to commit adultery in every sense in which one normally understands that act. The same Greek word appears in Matthew 5:27, 19:18, Mark 10:19, Luke 18:20, Romans 13:9 and James 2:11 where its use refers to the prohibition in the Old Testament against committing adultery. This Greek word is used in Luke 16:18, a parallel passage to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, where it does refer to the physical activity of adultery. There can be no doubt that the Greek word refers to the physical act of adultery for it is used precisely that way in John 8:4. Revelation 2:22 also employs this Greek word for adultery. Moicheuo appears in both Matthew 5:27 and Matthew 5:28 where the prohibition against adultery in the Old Testament is compared with our Lord's use of the same word regarding sexual lust, which he calls 'adultery of the heart.' The word for "adultery" in Matthew 5:32 where Jesus regulated divorce and remarriage is moicheia, related to the word appearing in Matthew 5:27-28.
However, did Jesus intend the original recipients of his message in Matthew 5 (and us) to understand that thoughts of lust alone that have not yet been acted upon are sufficient, God-approved grounds for divorce and remarriage? Apparently, the commentators have not reached that conclusion, for none of the several commentaries to which I turned represented that interpretation. They rather relate Jesus' words to the necessity of pure thoughts to promote satisfactory Christian living, and that to lust after a woman is as sinful as committing adultery. The only writer I observed even commenting on whether 'adultery in the heart' was approved by God for divorce and remarriage was Thomas B. Warren, and he denied that 'adultery in the heart' was intended to permit divorce and remarriage.
...he did give an exception, making it clear that those whose companions have been guilty of sexual unfaithfulness may put them away and marry another, not being guilty of adultery in so doing. This means physical unfaithfulness -- the actual act of sexual intercourse -- not merely lusting in one's heart (Matt. 5:28). (Warren 1)
Commentators, though, do not minimize the sinfulness of lust. "Thus, Christ made the lustful thought as sinful as the overt act" (Coffman). "Of course, Jesus wanted his hearers to see that the real source of sin lies not in the physical organ but in the heart. A man's evil heart must be changed if he would escape final ruin in hell" (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary). "...he declares the sin to be in the heart and not in the external act merely …the one who gazeth on a woman, whether married or single, with impure desire, has committed the sin of adultery..." (Boles 139).
...but the Pharisees, in their expositions of this command, made it to extend no further than the act of adultery, suggesting, that if the iniquity was only regarded in the heart, and went no further, God could not hear it, would not regard it (Ps 66:18), and therefore they thought it enough to be able to say that they were no adulterers, Luke 18:11. ...We read the eyes full of adultery, that cannot cease from sin, 2 Peter 2:14. (Henry)
Our Saviour in these verses explains the seventh commandment. It is probable that the Pharisees had explained this commandment, as they had the sixth, as extending only to the external act; and that they regarded evil thoughts and a wanton imagination as of little consequence, or as not forbidden by the law. Our Saviour assures them that the commandment did not regard the external act merely, but the secrets of the heart, and the movements of the eye. He declares that they who indulge a wanton desire, that they who look on a woman to increase their lust, have already, in the sight of God, violated the commandment, and committed adultery in the heart. Such was the guilt of David, whose deep and awful crime fully shows the danger of indulging in evil desires, and in the rovings of a wanton eye. See 2 Sam 11; Ps 51:1. (Barnes)
Lenski speaks to the core of the point Jesus made in Matthew 5:27-28.
The present participle blepone characterizes the man by his act of continued looking. The construction pros to with the infinitive denotes purpose (not result). ...Jesus does not say that by he accomplished lusting or by and during the act of looking at the woman the man in question commits adultery. ...The man who casts lustful looks is an adulterer to begin with. The sin is already "in his heart"... (226).
In others words, we are what we think, because we do what we think. The person under consideration by our Lord, given the opportunity, purposed to commit adultery, and he prefaced the act with the sure intent, which manifested itself in lust or sexual coveting.
In summary, whereas Jesus through his omniscience can discern an adulterer ahead of the act of adultery, we mortals cannot confidently know the inner workings of another person's mind. We mortals are creatures limited by sensory perception. The application of Jesus' references in Matthew 5:27-28 is that the sin of lust is as deadly as the sin of adultery (Romans 6:23). Jesus did not teach that lust or 'adultery in the heart' is sufficient, God-approved grounds for divorce and remarriage. Secondly, humans lack the necessary divine characteristics whereby one's thoughts alone can be surmised accurately and used as evidence against him to permit a God-sanctioned divorce and remarriage (Matthew 19:9). Strictly speaking, Matthew 5 (32) does not address approved remarriage after divorce. Third, Jesus used the physical act represented by the word adultery as an illustration, much the same way his half-brother, James, used references to adultery in a figurative way (James 4:4) to address the sin of worldliness. With all of the foregoing under consideration, "No, Matthew 5:28 of KJV does not justify divorce and the right to remarry."
Barnes, Albert. Barnes' Notes, Electronic Database. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 1997.
Boles, H. Leo. A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew. Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1952.
Coffman, James Burton. James Burton Coffman Study Library. CD-ROM. Seattle: ACU Press, 1989.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Modern Edition. CD-ROM. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991.
Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. Matthew's Gospel. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1961.
Warren, Thomas B. "A Brief Look at Some Contemporary Views of Divorce and Remarriage." Spiritual Sword. 19.1 (1987): inside front cover.
--- "A General Look at Divorce & Remarriage." Spiritual Sword. 6.2 (1975): 1.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. CD-ROM. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.