ExeGreeksis | “A Higher Standard” – Matthew 5:21-32

Academic Articles | Biblical Exposition

Published on November 01, 2021

The ΕχεGrεεκsις series of articles are meant for those who want to dig in deeper into the text beyond just a casual reading. It intends to pull back the curtain a little to see a bit of what goes on “behind the scenes” of translating our New Testament to English. I lay out the Greek text in bold, as from the Greek New Testament (NA28 edition), followed by my translation in blue italics, then an expansion on the meaning of the text and my choices in translating from the Greek. Additional commentary on the history, culture and meaning of the text will also be noted.

Our last article in this series looked at what Jesus meant when he said that his disciples are salt and light. In this article, we continue in the Sermon on the Mount and look at the higher standard he calls us to…

Grace | Not License but Liberty

This passage of Scripture has often troubled many. What does Jesus mean to pluck out your eye if you lust?! It can seem a bit extreme, and many prefer to dodge the hard questions instead of wrestling through it. In a series of six“You have heard… but I say to you…” passages, Jesus takes the Law which the people were familiar with and actually raises the standard higher to a righteousness not of mere external adherence but inward sincerity! Jesus wasn’t inventing some new law, but rather, he was explaining the full implications of the Law.

However, this is not some sort of legalism which is being preached, but rather meant to expose to us the sinfulness of our hearts before an utterly Holy God to bring us to deeper levels of repentance and trust in Him for our righteousness. But even more than this, it challenges us as Christians to strive more towards holiness and sanctification in our hearts—to walk out by the power of the Spirit what has already been given to us: the righteousness of Christ Jesus himself! Grace is not License to Sin, but rather Liberty from Sin.

Matthew 5:21 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις· οὐ φονεύσεις· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει.

You have heard that it was said to those of long ago, “You shall not murder,” but whoever should commit murder will be liable to judgment.

This verse begins a new section where Jesus expands on what he meant by having a righteousness which goes beyond that of the Scribes and Pharisees. In it, he expands on three of the Ten Commandments, murder (v. 21-26), adultery (v. 27-30), and lying (v. 33-37). This expansion on the Ten Commandments stresses the real meaning of the Law in the OT and their fulfillment in Christ. Some scholars view these verses as “The Law of the Messiah”—as the construction, “you have heard it said… but I say to you” suggests.[1] The formula varies over the course of the discourse from the full, “You have heard that it was said to those of long ago,” to more abbreviated forms in verses 27, 31, 38, and 43 which make the same point. They each are presented as a contrast between what was said in the Old Testament (OT) and Jesus’s “more demanding” ethic.

From Outward Observance to Inward Motives

Jesus’ teaching here promotes a concern with inward motives and attitudes as opposed to merely outward observance of the regulations or avoidance of a specific sin which might be an achievable goal. “It substitutes for what is in principle a 100% achievable righteousness (the avoidance of breaking a definable set of regulations) a totally open-ended ideal (being “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) which will always remain beyond the grasp of the most committed disciple.”[2] This is a righteousness which is of a whole other league to that of the Scribes and Pharisees. It moves toward a new paradigm where God’s Law is internalized on the heart and obedience flows from inside. Jesus’ authoritative pronouncements are not a contribution to some sort of exegetical debate, but rather a definitive declaration of the Divine purpose on which the Law was based. It is the incarnate Yahweh himself, Jesus, the God-man, telling them—this is the purpose of the Law. They provoke the question, “who is this?” as seen in Matthew 7:28-29 at the end of the Sermon.[3]

While it may seem like Jesus is adding more to the Law by moving from external actions to internal desires and dispositions of the heart, he’s actually just showing more clearly the original intent of the Law. We can tend to think of the 10 Commandments as mainly focused on actions to avoid. However, Commandments 9 and 10 are in regard to lust and covetuousness – sins of the heart – and Jesus summarizes the the Law in terms of love for God and neighbour. The Law was never about mere outward observance or an external check-list. Rather it was to be a marker of a person’s internal devotion to the One God.

The passive verb used here, ἐρρέθη [erréthē], “it was said” is relatively rare and used in the NT specifically for Scripture quotations or divine pronouncements. Thus, this is not a reference to a human teaching but a Divine declaration.[4] The next phrase is literally, τοῖς ἀρχαίοις [tois archaiois] which means, “the ancients.” However, that expression (perhaps ironically) sounds a bit too archaic, so I have translated it “those of long ago.” It is an idiomatic expression referring to their forefathers who received the Law. The Septuagint (an ancient Greek translation of the OT used by the Jews and Christians of the 1st Century) uses the verb φονεύω [phoneuō] in Exodus 20:13 and Deut. 5:18, and that same verb is used here, “which like the Hebrew rāṣaḥ refers specifically to ‘murder,’ the intentional and unlawful taking of life, rather than a more general word for ‘kill.’”[5] So this makes it abundantly clear that Jesus is making direct reference to the OT law which was given to their forefathers and his teaching expands on it and adds understanding to the purpose behind it.

Matt. 5:22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ· ὃς δ᾿ ἂν εἴπῃ· μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός.

However, I say to you that everyone who becomes angry with his brother will be liable to judgment. Moreover, whoever might say to his brother, “you numbskull,” will be liable to the Sanhedrin. Furthermore, whoever might say, “you fool,” will be liable to the fire of Hell.

The conjunction δὲ [dé] links these three statements and is used here three times to introduce an addition or contrast to a string of thought. The first δὲ introduces the contrast to what was said long ago (from v.21), and the other two introduce additions to that thought. I have thus rendered them, “however,” “moreover,” and “furthermore” respectively to communicate that progressive addition of information to the string of thought.

There is a slight variation in some of the manuscripts of this text. A strong manuscript tradition (in manuscripts D, L, W, f1, f13, etc.) inserts εἰκῇ [eikē] “without cause” after ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ [adelphō autou] “his brother.”[6] So you will sometimes see that added into some older translations. However, it is usually viewed as a later textual addition, and the UBS Greek text reflects the opinion that it was added by scribes in order to soften Jesus’ remark. However, none of the modern translations include it in their text though some may argue it gives the correct interpretation.[7] This textual varient may have been a commentary by an early scribe to clarify the meaning of the text. Without it, the statement stands more open-ended, that is, if you ever call your brother or sister a fool or numbskull—regardless of if it was with or without cause. The word ἀδελφός [adelphós] “brother” used here is probably better understood as a fellow-disciple and part of the family of God rather than a literal family member and obviously would include women too—this is not a gender specific usage of the term.[8]

A Pattern in the Text

There is a pattern here which is of note. It is a formula of first of stating the act of the person who transgresses Christ’s higher standard, and is followed by the promised result of ἔνοχος ἔσται [énochos éstai] “will be liable” to the various judgments. This pattern is repeated three times here. There is some speculation about whether if there is a pattern of intensification here of the offense and the judgment which follows. It starts off with becoming angry and judgment, then calling them a numbskull and being liable to the Sanhedrin, then calling them a fool and hellfire. However, it is hard to see how calling someone a name is more intense than becoming angry and no specific pattern can be neatly established. It is better to view them as a unit, a triplet—which is a commonly used teaching tool by rabbis—which moves the focus of the law to the inward condition rather than merely the outward expression.

Name Calling

The word ῥακά [rhaka] is said by some to be a quasi-swear word in Aramaic which probably meant something like “empty-headed” or some suggest “good-for-nothing.”[9] I have rendered it “numbskull” as what might perhaps be an appropriate modern idiom. Feel free to insert your own equivalent insult though—the point is the same. The συνέδριον [sunédrion] “Sanhedrin” was the high council of the Jews comprising of priests, elders and scribes with the high priest as its president. It was the highest authority among the Jews in religious, governmental and legal affairs.[10] It seems unlikely that someone would be dragged to such a high court for a simple offence as calling someone a numbskull, but it intensifies the intended shock to Jesus’ statement of elevating these standards to inner purity. Likewise, μωρέ [mōré] “you fool” has the meaning of “senseless” but also may have suggested religious impiety as well as some scholars interpret it according to the OT use of the godless fool who rebels against God (Psa. 14:1; 94:8; Isa. 32:6; Deut. 32:6; Jer. 5:21).[11] Both of these may have been common utterances and not the sort of exceptional abuse most might conceive to be a basis for litigation.

“The deliberate paradox of Jesus’ pronouncement is thus that ordinary insults may betray an attitude of contempt which God takes extremely seriously. The effect of the saying is therefore to be found not in a careful correlation between each offence individually and the respective punishment assigned to it, but in the cumulative rhetorical force of a series of everyday scenes and the remarkable range of expressions used for their results; the totally unexpected conclusion in ‘hell-fire’ comes as a shocking jolt to the complacency of the hearer, who might well have chuckled over the incongruous image of a person being tried for anger or for conventional insult, only to be pulled up short by the saying’s conclusion.”[12]

A Matter of the Heart

The principle here is that the actual act of murder is only the outward manifestation of what is in the heart already. Hateful thoughts and contemptuous words both flow from the heart (12:34) and deserve equal judgment by God. “God never wanted people merely to obey rules; he wanted them to be holy as he is, to value what he values.”[13] The “hell-fire” which concludes the failure to live up to the righteousness Jesus demands, by comparison goes well beyond the ‘mere’ capital punishment the OT law envisaged.[14] So much for that myth that ‘the God of the OT is more strict than the NT!’

The word γέεννα [géennan] occurs 7 times in Matthew (5:29–30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33) and refers to the valley of Hinnom, a ravine to the south of Jerusalem. During the monarchy it was once the site of human sacrifice to Molech of passing children through the fire (2 Kings 23:10, Jer. 7:31). “There are prophecies of judgment on this dreadful place (Jer. 7:32; 19:6), and it came to be linked with the final place of torment. There is some evidence that the place was used as a rubbish dump where fires burned continually.”[15] It thus provided vivid imagery of “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41).[16]

So this should really make us stop and think! This is the place which Jesus ultimately says that people who hate their brother are liable to end up—even to the point of those who call them degrading names! What a standard to be held to! It should make us think twice about our own hearts and words towards people. If our Lord thought it serious enough to warrant hellfire, even though we are saved by grace from this judgment, as God’s holy people striving for progression in holiness we should abandon sinful practices and attitudes for which our Lord died. Let us be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1:19-20).

Matthew 5:23-24 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου.

Therefore, if you should bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go be reconciled first to your brother, and then come offer your gift.

Acceptable Worship

The conjunction οὖν [oun] “therefore” shows that what follows expands on the result of what had been previous discussed. Because even such ‘minor’ offenses of slander, name calling, or anger are worthy of such severe judgment from God, then it should affect how we approach worship if we know that someone has something against us. The verb προσφέρω [prosphérō] “bring” is normally used for the offering of a sacrifice and δῶρόν [dōrón] “gift” is often used of what is sacrificed.[17] The use of θυσιαστήριον [thusiastērion] “altar” also confirms this understanding. These are all words related to worship and sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem. The present tense of the verb perhaps pictures the worshipper in the act of offering, and while he is there in the process of offering his gift at the altar, he remembers.

Interestingly, it is not the anger of the person whom Jesus is addressing which is in view here, but rather the anger that person provoked in another! “It is not enough to control one’s temper (though that is important); one must not arouse other people’s anger.”[18] Note that again the same term “brother” is used, so this is primarily with the household of faith in view—though I would not strictly limit it only to among believers. Espectially within the church, we should be taking it very seriously not to harbour offenses between one another and seek to be quickly reconciled! The acceptability of our very worship depends on it! Also, the change from second person plural to singular (i.e. you all to you individual) “indicates that these are individualized illustrations of the general principle just enunciated. Verses 23–24 and 25–26 are in effect two little parables about reconciliation.”[19] This cross references with the comment on the Lord’s Prayer in 6:14-15.

Going to Great Lengths

But wait! There’s more that we may have missed… Without some context to what bringing an offering at the temple incurs, one may miss the enormous emphasis of the point Jesus is drawing out here. It was a generally rare experience to make an offering in the Temple for most Jews at that time, and the only altar which that offering could be made at would be in Jerusalem. So, from where Jesus said this saying in Galilee, it would have been a journey of about eighty miles that the worshipper would have to travel with this sacrificial animal! They would make that journey, usually either on foot or with the help of a beast of burden—with their sacrificial animal in tow or perhaps being carried so as to not blemish it.

He is saying now that as the worshipper remembers that someone has something against him, he is to leave the sacrificial animal there at the Temple and make the journey of a week or more back to Galilee just to make reconciliation with the offended brother before daring to present his offering! Still think this is something pithy? The outrageousness of this scenario more emphatically makes Jesus’ point of the importance of keeping right relationships and how it affects our relationship with God. “He must take whatever steps are needed to restore harmony, and only when this is done may he come back and resume his offering. The act of sacrifice is not as important as the spirit in which it is done.”[20] It creates a powerful positive counterpart to the anger and abuse which Jesus just condemned in verse 22.[21] So, we must make every effort to be reconciled to our brothers and sisters in Christ—to strive to keep the bond of harmony between believers (Eph. 4:3).

Matthew 5:25-26 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχύ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ· ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν, ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.

Settle the case with your accuser quickly, while you are with him on the way, or else your accuser may deliver you to the judge and the judge to the officer and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you shall surely not come out from there until you have paid the last penny!

The phrase ἴσθι εὐνοῶν [isthi eunoōn] is literally an imperative command to “be well disposed or agreeable with.” So, in the context it means to “settle the case” with the accuser. This is another more threatening illustration of the importance of reconciliation, this time involving potential litigation and imprisonment. So, the one under duress is to seek a quick settlement out of court to avoid this escalation of legal consequences. The word ἀντίδιχος [antidichos] strictly means an adversary in a lawsuit and was a common legal word.[22] The purpose of this little parable is “not to give practical advice for legal disputes (no indication is given as to what sort of settlement might be possible if the money is not available) but simply to reinforce an ethical message: do not allow bad relationships to remain unresolved.”[23]

Friendship and amends can be made on the way to the court. It is too late when they are already in the law court, just as it will be too late when one stands before the Lord in judgment. The use of the emphatic double-negative in the Greek here reinforces the impossibility of release until the full payment is made. The phrase τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην [ton eschaton kodrantēn] (literally the last quadrans or farthing) “refers to the second-smallest Roman coin, which represented one sixty-fourth of a denarius, hence only a few minutes’ wages for even a day laborer.”[24] It denotes that the person will pay everything, even down to the smallest cent. Translating it as “the last penny” is more appropriate to a modern context.

Like Jesus’ longer parable of debt and imprisonment in 18:23-35, it points to the divine judgment which rests on those whose earthly relationships do not conform to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven. So this can be seen as a reminder to us both to make peace between each other here, but more importantly between us and God. Let us not put off reconciliation in the household of faith.

Matthew 5:27-28 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη· οὐ μοιχεύσεις. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” However, I say to you that everyone gazing upon a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus’ basic treatment of the commandment against adultery is the same in principle as that of the commandment against murder. He takes the visible act forbidden by the commandment and focuses it on the inward desire, in this case lust or “adultery in the heart.” The opening prohibition is a direct quotation of the LXX (Septuagint) from Exodus 20:14 and Deut. 5:17. The focus here in saying that the person looks upon the woman in order to lust after her implies intentionality or planning. Craig Blomberg comments, “the present tense participle blepōn refers to one who continues to look rather than just casting a passing glance, and in either case the mere viewing or mental imagining of a naked body is not under consideration.”[25] This isn’t just a momentary noticing of an attractive lady. I have thus translated it “gazing upon” to try to convey the sense of a lingering gaze as opposed to a fleeting glance.

It should be further noted that it isn’t just simply looking at someone and finding them good looking or a genuine (and innocent) appreciation of beauty. What is in question is not just a mere sexual attraction, “but on the desire for (and perhaps the planning of) an illicit sexual liaison.”[26] Jesus is here giving an implicit argument from scripture and connecting this directly to the Ten Commandments in the OT. In the LXX (Septuagint—the Greek version of the OT) the tenth commandment began, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and used the same word for “covet”—ἐπιθυμέω [epithumeō]—that Jesus uses here for “lust.”

So check this! The tenth commandment was one which we could not say of another that they had transgressed, since covetuousness was a matter of the heart. “In other words, Jesus reads the humanly unenforceable tenth commandment as if it matters as much as the other, more humanly enforceable commandments.”[27] This is what Jesus does with the other commands. He shows us that (as the tenth commandment reveals), the commandments were concerned not just with mere outward rule-following, but a reorientation of the inward desires. This is something which we are totally unable to manufacture in ourselves! We need the Lord to create in us a pure heart (Psa. 51:10).

Matthew 5:29-30 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ· συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.

Moreover, if your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from you! For it is better for you that one of your members should perish instead of your whole body be cast into Hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and cast it from you! For it is better for you that one of your members should perish instead of your whole body be cast into Hell.

As in verses 23-26, these mini-parables serve to reinforce the radical implication of Jesus’ standard of righteousness, this time with regards to his expansion on the prohibition of adultery. Both of these saying establish a conditional clause—if your right eye or hand causes you to stumble—and concludes with an emphatic imperative command to amputate the offending body part. The verb used here, σκανδαλίω [skandaliō], denotes something catastrophic, “a stumbling which deflects a person from the path of God’s will and salvation (13:21; 18:6; 24:10; 26:31–33), and a ‘stumbling-block’ is a person or thing which gets in the way of God’s saving purpose (13:41; 16:23; 18:7).”[28] So this is in reference to something significant and potentially eternally dangerous to the person, not to just a mere slip up. It could perhaps be right to think of it in terms of besetting sins, habitual sinful practices which the person is not willing or able to turn from.

Jesus exaggerates to make his point abundantly clear. “H. D. Betz, Sermon 238–239, provides ample evidence that in both Hellenistic and rabbinic literature ‘exaggerated demands to cut off limbs from the body as a sign of seriousness about morality were commonplace.’”[29] So this sort of exaggeration was not something necessarily foreign to his audience. The specification of the right eye, and right hand serve to strengthen the impact of the saying as the right hand would be assumed to be of greater usefulness in general. However, the right eye may not be so easily singled out as more or less useful than the left and was probably specified to create a literary balance in the saying. The point here is the seriousness to which disciples are to have in “cutting out” sexual sin from their lives. The theme of these verses is that these things are impediments to ultimate salvation and thus there is a heavy importance of eliminating them at all costs. It is far better to lose even these important body parts, however painful, than to suffer the total loss of Hell. The imagery of the “whole body” being thrown into Hell serves to emphasize this point of the comparative greater loss if these warnings are not heeded. However, these metaphors should not be taken literally to suggest that amputees will be raised in an imperfect body.[30]

This concern with sexual purity is something reiterated in other places in the NT such as Ephesians 5:3, “But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” God takes very seriously our sexual purity. This is very counter cultural to the modern secular sexual ethic—or lack thereof. Sexual temptation is one thing which nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to manage it, or to be ‘strong enough to endure it’, but rather to flee from it (1 Cor. 6:18)! RUN!!!

However, I also don’t want to be insensitive to the reality that many may have fallen in this area already. To that I’d comfort the one who has repented truly—there’s enough grace at the Cross to cover that sin and I would not hold against you what God has forgiven you. However, God knows how dangerous and easy it is to fall. The bonds that sex creates are incredibly strong and why it is reserved for use only in the context of the covenant of marriage. God isn’t trying to be some kind of prude killjoy—He’s actually for your utmost joy! Many who have fallen in this area and realized the folly of their sin will counsel others that—like all sin—the temporary pleasures are not worth it in the long run. The point here is—don’t be playing with this sin. Don’t be testing your boundaries or ‘how close you can go’ before it is sin—run.

Mathew 5:31-32 Ἐρρέθη δέ· ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον. ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ, μοιχᾶται.

Furthermore, it has been said that whoever would divorce his wife, let him give a letter of divorce to her. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on account of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And if whoever—having been divorced—should remarry, commits adultery.

By this point the opening formula has been reduced to ἐρρέθη δέ [erréthē de] “it has been said” as repetition of the entire phrase from verse 21 would simply be redundant. Here it introduces is a summary of the way the OT passage was understood rather than an exact quotation, which is why I have left out the direct quotes on the text. The δέ here suggests since the implications of what Jesus is about to discuss about divorce has implications of sexual sin, it is a continuation of the train of thought adding to what he has covered just prior. Lust was one form of sexual unfaithfulness, and here divorce is seen as another.

The clause which Jesus uses in reply to what people had understood the OT passage to say has the word πᾶς [pas] “anyone” as the subject and ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ [ho apolúōn tēn gunaika autou] “the one divorcing the wife of him” functioning as a qualifier that limits the scope of the “anyone.” The phrase παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας [parektos logou porneías] “except for the cause of sexual immorality” then might be seen as a further qualifier making the subject in view more specific to a certain group of individuals who match the criteria. Mainly, those who divorce their wife with the exception of those divorcing her for the reason of “sexual immorality” – a term which must be clearly defined to properly interpret and apply this passage.

In the last clause of verse 32, I have rendered the perfect aspect of ἀπολελυμένην [apoleluménēn] as “having been divorced.” It sets the qualifier for the subject (ὃς), which is why I have separated it inside of the em-dashes for the sake of clarity. The subjunctive γαμήσῃ (should marry) follows the conditional particle ἐὰν [eàn]. All of this is just technical speak to say, that after the person has divorced his wife and if they then remarry, they fulfil this condition for it to be considered adultery.

Divorce and Remarriage

The reason for this teaching is that the major area of rabbinic dispute at the time was over the permissible grounds for divorce rather than the legitimacy of divorce itself, which was taken for granted. Deuteronomy 24:1–4 was the topic of hot debate during their time, “since the first husband’s decision is said to be based on his finding ‘something shameful’ in the woman, while the second husband is simply said to have ‘disliked’ her (śānāʾ, a quite general word for ‘hate’).”[31] Some people were using this as a basis to divorce their wife for anything which they found shameful or disliked. Rather broad and generic terms indeed! In order to regulate this tendency, there was the requirement to give a written statement of divorce. The ἀποστάσιον [apostásion] “letter of divorce” served to protect the woman since, “a capricious husband could not drive her from his home and afterward claim that she was still his wife. He must give her the document that set out her right to marry someone else.”[32] Remember, in these times a woman usually depended on her husband as the main bread winner and source of security. Therefore, if she was prevented from being able to remarry, it would be very unfair to her. Divorce and the right to remarry here are thus inseparable.

However, Jesus is not intending to initiate grounds for such a provision. “His condemnation of remarriage as adultery is simply on the grounds that the divorce (unless for adultery) was not legitimate and so the original marriage remains valid in the sight of God.”[33] So, a man who divorces his wife in a Jewish situation, “compels her to marry someone else (in first-century Jewish society how else could she live?) makes her an adulteress.”[34] In Matthew 19:8 Jesus teaches that even this was not the way God intended it to be, but was an allowance made by Moses because the people were not willing to live according to God’s Law.[35]

In the phrase ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι [poiei autēn moicheuthēnai], the divorced woman is “made to commit adultery” and according to the second clause, the man who remarries also commits adultery. The Jews held that a man only committed adultery if the partner he engaged with sexually was a married woman. However, Jesus does not make such distinctions, in his books, both commit adultery.[36] The word πορνείας [porneías], which I have translated “sexual immorality” more strictly can refer to sex with a prostitute (traditionally “fornication”) or cover various kinds of sexual immorality. R.T. France takes the position that, “as applied to a married woman it most likely applies either to adultery or to the discovery of pre-marital intercourse with someone other than the husband, or more likely to either or both.”[37] This has been the traditional understanding of the text for most. However, there is some debate on this though, as Newman comments:

“However, sociological studies of New Testament times have led some scholars to suggest that a better rendering would be ‘an unlawful marriage,’ as for example between people of certain blood or legal relationships who were forbidden to marry each other by Mosaic Law. NJB and TOB, for example, have ‘except for the case of an illicit marriage,’ and the revised New Testament of NAB has ‘unless the marriage is unlawful.’”[38]

This would further restrict the perceived ‘grounds’ for divorce in modern debates over this passage as it would limit the only legitimate provision for divorce to be on account of marrying someone who you legally could not. “Here, however, he raises the issue not to discuss the grounds (though his phrase “except for sexual unfaithfulness” inevitably raises that question for us) but in order to query the assumption that any divorce could be acceptable in the first place.”[39] Additionally, if we look at the intentional use of two different terms in this text – the more generic, πορνείας (sexual immorality) and μοιχάομαι (adultery) – we must ask, why the differentiation in terms? Some have argued that it is because in Matthew’s gospel, πορνείας is in relation to pre-marital sex and not adultery (sex outside of marriage). This would then change the meaning of the exception clause to mean that the only grounds for divorce would be if the partner was unfaithful while they were engaged before they were married since in that time and custom, divorce was required to call off an engagement.

Jesus’ teaching here then ideally makes the Jews understanding of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 obsolete if God’s purpose for marriage is truly honored, because “the prior divorce for which it legislates will not in fact occur in the ethics of the kingdom of heaven.” Here, Jesus is rescuing Deut. 24:1–4 “from misuse for a purpose for which it was never intended.” [40] It was never meant to provide a positive basis for divorce among God’s people, “but only a trouble-shooting provision in case things went wrong.”[41] Therefore, we cannot be so flippant about divorce as God’s intended purpose was for marriage to be a life-long covenant between one man and one woman. “Til death do us part” is not contingent on our convenience or our culture’s relaxed views on divorce.

Personally, I hold to the permanence view of marriage because I think it is more exegetically sound and better shows the purpose of marriage. Christian marriage is the analogy that the Bible uses to illustrate Christ’s love for the Church—so what does that say about Christ’s love for His bride when Christians are getting divorced? However, the discussion on the permanence view of marriage is a bigger discussion for another time (I’d recommend the position paper linked above or the book – Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View).


The last 3 of these higher standards continues on until verse 47 with teaching regarding swearing oaths, retaliation and loving your enemies. This section directly followed Jesus’ pronouncement that a righteousness exceeding that of even the Pharisees is required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. So, that is what should be kept in mind as we read his 6 teachings which elevate the standard. He is showing us through these “you have heard… but I say to you…” teachings what a “righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees” looks like. It is an inward righteousness that is superior to the Pharisees’ outward legalism.

Lastly, the section ends in verse 47 with, “You therefore must be perfect, as hour heavenly Father is perfect.” This standard of perfection is what has just been outlined by Jesus—it is a perfection not only of deed, but of intention, will, desire and motives. It is a perfection which none of us can earn. It must be imputed to us and brought about in us progressively through the Spirit. This is what we should take away from this section—not a sort of legalism which enslaves us, but rather it should help us to see that we cannot earn this on our own. It should point us to the fact that this perfect righteousness belongs to Christ alone, and it is this righteousness that he imputes to us who are saved. Hallelujah! What a glorious thought! Furthermore, this passage should inspire us to strive towards this inward righteousness as part of our walk of sanctification. However, this too we realize we cannot do on our own. So, it leads us not only to trust Christ for our salvation, but also to depend on him for our sanctification—as we received him, so also we walk in him (Col. 2:6).



  • Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
  • France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007.
  • Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
  • Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
  • Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.
  • Newman, Barclay Moon, and Philip C. Stine. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.


[1] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 130. [2] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 197. [3] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 198. [4] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 194–195. [5] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200. [6] Blomberg, Matthew, 106. [7] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 131. [8] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200. [9] Blomberg, Matthew, 107; Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 132. [10] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 115. [11] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 132. [12] France, The Gospel of Matthew201. [13] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 183. [14] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 199. [15] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 115. [16] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 202. [17] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 115. [18] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 116. [19] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 202. [20] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 116. [21] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 202–203. [22] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 116. [23] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 203. [24] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 185. [25] Blomberg, Matthew, 109. [26] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 204. [27] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 187. [28] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 205. [29] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 205. [30] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 206. [31] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 207. [32] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 120. [33] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 212. [34] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 121. [35] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 140. [36] Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, 122. [37] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 208–209. [38] Newman, A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew, 141. [39]France, The Gospel of Matthew, 208. [40] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 212. [41] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 212.

Please note, the Amazon Affiliate Links in my articles give me a small commission when you make a purchase at no extra cost to you and helps to cover the costs of this site. Thanks!

You may also like…