By David E. Dicus
In John 8 the writer records an incident regarding adultery that has many of the aspects of a controversy that is disturbing the brotherhood today. While John’s record dealt with the question of what punishment should be applied under Moses’ law (see Lev. 20), some brethren today are more concerned with ways and means to excuse or exonerate the offender. The people of Jesus’ day had no trouble in identifying problems of adultery. It was simply a matter of “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than their lawful spouse” (Webster). Although this definition of adultery came from our modern dictionary, it was just as applicable in Christ’s time as it is today. Back then, there was no hassle over whether they had a right to divorce and remarry or if the guilty party was amenable to this law or that law. Not that it makes any difference but, we can’t even prove Whether the woman in this story was a Jew or a Gentile. What is important is the fact that the question did not even come up and obviously the laws covering adultery were similar for all people of that day. Under the circumstances we probably have to concede that she was Jewish and subject to Moses’ law. It would be interesting to see just how this story might have turned out if some of our brethren of today had been around to “defend” the woman.
John did not see fit to go into detail as to what this woman was mixed up in. Did she have a living husband? Was she in an unscriptural marriage? She could have been single and involved with a married man. Leviticus 20 suggests any number of ways she could have committed the adultery. What is perfectly clear is that there was no question but what she was guilty of a grievous sin, the sin of adultery. Also in evidence is the fact that Jesus, who had the power to forgive sins, forgave her (see Matt. 9:6; Luke 5:24). He said, “Neither do I condemn thee – go and sin no more.” In other words, the forgiveness bestowed by Jesus was on condition that she not return to her previous state of adultery. It did not give her any license to continue in what she had been doing. If it was considered adultery and sin before Jesus forgave her, it would still be adultery and sin after the forgiveness took place. What reason would there be to expect the circumstances to be any different today?
At issue in this incident between Christ and the Pharisees was a conflict between the law of Moses and the principles that Christ was teaching. To this effect then, we can say it was simply a conflict between the old law of Moses and the new law of Christ. The old law called for a punishment of physical death for the sin of adultery. It made no provision for forgiveness as provided for in the new law (Heb. 10:4). On the other hand, the new law sets out eternal death as a punishment, but it also provides a way of escape through repentance and forgiveness. And over and over again the message of the New Testament cautions the forgiven sinner against returning to his sin. As Jesus said, “Go, and sin no more.”
In the controversy before the brotherhood today the key issue is what constitutes a “lawful spouse” as suggested by Webster (above), more specifically, the lawful spouse in a divorce and re-marriage situation. The answer should be quite obvious. A lawful spouse is a person who has satisfied both the laws of God and man in a marriage relationship. In the case of man’s law, this is not difficult to do. (Not near as difficult as it should be considering our present average divorce rate of I out of every 2 marriages. But this is another problem. – DED) The difficulty arises when we start to justify the leniency allowed in man’s laws in light of what God expects. Divorce courts today will grant divorces for most any cause from adultery to irreconcilable differences and incompatibility. The people involved are free to remarry anyone else so long as the new mate is also un-married in the eyes of civil law. The New Testament law will also allow a divorce between marriage partners, but it lists only one reason for either of those partners to marry the third party, that reason being when fornication was a factor in the divorce. Then, only the innocent partner is free to remarry without being considered an adulterer or adulteress.
Jesus first taught these principals in his sermon on the mount in Matthew 5:31,32. Then, when pressed by the Pharisees, he went into more detail in Matthew 19:4-9. In this teaching Christ points out that it was God’s intention that man and wife should be “one flesh ” and “what God hath joined together, let not man part asunder. ” Then he says, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives (Deut. 24:1) but from the beginning it was not so. ” While it is to be conceded that a “put away” spouse under Moses’ law, could re-marry under certain conditions, Jesus minced no words as to what he expected when he said, “except it be for fornication. ” “And whoso marrieth her that is put away (except for this reason) doth commit adultery.” And about this, as he said to the woman, “Go, and sin no more.”
It may be wise to point out at this juncture that, although fornication and adultery are similar terms, they vary slightly in their definitions. Webster says fornication is “sexual intercourse between a man and a woman not married to each other.” Careful comparison of the two definitions will show that adultery is illicit sexual involvement by a married person or persons, while in fornication, one or both partners may be unmarried. Since Jesus was dealing with the question of marriage, he obviously touched all the bases when he included single people by the use of the term fornication. This is one loop hole he closed and no amount of misapplied, out of context, Scripture can pry it open.
As far as can be determined by this writer, these two occasions mentioned in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 are the only times Jesus taught on the subject of divorce and remarriage. To be sure Mark and Luke alluded to the same incidents, but not in as much detail as Matthew. As we analyze these passages, it is obvious that they were all that was needed to cover the subject. They are concise, factual, and directly to the point. Since there were no other conditions, understandings, agreements, or circumstances affecting the marriage laws of God, there was no reason for Christ to belabor the issue, as many do today. But while he dealt with facts, the apostle Paul’s teaching was concerned with specific conditions. For example, the incestuous relationship in 1 Corinthians 5, and the general instructions of 1 Corinthians 7, and Romans 7, Paul was not teaching the law of divorce and remarriage, rather he was applying the law to the circumstances and persons involved. Paul was a lawyer, a Pharisee who was trained “according to the strict manner of the law of the fathers” (Matt. 22:3). It was not his job to create or enact law, merely to interpret or apply it even though he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. When this passage, and others like them, are taken out of this context, they can easily be twisted to create confusion between what Christ and the Apostle Paul were teaching. And who is it that will agree that this is possible with the word of God (1 Cor. 14:33)?
Some years ago a close friend and brother in the Lord attempted to justify his adulterous re-marriage with I Corinthians 6. He claimed that because his ex-wife had taken “a brother to law” for the divorce, he was scripturally justified to remarry, even though adultery was not a factor in his divorce. He had found a “loop hole” and he was determined to “marry his new love.” And so he did.
It seems to be a common trait of false teachers to attempt to justify questionable circumstances, rather than accept the truth to correct them. This is especially true of the brethren who go about attempting to justify unscriptural divorce and remarriage. It seems that using misapplied and out of context scriptures, is the name of the game. Instead of searching out and “rightly dividing” the penetrate Scriptures, they will seek out vague passages and take them out of context to try to prove their point. And the point they are trying to prove has usually been generated by circumstances within their own lives or the lives of someone close to them. They apparently give no thought to the souls they are leading astray. They simply are not paying attention to Jesus as he tells them, “Go and sin no more.”
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 4, pp. 99-100
February 16, 1989