More on Remarriage after a Non-Biblical Divorce
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, October 15, 2010 at 2:10pm
QUESTION: You have said that in a new marriage after a non-Biblical divorce, the new spouses initially commit the sin of adultery, but that this is not an on-going sin. The new marriage is a valid marriage, and the husband and wife are not “living in adultery,” even though Matt. 19:9 uses the present tense for “commits adultery.” Therefore this marriage should not be broken up so that this couple may attempt to return to their original spouses. But does not the Greek present tense portray an action that is continuous and occurring in present time? Does not Greek grammar point in this direction? Thus would not such a marriage be an ongoing, habitual sin? Did not John the Baptist rebuke Herod for this very thing: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18)? Did not the Israelites in Ezra 9, 10 have to put away their foreign wives after returning from captivity?
ANSWER: Let’s deal with the issue of the Greek present tense first of all. As a general rule, present tense refers to action that is occurring in the present, as opposed to past tense (aorist, imperfect) which refers to action in the past, and future tense which of course refers to action that will occur in the future. This is not always the case, however. Even in narratives, sometimes the present tense is used for past events. See, e.g., Mark 1:12, 21, 30, 37, 38, 40, 41, 44; 2:3 etc.; John 13:5, 6 etc. This is just a Greek idiom.
Various examples of the use of present tense for one-time actions can be found in the NT. Occasionally, after Jesus had made a claim to deity, the Jewish leaders declared, “This man blasphemes!”—using present tense for a specific past event (Matt. 9:3; Mark 2:7; John 10:36). These leaders also complained that Jesus’ disciples “do not wash their hands when they eat” (Matt. 15:2). Such hand-washing would not be considered as a continuous act. These same leaders asked Jesus, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” (John 2:18). Such a sign would be a single event, but “show” is present tense. Concerning Judas’ imminent betrayal, Jesus said, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed [present tense]” (Matt. 26:24).
Also, the present tense is quite often used for a specific KIND of one-time event, but not a specific incident of that kind of event. It refers to a category of action, with this connotation: “In such-and-such a circumstance, this is what happens.” E.g., “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down [present tense] and thrown [p.t.] into the fire” (Matt. 7:19). “No one puts [p.t.] a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment” (Matt. 9:16; see also v. 17). “The evil one comes and snatches away [p.t.] what has been sown in his heart” (Matt. 13:19). “Just as the weeds are gathered [p.t.] and burned [p.t.] with fire, so will it be at the close of the age” (Matt. 13:40). “For in the resurrection they neither marry [p.t.] nor are given in marriage [p.t.]” (Matt. 22:30).” The good shepherd lays down [p.t.] his life for the sheep” (John 10:11; see vv. 10, 12).
These last examples are the type of statement found in Matt. 19:9: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery [present tense].” This is a general statement about a kind of action; it is not referring to a specific event. Matthew 5:32; Mark 10:11, 12; and Luke 16:18 are the same. In all of the passages cited above, the present tense does NOT refer to continuing, ongoing action. This is simply not a uniform implication of the present tense.
What’s the deal, then, with John the Baptist’s condemnation of Herod Antipas’s union with Herodias? The fact is that Herodias was married Herod Philip (actually one of her relatives) when Herod Antipas met her and decided he wanted her for his wife—which required that he put aside his present wife, Aretas (daughter of an Arabian king). Whether any attempts at legal divorces were made is uncertain, but Herod Antipas and Herodias did begin living together in a kind of marriage. This is the union that John the Baptist denounced, which led to his death (Matt. 14:3-12; Mark 6:17-29; Luke 3:19-20).
We should be clear that John the Baptist’s denunciation of Herod’s marriage could have been for any number of reasons, but the problem was not simply that he was “divorced and remarried.” When John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18), he was referring to a specific prohibition in the Law of Moses (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). These verses forbade any man to marry his sister-in-law (his brother’s wife) while that brother was still alive. If the brother died childless, then the man was supposed to marry the widow in order to raise up children in his brother’s name (the law of levirate marriage, Deut. 25:5). But Herod Philip was still alive, and he already had a child with Herodias—Salome by name. Thus Herod Antipas’s marriage to Herodias was clearly unlawful in terms of the Mosaic Law. We cannot read any more into it than this.
In Ezra 9 and 10 the situation in view is of another kind entirely. Here the descendants of the southern tribes that had been in Babylonian exile for several decades have now returned to their homeland and are trying to restore their commitment to life and worship according to the Law of Moses. One big problem was that while these exiled Jews had been living in Babylon, many had intermarried with pagan women, “so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2). The law that was broken in this case was not the general law governing marriage and divorce as such, but the specific commandment of God that the Jews were NOT to intermarry with pagans. This is specifically stated in Exod. 34:11-16; Deut. 7:1-4. The original law had to do with the pagan inhabitants of the Promised Land: “You shall not intermarry with them, . . . for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Deut. 7:3-4). The principle applies to intermarriage with any pagans. This is the specific law that Ezra laments had been broken (Ezra 9:10ff.). The priests had even narrower standards for their marriages (Lev. 21:7, 13-14), yet many of them also had intermarried with pagan women (Ezra 10:18ff.). Thus these chapters from Ezra are simply not related to the issue of whether divorced individuals may remarry and whether their new marriages are legitimate.
My original explanation, then, still seems to be valid and Biblical. After an unbiblical (and therefore sinful) divorce (i.e., one not based on either sexual immorality or abandonment), the initial sexual union in a subsequent remarriage does involve the sin of adultery. But this is the final severance of the original marriage, which has already ended legally; and the new marriage is now the only one that exists. The spouses involved in this new union are not “living in adultery”; breaking up the new marriage would not only be a bad idea—it would be just plain wrong.