The Exception Clause of Matthew 5:32 & 19:9

Pastor Scott L Harris
July 26, 1992

The Exception Clause of Matthew 5:32 & 19:9

Primary in understanding the interpretation of any passage is the context in which the passage is set. Brief review of the context.

Context of Matthew 5:32

1) Sermon on the Mount – the nature of true righteousness. Jesus is speaking to a Jewish audience

2) One of the illustrations contrasting the teaching of the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees with true righteousness

3) Jesus did not come to abolish the Mosaic Law but to fulfill, and He will not take away from or add to the Law until all is accomplished (5:17,18).

4) Jesus emphasis is not on the exception clause, but on the fact that divorce that takes place for reasons other than that exception clause causes adultery – the very sin he had addressed in the previous verses.

Context of Matthew 19:9

The Pharisees were questioning Jesus if there was any cause at all for which a man could divorce his wife (vs. 3). Jesus does not answer their question directly, but brings them back to God’s intent for marriage that there should be no separation. The Pharisees then ask Jesus why Moses commanded the certificate to be given and the wife divorced (Note that they believed Moses commanded the divorce to take place). Jesus first exposes them that the reason was because of their hard hearts. Second, Jesus corrects them and tells them Moses permitted it, not commanded it, and it had not been that way from the beginning. Jesus then gives the result of divorce that takes place for reason other than the exception clause – more adultery. (Note as well that Jesus answer in verses 11-12) to the disciples’ question of vs. 10 does not deal with divorce – but with it being good not to marry – if the person is able to accept it, but not all men can accept that. Paul says essentially the same thing in 1 Cor. 7).

Also primary in understanding the interpretation of any passage is that clear passages govern difficult passages. What is clear in Scripture in regards to divorce?

1) Marriage is intended to be permanent (Genesis 3 cf Matthew 19)

2) God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

3) God only commanded divorce in one unique situation – Ezra 10. The priests had married foreign wives contrary to Mosaic law and were in danger of forfeiting their priesthood.

4) God allowed for divorce in certain situations

  1. a) Exodus 21:7f – a Hebrew slave that is made a wife of her master and her husband then does not perform his marital duties – she can leave him with no money being paid to redeem her as a slave.
  2. b) Deut.. 21:10f – a woman captured during a war that is then made the wife of one of the men of Israel and then he has “no delight in her” can be released to “go wherever she will” – but she cannot be sold as merchandise (booty – a slave) because she has been “humbled.”
  3. c) Deut.. 24:1 – no favor in husband’s eyes because of some indecency in her.

5) God regulated divorce in certain situations and said it could not take place (implication is that in other situations it could take place).

  1. a) Deut.. 22:13-19 – a man who marries a woman and then turns against her and defames her and claims he did not find her a virgin when he married her, if her parents bring out the proof of her virginity then the man is to be chastised, fined (which is given to the girl’s father, and “she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.”
  2. b) Deut. 22:28-29 – a man who finds a virgin that is not engaged and then seizes her and lies with her and then they are discovered – he pays the girl’s father a fine (essentially a dowry) and “she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.”
  3. c) Deut. 24:1-4 as above: a woman divorced then married to another cannot return to the first husband even if second husband divorces her or dies.

6) Divorced people treated differently in certain circumstances.

  1. a) Lev. 21:7,14 – a priest could not marry either a harlot or a divorced woman – he could only “marry a virgin of his own people.”
  2. b) Lev. 22:13 – a priest’s daughter who is widowed or divorced and had not children of her own to support her could return to his home and “eat of her father’s food; but no layman shall eat of it.”
  3. c) Num 30:9 – the vow of a woman could be annulled by her father or husband if married, but the widow and the divorced woman would be held to their vows.

7) God uses the analogy of divorce to express his dealings with Israel at the time of the captivities (Isa 50:1f & Jer 3:1-10)

Some introductory comments:

With all this in mind we try to understand the exception clauses Jesus gave. In our limited time I cannot be completely exhaustive, but I can cover the major arguments of the various views. No matter which view I personally took, there would be those that would disagree. However, I am comfortable and confident that the view I take has the strongest backing of Scripture. I have studied this particular subject several times in the past, and for this presentation I have gone over additional material including a couple of doctorate and masters’ degree dissertations and a half dozen more books. While the majority is not always right, it is still comforting to be in agreement – as I am – with the vast majority of conservative Biblical scholars of the past century.

To start with some hold to a view that the Bible teaches no divorce at all. While I agree that was God’s original intent for marriage, I reject that view out of hand based on the context of both passages and the other material dealing with divorce already cited. Matthew 1:19 cites Joseph as a “righteous man,” yet he desired to put Mary away secretly. The English phrase “put away” in that verse is the Greek word used for divorce – which is what Joseph would have to do legally since he and Mary were already betrothed to each other. In Jewish law they were legally bound in marriage though it had not been consummated yet.

The questions before us is what did Jesus mean by the phrase “except for immorality / unchastity / sexual immorality. The key word here is the Greek word porneiva / porneia – from which we get our root for the word “porno” – as in “pornography” – sexually explicit material designed to titillate. What does the porneiva / porneia refer to?


There are several views.

1) It is synonymous with and refers to adultery.

2) It refers to premarital sexual intercourse – the woman turned out not to be the virgin she was supposed to be.

3) It refers to illicit sexual activity in general.

4) It refers to sexual intercourse prior to the consummation of the marriage union and during the betrothal period.

5) It refers to a marriage to too near a relative – consanguinity.

Now before I look at each of these individually, I want to point out something true about all of them. Every single view would require the death of the one committing the sexual sin if the Mosaic Law was strictly followed. I have seen the argument frequently that someone will say an opposing view could not be true because it was covered by a particular passage in the O.T. requiring the death of the transgressor, yet they fail to examine the O.T. text requiring the death of the transgressor in their view. Lev. 20:20 among other passages requires death in the case of adultery. It says, “the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Premarital intercourse required the same penalty. Deut.. 20:21-22 says that if a girl who was supposed to be a virgin had played the harlot and was found not to be a virgin at her marriage, then she was to be taken to the doorway of her father’s house and stoned to death. Deut. 20 goes on to say that in the case of rape she was exempted from this penalty if she was engaged. If she was not engaged, as I have already mentioned, she would become that man’s wife unless the father absolutely refused, and after she became his wife he could not divorce her all his days. Lev. 20 covers a host of other sexual sins not already mentioned including incest, homosexuality and bestiality – all require the death penalty. Also in Lev. 20 several of the “too near relationships” also require death including sexual sin with in-laws and “step” relations – parents, children, siblings.

In specific to each of the views:

First, it cannot be just a reference to adultery only. Though this view has the support of the immediate context, there is a word for adultery and in fact Jesus uses that word in the verse. If Jesus had meant only adultery, He would have said adultery, and if Jesus had used the word adultery, then it would have been questionable whether Joseph could have been considered a righteous man in his effort to divorce Mary.

Second, it refers to premarital sexual intercourse, i.e., the woman was supposed to be a virgin and turned out not to be one. The main problem with this view is that it is a very limited view of the meaning of porneiva / porneia that is not justified by the context.

Third, it is to be taken in its common meaning of general sexual immorality and perversions – including adultery, fornication, incest, homosexuality and bestiality. All of these are listed in Leviticus 18 & 20 as immoralities. porneiva / porneia is the general category under which adultery fits. Every lexicon is that way. To single any narrower meaning – one sexual sin as opposed to the others – would have to be demonstrated by the context. The context in both Matt. 5 & 19 is general. There is nothing in them to indicate that those listening would have understood anything other than the general meaning of the word. If Jesus concern was to narrow the meaning of the exception clause then why did He use the most broad term available for sexual sin? In addition, Jesus’ limitation to the Scribes and Pharisees interpretation of Deut. 24:1 to only sexual sins was a great restriction to them and that explains why there was such shock at his statement.

Fourth, the idea that this refers to sexual sin during the betrothal period but before the wedding does not give a reason for a restriction of meaning in the immediate context, however it does have merit in light of the fact that it was a Jewish audience and that Matthew had already presented Joseph as a righteous man even though he had sought to quietly divorce Mary after he found out she was pregnant. This view would allow Joseph to continue to be considered a righteous man while for all practical purposes eliminating any reason for divorce. The weakness of this view is that neither the immediate context nor the context of the referenced passage in Deut. 24 indicate this view and it is therefore doubtful that those listening to the Sermon on the Mount or the Pharisees in Matt. 19 would have understood it that way. The view of porneiva / porneia referring to sexual sin in general would also allow the presenting of Joseph as a righteous man (probably the reason the exception clause occurs in Matthew and not in the other gospels). The advantage of the view therefore disappears.

Let me mention here that the fact that Joseph was considered righteous even though he desired to divorce Mary demonstrates that the penalty for sexual sin had already changed even though we do not have anything specific written down. Under the Mosaic Law Mary should have been stoned to death. She was betrothed to Joseph and therefore considered married. She was pregnant by someone other than Joseph – and she made no claim to being raped. The penalty in Deut.. 22 was death, yet Joseph was seen as righteous even though he was not carrying out that penalty. God in his grace and mercy was allowing divorce to substitute for the death that should have occurred. The practice may have come from God’s own example in Isaiah 50 and Jeremiah 3 in which God says He divorced Israel because they played the harlot with false gods – she was adulterous (Jer. 3:8) – the analogy should have demanded the death of the nation. Instead God is merciful and gracious and though He divorced her (the captivity period) God would not be angry forever and calls them back to repentance and returning to Him (Jer. 3:12f). The indication of a change in the practice of the Law is also seen in that when the woman caught in the act of adultery was brought before Jesus. He did not exact the penalty of death upon her, but instead called her to repentance and to sin no more.

The fifth and last view to be discussed tonight is marriage to too near a relative – consanguinity. To be frank, this is the most confusing of all the views because it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to even follow all of its arguments. Its basic tenant is that Jesus is referring to marriages that take place between people who are too close in their family relationship. The text for defining that is the list in Lev. 18 of immoralities. The two major problems I have with that understanding is that 1) Lev. 18 also includes in the same context uncovering a woman’s nakedness in her menstrual period (19), adultery with the neighbor’s wife (20), child sacrifice in idolatry (21), homosexuality (22) and bestiality (23). The adultery and the sexual perversions fit in the general definition of porneiva / porneia. Yet the restriction under this view is only supposed to apply to uncovering the nakedness of various relatives. I find no textual support – or even logical support – to justify this restriction. 2) Several of the specific items mentioned in Lev. 18 (which does not specify the penalty) are also listed in Lev. 20 where the penalties are listed. As mentioned earlier, incest demanded the death penalty. The other penalties vary – in the case of marrying the widow of the uncle or the brother, the penalty is that they would die childless. I can find no basis upon which to believe that the people listening to the Sermon on the Mount or the Pharisees in Matt. 19 would have understood this view. It is hard to comprehend that there would be people who would seriously hold to this view that the exception clause given by Jesus simply allowed those that married someone that was too close a relative could get divorced. It would seem that there would be a demand to end relationships that God calls “lewd,” (and by the way, Lev. 18 does not say that the relationships there are marriages).

Conclusions: The exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is a general reference to sexual sins including adultery, premarital sex, incest, homosexuality and bestiality. All of these items break the monogamous nature of the marriage relationship. In marriage the two are to cleave and be one flesh. 1 Cor. 6:15,16 indicates that sexual intercourse joins two into one and that sexual sin break the monogamous relationship and makes it polygamous. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do yo not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, “The two will become one flesh.” This is the reason the exception clause is given. It is only God’s grace and mercy extended to the sinning partner that they are not put to death as were to be in the strict observance of Old Testament Law.

God’s plan for marriage is that it should be permanent all your life and be monogamous. Though Jesus permits divorce under the one exception – sexual immorality. He does not command it. If it divorce does occur, Jesus says it is because of the hardness of our hearts.

Remarriage is assumed in both passages. When divorce occurs apart from the exception of sexual sin, then Matt. 5 indicates that husband has caused the wife to commit adultery (notice the remarriage is assumed) and whoever marries her commits adultery. (Note that the grammar here indicates an act of adultery not a continuous state of adultery). Matt. 19 indicates that the man also commits adultery when he remarries. The exception clause is the exception to committing adultery when divorce occurs – not an instance where Jesus approves of divorce.

Considerations from 1 Corinthians 7

Paul writes in this chapter concerning marriage. Some pastors and counselors use this passage as a basis for divorce and remarriage. However, it is important to note that Paul does not use the word for divorce, ajpoluvw / apolu, anywhere in the chapter. Instead he speaks of leaving/separation (cwrivzw / chōrizō) and being sent away (ajfivhmi / aphiēmi). Of particular interest are verses 10-16; 26-28; and 39.

10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave (cwrivzw / chōrizō) her husband 11 (but if she does leave (cwrivzw / chōrizō), let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away (ajfivhmi / aphiēmi).

The scriptures leave room for separation for reasons other than sexual immorality, but not divorce. This is an action that may be appropriate in the case of abuse, etc. but the only options open to the one that separates are to remain unmarried (a[gamoV / agamos) – without a husband) or reconcile to the spouse. Remarriage in this situation to other than the estranged spouse is not allowed. Note that no indication is made whether in this case both are believers or only one.

12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away (ajfivhmi / aphiēmi). 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away(ajfivhmi / aphiēmi). 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves (cwrivzw / chōrizō), let him leave (cwrivzw / chōrizō); the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such [cases], but God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

In a situation where one spouse is a believer and the other is not, it is best if they remain married, but if the unbeliever separates, the believer does not have to go out of their way in trying to get them to come back. They can live in peace. Please note that this is not permission for the believer to divorce and remarry. That would need to occur for other cause.

26 I think then that this is good in view of the present distress, that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be released. Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you should marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin should marry, she has not sinned. Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. A general principle Paul puts forth in view of the “present distress” facing the Corinthian church.

39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God. This same principle of verse 39 is also repeated in Romans 7:2-3. Verse 40 is based upon the conditions in Corinth at the time. In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul instructs the younger widows to remarry.

Practical Ramifications

We have not discussed every passage dealing with divorce, but we have dealt with the heart of the matter. In light of that I want to let you know how I strive to put into practice the ramifications of what Jesus says.

1) I never counsel anyone to divorce, even if it appears that if they did, there would be no adultery on their part (since their spouse committed sexual sin).

2) I may counsel for separation under certain circumstances. In some situations I may also counsel that legal actions be pursued.

3) I encourage reconciliation or at least an openness to it until there is no longer a possibility of that (death or remarriage by the spouse). This is in accordance with Paul’s directives in 1 Cor 7:11 and the example of Hosea.

4) When a professing believer seeks a divorce for reason other than sexual sin on the part of the spouse, I pursue church discipline because they are breaking a clear command of Christ and compounding sin.

5) Remarriage is on a case by case basis. Factors involved are the circumstance of the divorce, who committed what sin, whether they were Christians at the time, the possibility of reconciliation with the former spouse, their own walk with the Lord.

Divorce is a terrible tragedy. There is a high cost financially, personally, and spiritually. It destroys God’s plan for the family. Divorce will almost always have lasting effects that cannot be changed, but God can heal and restore a vessel that is tarnished by sin and make it a useful treasure in His kingdom – and that is regardless of what particular sin was committed. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. Divorce is caused by sin – but it is not a sin to be a divorced person. Anyone that looks down on another Christian just because they have been divorced is in the same danger of self-righteousness as the Scribes and Pharisees. We should thank God for all those in the church who have divorce in their backgrounds but have been cleansed and restored to usefulness by the grace and mercy of our God and savior the Lord Jesus Christ.

Synopsis on Divorce

Jesus’ teaching on divorce is in stark contrast to what was taught by the Scribes of that time, and that of our own society. The Scribes & Pharisees generally taught the view of Hillel, who said that Deut.. 24 allowed a man to be divorced for any unpleasing thing he might find in his wife. (Note, the OT view is from the man divorcing the wife though the principle applies to either case).

Jesus speaks strongly against the self-righteous teaching of the Scribes (Matt. 5:31,32) and the Pharisees (Matt. 19). There has been much written over what Jesus meant in 5:32 by (logou porneiva / logou porneia) “except for the cause of unchastity” (NASB); “saving for the cause of fornication” (KJV); “except for marital unfaithfulness” (NIV); “except for the cause of sexual immorality (NKJV). There are those who have tried to use Jesus’ statements in Matt. 5 & 19 along with Paul’s statements in 1 Cor. 7 to come up with a view allowing divorce for most any cause. However, the least strict view that would still be correct lexically, grammatically, and contextually is that Christ allows for divorce only if there has been some type of sexual sin (fornication, adultery, incest, homosexuality, bestiality – things listed in Leviticus 18 & 20 as abominations to the Lord). This view also has the strongest support of lexical, grammatical and contextual studies. There are several very strict views that for all practical purposes would eliminate the possibility of divorce today. One is the betrothal view – Jesus would be referring to sexual sin during the betrothal period but prior to the actual wedding. In Jewish society the betrothal period was legally binding and therefore would require a legal divorce to end it. Another view is that Jesus is referring to marriage that takes place between people that are too closely related. Neither of the last two views are supported as well as the view of porneiva / porneia being general sexual sin.

The emphasis in both Matthew 5:32 & 19:9 is the exception to committing adultery when divorce and remarriage occur, not on a circumstance where Jesus approves of divorce. Both passages state that if divorce occurs for reason other than sexual immorality, then all parties involved would commit adultery upon remarriage. 1 Cor. 7:10,11 does allow the possibility of separation for other causes (abuse, etc.), but not divorce & remarriage.

Jesus does not specifically deal with the issue of remarriage – it is simply assumed within the text, but in light of what He does say divorce may take place either properly or improperly. If it is without Biblical cause, neither party can remarry without committing adultery. If it is for Biblical cause, the “innocent” party would be able to remarry without committing adultery. The “guilty” party is in sin and needs to repent. In all cases, it would be best to remain single and seek reconciliation until there is no further possibility (death or remarriage) (1 Cor. 7; Hosea).

Final thoughts.

1) God hates divorce (Malachi 2:15-16) and the example of Hosea demonstrates how much even the offended party should be seeking to restore the relationship. 2) Divorce is not the best in any situation, but because of the hardness of men’s hearts (Matt. 19) there is a Biblical ground for divorce, but those grounds are very strict. 3) Divorce is our society is common and there are many in the church that are affected by it. Regardless of the offense, Christ offers forgiveness to those who truly repent. The church should do no less. Those that would look down on another Christian because they were divorced are in danger of the same self-righteousness that existed in the Scribes and Pharisees. 1 Cor. 6:11 lists a number of sins that had once described the people in that church, but they were washed, sanctified and justified by Jesus Christ. 4) When a person comes to Christ, he/she is a new creature. In a sense there is a fresh start. 5) Eggs cannot be unscrambled. In whatever position you are in at this moment – live it totally for the Lord, seeking His will and His glory.


On Divorce – Matthew 19:1-12, John MacArthur.

Jesus and Divorce, Heth and Wenham.

Divorce, John Murray.

Preliminary Exegetical Digest of Matt. 5-7, Dr. Robert Thomas.

Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.