The Meaning of Adultery In Matthew 19:9

Mike Willis
Danville, Indiana

Living. in a culture in which divorce is the end of half of all marriages, Christians should expect that the problem of divorce would spill over into the church. As Christians have faced the problem of divorce among the membership of the local church, they have witnessed the devastation which it has wrought. Not all have turned to the Bible to let it guide them in reference to marital problems. Some have entered marriages without regard for what the Bible says. Some years later, those who entered marriages without regard to the will of God decide that they want to be accepted by God. Then, they consult what the Bible says about divorce and remarriage.

Some preachers, elders, deacons, and teachers have not been content to allow the Scriptures to mean what Jesus said. Consequently, they have reinterpreted the Scriptures to relax the standards which Jesus taught concerning divorce and remarriage. Such is the case with reference to the various views which have been espoused to evade the teaching of Matthew 19:9. There Jesus said, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. "

The force of this passage is obvious to the average reader. The man who divorces his wife for some reason other than fornication and then remarries is guilty of adultery. Those guilty of adultery must cease the practice of their sin in order to go to heaven. Hence, the adultery must be stopped if one desires to go to heaven.

This teaching is much too strict for some people. Consequently, Matthew 19:9 must be reinterpreted to fit a less strict point of view. This has been done in two ways: (1) to redefine "adultery"; (2) to limit Matthew 19:9 to Christians. I want to consider the former of these positions in this article and the latter in next issue's editorial.

The New Interpretation of Adultery

The meaning of "adultery" is rather obvious to any English reader. Nevertheless, efforts are presently being made to cloud the minds of men to make them think that determining the meaning of this word is difficult, if not impossible. In his recent book What The Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage, Olan Hicks redefines adultery to mean "the divorcing of one and marrying another" (p. 149). He affirms that over the years the word has changed in meaning: "Primarily what has been lost in this revision is the basic idea of sinning against marriage by breaking it. The idea of betrayal of vows, of covenant obligations, has been replaced with the idea of a sinful sexual practice in the subsequent marriage relationship" (p. 155). In his chapter entitled "The Meaning of Adultery," Hicks cited only one study by a Greek lexicon (Thayer) and he was in disagreement with the conclusion of that study. By redefining the word adultery, Hicks reaches the conclusion that repentance of the sin of "adultery" refers to the resolution that one will not break another marriage covenant. Hence, when the gospel is taken to someone who has divorced his mate for some reason other than fornication and remarried, the, message of Christ should be this: "Repent of having divorced your first mate, resolving in your heart not to break the marriage vows of this second marriage. To break this second marriage would result in your committing the sin of 'adultery' again. Consequently, you should live with this mate."

Here we have two understandings of Matthew 19:9. (1) The one understands that "adultery" in Matthew .19:9 refers sexual immorality. The act of sexual immorality is committed when a person who divorces his mate for some reason other than fornication and marries again has sexual relations with his mate. In order for this person to be saved, the adultery (sexual immorality) must cease, thus demanding the breaking of the marriage entered by one who divorced his mate for some reason other than fornication. (2) The second interpretation states that the "adultery" of Matthew 19:9 is the act of divorcing and remarrying. The one who has committed "adultery" must repent of having divorced his mate and having remarried, resolving in his heart not to divorce and remarry again. He then not only can continue to live with the mate to whom he is married but is obligated to continue that marriage. Which of these understandings is correct depends upon the meaning of the word "adultery."

What Do The Lexicons Say?

What is the meaning of the word which Jesus used that is translated "adultery" in Matthew 19:9? Does it mean "an act of sexual immorality" or "breaking a marriage covenant"? Let the lexicons define the word for us. What does the moich- root mean? Here are the definitions of the word and its roots by reputable scholars:

I. Thayer (p. 417):

1. Moichao: "to have unlawful intercourse with another's wife, to commit adultery with . . . Matt. v. 32; xix. 9; Mk. X.11."

2. Moicheuo: "to commit adultery; a. absol. (to be an adulterer): Matt. 5:27; 19:18; Mk. 10:19; Lk. 16:18;. . . . b. to commit adultery with, having unlawful intercourse with another's wife: Matt. 5:28; . . . pass. of the wife, to suffer adultery, be debauched: Matt. 5:32 [19:9 marg. reading] . . . . By a Hebraisin (see moichalis) trop. meta tinos (gunaikos) moicheuein is used of those who at a woman's solicitations are drawn away to idolatry, i.e. to the eating of things sacrificed to idols, Rev. 2:22."

3. Moichalis. "an adulteress. . . a. pro. Rom. 7:3; ophthalmoi mestoi moichalidos, eyes always on watch for an adulteress, or from which adultrous desire beams forth, 2 Pet. 2:14. b. As the intimate alliance of God with the people of Israel was, likened to a marriage, those who relapse into idolatry are skid to commit adultery or play the harlot . . . ; hence, moichalis is fig. equiv. to faithless to God, unclean, apostate. Jas. 4:4; Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mk. 8:38."

II. Moulton and Milligan (pp. 415, 416):

1. Moicheuo: "commit adultery on the part of the man . . . Matt. 5:28. "

2. Moichaomak "After the example of the LXX translators of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, this verb 'commit adultery with' is used in the NT with either sex as subject - Mk. 10:11 of the man, ib. 12 of the woman. . . ."

3. Moichalis: "To the examples of this late word, = 'a married woman who commits adultery' (Rom. 7:3), given by . . . we may add . . . . where the high priests are charged with having intercourse both with unmarried and married woman . . . . In the figurative use of the word in Jas. 4:4 Schmiedel . . . refers moichalides both to men and to women . . . . but the fem. moichalis 'is alone appropriate in this sense, since God is always thought of as the husband. . . ."'

III. Liddell and Scott (p. 974; note: this lexicon specializes in classical usages and rarely refers to the NT):

1. Moichao: "to commit adultery . . . Matt. 5:32. . ."

2. Moicheia: "adultery."

3. Moicheuo: "to commit adultery with a woman, or generally, to debauch her. . . . intrans. to commit adultery."

IV. Arndt and Gingrich (pp. 527-528):

1. Moichalis.- "adulteress. . . 1. Lit. Rom. 7:3 . . . ophthalmoi mestoi moichalidos eyes that are full of (desire for) an adulteress i.e., always looking for a woman with whom to commit adultery 2 Pet. 2:14. . . . 2. Fig., in a usage found in Hosea (3:1), in which God's relation to his people is depicted as a marriage, and any beclouding of it becomes adultery. . . a: Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mk. 8:38. . . b. Jas. 4:4."

2. Moichao: "cause to commit adultery. . . only pass. be caused to commit adultery, be an adulterer or adulteress, commit adultery, lit. 1. of the woman . . . Mt. 5:32; Mk. 10:12 . . . 2. of the man, who marries a divorced woman, Mt. 5:32b; 19:9 v. 1. or whom marries again after divorcing his wife 19:9. . . . Mk. 10:11. . . 3. of man or woman... whoever acts as the heathen do (i.e., takes part in idolworship), commits adultery. . ."

3. Moicheia: "adultery. . . adulterous acts Mt. 15:19 = Mk. 7:22. . . catch in the act of adultery Jn. 8:3."

4. Moicheuo: "commit adultery . . . 1. of both sexes, w. ref. to the Ten Commandments ... Mt. 5:27; 19:18; Mk. 10:19 . . . a. in some instances where m. stands alone Lk. 16:18a ... b. has an obj. tina (gunaika) commit adultery w. someone. . . Mt. 5:28; 5:32; 19:9; Jn. 8:4. c. Rev. 2:22 is at least on the way to a fig. mng."

V. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. IV, pp. 729-735):

1. Moicheuo: "to commit adultery... to be or to allow oneself to be, seduced, of the woman, to commit adultery .... Cf. also the NT quoting the 7th Commandment, Mt. 5:27; 19:18; Mk. 10: 19. . . . "

2. Moichao: "to commit adultery. . . fig. to adulterate . . . the NT only in the pres. stem of the med. and pass., to commit adultery' . . . Mt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10: 11 . . ."

3. Moicheia: "adultery, illicit intercourse . . . Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:22; Jn. 8:3 . . ."

"In the Figurative Sense. The NT, too, used moicheuein fig. for religious unfaithfulness to God. . .Mt. 12:39; 16:4; Mk. 8:38. . . Jas. 4:4. . . Rev. 2:2. "

VI. Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (pp. 32-33):

1. Moichos. "denotes one who has unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another, Lk. 18:11; 1 Cor. 6:9; Heb. 13:4. As to Jas. 4:4, see below."

2. Moichalis: "an adulteress, is used (a) in the natural sense, 2 Pet. 2:14; Rom. 7:3; (b) in the spiritual sense, Jas. 4:4; . . . As in Israel the breach of their relationship with God through their idolatry, was described as adultery or harlotry (e.g., Ezek. 16:15, etc.; 23:43), so believers who cultivate friendship with the world, thus breaking their spiritual union with Christ, are spiritual adulteresses, having been spiritually united to Him as wife to husband. . "

3. Moicheia: "adultery, is found in Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:21; Jn. 8:3.

4. Moichao: used in the Middle Voice in the N.T., is said of men in Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10: 11; of women in Mk. 10: 12.

5. Moicheuo: used in Matt. 5:27, 28, 32 . . .; 19:18; Mk. 10: 19; Lk. 16:18; 18:20; Jn. 8:4 . . . . in Rev. 2:22, metaphorically, of those who are by Jezebel's solicitations drawn away to idolatry."

VII. Analytical Greek Lexicon (p. 272):

1. Moichos. an adulterer.

2. Moichafts. an adulteress, Rom. 7:3; Ja. 4:4; by meton. an adulteress mien, lustful significance, 2 Pet. 2:14; from the Heb., spiritually adulterous, faithless, ungodly, Mat. 12:39; 16:4; Mk. 8:38.

3. Moicheia. "adultery, is found in Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:21; Jn. 8:3.

4. Moicheia: adultery, Matt. 15:19; Mk. 7:21; et al.

5. Moicheuo: trans. to commit adultery with, debauch, Mat. 5:28; absol. and mid. to commit adultery, Mat. 5:27; Jn. 8:4 et al; to commit spiritual adultery, be guilty of idolatry, Rev. 2:22."

VIII. E. W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance (p. 28).

1. Moichos. adulterer.

2. Moichalis: adulteress, Rom. 7:2.

3. Moichalis. an adulteress, applied as an adjective to the Jewish people who had transferred their affections from God. . . Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mk. 8:38.

4. Moicheuo: to commit adultery with; Moichaomai, to commit adultery, to be guilty of adultery by causing another to commit it. . . Matt. 5:27, 28, 32; 19:9, 18; Mk. 10: 11, 12, 19; Lk. 16:18; 18:20. . . . "

Scholars Define Moich-

Scholar Matt. 5:32 Matt. 19:9 Mk. 10:11 Lk. 16:18
Thayer: unlawful sexual intercourse x x x x
Moulton & Milligan

commit adultery

(no specific references to any of these passages)
Liddell & Scott

commit adultery

x (no other specific references to NT)
Arndt & Gingrich

commit adultery

x x x x

commit adultery

illicit intercourse

x x x x
W.E. Vine

unlawful intercourse

w. spouse of another;


x x x x
Analytical Greek Lex.

commit adultery

x (other passages not specifically mentioned)

commit adultery

x x x x


These are the definitions given to the word by reputable Greek lexicographers. There is general agreement that the moich- root means "to commit adultery, to have unlawful sexual intercourse." Even its figurative usage is derived from the concept that man is married to God and apostasy is unfaithfulness with another mate.

There is no reference to moich- referring to unfaithfulness to a contract or the act of divorcing and remarrying. No scholar was cited by Olan Hicks which so defined the word, in spite of his theory of divorce and remarriage relying so heavily on the word "adultery" meaning the act of divorcing and remarrying. Even if such a reference could be found, the lexicographers are generally agreed that the meaning in the texts before us - Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10: 12; Luke 16:18 - is "commit adultery, to have unlawful sexual intercourse. " Adultery is committed in the bedroom, not the court house. It is not a legal act, it is a sexual act.

Should someone suggest that the word has some other meaning in these texts, we respectfully ask:

1. What lexicographers support your conclusion?

2. If no lexicographers can be found to support your conclusion, what Greek credentials do you have which make you an authority on the subject?

3. If an isolated lexicographer/Greek authority can be found who gives these words another definition, he still stands outside the generally accepted conclusions of the Greek authorities.


The lexicons are agreed that, when Jesus said, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery" (Matt. 19:9), "adultery" referred to an act of sexual immorality. Inasmuch as adultery must be repented of, demanding the cessation of the sin (Gal. 5:19-21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11), those who are guilty of committing adultery (in the case of having put away one's mate for some reason other than fornication and have remarried) must cease the committing of sexual immorality - they must break off their unscriptural marriage. All agree that the adultery must be ceased and the consensus of the Greek scholars is that "adultery" means "sexual immorality."

Those who are trying to justify the continuance of a marriage entered after a divorce not for fornication cannot find that justification in the meaning of the word "adultery." Rather, the scholars are agreed that the adultery of Matthew 19:9 is sexual immorality. That must be stopped in order for a person to go to heaven.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 12, pp. 354, 372-374
June 16, 1988