An Outline of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians (Part 10)

M.A. Rudge

God’s Holy Sanctuary: The Assembly and its Sanctity (1 Cor 5:6-13)

We are now in a position to consider the references to "fornication" in the New Testament. In the context of its usage in the Old Testament, it should be noted that the Greek word for "fornication", pomeia, is related to pornos, from pememi, to sell, which gives it its association with pornography, prostitution, "for hire or gain, to make merchandise of, traffic in" (Strong’s Concordance). The observations which have been made concerning the use of the word "fornication" and other matters in the Old Testament are of vital importance to our consideration of the use of the word in the New Testament, especially where it occurs in an Old Testament context, and in the two passages where "fornication" is the only and exceptional ground where divorce was permissible under Jewish law (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:8-9).

Matthew 5:31-32, is part of the teaching of the Lord Jesus in "the sermon on the mount," which while it is of general application today, carried a special significance for Jewish readers in view of the Jewish background to the Lord’s teaching in this section and in the gospel by Matthew as a whole, e.g. "use not vain repetitions as the heathen do" (6:7; See also 5:19; 6:3), "for after these things do the Gentiles seek." These references help to establish the special Jewish setting to the Lord’s teaching in Matthew, chapter 5, where the Lord Jesus says on five occasions, "Ye have heard...but I say unto you." "Ye have heard" refers to what they had heard in the temple and the synagogues, in the reading of the law and its Rabbinical interpretation. He "fills out" the teaching of the law which He had come to "fulfil, fill up" (Matt. 5:17). The fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture is a major theme in the gospel by Matthew.

In Matthew 5:31,32, the Lord Jesus reestablishes the authority of the law of Moses on the subject of divorce and "fills out" gives the complete sense of its teaching; "whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." The position under Jewish law is made clear. The Lord’s teaching confirms, as we have seen in Deut. 24:1-4, that divorce was permissible in the exceptional circumstance, where "something shameful," described here as "fornication," was committed or not disclosed, during the betrothal period. To give it any other interpretation would be grotesque. To suggest that the word "fornication" is interchangeable with the word "adultery" or that it includes adultery and therefore makes it a legitimate ground for divorce, is false teaching. It has already been seen that in Deut. 24:1-4, divorce was not permissible for adultery which was punishable by death and did not apply to an established marriage.

The true interpretation of the Lord’s words is further confirmed in the situation which arose when Mary was found with child during the betrothal period. Betrothal extended over a long period of time and was considered marriage, when the couple became bound for all purposes save living together. Joseph had two choices. He could expose Mary to all the indignity of making her "a public example" and the possibility of the punishment involved (Deut. 22:13-21) or he could give her a bill of divorcement and put her away, without stating the case in court (Deut. 24:1-4). When he was "minded to put her away privily," he was told that he should not fear to "take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 1:18-20). As a further confirmation of the true sense of the word "fornication" found in these passages, there is no doubt that it was this premarital situation and definition of the word "fornication" which the Lord’s enemies had in mind, with their unholy insinuation, "We be not born of fornication" (John 8:41).

No doubt, the Lord’s teaching corrected the various interpretations of the ground for divorce in Rabbinical teaching and Jewish practice. It highlighted the fact that divorce on any other grounds, exposed the woman, who would be without any means of livelihood, to the almost inevitable course of remarriage, which would "cause her to commit adultery" and the person who married her would also commit adultery. Although she was the innocent party, divorce did not alter the fact that she was still the first man’s wife and that remarriage was adultery. The Lord’s teaching in Matt. 5:31-32, reestablished the position for the Jewish nation under the law of Moses. It does not establish the position for believers today.

In Matthew 19:3-9, the Lord’s teaching is given in response to the Pharisees question, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" and on this occasion, He takes them back to the original law or legislation governing the marriage relationship "from the beginning" (4, 5, 8b; Gen. 2:24), where divorce was never envisaged, "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (v. 6). The Lord’s teaching was clear. "Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement and to put her away?" (v. 7), is their second question. Here they made a mistake. Divorce was not "commanded" under the law of Moses. It was because of their hard heartedness, which was due to rejection of the original marriage legislation, that Moses "suffered, allowed," divorce in one exceptional circumstance and legislated for the post-divorce situation, "but from the beginning it was not so." The disciples understood His teaching correctly. "And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her that is put away doth commit adultery" (vv. 8.9). Later, in the house, they say, "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry." They realized the solemn, binding character of marriage and that it was better not to marry than enter into an unsatisfactory marriage relationship which could not be terminated. This exposes the fallacy of teaching that would have us believe that divorce is permissible under an increasing number of situations.

In Mark 10:2-12, there is no reference to "the exception clause," in spite of the fact that in his comparatively short gospel, Mark gives the subject a rather lengthy treatment. He provides details which Matthew does not, but he does not make reference to the exception clause, even though he repeats the Lord’s teaching that divorce and remarriage is adultery (vv. 10-12). In "the house" reference is made to the situation where a woman divorces her husband and marries another, "And if a woman shall put away her husband and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (v. 12). This detail is not found in Matthew and was not possible for a woman, under Jewish law, which underlines the Jewish character and context of Matthew and is in keeping with Mark’s writing for a Gentile readership. He repeats Matthew’s teaching concerning marriage in Matt. 19:4-6, as absolutely binding, with no exceptions, and as it was intended "from the beginning of creation," where it was and still is, part of the Creator’s arrangements for creature man. Similarly, Luke writes mainly with Gentiles in mind. The "kingdom of God" as it was now "preached" by John and the Lord Himself, did not introduce any changes which were inconsistent with "the law and the prophets" (Luke 16:16). This included the original marriage legislation, and there is no reference to the exceptive clause. "Whosoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery" (v. 18).

On each of the four occasions where the Lord speaks of "fornication" (Matt. 5:32; 15:19; 19:9; Mark 7:21), it occurs together with the word "adultery." Clearly, in these four references, "fornication" and "adultery" are distinctive sins. The words are neither synonymous or interchangeable, and it does not make sense to say that fornication includes adultery, in these references. The same is true where "fornication" and "adultery" occur together elsewhere in 1 Cor. 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4 (in Gal 5:19, "adultery" occurs together with "fornication" but is omitted in Gk. Inter footnote and JNI) translation). "Fornication" is spoken of distinctively in those passages where it occurs together with "uncleanness" in 2 Cor. 12:21; Eph. 5:3,5; Col. 3:5. Other occurrences of the word fornication appear to give it the same sense as in the majority of instances in the Old Testament, i.e. prostitution, cult prostitutes. This is especially apparent in Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; (omitted in Rom. 1:29, Gk Inter; JND); 1 Cor 5:1,9,10,11; 6:9,13,15,16,18; 7:2; 10:8; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev 2:14,20, where some references in particular, make it clear that fornication was linked with idolatry (1 Cor. 6:9; 10:8,14; Rev. 2:14,20). Clear instruction and warning were necessary for life in the Gentile world, where "fornication" was accepted as a normal part of every day life and required special emphasis for those who were former Gentiles. In the book of Revelation, the word "fornication" is mainly used in a figurative sense to describe spiritual fornication, with all that is implied by impure, illicit intercourse, solely to satisfy greed, covetousness and the lust for gain.