In the Greek language, the phrase “commits adultery” is present indicative in Matthew 19:9. In the Greek, the present indicative usually carries with it the force of continuation. Some have made the argument based upon the Greek language that one is continuing in adultery as long as they continue in a subsequent marriage after their divorce. In this article, I am going to explain why such is not the case.
The present tense does not always necessitate continued action.
First, the present indicative doesn’t necessitate continued action and can refer to a completed action. Professor Osburn states it this way:
“…Greek syntax requires that each occurrence of the present indicative be understood in terms of its context to determine whether continuity is involved. The context of Matt. 19:3-12 involves a discussion of general truth, as a ‘gnomic present’ in which continuity is not under consideration…” (Carroll Osburn, The Present Indicative in Matt. 19:9. Restoration Quarterly Corporation, Abilene, Taxes, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1981. p. 193; See also: Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 517; Robertson, The Grammar of the Greek New Testament In Light of Historical Research, Nashville, Tenn,; Broadman Press, 1934, p. 864-865).
Therefore, it is erroneous to assume that an action must be continual just because it is in the present indicative.
The dominant usage of the present indicative in the gospel of Matthew is used for completed action, not continual action.
Second, continuous action is not even the chief usage of the present indicative in the gospel of Matthew. Brother Clinton Hicks studied through every occurrence of the present indicative found in the gospel of Matthew. Here were his results:
- Of the 719 occurrences of the present indicative in Matthew, 448 were in the “Not Under Consideration Category.” In other words, these examples didn’t have a bearing either way.
- 226 occurrences were in the “Definitely Not Continuous Action Category.”
- Only 45 were in the “Must Be Continuous Action Category” (Clinton Hicks, The Abuse of the Present Indicative, A guide research paper presented to professor Richard Oster, Harding Graduate School of Religion, Memphis, Tennessee, Harding School of Religion Library, p. 33-34).
This means that the dominant usage of the present indicative in the gospel of Matthew is used for completed action, not continual action. In fact, it is used as completed action 5 times more than continual action. Therefore, if someone wanted to strictly argue from the use of the present indicative in the gospel of Matthew, it would favor a past, completed action and not an ongoing action due to its usage in the gospel of Matthew.
How to understand tenses in hypothetical time.
Third, Matthew 19:9 is dealing with hypothetical time. When one accepts the concept of hypothetical time in writing, then any argument pertaining to tense when hypothetical time is involved becomes frivolous. This explains the vast difference of mixed tenses in the marital teachings of Jesus throughout the gospel accounts. The tenses found in the marital teachings of Jesus are anything but uniform. Let me explain.
For example, in Matthew 5:32a, the divorcing is present tense and the adultery committed is aorist. In Matthew 5:32b, the divorcing is in the perfect tense, the remarrying is aorist, and the adultery is in the present. In Luke 16:18, the first saying of Jesus has the divorcing, the remarrying and the adultery in the present tense. But in saying two, the divorcing is in the perfect tense, while the remarrying and adultery are in the present tense. In Mark 10:11-12, the divorcing and marrying are in the perfect, while the adultery is in the present. In Matthew 19:9, the first saying has the divorcing and remarrying in the perfect and the adultery in the present. But the second saying has the divorce in the perfect, the remarrying in the aorist and the adultery in the present. Below I have broken it down by action:
- Divorce (Present: Mt. 5:32a; Lk. 16:18a; Perfect: Mt. 5:32b; Lk. 16:18b; Mk. 10:10-12; Mt. 19:9a; Mt. 19:9b).
- Marries Another (Aorist: 5:32b; Mt. 19:9b; Present: Lk. 16:18a; Lk. 16:18b; Perfect: Mk. 10:10-12; Mt. 19:9a).
- Commits Adultery (Aorist: Mt. 5:32a; Present: Mt. 5:32b; Lk. 16:18a; Lk. 16:18b; Mk. 10:10-12; Mt. 19:9a; Mt. 19:9b).
As we can see, when we compare the narratives, there is little uniformity among the tenses in the marital teachings. According to Bible Historian William Luck and Hebrew Scholar Dr. John Walton, the reason behind this mixed bag of tenses is because hypothetical time is not a constant (Kevin Pendergrass, Dr. Luck, E-mail Correspondence, April 29-May 1st, 2015). A hypothetical situation deals with time that may have already happened, is currently happening or may happen in the future (or a combination of mixed time). Therefore, it is faulty to make an argument on the Greek tense when hypothetical time is involved.
The divorce itself is also seen in the present tense.
Fourth, if one wants to reason that the adultery is an ongoing state in Matthew 19:9 simply on the basis of the present indicative, then one would also have to reason that the divorce attained unlawfully is an ongoing state of sin as well since it is in the present indicative in Matthew 5:32 and Luke 16:18. When one divorces (or was divorced) unlawfully, even if they remain single, they are in a constant state of separating what God has joined together (Mt. 19:6) regardless if they remarry. Yet, this doesn’t mean one can’t remain single after an unlawful divorce just because it is in the present indicative any more than it would mean one can’t remain in their new marriage after an unlawful divorce just because it is in the present indicative.
In other words, if one wants to base their argument solely upon this faulty understanding of the present tense, then remaining single after obtaining an unlawful divorce is just as sinful as remarrying after obtaining an unlawful divorce since both actions (divorce and adultery) are seen in the present indicative in the marital teachings of Jesus. Obviously, this conclusion is nonsensical and demonstrates why one should abstain from making Greek tense arguments when dealing with hypothetical time.
The continuing effects of sin.
Fifth, let’s assume that the present indicative here absolutely does mean continuous action in Matthew 19:9. Even if such is the case, it doesn’t mean that one is in a “constant state of sin.” Instead, because of one’s sin, there are going to always be continuing effects of that sin. When one divorces their spouse unlawfully and marries someone else, there is almost an immeasurable amount of damage left behind, especially if children are involved.
When a man murders, he can be forgiven of his murder, but there will always be continuing effects and he will always be known as a murderer. When a young lady has a child out of wedlock, she can be forgiven and keep her child, but the effects of her reputation and past actions will follow her. One can cheat on their spouse and be forgiven, but they will still be viewed as a cheater. One can divorce their spouse unlawfully, remained unmarried and be forgiven, but they may always be known to some as the one who abandoned their covenant. One can divorce their spouse unlawfully to remarry another and be forgiven, but they will still be viewed as the one who betrayed their spouse. Sin often times has continuing effects long after forgiveness has been granted.
Since we are dealing with hypothetical time, it is an abuse of the Greek language to argue that the present indicative here necessitates continuous action, especially in light of how the present indicative is used predominately through the gospel of Matthew to refer to completed action. Furthermore, the divorce is also seen in the present indicative. Therefore, whatever application one makes to the remarriage, one must also make to the divorce. If one is in sin for staying remarried after an unlawful divorce, then one is in sin for staying unmarried after an unlawful divorce. This nonsensical outcome would mean you are condemned if you don’t and condemned if you do. Furthermore, even if one wants to argue that this is continuous action, it would be the continuous effects of the sin and not a continuation in the sin itself. In conclusion, the present indicative in Matthew 19:9 cannot rightfully be used in attempts to prove that the new marriage is a constant state of adultery. Such is a gross misunderstanding of the present indicative in the context of Matthew 19:9.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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