“commits adultery.” The context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:9 is the debate on the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 and the reasons a man could divorce his wife (see commentary on Matt. 19:3 for more on that debate).
Before we examine the meaning of Matthew 19:9, there are a couple of things to consider. First, we should know that Jesus spoke about divorce on three different occasions (Matt. 5:32; Matt. 19:3-9 and Mark 10:1-12; and Luke 16:14-18). Although there are similarities between these three teachings, there are also significant differences. What we can conclude from reading these three distinct teachings and putting them together is that divorce is a sin in the eyes of God, but God allowed it because of the hardness of human hearts. Nevertheless, even though there are cases in which a mostly innocent party has been harmed and can remarry without it being sin (see commentary on Matt. 5:32), there are times when divorce and remarriage are tantamount to adultery (that is the case here in Matt. 19 and in Luke 16).
Second, the Greek texts on Matthew 19:9 differ: there is a shorter and longer reading of the verse. Textual scholars have concluded that the shorter reading is original, but the longer reading has been translated into many of the older English versions of the Bible, such as the King James, ASV, and YLT. The versions with the longer reading usually have a final phrase that reads something such as: “and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (NKJV).
The key to understanding Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:9 is to recognize that it is not a “blanket statement.” Jesus was not saying that anyone who remarries after being divorced, unless the divorce was due to adultery, commits adultery; we can see this from reading what Jesus said in Matthew 5:32. In this case, Jesus was addressing a specific debate between the rabbis about the Law, which is why he focused on divorce connected with remarriage, and ignored the possibility of divorce without it. He said that a man who got divorced and remarried committed adultery, but he ignored the sin of a man just divorcing his wife for his personal reasons and ruining her life. In that culture, divorcing a woman could leave her alone and destitute, certainly a grievous sin, but Jesus did not address it because it was not a part of the question and debate the Pharisees wanted Jesus to comment on (cp. Matt. 19:3).
As was just stated, Jesus was not making the blanket statement that anyone who remarried after being divorced was committing adultery unless the divorce was because of sexual immorality. For one thing, the Old Testament Law allowed a divorced person to remarry, and the Pharisees were asking Jesus to interpret and explain the Mosaic Law, not to void it and make a new law, something they would not have accepted anyway. Also, for his part, Jesus explained and confirmed the Mosaic Law; he did not say that Mosaic Law needed modification. However, he appealed to God’s original intentions as revealed in Genesis, and pointed out that although Moses allowed for divorce, it was never God’s original intention.
Paul, in the Church Epistles, again confirmed what both the Law, and Jesus, said: that a person should not divorce, but if they did then it was not a sin to remarry after being divorced. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28: “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned….”
Also, although Deuteronomy 24:1 does not give any specific reasons for divorce, other places in the Mosaic Law do set forth some specific circumstances in which divorce was allowed. For example, the Law said that if a man took a second wife, but then did not provide his first wife with food, clothing (and by extension, shelter), and conjugal rights, his wife could divorce him. Just as He does today, God honored the marriage covenant, and both parties of the marriage covenant had responsibilities. The man was responsible to provide for his wife and make sure she had food, clothing, and shelter, and the sexual intercourse that gave her the opportunity to have children who would protect and care for her. If a man would not do these things for his wife, then he was not keeping his part of the marriage covenant and God allowed the wife to divorce him (Exod. 21:10-11). At that point, she was free to marry someone else (Deut. 24:1-4).
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus was not nullifying the Mosaic Law. He was not saying that although it was okay according to the Mosaic Law for a woman to leave her husband and remarry if he did not provide her with food, shelter, and sexual intercourse, it was not okay according to him. In other words, Jesus was not saying that now, according to his teaching, a woman could only divorce and remarry if sexual immorality was the cause of the divorce, otherwise, she was committing adultery if she remarried.
Matthew 19:9 can only be fully and properly understood if we know what the Old Testament says about marriage and divorce, and if we also know that Jesus was speaking in the very specific context of an ongoing debate between the rabbis about what constituted legal grounds for divorce. Jesus was making a specific statement and saying that God intended for men and women to stay together in marriage, so if a man or woman divorced simply in order to marry someone they liked better, in God’s eyes they were committing adultery.
Jesus anchored his comments firmly in the writings of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy), and this silenced the Pharisees, who then left the scene. The disciples, however, were steeped in the culture of easy divorce and were still confused about what Jesus said, and that part of the record is recorded in Mark 10:10-12 (see commentary on Mark 10:10).
On a technical note, it is worth noting that the phrase “commits adultery” is actually a passive verb in the Greek text. The verb is moichaō (#3429 μοιχάω, pronounced moy-'kah-ō), and it is in the passive voice. The passive verb is very important for the interpretation of the verse in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (see commentary on Matt. 5:32), but not so important here, because in this verse the wicked husband is both the agent and the subject of the verb. Thus, while it is true that the husband “is made to commit adultery,” he was the one who made himself adulterous by his own action of divorcing his wife and remarrying another woman. Nevertheless, a technically correct translation of the last phrase of the verse would be “is made adulterous,” instead of “commits adultery.”
[For more on divorce and remarriage, see commentary on 1 Cor. 7:27.]