Immorality and Adultery | Scripture Words Defined

The New Testament contains many words for sexual sin. In this brief article, we will look at fornication, immorality and adultery, with particular emphasis upon Matthew 19:9. Jesus taught: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” What did Jesus mean by the terms “immorality” and “adultery”? Immorality and Adultery Defined.

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Section One

Immorality or Fornication?

1.1 “Immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”). People argue over the meaning of the term “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) in the New Testament. Because “immorality” and “adultery” were used in the same verse (Matthew 19:9), we expect that they will have different meanings. The question becomes do they overlap in meaning, or are they completely separate terms. Likewise, does the term “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) only refer to sex by an unmarried person? The best way to understand the meaning of the term will be to examine the New Testament usage of the term, and particularly the usage by the same writer, Matthew. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

1.2 Fornication Only View. Some people translate “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) as only referring to the sexual sin of unmarried people and use the term “fornication.” I will call this interpretation the Fornication View. People who claim “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) only refers to unmarried sexual sin (“fornication”) find themselves in tight lexical quarters in Matthew 19:9, where Jesus used the phrase except for “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) to describe an event during marriage. The Fornication View requires people to strain Matthew 19:9 to refer to unmarried sexual sin. The entire context of Matthew 19:3-12, however, refers to the sin of divorce after people have been joined together by God as one flesh (Matthew 19:5). So, when supporters of the Fornication View suggest that Jesus was referring to unmarried sexual sin in Matthew 19:9, they ignore the entire context of Matthew 19 because Jesus was discussing divorce after God joined them in marriage. The supporters of the Fornication View look to the story of Joseph and Mary for support. They suggest that Joseph was a righteous man, and sought to “loose” (“ἀπολῦσαι”) Mary, because she was pregnant before marriage (Matthew 1:19).  Jesus, however, discussed marriage in the context of the Pharisees’ first question: can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all? (Matthew 19:3). Jesus started His answer in the Garden of Eden and the creation of males and females by God. In Matthew 19:5, Jesus spoke about people seeking divorce who had become one flesh in marriage. When Joseph sought to put away Mary, Joseph had not yet become one flesh with Mary, and so Mary and Joseph had not become one flesh joined together by God. Mary was a virgin before the Holy Spirit came upon her and she conceived Jesus. Therefore, the proponents of the Fornication View think Jesus meant that Joseph could divorce Mary before marriage, and that a pre-marital sexual event was the single exception Jesus was talking about in Matthew 19:9. The Fornication View suffers from severe impediments. First, consider 1 Corinthians 6:15-16 which shows that the one who joins himself (“ὁ κολλώμενος”) to the prostitute (“τῇ πόρνῃ”) has become one flesh with her. Therefore, the act of joining sexually produces one flesh, not mere engagement as in the case of Mary and Joseph. Second, the Fornication View completely ignores the entire context of divorce after God joined male and female as one flesh, which no man should separate. In contrast to the Fornication View, Jesus taught that the “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) in Matthew 19:9 occurs after God joined the male and female together in marriage as one flesh. Therefore, adultery occurs when a man divorces his wife, and she never committed “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) after: (a) God joined her in marriage to her husband; and (b) they became one flesh by sexual union. The “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) occurred while she was still married to her husband.  Because Jesus was talking about marriage where two became one flesh, joined by God, and not engagement, the Fornication View does not merit further consideration. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

1.3. Sexual Sin During Marriage. Matthew 5:32 provides: “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of “immorality” (“πορνείας”), makes her commit adultery (“μοιχευθῆναι”); and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (“μοιχᾶται”).”  Therefore, Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 both demonstrate that married people can commit “immorality” and that term “immorality” (“πορνείας”) should not be translated as “fornication” in those verses because she committed the sin of “immorality” (“πορνείας”) after God joined the two spouses together in marriage and the spouses became one flesh. Jesus did not specify the exact sexual sin, but used the broad term of “immorality” (“πορνείας”) to include a class of sexual sins which may be committed by married or unmarried people.

1.4 Sexual Sin before Marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:2  provides: “But because of immoralities (“πορνείας”), each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband.” This verse shows that “immorality” (“πορνείας”) includes sexual sin before marriage. See also John 8:41, where the Jews accused Jesus of being the product of “immorality” (“πορνείας”), because Joseph was not His father. So, virtually no one disputes that “immorality” (“πορνείας”) includes sexual activity by unmarried people because of 1 Corinthians 7:2,  but Matthew 19:9 shows that the term “immorality” (“πορνείας”) also includes sexual activity after God has joined the spouses together in marriage and they became one flesh. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

1.5 Incest. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, Paul rebuked the Corinthians because a type of “immorality” (“πορνεία”) existed in the Corinthians’ assembly, of such a type as not even named among the Gentiles, and they did not mourn or take action to stop it. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 5:1 shows that: (a) “πορνεία” occurs in different forms (“τοιαύτη”); and (b) the man had (ἔχειν) the wife of his father. 1See Deuteronomy 22:30, which provides: “A man shall not take (יִקַּ֥ח) his father’s wife so that he will not uncover his father’s skirt.” In Deuteronomy 22:30, the phrase “uncovering his father’s skirt” refers to sexual activity, not necessarily marriage (see Deuteronomy 20:11). Therefore, Deuteronomy 22:30 does not settle the issue about whether 1 Corinthians 5:1 concerns marriage or only immorality. In Exodus 21:10, the term “take” (יִקַּ֥ח)  described a man who has a female slave and then he takes (יִקַּ֥ח) another woman (Exodus 21:10). Because the female slave may leave, it does not appear that the female slave was married. Likewise, taking another woman implies that both the second woman and the female slave were taken sexually, but not necessarily married. Likewise, if a man takes (יִקַּ֣ח) his sister, his father’s daughter or his mother’s daughter, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a disgrace and both of them shall be cutoff from the sight of the their people (Leviticus 20:17). In Deuteronomy 22:13, a man takes his wife (יִקַּ֥ח) and then goes in to her (וּבָ֥א אֵלֶ֖יהָ). The “takes” there described marriage and the “go in” described intercourse.  Therefore, the term take (יִקַּ֥ח) does not always imply marriage, but always implies sexual activity when used in a sexual context. In the context of forbidden sexual activity, if a male lies (יִשְׁכַּ֤ב) with a male, then both of them must be put to death (Leviticus 20:13).  In a related passage, Leviticus 21 deals with various forms of unlawful sexual activity, including adultery (Leviticus 20:10, incest (Leviticus 20:11-12), homosexuality (Leviticus 20:13), beastiality (Leviticus 20:15-16). In that passage, God switched from “a man takes () his sister” (Leviticus 20:11) to a males lies (יִשְׁכַּ֤ב)  with a male slave. In that context, if a man takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless (Leviticus 21:21). If a man lies with male as those who lie with a woman, they both shall be put to death (Leviticus 20:13). As a side note, priests must only  marry a virgin, and not a widow, or a divorced woman, or a harlot (Leviticus 21:14). The term “immorality” (“πορνείᾳ”) includes incestuous activity, but 1 Corinthians 5:1 does not necessarily describe a marriage. The sin of Deuteronomy 22:30 relates to the son uncovering the nakedness of his father, by taking his father’s wife sexually. In 1 Corinthians 5:1, the text does not explicitly say that the man had married his father’s wife, but “had’ her. 2Paul used the phrase  ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχειν. The infinitive her means he had her sexually.  Some type of sexual relationship existed between the man and his father’s wife. Whether they were married turns upon the use of the term “to have” (ἔχειν). The same term “to have” occurs in Matthew 14:4, where John the Baptist had been saying that Herod had the wife of his brother Philip. John the Baptist used the phrase “it is not lawful for you to have her” and Herod had married Philip’s wife (Mark 6:17: Luke 3:19).  3John the Baptist used these words: “οὐκ ἔξεστίν σοι ἔχειν αὐτήν.”See the similar construction in Mark 6:18. Compare also the discussion Jesus had with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well near Sychar regarding the use of the term “have” (ἔχω) related to having a husband and multiple husbands and having a a man not her husband (John 4:16-18). Paul used a similar imperative regarding marriage: each man let have (ἐχέτω) his own wife and each wife let have (ἐχέτω) her own husband (1 Corinthians 7:2). Therefore, Paul ordered people to have their own spouses because of immoralities. Therefore, marriage may be in view in 1 Corinthians 5:1 because: (1) Paul was familiar with the Old Testament law on incestuous marriage prohibiting a man from marrying his father’s wife or his brother’s wife (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21); (2) the term “to have” (ἔχειν) described Herod having the wife of his brother Philip and Herod had married her (Mark 6:17-18); (3) the use of “to have” described a man having a wife or a woman having a husband (1 Corinthians 7:2). Whether God directed the man having his wife to divorce her remains unclear because Paul later mentioned the congregation had imposed punishment upon him, but Paul did not detail that punishment, but did urge the congregation to comfort that man so that his sorrow would not be too great (2 Corinthians 2:5-7). Clearly the sin was forgiven. In light of the general prohibition against divorce in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7, the man may not have divorced his wife, but repented of the evil. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

1.6 Prostitution. 1 Corinthians 6:16 provides: “Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute (“πόρνῃ”) is one body with her? For He says, “THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH.” Paul did not distinguish between married and unmarried acts of prostitution. See also Babylon described as a prostitute (Revelation 17:15, 16; 19:2).

1.7 List of Sins. Matthew 15:19 provides: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” Another issue to consider concerns lists of sexual sins. In Mark 7:21, Jesus placed “μοιχεῖαι” near “πονηρίαι” in the same sentence. While clearly separate terms, do those terms have any overlap in meaning? If a married man has consensual sex with a single woman, does he commit adultery and she commit immorality?

Section Two


2.1 Adultery after Divorce. Matthew 5:32 provides: “but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for word of immorality, does her to immorality; and if anyone may marry a woman who divorced herself commits adultery.” Jesus focused upon who committed the sin by filing for divorce. Therefore, I prefer the middle voice translation of “divorced herself.” Jesus did not create an exception for “immorality” as a basis for righteous divorce. All divorce arises from a hard heart (Matthew 19:8). The sin of filing for divorce will always be Sin One. Sin Two follows Sin One because the divorced spouse, who did not commit immorality during the marriage, now faces immorality after being divorced (1 Corinthians 7:2–it is better to marry than to burn 1 Corinthians 7:9). Jesus then explained that anyone who may marry the woman who divorced herself commits adultery. Jesus essentially flipped the coin over and covered the other side of divorce and remarriage in Matthew 5:32. Therefore, the man who marries a woman who divorced herself for any reason commits adultery (“μοιχᾶται”) by marrying her (Matthew 5:32). Therefore, the term “adultery (“μοιχᾶται”) describes an act of marriage to the person who filed for divorce, because the spouse was not free to divorce (Sin One) and the same spouse was not free to remarry and so the remarriage results in that same spouse committing adultery (“μοιχᾶται”) (Sin Two). Jesus used the exact same principles He applied in Matthew 19 to describe divorce and remarriage. No divorce, no exceptions. The term “adultery (“μοιχᾶται”) here described sexual sin during a marriage and sexual sin followed a sinful remarriage. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

2.2  Heart Adultery. Matthew 5:28 provides: “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery (“ἐμοίχευσεν”) with her in his heart.” Jesus described heart adultery, and the context of the Old Testament commandment about adultery favors sexual sin during marriage. 

2.3 Jezebel. Jezebel at Thyatira called herself a prophetess. She led the slaves of Jesus to do immorality (“πορνεῦσαι”–aorist active infinitive) (Revelation 2:20). She was unwilling to repent of the immorality (“πορνείας”–genitive noun) of her (Revelation 2:21). Jesus promised that He would throw into great tribulation the ones who commit adultery (“τοὺς μοιχεύοντας”–aorist subjunctive) with her, unless they repent of her deeds (Revelation 2:22). This passage helps us understand that Jezebel committed adultery and immorality with people. Therefore, we know that one person may commit both sins, particularly if the terms overlap in meaning. Jesus focused upon the people who commit adultery with her. They are the adulterers, just like the people who commit immorality with her. Jezebel functioned as the false teacher promoting both immorality and adultery, and she engaged in both acts with them. The slaves of Jesus committed “immorality,” and another group committed “adultery.” Perhaps the groups overlapped, but maybe not. The clear focus remains upon Jezebel who committed both immorality and adultery, showing that one person may commit both immorality and adultery (perhaps with different sexual partners). Immorality may refer to sex with an unmarried person here, but it more likely refers to spiritual immorality by the slaves of Jesus embracing Jezebel and her ways. If the latter, then the term “immorality” does not always describe sex by single people. Furthermore, Jezebel also committed adultery, meaning she was married while having sex with someone not her spouse. Of course, in the context, physical sex may not be at issue, but rather spiritual sin against the spouse. In any case, Jezebel committed both adultery and immorality, unless the text emphasized that both married and unmarried were seduced by her and her ways. Immorality and Adultery Defined.


In Matthew 19:9, Jesus answered two related questions about divorce. Jesus taught that divorce always arises from a hard heart determined to separate what God has joined together. Jesus then described the further sin of remarriage by the husband who filed for divorce, unless the wife, after God joined her in marriage to the husband, committed “immorality” (“πορνείας”).  In that case, the husband has committed one sin, the sin of divorce, but not the sin of adultery by remarrying another woman after divorcing his wife who did commit “immorality” (“πορνείας”) after being joined to her husband in marriage. Therefore, the term “immorality” (“πορνείας”) applied to a woman in Matthew 19:9 who committed some form of sexual sin after being joined by God in marriage to her husband and becoming one flesh with him. Therefore, the term “immorality” (“πορνείας”) does not always refer only to sex before marriage, but has a broader meaning to include sexual sin after being joined by God in marriage and while one flesh with her husband. Immorality and Adultery Defined.

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