What is the Greek tense of the verb for ‘commits adultery’ in Matthew 19:9?
When trying to understand the New Testament, it is important for the non-Greek reader to understand that the Greek words and Greek tenses can dramatically change the meaning. This is a concern in trying to understand Jesus’ teaching about divorce and committing adultery. The four gospels record four different times that Jesus taught about adultery (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:9: Mark 10:11-12: Luke 16:18). The question we are concerned with is “What is the Greek tense of the verb ‘commits adultery’ in Matthew 19:9?” First, an explanation of the Greek aorist and present tenses will be given. Then the tenses of the Greek word, moicheuo, for “commits adultery” will be explained in each passage.
Present and Aorist Greek Tenses
The Greek present tense can refer to action that is occurring in the present or to an ongoing action. William D. Mounce, the Greek scholar and teacher, writes,
• the present tense describes an action that usually occurs in the present time;
• the present tense can describe an ongoing action (continuous aspect), or say nothing about the verb’s aspect (undefined)
In order to fully understand the Greek present tense, it is important to also understand that,
• the imperfect indicates a continuous action normally occurring in the past.
• the perfect indicates a completed action whose effects are felt in the present. This action normally occurred in the past.
Here we discover that the perfect tense refers to action that started in the past and continues in the present. The imperfect tense refers to ongoing action in the past. In sharp contrast, the Greek present tense refers to action that begins in the present and ends in the present. Thus, as William Mounce states, the present tense can refer to continuous ongoing action in the present, that is, to action of a very short duration in the present in comparison to the past. A good example of present tense action is found in Acts 9:34.
Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed.” Immediately he got up. Acts 9:34 (NASB)
In this verse, “heals” is in the Greek present tense. Now notice that Peter declares that Aeneas experienced healing in the present, but then immediately Aeneas got up. That was action of a very short duration. That is, the present tense does not refer to ongoing action over a long period of time.
The aorist tense refers to completed action. Again, here is William Mounce,
• the aorist indicates an undefined action normally occurring in the past.
Since the aorist tense refers to punctiliar action—at a point in time—it can approximate the “quick” action of the present tense. The present tense does not refer to ongoing action that began in the past and continues into the present.
Meaning of Four Passages About Adultery
Now we will examine the four passages in the gospels that deal with committing adultery. The first passage is in Matthew 5:31-32. The Greek tense of the verb, moicheuo, translated as “commit adultery” in Matthew 5:31-32 is in the aorist tense, which refers to action at a point in time. That is, the committing of adultery occurred at some unspecified time—some point in time. The action is punctiliar.
“It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matthew 5:31-32 (NASB)
The phrase, “commits adultery,” at the end of the verse, comes from the Greek word moichao which is in the present tense. It refers to action limited to the present.
The Greek tense of the verb, moicheuo, translated as “commits adultery” in Matthew 19:9 is also in the present tense.
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. Matthew 19:9 (NASB)
Since the present tense is not the perfect tense or the imperfect tense, the verb of “commits adultery” refers to action that occurs in the present. It is important to note that the Greek perfect tense refers to action that occurred in the past and then continues in the future. The imperfect tense refers to ongoing and reoccurring action.Therefore, if Jesus had wanted to refer to an ongoing state of adultery, He should have used a different tense, such as the perfect or imperfect tense.
The Greek tenses of the verb, moicheuo, translated as “commits adultery” and then as “committing adultery” in Mark 10:11-12 are both in the present tense, even though they are translated differently in the NASB.
And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” Mark 10:11-12 (NASB)
Once again, the present tense refers to action in the present. Jesus is not referring to the life of an ongoing adulterous relationship. Once again, if Jesus had wanted to refer to an ongoing state of adultery, He should have used another tense such as the perfect or imperfect tense. Men and women who have committed adultery once are not adulterers or adulteresses the rest of their lives.
The Greek tenses of the verb, moicheuo, translated twice as “commits adultery” in Luke 16:18 are both in the present tense.
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. Luke 16:18 (NASB)
Once again the present tense refers to action of short duration. Jesus is not describing a life where men and women are called adulterers or adulteresses the rest of their lives—until they die. Again, if Jesus had wanted to refer to ongoing state of adultery, He should have used a different tense, such as the perfect or imperfect tense. Therefore, it appears that Jesus was simply saying that adultery occurred at the time of the wedding and accompanying sexual intercourse—action confined to the present.
This conclusion is consistent with the concept of biblical forgiveness. God declares that when He forgives He forgets the sin.
AND THEIR SINS AND THEIR LAWLESS DEEDS
I WILL REMEMBER NO MORE.” Hebrews 10:17 (NASB)
Technically, He does not forget since He is omniscient. He just simply never refers to it again. That is, God will never call the one who commits adultery an adulterer or adulteress the rest of his or her life – unless they continue in a pattern of adultery. This is wonderful news for those who have truly repented of their sin of adultery. God forgives and He forgives completely. Praise the Lord for His mercy!
1. William D. Mounce. Basics of Biblical Greek. Zondervan. 1993. p. 124.
2. Ibid., p. 176
3. Ibid., p. 218.
4. Ibid., p. 189.
Suggested Links:If I am living in adultery when I die, do I go to heaven?
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How can the sin of adultery be forgiven? – Is the sin forever?
Why does one have the “right to remarry” after a “Biblical Divorce”?
Why does God hate divorce if He allows it?
Is there a sin that God will not forgive? When does He forgive?
If you are divorced and remarry, are you living in adultery?
Does Matthew 5:31-32 say that even the non-adulterer is guilty of adultery?
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