The Ten Commandments were the first written articulation of the Law; God defined some of the behaviors that reflected His righteousness, or that offended it. God carved these ten laws into the rock with His own hand. Exodus 20:14 states one of them, the 7th commandment, as, “You shall not commit adultery.” This law addresses relationships, sexuality, and encompasses both physical and emotional sin. Adultery encompasses the many sins of the flesh, driven by uncontrolled passions and lusts. It often stems from other sins including covetousness. It also is a violation of the body, which is God’s temple. When God commanded people not to commit adultery, He was trying to protect their bodies, hearts, and souls.
What Does "Commit Adultery" Really Mean?
The verse is straight-forward. It explicitly forbids the sin of having sexual intercourse, wanting to have intercourse, or imagining the act of sex with someone that is not your spouse. Marriage is a sacred ordinance from God, that reflects His desire for people to have companionship, support, and love. He instituted marriage in the Garden of Eden:
“The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:20-24).
People were not meant to be unfaithful to one another once they made a commitment to love, honor, and cherish one another, just as they were not meant to be unfaithful or disobedient to God. When someone commits infidelity, that person is going against God’s plan. It also requires a callousness of the heart that is insensitive to the emotions of their partner.
Sometimes adultery happens because of the undue influence of alcohol, but the Bible also warns against getting so intoxicated that a person cannot trust their own judgment. “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).
Whether someone strays from their marriage vows because of a substance, because they are no longer attracted to their spouse, or because they have an addiction, it is wrong. It violates one’s own body, as well as the body of another, while hurting their spouse’s heart. Marriage is also one of the few covenants, a deeper kind of promise, that is still made today, and adultery violates that covenant. When God commanded His people not to commit infidelity, He wanted them to keep themselves holy and set apart for Him, to not harm others, and to be faithful, just as He is faithful.
Through both the Old and New Testament, God instructs those who love Him on how to have His character, and this commandment is a part of that.
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What Are the Ten Commandments?
When God called the descendants of Jacob out of Egypt, He called them out of slavery and away from being sojourners in a foreign land. They were called to become a nation, and a nation needs to have laws which govern it. For Israel, they were not to be the rules and institutions of man. Instead, God set down the laws for His people to follow. In fact, the initial system of governance was for there to be no king, no president, or any recognizable executive authority. Instead, during the days of Moses and Joshua, God communicated with the people through leaders in the Tabernacle. Eventually the Judges were instituted, and then kings. The first of His laws He gave to Israel after they left Israel, at Mount Sinai.
The full set of commandments are, paraphrased:
1. I am the Lord your God who has rescued you from Egypt, and you shall have no other gods besides me.
2. You shall not make idols, worship them, and I shall love those who obey my rules.
3. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain.
4. Remember the Sabbath, my day of rest, and keep it holy, by resting like I did.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not lie about yourself or others.
10. Do not want what God has given to others.
What Does Jesus Say about Adultery?
Infidelity to one’s spouse is a serious matter in the Bible; under the Old Testament system of laws, adultery was punishable by stoning. In fact, Jesus saved a woman from this very punishment in John 8:1-11, extending grace and forgiveness to her. While He gave her grace, He was not silent about how deeply offensive to God it is when some commits adultery. He is the one who clarified the extent of sin through adultery; “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
God does not just want people to be physically faithful to their husband or wife, but loyal in their hearts and minds as well. Being cold-hearted to the person with whom a covenant has been made and fantasizing about someone else is wrong too. God’s plan was always that once two people were joined as man and wife, they would be together exclusively.
During Jesus’ day, men had taken to coming up with petty excuses to divorce their wives, becoming hard-hearted to them, and wanting another; Jesus addressed this emotional infidelity and abuse of the Mosaic allowance for divorce, saying, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8b-9). The importance of faithfulness in marriage is important to God’s plan and order, and it hurts Him to see people stray.
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What Else Does the Bible Say about Adultery?
Exodus and Matthew are not the only places in the Bible where God addresses adultery.
Some verses about this subject include:
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous” (Hebrews 13:4).
“He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32).
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality” (Galatians 5:19).
“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:16).
There are also several moments in the Bible which demonstrate the powerful evil influence of lust, and the repercussions of adultery. These records include when David committed adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and murdered her husband when she became pregnant. The account is in 2 Samuel 11.
God compares the nation of Israel to an unfaithful wife whenever the Israelites fell into idol worship, disobeying the other commandments in prophetic passages from the major and minor prophets like in Ezekiel 16 and Jeremiah 2. God commanded his prophet Hosea to marry an adulteress named Gomer, so Israel could have a living example of how they hurt God, as recorded in Hosea 1. The adulteress is also used throughout the Book of Proverbs as a symbol for sin, temptation, and foolish behavior.
How Does This Commandment Apply to Us Today?
Prostitution is called the oldest profession for a reason; pornography is easier than ever to access. Even advertisements contain people dressed in little to nothing. Even people who do what they can to be physically faithful to their spouse are surrounded by opportunities to be emotionally unfaithful.
As the world pushes a message that it is okay to look, to engage, and even to have open marriages, it is important to lean on the word of God, and remember His precepts. It is also important to cultivate a healthy relationship with your spouse, and to seek to rectify problems if remaining faithful is hard. Some people do need more help with this than others. Safeguards like website blockers, accountability partners, and maintaining the romance in a marriage are all ways to fight against the temptation to break this commandment.
God’s love is unwavering, but man is weak. Ultimately, the Lord can supply the strength and support people need to stay the course and remain faithful in their marriages through the Holy Spirit, other people, and His love.
Chapman, Gary. Covenant Marriage: Building Communication and Intimacy. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2003.
Davis, Paul. Adultery: 101 Reasons Not to Cheat. United States of America: Xulon Press, 2007.
Wilmington, H.L. Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1981.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer and editor. She maintains a faith and lifestyle blog graceandgrowing.com, where she muses about the Lord, life, culture, and ministry.