Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Exegetical Insight (Chapter 19)

In English we think of the future tense as the tense of simple prediction. Greek often uses the future that way, too, but in many biblical passages it carries a different sense. Particularly when quoting the Old Testament (under the influence of a parallel Hebrew construction), the future is used to give a command. “Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery,” and so on, are not predictions about the behavior of God’s people, or we would have repeatedly proven God wrong! Rather they are commands, what grammarians often call the imperatival or volitive use of the future tense. We do this in English occasionally, particularly in casual speech. For example, the student insistently says to her friends about an upcoming party, “You will be there!” This is not a prediction but a demand!

An excellent New Testament example appears when both Jesus and Paul quote Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” In the context of the story of Adam and Eve, it is natural to take this as God’s prediction about how married life will proceed among the offspring of these first two human beings, and there may be a partially predictive element intended here. But when Jesus cites this passage to refute the Pharisees’ generally more lenient views on divorce (Matt 19:5), he knows full well that many of God’s people have violated and will continue to violate this creation ordinance. The same is true of Paul when he establishes the principles of a Christian marriage in the midst of the highly promiscuous pagan culture of Ephesus (Eph 5:31). Rather, both Jesus and Paul are using the future tense verbs of the Genesis text primarily in their imperatival sense—telling believers that God commands them to be faithful to their spouses for life.

That command remains crucial today, when Christians divorce for so many flimsy reasons that the Bible never condones. As the pastor who married my wife and me told us during premarital counseling, “There may be extreme instances in which divorce is biblically legitimate. But if you go into marriage looking for a way out, you will almost surely find it. Far better to commit to each other that you will never divorce, even if those extreme circumstances were to occur. Then you will have to turn to God, to Christian friends, and to each other to see you through the difficult times. And God will prove faithful.” We have heeded this advice for thirty years now, and will continue to heed it for as long as we live. And in that period of time, while there have been struggles, there certainly has been nothing emerge to seriously threaten our marriage. God does remain faithful when we commit to his commands. And some of them come “disguised” in the future tense.

Craig L. Blomberg