“Some argue that John the Baptist’s teaching – that it was not lawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife (Mk. 6:18) – establishes a New Testament example of how someone today may be required to leave his wife. “How can it be right to use the ‘John-Herod’ case as an example for today, when we refuse to use the ‘thief-on-the-cross’ case as an example for how to be saved today?”
There are several matters involved in the question that must be sorted out. We suggest the following points for serious consideration.
(1) The teaching of John the Baptizer, in those particulars peculiar to that historical period in which he lived, are not a precedent for those who live under the New Testament regime.
For example, John preached that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). The Christian does not proclaim that message, because the kingdom has come already (Mk. 9:1; Acts 1:8; 2:4; Col. 1:13).
Again, John immersed people on the basis of their faith in a Savior that “should come after him” (Acts 19:4). Gospel preachers do not immerse folks whose knowledge of the Christ is limited in that fashion (Acts 19:5).
(2) On the other hand, there are principles which we teach today that are identical to things John taught – not because he taught them, but because they are intrinsically true.
For instance, John taught that human salvation is inexorably tied to the death of Jesus (Jn. 1:29). Is that proposition still true, and must it be proclaimed today? Certainly so. John also preached that men cannot continue in their sins and be pleasing to God (Mt. 3:2). Is that concept valid still? Who would argue otherwise?
(3) Here are the historical facts relative to the Herod-Herodius situation. Herod had abandoned his wife and “married” Herodius, who, in point of fact, had left her own husband to be with the Judean king. The courageous prophet addressed the matter. John “said” (elegen – imperfect: a repetitious rebuke) unto Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’" (Mk. 6:18). The expression ouk exestin (rendered “not lawful”), means precisely that. It has to do with what is not “authorized, permitted, or proper” (F.W. Danker, Greek – English Lexicon of the New Testament, Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000, p. 348).
The principle here is simply this: One cannot continue to do what is unauthorized, unlawful, or not permitted. That is a timeless truth. If, therefore, it is the case that, under the New Testament economy, remarriage following an unscriptural divorce constitutes “adultery,” then surely it is likewise the case that one cannot “lawfully” continue that relationship. He is not “authorized” to do so; thus, he is not “permitted” to remain in that relationship.
How does the fact that John’s admonition was uttered before the day of Pentecost negate this fundamental truth? Are we to contend that before Pentecost one was not permitted to do that which was “unlawful.” But we are under that system no longer. Therefore, under the current system, one is permitted to practice that which is unlawful. What a bizarre conclusion that would be.
(4) The episode regarding the “thief on the cross” is entirely irrelevant to this matter. There is much we do not know about the circumstances of the robber’s background. Had he, at one time, been a faithful Jew? Could he have been immersed by John and then gone astray?
Actually, it hardly matters. When he had a change of heart, and expressed his faith in the Savior (as evidenced by his request, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom” – Lk. 23:42), the Lord directly promised His personal presence with the man later that day in the realm called “Paradise” (v. 43). Christ was operating strictly within the scope of his own authority (see Mk. 2:10), and therefore He was entirely consistent with divine law.
Even in this scenario, then, there is a maxim that is applicable today, namely this: Everyone who is saved, will be saved consistent with the truths applicable in the era of redemptive history to which he is amenable. Again, this is a timeless truth.
The alleged problem posed by our querist is, therefore, of no consequence. It assuredly affords no comfort to those who allege that adulterers today may continue their illicit relationships with divine impunity.