A Study of "Except"
We all encounter the word "except" almost daily. The word "except" in the Bible is translated in total from about eighteen different Hebrew and Greek words. There can be some potential technicality in a study of "except" in its various usage as an adverb, extended conjunction, and as a preposition. Simply stated, the static idea of "except" is that of "outside." The meaning, put after an elementary fashion, is that "except" states a requisite condition or a circumstance outside of the present circumstance being discussed. It is important that I add that in many cases of "except," the biblical writer immediately supplies the outside condition. Consider a case in point involving Joseph and his brothers as they come to "him" in Egypt for help (notice verse twenty-three):
"18: Then Judah came near unto him, and said, Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant: for thou art even as Pharaoh. 19: My lord asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a brother? 20: And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him. 21: And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. 22: And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die. 23: And thou saidst unto thy servants, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more" (Gen. 44).
The youngest brother, Benjamin, was not present at first (an outside circumstance) and Joseph is saying that it was required that Benjamin be there. Hence, the "except" required condition is stipulated. Without Benjamin, his brothers would receive no help. We shall now turn our attention to some important occurrences of "except" in the New Testament (see addendum).
Except a man be born again. The famous dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is known by many.
"3: Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4: Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? 5: Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn. 2).
Jesus is discussing with Nicodemus a condition outside of the physical birth. This condition is the spiritual birth and this circumstance is necessary. To be born of the Spirit is to listen to and accept the teachings of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit provided the very words used by writers of inspiration (I Cor. 2: 13). To be born of "water" refers to baptism (see Rom. 6: 1ff.). "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God," said Jesus.
Except your righteousness shall exceed . The scribes and Pharisees were viewed by many in the first century as being the epitome of righteousness. However, Jesus made the following statement about these people and provided an exception condition, if you please:
"20: For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5).
While many of the scribes and Pharisees purported to serve God, they often disregarded and rejected any laws of God that they did not want (Matt. 5: 19, sounds like many religionists today). There was a condition outside of these scribes and Pharisees and that necessary condition was sincere submission to God as evidenced by the implicit acceptance of his commandments (cp. I Jn. 5: 3, 2: 3-6).
Except ye abide in me. Jesus said, "Abide in me, and I in you, as the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine, no more can ye, except ye abide in me" (Jn. 15: 4, see also vs. 1-3, 5-7). To abide in Jesus is outside of man, physically speaking. To abide in Jesus denotes a spiritual relationship and involves being a part of Jesus' body, his church. One enters Christ by baptism (Gal. 3: 26, 27). All spiritual blessings and redemption are in Jesus (Eph. 1: 3, 7).
Notwithstanding this simple use of "except" to show the necessity of being a part of Jesus' church, his body, many persist in teaching that the church is not important (cp. Acts 20: 28). Some even advocate universal salvation, which denies the essential outside condition of being in Christ.
Except he eat the flesh . Too many want to half-heartedly follow Jesus. They want to be his disciples up to a point. Jesus addressed this problem in the following teaching:
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (Jn. 6: 53).
Jesus is not teaching cannibalism (cp. Acts 15: 29). To eat Jesus' flesh and to drink his blood is referring to imbibing Jesus without reservation (vs. 47-54, Jesus is not referring to the Lord's Supper in the context). Many were offended at Jesus' teaching and, " walked no more with him" (vs. 66). This external condition (outside of them) was necessary and Jesus did not offer any compromise.
Not crowned, except strive lawfully. Many in the religious world do not see any serious and required connection between a saved relationship with God and God's commandments. "One can live life saved and go to heaven when they die without necessarily obeying the commandments of God," some have affirmed. Consider Paul's inspired teaching and use of "except:"
"And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully" (2 Tim. 2: 5).
Paul is borrowing from three illustrations to show Timothy that continued loyalty to God and his laws are necessary (see context). The condition of seeking and even putting forth great energy to obtain a desired victory (heaven) will be futile, except one play by the rules or obey God's teaching (see Matthew 7: 24ff.).
Except it be for fornication. Teeming millions of divorces have been sought and obtained based on a myriad of causes. "We went our separate ways because we enjoyed different things or because our marriage became incompatible," is an often-heard cause for divorcement. "I just woke up one morning and decided that I had fallen out of love," is another common one. The pressure on states relative to divorce was so great that most states have now adopted the "no fault divorce" practice. Any reason or no reason is now about all it takes in most states to procure a civil dissolution of the marriage. Hear Jesus:
"And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery" (Matt. 19: 9).
Divorces based on causes other than the cause of fornication or illicit sexual intercourse with another are condemned, according to Jesus. Only the putting away on the part of the innocent mate affords the innocent mate justification and the right to marry another (cp. Matt. 5: 32).
Except they repent of their deeds. Saving repentance is an act that is essentially a change of will or volition that is produced by godly sorrow and results in reformation of life (Matt. 21: 28-30; 2 Cor. 7: 10; 2 Cor. 7: 11). Regarding the church at Thyatira that was allowing the practicing of sin, Jesus said that they stood spiritually condemned, " except they repent of their deeds" (Rev. 2: 22).
Repentance is everywhere shown to be essential to salvation and is applicable to both the non-Christian and Christian alike (Acts 2: 38; Rev. 2: 22). In fact, the message stated to man is, " all men every where to repent" (Acts 17: 30).
Beloved, Joseph told his brother Judah that, " except your younger brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more." Had they not complied with this condition, they would not have been physically blessed. So it is spiritually in matters such as being born again; having righteousness acceptable to God; totally imbibing Jesus; striving lawfully, divorcement, and repentance. Our condition is not acceptable, there must be the "outside" condition suggested by "except." When we comply with the "except" circumstance, we then enjoy all that God has in store for his faithful people.
Addendum: Three Greek words of importance in this study are ektos, parektos, and plen. These words are also rendered "unless," "but," "besides," "others," "yet," "howbeit," "notwithstanding," "save," and "than." The careful student will notice, though, that there is the idea of an existing circumstance "outside" of the matter being discussed.