Matthew 5:27-30 NET
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.
We have been studying our Lord’s sermon on the mount for several weeks now. It is very easy to get misdirected in our interpretation of what Jesus said in this sermon. There are a number of schools of thought that have developed about it. One of the extreme schools of thought suggests that our Lord’s words do not apply to us during this church age. That group teaches that Jesus intended his sermon to be a new law for Israel, but since Israel rejected him, the sermon does not apply to the church. It will only apply when Israel accepts Jesus as their king during the millennium. Those who follow this school of thought suggest that “rightly dividing” the word means recognizing that Jesus’ commands in the sermon on the mount do not apply to Christians during this dispensation of grace.
But there is a big problem with following that logic. We have seen that although the crowd was looking on while Jesus was preaching the sermon on the mount, he was specifically targeting his twelve apostles with the message. The apostles were also present on the mountain in Galilee where Jesus gave them the great commission. There he commanded them to make disciples of all nations, beginning in Jerusalem but targeting all people in all nations to the end of the age. Jesus had told these same apostles that they were the light of the world and the salt of the earth. So, no, the sermon on the mount is not specifically designed for Israel during the millennium. It was specifically designed for missionaries who are commissioned to reach the nations for Christ. Applying the sermon on the mount to this age is rightly dividing the word.
We are discovering that the more we look at the sermon on the mount, the more it fits as a mission manual for God’s people to reach the lost for Christ. But it is important to keep in mind that the words themselves are not designed for unbelievers. They are designed for people like those twelve apostles — people who have already repented of their sin and pledged loyalty to Jesus Christ as their Savior, Lord, and King. The sermon on the mount was not designed to get them saved. It was designed to get them to live the life that would draw other people to Christ. It was designed for people who were already the light of the world — to keep them from hiding that light.
Two weeks ago, we looked at what Jesus said about anger. It was possible for anger to make the missionaries unfruitful in their mission. That was why Jesus warned them not to allow anger toward their brothers to linger in their hearts. Also, they had to reconcile with others who were angry at them — even if it meant disrupting their religious worship. Jesus warned that anger had to be dealt with.
Today we’re looking at another feeling buried in the heart. This is the feeling of lust — the burning desire for someone other than your spouse. We begin by looking at what Jesus told them about the Old Testament Law.
The Law had prohibited adultery, but it did not prevent it (27).
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.” They had heard this. It was in the Old Testament. It was one of the ten commandments (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). God intended his people to be faithful to their covenants with each other as well as their covenant with him. He still does. But with the command comes the temptation to transgress the command. The Bible records several examples of those who transgressed this command, including Lot, Shechem, Judah, Eli’s sons, Tamar, David, Bathsheba, Amnon, Herodias, and the woman at the well whom Jesus spoke to in Sychar.
When we looked at the prohibition against murder, we found that there was an evil root in the hearts of human beings that if allowed to grow, would eventually lead to transgressing the command. The same is true for the command against adultery. The problem is not the command itself. Harrington says that In this section, Jesus is “more concerned with going to the roots of biblical commands than with contradicting them” (28).
Most would agree that being faithful to one’s spouse is a good thing. It is healthy. It is designed to produce happiness and security in marriages and provide for stable families. But if we give in to the temptations of the heart, our marriages are in danger. To deal with the heart issue you have to focus your obedience on something else besides adultery because adultery is an effect, not a cause. We have to get to the root cause in order to prevent adultery.
The heart temptation behind adultery begins with a lustful look (28).
Jesus said that “whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Hahn and Mitch say that like “the Mosaic Law, Jesus forbids acts of adultery Yet he extends the prohibition to forbid even personal lust and interior thoughts of impurity. Looking and thinking “lustfully” (5:28) already violate the New Law, even if the exterior act of adultery is not committed” (26).
The lustful look is the evil weed that has to be pulled or else adultery will be the eventual result. Genesis 34 tells the story of Shechem, whose eyes looked lustfully on Dinah, Jacob’s daughter. He saw her and he had to have her.
2 Samuel 11 tells the story of King David, who “got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof, he saw a woman bathing. Now this woman was very attractive. So David sent someone to inquire about the woman. The messenger said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” David knew that she belonged to someone else. But he had a lustful look at her, and he had to have her.
Matthew 14 records John the Baptist’s words to King Herod. He told him that it was not lawful for him to have Herodias. But Herod had a lustful look at her, and he wanted her.
N. T. Wright says that what “he commands us to avoid is the gaze, and the lustful imagination, that follows the initial impulse” (48).
The lustful look is just like a random angry thought. We might think that it is harmless, but that is because we fail to see the result. The examples of lust in the Bible are parts of stories of tragedy and death. Lust rips marriages and families apart, and leads to violence and cruelty, and disharmony.
Note how Jesus describes lust here. He says that “whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” The heart that looks lustfully on someone else’s spouse has already transgressed the command. The weed may be so small that nobody else notices it — maybe not even the target of the lust. France says that Jesus is talking about simple sexual desire here, but “the desire for (and perhaps the planning of) am illicit sexual liaison” (204).
Our modern culture has made it harder and harder for marriages to last because we have chosen to give the lustful look free reign. We have been taught to look but don’t touch. This philosophy has created a generation of Davids who can look down from the roof of their palaces on all the Bathshebas that they could care to lust after — all within the privacy of their own phones or computers. We are paying the price for that freedom.
Jesus’ generation and culture had promoted the same kind of freedom and were producing the same kind of unfaithfulness. But Jesus did not condemn the culture of the Roman empire. He correctly diagnosed the problem. The choice to look at another person lustfully is an individual decision to sin.
Jesus recommended extreme measures to prevent the lustful look (29-30).
He said “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell.”
Obviously, Jesus is not encouraging self-destruction here. But he is pointing out the fact that if we refuse to take drastic measures to deal with this problem, destruction is exactly what will happen. Beare says that Jesus is using “a forceful image of the drastic effort that must be made” to deal with the problem of the lustful look (153). It would be better to maim our bodies by plucking out an eye, or chopping off a hand because if we allow lust to have free reign, we are heading to hell.
Jesus said that in hell, God will destroy the sinner entirely — body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Jesus also said hell is for hypocrites. Anyone who claims to be a Christian but is ruled by his lustful thoughts is only pretending to follow Jesus.
The apostle Paul said the same thing. He said “the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:19-21).
It doesn’t matter what you profess. It matters what you practice. Paul said that “those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). Instead, we are supposed to practice the fruit of the Spirit. We cannot do both. We cannot practice the fruit of the Spirit on Sunday morning and live like the devil from Monday to Saturday.
If we try to take Jesus literally here, we are not going to succeed. Even if we pluck out one eye, the other one will be there to engage in lustful looking. Even if we chop off one hand, the other will be there to help the eye go where it shouldn’t go.
Beare, Francis W. The Gospel According to Matthew: Translation, Introduction, and Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982
France, R.T. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 2007.
Hahn, Scott, Curtis Mitch, and R D. Walters. The Gospel of Matthew: With Introduction, Commentary, and Notes and with Study Questions. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000.
Harrington, Daniel J. Meeting St. Matthew Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2010.
Wright, N T. Matthew for Everyone: Chapters 1-15. London: SPCK, 2004.