By Peter Amsterdam
January 26, 2016
(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)
In part two of “The Law and the Prophets,” we covered the first of six examples Jesus gave within the Sermon on the Mount to illustrate godly righteousness which goes beyond what the scribes and Pharisees taught. That first example covered anger and reconciliation. The second example, which we’ll look at in this article, covers purity of heart and thought. Jesus begins by repeating what Scripture says, and then introduces further teaching on the topic.
“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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”1
Those listening to Jesus as He gave the Sermon on the Mount knew that adultery was forbidden, as it was the seventh of the Ten Commandments.2 Just as He had previously quoted the Sixth Commandment about not murdering, and then went on to show that murder begins with anger, and that anger needs to be addressed, here He quotes the Seventh Commandment, confirming that adultery is wrong and a sin; but He goes further, pointing out the danger of a lustful look and where that can ultimately lead. Rather than merely prohibiting the outward deed, Jesus delves into the inner state of the heart which leads to sinful action.3
He was linking the Seventh Commandment to the Tenth Commandment, which says: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.4 The Septuagint5 (Greek version of the Old Testament) uses the same word for both lusting after and covet. A man was not to covet or desire another man’s wife.
In the context of this teaching, Jesus refers to a man lusting after a married woman, as technically, adultery is only committed when one or both partners are married. If the two persons are both unmarried, then it is called fornication. While in this context Jesus is speaking about a man lusting after a married woman, it’s understood that the message He is conveying is that any person (married or unmarried) who looks at someone else (married or unmarried) with lustful intent is sinning.
One of the definitions of the Greek word blepō, which is translated as look at, is gaze, which means “to look for a long time with unwavering attention.”6 The Greek word used for woman in this verse is translated as wife ninety-two times in the New Testament. The Greek word translated as lust after or lustful intent means to long for, to desire, to covet things which are forbidden. With lust, or lustful intent, means for the purpose of. What Jesus was saying is that any man who continues to look at a married woman (or by inference an unmarried one) with the purpose of coveting her, desiring her for himself, wanting sexual relations with her, has sinned by committing adultery (or fornication) in his heart.
R. T. France wrote:
The “woman” in Jesus’ declaration is thus to be understood also as another man’s wife, and the looking “in order to desire her,” specifically of wanting (and planning?) sexual relations. The focus is thus not on sexual attraction as such, but on the desire for an illicit sexual liaison.7
Author Charles Talbert agrees:
Jesus does not, of course, refer to passing attraction, but the deliberate harboring of desire for an illicit relationship.8
Contrary to the attitude of the Pharisees, who were focused on literal law-keeping, Jesus was making the point that keeping oneself from the act of adultery didn’t make one right with God. Just as anger could be murder in the heart, so looking on a member of the opposite sex with the intention of illicit sex could be adultery in the heart. As Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, life within the kingdom of God is about more than rule keeping; it’s about working toward the transformation of our heart, attitudes, thought life, and actions by bringing them into alignment with God’s Word and will.
Jesus followed up with:
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.9
He used a similar saying elsewhere in the Gospels when speaking of causing or tempting others to sin, but in those instances He included one’s foot as well.10
In exaggerated hyperbolic language, similar to when He spoke of dropping your sacrifice at the altar and also making peace while on the road to the judge,11 Jesus was making a point here about the importance of avoiding temptation to sin. We can see a similar point made in the book of Job, when Job speaks of making a covenant with his eyes so that he wouldn’t gaze on a virgin, and makes reference to his heart going after his eyes.12
Jesus was not advocating the literal tearing out of one’s eye or cutting off their hand (or foot). He was saying that if your eye causes you to sin because temptation comes to you through your eyes (what you see), or through your hands (things you do), or your feet (places you visit), then behave as if you had cut them off or plucked them out. If your eye causes you to sin, don’t look; if your foot causes you to sin, don’t go; and if your hand causes you to sin, don’t do it.13
The phrase causes you to sin is also translated as offend thee (KJV) and makes you stumble (NAS). It comes from the Greek skandalizō, which is used a number of times in Matthew’s Gospel to denote something catastrophic, a stumbling which deflects a person from the path of God’s will and salvation, and also as a person or thing which gets in the way of God’s saving purpose.14 For example,
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.15 Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.16
These verses reflect Jesus’ statement, For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell, something He says twice in this chapter and again in Matthew 18.17
Even though we are saved by Jesus’ sacrifice for us, sin is still serious, as it damages our relationship with God. As members of the kingdom of God, as God’s children, we should strive to not sin. Of course, it’s impossible for us to avoid ever sinning, but when we find ourselves regularly succumbing to sin, we are in a dangerous position—at risk of relationally distancing ourselves from God.
How one’s eye, hand, or foot causes them to sin varies from person to person. We’re not all tempted to sin in the same ways. For example, someone’s eye might lead them toward pornography; meanwhile someone else’s eye leads them to envy, when they see what others have and are resentful. We each need to guard ourselves from sin in our life, and the way sin arises will differ for each of us. We need to be self-aware as to the ways we are personally tempted to sin, and do what we can to counteract them.
To obey this commandment of Jesus, we may have to do some “plucking out” or “cutting off.” We may need to eliminate certain things from our lives, which while they may be innocent in themselves either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. This may also include our relationship with individuals who tend to lead us to sin.18
As Jesus said, it’s better to go through this life with some things of this world “plucked out” or “cut off” from our lives, to forgo some experiences, in order to be true to Jesus’ teachings, to live as the people of the kingdom of God. How we live now plays a role in our eternity. Knowing that Jesus said it is better to enter the life to come with some things “cut off” rather than indulge them should cause us to think and pray about things we allow or invite into our lives which are not in alignment with His nature, character, will, and Word, and to take definite action to remove them.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount (The Law and the Prophets), Jesus gives six examples of what Scripture says and then delves deeper, giving a fuller understanding of the intent. The core of Jesus’ message throughout this passage is that pleasing God is not merely about rule keeping, as the Pharisees emphasized; but rather, what God is after is a rewiring of the motives and intents of our hearts. Jesus uses these examples to help us, as members of the kingdom of God, learn how to become new creations who are intentional about living the intent of what Scripture teaches.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008.
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Bock, Darrell L. Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996.
Brown, Raymond E. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E. The Death of the Messiah. 2 vols. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
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1 Matthew 5:27–30.
2 Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18.
3 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 117.
4 Exodus 20:17.
5 The Septuagint (sometimes abbreviated LXX) is the name given to the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. The Septuagint has its origin in Alexandria, Egypt, and was translated between 300–200 BC. Widely used among Hellenistic Jews, this Greek translation was produced because many Jews spread throughout the empire were beginning to lose their Hebrew language. The process of translating the Hebrew to Greek also gave many non-Jews a glimpse into Judaism. According to an ancient document called the Letter of Aristeas, it is believed that 70 to 72 Jewish scholars were commissioned during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus to carry out the task of translation. The term “Septuagint” means seventy in Latin, and the text is so named to the credit of these 70 scholars.
Septuagint—Influence on Christianity
The Septuagint was also a source of the Old Testament for early Christians during the first few centuries AD. Many early Christians spoke and read Greek, thus they relied on the Septuagint translation for most of their understanding of the Old Testament. The New Testament writers also relied heavily on the Septuagint, as a majority of Old Testament quotes cited in the New Testament are quoted directly from the Septuagint (others are quoted from the Hebrew texts). Greek church fathers are also known to have quoted from the Septuagint. Even today, the Eastern Orthodox Church relies on the Septuagint for its Old Testament teachings. Some modern Bible translations also use the Septuagint alongside Hebrew manuscripts as their source text.
6 Microsoft Encarta, 2009.
7 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 205.
8 Talbert, Reading the Sermon on the Mount, 75.
9 Matthew 5:29–30.
10 Matthew 18:8–9; Mark 9:43–47.
11 Matthew 5:21–26.
12 Job 31:1,7.
13 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 89.
14 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 205.
15 Matthew 13:41–42.
16 Matthew 18:6.
17 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire (Matthew 18:8–9).
18 Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 91.