“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.” – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV
Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.
In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:
“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT
They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.
Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which means “to set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.
Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT
The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT
To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.
And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.
“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.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV
That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.
“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.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV
Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:
It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV
David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.
So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV
David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:
Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT
David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.
We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount
Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:
You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT
And James wasn’t done.
Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT
There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.
Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:
“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT
External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.
Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.