A brief review of the principle underlying 5:21-48 is in order. First, Jesus is revealing the inadequacy of the Mosaic law in that it could only legislate against the outward act. Second, Jesus expands, intensifies, and heightens Moses by prohibiting the inward thought and intent of the heart of which the outward act is but an expression. Third, by doing so he countered and corrected the Pharisaic distortion of the Law, namely, their belief that morality or “righteousness” consisted simply of external conformity irrespective of internal attitudes.
A. The Principles –5:27-28
Several comments are in order.
1. Evidently, the Pharisees had done with the 7th commandment (against adultery) the same thing they did with the 6th (against murder). Thinking that they had behaved righteously simply by refraining from the act of actually spilling human blood, they ignored, indeed, may well have approved, that anger and malice of the heart which are the cause of murder. Likewise with adultery, lust was irrelevant, for it was a matter of the heart over which the law courts of Moses had no jurisdiction. Thus, as long as the deed itself was avoided, righteousness was maintained. Just as Jesus countered in vv. 21-26 by pointing out that the prohibition of murder includes the angry thought and the insulting word, so also the prohibition of adultery now includes the lustful look and the covetous heart.
2. We must remember that there is no hint here of sexual relations within marriage being anything other than God-given and beautiful. It is precisely because the gift of sex is God-given that Jesus seeks to protect it by stating this prohibition on both the act and attitude of adultery.
The question is often asked: “Did Jesus have sexual desires?” The issue was much in the news upon the release several years ago of the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” My belief is that Yes, Jesus did have sexual desires, but not sexual lust. His sexuality was part of his humanity, but we can rest assured that he never once violated the prohibition on lust which he himself articulates in this passage.
3. Jesus is not forbidding men to “look” at women or women to “look” at men. Rather, he forbids them looking in order to lust. It isn’t his purpose to condemn the normal attraction that exists between men and women. We admire beauty in God’s creation wherever it appears, even in the human body. To recognize, acknowledge and compliment beauty is no sin (it may even be a duty). But to look upon another human being with the express purpose of fantasizing illicit sexual activity or mentally and emotionally gratifying a sexual desire is out of biblical bounds. Jesus has in mind using a woman’s “visual presence as a means of savoring the fantasized act” (Willard, 161). He’s focusing on the look which longs to possess for expressly sexual purposes. It would appear, then, that our Lord has deepened the 7th commandment, the prohibition of adultery, in terms of the 10th, the prohibition of covetousness.
The word used for “lust” here is epithumeo. It is used in the LXX of Ex. 20:17 and Dt. 5:21 to translate the Hebrew of the 10th commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” The word “lust” in English connotes sensual and sexual overtones but lacks the thought of possessing inherent in the prohibition. This may be why Jesus refers to the “hand” in v. 30 in connection with “lust,” i.e., to lust after another’s wife is in a real sense to steal. Adultery, either in act or attitude is theft: it is taking to yourself, either physically or emotionally, a person who has not been given to you in marriage.
One more point: the distinction between “looking” and “lusting” is not a great chasm but a razor’s edge!
4. Let us not miss the connection our Lord draws between sight and sin. This isn’t to deny that our other senses can be turned into instruments of sin. We must carefully monitor what we hear as much as what we see. But there can be little doubt, as Stott has said, that “deeds of shame are preceded by fantasies of shame, and the inflaming of the imagination by the indiscipline of the eyes” (88). Very little sin makes its way into actuality without having passed first through the eyes of the sinner.
5. The problem which lust posed in the first century is nothing compared with today. We live in a world where there is a concerted assault on our senses by the mass media: magazines (even respectable ones such as Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated [whose best-selling issue each year is the swimsuit issue], movies, billboards, TV, commercials, etc. We can’t legislate fashion, but both men and women know the difference between dressing attractively and dressing seductively.
B. The Practice – 5:29-30
1. The “eye” is singled out because it is so frequently the vehicle by which lust arises within the heart. The “hand” is mentioned, as noted above, perhaps because adultery is theft. See Mt. 18:8-9.
2. The main point of the illustration is that we must deal drastically and radically with sin. “We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out” (Carson, 44). We must never toy with sin or press its boundaries to discover how much we can get away with before we transgress. In the case of adulterous lust, if your eye leads you astray, “tear it out.” If your hand is the culprit, cut it off.
The Minneapolis (MN) Star Tribune, July 22, 1993, reported on the story of Donald Wyman who, two days earlier, suffered a terrible accident. While clearing land a tree rolled onto his leg, crushing the bone and pinning him to the ground. He cried loudly and for a long time, but no one was near to hear or help. He concluded that the only way he would survive was to amputate his leg. He made a tourniquet from a shoe string and tightened it with a wrench. He then took his pocket knife and cut off the injured leg just below the knee! He crawled to a bull-dozer, drove another quarter mile to his truck, then somehow maneuvered it a mile and a half down the road to a farm house, from which he was then rushed to the hospital. He lost his leg . . . but he saved his life. Radical sacrifice indeed!
But how do we know that Jesus does not mean literal mutilation? A simple illustration will help bring clarity.
Consider John and his relationship with Mary, his administrative assistant. John has always been stirred by Mary’s beauty, but recently his gaze has turned to lust.
Taking Jesus’ words literally, John proceeds to cut out his right eye. Thinking that the problem is solved, he returns to work after a period of rehabilitation only to find that now his left eye has lusted as well! So he cuts it out too. He now comes to work with a seeing-eye dog. He’s not as efficient at his job, but he’s convinced that he’s been obedient to Christ and is beyond lusting after Mary. But then he hears her voice and illicit desire rages yet again in his heart. So he lops off both his ears! He again returns to work, not a pretty sight, to say the least. Confident that it won’t happen again, he walks by her desk . . . and smells her perfume! Lust rages once more. So he cuts off his nose. Not even that solves his problem, for as he gropes through the office in his self-inflicted blindness, his hands accidentally brush up against Mary’s body and his flesh is stirred yet again. So he (somehow?) cuts off his hands. It is only then that John realizes he still has a mind and Mary’s memory lingers vividly.
I know it’s a silly story. But it makes the point. The problem is not with our body parts or our physical senses. The problem is with a corrupt and deceitful heart. Our external members are but the instruments we employ to gratify the lust that emerges from within. What our Lord was advocating, therefore, “was not a literal physical self-maiming, but a ruthless moral self-denial. Not mutilation but mortification is the path of holiness he taught” (Stott, 89).
How, then, are we to respond to the sexually seductive and stimulating things we encounter in the world, in the media, at work? We are to act “as if” we were blind. Says Stott,
“behave as if you had actually plucked out your eyes and flung them away, and were now blind and so could not see the objects which previously caused you to sin. Again, if your hand or foot causes you to sin, because temptation comes to you through your hands (things you do) or your feet (places you visit), then cut them off. That is: don’t do it! Don’t go! Behave as if you had actually cut off your hands and feet, and had flung them away, and were now crippled and so could not do the things or visit the places which previously caused you to sin” (89).
If need be, run away! And as you do so, fix your mind on things above. Focus your heart on the promise of a superior pleasure in Christ. Ponder the joy of that river of delights that never runs dry.
Once again, Dallas Willard takes a somewhat unconventional approach to this passage. He argues that in vv. 29-30 Jesus is describing what the Pharisees thought should be done to conquer sexual lust. He writes: “Indeed, the attempt to solve the problem of right sexual behavior by a law or laws that govern specific behaviors is what Jesus is addressing in 5:29-30” (167). Here is his extended explanation, one that I find unpersuasive: “Jesus is saying that if you think that laws can eliminate being wrong you would, to be consistent, cut off your hand or gouge out your eye so that you could not possibly do the acts the law forbids. Now, truly, if you blind yourself, you cannot look at a woman to lust after her, because you cannot look on her at all. And if you sufficiently dismember yourself, you will not be able to do any wrong action. This is the logic by which Jesus reduces the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees to the absurd. In their view, the law could be satisfied, and thus goodness attained, if you avoided sinning. You are right if you have done nothing wrong. You could avoid sinning if you simply eliminated the bodily parts that make sinful actions possible. Then you would roll into heaven a mutilated stump” (167). Willard is correct to point out, as I did above, that elimination of the offending body part doesn’t deal with the source of sin. But there is no indication in this passage that Jesus is referring to the philosophy of the Pharisees. The passage reads as a straightforward exhortation from Jesus himself on how to deal with sin.
3. John Stott has some excellent advice for us in this matter. He recognizes that it is not his, or anyone else’s, place to lay down laws or man-made rules in an attempt to enforce Jesus’ words. Nevertheless, he writes:
“To obey this command of Jesus will involve for many of us a certain ‘maiming’. We shall have to eliminate from our lives certain things which (though some may be innocent in themselves) either are, or could easily become, sources of temptation. In his own metaphorical language we may find ourselves without eyes, hands or feet. That is, we shall deliberately decline to read certain literature, see certain films, visit certain exhibitions. If we do this, we shall be regarded by some of our contemporaries as narrow-minded, untaught Philistines. ‘What?’ they will say to us incredulously, ‘you’ve not read such and such a book? You’ve not seen such and such a film? Why, you’re not educated, man!’ They may be right. We may have had to become culturally ‘maimed’ in order to preserve our purity of mind. The only question is whether, for the sake of this gain, we are willing to bear that loss and endure that ridicule.
Jesus was quite clear about it. It is better to lose one member and enter life maimed, he said, than to retain our whole body and go to hell. That is to say, it is better to forgo some experiences this life offers in order to enter the life which is life indeed; it is better to accept some cultural amputation in this world than risk final destruction in the next. Of course this teaching runs clean counter to modern standards of permissiveness. It is based on the principle that eternity is more important than time and purity than culture, and that any sacrifice is worth while in this life if it is necessary to ensure our entry into the next. We have to decide, quite simply, whether to live for this world or the next, whether to follow the crowd or Jesus Christ” (91).
4. Note the emphasis placed on the “right” eye and the “right” hand. Why? In view of the fact that most people are right-handed, Jesus may be calling for the sacrifice of that which is most valuable and most precious to us. The sacrifice you make for purity may well be your most prized and cherished possession or privilege or activity. “A lizard, when you grasp it, if it suspects nefarious design in you, will unhesitatingly leave its tail in your hand, and bolt out of sight --- ‘better to lose my tail than my life,’ it seems to say” (Guy King, 48).
5. Let’s not escape the pointed edge of this passage: “Jesus says, if you don’t fight lust, you won’t go to heaven. Not that saints always succeed. The issue is that we resolve to fight, not that we succeed flawlessly” (Piper, Future Grace, 331). A justifying faith is a lust-fighting faith! I do not mean by this “that our faith produces a perfect flawlessness in this life. I mean that it produces a persevering fight” (332).
“A heart in every thought renewed,
and filled with love divine,
Perfect and right and pure and good,
a copy, Lord, of Thine.”