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Matthew 5:27-30 “Superior Righteousness, Part 2: Adultery”

After establishing that sin cannot be legislated and all attempts to do so are worthless legalism, Jesus makes a slight shift in His argument. In vv. 21-26 the issue is how the faux righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees dealt with sin (using murder as the prime example). While the outward manifestation of the sin of anger (murder) can be prosecuted by a human court, the sin itself cannot be tried by men nor given its just punishment (eternal hell). Therefore, the way to deal with sin (from the perspective of the guilty party) is to repent. Now the issue is not so much how to deal with sin, but in the way sin is defined.[1] Once again, Jesus is dealing with the fact that His contemporaries have reduced the divine statutes into something exclusively external, practically worthless, spiritually damning, and logically inconsistent with the rest of divine revelation.

You heard that it was said, “Do not adulterize.” So I tell you that everyone who looks upon a woman for the purpose of desiring her has already adulterized her in his heart. So, if your right eye ensnares you, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is advantageous to you so that one of your members might be destroyed and the whole of your body might not be destroyed in hell. And if your right hand ensnares you, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is advantageous to you so that one of your members might be destroyed and the whole of your body might not be destroyed in hell.

Jesus moves from the 6th to the 7th commandment. Before, His point was to demonstrate the folly of legislating righteousness. Here, He points out that righteousness is deeper than external actions as it begins and ends in the heart. This correction helps to explain why righteousness cannot be legislated but goes further to unveil the depth of the issue at hand. In correcting the common teaching regarding adultery, Jesus answers two significant questions about righteousness and adultery.

What Makes an Adulterer? (vv. 27-28)

Much of any argument is spent in defining the terms being used. As Jesus defines the term “adultery” and “adulterer” He is not providing any new definition but is using the concept as the Father always intended.

The General Consensus (v. 27)

You heard that it was said, “Do not adulterize.”

Clearly Jesus references the 7th commandment (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). The Greek future tense (οὐ μοιχεὐσεις) again reflects the Hebrew imperfect (לֹא תִּנְאָף), a construction that communicates permanent prohibition: never adulterize! Though the full formula that includes a reference to the ancients is not given, the same force is implied; for where was such a commandment issued if not on Sinai (Ex. 20) and the plains of Moab (Deut. 5)? What is interesting is the fact that Jesus does not include a contemporary interpretation of the commandment as He did in v. 21. Here, only the commandment is mentioned. This should provide the reader with a clue as to our Lord’s intention. It is not the manner in which the commandment is enforced (as it was in vv. 21-26) that is the issue. Here, Jesus tackles the definition of the commandment itself in order to (a) affirm the righteousness of the commandment and (b) expose the faux righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who hide behind a reductionist view of this commandment.

A common idea of adultery is that of having sexual congress with someone else’s spouse. If this is truly the concept which Yhwh was getting at when He gave this commandment to Israel, then it is truly out of place. If the point of the 7th commandment is to forbid sex with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband, then this commandment only applies to married people. Of all the commandments, this alone would apply to only a portion of the population and not to the entire community. Within the original context given to Israel, this understanding of adultery makes no sense as it limits the commandment to a point of being impractical as well as ineffective. If given a whole minute worth of contemplation it would seem obvious that the 7th commandment addresses more than the unfaithful wife or the philandering husband, a fact that Jesus is quick to reveal.

The Detailed Command (v. 28)

So I tell you that everyone who looks upon a woman for the purpose of desiring her has already adulterized her in his heart.

Rather than adopting the legalistic “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees that reduce the sin of adultery to a physical act that transgresses the bonds of marriage, Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter. There are at least five details that Jesus brings to light in this statement.

First, Jesus makes clear that adultery is not limited to the arena of the marriage. The substantival participle ὁ βλέπων (one who looks) is modified by πᾶς to indicate anyone and everyone who might look upon a woman. It is assumed that the same is true of any woman who might look upon a man to desire him, but the point is that Jesus makes no mention of a husband who looks upon another woman or even a man who looks upon another man’s wife. It matters not if the person is married or single. To look upon another being with the purpose of lusting for them constitutes adultery.

Second, adultery is not confined to the physical act. Jesus specifically identifies the look as sufficient grounds to assign guilt. There is nothing mentioned of any physical move toward the act. No flirtatious conversation. No pre-mediated liaison. No physical contact. The look constitutes adultery. Yet, Jesus is very specific regarding this look.

The construction πρὸς τό with the infinitive (πρὸς τό ἐπιθυμῆσαι) communicates purpose:[2] “anyone who looks upon a woman for the purpose of desiring her. It is necessary that we arrange the order of events correctly. Jesus does not mean that a man sees a woman and then subsequently has impure thoughts toward her (not that this is condoned; for this must also be controlled and repented of). The look is a purposeful look. The reason the eyes are diverted to the woman is for the purpose of lusting for her. She is the object of desire.[3] The verb ἐπιθυμέω indicates a strong and passionate desire that is clearly identified as lust in the present context.

This is no causal glance but a look of intent, a leer of licentiousness. This has a variety of expressions in day to day living. Most obviously this look manifests itself in the pornography epidemic of our day. Nobody accidently looks at porn. The purpose of looking is to lust. This is adultery according to Jesus. Yet, this is also manifest in what is known as “the second look.” The turning of the head for a better view is no less purposeful.

Third, Jesus identifies the root of adultery lies in the heart of man. Rather than defining adultery as the physical congress of two people, or even the look that precipitates the action, Jesus backs up all the way to the heart (τῇ καρδίᾳ). The heart is not just a dispenser of emotion. This is where all decisions are made, all desires are expressed, and all plans put into execution. A person’s will, wants, character, conduct, intellect, and inclinations are seated and rooted in the heart. To put it more plainly, a man is not an adulterer because he slept with another man’s wife, or even looked upon a woman for the purpose of lusting after her. A man is an adulterer because he has an adulterous heart.[4] Actions only reveal the heart, and the heart defines the man.

Fourth, this is not a victimless crime. Contextually, this should be apparent. The 7th commandment is found in the second table of the Ten Commandments, which delineates righteousness on the horizontal plain: i.e., right conduct between people. All of these commandments prohibit sinning against one’s fellow man. There should be an assumption that adultery is a sin that violates one’s neighbor in a way that is distinct from the other commandments. In other words, adultery may be related to but is distinct from theft (stealing another man’s wife) or coveting (desiring another man’s wife), otherwise it would be an unnecessary and redundant commandment. There’s only one person left in the scenario who may be violated: the woman. This fact is made clear by Jesus’ grammar.

Two accusative pronouns (αὐτῆν) clearly identify the woman in question as the object of the man’s purposeful lust (πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμπῆσαι αὐτὴν for the purpose of desiring her) as well as the object of his sin (ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴνhas already adulterized her). Jesus clearly identifies the woman who is lusted for as the victim of sin.[5] In his lustful look, he has adulterized her.

Fifth, this too comes with an Old Testament allusion. Just as it is impossible to speak of murder without giving at least a nod to Gen. 4, the topic of adultery naturally bends toward 2 Sam. 11. To this day, David’s sin with Bathsheba is the most infamous act of adultery in history. This act began with just such a look as Jesus describes (2 Sam. 11:2-5). David did not cross the line into adultery in v. 4 when he lay with Bathsheba. That line was crossed somewhere between vv. 2&3 when he saw her (v.2) and then sent for her because of his desire for her (v. 3). If Cain serves as Jesus’ example of murder (vv. 21-26), then David serves as the example of adultery (vv. 27-30).

These observations, when brought together, paint a stark picture of the “righteousness” of the scribes and Pharisees. First of all, their definition of adultery is woefully inadequate. Secondly, the reference to David automatically implies a sense of corporate solidarity where the king represents the people. In other words, Jesus is implying (none to subtly) that the present nation of Israel is an adulterous nation. According to Jesus, there is none righteous in this realm of adultery. Not even one. What then is a man to do?

What Frees an Adulterer? (vv. 29-30)

So, if your right eye ensnares you, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is advantageous to you so that one of your members might be destroyed and the whole of your body might not be destroyed in hell. And if your right hand ensnares you, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is advantageous to you so that one of your members might be destroyed and the whole of your body might not be destroyed in hell.””

As before (vv. 23-26), Jesus provides two illustrations that advances and proves His point. The term translated as “ensnared”, “make you stumble”, or “causes you to sin (σκανδαλίζω) is connected with the concept of baiting animals. It is used to describe the trigger stick in a snare that once tripped enacts the trap to close and thus catch the quarry.[6] Thus the eye and the hand are seen as the genesis of entrapment, the element that captures or ensnares a man in sin. The progression from the eye to the hand naturally follows the progression from conception to execution of sin. One lusts with the eye and then carries out that lust with the hand.[7] Again, this point is presented from the position of one who is guilty of the afore mentioned sin (adultery). Unfortunately, these two illustrations have been widely misunderstood. The breakpoint of interpretation is the decision whether to take Jesus’ words literally, metaphorically, or hyperbolically.[8]

Those who choose to interpret these illustrations literally (“woodenly” may be a more accurate description) understand the way to avoid the sin of adultery is to remove any physical member of one’s body that is connected with that sin. It is for this reason that Origen, constantly plagued with immoral cravings and conduct, castrated himself in his youth.[9] Because there are very few accounts of one-eyed, one-handed, or emasculated ancient Christians, it is safe to say that the ancient church did not as a whole adopt this wooden interpretation. Even Origen, having mellowed out, later adopted a metaphorical understanding of Jesus’ words. Besides, if the right eye were the issue, is the left any better? If the right hand is the genesis of sin, can man not likewise teach himself to be ambidextrous?

Those who understand Jesus to speak in an extended metaphor here choose one of two lines of thinking. Either they (a) understand “the body” to indicate the church and thus the removal of members is a reference to church discipline or (b) take the “eye” and the “hand” to stand for lustful desires in general that must be put away. The problem with either one of these interpretations is that neither have anything to do with the context. Jesus addresses adultery and guilt, not church discipline. Also, this is from the vantage point of the guilty party who would be the member cut off if he didn’t repent. Regarding the second option, it is difficult to take “eye” as a metaphor when Jesus clearly spoke of sight in a literal way in v. 28 (the one who looks). The metaphorical interpretation is no better than the wooden understanding.

Finally, there are those who state that Jesus here uses hyperbole with no intention of being taken seriously. Rather than directing His followers to mutilate themselves, He intends to simply communicate the simple truth that a disciple must spare no cost when removing temptation from their lives. This interpretation has grown in popularity in recent years but also fails for the same reasons as the ones before it. All three of these interpretations fail to consider two very basic hermeneutical principles: grammar and context.

The grammar of these verses is important, because Jesus frames these illustrations in first-class conditions. The protasis (the “if” portion of the statement – if your hand ensnares you…/if you right hand ensnares you…) is assumed to be true for the sake of argument. This does not mean that the protasis is true, but that the point about to be made in the apodosis (then tear it out/cut it off) assumes it to be true. To make this clear, let’s work the conditional statement in reverse order. In order for the tearing out of the eye and the cutting off of the hand to be an appropriate measure, then the eye and the hand must be the thing that ensnares the individual: If the right eye ensnares you, then tear it out. The question then becomes: is the eye/hand the thing that ensnares the individual? That is a question that is answered by context.

Both the near and far context provide the answer to our question. Regarding the near context, Jesus has already made the point that the heart is ground-zero for sin, not the hand nor the eye. A man is an adulterer because he has an adulterous heart, not because he gave the second look or carried the desire of that look into action. If the eye were the cause of sin, then it would be a good thing to tear it out and throw it away. But the fact of the matter is that it is not the cause and root of sin, the heart is. This is also supported by the far context of the allusion to David’s sin with Bathsheba.

David’s confession of guilt is recorded for us in Ps. 51. Nowhere does David blame his sin on an unclean eye or a filthy hand. Yet he does acknowledge the fact that his heart is unclean and in need of Yhwh’s cleansing care. When David requests a clean heart (v. 10) and the abiding presence of Your Holy Spirit (v. 11), he anticipates the fulfillment of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 36:22-32). David’s confession is steeped in New Covenant anticipation. Jesus’ illustration points out that the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is utterly disassociated with this New Covenant.

The reason for removing the cause of sin is to avoid the punishment of hell. Jesus reasons that it is better to be temporally disfigured than to be permanently destroyed. The legalism of the scribes and Pharisees treated the sin of adultery in a superficial and external manner that ignored the heart as the source of sin. If the heart is not, then some other member of the body must be. Would it not be better to remove it and live? Yet who can remove the heart? This is something that only God can do and it is something that God has promised to do. The old heart that is nothing but stone with sin etched upon it with an iron stylus (Jer. 17:1) will be removed and replaced with a pure and clean heart (Ezek. 36:25-26). What can a guilty adulterer do? He can do nothing but beg God to change him from the inside out and trust in God’s ability to do so through Christ. What can an adulterer do? He can follow Jesus alone.

[1] Nolland, p. 236.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 591.

[3] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 118.

[4] Lenski, p. 226.

[5] Garland, p. 66.

[6] Broadus, p. 109.

[7] Nolland, p. 238.

[8] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 119-24.

[9] Philip Schaff, The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene And Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection (London, UK: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014), Letters of St. Jerome, To Pammachius and Oceanus, Ch. 8.


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