The Point: Hold on to purity at all costs.
Lust and Divorce: Matthew 5:27-32.
 "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.  "It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. [ESV]
“The Heart of the Matter. In the previous passage, Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus told His disciples that they not only must not murder, but must not harbor the anger and contempt that lead to murder. Instead, we should be reconciled to our brothers when something stands between us. Indeed, we should even strive to make peace with our enemies. Jesus pushed beyond external deeds to probe the motives that lead to murder. Now He does the same thing with adultery. He briefly addresses our physical deeds, but He chiefly explores the heart issues behind adultery. While Jesus probes the heart of the matter, our public discourse becomes ever more superficial. Our comedies treat adultery and fornication as jokes. Our commercials and clothing styles promote lust. Our public policies assume that everyone over the age of eighteen is sexually active. And we deride the concept of absolute standards. But then we fret over the consequences of sexual immorality, such as teenage pregnancy and the host of sexually transmitted diseases, starting with AIDS. The solution, society proposes, is not fidelity within marriage and abstinence outside of marriage, but “safe sex” and condom distribution.
The Moral Standard. Jesus begins by restating the seventh commandment, You shall not commit adultery. Perhaps everyone agrees that murder is wrong, and perhaps a solid majority still affirms that adultery is immoral. But the gap grows wider in practice. A large church probably has no murderers in attendance, but it probably has many who have either committed adultery or suffered from it. If someone has committed a sexual sin, God offers forgiveness if he or she repents. Whatever the sin may be, Scripture says, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [1 John 1:9]. Once someone is forgiven, he seeks each day to be faithful and obedient. Further, if God is willing to forgive all those who genuinely repent, then those who suffer adultery should also forgive them, forgo vengeful anger, and, if possible, trust their spouse again. Adultery is Jesus’ principal concern, for two reasons. First, it is the most grievous sexual sin, for it betrays the promise of lifelong, exclusive loyalty. Second, almost all Jews were married before the age of twenty, so that the leading sexual temptation was adultery, not fornication. But today, in nations where people reach sexual maturity earlier than ever and the time of marriage is often later than ever, the leading temptation is fornication. Yet whether adultery or fornication is the greater issue, Jesus presses deeper. Just as Jesus forbids the anger that leads to murder, so also He forbids the lust that leads to adultery. He cares about more than physical acts and superficial definitions of purity. He cares about the heart, about the motives. Therefore he says, everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart . Jesus warns men against such sins, but surely women should neither lust nor attempt to stir up lust in others, either. Wise women know that it is one thing to make themselves attractive and another to make themselves look seductive. Beyond this, Jesus forbids all sexual acts outside of marriage, not just adultery per se [Matt. 15:19; 19:9]. Premarital sex is not compounded by the betrayal of a promise of lifelong, exclusive loyalty. But it is still sin before God, against others, and against oneself. Sexual expression belongs inside the love, the commitment, and the safety of marriage. After Jesus forbids adultery, He warns against lustful eyes, against adultery in the heart. Jesus cautions men about lustful eyes, for men are more oriented to seeing than feeling. But our culture is trying hard to teach women to lust after “eye candy” too, so Jesus’ warning applies to them as well. We must understand what Jesus forbids. It is harmless and natural to notice that a woman is beautiful or that a man is handsome. But it is one thing to make an aesthetic observation, another to turn it over to the imagination and entertain immoral fantasies. Likewise, it is good to dress attractively, but not to dress seductively. The fashion industry is not necessarily the friend of chastity because it rarely promotes modesty. Jesus says adultery begins in both the heart and the eye. The heart moves the eye, and the eye inflames the sinful heart. Adultery doesn’t just happen. Adultery with the body follows adultery with the heart and the eye. We understand that it is not sinful to be tempted. Temptations assail us all – even Jesus was tempted. Jesus in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin [Heb. 4:15]. So then, Jesus faced the temptation to entertain lustful thoughts, but He resisted. He refused to envision or plan or taste sin, even with His mind. We cannot prevent certain thoughts from entering our minds. But once they enter, we may either entertain them or cast them aside and turn our minds elsewhere. Martin Luther said that we cannot stop birds from flying over our heads, but we can keep them from building nests in our hair. We cannot keep impure thoughts from flitting into our minds, but we can refuse to let them roost and find a home there. While we affirm that Jesus wants His disciples to resist certain sexual thoughts, we must remember that sexuality is good. Like all of God’s creations, sexuality is good in itself. Since sexuality is part of human nature, sexual desire is proper and natural. Yet, like all good things, it must be used the right way, in the right place and time. Similarly, food is good, but there are times when it is wrong to eat. Sleep is good, but there are times when it would be immoral to take a nap (during the preaching of a sermon, for example). So too, sex is good in the right place and time and wrong in others. The right place is the commitment and safety of marriage. God blesses sexuality when it is surrounded by loving faithfulness between a man and a woman [Prov. 5:15-19]. God wants to bless our use of His gifts, as we use them the right way. A vivid imagination is also a gift from God. Almost all of the world’s literature depends upon it. Great leaders must first imagine a better future. Inventors must imagine better ways to live and conceive of means to achieve them. God blesses such uses of the imagination. But if we turn the imagination toward taking what does not belong to us, it corrupts the mind and can lead to actual misdeeds. Therefore, Jesus warns against lust. Lust is a form of coveting, and coveting is the gateway to many sins, including adultery. Jesus shows how serious lust is when He says, If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away . This is hyperbole, of course. If Jesus thought mutilations and amputations could actually cure evil, He would have ordered His disciples to put out both eyes, for a one-eyed man can still lust, and to cut off both hands, for a one-armed man can do terrible evil. Indeed, even the removal of both eyes would not suffice, for the memory can still ‘see’. The root of sin lies in the heart, not in sense organs or limbs. The point, then, is that it is better to suffer bodily pain in the present than to suffer spiritual pain for eternity. So we can be sure that Jesus does not want us to take this sentence literally. Still, we have to decipher Jesus’ figure of speech. First, Jesus used repugnant, grotesque images to show how repugnant and grotesque sin is in His sight. Few things are more horrible than the thought of maiming. Yet Jesus says, it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell . If Jesus says it is better to go through life maimed than to enter hell whole, then sin should seem horrible to us. We should shudder at the thought of it, as we shudder at the thought of losing a limb. Second, if our eye tempts us to sin, we should strive to act as if we had no eye, and refuse to look at the tempting object. If a hand or foot tempts us to sin, we should act as if we had none, by refusing to walk toward that which tempts us and by refusing to touch the source of temptation. This teaching applies to pornography, which is so accessible today. Pornography is wrong in many ways. It degrades women and teaches them to degrade themselves. It inflames lust. It is unfair to spouses, present or future, who cannot compete with models who polish their bodies for a living while photographers delete all defects. When we come across pornography, we should strive to live as if we have no eyes. Yet we do have eyes, and pornography gains a strange grip on some people, almost like an addiction. Let me suggest three things to those who may be tempted by it. First, keep yourselves away from temptation. Avoid the books, movies, websites, and magazines that lead you into temptation. Second, if self-control is difficult, if the sin is getting a hold on you, tell someone and give them the right to ask you about your progress against this sin. Third, if such a sin gains a grip on you, seek a Christian counselor. In our verses, Jesus connects sexual sins with Gehenna, the place of punishment. That does not mean that everyone who commits sexual sins goes to hell. By God’s grace, every sin is forgivable. But if we love the thought of sin, and indulge it instead of resisting it, we are rejecting God’s ways. Deliberate rebellion does lead to death. But if we take our struggles to the Lord, seeking mercy, He will forgive us and renew us. Contentment is the antithesis of lust. The Bible often commands believers to be contented with their possessions and with their life situation [e.g., Eccl. 4:8; Luke 3:14; Phil. 4:11-12; 1 Tim. 6:6-8; Heb. 13:5]. Paul says, there is great gain in godliness with contentment [1 Tim. 6:6] – not material gain, but spiritual gain. The general command to be content means we should be content with our singleness, if that is God’s gift. If we are married, it means that we should be content with the spouse that God has given us. Our culture encourages us to be discontented with many things, including our spouses. It presents images of fitness and beauty that few people can match. Movies imply that singles who lack a partner are missing the best thing in life. Television comedies show us how entertaining it is to mock and ridicule a spouse who lacks a scintillating wit and endless talents. Some self-improvement gurus tell us that we are right to be discontent if our spouse simply is not keeping up with us. Discontentment with a spouse drives out love and respect for her. Discontentment is prideful, for the discontented think they deserve better. Discontent is distrust in God’s providence, for it accuses God of providing the wrong spouse. Contentment is the partner of love and the scourge of the roving eye. Contentment breeds faithfulness. Wherever they begin, marital problems end with the heart. Success in marriage depends on our response to events more than it does on the events themselves. The cause of lust is not attractive women, but an improper response to attractive women. The cause of marital discontentment is less “my spouse’s flaws” than it is a hard-hearted response to those flaws. There is no ideal man or woman. Every one of us is flawed form head to heart to hands.
Divorce: A Consequence of Lust and Discontent [31-32]. If lust begins with a wandering eye, perhaps divorce begins with a wandering mind. Lust can start with sexual dissatisfaction. Divorce can begin as marital dissatisfaction. It may begin with a discontented thought: “My spouse is not so interesting, not so attractive, not so interested in pleasing me these days.” Today, wherever no-fault divorce is the law, mere dissatisfaction is a sufficient legal basis for a divorce. In Jesus’ day, women had few rights, but men could get a divorce as easily as today. In our passage, Jesus prohibits cavalier divorce. According to Jewish tradition, a man could legally divorce his wife if he simply gave her a certificate that declared her a free woman. Jesus rightly notes, It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce . Conservative rabbis said a woman had to do something shameful before a husband could divorce her. But others said that a man could obtain a divorce for any reason at all. Some rabbis judged it a sufficient cause for divorce if a woman spoiled her husband’s food or even if he found another fairer than she. Jesus calls cavalier divorce adultery in Matthew 5:31-32. Further, He says that such divorce can drive the divorced woman into adultery: everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery . This is not the place for a full discussion of divorce, but we will make a few observations about Scripture and the contemporary scene. The biblical regulation of divorce began with Moses at a time when hard-hearted men divorced their wives all too easily. Because their hearts were hard, they were not ready to hear God’s plan for lifelong fidelity. So Moses did not insist on God’s perfect standard, but permitted men to divorce their wives for significant offenses, provided that they gave their wives a certificate that freed them to marry another man. If she did remarry, her first husband could never touch her again [Deut. 24:1-4]. This legislation accomplished two things. First, it protected divorced women by giving them a clear right to remarry. Second, it slowed men down, for it forced them to think twice before acting. If a man divorced his wife and she remarried, he could never regain her. Thus, Moses’ law permitted divorce, but also restricted it. Jesus effectively says that such laws had their purposes, but that lifelong faithfulness is the goal, except in the case of adultery. (Scripture elsewhere makes it clear that desertion is a legitimate ground for divorce, and a strong case can be made that physical violence is as well.). Jesus says that those who divorce simply because they are tired of their spouse are guilty of adultery. He says that only the radical betrayal of adultery can sever all the bonds of marriage. Is that because adultery is so much worse than other sins? Not necessarily. But physical adultery usually occurs after much mental adultery. To commit adultery, one must think it, plan it, and persuade oneself that it is justified. The adulterer must decide that his spouse no longer deserves his loyalty. To act on this thought is a profound betrayal of the essence of marriage, which is the pledge of exclusive, lifelong faithfulness. That is why lust leads to adultery, and adultery leads to divorce. The greatest source of healing in a marriage is the grace of God poured into our hearts. That grace has two facets. First, God is patient and faithful toward us, despite our sins and flaws. As we behold our Lord and live in union with Him, we participate more and more in His character. Then we grow into His patience and faithfulness. Second, God graciously forgives our sins and flaws. Drinking deep at the fountain of His mercy, we have mercy for others. Some days our spouse’s failures loom large. Sometimes the virtues of a friendly and attractive person of the opposite sex loom even larger. Just as we cannot control our angry hearts, so we cannot repeal the heart’s tendency to become discontent, to wish for a better spouse. What then? Remember God’s grace and providence. The Lord gives grace to forgive our sins and to make us new. With this grace, He can build a strong marriage, with all the faithfulness and contentment that two sinners can know.” [Doriani, pp. 150-162}.
Questions for Discussion:
1. Why is God so concerned with sexual sin [29-30]? Why does Jesus focus on more than just the sexual act itself? What happens to our relationship with God when our hearts are controlled by lustful desires? What is the connection between lust, the eye and the heart?
2. Note the contrast Doriani makes between discontentment and contentment. What feeds our discontentment; our contentment? Pray that God will enable you to be content where He has placed you: in your marriage, your family, your job, your church, etc.
3. Why does Doriani write that divorce is a consequence of lust and discontent? What is Jesus’ teaching on divorce? What are the warning signs of discontentment in your marriage? How are you to fight these thoughts of discontentment?
Matthew, Daniel Doriani, REC, P&R Publishing.
The Gospel According to Matthew, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.
The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott, Inter Varsity.