Introduction—Bitten on the Railway
A railway brakeman spent four months in the hospital of Sedalia, Missouri. This was because he was bitten by a tarantula on the tip of his middle finger on his right hand. At the time he felt a sharp twinge of pain, but paid no more attention to it until the finger began to swell. Soon the whole hand and arm were swollen to three times their natural size. Bit by bit the doctors amputated the affected finger, but the wound refused to heal. Finally the entire hand had to go. It was only after 29 amputations that the surgeons were able to stop the spread of the poison. Even then they considered it nearly miraculous that he recovered at all, because the poison had gone through his system.¹
Imagine how you would react in this situation. Likely, you recognize the deadliness of a tarantula’s bite, and if you were in this situation, you’d get help immediately. This is because when you recognize the deadliness of something, you will go to great lengths to avoid it. Think about the urgency of treating a cold versus cancer. Or about the urgency of treating a scab versus an open wound. In our passage of Scripture, Jesus describes something very deadly. Something that is far more deadly than a tarantula bite. Jesus talks about lust in this passage, and teaches us that radical measures should be taken against it because of how deadly it really is.
The Text: Matt. 5:27-30, ESV
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 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. 30 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.”
I. The Deed and the Desire (vv. 27-28)
First, the person who lusts for someone already commits adultery in their hearts. Notice first in the text that this is what Jesus says. He shows that the person who lusts has already committed adultery in the heart: “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” (vv. 27-28).
A. The Deed
Jesus quotes the seventh commandment as we all know (Exod. 20:14). This was a prohibiting sexual relations outside of marriage, primarily by a married person. If someone married had sexual relations with anyone besides their spouse, it was known as the act of adultery. The punishment for adultery, like many other sins, was death—both for the “adulterer and the adulteress” (Deut. 22:22; Lev. 20:10).²
Because of the fatal consequences of adultery, the Proverbs are replete with commands against adultery:
“He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself” (Prov. 6:32).
“Keep your way far from her [the adulteress], and do not go near the door of her house” (Prov. 5:8).
Perhaps the most vivid description is in Proverbs 6:27-29:
“Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.”
Jesus’ audience, the Jews, would have understood adultery to be a serious sin, deserving of serious punishment, and carrying terrible consequences. They would have been especially familiar with the famous story of shame and regret that we all know, as told by the author of 2 Samuel—the story of David and Bathsheba. This grievous sin committed by Israel’s greatest king, this shameful act done by the man after God’s own heart, who penned the larger portion of the most beautiful book in the Bible, the Psalms.
We read in 2 Samuel 11 that David “saw from the roof a woman bathing” (v. 2), and then “he lay with her” (v. 4). From this, she became pregnant (v. 5), and David had Uriah (a commander in his army) deceitfully murdered (v. 17). Jesus says in the first verse of the passage, “You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery” (v. 27). He is saying, “You know this commandment.” They knew about David’s fall. They knew about the commandments. Especially the Pharisees and scribes—boy did they know the commandments. Do you recall when they were willing to kill the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11)? They knew the commandments, but apparently they didn’t actually know the commandments, or they would have easily understood Jesus’ next statement.
B. The Desire
Jesus says that even the person who lusts after another person has already committed adultery with them in their hearts: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (v. 28). Jesus speaks with authority, as the one who has come to fulfill the Law (v. 17), and says “But I say to you.” He is not saying anything different, He is not contradicting God’s commandments, but He is putting His word above the traditions of men and revealing the true intent of the commandment (which the people obviously misunderstood).
So what does Jesus say about lust? “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus says that looking at a woman with lustful intent is adultery in the heart. Why is that? Because, according to Jesus, sin happens in the heart before it happens physically. Before physical adultery is committed, internal adultery has already happened.
Now, just because Jesus says that looking at a woman with lust is adultery, it doesn’t let women off the hook. It doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Jesus doesn’t have mere men in mind here, neither does He specifically women—the point is that adultery happens in the heart by lust. That could be applicable to anyone. It could be lust for the opposite sex, or it could be lust for the same sex (Rom. 1:26-27).
Jesus isn’t saying that a desire for the opposite sex is wrong. God hardwired us to desire the opposite sex. The Song of Solomon illustrates this better than any book of the whole Bible. Listen to the way Solomon admires his bride:
“Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead” (4:1).
And his bride desired him as well:
“His mouth is most sweet, and his is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem” (5:16).
So there’s nothing wrong with desiring the opposite sex—the problem is burning with uncontrollable sexual lust in the heart. That’s where the problem is. The problem is in the heart. Adultery takes place in the heart before it does in the bedroom or the backseat.
It’s because the heart is who we really are. God says that the heart is what He really looks at (1 Sam. 16:7). What goes on in the heart is what’s really going on. It’s who we are: “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man” (Prov. 27:19). It can’t be trusted: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). So the person who lusts after another has already committed adultery in his heart. That’s the principle Jesus is communicating.
You’ve got a problem with pornography? It’s happening in your heart. You’ve got a problem with lusting after girls? It’s happening in your heart. You’ve got a problem with lusting after men? It’s happening in your heart.
You know, there’s a silent killer very active today. He’s a repeated offender. He kills 400,000 people each year.³ And when you find out who he is, it’s too late. Can you guess his name? His name is heart disease. There can be many symptoms—shortness of breath, chest pain and tightness, constant leg cramps, and other symptoms. It results from clogging and plague build up in your arteries—your vital veins. And it becomes deadly when that clogging reaches your heart. Why? Because your heart is what keeps you alive! It pumps blood so that your body can function correctly. It’s fatal when clogging happens in the heart. Heart attacks that cause death most often happen because it’s in the heart—it’s deadly because it’s in the heart.
That’s what Jesus was saying here. Lust is deadly because it’s in the heart. That’s the first thing we need to recognize. Dealing with the sin of adultery and sexual immorality begins by identifying its source. But is there anything that can be done about it? That’s what Jesus talks about next.
II. The Deliverance (vv. 29-30)
Second, it is urgent that action is taken against lust, because the cost is very high. Notice that not only does Jesus define adultery by saying that it is lust, but listen to what He says concerning dealing with 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. 30 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” (vv. 29-30).
Very powerful language there. Jesus tells His followers that if their right eye causes them to sin against God, they should remove it and forcibly cast if from them. Why? According to Jesus, it’s better to lose their eye than to lose their soul. He says the same thing about the right hand.
Of course, we know from the context that Jesus isn’t demanding literal amputation—we know Jesus better than that, and we know the Bible better than that. But His logic makes perfect sense—it’s better to lose a little than a lot. It would be far better for His followers to lose their eye or hand than to lose their own soul in hell.
So what is Jesus talking about? Should we resort to chainsaws to eradicate lust from our lives? Understand first, that for Jesus’ audience, the right side was seen as more valuable—how many of you are right handed? Likely the majority of you. Most people are right handed, and because of this, they do everything with their right hand. You write with your right hand, hold drinks, spoons and forks to eat, toothbrushes to clean your teeth, use your cellphone, and many other things. If you’re right handed, that’s your dominant hand—it’s more useful and valuable to you than your left.
Jesus is saying that if even what is very valuable to you causes you to sin, then it should be cast away and removed from you. The reason why is because of the high cost of doing nothing about it. It will cost you far more to do nothing, than it will to do something about removing the sources of temptation and lust from your life. Pornography might be valuable to you, but you should cast it away forcibly. Sexual relations before marriage might be valuable to you, but you should cast it away from you. Whatever it is that is causing you to sin, even if it is valuable to you, should be cast away from you!
But even further, if Jesus’ audience actually followed His figurative language literally, if they did gouge out their eye and cut off their hand, would this completely take care of the problem? No it wouldn’t—where does Jesus say that adultery takes place? In the heart.
So is He contradicting Himself? No, for lust happens in the heart, but the eye may contribute to lust happening in the heart, and so can the hand. Jesus is saying that, yes lust happens in the heart, but outside sources can and will contribute to it. And if there are sources in our lives that are causing us to lust, we need to take radical measures against them. Jesus’ point here is that it is urgent that action is taken against lust, because it could lead to God’s judgment. If nothing is ever done to conquer lust in your life, then you don’t view it as very serious. If you don’t view sin as serious, then it is very casual to you. If you see it as casual, then you will likely do nothing about it.
And this is a sobering biblical truth: if you do nothing about sin, if you do not repent, then you can safely bet that you’re not saved. John Owen captures this well: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
Concerning the cost of doing nothing about lust that leads to adultery, I read a shocking statistic recently. It read:
“In America adultery is no longer a crime in half the states, and in the others adultery is seldom, if ever, prosecuted. But sexual straying from marriage remains a costly, if not criminal practice. According to a recent estimate, the typical adulterous husband invests almost $26,000 over a four-month period in conducting an extramarital affair. Once his wife discovers his philandering, he can count on another $5,000 in legal bills, plus a $1,800 deposit on a place to live after she ejects him from their home. Apart from its immorality, adultery is a terrible investment. Only 5 percent of men and women who leave their marriages for someone else actually end up marrying that person.”4
Doing nothing about lust is far more costly than getting it out of your lives. Doing nothing will cost us far more than doing something.
Conclusion: Practical Steps to Fighting Lust
So what can we do about it? Well, Jesus tells us to take whatever measures necessary.5
1) There is freedom through the gospel. For Christians, there is good news. Through the gospel, God has given us a new heart! We don’t have to be enslaved to lust. We can be free because He lives in us. He gives us the power daily to overcome sin, we must simply access it. We have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, and Paul says, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Live by God’s power each day and you won’t have to worry about falling into lust all the time.
2) By God’s power, we must guard against the first tiny thought of evil. We must allow God to make us sensitive to the tiniest speck of evil that floats around us. This happens by soaking up the Word of God—allowing the Bible to dictate our thought life. We’re going to have these thoughts from time to time. It’s impossible to be sinless. But let’s heed Martin Luther’s advice: “It is impossible to keep the devil from shooting evil thoughts and lusts into your heart. But see to it that you do not let such arrows stick there and take root, but tear them out and throw them away.”6
3) We must avoid the occasions of temptations. In other words, in battling lust in the heart, it is pointless to think you can overcome the battle if you thrust yourself into what causes you to lust. F. B. Meyer says, “It is useless to ask God not to lead us into temptation if we thrust ourselves thither.”7 Stay away from the sources of temptation. Maybe it’s an attractive coworker—don’t be alone with that person. Maybe it’s the internet—don’t invite temptation. Maybe it’s with your boyfriend or girlfriend, don’t ask for tempting situations.
We have seen today that the person who lusts for someone already commits adultery in their hearts, and that it is urgent that action is taken against lust, for it could lead to God’s judgment. If you have been bitten where you commute by the venomous spider of lust—don’t ignore it. Do something about it. Or you will end up losing a lot more than you’d like to lose. Give lust an inch and it will take you a mile. Will you go to whatever lenghts necessary to eradicate lust from your life, however radical it may be? So many people are enslaved by it, don’t let it be you—through the power of God, you can be the Christian who overcomes lust. You don’t have to let it rule you.
2. There is little evidence in Israel’s history that this was ever actually carried out. Still, the penalty of death was to show the severity of the crime, and God’s moral standard of holiness.
4. Cited in Larson and Elshof. 1,001 Illustrations That Connect. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 257. Yount, David. The Cost of Adultery (knoxnews.com. November 29, 2004).
6. Davies, W. D. and Allison, Dale. C. Matthew: A Shorter Commentary (New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2004), 79.