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Matthew 5:27-32

“The Seventh Commandment”


In this passage Jesus continues to explain the true meaning of the Law of God in order to reveal the righteousness that is necessary if one is going to enter the Kingdom of God. Since Jesus was specifically saying it was a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees (which would have been understood as the superlative standard of righteousness among those who made up Jesus’ audience), He compares the true sense of the Law with the Pharisees’ understanding of it. In doing so Jesus will now give His second antithesis to show how God’s intention for His people is that they be far godlier than was taught in first century Judaism.

I. The Traditional Jewish Interpretation: (vs.27)

Once again, Jesus opens up the antithesis by quoting the standard interpretation of one of the Laws revealed through Moses; “You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not commit adultery”. When Jesus refers to “those of old” He is referring to the traditional teaching of the Jewish rabbi’s that was passed on to the Jewish people in their synagogues. The teaching mirrors word for word the seventh commandment. As with the previous antithesis, the problem is not that their teaching was in error; their teaching was incomplete. The traditional thought was that one only broke this command if one was married and had sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse.

II. Jesus’ Explanation of God’s Actual Intent: (vs.28)

In rebuttal to the traditional understanding of this commandment, Jesus said to the disciples and the crowd “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In order to understand Jesus’ words the way the original audience did, it is important to note that even in His phrasing of this instruction, Jesus was confronting a very specific error that existed in the Jewish culture at that time. Jesus phrases the commandment so that it is specifically addressed to men. The significant thing about this is that in Jewish thinking at the time, there was a focus on this as a sin that women committed. In Jewish culture adultery was likened to theft; in that to have sex with a married woman was to take from another man what was legally his. There was far less concern about the man having sex and violating his marriage (particularly if he did not have sex with a married woman). Therefore, in phrasing His instruction in this way Jesus was immediately leveling the playing field so that His audience would understand that when a man committed adultery it was as much a sin as when a woman did it.

Jesus then went on to explain that an individual sins not only when they commit the physical act of adultery, but one is also guilty of sin as soon as one “looks at a woman to lust for her”. But just when does this sin begin? Is a man guilty of sinning as soon as he notices that a woman is attractive? The answer to this question is found in how Jesus worded His instruction. First, the Greek verb translated as “looks” is in the present tense which means it is an ongoing action. Therefore Jesus specifies that the look is more than a glance and closer to what we would call a stare; because it is a continuing look. Second, the phrase “to lust for her” indicates the purpose one has in the look; to lust. The Greek word translated as “lust” refers to unrestrained desire that drives one to act to have what one desires. So a look is a sin when it is motivated by lust. Jesus’ wording also helps explains why the individual sins. One does not look and then lust, one lusts and then looks. Therefore the focus again is on the heart where the real struggle with sin begins.

Another insight we get from Jesus’ wording is that He refers to “whoever”, in other words anybody; whether married or not, and says that the object of the look is a “woman” rather than someone’s wife. Therefore Jesus is indicating that the commandment is applicable to people in all situations of life, not just those who are married.

It is a popular saying in our time that it is okay to look as long as you do not touch. That statement is a direct contradiction of what Jesus’ taught and therefore it is absolutely false; God forbids a lustful look.

God’s intent for His people is that they would be characterized by sexual purity. Years later the Apostle Paul would set sexual purity forth as a characteristic that should distinguish believers from unbelievers:

  • “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality; that each of you should know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in passion of lust, like the Gentiles who do not know God”
  • I Thessalonians 4:3-5

    At times some have taught that Jesus is saying that to be guilty of lust is as serious a sin as the physical act of adultery. That is not what Jesus is saying. The act is a greater sin because of the greater damage it does to relationships and individuals. Jesus’ point is not that the look and the act are equivalent; His point is that one does not escape guilt merely by looking with lust. The look alone makes one guilty before God of sexual immorality.

    III. The Seriousness of the Sin: (vs.29-30)

    But just how serious a sin is it to entertain lust in one’s heart for one who is not your spouse? Jesus answers with a parable of sorts; “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” Jesus teaches how we are to respond when there is something that may cause us to sin. In context, the sin that Jesus is talking about is a lustful look. The Greek word translated as “causes you to sin” means to make one stumble and fall, to create an offense, or to do something scandalous. The word points to the catalyst that leads to sin. Jesus says if that catalyst is one’s eye than one should “pluck it out” (the idea being that one should gouge out your eye from its socket). In order to properly understand Jesus’ point, it must be recognized that Jesus is using hyperbole. Hyperbole is when one uses deliberate and obvious exaggeration for dramatic effect. But how do we really know that this is not meant to be taken literally? Because taking out one’s eyes would never solve the real problem. Jesus has made it clear here and does elsewhere (Lk.6:45) that sin is an issue of the human heart and self-mutilation will never change one’s heart. During the middle ages, Christians in their ignorant sincerity engaged in this sort of solution; but that was not Jesus’ intent. Instead, the idea is to dramatically present just how motivated a person should be to achieve sexual purity. Jesus explains through the use of hyperbole that it is “more profitable” to lose an organ that to go with one’s whole body into Hell. The Greek word behind this translation refers to the means of greater gain or benefit by choosing a particular course of action. The profit lies in escaping everlasting torment and misery. It would be worth losing an eye or a hand in order to escape Hell; and more applicably it would be worth purging oneself of sexual lust in order to escape going to Hell.

    In our time it might seem preposterous to many that a person would be sentenced to Hell because they indulged the lusts of their hearts and minds. However, Jesus is extremely clear here; that sexual lust like uncontrolled anger will result in eternal damnation for those who are guilty of these sins. The fact that our society does not see it this ways does not prove this interpretation wrong; it just shows how radically different out culture views moral purity than God does.

    The reason why Jesus makes reference to cutting off a right hand that might cause sin is two-fold. First, it was a common teaching approach in Semitic literature (see the Proverbs) to reinforce a point by saying basically the same thing in two different ways. Second, this indicates that the consequence for sins of the heart and physical acts are the same; eternal condemnation.

    IV. The Implications Regarding Divorce: (vs.31-32)

    The next two verses may at first seen unrelated to the previous four; in the sense that Jesus was addressing an entirely different law. But the truth is that the conjunction that connects this verse with the previous ones indicates it is a continuation of the thought of those verses. In these verses, as in the previous four, Jesus is addressing God’s real intent for marriage and sex. So Jesus, continuing His thought reminded His hearers about the prevailing view of Divorce in that society; “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce’” (vs.31). In the first century there were two basic schools of thought among rabbis regarding divorce. The more conservative view was that a man could only divorce his wife if she was guilty of sexual sin. The more liberal view was that a husband could divorce his wife if for any reason he was displeased with her. Both of these views were an interpretation of what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 24:1; “and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her”. And as the quotation indicates; the Deuteronomy passage also required the husband to give his wife a certificate of divorce. Once again it needs to be understood that there was a double standard in the application of the legal principle in Judaism. A man could divorce his wife for one of these reasons (depending on the view held in his synagogue), but a woman had no such prerogative. That is why the quotation of the traditional teaching only addresses what a man could do.

    One part of what the Old Testament taught did not enter into the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees on this issue. God gave His general view of divorce through one of His later prophets:

  • “For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce”
  • Malachi 2:16a

    In distinction to what the scribes and Pharisees taught about divorce, Jesus said, “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (vs.32). The traditional Jewish idea was that divorce was acceptable if done properly. However, what Jesus teaches is radically different.

    Some interpreters conclude that Jesus simply agreed with the more conservative rabbinical position that divorce was sanctioned in case of sexual unfaithfulness by one’s wife. However, that is not the case. Yet those who hold this position claim that Jesus’ exception clause specifically ties His position to that of the Pharisees. There are reasons that clearly demonstrate that this conclusion is wrong. First, if Jesus did have the same view as a large number of the Pharisees than His teaching here would not fit in the midst of these antitheses that express Christ’s differences from the views of the Pharisees. Second, this interpretation leaves some very big questions unanswered. One unanswered question is why then in a context of discussing “adultery” specifically, does Jesus refer to the potential sin that justifies divorce with the more general term “pornea” (meaning sexual immorality). If adultery were the sin in question, and since the word is attached to the commandment itself, why not use it here? Another question is why this exception clause does not show up in other Gospel accounts? In Matthew nineteen, there is a record of Jesus answering the question regarding the legality of divorce, and He answers:

  • “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
  • Matthew 19:9

    This answer mirrors what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount earlier in this same Gospel. However both Mark and Luke include parallel accounts of this same discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees and in those accounts we also have Jesus’ answer; however it is different:

  • “So He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’”
  • Mark 10:11-12

  • “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
  • Luke 16:18

    Neither of these accounts include the exception clause? Why not? This is an important question because we seem to be receiving two different things teachings about divorce. First that there is a reason that makes it lawful, and second that there is no situation in which it is lawful. The accounts in Mark and Luke then have a huge omission if in fact it is true that Jesus was adopting the view of the conservative Pharisees.

    But there is a better explanation regarding what Jesus means by the exception clause; one that explains its absence from both Mark and Luke. The answer lies in Jewish marriage customs, and the unique way this played a part in the life of Jesus’ parents. In Matthew, there is a record of something that none of the other Gospel writers include:

  • “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’”.
  • Matthew 1:18-20

    The Greek verb translated here as “put away” is the same Greek verb translated in Matthew 5:32 as “divorces”. Therefore when Jesus was conceived, Joseph naturally concluded that Mary had been sexually unfaithful to him, and was considering divorcing her. Yet the angel of the Lord says do not be afraid to take her as your “wife” (thus they were not actually married yet). They were betrothed, and in Jewish culture that meant that the couple were legally bound to one another; however they weren’t actually married because they had not yet consummated the union. In the account above Joseph is called a “just” (or righteous) man. Yet he is contemplating divorce. How could he still be considered righteous? Because the marriage is not finalized in God’s eyes until it was consummated. This is the exception that Jesus refers to. It was one with which His audience would have been familiar. Matthew records this exception clause because he wrote to the Jews who had this cultural peculiarity, and because as noted this exception related to the birth narrative. However, Mark and Luke, writing to Gentiles, did not include the exception clause because the Gentiles had no comparable cultural tradition. Finally, this explains why Jesus speaks of the sin as sexual immorality (pornea) rather than adultery; because violating the promise of betrothal was fornication (another way pornea is translated) not adultery.

    Therefore in regard to the contemporary culture in which we live; Jesus stated clearly that divorce for any reason is a sin. This is because in God’s eyes marriage is a sacred lifelong covenantal relationship. Jesus made this point clearly later in Matthew’s Gospel. It came up in a discussion regarding the Law about divorce given in Deuteronomy 24. In Matthew chapter nineteen we read how the Jewish leadership misunderstood God’s purpose in giving that instruction. The incident took place later in Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees brought up a question to test Him and to make Him less popular with the crowds. They asked Him publically, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (vs.3a). Basically, they were asking if Jesus agreed with the more liberal interpretation of Moses’ teaching on divorce. Jesus answered the by going to a different part of the OT than they were expecting:

  • “And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female', and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’”
  • Matthew 19:4-6

    Jesus went to the Genesis account of Creation and explained that it was God’s original intent to design human beings in the form of two complementary sexes. God also designed that in marriage these two different sexes would become one flesh joined together by God and that no human being had the authority to break this bond that God created between them after it was formed. Because of this, divorce was contrary to God’s purpose in Creation and marriage. In response to what Jesus taught, the Pharisees then asked, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away (vs.7)? Basically, they were asking if divorce is wrong why did God command through Moses that the Israelites practice divorce and give them instructions regarding how they were to do it? In response to this third question, Jesus answered, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (vs.8). This reveals where the Jews went wrong on the issue of divorce. They did not recognize that God never wanted them to divorce (He did not command it); He only permitted it because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites in Moses’ time. The hardness Jesus speaks of is their unwillingness to truly be taught God’s ways. They were divorcing their wives by just sending them away without any sort of legal arrangement. Regardless of what God taught they were going to continue these divorces anyway. This made the status of these women who were put away unclear. It also placed them at risk, because since they were not legally divorced; most likely they would not be able to re-marry since they technically were still the wives of their previous husbands. Many such women would end up as prostitutes; because the only way they could sustain themselves economically. So, clearly divorce is never what pleases God. But why or how does divorce “cause” a woman to commit adultery? The reason is that just because the bond is severed in man’s eyes, does not mean it is severed in God’s eyes. Therefore a remarriage after a divorce puts both parties in a state of continual adultery.

    It is asked that if this is God’s standard, then what about the people in terrible marriages? The vast majority are marriages that are in bad shape because the couple no longer invests in cultivating a healthy relationship. Therefore, God would have them make that investment. Less frequently there is criminality and abuse involved. These factors complicate the question. Under God’s Laws such persons would not be free to continue their reign of terror. However, since we live under different laws it is necessary to deal with these situations individually, applying principles of truth and compassion. God’s law is not meant to harm people; but to protect them.


    The basic difference between the world’s view of sex and marriage and God’s view is that in the world, sex is primarily for self-gratification. In other words, the motivating factor in the world is using others in order to enjoy pleasure regardless of the consequences to that other person. God’s children are instead to be motivated by love in all they do; particularly in their relationship with the opposite sex. Intercourse is meant to be part of what draws two individuals into becoming one flesh. The believer puts his or her partner first and seeks to please and cherish them; they are not focused on the other person making them feel good or loved. So, all expressions of sex outside of marriage are wrong because they are self-serving and focused on gaining pleasure. The proper expression of sex is within the pursuit of virtue, truth, and genuine love for another person.

    As with the last antithesis, it is important to understand that Jesus is interpreting pure law; He is not attempting to teach at this point how one is saved. This teaching of the Law is meant to convince the hearer that he or she is in need of a Savior (Gal.3:24), because no one can live up to the standard of holiness that is taught in the Law of God.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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