|Vol. 16 No. 5 May 2014||
Louis Rushmore, Editor
When Jesus said whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart, what is the difference between that and the literal act?
The verses under consideration are these. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28 NKJV). There are no more frequently asked questions than about “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage,” and the Gospel Gazette Online “Archive” reflects that with numerous articles addressing this topic. A comprehensive article concerning “Matthew 5:28” by this author appears at the following URL.
Other noteworthy articles on “Marriage, Divorce & Remarriage” from the Gospel Gazette Online “Archive” include these two.
This articles provides additional insight and observations regarding “Matthew 5:28,” and it specifically addresses the specific question submitted above.
The subject matter of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:28 is “impure desire” (Clarke). “Jesus locates adultery in the eye and heart before the outward act” (Robertson’s). “Adultery begins within one’s heart (looking lustfully) and follows in the act. The lustful desire, in the heart, as wrong as the act, indicates that one is not rightly related to God” (Bible Knowledge).
Sexual impurity begins in the desires of the heart. Again, Jesus is not saying that lustful desires are identical to lustful deeds, and therefore a person might just as well go ahead and commit adultery. The desire and the deed are not identical, but, spiritually speaking, they are equivalent. The “look” that Jesus mentioned was not a casual glance, but a constant stare with the purpose of lusting. It is possible for a man to glance at a beautiful woman and know that she is beautiful, but not lust after her. The man Jesus described looked at the woman for the purpose of feeding his inner sensual appetites as a substitute for the act. It was not accidental; it was planned. (Bible Exposition)
The “look,” according to the context of Matthew 5:28, is “with the intent to do so” (Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown) in actuality what the one looking has already done in his mind.
…if anyone looks at a woman in such a way as deliberately to awaken within himself the forbidden desire for her. …It is important to note that this verse does not just refer to noticing a woman as attractive, or even to a brief recognition that she is sexually appealing. It refers instead to actually contemplating having sex with her… (UBS)
The point to be remembered in Matthew 5:27-28 is that the impure desires are equally sinful as the physical act of adultery. Various sins may manifest themselves differently, or in this case may not be manifested openly, but nevertheless any sin is serious enough to cost the sinner his place in eternal heaven (Romans 6:23; Revelation 21:8). Jesus Christ contrasted the limited teaching of the Jewish religious leaders regarding, for instance, the Ten Commandments, with additional consideration of the heart of man behind overt acts.
Our Saviour in these verses explains the seventh commandment. It is probable that the Pharisees had explained this commandment, as they had the sixth, as extending only to the external act; and that they regarded evil thoughts and a wanton imagination as of little consequence, or as not forbidden by the law. Our Saviour assures them that the commandment did not regard the external act merely, but the secrets of the heart, and the movements of the eye. He declares that they who indulge a wanton desire, that they who look on a woman to increase their lust, have already, in the sight of God, violated the commandment, and committed adultery in the heart. (Barnes)
Our Lord taught that the intent to sin was as sinful as the activity of sin. “Thus, Christ made the lustful thought as sinful as the overt act” (Coffman). “…[H]e declares the sin to be in the heart and not in the external act merely; Jesus goes behind the act and legislates against the thoughts which precede the act. …it refers to an intentional and conscious desire to gratify the lust” (Boles).
Whereas mankind anciently and contemporarily as well only views sin respecting physical actions, Jesus Christ made it clear that a person can think sin, too. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament document the cause and effect of sin, particularly regarding the relationship between lust and sexual sins. “And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her and lay with her, and violated her” (Genesis 34:2 NKJV emphasis added). “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).
King David gazed on Bathsheba as she bathed, lusted after her, “took her” and “lay with her” (2 Samuel 11:2-5). The Bible character Job, in contradistinction, purposely refrained from that sort of conduct. “I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl” (Job 31:1 NIV). The Old Testament not only forbade adultery and fornication, but it likewise prohibited lust, which preceded the sinful acts. “Do not lust after her beauty in your heart…” (Proverbs 6:25 NKJV).
The inspired writer James denotes the sequence of sinful events that lead to spiritual death. “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). In addition, the apostle Peter observed by inspiration that some people specialize in lust, noting such as “having eyes full of adultery and that cannot cease from sin, enticing unstable souls” (2 Peter 2:14). The “lust of the flesh” and “the lust of the eyes” (1 John 2:16) are extremely powerful avenues of temptation – especially when coupled together.
Heart adultery and physically committing adultery are both sinful. Yes, they are different kinds of sins. However, any sin committed for which the sinner does not repent on divine terms is the sin that will keep a soul out of heaven eternally and cause one to endure eternity in hell. The seriousness of heart adultery is evident from the two verses following Matthew 5:28. Yet, heart adultery, which might require omniscience that man does not possess, is nowhere in Scripture cited as biblical grounds for divorce and approval for anyone to contract another marriage with which God would be pleased. In addition, Jesus Christ does not expect men (or women) to disfigure themselves by plucking out their eyes or dismembering various body parts. The Godhead, though, does require mankind to refrain from both lustful thoughts and sinful sexual actions.
Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Bible Exposition Commentary. CD-ROM. Colorado Springs: Chariot Victor Publishing, 1989.
Bible Knowledge Commentary/New Testament. CD-ROM. Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 2000.
Boles, H. Leo. A Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew. CD-ROM. Austin: WordSearch, 2011.
Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Coffman, James Burton. James Burton Coffman Bible Study Library. CD-ROM. Abilene: ACU Press, 1989.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
UBS New Testament Handbook Series. CD-ROM. New York: United Bible Societies, 1997.
Louis Rushmore, Editor
When Jesus was conversing with the woman at the well and He told her she had had FIVE HUSBANDS and the man she had then was not her husband, why did He continue to talk to her since she had committed the “unpardonable sin” of being in multiple marriages? Why didn’t He tell her she was hopelessly and eternally lost because of all this marrying and divorcing?
This is an example of the proverbial loaded question, because (1) it portrays an uncharitable, sarcastic bias and (2) it proposes a preposterous straw man dialog to promote a counter answer about the topic of marriage, divorce and remarriage. Hence, the paragraph above is not as much of a “question” as it is an “affirmation” of a doctrinal position. Yet, we will not presume that the one posing the question possesses this attitude, for these words may be merely the grammar of another repeated. In any case, the “question” or “affirmation” needs to be addressed from a biblical perspective.
Generally, Bible students refer to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the so-called unpardonable sin (Matthew 12:31-32). However, the reason that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit or “a sin unto death” (1 John 5:16 KJV) is unpardonable is because the sinner refuses to repent. In both testaments, God has been willing to forgive sins for which sinners will repent; consider these biblical citations. “Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And He will have mercy on him; And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7 NKJV emphasis added). “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:11). “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). Implicit in ‘confessing our sins’ is that we repent or turn from our sins. Without confessing our sins, repenting of them or turning from them, there can be no forgiveness of sins.
It is impossible to renew to repentance those who have turned from God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:1-6) as long as they persist in that rebellion. Likewise, when someone rejects Jesus Christ, he has rejected the only Savior, and “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26).
The relevance of the foregoing to marriage, divorce and remarriage involves turning from sin or repenting. Whatever a person’s sin today may be, God will forgive it – if and when the sinner turns from or repents of it. However, no forgiveness from God will be forthcoming as long as the sinner persists in the sin. This principle is true irrespective of the sin under consideration (e.g., stealing, lying, drunkenness, homosexuality, fornication, adultery, etc.). Furthermore, just because society or even civil law may legitimize what God declares as sinful (e.g., homosexuality, adultery falsely called marriage) does not annul divine instruction.
It is grossly untrue to tout that people involved in “multiple marriages” – those who have been “marrying and divorcing” – “hopelessly and eternally lost” or have “committed the unpardonable sin.” This language clearly attempts to paint the picture of rotten fruit to identify the tree as equally rotten – claim that the result of doctrine is repugnant, thereby making the doctrine itself repugnant. The simple truth is that repentance involves stopping whatever sin for which one is repenting. In the case of adulterous or biblically unlawful marriages, repentance still involves turning from what God deems as sinful.
The greatest difficulty with effecting repentance within the framework of marriage, divorce and remarriage is the investment of human passions and emotions. Yet, human, carnal desires and our emotions do not negate the Word of God. Even under the Old Testament, the children of God were called upon to put away or divorce wives whom they had married in defiance of divine instruction – despite the fact that children had been born to those unions. “Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law” (Ezra 10:3). There is no sin today for which God will not extend forgiveness if and when man will turn from or repent of it.