Read Matthew 5:27-30
This week Rolf Harris has been convicted of sexual assault charges; a Malaysian diplomat has been accused of attacking a woman with intent to rape; it has emerged that an Australian naval officer in New Zealand was convicted for having had 40,000 objectionable images; a Napier policeman has been imprisoned for indecent assault; a Northland man has pleaded guilty to possessing images of child sexual abuse; Lou Vincent has confessed to match-fixing where part of the inducement was the offer of prostitution; and Parliament has discussed legislation for keeping paedophiles under surveillance.
Sex is problematic, isn’t it? On the one hand it is an incredibly beautiful gift from God. God invented it. The Bible celebrates it as the means of great enjoyment and intimacy between a married couple.
But, on the other hand, as the news stories show, sex has become so distorted and defiled. Sex has been affected by the Fall. What was designed to be sacred has been made common and cheap. What should be incredibly beautiful is so often very ugly. Even for married couples, sex can be complicated.
God designed sex to be an expression of intimacy within a marriage between a man and a woman. It is a precious gift that is to be honoured. Sex outside of marriage is not what God intended and is sin.
God takes sexual sin very seriously. It is right there (twice) in the Ten Commandments. Commandment Seven: “You shall not commit adultery”. Commandment Ten: “You shall not covert your neighbour’s wife.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus wanted to illustrate the kind of radical righteousness required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven – one of the six examples He chose was sexual purity. Not only that, when we look at what He said about it, we immediately see how seriously God takes sexual immorality.
The Pharisees knew the commandments. They knew that adultery was wrong, but it seems that they limited the sin to just the physical act of adultery. Maybe they conveniently ignored the commandment about coveting one’s neighbour’s wife. Jesus took it much further than the act. If a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If we were Pharisees, probably most of us would be innocent. I am assuming that most of us have not committed the act of adultery. But by Jesus’ standard, many of us are guilty. I am. I fear I might sound like I am talking as someone who has got it all together, when the reality is that I know the temptation and I know failure.
This is a particular problem for men. What one person finds tempting, another might not, but by-and-large, men are sexually interested and that interest is stimulated by what they see. And temptation is everywhere. We live in a highly sexualised society. There are sexual images on billboards, TV, movies, magazines, advertisements, CD and DVD covers, and most problematically, the internet. Most problematically because sexual material is available free, at the click of a button and in the privacy of our own homes. Christian men are tempted like anyone else and it is so available.
It is a particular problem for men but just a minute. Jesus specifically refers here to men – indeed married men because He says they will be committing adultery, not fornication. So, are women and single men off the hook? If we analyse it so as to narrow its application; so that it doesn’t apply to us, we are doing exactly what the Pharisees did. It is about sexual purity and that applies to everyone. If pornography is a particular temptation for men, I read the suggestion that the female equivalent is fantasised romance. If men fantasise about giving their bodies to someone other than their wives, women tend more to fantasise about giving their affections in the same way.
The seriousness with which Jesus views sexual immorality is seen in the fact that He says even lustful thoughts are adultery. But the seriousness is also seen in what He says next: “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Likewise, the hand.
So, firstly, He says that hell is the destination of the person who sins sexually. Secondly, He counsels drastic action to avoid that. We would be better to gouge out an eye than to go to hell.
Seriously? Yes, seriously. If the options are life with one eye but eternity in heaven versus life with two eyes but eternity in hell, Jesus is absolutely correct, isn’t He? It would be better to lose an eye. It boils down to the question: do I love this world more than I love God? Will I choose the so-called pleasures of this world or eternity? Will I sacrifice for the sake of my salvation?
Some people in the history of the church have mutilated themselves on the basis of this passage. The third-century scholar Origen of Alexandria castrated himself so as to avoid this temptation. John Stott describes these Christians as having a zeal that “greatly exceeded their wisdom.”
Not long after that, in 325 A.D., the Council of Nicea outlawed that particular practice.
Jesus was serious but He was making His point forcefully by using a dramatic figure of speech. He is not literally suggesting self-mutilation but His point is: Be ruthless with yourself to avoid sin. It is foolishness to flirt with sin. Don’t entertain temptation; deal drastically with it.
This is a general principle. It applies to all sin. Jesus repeats this advice in Matthew 18:8-9 where the context is sin in general. There Jesus talks about feet as well as eyes and hands. It applies to all sin but Jesus specifically applied it to sexual sin.
What is Jesus saying? Eyes. If looking at certain things causes you to sin, don’t look at them. Take whatever actions are needed to not put yourself in that situation. Don’t watch those particular programmes. Feet. If going to certain places causes you to sin, don’t go there. Maybe that is the magazine stand in a bookshop. Don’t go there. Just yesterday I read an article about well-known American pastor who has had a problem with pornography and still has to be careful. One of the things he said he does to protect himself is use the internet as little as possible. Hands. If doing certain things causes you to sin, don’t do those things. Don’t click that button.
It is the same thing as saying to an alcoholic, “Well, don’t go to a pub.” It seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it? But when we are being tempted, it is not so obvious or so easy.
There is a well-known Christian book on pornography called ‘Every Man’s Battle”. One of the pieces of advice it gives is “bouncing your eyes”. If your eyes fall on something you should not look at, bounce them immediately to something else. Don’t let that look linger. That is when it becomes a sin. Jesus doesn’t say not to look at women. He doesn’t even say not to appreciate women’s beauty. But He says don’t look lustfully. It is not the looking that is sin but the lusting; but the looking can feed the lusting.
What is the difference between looking and looking lustfully? One commentator simply says, “You know the difference.” That is probably true. We know the difference.
What the difference is between looking and looking lustfully? Another person said, “About two seconds.”
The problem is in the heart. The problem is the imagining or the desiring. But the looking feeds the imagination. The temptation is to keep looking and keep enjoying the imagination. That is when it becomes a sin. The sin in the heart is fed by the eyes. The way to kill that sin is not to feed it.
Job says, “I have made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a virgin.” (31:1) My eyes and I have an agreement. A little further down that chapter, he says, “If my steps have turned from the path, if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled…” (v.7). And then in v.9: “If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or if I have lurked at my neighbour’s door…” If I have, judgement would be fully justified. But the implication is: But I haven’t. He had made that decision; he had made that covenant not to look lustfully, and because of that, he had avoided sin.
Jesus isn’t saying to mutilate ourselves but He is saying to die to ourselves. This is costly. The temptation can be very strong. The dark side of me really wants to look at that image. That part of me has to die. In a sense we do have to chop off part of ourselves; those parts of ourselves that trap us. If you choose not to go to certain movies or not to go to certain places, people might mock you and say that you are a prude, or you can’t be educated if you don’t experience certain things, or suggest that must you unusually weak.
What then? Do we weaken because we love the world and we like being liked? Or do we forgo some worldly experiences, because we love Jesus more and we don’t want to jeopardise our salvation? Will we sacrifice certain things in this life for the sake of eternity even when that sacrifice is costly?
Actually, of course, choosing to avoid tempting situations shows unusual strength, not weakness.
But maybe we read these words and we know we have not been unusually strong. We might be deeply troubled by repeated failure. When Jesus speaks with such clarity and severity, what hope is there for us?
Jesus requires radical righteousness but He knows that we are weak. That is not an excuse. That is not saying, “We are only human. We can’t do any better and God doesn’t expect anything more.” It is saying that God knows we are weak. He knows we will fail. He knows that we are still growing and haven’t yet got everything sorted out. He promises to forgive.
1 John 1:9 If we confess ours sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
God promises to forgive and to purify us from all unrighteousness. The unrighteousness in me, God will remove from me; make me pure. God is unbelievably merciful and gracious.
Again, remember the Beatitudes in this same chapter. Blessed are those who are poor in spirit. Blessed are those people who are aware of their own spiritual weakness; who know they need God’s help; who mourn over their failure; who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God promises to forgive and to cleanse. No matter how many times we have failed in the past, God promises to forgive when we confess.
Then how can we do better? How can we be victorious?
Well, Jesus here talks about discipline. We have a responsibility, but we are not on our own.
1 Cor 10:13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Any temptation that comes our way, we can actually resist. No temptation is too strong. We cannot say, “I had no option.” No, no temptation is beyond what we can bear. We do have a responsibility here. But how come no temptation is too strong? Because God won’t allow that. God is protecting us. He limits the temptations we face. God is on our side. Secondly, when we are tempted, He provides a way out. There is always a way out. All we have to do is take it. If we take the escape route that God has provided, we will have victory over that temptation.
Both this passage and 1 John 1:9, about forgiveness, start by saying, “God is faithful.”
And we have a new nature, if we have been born again. And we have the Holy Spirit. And we have each other. We need to support one another and especially in areas of temptation. We need to be able to go to each other and say, “Please pray for me. I am struggling” without any fear of being judged or rejected.
In an age, and in a culture, of sexual permissiveness, Jesus is far from permissive. Let us not be misled by what is happening around us or wrongly comforted by the suggestion that everybody is doing it. It is not really wrong. It is really wrong – really, really wrong. Even enjoying the thoughts is wrong. It is worth taking drastic action. It is worth making temporary sacrifices for eternal joy. And God is on our side. And God is faithful.
- Read Matthew 6:22-23
- How do you understand “if your eyes are good”? Does it refer to the health of our eyes or to what we look at?
- Assuming it is what we look at, what do these two verses say? What lessons do you draw from them?
- How does this paragraph relate to the preceding one and the following one?
- Read 1 John 2:15-17.
- Is the “lust of the eyes” the same as what Jesus is talking about here?
- It is not linked to sexual lust here. What broader application do you think it has?
- What else do these verses say?