April 20 – Desire, the Root Sin of Adultery

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 lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.—Matt. 5:27–28

The seventh commandment protects the sanctity of marriage, and anyone who relies on external righteousness to keep it is prone to break it. Just as anger equals murder, lustful desire equals adultery.

In Jesus’ admonition, “looks” indicates intentional and repeated gazing. Therefore He means purposeful looking that arouses lust. In contemporary terms, it condemns a man who sees an X-rated movie, watches a salacious television show, or visits pornographic websites. It encompasses any thought or action done to arouse sexual desire.

Jesus is not referring to accidental exposure to sexual temptation. It is no sin if a man looks away from a provocative scene. It is the continued look that Christ condemns, because that demonstrates an adulterous heart. And by inference this prohibition would apply to women also, who must not gaze at men or dress in seductive ways to elicit stares.

In earliest redemptive history, Job understood these principles: “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?… If my step has turned from the way, or my heart followed my eyes, or if any spot has stuck to my hands, let me sow and another eat, and let my crops be uprooted” (Job 31:1, 7–8).

If the adulterous heart gives in to temptation, the godly heart will protect itself, praying, “Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways. Establish Your word to Your servant, as that which produces reverence for You” (Ps. 119:37–38; cf. 2 Tim. 2:22).

What could replace your next lustful thought or glance? Instead of focusing on what God has graciously restricted, what blessings, privileges, and freedoms can capture your attention instead?[1]

The Deed

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” (5:27)

As with the one relating to the sin of murder (vv. 21–26), this illustration begins with a quotation of one of the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:14). In both of those cases, Jewish tradition was based on the law of Moses, at least superficially.

The sixth commandment protects the sanctity of life and the seventh the sanctity of marriage. Those who rely on external righteousness break both of those commandments, because in their hearts they attack the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage, whether they do so outwardly or not. When they are angry or hate, they commit murder. When they lust sexually, they commit adultery. And when they do either of those things, they choose to despise God’s law and God’s name (see Ex. 20:14; Lev. 20:10; Deut. 5:18).

Anger and sexual lust are two of the most powerful influences on mankind. The person who gives them reign will soon find that he is more controlled than in control. Every person has experienced temptation to anger and to sexual sin, and every person has at some time and to some degree given in to those temptations. Because of that fact, every person is guilty before God of murder and of adultery.

Although sexual temptations have been strong since manp’s fall, our day of permissiveness and perversion has brought an increase in those destructive influences that no society in history has had before (see 2 Tim. 3:13). Ours is a day of unbridled indulgence in sexual passion. People propagate, promote, and exploit it through the most powerful and pervasive media ever known to man. It seems to be the almost uninterrupted theme of our society’s entertainment. Even in academic and religious circles we see seminars, books, tapes, and programs of all sorts that promise to improve sexual knowledge, experience, freedom, and enjoyment.

Mass media uses sex to sell its products and to glamorize its programs. Sex crimes are at all-time highs, while infidelity, divorce, and perversion are justified. Marriage, sexual fidelity, and moral purity are scorned, ridiculed, and laughed at. We are preoccupied with sex to a degree perhaps never before seen in a civilized culture.

But the philosophy of sexual hedonism is not new to our day. It was common in New Testament times, and Paul faced it full force in Corinth. His comment “Food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food” (1 Cor. 6:13a) expressed the common Greek notion that biological functions are just biological functions and have no moral significance. It was a belief many of the Corinthian believers had reverted to, or had never given up, in order to justify their sexual misconduct. Apparently they were arguing, as do many hedonists today, that sex is simply a biological act, no different morally from eating, drinking, or sleeping. But Paul strongly refutes that idea by going on to say, “God will do away with both of them [that is, food and the stomach]. Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body” (v. 13b). The body is more than biological, as divine judgment will reveal. For Christians it is a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and belongs to the Lord rather than to us (vv. 15, 19). It is therefore never to be used for any purpose that dishonors the God who made and indwells it. Christians should have but one response to sexual temptation-running away from it (v. 18).

The same philosophy that corrupted Corinth is today engulfing most of western society in a sea of sexual excess and perversion. In its many forms, sexual license is destroying lives physically, morally, mentally, and spiritually. It is destroying marriages, families, and even whole communities.

Throughout history some Christians have reacted to sexual temptations and sins in ways that are unbiblical. Seeing the great power of the sex drive and the great damage its unbridled expression can cause, they have sometimes concluded that sex itself is evil and should be completely condemned and avoided. Commonly referred to today as the Victorian view, that philosophy was prevalent long before the age of Queen Victoria.

Origen (a.d. 185–254), one of the outstanding early church Fathers, was so convicted of his own sinfulness by reading Matthew 5:27–30 that he had himself castrated (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. James D. Douglas [new edition; Grand Rapids, 1974, 1978], p. 733. Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French theologian, had lived a godly life for many years. He fell in love with a young woman (Heloise) and caused her to become pregnant. To protect her and to try to rectify the wrong, he married her. Damaging rumors had begun to circulate, however, and, rather than harm Abelard’s career still further, Heloise entered a convent. Her uncle, angry at all that had happened, hired men to break into Abelard’s quarters and castrate him; Abelard then joined the monastery of St.-Denis (New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 3).

But geographical escapism, physical mutilation, or any form of forced celibacy violate God’s purpose (see Heb. 13:4) and are just as unscriptural as sexual immorality. The Lord wants His people to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15–18). And because our bodies belong to Christ and are temples of the Holy Spirit, they are not to be abused in any way. God created sex and gives it as a blessing to those who enjoy it within the bounds of marriage. Anyone who promotes abstinence from marriage on the basis that all sexual expression is evil is “paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons” (see 1 Tim. 4:1–3). Speaking of the marriage relationship, Paul commands, “Let the husband fulfill his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. … Stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Cor. 7:3, 5). Sexual expression not only is a thrilling privilege but an obligation of marriage.

In the middle of a biblical warning against adultery, husbands are instructed, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love” (Prov. 5:18–19). The Song of Solomon is devoted to the beauty and wonder of marital love. God has designed and blessed sexual expression within marriage, and to malign or denigrate that proper expression by such practices as castration or forced celibacy is as much of a perversion as fornication, adultery, or homosexuality.

The solution to sexual impurity cannot be external because the cause is not external. Job proclaimed, “If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or I have lurked at my neighbor’s doorway, may my wife grind for another, and let others kneel down over her. For that would be a lustful crime; moreover, it would be an iniquity punishable by judges” (Job 31:9–11). That ancient saint knew that physical infidelity is first of all a matter of the heart, and that lusting is just as sinful in God’s eyes as the act of adultery.

The Mosaic law portrays adultery as one of the most despicable and heinous of sins, punishable by death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). In strongly opposing adultery, Jewish tradition appeared to be entirely scriptural. When the scribes and Pharisees told Jesus that Moses commanded them to stone the woman caught in the act of adultery, they were correct (John 8:4–5). Had not Jesus forgiven her of her sin she would have deserved stoning.

Throughout the New Testament, prohibitions against sexual immorality are every bit as clear as those of the Old. “Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals” will inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9; cf. Gal. 5:19–21; Rev. 2:22). “Fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13:4). Regardless of how much a couple may care for each other and be deeply in love, sexual relations outside of marriage are forbidden. In every case, without exception, it is a heinous sin against God.

In its most technical sense, committing adultery (from moichaō) refers to sexual intercourse between a man and woman when one or both of them is married. In both the Old and New Testaments the word relates to sexual intercourse with anyone other than one’s marriage partner. That Jesus here implies that the principle of sexual purity can be seen in a wider sense than adultery (though adultery is His point here) seems clear from the fact that both everyone and a woman are comprehensive terms that could also apply to the unmarried.

The Desire

but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. (5:28)

The pronoun I (egō) is emphatic, indicating that Jesus puts His own word above the authority of revered rabbinic tradition. Looks (from blepō) is a present participle and refers to the continuous process of looking. In this usage, the idea is not that of an incidental or involuntary glance but of intentional and repeated gazing. Pros to (to) used with the infinitive (epithumēsai, lust for) indicates a goal or an action that follows in time the action of the looking. Jesus is therefore speaking of intentional looking with the purpose of lusting. He is speaking of the man who looks so that he may satisfy his evil desire. He is speaking of the man who goes to an X-rated movie, who selects a television program known for its sexual orientation, who goes to a beach known for its scanty swimsuits, or who does any such thing with the expectation and desire of being sexually and sinfully titillated.

Looking at a woman lustfully does not cause a man to commit adultery in his thoughts. He already has committed adultery in his heart. It is not lustful looking that causes the sin in the heart, but the sin in the heart that causes lustful looking. The lustful looking is but the expression of a heart that is already immoral and adulterous. The heart is the soil where the seeds of sin are imbedded and begin to grow.

Jesus is not speaking of unexpected and unavoidable exposure to sexual temptation. When a man happens to see a woman provocatively dressed, Satan will surely try to tempt that man with lustful thoughts. But there is no sin if the temptation is resisted and the gaze is turned elsewhere. It is continuing to look in order to satisfy lustful desires that Jesus condemns, because it evidences a vile, immoral heart.

David was not at fault for seeing Bathsheba bathing. He could not have helped noticing her, because she was in plain view as he walked on the palace roof. His sin was in dwelling on the sight and in willingly succumbing to the temptation. He could have looked away and put the experience out of his mind. The fact that he had her brought to his chambers and committed adultery with her expressed the immoral desire that already existed in his heart (see 2 Sam. 11:1–4).

A popular proverb goes, “Sow a thought and reap an act. Sow an act and reap a habit. Sow a habit and reap a character. Sow a character and reap a destiny.” That process perfectly illustrates Jesus’ main thrust in this passage: No matter where it ends, sin always begins when an evil thought is sown in the mind and heart.

Although Jesus here uses a man as the example, His condemnation of lustful thoughts as well as actions applies equally to women. Women are equally susceptible to lustful looking, and even to inciting men to lust. As Arthur Pink observes,

If lustful looking is so grievous a sin, then those who dress and expose themselves with the desire to be looked at and lusted after … are not less but perhaps more guilty. In this matter it is not only too often the case that men sin but women tempt them to do so. How great then must be the guilt of the great majority of modern misses who deliberately seek to arouse the sexual passions of young men. And how much greater still is the guilt of most of their mothers for allowing them to become lascivious temptresses. (An Exposition of the Sermon on the Mount [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974], p. 83)

Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin. … If my step has turned from the way, or my heart followed my eyes, or if any spot has stuck to my hands, let me sow and another eat, and let my crops be uprooted” (Job 31:1, 7–8). Job knew that sin begins in the heart and that he was just as deserving of God’s punishment for looking at a woman lustfully as for committing adultery with her. He therefore determined in advance to guard himself by making a pact with his eyes not to gaze at a woman who might tempt him.

Just as the adulterous heart plans to expose itself to lust-satisfying situations, the godly heart plans to avoid them whenever possible and to flee from them when unavoidable. Just as the adulterous heart panders to itself in advance, so the godly heart protects itself in advance, praying with the psalmist, “Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Thy ways. Establish Thy word to Thy servant, as that which produces reverence for Thee” (Ps. 119:37–38). Paul exhorted Timothy to “flee from youthful lusts” and to cultivate a “pure heart” (2 Tim. 2:22).

Like Job, therefore, we must make a covenant with our eyes-and with every other part of our bodies, minds, and spirits-to shun lust and pursue purity.[2]

5:27, 28 The Mosaic Law clearly prohibited adultery (Ex. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). A person might be proud that he had never broken this commandment, and yet have his “eyes full of adultery” (2 Pet. 2:14). While outwardly respectable, his mind might be constantly wandering down labyrinths of impurity. So Jesus reminded His disciples that mere abstinence from the physical act was not enough—there must be inward purity. The law forbade the act of adultery; Jesus forbids the desire: Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. E. Stanley Jones caught the import of this verse when he wrote: “If you think or act adultery, you do not satisfy the sex urge; you pour oil on a fire to quench it.” Sin begins in the mind, and if we nourish it, we eventually commit the act.[3]

27–28 The OT command not to commit adultery (Ex 20:14; Dt 5:18) is often treated in Jewish sources not so much as a function of purity as of theft: it was to steal another’s wife (references in Bonnard). Jesus insisted that the seventh commandment points in another direction—toward purity that refuses to lust (v. 28). The tenth commandment had already explicitly made the point; and gynē (GK 1222) here more likely means “woman” than “wife.” “To interpret the law on the side of stringency is not to annul the Law but to change it in accordance with its own intention” (Davies, Setting, 102; cf. Job 31:1; Pr 6:25; 2 Pe 2:14).

Klaus Haacker (“Der Rechtsatz Jesu zum Thema Ehebruch,” BZ 21 [1977]: 113–16) has convincingly argued that the second autēn (“[committed adultery] with her”) is contrary to the common interpretation of this verse. In Greek it is unnecessary, especially if the sin is entirely the man’s. But it is explainable if pros to epithymēsai autēn, commonly understood to mean “with a view to lusting for her,” is translated “so as to get her to lust.” The evidence for this interpretation is strong (see Notes). The man is therefore looking at the woman with a view to enticing her to lust. Thus, so far as his intention goes, he is committing adultery with her, and he makes her an adulteress. This does not weaken the force of Jesus’ teaching. The heart of the matter is still lust and intent.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 119). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 300–304). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 184). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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