April 21 – Dealing Radically with Sin

If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.—Matt. 5:29–30

We must be willing, as Jesus teaches here, to relinquish whatever is necessary to protect us from evil and preserve righteousness. Mutilation will not cleanse our hearts, but Jesus’ figurative words call for dramatic severing of any impulse that could lead to sin (cf. Matt. 18:8–9).

In other words, we must deal radically with sin, as Paul says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). If we don’t purpose to carefully control the worldly influences around us, they will control us. Those we can’t control we should not hesitate to discard.

Cutting off harmful influences will not necessarily and automatically turn a corrupt heart into a pure one. But just as external acts of murder or adultery reflect internal hearts of sin, the outward act of fleeing sinful effects reflects the inward attitude that seeks holiness and God’s will rather than human pleasure.

Jesus reminds us again that His standards of righteousness are humanly impossible to attain. We have all been murderers and adulterers in our hearts, and often we don’t realize this because of sin’s subtlety and blinding effect. But the impossibility of measuring up to divine standards points to our need to receive a new heart and turn over our helplessness to His sufficiency.

How have you practiced this kind of severing in your Christian life? What familiar sins and seductions have proven so injurious in your past, it’s best if they’re just never in the same room with you?[1]

The Deliverance

And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. (5:29–30)

Here Jesus points the way to deliverance from heart sin. At first His advice seems incongruous with what He has just been saying. If the problem is in the heart, what good is plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand? If the right eye were lost, the left would continue to look lustfully, and if the right hand were cut off, the left would still remain to carry on sinful acts.

Obviously Jesus is speaking figuratively of those things, physical or otherwise, that cause us to be tempted or make us more susceptible to temptation. In Jewish culture, the right eye and right hand represented a person’s best and most precious faculties. The right eye represented one’s best vision, and the right hand one’s best skills. Jesus’ point is that we should be willing to give up whatever is necessary, even the most cherished things we possess, if doing that will help protect us from evil. Nothing is so valuable as to be worth preserving at the expense of righteousness. This strong message is obviously not to be interpreted in a wooden, literal way so that the Lord appears to be advocating mutilation. Mutilation will not cleanse the heart. The intent of these words is simply to call for dramatic severing of the sinful impulses in us which push us to evil action (cf. Matt. 18:8–9).

Skandalizō basically means to cause to fall, but in its substantive form, as here (makes … stumble), it was often used of the bait stick that springs the trap when an animal touches it. Anything that morally or spiritually traps us, that causes us to fall into sin or to stay in sin, should be eliminated quickly and totally. For example, a married person’s falling in love with someone besides his or her spouse is wrong. The relationship may be mutually enjoyable and considered to be rewarding, fulfilling, and beautiful. But it is totally sinful and should be immediately severed. What is a pure and truly beautiful relationship between marriage partners is morally ugly and repulsive to God when it is shared between a man and woman if either or both are married to someone else.

The message of this hyperbolic statement of our Lord is clearly that sin must be dealt with radically. Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). If we do not consciously and purposefully control what is around us, where we go, what we do, what we watch and read, the company we keep, and the conversations we have, then those things will control us. And what we cannot control we should discard without hesitation.

Obviously getting rid of harmful influences will not change a corrupt heart into a pure heart. Outward acts cannot produce inner benefits. But just as the outward act of adultery reflects a heart that is already adulterous, the outward act of forsaking whatever is harmful reflects a heart that hungers and thirsts for righteousness. That outward act is effective protection, because it comes from a heart that seeks to do God’s will instead of its own.

Like Origen, Saint Anthony sought to escape immorality and lust by separating himself from the rest of society. He became a hermit in the Egyptian desert, where he lived in poverty and deprivation for thirty-five years. Yet by his own testimony he was never freed in all that time from the cares and temptations he sought to escape. Because his heart was still in the world he could not escape the world, and he quickly discovered that Satan, the god of this world, had no difficulty finding him in the desert (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 2 vols. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956], 1:146–47).

Jesus again sets forth the impossible standards of His kingdom righteousness. All people are murderers and adulterers. Many do not realize that they are because of the subtlety of sin and its blinding effect on the mind. Jesus does not suggest that the scribes and Pharisees, or anyone else, could deliver themselves from the propensity to sin. As always, the impossibility that He sets forth has a twofold purpose: to make men and women despair of their own righteousness and to seek His. The Lord’s remedy for a wicked heart is a new heart, and His answer for our helplessness is His sufficiency.

The story is told that during the Civil War a beautiful, highly educated, and popular young woman fell into prostitution. By the time she was twenty-two years old, she was friendless, broken, and lay dying in a hospital in Cincinnati. Just before she died on a cold winter day she wrote a poem lamenting her life. The poem was published in a newspaper the next day and soon drew the sympathetic attention of thousands across the country. The poem ended with the lines:

Fainting, freezing, dying alone,

too wicked for prayer,

Too weak for a moan to be heard

in the streets of the crazy town

Gone mad in the joy

of the snow coming down.

To lie, and to die.

in my terrible woe,

With a bed and a shroud

of the beautiful snow.

Sometime later a verse was added by another pen.

Helpless and frail as the trampled snow,

Sinner despair not, Christ stoopeth low

To rescue the soul that is lost in its sin,

And raise it to life and enjoyment again.

Groaning, bleeding, dying for thee,

The Crucified hung, made a curse on the tree.

His accents of mercy fall soft on thine ear.

Is there mercy for me? Will He heed my prayer?

O God! in the stream that for sinners doth flow,

Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.

(A. Nainsmith, 1200 Notes, Quotes, and Anecdotes [Chicago: Moody, 1962], p. 184)

Many men and women go to hell forever because of the deception of self-righteous religion. The illusion that sin is only an external issue is damning.[2]

5:29, 30 Maintaining an undefiled thought life demands strict self-discipline. Thus, Jesus taught that if any part of our body causes us to sin, it would be better to lose that member during life rather than to lose one’s soul for eternity. Are we to take Jesus’ words literally? Was He actually advocating self-mutilation? The words are literal to this extent: if it were necessary to lose a member rather than one’s soul, then we should gladly part with the member. Fortunately it is never necessary, since the Holy Spirit empowers the believer to live a holy life. However, there must be cooperation and rigid discipline on the believer’s part.[3]

29–30 The radical treatment of parts of the body that cause one to sin (see Notes) has led some (notoriously Origen) to castrate themselves. But that is not radical enough, since lust is not thereby removed. The “eye” (v. 29) is the member of the body most commonly blamed for leading us astray, especially in sexual sins (cf. Nu 15:39; Pr 21:4; Eze 6:9; 18:12; 20:8; cf. Ecc 11:9); the “right eye” refers to one’s best eye. But why the “right hand” (v. 30) in a context dealing with lust? This may be merely illustrative or a way of saying that even lust is a kind of theft. More likely, it is a euphemism for the male sexual organ (cf. yād, “hand” [GK 3338], most likely used in this way in Isaiah 57:8 [cf. BDB, 4.g]; see Lachs, “Textual Observations,” 108–9).

Cutting off or gouging out the offending part is a way of saying that Jesus’ disciples must deal radically with sin. Imagination is a God-given gift; but if it is fed dirt by the eye, it will be dirty. All sin, not least sexual sin, begins with the imagination. Therefore, what feeds the imagination is of maximum importance in the pursuit of kingdom righteousness (cf. Php 4:8). Not everyone reacts the same way to all objects. But if your eye is causing you to sin, gouge it out, or at very least, don’t look (cf. the sane exposition of Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount, 88–91)! The alternative is sin and hell—sin’s reward. The point is so fundamental that Jesus doubtless repeated it on numerous occasions (cf. 18:8–9).[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 120). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 304–306). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1220–1221). 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, pp. 184–185). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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