The Sermon On The Mount
The Law and Adultery
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. It bath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."
Let us begin by pointing out once more that the several distinctions drawn by Christ in this discourse between what had been said in ancient times upon a number of matters of moral and religious duty, and what He now affirmed, must have respect not to the real teaching of the Law and the prophets but to the inadequate and erroneous views entertained of their teaching by the rabbis and the false notions founded upon them. After so solemnly and expressly declaring His entire harmony with the Law and the prophets (5:17-20), we must regard with abhorrence the idea that Christ, immediately after, proceeded to pit Himself against them, affirming that Moses taught one thing and He quite another. No, in every instance where a commandment is quoted as among the things said in former times, it was the understanding and views entertained thereof against which the Lord directed His authoritative deliverances. It is not the Law per se which is under consideration, but the carnal interpretations of it made by the Pharisees.
It should prove a real help to the reader if he looks upon Matthew 5:20, as the text of this third division of the Sermon, and all that follows to the end of chapter v as an enlargement thereof. That verse enunciated a most important practical truth, and the verses which immediately follow contain a series of illustrative examples of how and wherein the righteousness of the citizens of the kingdom of heaven must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. First, the Law-giver Himself had freed the sixth commandment from the rubbish which carnal men had heaped upon it (vv. 21-26), and now He proceeded to restore the seventh commandment to its true sense and meaning, and therefore to its proper use, purging it from the false interpretation of the Jews. Thus, in the verses which are now to be before us, we have the Saviour contrasting the righteousness of His kingdom with the righteousness of the religious leaders of His day respecting the all-important matter of chastity.
"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery" (v. 27). Again we would carefully note that Christ did not say, "Ye know that God said at Sinai," but instead, "ye have heard that it was said by them of old time." This makes it quite clear that He was continuing to refute the injurious traditions which the Jews had accepted from their elders: "them of old time" referring to the ancient teachers-compare our comments on verse 21. "Thou shalt not commit adultery"; those were indeed the actual words of the Holy Spirit, but the preceding clause makes it plain that our Lord was alluding to them in the sense in which the scribes and Pharisees understood them. They saw in the seventh commandment nothing more than the bare injunction, "No man shall lie with another man's wife," and hence they thought that so long as men abstained from that particular sin, they met the requirements of this precept.
The ancient rabbis, echoed by the Pharisees, restricted the scope of the seventh commandment to the bare act of unlawful intercourse with a married woman. But they should have perceived, as in the case of the sixth commandment, that the seventh spoke specifically of only the culminating crime, leaving the conscience of the hearer to infer that anything which partook of its nature or was calculated to lead up to the overt deed was also and equally forbidden, even the secret thought of unlawful lust. That the Pharisees did narrow the meaning of the seventh commandment to the mere outward act of impurity is evident from our Lord's contrastive exposition of it in the next verse, where He insists that its true intent had a much wider scope, reaching also to the inward affections, prohibiting all impure thoughts and desires of the heart.
Once more we are shown the vast difference there is between the spiritual requirements of a holy God and the low standard which is deemed sufficient by His fallen creatures. The religion of carnal and worldly men is merely political; so far as good and evil affect society, they are in some measure concerned; but as to the honour and glory of God, they have no regard. So long as the outside of the cup and of the platter be clean, they are indifferent to whatever filth may exist within (Matthew 23:25, 26). So long as the external conduct of its citizens be law-abiding, the State is satisfied, no matter what iniquity may be seething in their minds. Different far is it with the Judge of all the earth: "The Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). That which the world pays no attention to, God regards as of first importance, for "out of the heart are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). It is only "the pure in heart" who shall ever see-commune with and eternally enjoy-God (Matthew 5:8).
In what has just been before us we may see a very real warning against a slavish literalism, which has ever been the refuge into which not a few errorists have betaken themselves. In this instance the Pharisees kept themselves close to the letter of the Word, but sadly failed to understand and insist upon its spiritual purport. Papists seek to justify their erroneous dogma of transubstantiation by an appeal to the very words of Christ, "this is My body," insisting on the literal sense of His language. Unitarians seek to shelter behind His declaration, "My Father is greater than I" (John 14:18), arguing therefrom the essential inferiority of the Son. In like manner, the ancient rabbis took the words of the seventh commandment at their face value only, failing to enter into the full spiritual meaning of them. Let pre-millenarians heed this warning against a slavish literalism or a being deceived by the mere sound of words, instead of ascertaining their sense.
The great Teacher of the Church here supplied us with an invaluable canon of exegesis or rule of interpretation by teaching us that God's commandment "is exceeding broad" (Ps. 119:96), and that human language becomes invested with a far fuller and richer meaning when used by God than it has on the lips of men. This of itself should be sufficient to silence those who condemn the servants of God when they spiritualize Old Testament prophecies, objecting that they are reading into those prophecies what is not there, and unwarrantably departing from their plain sense. When the Lord Jesus affirmed, "But I say unto you, That whoso looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart," had not the Pharisees as much occasion to demur, and say, "The seventh commandment says nothing about lustful looks: You are reading into it what is not there"?
Ere passing on, a few words need to be said on the special heinousness of this particular crime. Adultery is the breach of wedlock. Even the Pharisees did condemn it, for though they made light of disobedience to parents (Matthew 15:4-6), yet they clamored for the death of the woman guilty of this sin (John 8:4, 5). The grievousness of this offence appears in that it breaks the solemn covenant entered into between husband and wife and God, it robs another of the precious ornament of chastity, it defiles the body and ruins the soul, it brings down the vengeance of God upon the posterity, which Job called "a fire that consumeth to destruction" (31:12). "Be not deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor 6:9, 10). "Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4).
"But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (v. 28). Here we have an exposition of the seventh commandment by the supreme Prophet of God, wherein He reveals the height, depth, and breadth of the spirituality of the Divine Law. That commandment not only forbids all acts of uncleanness, but also the desire of them. The Pharisees made it extend no farther than to the outward and physical act, supposing that if the iniquity was restricted to the mind, God would be indifferent. Yet their own Scriptures declared, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18), and Christ here made it known that if a man allows himself to gaze upon a woman till his appetites are excited and sexual thoughts are engendered, then the holy Law of God judges him to be guilty of adultery and subject to its curse; and if he indulges his licentious imagination so as to devise means for the gratification thereof, then is his guilt that much greater, even though providence thwart the execution of his plans.
Our Lord here declared that the seventh commandment is broken even by a secret though unexpressed desire. There is, then, such a thing as heart adultery-alas, that this is so rarely made conscience of today. Impure thoughts and wanton imaginations which never issue in the culminating act are breaches of the Divine Law, All lusting after the forbidden object is condemned. Where the lascivious desire is rolled under the tongue as a sweet morsel, it is the commission of the act so far as the heart is concerned, for there is then lacking nothing but a convenient opportunity for the crime itself. He who weighs the spirits judges the going out of the heart after that which is evil as sin, so they who cherish irregular desires are transgressors of the law of impurity.
"But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart." ft is not an involuntary glance which constitutes the sin, but when evil thoughts are thereby prompted by our depraved natures. The first step and degree, then, of this crime is when lust stirs within us. The second stage and degree is when we deliberately approach unto-a feeding of the eye with the sight of the forbidden fruit, where further satisfaction cannot be obtained. Then if this lust be not sternly mortified, the heart swiftly becomes enthralled and the soul is brought into complete bondage to Satan, so that it is fettered by chains which no human power can break. Such was the deplorable condition of those mentioned by the apostle, "Having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin" (2 Pet. 2:14).
Well did Matthew Henry point out, "The eye is both the inlet and the outlet of a great deal of wickedness of this kind; witness Joseph's mistress (Gen. 39:7), Samson (Judges 16:1), David (2 Sam. 11:2). What need have we, therefore, with holy Job, to 'make a covenant with our eyes' (31:1) to make this bargain with them: that they should have the pleasure of beholding the light of the sun and the works of God, provided that they would never fasten or dwell upon anything that might occasion impure imaginations or desires; and under this penalty, that if they did, they must smart for it in penitential tears. What have we the covering of our eyes for, but to restrain corrupt glances and to keep out defiling impressions?" How much sorrow and humiliation would be avoided if such wholesome counsel was duly laid to heart and carried out in practice.
By clear and necessary implication, Christ here also forbade the using of any other of our senses and members to stir up lust. If ensnaring looks be reprehensible, then so much more unclean conversation and wanton dalliances, which are the fuel of this hellish fire. Again, if lustful looking be so grievous a sin, then those who dress and expose themselves with desires to be looked at and lusted after-as Jezebel, who painted her face, tired her head, and looked out of the window (2 Kings 9:30)-are not less, but even more guilty. In this matter it is only too often the case that men sin, but women tempt them so to do. How great, then, must be the guilt of the great majority of the modern misses who deliberately seek to arouse the sexual passions of our young men. And how much greater still is the guilt of most of their mothers for allowing them to become lascivious temptresses.
As looking to lust is here forbidden, so by proportion are all other like occasions unto adultery. The reading of books which make light of immodesty and indecency, and that cater to those who relish the suggestive and questionable, are therefore prohibited. So too is the use of light and wanton talk and the jesting about loose morals: "But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting" (Eph. 5:3, 4). Many who are given to this think it a trifling matter, but in reality they are double offenders, for not only have they a wanton eye, but a lascivious tongue also. In like manner, promiscuous dancing and mixed bathing are most certainly condemned by the seventh commandment, for in both there is additional provocation unto lust.
How solemnly do these words of Christ in Matthew 5:28, condemn us, for even though (by preserving grace) our bodies have not been defiled by the outward act of adultery, yet who can say "My heart is clean"? Who is free from a wanton eye, from evil desires, from impure imaginations? Who can truthfully affirm that he has never been guilty of questionable jesting and unchaste conversation? Must we not all of us lay our hands upon our mouths and condemn ourselves as offenders in the sight of God? Surely we have ample cause to humble ourselves beneath His mighty hand and acknowledge our breach of the seventh commandment. And if our repentance and confession be sincere, shall we not be doubly on our guard against a repetition of these sins, seeking to avoid temptations and taking heed of every occasion which may incite us? Surely it is evident that if our hearts be honest before God we cannot do less. Yea, shall we not with increased earnestness pray, "Turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken Thou me in Thy way" (Ps. 119:37)?
Again, if the lust of the heart be adultery in the sight of God, then with what diligence and care should we respond to that injunction, "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1); that is, labour to keep our hearts and minds as pure as our bodies. Unless they do so Christians themselves will be deprived of a comforting assurance of their personal interest in the love of God, for when they defile their minds by harboring impure thoughts the Spirit is grieved, and withholds His witness to our sonship. Nay, if we truly realize that the Holy One has taken up His abode within our hearts, must we not put forth every effort to keep the guest-chamber clean? As the best way to keep down weeds is to plant the garden with vegetables and flowers, so the most effective means of excluding from the mind those foul imaginations is for it to be filled with thoughts of spiritual things, to have our affections set upon things above. If we give God His proper place within, Satan will be defeated.
We feel that we cannot do better in closing this article than by quoting here the salutary counsels of another: "To temptations to impurity in some of its forms we are commonly exposed, and it requires constant vigilance to avoid falling before some of them. There are a few advices which, on this subject, I would affectionately urge on the attention of the young. Be on your guard against loose and unprincipled companions. 'Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.' It is impossible to associate intimately with the profligate without danger. Abstain from the perusal of books tainted with impurity. These are scarcely less mischievous-in many cases they are more so-than the company of the wicked. The deliberate perusal of such books is a plain proof that the mind and conscience are already in a deeply polluted state. Keep at a distance from all indelicate and even doubtful amusements-I allude chiefly to theatrical amusements-where the mind is exposed, in many instances, to all the evils at once of depraved society and licentious writing. Seek to have your mind occupied and your affections engaged with 'things unseen and eternal.' Habitually realize the intimate presence of that God, who is of purer eyes, than to behold iniquity. Never forget that His eye is on your heart, and that 'all things are naked and opened' to Him: and, as one of the best and most effectual methods of mortifying your members which are on the earth-crucifying the flesh with its affections and lusts-"Seek the things which are at God's right hand.' Never tamper with temptations, but flee youthful lusts" (J. Brown).