The Sermon On The Mount
The Law and Adultery-Continued
From what has been before us in Matthew 5:21-26, and still more so from the searching and pride-withering declaration of Christ in verse 28, we may perceive again how deeply important is a right understanding of the Divine Law, and what fatal consequences must inevitably follow from inadequate and erroneous views thereof. It is at this point, more than anywhere else, that the orthodoxy and helpfulness of the preacher must be tested, for if he fails here-in his interpretation and enforcement of the strictness and spirituality of the Decalogue-the whole of his teaching must necessarily be fundamentally faulty and injuriously misleading. This is evident from the method followed by Christ in His first public sermon. No matter how deplorable and general be the failure of the modern pulpit, let it be said emphatically that all of us are bound and must yet be judged by the holy Law of God, and no repudiation thereof, no modifying of its high demands by unfaithful preachers, can n any wise justify our disobedience to God's commands.
"Whilst we therefore view the strictness, spirituality, and reasonableness of the precepts which we have been reading, as expounded by our Divine Teacher; let us impartially compare our past and present lives, our tempers, affections, thoughts, words, and actions, with this perfect rule; then we shall find every self-confident hope expire, and plainly perceive that, 'by the works of the Law no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God'; then will Christ and His salvation become precious to our souls. Whether we look to our conduct towards those who have injured us, or those whom we have offended; towards our superiors or inferiors, relatives, friends, or servants; the state of our heart or the government of our passions; to what we have or what we have not done; we shall see cause for humiliation and need of forgiveness; and when we consider that we must be made holy according to this standard, in order to the enjoyment of God and heaven; we shall as evidently perceive our need of the powerful influences of the Holy Spirit, and learn to value the ordinances of God, through which that sacred assistance is obtained" (T. Scott).
"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" (Matthew 5:29). In this and the following verse our Saviour furnishes heavenly instruction for the avoiding of those offences against which He had just spoken. It is supplied by Him in the way of answer to a secret objection to the exposition He had given of the seventh commandment, wherein He had condemned adultery of heart. Corrupt human nature would be ready to at once murmur, It is impossible to be governed by so exacting a law, it is a hard saying, who can bear it? Flesh and blood cannot but look with pleasure on a beautiful woman, and it is inevitable that there should be lusting after so attractive an object. What, then, shall we do with our eyes, if an unchaste look be so evil and fatal? It was to just such risings up of the depraved heart against the spiritual requirements of a holy God that Christ here made reply.
"And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee." Here again the language of Christ is not to be taken at its proper sense, i.e. it is not to be understood literally. One of the rules in expounding Scripture is that where the literal sense of a verse is against any of the commandments of the Law, then its words must be regarded figuratively, for obviously one part of the Word must not be made to contradict another. Now just as the seventh commandment not only prohibited the physical act of adultery, but also all mental impurity, so the sixth commandment not only forbade the taking of life, but also reprehended any deliberate maiming of either our own body or that of our neighbor. Therefore, no man can without sin pluck out his eye or cut off his hand.
By the "eye" we are to understand, first, the eye of the body, yet not that only but any other thing that is dear to us-the "eye" being one of the most precious of our members. The word "offend" does not here signify to displease, but to hinder: the reference is to anything which occasions us to commit this sin, whatever would cause us to stumble. Thus the figure is easily interpreted: whatever in our walk or ways exposes the soul to the danger of unholy desires must, at all costs, be abandoned. There must be the uncompromising excision of everything hurtful to the soul. To pluck out the right eye means that we are to rigidly restrain and strictly govern our senses and members, deny ourselves, even though it involves present hindrance, financial loss, and personal pain. No matter how pleasant and dear the presence and use of certain things be to us, yet if they are occasions of sin they must be relinquished and avoided.
Since the Lord Jesus so pointedly condemned unlawful desires and the exercise of impure imaginations, then it is our bounden duty to suppress and disallow them, to strive earnestly against the same, to subdue the lusts from which they spring. Though the senses and members of our bodies be the instruments of evil, yet the sin itself proceeds from the lusts of our hearts, and if they be subdued, if every idolized object be renounced within, then there will be no need either to flagellate or mutilate our bodies. On the other hand, if we crucify not the flesh with its affections and lusts, the mere plucking out of an eye or the cutting off of a hand will profit the soul nothing. The root of sin lies much deeper than the physical: "cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also" (Matthew 23:26). Make the tree good, and the fruit will be good (Matthew 12:33).
"Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, etc. (Col. 3:5), not the mortification of our physical "members," but the appetites and passions of the soul. This expresses the same idea as our Lord was propounding. But the subjugation of sexual appetites, the obtaining of victory over such strong desires of the heart, is no easy matter, especially in cases where both constitution and habit have united to enslave in these sins. No, the mortification of such lusts cannot but be attended with most painful exercises and the sacrifice of what has been delighted in and held dear. Nevertheless, though it be as painful as the plucking out of an eye, it must be done. We are obliged to choose between mortification and damnation, and therefore the strongest corruptions are to be mastered and all that is within us brought into subjection to God and subordinated to the eternal good of our soul.
It is to be observed that this is one of many passages in the Gospels in which we find the Son of God making definite reference to a future state. How often did He refer to the resurrection of the body, and of a hell into which the wicked shall be cast! He was continually bringing these things to the attention of men and pressing them upon their serious and solemn consideration. No flesh-pleasing sycophant was He: the glory of God and not the praise of men was ever the object before Him. And herein He has left an example to be followed by all whom He has called to be officers in His kingdom; not to lull to sleep by "smooth speaking," but to declare "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18). If men and women could be persuaded to weigh with due deliberation the vast importance and endlessness of eternity, and the brevity and uncertainty of this life, they would cease trifling away so many of their swiftly passing hours and prepare to meet their God.
"For it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell." Christ here emphasizes the fact that lustful looks and wanton dalliances are so disastrous and destructive to the soul that it is better to lose an eye than to yield to this evil and perish eternally in it. This, as we have pointed out, is in reply to the objection that heart adultery is something no man can prevent, that it is beyond his power to resist temptations to gaze with longing eyes upon an attractive woman. Rightly did Matthew Henry point out: "Such pretences as these will scarcely be overcome by reason, and therefore must be argued against with the terrors of the Lord, and so they are here argued against." Alas, that this powerful deterrent to evil and incitement to holiness is so rarely made use of in our degenerate times, when little else than honey and soothing-syrup is being handed out from the pulpit.
Different far was the course followed by the chiefest of the apostles. When he stood before Felix, he "reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come," and we are told that the governor trembled (Acts 24:25): but what is there in modern preaching-even that known as "Calvinistic"-which is calculated to make sin-hardened souls to tremble? Little wonder that the rising generation defy their parents with such impudence, when their elders are unrestrained by fear of the hereafter. "Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord [in the previous verse he had spoken of the judgment-seat of Christ], we persuade men" (2 Cor. 5:11), said the apostle, and so will every faithful servant of God today. Ministers of the Gospel are required to conduct their hearers to Sinai before they lead them to Calvary, to make known the "severity of God (Rom. 11:22) as well as His goodness, to declare the reality and awfulness of hell as well as the blessedness of heaven; and if they do not so, then they are unfaithful to their trust, and God will require at their hands the blood of their hearers" (Ezek. 33:6; Acts 20:26).
"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's (v. 30). This is the same exhortation as was before us in the preceding verse, the same stern and startling argument to restrain us from the sin of heart adultery. Nor is this to be regarded as a needless multiplying of words, for such repetitions in the Scripture have a particular use, namely to signify that things thus delivered are of special importance and worthy of our most careful observation and obedience. There is indeed a slight variation, and what strikes us (though the commentators seem to have missed it) as a designed gradation. As the "eye" was a figure of what is dearest and most cherished by us, so the "hand" is to be understood as what is most useful and profitable. Many have wondered why our Lord did not mention the plucking out of an eye last, as being the severer loss of the two; but it must not be overlooked that He was not here addressing a company of the rich and learned, but the common people, and to a laboring man the loss of the right hand would be a far more grievous deprivation than the loss of an eye!
Nor is it to be overlooked that Christ was here more immediately speaking to His own disciples. This well may startle some today, yet as Andrew Fuller rightly pointed out: "It is necessary for those whom the Lord may know to be heirs of salvation, in certain circumstances, to be threatened with damnation, as a means of preserving them from it." Such passages as Romans 11:18-20; Galatians 6:7, 8; Hebrews 10:26-30; are addressed to believers! "Mature reflection on our situation in this world will reconcile us to that self-denying and painful, mortification of our sins to which we are indispensably called; we shall see tender mercy crouch under the apparent harshness of the requirement; that our safety, advantage, and felicity are consulted; and that the grace and consolations of the Spirit will render it practicable and even comfortable. And would we be preserved from gross iniquities, our hearts must be kept with all diligence, and our eyes and all our senses and faculties forbidden to rove after those things which lead to transgression: the strictest rules of purity and self-denial will be found, by experience, the most conducive to true and solid comfort while in this world." (T. Scott).
By these exhortations, then, the Lord Jesus teaches us that we must keep a strict watch over the senses and members of our body, especially the eye and the hand, that they become not the occasions of sinning against God: "Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin; but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God" (Rom. 6:13). We must use our sight in obedience to God. "Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee" (Prov. 4:25): that is, we are to order our sight according to the rule of the Word, for that is the way wherein we are to walk. The necessity of heeding this Rule appears from many solemn examples. Eve's looking on the forbidden fruit, contrary to the Divine commandment, was the door of that sin into her heart. Ham was cursed for looking upon his father's nakedness (Gen. 9); Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back toward Sodom (Gen. 19); over fifty thousand men of Beth-shemesh were slain for looking into the ark of the Lord against His revealed will (1 Sam. 6). Do not these cases tell us clearly that before we look at anything we should pause and ask whether the same will be for God's glory and our good?
Again, these exhortations of Christ teach us plainly that we must seek diligently to avoid all the occasions of every sin, though it be most painful to ourselves and attended with great temporal loss. As one old writer expressed it: The fallen nature of man is like unto dry wood or tow, which will quickly burn as soon as fire touches it. As mariners at sea set a constant watch to avoid rock and sands, so should we most warily avoid every occasion to sin. Self must be denied at all costs, constant watch kept over the heart, the first risings of corruption therein suppressed, temptations to sin shunned, the company of those who would be a snare unto us avoided. So there must be a constant seeking unto God for His grace, that we may be enabled so to walk in the Spirit that we will not fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
The task unto which the Lord Jesus here calls us is that of mortification, the putting to death of our evil lusts. That this is a most unwelcome and painful work, He warns us by the figures He employed. Unto those who object that the keeping of their hearts free from unlawful desires and lustful imaginations is a task utterly beyond their powers, Christ replies: If as you say it is impossible, if there be no other way of governing your appetites [which, blessed be God, through His grace, there is], then pluck out and cut off your offending members rather than use them to the eternal undoing of your souls. Who is there among us who would not consent to the amputation of a gangrened limb, no matter how painful the operation and heavy the loss, if persuaded that this was imperative in order for life itself to be preserved? Then why refuse painful mortifications which are essential to the saving of the soul? When tempted to shrink therefrom, seriously consider the only other alternative-in hell both body and soul will be tormented for ever and ever.
Not only must there be the uncompromising avoidance and refusal of all that is evil, but we must abridge ourselves in or totally abstain from things lawful in themselves if we find they are occasions of temptation to us. "Take a familiar illustration. A person is fond of wine; it is agreeable to his taste; it is useful in refreshing him after severe exertion. But he finds that this taste has seduced him into intemperance; he finds that there is constant danger of its doing so. He has fallen before the temptation again and again. What is such a person's duty? According to our Lord, it is obviously to abstain from it entirely-on this plain principle, that the evil he incurs by abstaining, however keenly felt, is as nothing to the evil to which the intemperate use of wine subjects him, even everlasting punishment in hell: and to make this abstinence his duty, it is not necessary that he should know that he will fall before his temptation: it is enough that he knows that, as he has repeatedly fallen before it, he may fall before it again" (John Brown).