The Sermon On The Mount
The Single Eye
"The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness."
Matthew 6:22, 23
Though there is substantial agreement among the commentators in their interpretation of these verses, yet we find considerable difference when it comes to their explanation of details, especially so in connection with the repeated mention of the "eye" and exactly what is connoted thereby. We therefore propose to examine carefully the several terms here employed by our Lord; then seek to ascertain the coherence of the passage, its relation to the context; and then look for the practical application unto ourselves.
"The light of the body is the eye," rendered "the lamp of the body is the eye" by both Bagster's Interlinear and the American R.V. We believe this a more accurate translation, for the Greek word for "light" in this clause is quite different from the one used in "full of light" at the end of the verse, it being the same as that found in Luke 12:35, 36. In describing the eye as the "lamp" of the body Christ employed a most apt figure, since that organ has no light within itself. The great source of light to the world and of all things therein is the sun, yet such cannot illumine the body without the eye as a medium. The eye is the receptacle of its light, and by means of its rays, which flow into it, gives light to the body. The word for "if therefore thine eye be single" occurs again only in Luke 12:34, yet it is found in a slightly different form in "for our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward" (2 Cor. 1:12).
Thus the meaning of our Lord appears to be something like this: the activities of the body are directed according to the light which is received through the eye. When that organ is sound and functioning properly, perceiving objects as they really are, the whole body is illumined, and we are able to discharge our duties and to move with safety and circumspection. But if the eye be blind, or its vision faulty, then we perceive objects confusedly and without distinction, and then we stumble as if in the dark, and cannot perform our task or journey properly, being continually liable to lose our way or run into danger. So far all is simple and plain. But what, we may ask, is connoted by the "eye"? and what is here signified by "the whole body"? That these are figures of speech is obvious, but figures of what? It is at this point the commentators vary so much in their explanations.
Matthew Henry begins his exposition with, "The eye, that is, the heart (so some), if that be single-free and bountiful, so the word is frequently rendered as in Romans 12:8; 2 Corinthians 8:2-9, 11, 13; James 1:5; and we read of a 'bountiful eye' (Prov. 22:9). If the heart be liberally affected and stand inclined to goodness and charity, it will direct the man to Christian actions, the whole conversation will be 'full of light,' full of the evidences and instances of true Christianity-that pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father (Jam. 1:27); 'full of light,' or good works, which are our light shining before man. But if the heart be 'evil,' covetous. hard, and envious, grinding and grudging (such a temper of mind is often expressed by an evil eye-Matthew 20:15; Mark 7:22; Prov. 23:6, 7), the body will be 'full of darkness,' and the whole conversation will be heathenish and un-Christian. The instruments of the churl are and always will be 'evil,' but 'the liberal deviseth liberal things' (Isa. 32:5-8)."
Such an explanation agrees well with the context, both with the more remote as well as the immediate. As we pointed out in the opening paragraphs of chapter twenty-eight (page 185), in this fifth section of His Sermon (which runs from 6:19, to the end of the chapter) Christ's design was to correct the erroneous views of the Jews concerning the character of His kingdom, and to divert the hearts of His hearers from a spirit of covetousness, and this by a variety of cogent reasons. Having warned them that our characters conform to that which we treasure most, He now intimates that discernment in our choice of treasure will be determined by the singleness of our eye or aim. Yet a little consideration of the above interpretation shows it is too narrow for the scope of our passage: the "eye" is here called the light of "the whole body," but clearly a liberal mind is not the regulator of all our affections and actions, but only of works of mercy and bounty.
Continuing his remarks, Matthew Henry went on to say, "The eye, that is, the understanding (so some): the practical judgment, the conscience, which is to the other faculties of the soul as the eye is to the body, to guide and direct their motions. Now if the eye be 'single,' if it make a true and right judgment, and discern things that differ, especially in the great concern of laying up the treasure so as to choose right in that, it will rightly guide the affections and actions, which will all be 'full of light,' of grace and comfort. But if the eye be 'evil,' corrupt, and instead of leading the inferior powers, is led, and bribed, and biased by them, if this be erroneous and misinformed, the heart and life must needs be 'full of darkness,' the whole conversation corrupt. They that will not understand are said to walk on in darkness (Ps. 82:5). It is said when the spirit of a man, which should be 'the candle of the Lord,' is an ignis fatuus; when the leaders of the people, the leaders of the faculties, cause them to err, for then they that are led of them are destroyed (Isa. 9:16). An error in the practical judgment is fatal: it is that which calls evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20). therefore it concerns us to understand things aright, to get our eyes anointed with eye-salve."
This we deem to be more satisfactory, though it is rather lacking in perspicuity, drawing no clear distinction between the "eye" and the eye being "single." We believe the "eye" in this parable of Christ's is to be taken for the understanding, for this is the faculty of the soul which more than any other gives direction to the whole man in all his motions. What a man believes is what largely determines how he lives-"as a man thinketh in his heart so is he." Such an interpretation differentiates more definitely between what we have in the previous verse as also in the one which follows. In verse 21 the "heart" stands principally (though not exclusively) for the affections, for they are what are fixed upon our "treasure." In verse 24 (the serving of God and mammon) it is the will which is primarily in view. Thus in verses 21-24 we have the affections, the understanding, and the will respectively, which together make up the inner man.
"If the eye be single" or sound in vision. The contrast presented in the next verse is that of the eye being "evil" or "wicked," so that a "single" eye is a good or holy one. And what is a good "eye"? Plainly it is a renewed understanding, an anointed eye, a mind illuminated by the Spirit of God, a mind which is dominated and regulated by the Truth. As the body is furnished with light for its activities by means of the eye, so the mind is fitted for its operations only as it is receptive to the influences of the Holy Spirit. A "single" eye has but one object-God, the pleasing and glorifying of Him. This is borne out by the other occurrence (in a slightly different form) of this word: "For our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have had our conversation in the world, and more abundantly to you-ward" (2 Cor. 1:12). The joyful confidence of the apostle-which sustained him in his labours-consisted of the consciousness of his sincerity, namely his "simplicity" (the opposite of duplicity) and godly sincerity of spiritual translucence.
"The eye, that is, the aims and intentions. By the eye we set our end before us, the mark we aim at, the place we go to, we keep that in view, and direct our motion accordingly. In everything we do in religion there is something or other that we have in our eye: now if our eye be single, if we aim honestly, fix right ends, and move rightly towards them, if we aim purely and only at the glory of God, seek His honour and favour, and direct all entirely to Him, then the eye is single. Paul's was so when he said, 'to me to live is Christ'; and if we be right here, 'the whole body will be full of light'-all the actions will be regular and gracious, pleasing to God and comfortable to ourselves. But if the eye be evil, if, instead of aiming only at the glory of God and our acceptance with Him, we look aside at the applause of men, and while we profess to honour God, contrive to honour ourselves, and seek our own things under color of seeking the things of Christ, this spoils all-the whole conversation will be perverse and unsteady, and the foundations being thus out of course, there can be nothing but confusion and every evil work in the superstructure" (Matthew Henry).
So much then for the meaning of the principal terms of our passage. Let us next consider its connection with the context. This appears to be somewhat as follows: our discernment between things, our estimation of values, our practical judgment of earthly and heavenly objects is very largely determined by the condition of our understanding-whether it be Divinely illumined or still in nature's darkness. An enlightened understanding, perceiving objects according to their real nature and worth, enables its possessor to form a true judgment, to make a wise choice and to act aright respecting them. But a darkened understanding, conveying a wrong estimate of things, results in an erroneous choice and a disastrous end. In the latter case the "light which is in" a man is unaided human reason, and moved according to its dictates men imagine that they are acting wisely when instead they are pursuing a course of egregious folly, and then how great is their darkness!
Above we have intimated the general connection, but there was also a more particular one with special reference to the Jews. In verses 19-21 Christ had pointed out that true happiness is of a spiritual and not of a carnal nature, and that it is to be found (in perfection) not on earth but in heaven. A firm conviction of this is indispensable if our thoughts, desires and pursuits are to take that direction in which true blessedness is to be obtained. But the bulk of the Jews were expecting from their Messiah riches of a mundane and worldly nature, and therefore they despised and refused the spiritual joys He made known to them-their "treasure" being earthly (restored Palestine), their hearts were so too. And why was this? Because the light in them was darkness. They had been erroneously taught, and as unregenerate men they could not perceive their error. They must be born again before they could "enter" or even "see" the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5).
The false notions of the Jews respecting the Messiah's kingdom corresponded to the carnal desires of their corrupt hearts, and but served to illustrate what is common to fallen human nature, for "as in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man" (Prov. 27:19). The Gentile no more than the Jew has any love or longing for spiritual things, nor can either the one or the other perceive the wretchedness of his condition, for the light which is in them is darkness, great darkness. Proof of this is furnished by Christ in the verses we are now considering: in them He may be regarded as replying to a secret objection which the hearts of men were likely to frame against the two commandments which He had just given. Should it be asked, If there be such a necessity of laying up treasure in heaven and of avoiding to lay up treasure on earth, why is it that the best educated, the shrewdest, the great men of this world commonly seek earthly riches far more than heavenly?
This is a question which, in one form or another, often exercises young Christians and stumbles inquirers, if the true riches of the soul are found not in the things of time and sense, why is it that our fellows labour so hard for "that which satisfieth not" (Isa. 55:2)? If the best which this world has to offer us perishes with the using of it, why is it prized so highly by almost one and all? Here is the explanation: because men view things through a vitiated eye, so that the real appears but a phantom, and the shadows are mistaken for the substance. Marvel not at this, says Christ, they lack the single eye, the Divinely enlightened understanding, they are in nature's darkness: they cannot discern between things that differ, they are incapable of judging aright of the true treasure, and being ignorant of the heavenly they seek only the earthly.
In order that we may have a better conception of what a single "eye" consists of, we need to inquire diligently into what true wisdom is. Spiritual wisdom is no common gift which every professing Christian possesses, but is a special bestowment of God in Christ peculiar to those who are regenerated, for Christ Himself is made wisdom unto them (1 Cor. 1:30). And this, not only because He is the matter of their wisdom-they being only truly wise when they are brought to know Christ and Him crucified, but because He is the root thereof. In Christ "are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (Col. 2:3), and as believers are vitally united to Him they partake of His virtues, as a branch derives vitality from its stock.
Now this heavenly wisdom has two actions: the first is to discern aright between things that differ. Thus Paul prayed for the Philippians: "that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent," or as the margin, "try things that differ" (Phil. 1:9, 10): that is distinguish good from evil, heavenly from earthly. Thereby the children of God distinguish the voice of Christ, the true Shepherd, from the voice of all false shepherds. Thereby they put a difference between the water of baptism and all other waters, and between the Lord's supper and all other bread-discerning the Lord's body therein. Thereby they discern their election and calling, perceiving more or less in themselves the marks thereof. Thereby they see the hand of God in providence, ever making all things minister to their ultimate good. "He that is spiritual judgeth all things" (1 Cor. 2:15), which the natural man cannot do.
The second action of this true and heavenly wisdom is to determine and give sentence of things, what is to be done and what is not to be done, what is good and what is evil in behavior. But here let it be remembered that the principal work of this wisdom is to determine of true happiness, whereto the whole life of man ought to be directed, which happiness is the love and favour of God in Christ. Herein David showed his wisdom to be far different from that of the godless around him: "there be many that say, Who will show us any good?"-that is the world's vain quest for happiness: "Lord, lift Thou up the light of Thy countenance upon us" (Ps. 4:6)- wherein is the believer's true happiness. So too with the apostle Paul (Phil. 3:8). The same should be our wisdom, for if man have all learning and an intellect developed to the highest possible point, yet if he fail rightly to determine of true blessedness his sagacity is folly. Another important part of this heavenly wisdom is the right use of means whereby we arrive at this happiness.
Now the fruit of this single eye is to make "the whole body full of light," that is to order the entire life aright, guiding it into the paths of righteousness and making it abound in good works. "I [wisdom-see vv. 1, 11] lead in the way of righteousness, in the midst of the paths of judgment, that I may cause those that love me to inherit substance" (Prov. 8:20, 21). How urgently it behooves us, then, to seek after and endeavour to make sure we have obtained this true wisdom: if the mind endowed thus possesses such powers of discrimination, how necessary it is that we become partakers thereof. In order to this we must be very careful to get the fear of God into our hearts, for "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Ps. 111:10). This fear is a reverential awe of the heart toward God, whereby a person is fearful to offend and careful to please Him in all things. And this we obtain if we receive His Word with reverence, apply it to our own souls as we read it, tremble when it searches our conscience, and humbly submit ourselves unto it without repining. David could say, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path" (Ps. 119:105), and therefore "Thou through Thy commandments hast made me wiser than mine enemies" (v. 98). If we would be truly wise we must cease leaning unto our own understanding and be directed by the Word in all things.
Our deep need of diligently seeking after a single eye-an enlightened understanding, a mind endued with true wisdom- appears in the solemn fact that by nature each of us possesses an eye that is evil, filling our whole body with darkness. In consequence of the fall we lost the power to judge aright in spiritual things, so that we mistake evil for good, things which ought to be refused for things which ought to be chosen. The natural man perceives not the presence of God, or he would be restrained from doing things which he is ashamed to do in the sight of his fellows. The natural man perceives not the sufficiency of God, or he would not trust in the creature far more than in the Creator. The natural man is blind to the justice of God, or he would not persuade himself that sin as he may yet he shall escape punishment. So too the natural man is blind self-ward: he perceives not his own darkness, his sinfulness, his impotency, his frailty, his true happiness.
Since this evil eye is in each of us by nature, we should constantly remind ourselves of our inability to judge rightly either of God or of ourselves, for it is the first step in true knowledge to acknowledge our own blindness. We must be suitably affected by such a realization, judging ourselves unsparingly, bewailing our misery, that we have a mind so corrupt that it disorders the whole of our conduct and seeks by grace to mortify the same. Since this evil eye is common to human nature, we discover therein what explains the mad course followed by the unregenerate, why they are so infatuated by sin and so in love with the world, and why the seriously inclined among them are deceived by error and captivated by false doctrines. Since human reason is now completely eclipsed, how profoundly thankful we should be for the light of God's Word, yet if that light illumine us and we fail to walk accordingly, suppressing its requirements, then doubly great will be our darkness.