Sermon on the Mount: 2.Adultery – Off Limit Desire

‘It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.’ – Matthew 5:30

When I set myself the challenge to cover all of the laws in Matthew 5, I didn’t comprehend how difficult this one was going to be. Here is my attempt at uncovering… adultery.

Off Limits

Let’s start from the beginning. ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ This is a fairly black and white statement which you will probably recognise as one of the Ten Commandments. It tells you that if you have sexual relations with someone out of wedlock it is a sin – simple. However, in this particular passage this is brushed off as a basic concept that hopefully has already been grasped…

…it is in fact a whole lot more confusing.

I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’  My initial thoughts were that, if this is the case, then surely everybody must have committed adultery.

Here are five thoughts on this, focusing particularly on internal desire:

  1. Desire is unavoidable. It is a natural response, not a choice. What we are allowed to choose though is what we do with that desire. If we cannot restrain this desire and we have no intentions of committing to a long-term relationship with the person with whom the desire is for, then it can become sinful. This is the point which I believe Jesus is trying to make, that adultery is not only external. Therefore desire is a choice. At first, let us think of it as more of a temptation.
  2. I think when Jesus describes adultery in this sense it is more about desiring an ‘off limits’ relationship. If the desire is well intentioned, with for example the possibility of future marriage in mind, it is not half as bad as an ‘off limits’ one. On the other hand, we are all human. To desire an unrealistic relationship is not always wrong. As I said in the previous point, it is how we nurture and go forward with that desire which is important.
  3. Despite what the passage says, desire is not necessarily adultery. It does not say bluntly that if you have desired someone you have already had adultery with them, but that you have already had adultery with them in your heart. I think it is safe to say then, that just having the thought is not anywhere near as bad as having acted upon it. Obviously, both are wrong, but they are on a different scale. I think the point is that Jesus wants us to know that it is not just bad to go into an ‘off limits’ relationship, but to desire one is also wrong (even if it is not as bad).
  4. The word lustfully gives us a very negative picture, but it is in fact not a very literal translation. The original Greek word which was actually used translates to mean ‘to desire or to long for something’. This can be seen equally as either a positive or a negative thing, dependant on what the desire is for. When Jesus uses this word in other parts of the bible, it is usually in a positive light, for example he strongly ‘desired’ to share the Last Supper with his disciples. However, in this context it is using the word to highlight a bad desire. Perhaps though, it is symbolising the two different types of potential relationships.
  5. It is not wrong to have sexual desires. After all, God created sex and He created us with strong sexual desires! But he also gave us a specific set of instructions on how to use them – he provided marriage, the perfect context to exercise and enjoy those desires without any constraints. Outside of marriage however, it just doesn’t work. For a small amount of temporary pleasure it leaves people with heart ache and can potentially wreck their family and relationships they realise they actually do rely on.

Before I finish, there is one more thing I want to cover: please, don’t cut off your hand or yank your eye out as it says in the latter part of the passage! I think that this is a metaphorical description of sacrifice, and not something to be taken literally. It is saying that you should use all parts of your body for the good of God and not let any get in the way. It uses the example of the right eye as this is the majority of people’s dominant eye, and the right hand as most people write with this hand. I think that it is also referring to obstacles in our faith, as it refers to these body parts getting in the way and stopping our whole body from reaching heaven. It reiterates this in using the term ‘stumble’. The other noticeable thing is that it refers to a man committing adultery by desiring a woman and not a woman desiring a man. I don’t think there is any argument that women should also abide by this law as well – sorry, you’re not let off the hook that easily!

To end though, I want to remind you once again that God is forgiving. If you regret things in the past or have spent too long on useless desires, ask for forgiveness. More importantly though, ask for strength that He may provide you with the self-control you may need in the future.


I shall be writing again tomorrow, leading on from this with the law on… divorce.


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