Adultery and Lust

By Keith Sharp

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 (Matt. 5:27-30).

American society is sex-saturated. With the constant emphasis on lasciviousness-dancing, mixed swimming, immodest dress, lurid magazines, movies and television shows, sex-oriented advertisements, accepted premarital sex and widespread marital infidelity, lust has become so commonplace it is accepted as normal by people in general and is no longer repulsive to many children of God. Yet, the Master warns that lust is so spiritually deadly one should prefer to lose a hand or an eye rather than to fall prey to its allure. This is an important difference between the law of Moses and that of Christ. What was the Old Testament law concerning adultery? How did the Lord change this law? What is the meaning of his teaching concerning the offensive eye and the offensive hand? It is the purpose of this article to answer these questions.

To answer these inquiries, we must first define “adultery.” Two words are commonly used in the New Testament to denote unlawful sexual acts: “fornication” and “adultery.” Both terms have a primary, restricted meaning and a secondary, more general use. When employed in contrast with “adultery,” “fornication” entails unlawful sexual intercourse between unmarried people (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9). But sometimes the word is used in a more general, secondary sense to describe all unlawful sexual relationships ,of any king, whether the parties are married or unmarried. On the other hand, “adultery” has a primary, restricted meaning of “unlawful intercourse with another’s wife” (J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 417), i.e., illegitimate sexual relationships involving at least one married person. But, in our text, “adultery” must be used in a secondary, more general sense of all unlawful sexual intercourse, whether the parties are married or not. This is true because the Master applies the lesson to “whosoever,” not just to married men, and warns against lusting after any “woman,” not just married women. If this is not the usage of the word in this passage, the law of the Lord concerning lust applies only to cases involving at least one married person, meaning unmarried men could lust all they desired after single women and not violate the Master’s stern prohibition.

What did the Old Testament expound as touching adultery? Moses forbade the act of adultery itself (Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18). The law fixed death to both parties as the penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22-27 this law pertained to married people), unless the woman was a slave (Lev. 19:20-22). Moses demanded a trial by ordeal for a wife suspected of adultery (Num. 5:11-31). If a man “humbled” a virgin, he was to take her to be his wife, with no possibility of ever putting her away (Deut. 22:28-29; Exod. 22:16-17). The Mosaic Covenant did command, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” (Exod. 20:17), but being “the law of a carnal commandment” (Heb. 7:16), the first covenant primarily dealt with the outward act itself.

What is the Master’s doctrine concerning adultery? Christ certainly condemns the outward act, but he goes behind the deed and censures the attitude which leads to the action (cf. Matt. 15:18-20; James 1:13-15; 2 Pet. 2:14). Thus, in contrast with “the law of a carnal commandment,” the law of Christ is “in newness of spirit” (Rom. 7:6).

What is this lust which the Lord so sternly prohibits? The term “lust”

. . . denotes strong desire of any kind …. Such lusts are not necessarily base and immoral, they may be refined in character, but are evil if inconsistent with the will of God (W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, III, 25).

Obviously, in this context, “lust” denotes “evil desires.” Does this mean it is sinful for a man to possess base desires? Is the temptation a sin also? Dr. Alfred Marshall, in his Literal English Translation contained in The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament renders the Master’s warning thus:

But I tell you that everyone seeing a woman with a view to desire her already committed adultery with her in the heart of him.

This brings out the Lord’s idea of deliberately leering in order to purposely arouse carnal desire. Thus, Dr. Alexander B. Bruce comments:

The look is supposed to be not casual but persistent, the desire not involuntary or momentary, but cherished with longing (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, I, 108).

As the old saying advises:

One cannot keep the birds from flying over his head, but he can keep them from building a nest in his hair.

Involuntary, momentary temptation, over which a man possesses no control, is not sinful, although we should, as much as possible, avoid placing ourselves in tempting situations. Deliberately aroused, persistent desire of unlawful fleshly gratification is condemned.

Many commentators limit the “lust” of Matthew 5:28 to the intention to commit adultery prevented only by the lack of opportunity (cf. Foy E. Wallace, Jr., The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil State, p. 37). Although I see no reason to so limit the Master’s prohibition, I recognize this “criminal intent” is one attitude condemned.

Some inquire, “Does this mean, since lust is as adultery, that lust is grounds for divorce?” The Lord alone is capable of judging the human heart (John 2:24-25; 1 Cor. 2:11; 4:3-5). In his sight, the man who persistently and deliberately employs his eyes to arouse carnal desire or who intends to commit the act, lacking only the opportunity, is as guilty as the one who actually commits adultery. But man lacks the ability to read another’s heart and has not the power to judge in that realm. Putting away one’s mate involves human judgment of guilt (Matt. 19:9). Such judgment must be limited to knowledge of the outward act, not assertions concerning attitudes, whether real or imagined.

What is the meaning of Jesus’ teaching about the offensive eye and the offensive hand? In these verses (Matt. 5:29-30; cf. 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-48) the Master presents two great lessons: the means of averting lust and adultery and the importance of so doing. How can one avoid adultery and lust? Jesus advises the very removal of that which offends. To what does the term “offend” refer? Barclay explains that the noun form of this word

means the bait-stick in a trap. It was the stick or arm on which the bait was fixed and which operated the trap to catch the animal lured to its own destruction. So the word came to mean anything which causes a man’s destruction. Behind it are two pictures. First, there is the picture of a hidden stone in a path against which a man may stumble, or of a cord stretched across a path, deliberately put there to make a man trip. Second, there is the picture of a pit dug in the ground and deceptively covered over with a thin layer of branches or of turf, and so arranged that, when the unwary traveler set his foot on it, he was immediately thrown into the pit. The skandalon, the stumbling-block is something which trips a man up, something which sends him crashing to destruction, something which lures him to his own ruin (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, I, 145).

Does Christ actually, literally demand the removal of the right eye or right hand to prevent sin? What good would it do to remove the right eye, if the left eye were still free to lead to lust? Why remove the right hand, if the left hand can yet perform evil? The Master here employs a figure of speech known as “hypocatastasis.” Dr. E. W. Bullinger, in his classic study, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, explains:

As a figure, it differs from Metaphor, because in a metaphor the two nouns are both named and given; while in Hypocatastasis, only one is named and the other is implied, or as it were, is put down underneath out of sight. Hence Hypocatastasis is implied resemblance or representation: i.e., an implied Simile or Metaphor. If Metaphor is more forcible than Simile, then Hypocatastasis is more forcible than Metaphor, and expresses as it were the superlative degree of resemblance.

For example, one may say to another, ‘You are like a beast.’ This would be Simile, tamely stating a fact. If, however, he said, ‘You are a beast’ that would be Metaphor. But, if he said simply, ‘Beast!’ that would be Hypocatastasis, for the other part of the Simile or Metaphor (‘you’), would be implied and not stated.

This figure, therefore, is calculated to arouse the mind and attract and excite the attention to the greatest extent. This beautiful and far-reaching figure frequently occurs in Scripture. The Lord Himself often used it, and that with wonderful effect.

Matt. v.29, 30. . . . The right eye, etc., is compared by implication to the most highly prized possession (pp. 744, 747).

What, then, is the point? Anything, even “the most highly prized possession,” which causes us to lust or leads to adultery is to be immediately cast out of our lives.

How important is it that we take these preventive measures? By mentioning the right eye and the right hand, Jesus makes the demand even more radical, for these were generally considered to be more valuable and of more use than those on the left. Any earthly sacrifice is to be preferred to the loss of one’s soul in hell!

Dear friend, adultery is a terrible sin, but so is the lust that leads to adultery. Are there things in your life that cause you to lust? Do you like to dance, go mixed swimming, read lurid magazines, listen to filthy music, watch obscene movies and television programs? Is there a social contact that causes temptation? Cast it from your life immediately! No earthly thing is as valuable as your soul. No sacrifice is too great to save your soul. It is better to sacrifice the dearest thing in life than to lose your soul in hell through lust.

Truth Magazine XXII: 31, pp. 501-502
August 10, 1978