The Sermon on the Mount
Respecting Women and Cherishing a Wife
27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 31 “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
As with last week’s lesson, we again face a situation where the teachings of the rabbis failed to properly explain the law. Last week we dealt with anger and murder. This week we will look at lust and divorce. Just as murder is the result of an evil heart, so, too, the commandment in question arises solely because of an evil heart. We saw in the Beatitudes that a person must be pure in heart to be a member of the Kingdom of Heaven. This forms the basis of this section.
It is important as we study this passage to remember that Jesus is talking about being pure in heart, not about specific rules of conduct.
The seventh commandment is:
Exodus 20:14 (NKJV)
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
Deuteronomy 5:18 (NKJV)
18 ‘You shall not commit adultery.
The evil that Jesus focuses upon is lust, often called covetousness in the Bible. In fact, we could include the tenth commandment within the confines of this discussion –
Exodus 20:17 (NKJV)
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
Deuteronomy 5:21 (NKJV)
21 ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, his male servant, his female servant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.’
It should be noted that James describes lust or desire as the basis of sin.
James 1:14-15 (NKJV)
14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.
The rabbis, by focusing upon the act of adultery, based their explanation upon the outward act, not the actual cause of sin. Sin, as we have seen, comes from the heart.
Matthew 15:19 (NKJV)
19 For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.
I suspect that at one time or another all of us have committed the sin of sexual lust. It is one of the most powerful forces at work in our flesh and is played upon strongly by today’s society in terms of both its permissive outlook and its forceful advertising. This sin, or the forces behind this sin, are all around us. Many of the popular TV crime shows essentially promote sexual lust by the method they use in explaining the crimes committed. Jesus’ Words make it clear this is not a new force at work in our world.
As a starting point, it is important to note that this does not involve a man noticing a strikingly beautiful woman who might walk past him. The action Jesus speaks about is much more focused and centered. It is an action more properly described by the tenth commandment, one of coveting. The man is looking, gazing, and staring at the woman in order to lust after her. This implies his desire to possess and dominate her completely, to use her for his own pleasure. To be sure, the expression “anyone looking,” taken by itself, is entirely neutral. It is the concept of lust after the woman that turns the innocent action into a selfish sin. The look is more than a passing glance.
This leads to a side comment which anticipates the last two verses of this section. In the society Jesus preached to, the wives had no legal rights from a practical perspective. They could not divorce their husbands. Therefore, for Jesus to make His statements apply to either husband or wife would have made Him sound out of step with the times. His audience would have thought He was nuts. In this day and age where the wives have considerable legal rights, I believe it is proper to read the words of Christ as applying to either party in a marriage. This is supported by the fact that Jesus is teaching here that the sin is lust, desire and covetousness, not adultery. Anyone can covet and if one looks at the tenth commandment, one finds everyone guilty of coveting, especially as Paul views the situation.
Colossians 3:5 (NKJV)
5 Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
This leads to the logical question – what happens to that lustful heart? How do we, simple humans, handle the lust? Christ’s next comments are shocking to us all!
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.
An important immediate conclusion – Jesus has been speaking about a lustful or sinful heart, not about human body parts. Therefore, these commandments should not be taken literally.
Origen (A.D. 185–254), one of the outstanding early church Fathers, was so convicted of his own sinfulness by reading Matthew 5:27–30 that he had himself castrated (The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed James D. Douglas [new edition; Grand Rapids, 1974, 1978], p. 733. Peter Abelard, a twelfth-century French theologian, had lived a godly life for many years. He fell in love with a young woman (Heloise) and caused her to become pregnant. To protect her and to try to rectify the wrong, he married her. Damaging rumors had begun to circulate, however, and, rather than harm Abelard’s career still further, Heloise entered a convent. Her uncle, angry at all that had happened, hired men to break into Abelard’s quarters and castrate him; Abelard then joined the monastery of St.-Denis (New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 3).
Later in His ministry, Jesus speaks a similar command.
Matthew 18:7-9 (NKJV)
7 Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! 8 “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire.
By comparing the two passages, we may conclude that the hands and eyes and feet symbolize that which entices a person to wrong doing. They represent that which leads a person into sin. In other words, they symbolize an occasion of stumbling. It is that which leads the person astray which must be dealt with. Jesus is telling us to take drastic action to rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble as we proceed through the natural course of events in our lives.
In Jewish thought, the right eye was one’s best eyesight and the right hand was one’s most skilled hand. In other words, the right eye and right hand were the prized physical parts, one’s most prized possessions. People should dispose of even their most prized possessions or parts if they are keeping one from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thus, last week we learned to cut anger out of our lives. This week, Jesus speaks of cutting lust and desire out of our being.
This is more difficult than just saying the words. A great deal of effort and new boundary lines may have to be drawn in our lives. What causes us to lust? What ever it is – get rid of it! That could mean changing our reading habits, our entertainment choices, the places we frequent. We may need to drastically change our entire life style. This is the same as cutting off our hand. It will hurt!
The point here is sin. Sin is not a force to be played with. Sin cannot be handled with kid gloves. Sin needs to be dealt with promptly, swiftly, directly, forcefully. Just as amputating an infected limb is necessary to save one’s physical life, so too, a sinful action or thought must be cut out of your being to preserve your spiritual life. This passage clearly looks toward the fact the Kingdom of Heaven does not exist just here on earth. There is a future life and the condition of your heart determines where you live in that future life.
The real point is that we cannot deal with sin. In the end, sin will overpower us. It is only through the power of Jesus and the force of the Holy Spirit that we may overcome sin. This is why Jesus went to the Cross. This is why each new believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit. God will help us overcome sin, when we turn the matter over to God! This is the way to casting out our eye. We cannot achieve this on our own. Origen’s foolish act of castrating himself proves the worthlessness of our own efforts.
Having dealt with the underlying condition causing adultery, Jesus continues His discussion of this commandment with a look at one of the natural outcomes of adultery, namely, divorce.
There really are only four views on divorce and remarriage:
- At one end, divorce is not permissible under any circumstance.
- At the other end, divorce and remarriage are permissible for any reason, or for no reason at all.
In between are two other stands:
· One says divorce is permitted under certain circumstances but remarriage is not.
· The other says that both divorce and remarriage are permitted under certain circumstances.
What does the Bible say?
“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
Matthew 19:1-12 (NKJV)
1 Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. 2 And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. 3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” 4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” 8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” 10 His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: 12 For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.”
Adultery is sin. However, even the sin has a positive effect in the structure of God’s plan. Adultery is the only reason a person should be allowed to seek a divorce. Nevertheless, even here, divorce is a last resort. God’s plan is that man and woman be married and remain married for their entire life physical lifetime.
The contrast between the scribes and Pharisees on the one hand and Jesus on the other is very clear. The scribes tell the people it is ok to get divorced so long as the paperwork is in order. This is highlighted by the NASB translation of “certificate of divorce” as a “certificate of dismissal.” Jesus says, Don’t get divorced! The two positions are about as opposite as possible.
The rabbis focused upon the fact that God allowed Moses to issue decrees of divorce. They did not consider God’s views on divorce nor the place of marriage within God’s plans. Jesus uses the discussions with the religious leaders in Matthew 19 to make it clear how God views the entire idea.
First, divorce arises not from God, but from the hardness of man’s heart. Divorce is a commandment of men! As such, it makes little difference whether the paperwork is proper or not.
Second, Jesus does allow that divorce is allowable in one situation. That situation is covered by the seventh commandment. Adultery is such a terrible sin that God will allow (not demand) a divorce in such a situation.
Third, God’s plan, even when adultery is present, is that there be no divorce. To support this position, Jesus does not return to the law, the seat of all rabbinical decisions, Rather, Jesus looks to God and creation. In fact, Jesus introduces His Words with a phrase similar to what He has been using in the Sermon on the Mount: “Have you not read.” The basis of Jesus’ position is Genesis 1:27 and 2:24:
Genesis 1:27 (NKJV)
27 So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Genesis 2:24 (NKJV)
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
It is clear that God hates divorce. The clearest statement of this may come from the last book of the Bible.
Malachi 2:14-16 (NKJV)
14 Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been witness Between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion And your wife by covenant. 15 But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. “Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. 16 “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously.”
If you read Moses’ statement on divorce, one is struck by the fact that the mention of a decree of divorce comes almost in passing, an extra comment that perhaps would have better been left unsaid.
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (NKJV)
1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, 2 when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, 4 then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.
Consider all four verses – the emphasis really is on the fact that once a husband has divorced his wife, he cannot take her back. The passage is not an authorization about divorce as much as it is a warning about thinking long and hard about this important decisions. Once a husband has discarded a wife, and she goes and remarries, he has no rights to her and cannot get her back. Thus, do not divorce her.
Further, the provision protects the wife from a charge of adultery if she remarries. Without this protection, the law could view the wife as perpetually married to husband number one and even a “legal” marriage to husband number two could still be adultery. This is unfair to the wife who generally had no rights under Jewish law at that time.
Further, this passage could not refer to a divorce on the grounds of adultery since the law elsewhere provides a death penalty for adultery (Lev 20:10-14).
The rabbis, of course, exercise manly refrain focused upon the wrong clauses – they concluded it was ok to get divorced and that the issue is what constitutes some “uncleanness.” I do not remember where I read it, but I have read a discussion from the rabbinical writings wherein it was concluded that an action such as burning one’s breakfast toast was sufficient to obtain a divorce. This is a far cry from God’s Words on the sanctity of marriage.
As in most other cases, the rabbis have reduced God’s splendor to man’s filth. Notice that the idea of one man causing another person to sin fits within the confines of Jesus’ teachings. Go back to the Sermon on the Mount.
Notice verse 32: But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery.
Jesus assumes she will remarry and sleep with her new husband. Since she was innocent to start with, one would assume she remains innocent. But since the second husband is not the first man she married, she has been cause to be an adulterous by the actions of the first husband. The burden rests not on the wife but on the first husband!
The phrase “causes her to become an adulteress,” however, is misleading. The Greek does not use the noun “adulteress” but the verb makes her commit adultery . The Greek verb “causes” is in the passive. It is the action of the husband in divorcing his wife that causes her to commit adultery in the eyes of God. No action she undertakes makes her an adulteress in this situation. There is no indication here that a second marriage, even following an illegitimate divorce, is seen as permanently adulterous. Divorced Christians who have remarried should not commit the sin of a second divorce to try to resume relations with a previous spouse (see again Deut 24:1–4) but should begin afresh to observe God’s standards by remaining faithful to their current partners. What is more, it was probably not the taking of a new husband that made the wife commit adultery, since some divorced women remained unmarried. Jesus maintains that the divorce itself creates adultery—metaphorically, not literally—through infidelity to the lifelong, covenantal nature of marriage (cf. the characteristic Old Testament use of “adultery” to refer to breaking one’s commitments to God—e.g., Hos 2:4; Jer 5:7; Ezek 16:32).
Jesus appears to make it clear here that adultery is the only possible grounds for divorce. Even here He does not demand a divorce to occur. This implies a desire on His part that even in the face of such a terrible sin, the parties work at making the marriage continue as a natural marriage. However, many modern pastors and scholars view some of Paul’s writings (1 Cor 7, esp. 7:15) and analogies to the Old Testament where the breaking of the covenant is called “adultery” (Hos 2:4; Jer 5:7; Ezek 16:32) as allowing divorce under other limited circumstances, such as physical abuse. I personally believe this to be a matter between the person involved and God. All the church can do is express their opinion and pray.
This entire area of divorce and remarriage is extremely difficult, especially in today’s society of quick divorces. So “uncleanness” has been translated into “no uncleanness, just wait six months.” Jesus teachings have been given from the perspective of how one is to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. Often, as in the case of a divorced innocent wife, she has not been involved in any action relating to the sins. However, there are many in the church who will quickly judge such a person.
We need to remember our earlier lessons – those who are part of the Kingdom of Heaven are those who merciful and are peacemakers, not those who accuse and stir up trouble. We need to be very careful how we deal with both persons involved in such situations. This is especially true in a church such as CRBC where we have persons passing through coming from a variety of Christian backgrounds. The words and teachings they have grown up on are different from Baptist-speak. We need to teach the truth, but we must first be loving and mindful of their circumstances.
The passage in the first instance is not about divorce. The passage is about getting rid of any lust or covetousness that resides in our heart.
MacArthur, J. Matthew. Chicago: Moody Press, 1989.