A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5: 27-30. A Christians Righteousness: Avoiding lust.

Jesus now turns from the sixth commandment to the seventh, from the prohibition against murder to the prohibition against adultery.

Once again the rabbis were attempting to limit the scope of the commandment *you shall not commit adultery*. Although the sin of desiring another man’s wife is included in the tenth commandment against covetousness, they evidently found it more comfortable to ignore this. In their view they and their pupils kept the seventh commandment, provided they avoided the act of adultery itself. They thus gave a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin and a conveniently broad definition of sexual purity.

But Jesus taught differently. He extended the implications of the divine prohibition. Rather, he affirmed that the true meaning of God’s command was much wider than a mere prohibition of acts of sexual immorality. As the prohibition of murder included the angry thought and the insulting word, so the prohibition of adultery included the lustful look and imagination. We can commit murder with our *words*; we can commit adultery in our *hearts* or minds. Indeed (28), *every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart*.

Perhaps two points should be made before we go any further. There is not the slightest suggestion here that natural sexual relations within the commitment of marriage are anything but God-given and beautiful. We may thank God that the Song of Solomon is contained in the cannon of Scripture, for there is no Victorian prudery there but rather the uninhibited delight of lovers, of bride and bridegroom in each other. No. The teaching of Jesus here refers to unlawful sex outside marriage, whether practiced by married or unmarried people. He is not even forbidding us to look at a woman, but to look lustfully. We all know the difference between looking and lusting.

This leads to the second point, that Jesus’ allusion is to all forms of immorality. To argue that the reference is only to a man lusting after a woman and not vice versa, or only to a married man and not an unmarried, since the offender is said to commit ‘adultery’ not ‘fornication’, is to be guilty of the very casuistry which Jesus was condemning in the Pharisees. His emphasis is that any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought.

What is particularly important to grasp is the equation of looking lustfully at a woman and committing adultery with her in the heart. It is the relation between the eyes and the heart which leads Jesus in the next two verses to give some very practical instruction about how to maintain sexual purity. The argument is this: if to look lustfully is to commit adultery in the heart, in other words, if heart-adultery is the result of eye-adultery (the eyes of the heart being stimulated by the eyes if the flesh), then the only way to deal with the problem is at the beginning, which is our eyes. Righteous Job claimed that he had learned this. ‘I have made a covenant with my eyes,’ he said; ‘how then could I look upon a virgin?’ Then he went on speak of his heart: ‘if … my heart has gone after my eyes…if my heart has been enticed to a woman …,’ he would acknowledge that he had sinned and that he deserved the judgement of God. (Jb.31:1,7,9. Contrast 2 Pet. 2.14 where the false teachers are described as having ‘eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin’.) But Job had not done these things. The control of his heart was due to the control of his eyes.

This teaching of Jesus confirmed in the experience of Job, is still true today. Deeds of shame are preceded by fantasies of shame, and the inflaming of the imagination by the indiscipline of the eyes. Our vivid imagination (one of many faculties which distinguish humans from animals) is a precious gift of God. None of the world’s art and little of man’s noblest achievement would have been possible without it. Imagination enriches the quality of life. But all God’s gifts need to be used responsibly; they can readily be degraded and abused. This is certainly true of our imagination. I doubt if ever human brings have fallen victim to immorality, who have not first opened the sluicegates of passion through their eyes. Similarly, whenever men and women have learned sexual self-control in deed, it is because they have first learned it in the eyes of both flesh and fantasy. This may be an appropriate moment to refer in passing to the way girls dress. It would be silly to legislate about fashions, but wise (I think) to ask them to make this distinction: it is one thing to make yourself attractive; it is another to make yourself deliberately seductive. You girls know the difference; so do we men.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:29-30. What to do about it.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.