4. Adultery, Lust, and the Spirit of Marriage (Matthew 5:27-30)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (21:18)

Théodore Chassériau (French painter, 1819-1856), detail from Susanna and the Elders (1856), Louvre, Paris.
The famous story is from the apocryphal chapter 13 of Daniel, where lecherous elders try to blackmail a virtuous wife whom they are ogling.
Larger image.

27 "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (5:27-30)

In the short scope of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus could only cover the most important of subjects. One which he selected was adultery. In our day adultery is rampant. Some estimate that half of husbands commit adultery sometime in their marriage, along with a third of wives. But the problem begins, Jesus teaches us, in the heart.

Legalistic Righteousness

The Pharisees felt secure in observing the Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:14), and Jesus states their sentiment: "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery'" (5:27). In our day this attitude is expressed in a wife's careless permission, "I don't care how much you look, just don't touch."

Lust in the Heart

However, Jesus goes beyond the letter to the spirit of the law: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (5:28). Is that really what the Law had in mind, you wonder? Yes, indeed. The Tenth Commandment is pretty specific:

"You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17).

The Old Testament word translated "covet" is Hebrew ḥāmad, which has a basic meaning: "desire, delight in." However, it is often used negatively, as here, with the meaning:"inordinate, ungoverned selfish desire," sometimes of "lustful desire."1

Q1. (Matthew 5:27-30; Exodus 20:17) What is the point of similarity between adultery and lust? What is the difference? How does lust break the Tenth Commandment?



The heart of man is the problem according to Jesus. Lust is a thing of the heart. He teaches:

"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander." (Matthew 15:19)

Indeed, he echoes the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (KJV, Jeremiah 17:9)

If the woman isn't married and the man isn't married, and they lust for one another, is it still wrong? Technically, it can't be adultery if neither is married. Here we are dealing with technicalities again. The self-righteous Pharisees were the fathers of such technicalities. But Jesus also uses the Greek word porneia (Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21), translated "fornications" (KJV) or "sexual immorality" (NIV), that is, "unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication," applied in the New Testament to all kinds of illicit sexual conduct inside and outside of marriage.2 We can't get off that easily.

Natural Sexual Desire verse Lust

Is there any hope for a man? From the first stirrings of adolescence, hormones begin to surge through boys turning them into men. Sex is one of the strongest drives we have. Is this natural sexual desire wrong?

No, natural desire for the opposite sex is normal and necessary. Men desire women and vice versa, families are formed, children produced. That is what God intended.

Like any good gift, however, Satan is quick to pervert or twist it into something God didn't intend. Food is good, but it can lead to ill health when eaten in overabundance. Wine is God's good gift, but can cause drunkenness when taken to excess. Money is good, but can corrupt the soul when worshipped. And so on.

Now, I've heard some argue that man is an animal, and thus a desire to mate with any and every female is entirely natural and should not be censured. Common sense tells us, however, that unrestrained sex leads to broken families, fatherless children, and general chaos. If unrestrained sex were man's destiny, why should it turn out so badly for all concerned?

We don't see that view in God's Word. We read in Genesis 2 about a man and a woman.

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife [literally, "woman"], and they will become one flesh." (Genesis 2:24)

This unity of husband and wife is the basic unit. Society has sometimes allowed polygamy (and in those societies God allowed men of faith to have more than one wife, e.g. Jacob and David). But when we examine the family life of these polygamous unions, we see envy, strife, and competition rather than peace. In the New Testament, leaders of the church are to reflect the ancient and holy ideal that God instituted in the Garden:

"Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife...." (1 Timothy 3:2; see also Titus 1:6; 1 Timothy 5:9)

The sex drive is a good thing, but only good when it is exercised within the boundaries God has set, namely, marriage. Outside of marriage, sex may "feel so right" but bring a harvest of bad fruit. Inside of marriage it bonds husbands to wives and wives to husbands, and, God willing, children that can grow up within a stable family environment.

Q2. God purposely created us with a good and natural sexual desire. How do we distinguish between that God-given sexual desire and forbidden lust?




Pornography, the "Victimless" Crime

Along with the "free sex" movement that began in the 1960s came a loosening of restrictions on pornography. If "looking on a woman to commit adultery with her in your heart"3 is Jesus' definition of the spirit of adultery, then pornography fits the description precisely, defined as: "the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement."3

Where pornography was once available only in sleazy porn shops, today it has become common in our society, abundant in libraries, bookshops, and video stores -- now piped into homes on the Internet and cable television..

There are no victims here, argue the pornographers and their allies. An increasing body of evidence disagrees. While a portion of the feminist movement supports pornography as a free speech issue, a significant slice opposes pornography as degrading and dangerous to women. Here are some of the arguments against pornography:

  1. Pornography helps men view women as mere sex objects.
  2. Pornography lowers moral values in individuals and society resulting in the acceptability and/or legalization of prostitution, fornication, adultery, and other sexual perversions.
  3. Pornography creates unrealistic expectations of sex and sexual practices that spouses may be unable or unwilling to fulfill.
  4. Pornography isolates sexual fulfillment from a caring relationship with another human being, rendering it essentially selfish.
  5. Pornography exploits young women's naiveté and need for money, prostituting images of their bodies to fulfill men's lusts.
  6. Pornography is linked to crimes of rape, incest, and sexual abuse of children.
  7. The pornographic industry is increasingly controlled by organized crime.
  8. Pornography can become psychologically addictive, leading many men to crave more and more bizarre sexual fantasies to stimulate them.

As our society embraces pornography as a harmless outlet, it can't help but increase problems of individuals and society as a whole.

Who are the "victims" whom Satan deceives and pollutes through pornography?

  • The women who pose.
  • The men who view and become addicted despite their shame.
  • The wives who suffer isolation, shame, and assault.
  • The children who are abused.
  • The women who are raped.
  • The society that bears the cumulative pain of divorce, crime, and disorder.

Victims? We all are victims.

Q3. (Matthew 5:28) What is wrong with pornography? What is wrong with going to prostitutes? Who are the victims of this "victimless" activity?




Cutting off Your Hand -- or Worse (5:29-30)

"If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell" (5:29-30).

So what are we to do when we find ourselves looking at women wrongly? Grasp an eyeball and yank it out of its socket? Is that what Jesus intended? Back in the early years of Christianity, an influential Alexandrian Christian teacher, Origin (187-254 AD), was so plagued by sexual temptations that he castrated himself. Is self-mutilation Jesus' intent?

I don't think so. Jesus, like all of us, sometimes uses hyperbole -- overstatement -- to make a point. When Jesus speaks of a camel going through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), for example, it was hyperbole, an indication of impossibility. When he says a man should hate his father and mother, wife and children (Luke 14:26), he is employing hyperbole. When we say, "I'll swear on a stack of Bibles," or "I wouldn't do that in a million years," we are using hyperbole to make a point.

When Jesus speaks about cutting off a hand or gouging out an eye, he is speaking in hyperbole. If we were intended to take it literally, we should expect to find other examples in the Word as the apostles sought to expound on and teach it. We don't find anything of the sort. The closest is Paul's statement, "I beat my body and make it my slave" (1 Corinthians 9:27).

While Origin's heart may have been right, he misinterpreted Jesus' words. Saints and hermits throughout the ages have discovered that while you can blind yourself or isolate yourself from women, you cannot isolate yourself from your own mind and heart.

Jesus' words meant to convey to us that we are to take sexual lust with utmost seriousness. He intended us to understand that lust can lead us down the road to hell itself. (See Excursus 3 above: "Did Jesus Believe in Hell?")

Jesus said:

"But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5:28)

Therefore, he is saying, unless you and I want to stand as guilty before God as one who commits physical adultery, we must repent rather than excuse ourselves.

Rather than pass off lust as a common denominator of males, Jesus intended that we flee from lust with as much determination as we flee from adultery or fornication (1 Corinthians 6:18). Make no mistake, lust can damn us. We must repent or be damned -- or try to explain away Jesus' own words in 5:30.

Breaking Free from Lust and Lure

So if you have been captured by a habit of lust or pornography, how do you break free? It is difficult. If you have practiced a habit over a period of years, you will not break it in a moment. It will take determination and a healthy dose of God's grace to cleanse you when you fail. But it is possible to break free from lust. Here are some steps that can help.

  1. Call an attraction to pornography what it is -- adultery of the heart -- a spiritual addiction.
  2. Understand something of the nature of the addiction. For example, what is the "love hunger" that pornography feeds and what are the "triggers" that result in viewing of pornography?4
  3. Come to a firm conviction that lust is wrong. Deal with each of the rationalizations you have made for your sin. Write them down to look at when you are tempted.
  4. Stop feeding your lust. Get rid of anything in your home that triggers this lust.
  • Throw out any pornographic materials you possess.
  • Until you get victory over this it may involve cutting off the cable capability that pipes pornography into your home.
  • Ask the phone company block all 900 number calls.
  • Purchase a service that filters out pornography from your computers -- not just for your children's sake, but for your sake as well.5
  1. Share with someone close to you your struggle with this sin and become accountable to this person.
  • Ask for this person's prayer support and confess your sins to him (James 5:16).
  • Seek counsel for your problem from a pastor or Christian counselor.
  1. Use the weapons of prayer, scripture reading, and fasting.
  2. Accept God's grace and complete forgiveness toward you as his child, even if you fall and sin again. The woman taken in adultery didn't hear condemnation from Jesus, but love and encouragement: "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11).

Q4. (Matthew 5:28) Sex is very closely tied to our core sense of person. This means that as we are healed in our view towards sex, it goes a long way toward making us whole inside. How would you counsel a brother who shared with you that he had trouble with pornography? How can you protect yourself against temptation over the Internet? At the beach or poolside? With your TV?





Looking with Love

God wants us to be able to look on members of the opposite sex with love rather than lust. If we are struggling with homosexual lust, he wants us to be able to look on the members of our own sex with a pure love and without lust. This is his plan. (See Excursus 4. Homosexual Lust.)

But the war against lust is not essentially a negative one, a defensive battle. If lust and adultery are the negatives, what is the positive? If the law tells us what not to do; what does it direct us to practice? "Teacher," Jesus' enemies asked him to trick him, "which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:36-40)

Jesus calls us to look with love. Men in a church are to:

"Treat ... younger women as sisters, with absolute purity." (1 Timothy 5:2).

Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto, by Ralph F. Wilson
Sermon on the Mount: The Jesus Manifesto
is available in paperback and ebook formats
The reason brothers don't usually lust for their sisters -- beyond a strong cultural incest taboo -- is because they care for them as people. Their relationship goes beyond the physical exterior to the real person who has longings and disappointments, a girl with potential and hope and pain. We love our sisters as people. That is what it is all about.

Job said,

"I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl." (Job 31:1)

How then can I look at her? As a sister. As a wonderful and fragile human being. As a person whom God loves. If I can train my eyes to see as God sees with the love with which God loves, it is hard to look with lust.

Q5. (Matthew 5:27-30) The spirit of our age is very accepting and approving of lust. According to Jesus' words, how seriously are we to take lust? How does agape love help us combat lust?




Can you train your eyes? Can you train yourself to substitute your prurient gaze for one that sees the inner person whom God loves? Yes, with the Spirit of God in you to fulfill the spirit of the law, you can indeed. You'll need to break the habit of lust, perhaps, and that is difficult. But you can learn to look with love. And that, my friends, is how Jesus looks.


Lord Jesus. Train our eyes to look with your love. Forgive us our lust and selfishness and shame. And remake us in the image of our Master. In your power we pray. Amen.


  1. Ḥāmad, BDB 326, TWOT 295.
  2. Porneia, BDAG 854, 1.
  3. Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary (2003).
  4. You may find some help from Dennis Rupert's "Weapons for the War Against Lust and Sexual Immorality" (www.new-life.net/lustwar1.htm). Other help can be found at ManOnTheRoad.org (www.manontheroad.org),
  5. Covenant Eyes (www.covenanteyes.com) is software that e-mails a report of Internet sites you view to the accountability partner of your choice.


Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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