In this familiar portion of the Bible, Jesus was revealing exactly how Israel’s religious leaders had twisted the Law to fit their own purposes. You see, they were the ones who had learned how to abolish, that is, to nullify the Law and the Prophets with their traditions and loopholes, and then they had the audacity to claim that Jesus was trying to do away with it. Jesus had no such intention, for he came to fulfill all that had been written. Let me repeat what I’ve already stated numerous times: We haven’t been set free from the Law on the basis of its destruction, he set us free by having put us to death, and then raising us together with him. We have been made dead to the Law, not the other way around. The Law is still there, and it holds the world under condemnation.
I suspect that most of you have been taught to view the sayings of Jesus as if they represent the basic principles of Christianity, but the truth is that he was specifically targeting the pretenses of those who claimed to speak for God. We mistakenly assume that those who teach Jesus’ words today must therefore be speaking for God, and yet that’s exactly how the pretenders Jesus rebuked set themselves up among the people in the first place. People spin the words of Jesus today just like they spun the words of Moses and the Prophets back then. The message of Jesus to those who blindly followed the pretenders of their day is just as relevant to those who follow the pretenders of our day. It is a harsh message that confronts the insincerity of the mind that judges others but excuse itself for doing the same kind of things.
Here again, we need to hear Jesus’ words in view of those who were listening to him, for they would have instantly picked up on the contrast between “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Let me bring this whole thing into focus for you by pulling in both things Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount as well as from his other statements. While it might appear as if I’m adding elements that don’t belong, I would have you consider how a simple phrase like “9-1-1” would have to be somehow explained or embellished if it was brought up in a culture unfamiliar with the full impact.
Those who would convince you that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, they are the ones who have been actively working to undo it. Just like their fathers, they carry on traditions designed to get around the laws they tell you to keep. They have told you how your forefathers received the Law through Moses, and that they were specifically told “You shall not commit murder.” Of course, they also made sure to tell you how the murderer would have to stand before the court to account for his crime. But I tell you that these men who continue to walk in the ways of their fathers will hold you accountable for being angry with your brother. And the same ones who approve of the evil deeds of their fathers will make you stand before their highest court simply for calling your brother a good-for-nothing. Moreover, the very ones who will stop at nothing to keep their exalted positions will condemn you and have your bodies thrown into the fires pits of Gehenna just because you called someone a fool. And so I tell you that if your conscience is stirred while you are waiting to present your offering before the altar and you remember that your brother has enough evidence to haul you before the court, leave your offering at the altar and immediately go and patch things up with your brother. Then you can come back and present your offering. For God is patient, men are not. If you are being taken to court, settle things quickly before the matter is presented before the judge, because once the judge hands you over to the officer and you are thrown into prison, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
So now, in the same way, Jesus moved onto the next Law:
You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30 (NASB)
Once again, Jesus specifically expressed this law, the prohibition against adultery, as something they had heard from their teachers. And as before, I don’t point this out in order to somehow make light of the commandment, but rather to put the situation in its proper perspective. You see, while their teachers were able to quote the Law and make claims as to keeping it, they had totally misunderstood the intent of the Law regarding adultery.
So when Jesus said “…but I say to you…” he was not adding to the Law, nor was he making a new Christian law, nor was he somehow making it more difficult to accomplish. Instead, he was proclaiming the perspective of the one who gave the Law:
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 (NASB)
Their teachers viewed everything according to outward appearance, not according to the heart.
And it was only in this mode were they — as well as any in Israel — able to profess adherence to the law regarding adultery, or for any other law. For the people had lived within this mode of judgment their whole lives, however, they weren’t in the position to get away with it as easily as did their leaders. Of course, they only got away with it according to appearance, not according to God. Although we’ve learned to read Jesus’ words “but I say to you…” as if he was somehow in conflict with what Moses gave the people, he was actually in conflict with the teachings of the self-righteous leaders who were able to make themselves appear righteous in the eyes of the people.
For while a man might outwardly keep the Law regarding adultery, he is nevertheless in violation if he privately lusts after a woman with his eyes. Now, don’t miss the upcoming logic in what Jesus posed in view of this reality, for it has everything to do with the perception of one who is found out as committing adultery in the heart.
Adam: Jim, you’re saying that Jesus’ statements about gouging out eyes and cutting off hands were based upon logic?
Indeed, I am. For this is the logic of the natural mind under the Law, especially in view of outward judgment. And for those people, it was the fear of the judgment of the religious courts. After all, if a man and woman were caught in adultery, the Law proclaimed that both of them should be put to death:
‘If there is a man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, one who commits adultery with his friend’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death. Leviticus 20:10 (NASB)
I find it noteworthy that Jesus didn’t allude to it in his statements, as he had with how the murderer was liable to the court. Maybe that’s because adultery was a little more overlooked by them. Perhaps there was more reason for them not to make such a hard stand on it, although, the account in John 8 about the woman caught in the act of adultery demonstrates that they still enforced the judgment when it suited their needs.
Adam: Jim, how do you mean “when it suited their needs”?
Well, in that particular situation, the religious leaders used the condemnation against adultery to set Jesus up with their trial of the clear-cut guilt of the woman they had caught in the act. I think they were pretty sure that he wouldn’t go along with the execution, and so they left it up to him to decide whether to enforce the Law or not. I’ll bet they thought they had him on this one, for they were totally prepared to accuse Jesus of not holding to the Law. Now, there are a lot of things I could expand on regarding this story, but the main thing I’d like to bring out is how it implicated Israel’s judges in the matter of adultery. After all, how do you suppose they were able to only catch the woman while doing the deed without also catching the man … unless of course the whole thing had been set up? Don’t you find it just a little too convenient that they were able to produce only one of the two guilty offenders while Jesus just happened to be teaching in the temple on that particular day? After Jesus had told them “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her,” they all left, one by one. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that they left because of some general-purpose feeling of guilt, either. No, it was only because they had been caught in the act, for they had approved of the man’s adultery and had let him off the hook. One way or the other, they were partakers in that adultery. And what Jesus said in Matthew 5:27-32, revealed the adultery of those who judged according to outward appearance.
Now, when Jesus suggested that a man should rip out the eye that caused him to lust after another woman or the hand that enabled him to ease his lustful distress, do you really think he expected any of them to take it literally? If they thought he really meant to say that their salvation was on the line and that they would spend an eternity burning in the pit of hell because they couldn’t control either their right eye or their right hand, don’t you think they would have quizzed him on that point just to make sure? And by the way, I’m not so sure they would have been quite as amazed at his authoritative teaching as Matthew described at the end of Jesus’ dissertation, for I think the blood-fest would have dampened their spirits. You can be certain that there wouldn’t have been much applause … not with a bunch of one-handed men in the crowd.
See, if you hold to the proposition that Jesus was presenting the truth of the afterlife place of the damned, you have to assume that he only referred to the burning fires of Gehenna as a figurative representation rather than to what those fire pits really signified to the Jews. No, my friends, Jesus’ statements regarding the Gehenna of fire was grounded in Israel’s consciousness of a very real place, a place where many of their ancestors had followed the god of the Amorites by sacrificing their children to the fire. It later became a dump for Jerusalem’s waste, as well as for that which was despised. What Jesus proposed would have made sense to a man because his hidden sins of adultery might lead to the actual committal of the physical sin which could eventually bring him up on charges before the judges of Israel who could in turn have him stoned to death and have his body cast into the fires of Gehenna. The very idea that one’s name would be forever remembered with such shame was enough to consider the logic Jesus spoke of. I wonder how many of the scribes and Pharisees squirmed because Jesus’ words uncovered their own hidden lusts? But that was not all Jesus said about the kind of adultery that really hit home for the logical-minded religious men.
It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32
This is one of the scriptures people have bookmarked as Jesus’ teaching on divorce, but the truth is that rather than representing a new Christian principle, these two verses form the crux of his exposition on adultery. We need to recognize how it fits as the clincher in his indictment against the self-righteous religious leaders who made their claims known among Israel. I refer to their charade as having faithfully kept the Law. It’s not that Jesus’ statement about divorce didn’t also apply to the common people, but they were not the ones who did all the legal tap-dancing regarding that law. Although we seem to easily miss the connection, I don’t think they possibly could have. Their attention would have been as captivated by the public unveiling of their teachers’ hypocrisy as ours might be in the midst of a who-done-it murder mystery movie.
You see, while we hold this scripture up as the definitive basis upon which a Christian can get a divorce, Jesus was simply using pure legal logic to reveal the nature of the adultery that had been accepted by the masters of legal logic. This issue came up again later during a direct confrontation —
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They *said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” He *said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:3-9 (NASB)
Now, I’m sure some of you who are listening to this have been divorced, maybe more than once … and that might make you a little apprehensive to what I might be getting into here. Let me assure you that I do not condemn you, nor do I look down on you in any way for what you’ve gone through, nor for your present situation. I will, however, ask you to consider upon what basis you might be trying to justify yourself regarding it. What I’m saying is that if you’ve been hanging onto some Scriptural validation to make yourself feel better about your choices, you’re going to find some other Scriptural principle that will condemn you for it. And I know you know what I mean, as does anyone who searches out specific Bible verses to assure them if what they want to do, or have already done, is okay or not.
Do you not realize that it is the fleshly mind that is caught up with the question, “Is it lawful?” That’s because those driven by that mind are always looking for ways to justify themselves, which is a process that goes hand-in-hand with condemning others. Pause with me for a moment and reflect upon what you witness every day in the world around you … and how it affects your every waking hour. Many of us have been living under the delusion that the so-called lawless people of the world have no scruples nor morals nor principles, but I think you know as well as I that that assessment is far off the mark. Peter referred to those who were unprincipled, but the word has to do with being not settled or established rather than with not having principles. People in the world are in bondage to principles, to their own, as well as to a multitude of principles in the world around them. The unsettled one always seeks approval from others, for despite any claims to the contrary justification in the eyes of others is paramount. And it can show up in the examination of just about anything, especially details.
And that was exactly how those Pharisees approached Jesus. They came to test him so that they could find a legal basis upon which to condemn him. Why? Because they were desperately trying to salvage their own failing reputations as the authorities on God. And in view of this, do you suppose that they were at all concerned with God’s heart of union as it demonstrates itself through marriage? I think not. And if you’ll consider how Jesus responded to them, it would seem that the reality of union was the furthest thing from their minds. Listen again to the question they considered as being clever enough to entrap Jesus into their legal game:
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?
We’ve been here before. No, not necessarily with this exact question, but with many others just like it. Is it okay to do this? Is it okay under this circumstance or another? Is it right to choose this course of action or another? If he does this to me, is it okay if I do it back to him? It goes on and on and on. And I’m assuming that we’ve been on both sides of these legal traps.
…for any reason at all?
Tell me that piece of bait doesn’t tempt you to jump in with both feet. Our legal desire to set the record straight usually has far more to do with our own pride than with any true sense of righteousness. How many times have you attempted to answer such questions with a moral or Scriptural premise. If we can get past the assumption that the question comes forth from a heart of sincerity we might not jump so fast in the attempt to defend our own sense of honor. You see, we don’t get to hear the narrative regarding how the question-posers approach us in order to test us. So, how are we to answer questions like these?
Of course, we’ve been taught to play the humility game when examining Jesus’ responses, haven’t we? I mean, don’t we usually come to the conclusion: Well, because Jesus is God, he was able to see through their setup and answer them wisely … but I am not God. That’s a tap-dance, my friends, because those who are in Christ have been given the same wisdom by which he answered them. Let me tell you what really causes us to offer our lame excuses. We have been intimidated by the self-righteous, religious mind, and it tells us that we must play the legal game and respond to the premise as whether something is lawful or not. And that’s what motivates us to run to our Bibles in hopes of finding the right scripture in order to make our counterattack. And in doing so, we play right into their hands. But that is exactly what Jesus did not do, for he knew what was in a man. My friends, we’ve had our eyes opened and have been given insight to know the same reality. Don’t let some illusion of humility push you away from your confidence.
I’m telling you that Jesus wasn’t able to thwart their attempt because he was so smart but because he spoke from simplicity, for intelligence has nothing to do with living answers. And if that’s our excuse for claiming that we can’t respond like Jesus did, I think he might say something like, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. Matthew 11:25 You see, when our eyes are not hampered by the facade of the natural mind, we will discover that we’re actually seeing something beyond it all. For Jesus responded to them, not according to their legal arguments, but from the basis of true life that was from the beginning. The Pharisees were experts at making legal cases and arguing their points, but Jesus confounded them by referring to the reality of union. And as those who are now found in Christ, that same life speaks from within us.
You see, the truth was that they really couldn’t argue the fact that Moses’ command regarding divorce was a concession, so when Jesus put it out there in such simple terms, it shut their mouths. And because we miss how his words were aimed at confounding the legal mind, we only see legalities in what he said.
Back in the mid-70s, one of the young guys who visited my Bible studies came knocking at my door late one evening. He brought one of the girls from the same study with him. He stopped by because he wanted to confess having just had sexual intercourse with her. I was a young man myself so it caught me off guard. I had been learning a lot about grace and so I counseled him accordingly. However, I felt pressured by what I knew would be coming from the older men of the church leadership, so I followed up with making sure he knew his responsibility in the matter. I basically told him that he should marry the girl because of his sexual sin. I’ll never forget how he looked up at me with a pained expression and asked, “Which one?” I was floored, and I had no answer.
Look, I understand the whole emphasis on making sure Christians aware of what it is to be sexually responsible, but if we think we’re helping by heaping guilt upon those who are already guilt-ridden, we need to reevaluate what it is we actually think we’re accomplishing. The same goes for using Jesus’ words to make the argument that divorce is justified when, and only when, the other partner has been unfaithful. A simple consideration of his statements both here and in Matthew 5:32 should make it clear that Jesus was not going in that direction. His point was aimed at the self-righteous mind that assumes it has right on its side because of standing upon a Scriptural justification. And my friends, that speaks to all of our insane reasonings. What Jesus told those men in the Sermon on the Mount was that legally they were guilty of making their wives commit adultery by divorcing them after they got remarried. The exception Jesus referred to had nothing to do with making it okay, it’s more basic than that. He simply made sure to add in the legal fact that a wife who was divorced for infidelity had already committed adultery, so that only in that case was the husband not causing wife to commit adultery.
And then on top of that, Jesus made another legal point: Any man who married a divorced woman was also committing adultery. Those guys may have been able to play innocent when it came to their lustful eyes and hands, but they would have been openly exposed by the legal implications of having sexual intercourse with a woman who had already been joined to another man. Up to that time, they had freely appealed to the loophole Moses provided regarding divorce, but Jesus had called it into question — and I’m certain they had already sensed it because of how it had so dramatically affected everything about their lives (just like it does us today). Hey, there’s a good reason why the Pharisees got a little defensive in their later confrontation with Jesus. I mean, why else do you suppose Jesus honed in on this as he did? It’s because he was tightening down the screws on the lids of their coffins, that’s why. He was not the one who was being legalistic, he merely exposed their commonly accepted legalism.
I hope you’re catching on as to how Jesus was addressing the deceitfulness of the legal mind. I want you to understand this so that you might also see how he snuck up on the self-righteous by bringing the whole matter of divorce into the picture for the express purpose of exposing their adulterous ways. Paul did the same thing when he addressed the Roman church, for he directly confronted the legal rationale of the supposed law-keepers among them by revealing how they were doing the exact same things they condemned in those without the Law. One of the questions Paul posed was, “You who preach that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery?” And yes, you should assume they were all very aware of what Jesus had said about it.
In Galatians 5:12, Paul wrote: I wish those agitators would go so far as to castrate themselves! Galatians 5:12 (NET)
Have you ever considered that Paul’s graphically expressed wish reflects pretty much the same as Jesus’ words to the legal-minded who heard him? We already discussed Jesus’ harsh suggestion that those who commit adultery in their hearts might avoid the danger of man’s judgment into the Gehenna dumpyard by taking out the right eye or cutting off the right hand … but what about those legal masters who were able to cover their offenses who were found guilty of adultery by taking advantage of their legal loophole? Do you think Jesus may have been alluding to the same thing Paul did that, according to their own system filled with hypocrisy, those men might be better off if they castrated themselves in order to escape a similar fate? It is the obvious legal conclusion.
Now, when we attempt to live according to the legalities of the natural realm rather than according to reality in Christ, we’re going to entrap ourselves in the exact same legal spiderwebs as the scribes and Pharisees did. Regarding adultery, if you’re trying to judge others based upon your own purity, or if you’re trying to justify yourself according to some kind of a legal loophole, you’re going to throw yourself into the same framework of judgment. And it’s a vicious cycle.
I’ve seen a recent trend — religious, medical, and psychological — where those who have lost their virginity believe they can regain it through specific processes or procedures. Call it what you will, but the religious or psychological versions only make sense within the sin-conscious mind. My friends, in Christ, we are not what we appear. Nothing of the old fleshly existence has passed into the new creation that we are in Christ.