Matthew 5:27–32 (CSB) — 27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. 28 But I tell you, everyone 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. For it is better that you lose one of the parts 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. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
You are welcome to skip down to the main section entitled “CUT OFF YOUR HAND” if you aren’t interested in the setting and context of this text.
The ethical movement of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48) consists of five sections: (1) murder (5:21–26); (2) adultery (5:27–32); (3) oaths (5:33–37); (4) vengeance (5:38–42); and (5) love for enemies (5:43–48). Each section begins with its Old Testament background and the opening literary formula, “you have heard that it was said”, and then transitions into Jesus’ teaching with “But I tell you…”
There seem to be three principles to Jesus’ ethical movement in his sermon on the Mount: First, the Law has an internal dimension that cannot be satisfied by externalizing the commandments; Second, the Law must not be circumvented because it communicates divine judgments of God; Third, the law has ongoing demands that must not be discarded. And it is this third principle that provides the foundation for the New Covenant’s teaching on justification through fulfillment of all righteousness in Jesus Christ.
Our focus here is going to be on Jesus’ sexual ethic in Matthew 5:27-32. I think it is worth noting that many scholars apparently split Jesus’ second ethical teaching on adultery into two sections, “lust” and “divorce”, but I prefer to treat them as one sexual ethic because the literary formula that introduces “divorce” (vv. 31-32) is sufficiently limited when you compare it to the others (i.e. vv. 21-22, 27-28, 33-34, 38-39, 43-44) that I feel that it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus is addressing the sin of “adultery” as exercised via two different mechanisms in order to teach one sexual ethic of covenantal purity. Nonetheless, regardless of how you break this text down exegetically, we will be focusing today on Jesus’ teaching in verse 30.
Moral victory over the desires of the heart must be secured irrespective of the suffering and difficulty necessary to overcome them. Jesus’ gospel preaches salvation from our sins, not salvation in them. We must apply every grace given to us by God to overcome those things which lead to sin and transgression. This teaching depends on the New Testament principle of moral purity, which is the foundation of Christian living:
1 Thessalonians 4:1–8 (CSB) — 1 Additionally then, brothers and sisters, we ask and encourage you in the Lord Jesus, that as you have received instruction from us on how you should live and please God—as you are doing—do this even more. 2 For you know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. 3 For this is God’s will, your sanctification: that you keep away from sexual immorality, 4 that each of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not with lustful passions, like the Gentiles, who don’t know God. 6 This means one must not transgress against and take advantage of a brother or sister in this manner, because the Lord is an avenger of all these offenses, as we also previously told and warned you. 7 For God has not called us to impurity but to live in holiness. 8 Consequently, anyone who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit.
To reject the gospel’s principle of moral purity is to reject God himself. God’s design for human sexuality is based on covenantal purity. We are meant to enjoy our human sexuality within the covenant of marriage, where our personal failures are forgiven and covered by the love of our spouse, and our sexual pleasures are expressed as part of a principle of love that has physical, spiritual, and emotional dimensions.
Adultery is wrong because it breaks the covenantal purity that human sexuality was meant to be based on. And adultery is expressed via two mechanisms: “lust” and “divorce”.
Therefore, it becomes immediately evident that the ethical principles being laid down by our Lord in this sermon are ones that he expects his followers to live by. They – along with the other spiritual principles illuminated throughout Jesus’ sermon – are the moral foundations upon which Christians are meant to build their lives:
Matthew 7:24–27 (CSB) — 24 “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain fell, the rivers rose, and the winds blew and pounded that house. Yet it didn’t collapse, because its foundation was on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 The rain fell, the rivers rose, the winds blew and pounded that house, and it collapsed. It collapsed with a great crash.”
CUT OFF YOUR HAND
Matthew 5:30 (CSB) — 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
These passages caused me a lot of trouble when I was growing up because their meaning was not readily apparent to me, and their solutions seemed even worse. Although the symbolism of the “eye” seemed simple enough to interpret as referring to the desires of the heart that are visually stimulated (read: Num 15:39; Prov 21:4; Ezek 6:9; 18:12; 20:8; v. 11. Eccl 11:9), I could not understand the symbolism of the “hand”. And in either case, Jesus’ solution seemed both impossible and ineffective. So, I did what most people do with these passages, and I largely neglected them, which was a mistake that I hope to spare others from making.
“And if your right hand causes you to sin”: the “right hand” refers to any action by which the unconsecrated lust that has been excited by the eye is satisfied. This can refer to the act of masturbation, to the act of seducing someone into committing adultery, or to any other physical act by which one moves to satisfy their lust. For this reason it is important to understand that the symbolism of the “eye” and the “hand” work together in this section, as evidenced by the literary uniformity of each symbol, which suggests that the “hand” satisfies the urges of the “eye”. Jesus is warning about any action that follows the sexual lusts of the eye.
What, then, is the origin of sin?
Matthew 15:19 (CSB) — 19 For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, slander.
Therefore, when Jesus says that the these “cause you to sin”, he is talking about how the evil desires of our hearts materialize and become reality. Your “eye” excites the immoral lusts of your heart, and your “hand” carries out those evil desires.
“Cut it off and throw it away”: self-mutilation and amputations are not an effective way to overcome sin because sin originates in the heart. Origen (c. 185–251), who was one of the most learned Christian teachers of his day, notoriously castrated himself because of his strict interpretation of Jesus’ teaching, but soon discovered that such radical treatment of the body is not radical enough, since lust is not thereby removed.
Paul himself warns about the false appearance of godliness as seen in harsh treatment of the body:
Colossians 2:23 (CSB) — 23 Although these have a reputation for wisdom by promoting self-made religion, false humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.
Therefore, the acts of “gouging out” and “cutting off” do not refer to one’s physical dismemberment, but to the severity by which both the desire and act of sin are removed from one’s life. In this sense, then, to “cut off and discard” the hand as it relates to the act of masturbation refers to removing the stimulus (i.e. pornography, etc), enduring the pain of withdrawal that one experiences when one breaks their sexual addiction, and resetting your pleasure template so that your desires are realigned with God’s design for human sexuality. For someone who might characterize themselves as a “player”, this might describe avoiding the bars and clubs that they once used to find and seduce their partners, enduring the pain of loneliness that will come as they begin to realign their pleasure template with God’s holy design for human sexuality.
“For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell”: Jesus’ sexual ethics are presented within the context of God’s divine moral judgment. Jesus says that the intense physical, emotional, and psychological pain that one must endure throughout this process is better than the all-consuming wrath to be experienced by those who fall under God’s divine moral condemnation.
The apostle Paul teaches us that God’s wrath will be commensurate with one’s actions on earth:
Romans 2:5–6 (CSB) — 5 Because of your hardened and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. 6 He will repay each one according to his works…
Jesus means to inform us as the only one who can speak with accurate knowledge about the intensity of God’s wrath that the difficulty and hardship involved in throwing off sexual immorality is worth it when compared to the severity of God’s wrath. Jesus knows that every act of sin will be punished with a portion of God’s wrath that is justly commensurate with the severity of its sin. Therefore, it is better to enter eternity maimed and scarred, having borne the difficulty of our spiritual battle on this earth, than to enter eternity under the wrath of God.
The repetition of this warning is meant to make it inescapable to the reader: don’t let anyone deceive you into thinking that sexual purity is optional in the lives of Christ’s disciples. Anyone who wishes to follow Jesus must pick up their cross daily and follow him. It is impossible to follow Jesus while walking along the path of adultery. Likewise, it is impossible to follow him while scorning the suffering of the cross.
Jesus teaches us that God takes sexual morality very seriously and instructs his followers to be saved from the wrath that is coming upon all unrighteousness by turning to him in repentance so that we can receive from him the grace by which we may truly be renewed and restored in all godliness and holiness. Any gospel that fails to deliver the power for this salvation is a false gospel that has the appearance of godliness on the outside, but which has wholly denied its power!