27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body 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 your members than that your whole body go into hell. Matthew 5:27-30
In the passage cited above, our context is the opening chapter of what is commonly referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. Here, our Lord is instructing His disciples (the Twelve; see verse 1) by correcting the faulty teaching of the Jewish religious leaders concerning the law. To this, He adds several points of interpretation and application of the Law of God. It’s important to understand that Jesus is neither changing the law, nor is He reinterpreting it, as some have asserted. He is, however, restating the law and providing much needed clarification to the original meaning and intentions behind the law as opposed to the erroneous teachings of the law by the Scribes and Pharisees. Their focus on external (Matt. 23:26) deeds had created a culture of legalism. Jesus’ exposition exposes these errors and provides for us a clear understanding of how the law is to be applied. Additionally, we must note that in His exposition on the law, our Lord is not abolishing the Law, rather He fulfills and upholds (see vs. 5:17-20).
His first point of explanation concerns murder and while the physical act is certainly in view (6th Commandment), the spirit of the law indicates that anger in the heart towards a brother is worthy of equal judgment in the eyes of God. Despite so many thinking that Christ has added or reinterpreted the law, His explanation is precisely what the law teaches. The 10th Commandment, Exodus 20:17, states, “You shall not covet….” One cannot covet by external actions; instead this is an act purely motivated by sinful desires of the heart and should’ve clued the religious leaders to the “heart” of the law.
Moving to the next section of the sermon, we arrive at our passage cited above, where our Lord turns His attention towards adultery, with a specific application of lust. Here we see the 7th Commandment in view, as Jesus applies it directly to the heart and the intentions of men. Just as the act of physical adultery is worthy of punishment in the eyes of God for violating His law, so too is adultery of the heart, or lustful intentions of the heart. The error of the Jewish religious leaders was to strictly interpret this commandment to apply only to the married (adultery) and then only to the physical act. In viewing this in such a strict manner, it actually created a liberal application and opened the avenue for unbridled fornication.
Within the same passage, we have what might be summarized as The Principle of Elimination. It’s an extreme illustration of how to deal with those members that offend, presumably as it relates to lust (remember the context). The first offending member is the right eye. With the eye, we are told that should it offend, or lead the rest of the body into sin, eliminate it by plucking it out. Clearly this is meant to imply that the eye is the window or the avenue through which objects of lust enter. By plucking it out, the avenue for this access is eliminated.
Next, the right hand. Should it offend, or act out in sin, eliminate it by cutting it off. The implication here may be broad, but certainly it includes any physical manifestation of lustful intentions that the hand (or actions) might bring about. In order to avoid this, Jesus says the offending member should be cut off. Each instance of elimination is summarized with the following statement, “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” In summary, should gangrene (sin) infect the hand, cut it off before it spreads to the rest of the body.
While it’s important to understand that Jesus isn’t instructing his disciples, or by extension those who read His words today, to run home and begin plucking out their eyes and cutting off their hands, we needn’t dismiss the seriousness and extremeness of this language. Given our Lord’s previous words, that both murder and adultery are matters of the heart and not just physical actions, we know restraint should be exercised before we go plucking eyes and sawing off hands. This was the error of Jews, Origen, and many of those who enlisted in the ranks of the monastery, each of whom engaged in some form of self-flagellation.
However, if we consider that Jesus’s focus is on the heart, what do we make of this figurative language that focuses on the physical body, i.e. offending members?
First, we shouldn’t neuter the passage of its shocking implications. Jesus is being extreme for the purpose of saving our souls at the expense of our bodies, that point should not be missed. Aside from actually maiming our bodies, which would still leave an active and sinful heart, I do think that there is a principle of elimination at work here, as we previously mentioned. This principle states that if something is causing us to sin, we should radically eliminate it, stopping short of physical harm to ourselves or others. Yes, this still leaves a heart whose desires need changed, but it also removes opportunities to feed the flesh and opportunities to act out desires of the flesh.
In Romans 13:14 we read, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This idea of provision here refers to plans, accommodations, etc. It is these avenues or opportunities for sin that I’m suggesting our Lord has in mind for us to eliminate, i.e. to cut off. Meanwhile there is work to be done, heart work, and that work is not completed by removing temptations or opportunities to sin from our lives. That work is completed by the ongoing sanctification of the Holy Spirit to purify the heart, change desires, and set a course of passionate pursuit for the Almighty God.
It is with Him that we must plead for our hearts to change; that the Lord would, “create in us a clean heart” Psalm 51:10; that He would continue to work in us, “both to will and to work and to do His good pleasure” Philippians 2:13; that “He who began a good would bring it to completion” Philippians 1:6.
What avenues in your life need radically eliminated? This may look different for each person, but if there are specific areas that are causing you to sin or be tempted to sin, don’t wait. Cut. them. off.
Then seek the Lord pleading for Him to continue to purify and cleanse your heart of idols.
Soli Deo Gloria