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Matthew 5:27-32 by Robert Dean
Lust. Sexual immorality. Faithfulness in marriage. Does Biblical teaching about these make you squirm uncomfortably? Listen to this lesson to see how Jesus once again sets a higher standard than the Pharisees and scribes by focusing on what we think rather than what we do. See the meaning of "plucking out your right eye" and "cutting off your right hand". On the issue of divorce, notice how Jesus points out that we should think of marriage in terms of a lifelong commitment. Learn some Biblical reasons for divorce and remarriage and how when we make wrong decisions, God's grace still forgives us. Realize that personal righteousness is a heart matter, not a matter of rule-keeping.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:55 mins 40 secs

Adultery and Divorce
Matthew 5:27-32
Matthew Lesson #031
April 27, 2014

This is the section (from v. 21 to the end of the chapter) where Jesus is contrasting the divine viewpoint interpretation of the Mosaic Law with the teaching that had become very popular within second temple Judaism that was dominated by the popular teaching of the Pharisees. So the people had a superficial view of obedience to the Mosaic Law. Jesus addresses this in the second and third sections—He is addressing the topic of adultery and the interpretation of the seventh commandment and He is going to go further with that in vv. 31, 32 addressing the interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 in relation to divorce.     

It is part of our sin nature to ask what the minimum is that is expected of us. God has pretty high standards and we just want to know what the minimum is to get by. That is what really comes across in Pharisaical teaching on righteousness: it is the minimum amount necessary. They reduce the commandments to a rather superficial and shallow obedience.

Jesus addresses that in Matthew 5:19 NASB "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." And contextually we have to understand that as Jesus moves from that to the contrast between "You have heard it said," which addresses the oral tradition that had been taught by the Pharisees, and His saying, "But I say to you," where He contrasts the superficial teaching of the Pharisees with God's interpretation of the Mosaic Law. We see that He is challenging the Pharisees that they have minimized what it means to obey the Law. They have reduced the application of these Laws to certain principles that allow them to skirt the real intent of the Law and to avoid dealing with the real root of external sin, which is internal sin or mental attitude sin. Jesus challenges this interpretation as we go through this chapter. We have to keep that in mind.  

Breaking any of the commandments, even though one commandment here or there may appear to have less significance or impact than other commandments, still violates the righteousness of God. And the consequences to our spiritual life are just as egregious. This is why James says (James 2:10, 11), "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one {point,} he has become guilty of all. For He who said, 'DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,' also said, 'DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.' Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law." So if we violate God's standards in what might appear to be a very minor thing (like eating a piece of fruit) the consequences are just as serious for our spiritual life as if we have had broken one of the most serious laws.

What Jesus does through this whole section is showing that in the Old Testament Israel committed egregious sins, some of the most horrible sins, and some of the worst happened in the period right before God took them out in judgment in 586 BC. They were sacrificing their children on the fires of Molech. All of their sins were really summarized and understood by the Jews as being due to the fact that they had forsaken God. They had committed spiritual adultery, which means only to go after others gods and being unfaithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what Jesus is telling the Jews in relation to what the Pharisees were teaching is that even if the violation of the Law is minor it is just as much a violation of the Law as those ancient sins of idolatry. And it is going to destroy the spiritual life and fellowship with God just as much. God has a much higher standard of righteousness than what the Pharisees were teaching.

Jesus is teaching His disciples about the kind of righteousness which should characterize those who will fully enjoy and experience the kingdom that He is announcing. Remember that this is coming at that early stage of His ministry where the message is: Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Because the Messiah, the King, was rejected the kingdom is still future. It was postponed. It is still future for us in the church age just as it was future for them. Jesus is addressing an audience that was composed of Jews in a different dispensation. They are under the Mosaic Law in the dispensation of the Mosaic Law and in the age of Israel. They were promised the coming kingdom on the basis of repentance. Repentance means to change the mind, but it has two ways of being applied. One is in reference to pour eternal standing before God in terms of salvation. So for those who were unsaved repent meant to change the thinking and to trust in God and the promise of God's salvation. Prior to the cross was a promise that God would solve the sin problem through the seed of the woman. The seed of the woman was the Messiah who would come and provide a solution to the sin problem. They were looking forward to the cross. But that message had been refined in their day because as Jesus is coming He is claiming to be the Messiah and claiming that He is the one who will solve the problem for their sins. They had to accept Him as their Messiah. 

So the first aspect of repentance would relate to salvation, their eternal destiny. The second type of repentance was for those who were already saved, already justified, had already trusted in God's promise of a future redeemer, the seed of the woman; but they weren't living like it. They were living in disobedience. They had gotten away from a relationship with the Lord and they needed to change their mind and get back on track. This is the message that contextually is being emphasized. This is what John the Baptist means in Matthew 3:8 when he addressed the Pharisees who had come down to witness what he was doing at the Jordan: "Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance". He didn't say they needed to repent, he said they needed to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. In other words, he is no assuming they are not saved, he is assuming that they are not walking in accordance with the Mosaic Law. They didn't have the right kind of experiential righteousness. Unless they change and unless they are living in obedience to the Law God is not going to bring in the kingdom. This is important for us to understand.

The point of comparison for us as believers in the church age and those disciples of Jesus who He is addressing in Matthew 5-7 is that like them we are living our spiritual life today in preparation for our future roles and responsibilities in the kingdom. Because they are part of Israel their future destiny is different from the future destiny of church age believers, but both of us have a destiny that will be affected and determined by the quality of our spiritual life today. We will both be rewarded at some point before going into the kingdom. Although those rewards will differ the principle remains the same. The general principle that we need to apply from this is that we need to learn how to live a life that is characterized by experiential righteousness. And by learning to live a life that is characterized by experiential righteousness it develops our character and our capacity for our future role in the messianic millennial kingdom. We are living today in the light of eternity.

God expects us to apply the Word today. Through application of the Word we grown and develop spiritual maturity, developing a capacity for experiential righteousness. It is a training ground, as it were, getting ready for the ultimate reality which comes in the future kingdom.

Roman Catholics don't read the Bible. Jews are the same way. They have the interpretations of the rabbis and that is what they study when they study the Torah. They are not actually and studying and exegeting word-by-word and verse-by-verse what Moses said in the Torah. What they are studying is the various interpretations that have been handed down through the ages. In Catholicism they are studying the interpretations of the church fathers, they are not going to the original text. In evangelicalism today we are falling into the same trap. In many cases today, and what dominates seminary study, is that it is not important for you to go back and really learn how to exegete the text in the original languages (although they teach them); but when you are exegeting the text what the professors are looking for is that you have widely read in the commentary tradition, and that what you are citing is all of the different views that are presented by the commentaries. And what is often produced from seminaries today is somebody who can stand up and give you seven or eight different popular interpretations of, say, Genesis 1:1, 2 but they can't tell you what it means.

Matthew 5:27 NASB "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY'"

Jesus is quoting from Exodus chapter twenty. The word that is used for adultery in the Greek MOICHEUO, which is just a straight translation from the Hebrew word naaph. It simply referred to the act of committing adultery.

This is the second challenge. The first challenge was the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not commit murder. The sixth commandment was a protection in relation to the sanctity of human life. The seventh commandment is designed to protect the second divine institution of marriage. But we have to understand something about what adultery was in an ancient near eastern context. Adultery was something that a married woman would commit. If you were a man who was married and had sexual relations with a woman who was married to somebody else it primarily emphasized the woman. It generally only applied to the male in the sense that he was not to have sexual relations with a married woman. Adultery was not something that was applied to a male if he had sexual relations with someone who was unmarried or a widow, or was single. That was covered under a different context. Men who has sexual relations with an unmarried woman or a prostitute were not guilty of adultery, but of fornication.

In Proverbs 6:32-35, which prohibits adultery (sexual relations with another man's wife), the consequences focused on emphasized the danger of the woman's husband seeking vengeance. In the Torah the penalty for adultery is stated in Deuteronomy 22:22 NASB "If a man is found lying with a married woman, then both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel". To understand this we have to understand these laws in context. If we go on and read the following verses we discover that if a man has sexual relations with a young woman he is not married to, and she is not married, then the penalty is a fine or forced marriage.

Remember that in the Old Testament there was a strong emphasis on inheritance within the family, within the clan and within the tribe. So land that was apportioned by God to each tribe and then subdivided to each family was to remain within the family. If a man had sexual relations with a woman who is married to somebody else he is introducing his seed and his line into the other husband's line. It comes back to understanding the context of inheritance law and passing on property and inheritance rights to the next generation. All of these things have to be understood as relating to one another and it just sounds rather odd to our ears.

In the church age we are not under the Mosaic Law and the tribal and inheritance rights related to Israel don't apply. This is why the death penalty for adultery no longer applies. Why the penalty for adultery was so egregious was because it would have such a devastating impact on the economy of the whole country and the property rights and inheritance rights. It was an attack that would disrupt the entire structure of society both in terms of marriage and in terms of family. So the laws related to adultery in the Torah must be understood with these issues that are not part of our thinking in the modern world. 

But in this discourse we see that Jesus addresses it (and later in chapter 19) and recognizes that a man is culpable of adultery whether he is married or not, or whether the woman he is having sexual relations with is married or not. So He is giving a broader definition to adultery than what was understood in the Mosaic Law. And as Jesus addresses this He addresses the more fundamental issue, which is righteousness in the area of sexual lust and its implications for marriage and divorce. In so doing He is challenging the superficial approach of the Pharisees which said you've only committed adultery of you have engaged in the actual act. Again just like with murder they ignored the mental attitude lust and the sin of mental attitude lust.

Matthew 5:28 NASB "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."

The word here for lust is EPITHUMEO which can refer positively to the desire for something good but in a number of passages it emphasizes something negative: the lust patterns of the sin nature. The idea here of looking on a woman to lust for her is not looking on someone, a beautiful woman and appreciating her beauty; it is looking on someone in a way that stimulates sexual desire. It proceeds from mental attitude and the sin nature; adultery is not just a physical act. In Matthew 15:19 Jesus said that it is out of the heart (inner man) that this proceeds: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders". Overt sin begins in the soul and the soul responds to the temptation of the sin nature.

Next He is going to emphasize the seriousness of this sin. And this is a verse that has caused people a lot of problems in trying to interpret it, and it is a great example of the need to understand idioms and figures of speech when interpreting the Scripture. There have been problems in the church age with people who have interpreted this literally and they have engaged in various acts of dismemberment and castration, thinking that that would make them more spiritual. But that violates the very principle that Jesus is teaching, which is to challenge this superficial, external application of Scripture.   

Matthew 5:29 NASB "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". Remember, it doesn't say hell in the original language. In Greek is says GEHENNA, the Valley of Hinnom. It is not talking about an eternal consequence. This refers to a place of temporal punishment where God brought divine discipline upon the nation. Another interpretation is that what Jesus is saying here is that you will be in danger of divine discipline, maybe even the sin unto death. That is what the valley of Hinnom represented in terms of Israel's spiritual failure.

When Jesus is speaking He says, "If your right eye causes you to sin". Then later in v.30 He says, "If your right hand causes you to sin". The assumption is that most people are right-handed; the right eye is more dominant than the left eye. The right hand is more significant because most of what a person does, especially in an agricultural environment, is done with the right hand. In Jewish tradition the right eye and the right arm are significant because they are what you use in order to accomplish great things in life. In terms of the idiom what Jesus is saying is that you need to look at whatever it is in life that is valuable to you, and if it is a source of sin for you, you need to be willing to get rid of it in your life. Because nothing is as important for your spiritual life than walking in obedience to God and producing righteousness when you walk by means of God the Holy Spirit.      

We have seen other idioms in the Scripture. For example, circumcising the heart. That doesn't mean literally to go in and cut something away from the heart, it has to do with removing sin from the life. We have a parallel in Colossians to the baptism by the Holy Spirit which removes the power of the sin nature from our life. It doesn't mean to remove the sin nature from our life but to remove the power of the sin nature from our life. We have other idioms in English. We don't translate an idiom literally but it always has the same meaning. For example, if you tell somebody to go jump in the lake. That's an idiom. It has a meaning in and of itself to go away, leave me alone. It is a non-literal statement that has a consistent meaning. The same thing with the Valley of Hinnom. It was a literal place but it had a meaning that was not necessarily related to being physically cast into the Valley of Hinnom.

Matthew 5:30 NASB "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."

Jesus is not advocating dismemberment, He is simply saying that which is in your life, no matter how valuable or significant it may be, if it causes you to stumble in your spiritual life then you need to remove it.  

And talking about the right eye, this has significance because in biblical thought the eye is where knowledge and information enters into the soul.

Having spoken about adultery, Jesus then goes on to talk about adultery within the framework of divorce. And He lays this down in two verses in this section. When Jesus talks about divorce and adultery here and in Matthew 19 He is specifically dealing with the questions that are raised by the rabbinical interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 and the prohibition of divorce. He is not giving an exhaustive treatment of marriage and divorce.

Matthew 5:31 NASB "It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE'." This is the oral tradition. This certificate of divorce was intended to restrict causal divorce under the Mosaic Law which would hinder the woman's freedom to remarry. 

Matthew 5:32 NASB "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."

This goes back to understanding Deuteronomy 24:1, 2. In the Law the principle was laid down that when a man takes a wife and marries her and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house. When she has departed and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a  certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or of the latter husband dies who took her as his wife… In other words, the first man marries her and says he is going to divorce her and she goes and marries somebody else, then he decides he is going to divorce her or he dies, the first man can't go back and remarry her. That is the bottom line of these verses.

Jesus is addressing this and He says there is only one legitimate reason here (the exception of sexual immorality), and He is tying this back to the verbiage in Deuteronomy 24:1. The word here translated sexual immorality is the word PORNEIA, from which we get our word "pornography".

Part of the background in this is that there was a debate that took place in 2nd temple Judaism as to what were the legitimate grounds for divorce. And just as today, their opinions ran the gamut of options. There was on the one side the school of Hillel that said if the wife cooks her husband's food poorly by over-salting or over-roasting it she was to be put away. In other words, if she burns the toast for breakfast she is out of here. Any reason whatsoever that you are unhappy that is legitimate. On the other end of the spectrum was Rabbi Shammai who said that divorce was permitted only on the grounds of adultery. Then there was Rabbi Kiba who came just after the New Testament period who allowed divorce even in the husband finds someone fairer than his wife.    

Another thing was, everyone tries to get around the Law. Whatever it is, if God says don't do this, well what are the exceptions, how do I get around this? A rabbi in the Middle Ages said that what was really going on was they were trying to get around this prohibition of adultery. Really, the ultimate thrust of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was that this law prohibits the wife who is divorced from coming back to the first husband.

Jesus gives this exception here, and in Matthew 19:9 He points out that this applies also to the husband: "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The Mark and Luke passages that are parallel to both of these don't give the exception clause. But the full statement is given by Jesus in Matthew chapters 5 and 19 and there are some people today who want to ignore that: that there is no divorce, no remarriage for any reason. This is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying that there is, based on the Old Testament Law, a legitimate exception clause. Just because there is an exception clause, if there is infidelity in the marriage, it doesn't mean you have to get divorced. What Jesus is emphasizing is that the standard for God is monogamy for life, that grace should overcome infidelity. Forgiveness and restoration is often much greater. Just because you could divorce doesn't mean you should divorce. 

Summary of what the Scripture teaches in this area

1.      In the Gospel passages Jesus is addressing the problem of superficial application of the Law by the Pharisees in the matter of divorce. He is not giving an exhaustive treatment on the topic of marriage and divorce.

2.      He is addressing a problem that is common to history. Human beings want to minimize the lifetime commitment between one man and one woman in order to make marriage and remarriage more convenient and to legitimize their lust patterns. Jesus said the standard is one man and one woman together for life.

3.      God recognizes that because of sin and the hardness of our heart that there are situations and circumstances where a divorce legitimate. In Matthew 19:3-9 Jesus clearly affirms the standard of God is a lifetime monogamous commitment.

4.      However, the exception clause recognizes the reality of sin. I believe that based on Jesus' teaching here and Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:8-14, 27-28 that divorce is permissible for several reasons, including sexual sin, desertion, abuse, and some forms of criminality. Divorce does not necessarily entail the right to remarry. The right to remarry occurs if the cause for the divorce is sexual immorality or desertion. There are other reasons where it may be the right thing to do to divorce. Sometimes we say the right thing to do is to separate but in terms of certain state laws that have common property rights, for financial reasons there is no such thing as having a legal separation. The preferred solution is through reconciliation.

On the one hand while divorce and separation might be legitimate not all legitimate reasons for divorce entail the right to remarry. In all cases grace dominates. The Bible teaches grace. God forgives us of all sin. We just confess that sin like any other sin in our life, God forgives us, and we move on from where we are. Divorce and remarriage are not unique sins. They are not capital sins; they are not unforgiveable sins. We can still be used in Christian service as long as we are walking with the Lord. The bottom line is grace in the spiritual life, just like grace in salvation.