Revisiting Matthew 5:27-28 on lust

There’s a lot of contextual background that goes into this verse. I’m going to try to explore all of it.

Matthew 5:27 “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 lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The ‘modern’ interpretation of this verse has done a lot of damage to men as it has been wielded as an arm of judgment against the sex drive of men. Today most Christian men avoid even looking at women out of shame that they’re potentially sinning which is some warped version of gnostic heresy where the desires of the body are sinful. I’ve covered this a bit in posts such as male and female sexual desire are not sinful.

So what is the actual background of this post?

  • In Sunday school is superfluous, there is a command from Deuteronomy 6 to teach the commands of God to sons (implied by fathers) all the time. This is the background of which Jesus is teaching the Law.
  • This verse is from the Sermon on the Mount (which is similar to the Sermon on the Plain in Luke). The sermons are actually fairly identical, so we understand that Jesus was very consistent with what He was teaching the crowds. This type of teaching was probably similar to what He taught other crowds such as the 5000 and 4000, who he actually ended up feeding as well. These crowds were composed of the number of men present, while the women and children were not counted.
  • The word for woman in Green (G1135 — gune) is both the term used for “women” in general and also “wives.” Therefore, there is some context built into the passage.
  • The word lust (G1937 — epithumia) is mainly translated as illicit desire. In this case, illicit desire corresponds to coveting that which is not yours (e.g the 10th commandment). Epithumia is used positively once in Luke 22 where he “desired” to eat the Passover with His disciples.

When you put all of these contextual pieces together, the verse can only be interpreted in two possible ways:

  1. Jesus is teaching these to married men, who lusting on other women/wives is adultery because he already has a wife.
  2. Jesus is teaching these to men in general, in which case the only context that makes sense applies to a specific situation. The options of two are as follows:

For example, if a man is single, then he should not look at a woman to lust where a woman is a “wife.” If he desires a woman who is not married, then he should take step to marry her (e.g. 1 Cor 7 — it is better to marry than to burn).

If a man is married, then #1 applies as coveting another woman and/or wife is akin to adultery. In Matthew 19, Jesus affirms the “one-man and one-woman” from Genesis as the ideal, both in prohibition of divorce and likely in exclusion of polygamy now that the Law has been fulfilled.

John Chrysostom’s Matthew 17 Homily implies that he believes the #1 interpretation is correct, specifically in the context of another man’s wife. Chrysostom goes on a long  discourse on this passage — the longest I’ve seen from him on two lines of Scripture — and implies through his wording that Jesus is speaking mainly to married men with wives.

 You have heard that it was said to them of old time, You shall not commit adultery; but I say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to lust after her, has committed adultery with her already in his heart.

Having now finished the former commandment, and having extended it unto the height of self-denial, He, advancing in course and order, proceeds accordingly unto the second, herein too obeying the law. And yet, it may be said, this is not the second, but the third; for neither is the first, You shall not kill, but The Lord your God is one Lord.

[…]

Why then did He not make a distinction here also? Nay, very great is the distinction which, if you attend, you will see here also included. For He said not simply, whosoever shall desire, since it is possible for one to desire even when sitting in the mountains; but, Whosoever shall look to lust; that is to say, he who gathers in lust unto himself; he who, when nothing compels him, brings in the wild beast upon his thoughts when they are calm. For this comes no longer of nature, but of self-indulgence. This even the ancient Scripture corrects from the first, saying, Contemplate not beauty which is another’s. Sirach 9:8 And then, lest any one should say, what then, if I contemplate, and be not taken captive, He punishes the look, lest confiding in this security you should some time fall into sin. What then, one may say, if I should look, and desire indeed, but do no evil? Even so you are set among the adulterers. For the Lawgiver has pronounced it, and you must not ask any more questions. For thus looking once, twice, or thrice, you will perhaps have power to refrain; but if you are continually doing this, and kindling the furnace, you will assuredly be taken; for your station is not beyond that nature which is common to men. As we then, if we see a child holding a knife, though we do not see him hurt, beat him, and forbid his ever holding it; so God likewise takes away the unchaste look even before the act, lest at any time you should fall in act also. For he who has once kindled the flame, even when the woman whom he has beheld is absent, is forming by himself continually images of shameful things, and from them often goes on even to the deed. For this cause Christ takes away even that embrace which is in the heart only.

[…]

Just then as one may feel wrath at random, so may one cast looks at random; that is, when you do it for lust. Rather, if you desire to look and find pleasure, look at your own wife, and love her continually; no law forbids that. But if you are to be curious about the beauties that belong to another, you are injuring both your wife by letting your eyes wander elsewhere, and her on whom you have looked, by touching her unlawfully. Since, although you have not touched her with the hand, yet have you caressed her with your eyes; for which cause this also is accounted adultery, and before that great penalty draws after it no slight one of its own. For then all within him is filled with disquiet and turmoil, and great is the tempest, and most grievous the pain, and no captive nor person in chains can be worse off than a man in this state of mind. And oftentimes she who has shot the dart is flown away, while the wound even so remains. Or rather, it is not she who has shot the dart, but you gave yourself the fatal wound, by your unchaste look. And this I say to free modest women from the charge: since assuredly, should one deck herself out, and invite towards herself the eyes of such as fall in her way; even though she smite not him that meets with her, she incurs the utmost penalty: for she mixed the poison, she prepared the hemlock, even though she did not offer the cup. Or rather, she did also offer the cup, though no one were found to drink it. […]

Therefore, if Chrysostom’s interpretation is correct and all of the background is accounted for, then the Sermon on the Mount passage is mainly speaking to husbands with wives not to “look at another man’s wife with desire” (e.g. covet another man’s wife) that is not theirs. If he does then he would commit heart adultery and injure their own wife in the process.

Gleaning from the rest of the Scriptures, it seems that #2 interpretation is not necessarily incorrect either if #1 is correct. They are not mutually exclusive. Unmarried men who “look at a woman with desire” if the other woman is unmarried should aim to marry them if they are equally yoked, and unmarried men who “look at a woman with desire” if the other woman is a wife still commits adultery in his heart with her.

Conclusions

Matthew 5:27 “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 lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus is speaking mainly to men in the Sermon on the Mount.

  1. If you are a married man, don’t covet another man’s wife. Appreciating the beauty or other qualities of another man’s wife is not coveting, but don’t let desire invade the look. Starting to think of ways to possess that which is not yours is heart adultery.
  2. If you are a single man, don’t covet a married woman as it is adultery if the deed is done. Based on the implications of #1, that too is committing adultery with her in your heart.
  3. If you are a single man and you see a unmarried women and desire her, pursue her for marriage (1 Cor 7 — it is better to marry than to burn) if you are equally yoked (2 Cor 6 — do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers).

For #1 I believe some general ‘wisdom’ for that is: don’t do a double take and don’t let your eyes linger. Appreciate the beauty or quality and move on thanking God for ‘not leading us into temptation.’

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29 Responses to Revisiting Matthew 5:27-28 on lust

  1. Caspar Reyes says:

    On one level, this is about lust, but the principle is more widely applicable, although I’ve never heard any preacher connect the dots.

    We always want to draw the line between right and wrong in a way that puts us on the “right” side. But God’s line always puts us on the “wrong” side. To generalize, “no matter how you define X so that your are not guilty of X, there’s another definition that will make you guilty of X, and if not guilty of X then guilty of Y.” Jesus’ original statement addresses those who have drawn a line to put themselves on the “right” side.

    Many wives will fall into that category when it comes to Matt 5:28. How many wives smugly think to themselves, “I don’t lust after women, so I am not guilty of adultery, so I can condemn my husband for adultery because he is lusting after women.”

    But that woman that your husband looks at with desire? She is the same one that you look at with envy, and envy is murder. If you are going to condemn him as though he has literally done the deed, you have to condemn yourself for literally murdering. At least your husband’s desire is for that God-created interaction that makes life (and why aren’t you doing that with him, by the way, you vow breaker?). Your desire is for death. Your sin is worse than his.

  2. Jonadab-the-Rechabite says:

    Scripture consistently defines adultery as sex with another mans wife or a married woman granting sex to a man not her husband. The emphasis is placed on protecting the property of one’s neighbor, in this case his ownership of his wife’s sex. Not in the OT or in the NT is a man accused of adultery when some other man’s wife is not involved. That does not mean that it is not sin it is but it is not called adultery, but fornication (4202 porneia). Matt 5:28 then must refer to a married woman for the charge of adultery (3431 moicheuo ) to be intelligible. Jesus differentiates between adultery and fornication (4202 porneia) in v 32 as He gives a few words on divorce. As you also noted epithumeo translated above as to lust is not generally given a sexual connotation as in Matthew 13:17 “Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed (epithumeo) to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

    I therefore strongly argue that that the proper translation of Matt 5:28 is as follows: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a another man’s wife to covet her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Note the coveting need not be sexual in nature. It could be for how she looks, cooks, mothers, cleans the house or a man may covet the honor she shows her husband, pastors are particularly apt to be guilty of the later,

    I further suggest that the church has not repented of her dualism and really believes that sex is evil, at least the kind of sex men enjoy. Too much to be said on that topic here, but suffice to say that Christ is very specific in Matt 5:28 about coveting other men’s wives. You are absolutely correct that :

    The ‘modern’ interpretation of this verse has done a lot of damage to men as it has been wielded as an arm of judgment against the sex drive of men.

    There are very profitable “ministries” that shame men and then promise to rescue them from their sin and shame, that will for a fee give an “accountability partner” (still can’t find that apparent necessity in my concordance… its almost as if it not there) access to your computer history not to mention the mega radio ministries that make their bread and butter condemning and shaming men while validating women’s discontent. Claiming to be for the family they fracture it and Matt 5:28 is favorite chisel. Too bad they ignore v 32 altogether… hows that go again? .. “straining at gnats and swallowing camels whole”

  3. Daniel says:

    This is almost certainly referring to any man (married or not) coveting another man’s wife.

    Exodus 20:17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

    Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.

  4. Just Some Guy says:

    I’m surprised, DB. I found this kind of… lame. Most Berean Patriarchs see this as an admonishment to not desire (lust) after a woman who is already married. Adultery is defined as a woman who violates her marriage. There can be no Adultery unless the woman is already married. To desire a woman who is available for marriage is not Adultery. period.

    It also seems you’re hardening up the one-man/one-woman stance. I thought you had that figured out already. Plural marriage is unpopular, but Truth is Truth.

  5. Just Some Guy says:

    I meant @DS, not DB. Don’t know where that came from.

  6. Bart says:

    Jonadab is right. This passage clearly prohibits lusting after another man’s wife. The Law consistently defines adultery as sex with another man’s wife/ woman having sex with a man other than her husband. The Bible ALWAYS treats polygyny as marriage, not adultery. That doesn’t mean that Christian men ought to take more than one wife. We do have to be honest about the moral status of those relationships however.

    In references to this issue, I recommend reading “Man and Woman in Biblical Law” by Tom Shipley, and “Thelyophthora” by Martin Madam.

    The whole”polygamy is now adultery ” argument is erroneous.

  7. @ Jonadab-the-Rechabite + everyone

    Oops, I thought I had made it clear that Chrysostom believed that the passage was about coveting another man’s wife given the passages I highlighted (e.g. coveting that which is another’s — another’s being of course another man’s wife)

    Seems I didn’t in the conclusion. Editing that now to be consistent.

  8. @ Just Some Guy

    Regarding polygyny it’s not really hardening to say that Jesus affirmed one-man one-woman in His statement on marriage/divorce as the ideal.

    I accept that there are less than ideal circumstances at times, especially in times of war as an example (e.g. Isaiah 4:1-6, Exodus/Deuteronomy). I already covered that in the polygyny article though.

  9. Minesweeper says:

    DS,

    Good post, there are obviously a few men that can see what you have written but not many.Its really amazing how so much of Christendom can believe something in their translation that is so clearly not true. As if Jesus would say something on sexual sin that only applies to men !

    it is a very strange thing when you start going into the translations particularly on sex and find that not only is the english translation quite off base, Christendom has taken the wrong understanding and exponentially multiplied it into nonsense and then stapled it as a major requirement to the church door.

    Madness. In doing all this though, they have managed to avoid almost completely the commands of Jesus. Jesus said this is how you will know them by their love for one another. I can only assume the weakness of mankind has led it to abandon the hard teachings and adopt false ones. If you are always focusing on the wrong teachings, you will never focus on the right teachings. Not sure if its just the corruption of man leads to always wanting to adopt the wrong thing or is it the infiltration of feminism.

    I think they have also taken the worst examples and applied them to almost everything, for example a church I once attended and had close relationships with others from there had a big policy on “disconnection” ( I know bigg flag) because someone in NT time was having sex with his dads new wife and boasting about it at meetings.

    This was used as a license to cut others off all the time who disagreed over anything. Its actually really so simple, people jsut excel at making it so hard.Not surprising in the europe the church seems to be in freefall.

    /rant

  10. Minesweeper says:

    Another interesting point is :
    Mat 5:32
    But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

    So those who think fornication actually means sex between those without a marriage agreement. How can a wife commit fornication if she is inside a marriage agreement, should it be adultery only ?

    Is fornication a bigger catch all than adultery, I would have thought adultery would have covered everything, but obviously not.

  11. Minesweeper says:

    1Co 6:12-20
    v16
    Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.”

    Seems that fornication is really about sex with prostitutes, Is this another thing that we seem to have got wrong, or does it just cover everything that we dont want people doing ? Or any contact at all out a marriage agreement ? Which leads to the knowledge that almost every christian will have had contact before marriage that could easily be classed as fornication. Can you even get close to someone without committing that under our current understanding ?

  12. OKRickety says:

    Minesweeper,

    “So those who think fornication actually means sex between those without a marriage agreement.
    […]
    Is fornication a bigger catch all than adultery, I would have thought adultery would have covered everything, but obviously not.”

    This is one of those cases where current English usage of a word used in the Bible is inconsistent with the meaning of the original language.

    Per the lexicon at blueletterbible.org, porneia (Strong’s G4203) is translated as fornication 26 times in the King James version. Other English translations used in other versions are “sexual immorality”, “unfaithfulness”, “unchastity”, “whoredom”, and “lewdness”.

    In Biblical Usage, we find porneia refers to:
    – illicit sexual intercourse
    – adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.
    – sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18
    – sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mk. 10:11,12

    It seems the scholars agree that porneia is physical sexual intercourse (except for the specific mention of lesbianism) outside of one’s own marriage. This would include premarital sex and extramarital sex (adultery). It does not seem to include other sexual activity, for example, oral sex, manual stimulation, or even kissing. This leads to some ambiguity on what should be included as acceptable reason for divorce (assuming one accepts that divorce is allowed for porneia). For example, is a man allowed to divorce his wife because she kissed another man?

  13. shredifier says:

    How can a wife commit fornication whilst inside a marriage? …..she can’t! Therefore the “church” has been teaching a lie for thousands of years in insisting fornication refers to pre-marital sex ….we know that’s nonsense, otherwise the sentence becomes non sensical so therefore we know that fornication, at least in this verse, must by necessity referring to something else
    It’s just another attempt by the church to impose a false sense of guilt upon people in the area of sexuality

  14. Minesweeper says:

    @shredifier, well Jesus said she can and its even in the greek ! So what then ?

    1Co 6:12-20 uses the same word when talking about joining with a prostitute. And plenty of that passage has been lifted out of context while of course removing the condition of having sex with prostitutes.

    And if fornication is pre marital sex where does that begin ? I quick feel at the back of the bleachers ? “heavy petting” 🙂 (a favourite church phrase)

  15. Minesweeper says:

    @OKRickety, i had a look at those sources, they all absolutely think that “looking at a woman with lust is committing adultery in the heart”.

    If they have been so wrong about that, it really questions what are they right on the area of sex, which for some unknown reason, seems to have a will of its own when regards to translations.

    My whole point is that the church seems to focus unnecessarily on the evils of sex (the negative) while completely ignoring the positive, is short the church is a very negative environment that seems to force even its leaders into weird acts at times.

    Im not saying a free for all is healthy either, but we seem to have adopted unhealthy practises and beliefs about almost everything, while ignoring that which is good. I guess you can preach and condemn everyone over this (who hasnt sinned?) while God being in the room. Its the parts that you need God for I guess they dont focus on as he can choose to turn up or not.

  16. Chris says:

    “If he desires a woman who is not married, then he should take step to marry her (e.g. 1 Cor 7 — it is better to marry than to burn).”

    This passage by Paul is key. Going by the traditional (mis)interpretation of the SOTM, his words here would be unscriptural, because single people shouldn’t be burning with passion for each other in the first place.

    I speak from experience when I say that associating guilt and shame with every sexual thought, urge, deed, and dream at an age when those things come with some regularity can reduce a young man’s faith to flotsam.

  17. Minesweeper says:

    @Chris, I know, just think how many times a guy who is burning for her will have committed adultery in his heart !

    Sorry you have had that experience, its really awful how the churches really do seem to focus on unscriptural issues. I guess no wonder God barely moves there. I cant imagine being a Christian as a young man the torture they would put you under. I guess I was lucky I was older, so I knew alot of what they are saying is cr*p.

  18. @ Chris

    Yeah, that’s one of the major points that this article was trying to get at.

    Burning with passion for an unmarried woman is a GOOD thing. It means that you should take action to marry her, if you are equally yoked.

    It’s crazy how much this “passion” — the normal sexual drive that God created in man — for an attractive young woman is interpreted into “sin” because of a terrible interpretation of the Matthew SOTM verse on lust.

    I experienced this growing up, and it seems like 90%+ of other people did as well regardless of denomination.

  19. Minesweeper says:

    @DS, SOTM ? what does that mean?

  20. Lost Patrol says:

    SOTM was my riddle for the day also – but I’m going with Sermon On The Mount.

  21. @ Minesweeper

    Chris was just abbreviating Sermon on the Mount (SOTM) which is Matthew 5-7.

  22. Jeremy VanGelder says:

    Minesweeper, OKRicketty and shredifier, ya’ll should read DS’ article on divorce. In it he argues that Jesus’ use of “fornication” in Matthew 19:9 is specifically referring to marital fraud, where a single woman who has fornicated presents herself as a virgin bride. In that situation, when her husband finds out about the past fornication, he can righteously put her away. Just like Joseph intended to do to Mary.

    https://deepstrength.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/on-divorce-part-4/

  23. feeriker says:

    “I don’t lust after women, so I am not guilty of adultery, so I can condemn my husband for adultery because he is lusting after women.”

    How many women conclude that thought by asking themselves: “I wonder if maybe I paid a little more attention to my husband’s needs and tried to be something vaguely resembling an amiable human being if he would even notice any other women at all?”

    Just a rhetorical question, mind you.

  24. @ feeriker

    Of course, the answer is none. Nor do any pastors say anything like that from the pulpit either.

  25. shredifier says:

    If that’s the case then I completely disagree with DS and would suggest THAT interpretation is reading something into the txt based on speculation and conjecture
    The plain meaning of Matthew 19:9 is that the “fornication” referred to here occurs DURING THE MARRIAGE and not something that occurred prior. This much is clear because the penalty for sexual transgression is DEATH not divorce which us what this passage teaches

  26. @ shredifier

    The case of Joseph and Mary says otherwise. The Scriptures state that Joseph was righteous because he was going to “put away” Mary privately (rather than have her stoned as the Law states for [supposedly] fornicating).

    However, I don’t really care to discuss divorce again, so we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

  27. Chris says:

    “I experienced this growing up, and it seems like 90%+ of other people did as well regardless of denomination.”

    It won’t go away until Christ Himself comes back. I get warm and fuzzy at the prospect. “Woe to you, Joshua Harris and Steve Arterburn. Blind genophobic guides!”

  28. sadMaster says:

    It means: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.

    The woman being lusted after is married.

    I like the spirit of which you endeavored to write this post, however, you went a little bit too wordy.

  29. Minesweeper says:

    It means: Thou shalt not covet anyones wife.

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