Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Adultery in the Heart

“Ye have heard that it was said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’: but I say unto you, that every one that looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus is working through a theme, and it is getting more uncomfortable.

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus presents the second contrast between “what was heard” and what “I say unto you.” The first such contrast in Matthew 5:21-22 involved murder and hatred, insult, and derision of one’s brother; Jesus extended the principle to discuss the significance of reconciliation and the need to find grace before judgment (Matthew 5:23-26). While He quotes Exodus 20:13 from the Law of Moses in Matthew 5:21, He has no quarrel with the substance of the teaching, but insists that there is greater application and deeper concern than just the surface matter of the actual killing of another human being. The mental and emotional conditions of separation, alienation, judgmentalism, anger, hostility, etc. are just as wrong as the action when committed. Such instruction was in contrast to the standard of righteousness of the Pharisees which is under critique throughout this section (cf. Matthew 5:17-20).

This second contrast involves the next of the Ten Commandments, “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). As before, Jesus has no quarrel with the command itself; when making His contrast He is not attempting to justify or commend adultery in any way. Yet, as with murder, so with adultery: the final action is but a realization of previous thoughts and desires. Jesus’ declaration means that it is not enough to just not commit adultery: to look at a woman with lustful intent is to commit adultery with her in the heart, and Jesus declares such thinking as its own form of covenant betrayal (Matthew 5:27-28).

Jesus’ theme has become apparent: to observe the letter of the Law and avoid the outwardly sinful behaviors is well and good, but true righteousness demands not just a reformation of behavior but also a reformation of thought and feeling. Under the Law, and certainly in the Pharisaic system of thinking, one might be justified if they did not commit adultery even if they secretly harbored fantasies of doing so; in the Kingdom of God the fantasy is a transgression as well. Since how you think and feel dictates how you act, if you would act righteously, you must also think and feel righteously; if you sin in behavior, you have most likely already sinned in thought and feeling beforehand (Mark 7:14-23, James 1:13-15).

Jesus’ main point is fairly clear and understandable, yet many questions are asked in modern times about how we might apply it. For instance, what about single people? Jesus does not speak in terms of “fornication” in action or in the heart (understood as “sex before marriage” or “sex by unmarried people” in thought or action) since most people, by the age of sexual maturity, would have already been married. Nevertheless, on what basis would this principle not apply to those who are unmarried, who remain just as much under the commands to avoid lascivious behavior and to keep their vessel in sanctification as those who are married (Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)? They must take care to not allow lustful thinking to overtake them. Likewise, many ask whether this means that it is wrong for a man to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a woman whom they see, or vice versa for females. To this we emphasize what Jesus says: He does not make a blanket statement saying that any man who looks at a woman commits adultery in his heart, but it is those who look at women with lustful intent who commit adultery in their heart (Matthew 5:28). Men well know the moment where the thought process goes from aesthetic appreciation toward something darker; one can have the aesthetic appreciation and then work diligently to keep the mind away from where it might go under such circumstances. These days some are willing to justify divorce on the grounds that a husband has viewed pornography and thus has committed adultery in his heart and thus the wife can divorce him for sexually deviant behavior (Matthew 19:9). While lustful thoughts toward other women and pornography are absolutely sinful and have no place in a marriage such viewing is not actual contact with another person or creature and therefore does not fit the definition of the term porneia and it is dangerous to justify a divorce for such a reason!

Yet we do well to take seriously what Jesus says about the dangers of adultery in the heart. It is its own form of betrayal, either of one’s present spouse or the spouse one intends to have one day. Humans have always yearned for fantasy realms in order to escape the challenges and difficulties of their present reality, and that is also true in terms of relationships. One can always imagine a better relationship with another: for men the focus tends to be on sex and that is why pornography has become such a large business. For women it tends to focus on other aspects of the relationship and such is why romance novels have become such a big business. Such escapism easily leads to separation and alienation in the marriage relationship, and it is a small step from thinking about what it would be like to be with someone else to actually committing the act of adultery. Not for nothing does Solomon say the following:

Drink waters out of thine own cistern, And running waters out of thine own well. Should thy springs be dispersed abroad, And streams of water in the streets? Let them be for thyself alone, And not for strangers with thee. Let thy fountain be blessed; And rejoice in the wife of thy youth. As a loving hind and a pleasant doe, Let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; And be thou ravished always with her love. For why shouldest thou, my son, be ravished with a strange woman, And embrace the bosom of a foreigner? (Proverbs 5:15-20)

Let us take Jesus’ instruction to heart, finding satisfaction in our spouse and not in fantasies about others, maintaining not only our bodies but also our minds and feelings in sanctification and holiness to the glory of God!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Honoring Love

I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine (Song of Solomon 6:3a).

I am my beloved’s; And his desire is toward me (Song of Solomon 7:10).

What are we to make of the Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s (cf. Song of Solomon 1:1)?

All of the New Testament books are about Jesus and how to live in His Kingdom. The “history” books of the Old Testament tell us about the Israelites and God’s work among them, the books of prophecy present the messages of God to His people, the Psalms give voice to the one who would honor, praise, and glorify God, and Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes grapple with the realities of life, how to live wisely, and why people should serve the LORD no matter what their circumstances. Well and good; we understand why these books are in the Bible. Yet the Song of Solomon is unlike all of these.

For years many justified the Song of Solomon as Scripture, not on the basis of its literal meaning, but as an allegory: among Jews, as a love song between God and His people Israel, and among Christians, as a love song between Christ and the church. Yet such an interpretation seems quite forced: the lovers are clearly a young man and a young woman, and their descriptions of each other and their desires is the language of youthful, desirous love. While it is true that Israel is often portrayed as God’s wife (cf. Ezekiel 16:1-63, Hosea 1:1-3:5), and the church is portrayed as the Bride of Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33), the metaphorical images describing those relationships are not taken as far as we see portrayed in the Song of Solomon.

The best understanding of the Song of Solomon is to understand it at its surface level: it is a song expressing the love and desire of a young man and a young woman toward each other, giving voice to lovers for each other. Love songs were common in the ancient Near Eastern world: we have many similar songs preserved from Egypt as well. For that matter, love songs have been popular throughout time: expressing love and desire for one of the opposite sex has been a primary theme for musicians and songwriters to this very day.

The presence of the Song of Solomon in Scripture demonstrates that the “secular” and “spiritual” divide which marks much of modern thought does not reflect reality. The God of the Bible remains God in terms of secular interests and matters as much as in spiritual interests and matters.

In the Song of Solomon, God honors the love and desire between the young man and the young woman. When love, desire, and sexuality are discussed in Scripture and among Christians, it is very often in negative terms, prohibiting all sorts of sexual behavior. Many people focus on the negative and have come away with the impression that romantic love and sexuality are intrinsically impure and “dirty,” and cannot imagine that such things can honor or glorify God. Such negativity is a distressing distortion of what God is trying to communicate in the Bible, for all of the sexual prohibitions and guidelines are actually meant to honor and sanctify the proper exercise of romantic love and sexuality in marriage.

So the refrain goes in the Song of Solomon: the woman declares that she belongs to her beloved, and her beloved is hers, and his desire is for her (Song of Solomon 6:3, 7:10). This is the relationship which can honor God: marriage is honorable, and its bed undefiled (Hebrews 13:4). God, in fact, made man so that he would cling to his wife and the two would become one flesh (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-6). For generations, the Song of Solomon has given a voice for young men and women to express their love for one another, finding an opportunity to see their own love story in terms of the young man and young woman of the Song.

What makes the Song of Solomon more “interesting” or scandalous for people today is different from what made it distinctive in the past. In modern American culture we tend to take marrying for love for granted; in the ancient world, the decision of who would marry whom was most often left to parents trying to make family mergers that made good social and economic sense (as is done in many parts of the world to this day). Marrying for love did not happen as often; most couples would have to learn to love each other after their commitment and consummation.

The Song of Solomon has always been somewhat scandalous and a stumbling-block for some, but it need not be. God is able to glory in pure love and romance between a young man and a young woman. In fact, it is when “my beloved is mine” and “I am his/hers” that this love and romance can truly blossom. All married couples are called to find enjoyment in each other, for a man to “rejoice in the wife of his youth,” and his wife likewise rejoice in her husband, no matter what the circumstances (cf. Proverbs 5:18-19). Such lasting love honors and glorifies God who is love and who is one in relationship within Himself. Let us then understand the value of the Song of Solomon, and for those of us who are married, share in love and romance with our spouse!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Powerful Temptation

Again, the devil taketh him unto an exceeding high mountain, and showeth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and he said unto him, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”
Then saith Jesus unto him, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.'”
Then the devil leaveth him; and behold, angels came and ministered unto him (Matthew 4:8-11).

Satan has tried to get Jesus to satisfy His great physical hunger and to test out God’s promises. Each time Jesus has rebuffed him with Scripture. So now, in the third temptation (the second in Luke’s account; Luke 4:5-8), Satan attempts to seduce Jesus with one of his greatest tools– the desire for power.

No generation has ever lacked people who are willing to go to any length to get even a small portion of what Satan promises Jesus. History books are filled with the names of people who have used brute force in an attempt to conquer the world– Ramses the Great. Nebuchadnezzar. Alexander the Great. Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Napoleon. Hitler. For every such character there have been a hundred petty rulers who dreamed of something greater, and vast multitudes of the poor and dispossessed who dream of such power.

And here Jesus is– with one action, He could best them all. One could argue as to whether Satan, the Father of lies (John 8:44), would have really given Jesus authority over all the kingdoms of the world or not. One might even dispute whether it is within Satan’s power to give them. Yet to do so would be to blunt the force of the temptation. After all, if Jesus knows that Satan will not give the promised result or cannot do so, it is not much of a temptation. As the “god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4), he is likely well able to deliver on his promise.

Not a few men would have quickly fallen on their knees, including many of the Jews of Jesus’ own day. Ironically, this is His chance to be the “Messiah” of the Jewish imagination. What will He do?

This is a real test for Jesus. It shows everything that He is about. And, as before, He is about confidence in God. He tells the Evil One to be gone, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13. God is the only One worthy of true worship– prostration and service. God’s call for Jesus is the only important call. God’s purposes cannot be accomplished through Satan’s vehicles (Romans 1:16-17)!

Think for a moment about what Jesus is really doing here. With one quick action, all the pain and suffering could be gone. He would receive honor, glory, and power. Millions would be at His disposal for whatever purpose He desires. Rome, Persia, India, China, and all others would bow down before Him. Fantastic wealth and luxury would be His. But when He dies it would all go away, and humanity would never receive reconciliation with God.

Instead, He chooses to follow God’s call. He will soon go back to Galilee. He will live out His days as a peasant. During His life He will be an object of scorn and reproach. Despite doing good He will receive mockery, abuse, and ultimately a humiliating death as a common criminal (Philippians 2:5-8).

But then God raised Him in power and granted Him authority that Satan could never provide– authority over heaven and earth, the Name that is above every name (Matthew 28:1-18, Philippians 2:9-11). Through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is able to provide true life and salvation for all who come to God through Him (John 6:53-58, Romans 5:5-11, Hebrews 12:2). Through His blood an eternal Kingdom is established, one that can never fade (Colossians 1:13, 2 Peter 1:11).

Therefore, Satan offered Jesus the imitation, and He preferred to suffer in order to accomplish the reality.

We do well to heed Jesus’ lesson here. Too often we follow after the imitation– the idols of the world, and many times the specific idol of power– and think that we can accomplish God’s work through that imitation. It never has been and never can be. God’s purposes are accomplished through Jesus and the Gospel of the Kingdom; it manifests a specific disinterest in the governments of men (Romans 1:16-17; 13:1-7). Too many reach after power and abuse it on national, corporate, familial, and even individual levels. We must instead focus our efforts and stewardship on the eternal Kingdom and God’s purposes in it (Matthew 6:33). We must be willing, as Jesus was, to forsake the temporary pleasures, satisfaction, and honor of this world and to suffer loss and indignity in order to receive eternal glory and honor (Romans 8:17-18).

The Apostle John lists the three means of temptation that Satan uses: the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions (1 John 2:16). Thus Satan successively tempted Eve into sinning: the appearance of the fruit, its perceived health benefit, and its ability to make wise (Genesis 3:6). We all know what resulted (Romans 5:12-18). Satan attempts to do the same with Jesus: the desires of the flesh (bread), the desires of the eyes (power), and the pride of life (testing God). But this time Satan fails. Jesus stands firm and gains the victory over him, empowered by the revealed Word of God in Scripture.

Jesus, the embodiment of Israel, has endured His “Elijah moment.” He set out in His exodus into the wilderness and experienced the temptations of the wandering and yet proved faithful to God. It is right for the angels to minister to Him, for it is time for Jesus, having overcome the Evil One, to minister to others. The Gospel of the Kingdom can now be proclaimed by the One who overcame the temptation to compromise and to give up what is eternal for what is fleeting. Let us praise God for the victory and the Kingdom we can share in the Son!

Ethan R. Longhenry