Matt. 5:28 has been misused over and over again. What does it mean in its textual and OT contexts?
A famous Christian TV host has a segment on his show that allows email questions. A woman wrote in, saying that her husband commits adultery regularly or semi-regularly (I don’t recall the details). But he defends himself by claiming that she commits adultery in her heart when she lusts, so she is just as guilty as he is.
What did the TV host answer? Much to my shock, the host agreed with the husband about equal guilt and equal damage to the marriage! The host and the husband are wrong, terribly, unjustly wrong. If the wife who emailed her question accepts the host’s answer, he may have just wrecked a marriage or at least injected a heavy dose of confusion into it.
This post is adapted from my larger translation and commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, which is part of my larger translation and commentary on the NT.
You are encouraged to see other translations at biblegateway.com.
27 You have heard that it has been said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I tell you that everyone looking at a woman with the purpose of lusting for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus is clearly referring to the Seventh Commandment (you shall not commit adultery) and the Tenth Commandment (you shall not covet or strongly desire your neighbor’s wife). The Septuagint (pronounced sep-TOO-ah-gent and abbreviated LXX) is the third to second century BC translation of the Bible from Hebrew to Greek. Let’s compare those two commandments in the LXX with Matt. 5:27-28.
LXX Deut. 5:17:
οὐ μοιχεύσεις (“you shall not commit adultery”)
Οὐ μοιχεύσεις (“you shall not commit adultery”)
LXX Deut. 5:21:
οὐκ ἐπιθυμήσεις τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife”)
πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν (“everyone looking at a woman [or wife] to lust for her”)
No one has to be able read Greek to see the duplicate wording in the LXX and Matthew.
The participle “looking” is the very common word for “seeing” or “looking” in Greek, used 132 times. It is in the present tense. Contextually, It is not a glance, because God built us to be attracted to the opposite sex. God commanded us to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28), and that happens in marriage. But in these two verses we have something else going on in the heart and mind of mankind (and womankind). One looks continuously with a purpose to covet the real-life woman.
The wording “with the purpose of” correctly expresses the Greek phrase. There is a deep-seeded purpose involved, and it is to covet or possess the woman.
Conclusion so far
Notice that Jesus did not say that the man has already committed adultery with her with his body. Yes, acting on sin and ruining families with adultery with the body is much more harmful on humans than keeping adultery in the heart or mind. Yes, lust in the heart is a sin in God’s eyes, and Jesus says to stop it before it goes on continually. But private lust without acting on it harms no one else other than the guy who is continually lusting. So looking and lusting do not have real-life social repercussions or relational damage to the other marriage, but bodily adultery does.
Therefore, looking and lusting ≠ bodily adultery. But looking and lusting continuously is a private sin before God. It is to commit adultery in one’s heart.
Therefore the famous Christian TV host was wrong.
See my posts:
Are All Sins Equal? (answer: no; some are worse than others)
Are There Degrees of Punishment, Rewards after Final Judgment? (answer: yes)
In light of the information so far, a valid alternative translation of v. 28 can contextually be the following:
“Everyone who continually looks at a woman with the purpose of coveting her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
That translation encompasses the seventh and tenth commandments.
The next translation is not quite as secure, but it is within the realm of possibilities:
“Everyone who continually looks at a wife with the purpose of coveting her has already committed adultery in his heart.”
Commentator France (see below) seems to support this latter translation. The problem with the second one is that it is likely that Jesus expanded the prohibition to include any woman, and not just a wife.
Jesus insisted that the seventh commandment points in another direction [away from stealing another’s wife]–toward purity that refuses to lust (v. 28). The tenth commandment had already explicitly made the point; and gunē [pronounced goo-nay] … here more likely means “woman” than “wife.” (p. 184)
Plus, it would be a bad idea for a man to believe he can continuously look at and covet a single woman. But you can evaluate the latter translation in your own right, and on the basis of all the information introduced above, and next.
Jesus moves on from the Sixth to the Seventh Commandment (Exod 20:14). “Adultery” usually referred to sexual relations by a married person with a partner other than his or her spouse, but v. 28 makes clear that Jesus is not limiting his commandments to married people but speaking of sexual sin in general. The grammar of v. 28a leads to two possible translations. Jesus could be speaking of one who “looks at a woman with the intention of committing adultery” or to one who “looks at a woman for the purpose of getting her to lust after him.” Either way, the present tense participle blepōn [pronounced bleh-pone and means “looking”] refers to one who continues to look rather than just casting a passing glance, and in either case the mere viewing or mental imagining of a naked body is not under consideration. Instead Jesus is condemning lustful thoughts and actions—those involving an actual desire (the most literal translation of the verb epithymeō, [pronounced eh-pea-thoo-meh-oh] to have sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse. Yet despite the danger of overapplying this verse, an even greater danger is that of underapplying it. Adultery among Christians today is a scandal, yet it almost never occurs without precipitation. Christians must recognize those thoughts and actions which, long before any overt sexual sin, make the possibility of giving in to temptation more likely, and they must take dramatic action to avoid them.
That is a full excerpt. Let’s summarize. First, the sexual sin is expanded beyond just physical adultery. It means lust in the heart, which is a form of adultery. Second, Blomberg agrees that the clause can be translated with the purpose of getting the woman to lust after the man. So a scheme of seduction is the heart of the issue (see Carson again, next). Third, the present participle “looking” means it is not a glance, but a long, continuous stare. Merely mentally imagining a naked body is not in view here. There has to be a real woman (or man). Fourth, the best translation of the verb for “lust” is an intense desire for another man’s actual wife or someone else other than one’s spouse. Fifth, there is a possibility of overapplying the verse to mental imagining without a real woman in one’s look. Sixth, verses 29-20 says to deal ruthlessly with the problem, even by gouging out, metaphorically speaking, one’s eye.
Carson reports that a German NT scholar says that the common interpretation is wrong. It does not mean that he commits adultery with her in his heart, but he entices her to commit adultery with him. Agreeing, Carson takes over this interpretation and writes:
[The Greek purpose clause] commonly understood to mean “with a view to lusting for her” is translated “so as to get her to lust.” The evidence for this interpretation is strong … The man is therefore looking at the woman with the view to enticing her to lust. Thus, so far as his intention goes, he is committing adultery with her, and he makes her an adulteress. This does not weaken the force of Jesus’ teaching. The heart of the matter is still lust and intent. (p. 184)
That excerpt is a little complicated. It just means the man initiates a plot or scheme to entice the woman to also lust for him. This seduction is the same as committing adultery with her in his heart. So in context and a retranslation, committing adultery mentally must lead to an action, not just simply a strong desire in the heart. But in the last line Carson warns us not to under-apply v. 28.
But Jesus is offering an implicit argument from Scripture, not just a cultural critique. Although the seventh of the ten commandments declared, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exod. 20:17), the tenth commandment declared, “You shall not covet,” that is, desire, anything that belongs to your neighbor (Ex. 20:17). In the popular Greek version of his day, the tenth commandment began, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and used the same Greek for “covet” that Jesus uses here … In other words, Jesus reads the humanly unenforceable tenth commandment as if it matters as much to the other, more humanly unenforceable commandments. In Matthean ethics, if one does not break the letter of the commandments, but one wants to do so, one is guilty. (p. 187, emphasis original)
Jesus does indeed connect the seventh and tenth commandments to his teaching here, so let’s not lift it out of its historical and textual context. Matthew raises the standard in the kingdom community. Be careful of wanting to break the Ten Commandments.
The most thorough comments come from this fine scholar. He writes:
The commandment is again quoted verbatim from the LXX Exod. 20:14; Deut. 5:18. It is concerned specifically with a man who has sexual relations with another man’s wife. The “woman” in Jesus’ declaration is thus to be understood “in order to desire her,” specifically of wanting (and planning?) sexual relations (hence my translation “wants to have sex with her” above). The focus is thus not (as some tender adolescent consciences have read it) on sexual attraction as such, but on the desire for (and perhaps the planning of) an illicit sexual liaison (Cf. Exod 20:17, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s … wife, where LXX uses the same verb epithymeō (pronounced eh-pea-thoo-meh-oh and means “covet” or “strongly desire” or “lust”). The famous sin of David (2 Sam. 11:2-4), where such a desire not only led to adultery but also to murder, would naturally come to mind as a lurid scriptural example. The danger of looking lustfully at a woman is subject of many Jewish sayings [then France cites the references], and the idea that the desire is tantamount to the deed is hinted at in [then he cites more references] (“where gazes intentionally at a woman is as though he had sexual intercourse with her”); according to b. Yoma29a, it is even worse.
This is another rich excerpt, so let’s summarize it. The main focus is on another man’s wife, a real woman (not an “imaginary, mental woman”), which is the standard definition of adultery. It is a desire to actually have sexual relations with her. So the problem is not sexual attraction, but a desire for a sexual liaison. Jewish writings also warn against a desire to have sex with a woman other than one’s spouse.
Here is the marriage covenant, as Jesus teaches it in Matt. 19:3-6:
This illustration shows that God oversees the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. God ordains the covenant, as Jesus said, referring to the original couple in vv. 3-6. So marriage is not limited to two persons (man and woman) but between three persons (God, man, and woman). However, if a man divorces his wife for an unbiblical reason, this does not mean that he necessarily breaks his standing in the New Covenant, but he does break his covenant with his wife, a covenant that God set up. So divorce, even for a biblical reason, must be done with utmost caution and with the kingdom community’s guidance or pastoral guidance.
Bottom line: Marriage is a covenant not only between the man and the woman, but between God, the man and the woman. Involve God in your marriage. If you do not, then sin may enter and destroy the covenant, and civilly legal divorce may ensue.
Go to church, get counseling, and pray! Divorce—breaking the three-person covenant—is the last resort!
My fuller comments have moved to this post:
Brief Overview of Divorce and Remarriage in New Testament
Question and Answers
1.. What does v. 28 teach about masturbation?
Some believe that v. 28 encompasses this private act, and they may be right. However, the verse may be irrelevant to the private act, if it entails an imaginary woman in the mind. Verse 28 is about a real-life woman, your next-door neighbor, not an imaginary one and the attempt to seduce her.
In the big picture, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, where the Ten Commandments are found) is about behavior. Even the tenth commandment about coveting, an inner thought or drive, is about lusting to possess your neighbor’s things: his house, his ox or donkey or “anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exod. 20:17). Those are real things, not imaginary things.
However, if you believe that v. 28 teaches that masturbation is a sin even without a real-life woman currently living across the street at your neighbor’s house, but an imaginary woman, then don’t do it. Let your Spirit-filled, Bible-trained conscience be your guide.
2.. How dare you, sir! You compromiser! Doesn’t v. 28 say “commits adultery in his heart”?!
Yes, but it is still about adultery in one’s heart about a real-life woman. And one possible interpretation of v. 28 adds that the lust has to be about seducing the real-life woman, so that she also lusts for the man.
Consider these passages in the same context: Matt. 5:21-22 is about real-life murder and actual anger against a brother and the angry man actually calls him a name; this is not imaginary. A real-life context is pictured here. Matt. 5:31-32 counsels us against a divorce (except for one reason). He is talking about a real-life divorce, not an imaginary one. Matt. 5:35-37 says not to swear oaths. He is talking about real oaths, not imaginary ones. Matt. 5:44 says to love your enemies. He is talking about real-life enemies, not imaginary ones.
Picture a farming community or a small town or village in ancient Israel. A man sees that his neighbor’s wife is attractive, so he lusts after her and plots to seduce her, with the purpose of committing adultery with her. He seduces her in such a way that she lusts for him, too. While he is fantasizing and mentally plotting how to do this in real-life and with real schemes, he is already committing adultery in his heart. That’s wrong. That’s sinful. He must stop before the scheme is consummated with the body.
Think of King David. (He may be the main, living background to v. 28, as France wrote in his comments). He looked and lusted and schemed on how he was going to commit adultery with Bathsheba–a real-life woman. David sinned by lusting for her and was already committing adultery with her in his heart. He did not commit adultery with her with his body until he had actual, physical sex with her. At the heart stage, he did no practical, social damage to her husband Uriah or to her or to their marriage. He should have stopped right there, for he was still sinning before God at that initial stage.
Real people, real places, real lives.
3.. What about porn?
You are lusting after a real-life woman in plain sight, whom you can see with your own eyes. You may not be able to seduce her because she is not your neighbor, but this kind of lust is wrong for other reasons too (see the section, next). Many (or all) underage girls in porn videos and other images were likely trafficked. And women who have reached their majority and who were not trafficked are probably sexual-abuse victims. Whatever the case, they are abusing and degrading their bodies God gave them, using their bodies for unholy purposes, not holy purposes. They need salvation, not your continuous, degraded stare. So don’t use these women for your lust.
Stay away from porn.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Matt. 5:28 says to stop at the lusting stage.
Illustration: At the lusting stage your plane has touched down in “Adultery Land,” and you are about to disembark. Stay on the plane and taxi to the runway and then takeoff, right now! Don’t allow the lust to come to its full fruition–bodily sex, which has real-world, relational impact and damage. The previous stages can damage relationships as well if they are continuous, so stay on the plane and leave!
These two verses sum up this post:
14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. (Jas. 1:14-15, NIV)
Note the sequence of steps: (1) evil desires; (2) drag a man away to temptation; (3) enticement follows; (4) desire is conceived (it now takes root); (5) desire gives birth to sin; (6) sin grows and grows; (7) death, for sure spiritual death, but possibly physical death as well.
Stay away from the starting point: evil desires. Ask God daily to help you tame them. Better yet, here is the solution. Walk in the Spirit.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:16, NIV)
“Walking” means “living.” Rather than being sin-obsessed and smacking down every little sin that arises in your mind, just be Jesus-focused and walk in the Spirit. He will empower you to set aside your evil desires. They do not have to dominate you.
How to Forgive Adultery and Fornication
Those links teach that If you have committed adultery or other sexual sins, God will forgive you, on your repentance.
Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew. The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).
Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).
France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).
Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).