Matthew 5:27-37

Jesus standing between man and woman, each with star over heart, and large scroll draped around all three.
 "Jesus standing between man and woman, each with star over heart, and large scroll draped around all three." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


Matthew 5:27 You have heard that it was said, "Do not commit adultery." 

This pericope is really only two sections:

  1. Verses 27-32, concerning adultery, and

  2. Verses 33-37, concerning frivolous swearing.

In both cases Jesus is getting at sins of the heart; lust and untruthfulness. We are reminded of the truth stated by Jesus at Matthew 15:19. False righteousness deals only with externals; true righteousness with the person's heart.

Matthew 5:28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

 "But  I (emphatic pronoun) say to you," divinity is attributed to the humanity of Jesus. He is the Author and true Interpreter of what God said.

"Anyone who looks" is "everyone who is gazing." To look at a woman is certainly not wrong. The gazing is defined by the purpose clause: "For the purpose of desiring her." The lust "in his heart" precedes the gazing. That is where the sin begins. Sinners that they are, all men quickly understand what Jesus means.

Ylvisaker: It is the desire that is purposely nurtured in the heart. . . . Jesus speaks in this passage of the concupiscence that is sanctioned by the will. The will has rested, as it were, in the evil desire and has yielded to it, has sanctioned it. The deed is already accomplished inwardly.
Luther: I cannot prevent a bird from flying over my head, but I can hinder it from building a nest in my hair or from biting off my nose.

To be tempted is not wrong, otherwise Jesus would have sinned. But to  yield  to the temptation is sin. The sin in the heart is already a deed.

Lenski: What is thus said of man is equally true of a woman. Likewise, 'every man' is general and cannot be restricted to married men; and 'woman' cannot refer only to a married woman who belongs to another man. . . . Jesus uses the same words as the commandment, and these are to be understood in the broad sense, adultery including the more specific fornication.

Matthew 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

First and foremost, in this and the following verse Jesus is not speaking of literal mutilation of the body.

Fahling: The eye must be closely guarded. . . . also the hand and foot. Figuratively speaking, these members and all other members of the body must be controlled, if necessary, by an absolute and painful severance, or amputation, as it were, lest the whole body be condemned.
Bengel: Make all things hard to yourself, until it cease to be a stumbling-block to you. Not the organ itself, but the concupiscence which animates the eye or hand is meant, Colossians 3:5.
Ylvisaker: A life of strict abnegation is absolutely necessary. . . . The right eye and the right hand are symbols of that which is dearest and most precious. We must be willing to surrender our most valued possessions.

Lenski thinks that here Jesus counters an excuse: the man who blames the sin on eye or hand. He adds:

The fallacy lying in the excuse is thus exposed. The seat of the sin is not in the eye, but, as Jesus had already indicated in verse 28, in the heart.
Hendriksen: Sin, being a very destructive force, must not be pampered. It must be 'put to death' (Colossians 3:5).

By the way, most divorces begin with lust and sin in the heart for another man's wife (or husband). It is truly a painful thing to nip lust immediately, but the regenerate person has that power. Look at Galatians 2:20. One willful lust can lead to loss of everything in hell. Continued repentance, which involves fighting the flesh, is a constant must for us. The rejection of lust must be decisive. If not, God's decisive rejection follows.

Matthew 5:30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Note that both verses 29 and 30 involve a fact or particular condition. The "if"  clause, in each case, is for self-examination. Do I or don't I? Everyone is tempted because all have sinful hearts, even the seemingly best of people. What they do about it immediately is all-important. The sinful lust, unless overcome immediately, leads to gazing looks and wandering hands.

By the way, if the body goes away to hell so does the soul. The two cannot be separated. Verse 30, is a sense, is a restatement of verse 29 for the sake of emphasis. The Romans said:  principiis obsta  which means "resist the beginning." 

Matthew 5:31 It has been said, "Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce." 

Verses 31 and 32 are an extension of verses 27-30. Jesus is still talking about committing adultery. The Scribes and Pharisees  rightly  quote Deuteronomy 24:1, but  wrongly  interpret it. Read Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and note the following:

  1. This passage is found in a section dealing with  civil, not moral,  law for the Covenant people;

  2. Read Matthew 19:3-9. Moses did not  command, but  allowed, to give a certificate of divorce; Matthew 5:31 denotes permission, not a command;

  3. Moses allowed because of their unregenerate state, not because of their regenerate state;

  4. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was written to protect the woman, not as a way to get out of marriage;

  5. Jesus unequivocally states in Matthew 19:4-6 and 8b that man is  not  allowed to break a marriage; this applies to women also;

  6. Mark 10:4-12 clearly states that Matthew 5:32 applies not only to a man divorcing his wife but also to a wife divorcing her husband.

Ylvisaker: This concession (Deuteronomy 24:1) was not, however, sanctioned as morally justifiable. . . . This ruling of the Scribes and Pharisees had given rise to a practice in matters of divorce so lax, particularly in the school of Hillel, that a person was considered justified in obtaining a divorce from his wife, simply because he found something in her that displeased him. . . Through the practice that prevailed, the principle of marriage was disintegrated.
Lenski: Here Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 24 only as the false Jewish justification for their evil practice in order to place over against this practice the true intent of God's commandment.
Hendriksen: Moses had not at all encourage divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1-4, taken as a unit, most definitely discouraged divorce. . . . They greatly exaggerated the importance of the  exception, that which made divorce possible. Jesus, on the other hand, stresses the  principle, namely, that husband and wife are and must remain  one. 

Matthew 5:31, in its context, is getting at the sin of the heart, lust, with which illicit divorce begins.

Stoeckhardt: The sixth commandment is not satisfied by avoiding coarse fornication and adultery. It also requires chaste thoughts, words, and appearances.
Luther: We should fear and love God that we may lead a chaste and decent life in word and deed, and each love and honor his spouse.

Matthew 5:32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

Again, the emphatic "but" and the authoritative "I tell you." This is "but" in opposition to the surface interpretation of the Scribes and Pharisees. Recall Matthew 19:6. Married people are united for life. God alone severs this bond by death. Romans 7:2-3.

Lenski: Jesus is not expounding Deuteronomy 24:1, but Exodus 20:14 as quoted in verse 27. He is not setting up  one  cause for divorce over against this idea of  many  causes, but it forbidding  all  divorce and all causes  for divorce as being against God's intent as expressed in Exodus 20:14.

It applies equally to wives divorcing their husbands.

"Except for the reason of fornication." Fornication and malicious desertion (1 Corinthians 7:2,3,15) are sins which rupture the union. In neither case is the innocent party guilty. Jesus makes plain that He is not talking about the exception.

Kretzmann: If any other reason is alleged and the divorce brought about, adultery is committed, both by the complainant, in severing the marriage-tie, and by the accused that permits the frivolous dissolution.

Jesus is speaking about what Scribes and Pharisees were allowing: One spouse seeking divorce (for reasons other than fornication) and the other agreeing to it.

Stoeckhardt: It is understood here that the wife agreed to the unscriptural divorce and married another man, and he who marries a woman, who was divorced contrary to divine right, is also an adulterer before God.

These   Notes   do not agree with Lenski's interpretation:

In every case (other than fornication) the party not seeking the divorce is 'stigmatized as adulterer.'

With Hendriksen we reject this:

It must be read proleptically: she is called an adulteress because she may easily become one.

The text does not say that, though it may happen in individual cases. Stating that adultery amounts to dissolution of the nuptial bond and assuming that the divorced person concurs willingly in the divorce, Ylvisaker states:

'Causes her to commit adultery' that is, by giving her the right to wed another. If she makes use of this privilege, she commits adultery, because the first marriage was not dissolved before God, even if it were set aside before a human tribunal. . . . Morally, she was still bound to him. Therefore the person also commits adultery who weds the one who has been divorced for arbitrary reasons. He lives with a person who is regarded by God as the wife of another man. . . . A condition may be sufferable from a  civil  point of view, but the same time be  morally  sinful.

For verses 27-30 we recall the lust and sin of David, 2 Samuel 11:1-4, but also the wondrous repentance of David, Psalm 51. For verses 31-32 we think of the massive divorce by common consent, and for reasons other than fornication and malicious desertion, among movie stars. For many people, even some pastors, this has become the standard practice and is truly frightening. The pastor ought warn his hearers concerning the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-21) and encourage the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Sin begins in the heart and easily conquers the regenerate. Righteousness begins in the heart of the penitent sinner and is the best safeguard against causing ourselves and others to sin and suffer.

Matthew 5:33 Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago,  "Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord." 

Verses 33-37 distinguish a heart of utter truthfulness from the heart which falls victim to lies. There lies the true distinction. The repentant person who believes in Him Who is The Truth (John 14:6) is truthful. The impenitent person who rejects Him Who is Truth (John 8:42-44) is of the devil and has a lying heart. To the believer the name of God is precious and therefore he speaks truth. To the unbeliever the name of God is meaningless and therefore he speaks lies. Luther rightly involves this matter under the second commandment. Jesus is not condemning the oath per se, but the abuse thereof. Hebrews 6:16 is an axiom in all cultures. It is not adversely criticized. God Himself swore, look at Genesis 22:16; Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:17, not for His own sake but because of the weakness and sin of man who is prone not to believe Him. The patriarchs swore. Look at Abraham, Genesis 14:22-23; Isaac, Genesis 26:31; Jacob, Genesis 31:53; and Joseph, Genesis 47:31. Jesus allowed Himself to be put under oath, Matthew 26:63-64. With reference to these verses Bengel says:

There is clearly, however, a prohibition because the prevalent abuse (among the Jews) is forbidden, and their true use restored.

Now to verse 33. The Pharisees and Scribes were quoting correctly but applying falsely.

Kretzmann: They placed no emphasis upon the inner truthfulness of the heart. If that is missing, what object have all oaths?

The translations are interesting at this point:

Jesus is stressing two things (which proceed from an impenitent heart): Falsehood and ruling God out of the picture.

Hendriksen: The intended sense of Leviticus 19:12; Deuteronomy 23:21 and Numbers 30:2 emphasizes the truthfulness of the heart: 'You shall not break your oath but shall keep the oaths you have sworn to the Lord.' But the traditionalists had shifted the emphasis so that an oath in which the name of the Lord was not expressly mentioned was of lesser significance.

Matthew 5:34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God's throne;

Again the emphatic "but" and the authoritative God-man saying "I tell you" and stating the intended sense of the passage which they quoted. He says: "Don't swear at all." He explains what sort of oath He is condemning. They swore "by heaven,"  "by earth,"  "by Jerusalem,"  "by my head" thus avoiding God's name, ownership, power and Lordship.

Matthew 5:35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King.

But heaven is  God's  throne; the earth is the footstool for  His  feet; Jerusalem is the city of  the Great King. If the heart excludes God's name, power, providence and rightful ownership, it is a clear indication that hypocrisy has taken over, that falsehood reigns, and that the swearer merely wants to give the appearance of great truthfulness whereas the opposite is true. It is delusion.

Fahling: As Christ points out, it all amounts to the same. In the end all such oaths involve reference to God. . . . Develop such a love of, and reputation for, truthfulness that there will be no need for oaths.
Ylvisaker: And even if the oath made mention of terms other than the name of God, the vow is still in His name; for it is all His as His creation, heaven is His throne, etc.
Lenski: For though God is not directly mentioned in each oath He is most certainly involved.

Note Galatians 5:7. God does not allow Himself to be mocked. The impenitent merely mocks himself.

Matthew 5:36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black.

Bengel: Not merely is a single hair, but even the color of a single hair, beyond the power of man.
Lenski: Here the reference to God is by way of an oath that he is unable to make one hair of his head white or black.

Matthew 5:37 Simply let your "Yes" be "Yes," and your "No," "No" ; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

The truly righteous heart does not resort to oaths. Oaths don't make a person more truthful. An emphatic "yes" or "no" is sufficient. This is sufficient for your daily, ordinary speech. Christians are of the truth; further assurance is not necessary. Truth needs no help.

Lenski: The man whose heart is true to God utters every statement he makes as though it were made in the very presence of God before whom even his heart with its inmost thought lies bare.
Hendriksen: The real solution of the problem is in the heart. Hence, in daily conversation with his fellowmen a person should avoid oaths altogether.

And now comes the final sentence of verse 37 which stresses that man keep himself free from evil. That is the point. Does "the evil" or "the evil one" mean mere evil or the devil? AV, RSV and NASB read "evil." NKJV, NIV, JB, NEB, AAT and TEV have "the devil." It makes little difference.

Explicitly Jesus is saying that if, under ordinary circumstance, a person goes beyond the simple truth, he is caught up in evil and the work of the devil. Implicitly Jesus is saying that, in this world of sin, the child of God may on occasion be required to take an oath, not for his own sake but for the sake of those around him who are prone to be suspicious.

Expositor's: Anything that goes beyond this simple definition is of evil, even savors of the influence of the evil one, the devil, the father of lies.
Lenski: Because in a lying world even God's people become doubtful and inclined to mistrust, God, too, uses the oath, swearing by Himself. Hebrews 6:17. . . It is the necessity for the oath, a necessity due to the world full of lies, that is produced by Satan and his influence on people. The church has no room for oaths because everything said and done in the church is done in God's presence. This leaves the oath to the state alone, and also state penalties for perjury.

Zechariah 8:16:  "Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbor." Look at Ephesian 4:25. And, with reference to oaths, our  Catechism  reads thus, question 40:  "When are we permitted, and even required, to swear by God's name?" Answer: "We are permitted, and even required, to swear by God's name -- a) When we are called upon by the government; for example, when the court demands that witnesses tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. b) When an oath is necessary for the glory of God or the welfare of our neighbor." 


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp. 38-41. Used with permission.

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