Matthew 5:27-32 : How to Avoid Sexual Sin and Divorce


Time magazine recently published a special sixtieth anniversary edition with the title "The most amazing 60 years." In recalling the world into which Time magazine was born, this special issue began with this observation, "The atom was un-split, so were most marriages." Two things that have happened in our era which the magazine rightly brought together - one the scientific and technological explosion, the other a moral breakdown.

It is no accident that we have seen these two things happening simultaneously, for something underlies both. Time magazine goes on to say "To determine what has happened, and make sense of this jumble of events we need a sense of something beyond the particulars. We will need to discover the idea characterizing our age.”

Time is quite right. In order to make sense of what is happening in our generation, we need to understand the spirit of our time that has so radically transformed our culture. Time accurately observes that the spirit of our age is one of "freedom".

Western culture has so idolized freedom, so desired freedom, so pursued personal freedom, that like the splitting of the atom, a great destructive force has been unleashed. Like random particles of energy, people have been breaking away from traditionally held restraints, to the point where there are no constraints at all. Freedom has become absolute.

Time concludes "Behind most of these events lay the assumption, almost a moral imperative, that what was not free ought to be free, and that limits were intrinsically evil." That’s pretty perceptive for a secular magazine. We often rightly say that this generation is living in the shadow of the bomb, but if we take that Time editorial seriously, and more importantly, take God in his word seriously, we will realize that the bomb has already gone off, and we are suffering the effects of a explosion far more devastating in its effects on our families than perhaps a nuclear war would have. Why do I say that? Because it has happened with the tacit approval of so many. Adultery and divorce is so common it is taken for granted even by teenagers.

This week’s Times newspaper had a series of interviews with teenagers. Tuesdays heading was “smoking, drinking, drugs and sex: they’re all at it (except me).” World leaders may be trying to avoid another war in the
Middle East but they are not meeting around a table with bibles open trying to save our families from destruction. If only they would. If they won't at least we can. 

Lets look first of all at the context of these verses in the Sermon on the Mount.

What was the moral climate of 1st century Palestine?

The Context

There were three great civilisations influencing people in first century Palestine: Jewish Religion, Greek culture and Roman government, each with their own distinctive contribution.


The Jewish view of Marriage

Theoretically no nation ever had a higher ideal of marriage. It was a sacred duty which a man was bound to take. The only reason a Jew could delay getting married was if he was studying the Law. If a man refused to marry and have children it was said he had broken the positive commandment given in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply. Furthermore the Jewish Rabbi's taught that "every Jew must surrender his life rather than commit idolatry, murder or adultery."

The tragedy was that in practice this high view of marriage had been abandoned. It had a lot to do with the low view with which women were held in Jewish society.

A woman was at the absolute disposal of her father or husband. She had no legal rights. She could be divorced for all manner of reasons. In the days of Jesus divorce was as easy as it is today, family life was collapsing in first century Palestine. There were other influences at work however. If Jews looked to the Rabbis for their religion they increasingly looked to Greece for their culture and learning. The second influence then came from Greece.


The Greek View of Marriage

In one sense there was no view of marriage among the Greeks. They held an equally low view of women. Relationships outside of marriage carried no stigma whatsoever. They were accepted, indeed they were expected. Such relationships brought not the slightest discredit. To put it bluntly the Greek demanded the most absolute moral purity of his own wife, but for himself claimed the utmost immoral licence. He married a wife for domestic security, but found his pleasure elsewhere. Greek religion reinforced this immorality. Temple worship and prostitution were synonymous, and the income so raised built such temples as those dedicated to Aphrodites. Not only were immoral relationships considered normal and natural, you didn’t even need a solicitor to get a divorce. As long as you had two witnesses a man could dismiss his wife for any reason whatsoever. Increasingly Jews were influenced by such Greek values. But there was a third influence which came from the Roman Occupation.


The Roman View of Marriage

Originally Roman religion and society was founded on the home.  So high was the standard of Roman morality that for the first five hundred years of the Roman commonwealth there was not a single recoded case of divorce. Then came the Greek influence. Militarily, Rome conquered Greece, but morally Greece conquered Rome. By the second century BC divorce had become as common as marriage. Marriage had become nothing more than an unfortunate necessity to enable your children to bear your name.

This is the context, Jewish, Greek and Roman into which these words of Jesus were spoken. The Immoral Context.  Secondly lets note the Irreligious Controversy.


The Controversy  (Matthew 19:1-9)

“Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)

There were two schools of interpretation, the Shammai were strict and severe arguing that divorce was only permitted on the grounds of adultery. The
school of Hillel said that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner, went in public with her head covered, if she talked to other men in the street, or if she was rude to his parents. , and one Rabbi Akiba said that divorce was permissible if a man found another woman more attractive than his wife.

Human nature being what it is it is obvious which school of thought became popular among men. What we also know is that under the Rabbinic law of both  schools, divorce was required in the case of adultery or childlessness after ten years. There was no choice, it was compulsory. If you think the subject is a minefield today, then think what it was like for
Jesus. That’s the Context and the Controversy into which these words of Jesus were spoken. Lets now look at contrast between Jesus and the religious authorities on adultery and divorce.

Please turn to Matthew 5 with me, and lets examine this passage together. Note the contrast "You have heard it said... But I tell you." 

1. The Forbidden Desire (
Matthew 5:27-28)

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Matthew 5:27-28). 


“In the OT the Mosaic penalty for adultery was stoning. It was taken so seriously because of the damage it does to the marriage. It is a form of unfaithfulness which often wrecks a marriage. It is usually secretive and almost always leads to someone getting very badly hurt. Often all the parties involved are hurt, especially any children.” (Nicky Gumbel).

If society was and remains lax about adultery,
Jesus takes it to a new level and challenges us to recognize that it begins with a look. “Jesus is pointing out that the chain of sin which ultimately leads to the physical act of adultery, starts in the mind.” (Nicky Gumbel). He is not forbidding looking at someone. There is nothing wrong with appreciating beauty. There is nothing to feel guilty about in longing for personal fulfilment or feeling attracted toward someone else.

Jesus is challenging us to recognize that sin begins in the heart when the mind rationalizes what the conscience denies.  Before it is committed, adultery is always contemplated.  How does adultery occur? In his excellent book “Temptations Men Face” Tom Eisenman lists 12 common steps that occur in sequence as a relationship moves toward adultery.

1. Readiness
Unresolved issues in a person’s marriage that make them vulnerable.

2. Fantasizing 
Innocent thoughts about someone else beginning to turn to fantasizing. The ‘what if” which we rationalize as day dreaming.

3. Innocent Meeting
 Heightened awareness when around someone. Electricity.

4. Intentional Meeting
  Plotting to be in the same area so you might see them again. Playing games. This is the point when a person enters the danger zone.

5. Public Lingering
  Mutually agreeing to spend time together, ignoring others, shutting others out of the conversation. Showing particular interest in the other person’s personal history, interests. Observers might pick up that something is unusual at this point.

6. Private Lingering
  Long after others have left they are still talking. A growing excitement in being together alone. Converrsations shift from ideas to feelings. Caring is shared.

7. Purposeful Isolating
  Now the couple begin to plan times alone for legitimate purposes. Men will often confide in the woman and ask for advice with their marriage problems. Or the woman asks the man to stay late at the office to help her with the computer. The couple will still deny any suggestion that their relationship is not completely appropriate. At home, however, a wife might notice a decrease in verbal and nonverbal communication. He seems detached, almost formal.

8. Pleasurable Isolating
 Now a couple are planning times alone just for the sheer enjoyment and fun of being together

It takes on a youthful euphoria. There is more intimacy. The warm touch of the hand or arm. The couple will still rationalize that they are just good friends.

9. Affectionate Embracing
 Secret longings become intense. There is embracing often through tickling or wrestling. Physical expression is still rationalized.

10. Passionate Embracing
 Alcohol or anything that reduces inhibition contributes to increased physical desire and expression. Behaviour is rationalized because a husband or wife is unfeeling or doesn’t make me feel this way.

11. Capitulation
 Denial is eliminated. There is no longer anyway they can deny the reality of what is happened.

12. Acceptance
  The couple will admit to each other that they are having an affair. If it continues it is by mutual consent. The spouse is almost always aware at this point. The emotional investment in the affair is at its highest and investment at home at its lowest. The tension of living a double life is usually too much to bear for very long and there is often relief when it is discovered.

Eisenman asks, “Is this the end of the story? Do the man and woman live happily ever after? No. The story of an affair is not a comedy. It is a tragedy.” As
James Dobson says, “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but it still has to be mowed.” Once the excitement wears off the couple have to return to the real world and the imperfections they had not seen or had ignored become apparent. But by now there is a trail of pain like a cancer that begins to eat away at the new relationship. Children have been hurt. A wife or husband may have been abandoned. 

As Graeme illustrated last week. Its so hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once its been squeezed out.

I wonder if you are somewhere on those 12 steps right now?

If you are, do something about it. Recognise where it will lead you. Break the spiral. Turn back. Change your mind.

Its not inevitable. You don’t have to. Instead, Jesus calls for absolute chastity outside marriage and absolute fidelity in marriage. There are no excuses, no mitigating circumstances. The forbidden desire (5:27-28). 


2. The Surgical Cure (Matthew 5:29-30)

“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. 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.” (Matthew 5:29-30)


Jesus urges us to take radical action to deal with sin.

Jesus insists that anything that causes sin should be completely cut out of our lives. The expression “causes you to sin” is skandalon = from which we also get ‘scandal’ or ‘scandalise’. It literally means to trap with bait to catch an animal. Most scandals these days occur in the news papers when people are found out. They are trapped, filmed on camera. Jesus is speaking about anything that would lure us into a trap. Jesus didn’t mean that we should amputate parts of our body that has caused us to sin, otherwise we would have no hands or feet, let alone eyes or tongue.

I was at the Deanery Synod meeting yesterday and asked the men present to raise a hand if they had never felt lustful thoughts toward a woman. No one put up a hand. The Archbishop of Sydney the Right Revd Peter Jenson recently confessed to being an adulterer. He said, “By God’s grace, I am a celibate adulterer.” We are all sinners, saved by grace.

Jesus means that we must be ruthless in dealing with any habit or tendency that makes us vulnerable.  Jesus draws attention to three areas that need self control if we are to avoid sin. Our eyes, our hands and our feet.

2.1 We must control our eyes and what we look at

"I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl… if my heart has been led by my eyes, or if my hands have been defiled, "If my heart has been enticed by a woman … that would have been shameful, a sin to be judged. It is a fire that burns to Destruction; it would have uprooted my harvest. (Job 31:1, 7, 9, 11-12)


Our media is saturated with sexual innuendo and stimulation. We need to take great care over what TV programmes and videos we watch, what newspapers and magazines we read, even what advertisements we look at. So we must exercise self control over our eyes.

2.2 We must exercise control over what we touch (

This might include what we pick up to read. It might just as well refer to how we touch others, Non-sexual touch or contact is good and healthy. Steve Chalk advises young people ‘Don’t touch parts of another person’s body that you don’t have’. We must be careful of anything that is ambiguous or that can become manipulative. So we must guard our eyes and hands.

2.3 We must be careful our feet do not lead us to sin.

“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8)


We may need to be careful about the places we visit. Some places of so called entertainment may not assist you in remaining pure in heart.  Don Carson puts it like this: “We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out.”

Our eyes and hands and feet. Guard them well.

The forbidden desire, the surgical cure.


3. The Exacting Standard (Matthew 5:31-32)

"It has been said, 'Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' 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.” (Matthew 5:31-32)


If we are to take Jesus words at their simplest he is saying that the marriage bond is for life and there are no grounds for divorce other than in circumstances that break that marriage bond through marital unfaithfulness. 

Jesus was disagreeing with just about everybody in his stand for the sanctity of marriage, and the equality of the partners. He acknowledges the reality of divorce but only as a concession due to human fallenness.

So perhaps its not surprising that in Matthew 19, his disciples are astounded at such teaching. “The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.” (Matthew 19:10-11).


Jesus is basically saying "you're right, don’t get married unless you are sure that you can commit yourself to love your partner for the rest of your life. Take it or leave it."

So where does that leave those of us who are divorced?
Or those divorced and remarried? Of those who initiated divorce?

Of those who wanted to save their marriage and had no choice? Of those who were divorced before they became a Christian? Of those divorced since they became Christians? Thankfully adultery and divorce, whether in thought, word or deed are not unforgivable sins. By God’s grace, with repentance, forgiveness, healing, restoration and recovery is possible.  Here are some steps to take when you feel you have failed or fear failure.

  1. Repent : Turn away from what ever you know to be wrong. It may mean burning those magazines or videos, destroying those illicit letters or photos. It will mean acknowledging your guilt.
  2. Receive : There is nothing more wonderful than having the assurance that when we confess our sins God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-10). Paul writes, “Live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16).
  3.  Relate : We need to find friends with whom we can be accountable, who will pray for us, encourage us and ask personal questions. A friend once confessed to me that he had a problem with pornography. We talked it through and we agreed to hold each other accountable to ask hard questions. Have you got someone who in confidence you can confide about your moral life, your  ambitions and ego?  If not, then find someone.

“In God’s Word, marriage and love are for the tough minded. Marriage is commitment; and, far from backing out when the going gets rough, marriage partners are to sort out their difficulties in the light of Scripture. They are to hang in there, improving their relationship, working away at it, precisely because they have vowed before God and man to live together and love each other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness as in health, until death separates them.” (
Don Carson).

I know some of you have or are experiencing what this passage talks about first hand. If you are in the middle of it right now and want someone to talk to, ask
Ulla or James or myself and we’ll be happy to meet, listen and pray with you.

The forbidden desire, the surgical cure, the exacting standard.  Challenging Lifestyles? You bet. But its worth it.

As we shall see next week when we move on to the question of integrity, you can give no better legacy to your children or grandchildren. Lets pray.