The Radical Definition of Pure Desires
In his second example of the kind of righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus hits right at the heart in dealing with the righteousness of pure desires. External measuring-up to the letter of the Law isn't what God is after - he wants heart-level desire for what is right.
Last week we all were thoroughly challenged about our need to have a deep and pervasive righteousness of peace.
We found, first of all, that Jesus taught in the verses we considered last time indicated that true kingdom righteousness finds its opposite in a heart of anger. And we found it also to be true that the righteous heart of the kingdom citizen finds peace to be necessary -- such that we should not think that we can rightly worship God if we are unwilling to pursue reconciliation with someone we have sinned against. And then it is also true about peace that it is an urgent matter. We are to heed the common-sense principle of the fact that it is better to settle with a creditor sooner rather than later -- relating this to reconciliation means that we should urgently prioritize the pursuit of taking care of how we have offended others.
The point of the matter from what we learned in Matthew 5:21-26 is that the heart of the kingdom citizens is a heart of peace.
And this is but the first of a series of examples that Jesus gives concerning what kingdom righteousness looks like. If it is true that we cannot enter the fullness of the kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness exceeds in quality that of the scribes and Pharisees, then it is important for us to be able to clearly understand what this righteousness truly is.
It is a grace to us that the Lord gives helpful clarity to us here. He illustrates his main point of verse 20 with six specific examples of what kingdom righteousness looks like.
The first example had to do with our inclinations for peace instead of anger. And the second example that we’re going to consider today is strikingly similar in its aim, yet perhaps can be thought of as being even more piercing than the first.
If we found that what Jesus teaches concerning having a heart that pursues peace instead of one that pursues anger -- if we found that it was as if he was peering into our souls in order to help us fine-comb our sinfulness -- then I’m sure we’re going to find him doing the very same thing to an even greater degree in what we find him saying in the verses that are before us today.
So let’s read together the second example that our Lord teaches concerning what the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is like.
And if you’re being observant, you might notice that the structure of these verses is pretty much identical to the structure of what we considered last week in 5:21-26.
In both examples Jesus begins by saying, “You have heard that it was said…”In both examples Jesus then cites the usage of a correct Mosaic instruction, from the Ten Commandments. In both examples, Jesus uses that Mosaic principle to intimate that the leaders of Israel had missed something of fundamental importance which lay beneath the external command. So in both examples Jesus then says, “But I say to you…” and he gives a heart-level truth concerning what God’s commandments were always supposed to be about.
And then in both examples Jesus supports his instruction with a series of clarifying statements which are, honestly, somewhat cryptic. The illustration of the gift at the altar, and the use of an ancient adage about settling quickly with your creditor -- these two allusions really don’t mean anything if they are not understood within the context of Jesus’ teaching on being a person who concerned with peace over anger.
So, instead of being OK when you just don’t murder, the real point of the command is to be sure that you aren’t even angry with another. Likewise, instead of being OK when you just don’t commit the external act of adultery, the real point of the command is to be sure that you aren’t even desiring it.Similarly, the statements in verses 29-30 about cutting out one’s eye and cutting off one’s hand don’t make a bit of sense whatsoever if they are not understood within the context of the specific example of kingdom righteousness that he is seeking to make clear for his listeners (What is more -- a bad take on these eye and hand removal instructions could lead to seriously bad ramifications in someone’s life should they be taught incorrectly. So it is of utmost importance that we understand what they are illustrating in light of what Jesus is teaching concerning the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.)
So I’m going to structure this sermon very similarly to how I structured last week’s sermon. I’m going to tell you what I think Jesus is clearly teaching about kingdom righteousness with this example, and then we’ll walk through the verses to see why this is the case.
Now. If you do a Google search for “sermons on Matthew 5:27-30,” then you’ll like come across a host of sermons that focus on one particular topic -- Lust.
These verses are the go-to verses for when the well-intentioned youth pastor wants to drill into his youth group boys how to fight the narrow area of sinfulness that is commonly referred to as “lust.”
It is often to this text that the loving father turns when he is speaking with his son who has just been caught dabbling with things on the internet that he shouldn’t have -- again, this is done in order to provide biblical support against the sin of “lust.”
And it makes sense to us why we have pigeon-holed these verses onto this particular genre of sin. We see Jesus referring both to adultery (which is a sexual sin) and to what we have translated in our English Bibles as “lust.” Or “lustful intent” in the ESV.
But what I hope you’ll all be able to see after we’ve finished looking into Jesus’ instructions here is the fact that this example of righteousness is far more than a young man’s lesson on self-control. There is a soul-piercing reality in this example for all of us.
Perhaps I could even meddle a little further and say that I think it is somewhat tragic that these verses have been relegated to being practically relevant only in discussions on a man’s “thought-life.” Or for books on “moral purity.”
It’s not that Jesus’ teaching in these verses doesn’t at all apply to such narrow areas, but rather that he is teaching about something far larger in scope than the narrow niche of avoiding sexual sin...
Think back to last week’s topic -- the righteousness of peace. The clear thing that we gleaned from Jesus’ instruction was the positive command for pursuing peace. And his discussion about the negative reality of anger was important, but really it was just a foil for bringing the necessity of peacefulness to the forefront of our attention.
So. Sure - if you want to talk about problems with anger, go ahead and talk about Matthew 5:21-22. But don’t neglect the positive quality that Jesus uses those verses to emphasize! He talks about anger in order to get our attention onto righteous peace.
Similarly -- if we want to use Matthew 5:27-28 to walk someone through how to deal with their sin of what we’ve come to refer as “lust,” that’s fine. But we just shouldn’t do so without also pointing their attention to what Jesus is using the negative reality about our sinful tendency for, in order to teach about what should be true about the positive righteousness of those in his kingdom.
The Lord’s call to us as his people is not a long list of ‘don’t do this sin’ and ‘don’t do that sin,’ so much as it is a call to ‘do the delightful duty of earnestly pursuing that which is eternally satisfying.’
John 4:13–14 - “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John 6:35 - “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
John 6:48–51 - “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
John 6:54 - “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus views his commandments as life-giving, as joy-producing, as all-satisfying. They are not to be viewed as the heavy burdens of what the Pharisees bound up on people’s shoulders. They are rather to be viewed as light.
Matthew 11:30 - “For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
His law and his commandments are those which do not bring struggle and strain and burden and work and toil. No-- the commandments of Christ bring rest. Rest from laboring to find satisfaction, because that which fills the soul is right here before you in him and his Word.
So. Instead of viewing Matthew 5:27-30 merely as a discussion on how to avoid the negative of sexual sins, we should instead see it in the right positive light -- just as we did the first example of peacefulness.
And just as the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is one that is concerned with peace instead of anger, so also this righteousness is one that is concerned with pure desires rather than forbidden ones.
The positive quality of the greater righteousness is that it concerns the cultivation of the purest and the most righteous of desires, wants, and affections.
So the second example of kingdom righteousness that Jesus provides for us is this -- he is positively teaching us of the righteousness of pure desires -- Of pure wants. Instead of desiring what we may not desire, we are to desire what we should desire.
And before we look into the details of the text which support this idea, let me say that I don’t know if there is anything in true biblical Christianity which is more deplorable to our world than this.
Perhaps our culture’s favorite matra is this: “Follow your heart.”
You’ll hear this in songs and stories. You’ll see it as the theme and titles of books and movies and Disney-on-Ice productions. There are countless psychiatrists and therapists and counselors and life coaches who will inspire you to follow what your heart tells you to do.
A professional psychologist recently wrote an article on Huffington Post in which she gave 10 reasons why we should follow our hearts. Her final capstone reason was this --
“10. Listen to your heart — it knows your true desires...I find it important to highlight the concept of listening to your heart, because it knows your true desires. It knows your wants and needs, and what will genuinely make you fulfilled. When we are honest with ourselves, when we are willing to ask ourselves what is truly in our hearts, we open ourselves up to possibility. Possibility to fulfill our hearts desire, and to be who we were truly meant to be, doing what we were meant to do.”
But it isn’t just secular minds who will give this advice.
In a book which has sold over 8 million copies, which was ranked #1 on the New York Times best-seller list for 2 whole years -- in a book written by a well-known “pastor” we find these words:
“You have to learn to follow your heart. You can’t let other people pressure you into being something that you’re not. If you want God’s favor in your life, you must be the person He made you to be, not the person your boss wants you to be, not even the person your parents or your husband wants you to be. You can’t let outside expectations keep you from following your own heart.”
Now, insofar as our heart’s desires are pure and righteous and in line with God’s commands -- then we heartily agree with the fact that we follow those righteous desires even if others tell us not to.
But the problem is that these authors are saying that the heart should be followed categorically. They are saying that we should trust anything and everything that our heart desires want. Regardless of what the want is, your desires are not something to be shied away from.
The prevailing mindset of the age is that even though some outward actions are wrong, for the most part there are no inner desires that are wrong.
Why is that? Because we can’t help it. We can’t change what we want. So we shouldn’t be accountable for our desires. For our longings. For our cravings.
Your heart desires wealth? Nothing wrong with that. Go ahead and orient your life around attaining wealth.
Your heart desires fame? Cool. Go ahead and set yourself on a course to achieve the highest notoriety you can.
Your heart desires comfort and ease and pleasure and entertainment? That’s normal and commendable, so you should structure your goals around a retirement in Florida where you can accumulate a grand seashell collection.
And if your heart desires to be in a romantic relationship with the same sex -- this is equally applaudable and you should pursue it with freedom and celebration.
The same is true if your heart desires to express yourself as a different sex than what your biology would indicate. It doesn’t matter that being male or female is actually part of what it is to be made in God’s image -- and so if you desire to un-bind what God has from creation bound to be true about your individual human identity... “Go ahead and do it!” is what the world will readily tell you.
Our American society is on a crash course for complete ruin, because we celebrate the idea that whatever issues from the heart of man is not only permissible, but that it is also commendable.
But even more than that, we see that the world finds the Bible’s commands concerning our desires to be utterly perverse and ridiculous. Because, so they would think -- “What kind of deity would demand certain desires and emotions?” It’s one thing to command behavior, which we all have the capacity to control, most of the time. But it’s a completely other matter to command feelings and affections and desires.
Yet we see that this is exactly what God has always done.
Deuteronomy 6:5 - “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Deuteronomy 7:9 - “Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,”
Deuteronomy 10:12 - “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul,”
Deuteronomy 11:1 - “You shall therefore love the LORD your God and keep his charge, his statutes, his rules, and his commandments always.”
Joshua 23:11 - “Be very careful, therefore, to love the LORD your God.”
Hosea 6:6 - “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice.”
God has always demanded that we love him above all else. Jesus echoed this when he was asked what the greatest commandment is. He replied to that question in Matthew 27:37 - “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” To the level of our deepest affections and desires and longings and wants, we are to be inclined toward God and his righteousness.
God requires us to be righteous in a way that the world would never applaud.
Our culture celebrates freedom of feelings, and the expression of whatever it is that you want in your heart. Our world is one in which desires are not to be restrained or governed in any way. Maybe your actions or your words...perhaps you should temper what you do and so to fit with cultural norms. But if you have a desire for something which others say is wrong in your heart, there is nothing inherently wrong with you -- because you can’t help it anyway.
Such reasoning is what will lead our society further and further into disarray and anarchy -- into the life of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges: “And everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
But why is such untempered heart-following such a bad thing?
Because bound up in the natural heart of every human is every genre of impurity and sinfulness. The truth of Genesis 6:5 and Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 1 and Romans 2:1 and Romans 3:10 and a host of other biblical texts indicate that the human heart is not a compass to be trusted at all. Our desires are naturally evil. Our wants are inherently wrong.
Adam’s sin brought upon all creation the curse. The curse has taken the human wanter -- the human heart -- and has turned it from being a pure and delightful part of every human into a vile and filthy sin-maker. That’s the way every natural human heart is.
And even the Christian will have trouble with their heart.
Even though our natures have been renewed and brought to life. Even though we have the Spirit of God working in us to produce all kinds of spiritual fruitfulness, we are still surrounded by this body of death called the flesh. And our flesh continually seeks to war against our heart to entice it to treasure that which it used to desire and love.
And we do sometimes succumb to its lure. We do at times find ourselves loving what is impure and wanting what will not satisfy and craving what will leave us empty. It won’t be until God takes us from this earth that this constant wrestling will cease.
So the words of Christ in these verses before us are certainly for us. We must come to understand the depth of the kind of righteousness that our Lord has powerfully called us to. It’s a righteousness which isn’t superficial, but goes to the very depths of our hearts.
And as we look through these four brief verses I believe that we see two specific characteristics of the heart which evidences the righteousness of pure desires. If you claim to have a heart that has been transformed by the Lord of the kingdom of heaven, then your heart will manifest these two things as concerns what you desire.
The heart of pure desires is one that is marked by these two things -- How strictly it is willing to define true purity. How far it is willing to go to defend its purity.
We could say these another way -- the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is evidenced by a heart which defines pure desires in the strictest manner, AND which defends pure desires to the greatest degree.
We manifest kingdom righteousness by a radical definition of pure desires, and by a radical defense of pure desires.
These will be our two points as we look through what Jesus teaches about the righteousness of pure desires -- the radical definition of pure desires, and the radical defense of pure desires.
1. The Radical Definition of Pure Desires
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
We see here that Jesus again uses the negative to make a clear point about what should positively be true about those in his kingdom.
The negative that he’s using is all bound up in a false understanding of the true extent of the 7th commandment, which we read in Exodus 20:14 as “You shall not commit adultery.”
This law is distinct from the prohibition against fornication, which is something that Jesus also seems to distinguish in his teachings. So the command to “not commit adultery” is a command against the specific breaking of one’s marriage promise to remain intimately faithful to your spouse.
To commit adultery, both when Moses received the law, and at the time when Jesus taught in Israel was to commit such a significant crime that it came with the death penalty. So. The teachers of Israel made sure that they didn’t commit it. And they made sure to teach others that no one should commit adultery.
And so Jesus says to his listeners that they have heard this right teaching from the law of Moses.
But what they didn’t hear is what lay underneath the command to not commit adultery.
What wasn’t as firmly taught was the 10th commandment which was the foundation of the 7th. A person could not have broken the 7th and not also have broken the 10th at the same time -- which we read of in Exodus 20:17 - “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”
To covet, or to desire that which does not belong to you is a violation of the 10th commandment. And you don’t violate your covenant of marital fidelity without first desiring to do so, which is the sin of covetousness.
But the sin of coveting is not as blatant and disrupting as is the sin of adultery. It’s harder for others to detect, and so we tend to think it’s also harder for God to detect. Which is a silly thought, but certainly one which Satan would love us to think.
And it’s certainly what the religious leaders of Israel thought, because they had found what they thought to be an ingenious way around commandments #10 and #7 at the same time. They had come up with a strategy that made an absolute mockery of the institution of marriage -- it was a system that flagrantly abused divorce.
It came to be standard practice in Israel during the 1st century that a man could divorce his wife over anything that displeased him. If she accidentally burned his soup, he could divorce her. If she disagreed with him about anything, he could divorce her.
But this quickness to divorce wasn’t at all done in order to ensure peaceful and happy homes. It was a wicked convention that the leaders came up with as an abuse of the law of Moses in order to rationalize and justify their wanton desires for women other than their wives. They had hearts filled with coveting, and so in order to not also break the outward 7th commandment, they fashioned some legal provisions to ensure that a man wasn’t being an adulterer because he had already divorced his wife and married another.
And so when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” he was not really commending the teachers of Israel for getting things right. Because it was also true that ALL they had heard was that they shouldn’t commit adultery. There was no discussion of the heart behind the act. There was no effort made to instruct hearts to love God by being faithful to your spouse until you die.
Quite to the contrary -- the people were instructed by example that they were free to find any legal-seeming civil loophole they could in order to satisfy what their hearts wanted them to have, and all without earning disrepute from those around them.
Does that not sound familiar? They were collectively running after the legalization of giving expression to the sinful desires of the heart. (Romans 1 comes to mind -- “giving approval to those who do such sinful things.”)
The sinful desires of the heart ruled the rulers of Israel. They were governed by the passions of their flesh. And even though the 7th commandment was upheld to its letter, in no way was the spirit behind it being met.
Which is why Jesus said what he said in verse 28 - “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
There is something deeper than just ‘not adulterating your marriage’ that God’s law was always after. God’s law aimed at the heart such that outward fidelity was supposed to be the natural result of inward fidelity.
A man was to remain faithful to his wife not because Moses said he had to. A man was to remain faithful to his wife, and a wife was to remain faithful to her husband because they wanted to. And this is what is so radical -- that we would define true righteousness according to having the right desires and not just the right actions.
We know this to be what the Lord is aiming at because of what Jesus says the 7th commandment was actually supposed to mean. It wasn’t just a way for God’s people to remain outwardly pure, it was a way for God’s people to remain inwardly pure -- to remain righteous in their desires for their spouses, specifically.
Now, most of our English translations use the word, “lust” here to capture the point of Jesus’ instruction. This English word carries the connotation of wantonness or brazenness or of some kind of uncontrollable urging in the heart. We’ve even come up with an entire genre of Christian self-help literature based upon the idea.
And I’m not here to explicitly deconstruct what others have written on that topic. But I do want you to realize that the word translated “lust” here in your Bibles is merely the Greek word for “desire.” It’s a form of the word á¼Âπιθυμεω, which is simply the generic word for “desire.” It is often used to refer to bad desiring, but it is also regularly used to describe really good desiring, too.
Matthew 13:16-17 - “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” The saints of old desired to see and know what we now get to know from the word of Christ.
It was said of the prodigal son -- “And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.” There’s nothing sinful in wanting to eat when you’re starving.
And Jesus himself said in Luke 22:15 “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.”
Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1 that “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.” Part of knowing that you should be involved in pastoring is if your heart longs to do so.
And then we read in 1 Peter 1:12 that the things which the prophets wrote concerning Christ are things into which angels long to look.
All these are instances in the NT of the same word we read in Matthew 5:28, but where it is used to describe a good and righteous kind of desiring.
So when we consider Jesus’ explanation in Matthew 5:28 in the context of this whole example of kingdom righteousness, we come to realize that the major emphasis is clearly on the idea of “desire.”
The “look” is what is sometimes emphasized in counseling manuals, but Jesus’ emphasis is on the fact that something which a person sees (either literally or imaginatively) is being sinfully and wrongly desired.
The Pharisees said in effect, “It’s not a problem to desire unfaithfulness to your spouse...just be sure to be divorced before you act on it so you don’t violate the letter of Moses’ law.” But Jesus says, “That’s not righteousness. You are only truly righteous as you desire faithfulness to your spouse. To so much as want to be able to act as if you are not married to your spouse is no different from breaking the 7th commandment in the eyes of God.”
I hope you can see that Jesus is defining unrighteousness as something far deeper than a young man’s fleshly impulse. What’s sinful is any heart desire which is contrary to what God has bound you to.
There are temporal, earthly things that God has bound us to for a time, while we live on this planet:
If God has bound you to a certain spouse, this means you must desire your spouse.
If God has bound you to certain parents, this means you must desire those parents.
If God has bound you to certain children, this means you must desire those children.
If God has bound you to certain physical limitations, this means you must desire those limitations.
All these temporal desires should be true in the sense that we don’t desire to be rid of them prior to when God determines we should be rid of them, which will be at the time of our death.
And there are also eternal things that God has bound us to which will continue on into eternity:
If God has bound you to walk in Christlikeness, this means you must desire to walk in Christlikeness.
If God has bound you to be free from the power of sin, this means you must desire to be free from the power of sin.
If God has bound you to a new Master who is Christ Jesus, this means you must desire to love and honor and obey this glorious Master.
To want or to desire contrary to what God has decreed for you to want or desire is itself a sin. It doesn’t matter whether you act upon such desires or not -- to want what you may not have is to sin against God.
And this is the radical definition of righteous desires -- that we must always have our desires align with what God wants us to want. Always.
Now I don’t want you to go from here missing something really really important about this matter of aligning our desires up to what God decrees for us to want…
God is not a mean ogre. He gets no delight in demanding that we delight in that which is unsavory. Instead, he is magnified and glorified as he calls us to find eternal satisfaction in desiring that which is glorious and lovely and beautiful and thoroughly delightful.
So in a sense, finding delight in the particular things God wants us to want (our marriages, our family connections, our circumstances, etc.) -- finding delight in these things is just the shadow of finding delight in God himself. Because if we want God supremely, then we trust him. And if we trust him, then we are content in what he providentially gives us.
And to be content is another way of saying that “The LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want.” I shall not desire anything outside of what my Good Shepherd has given. I want him and his provisions -- whatever they may be...and whatever they may not be.
So Jesus calls us to what the world might perceive as radical concerning our desires. But to those who love God, we realize he’s actually calling us to that which is only reasonable and right.
The righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is one that is characterized by desires that are radically defined.
And as I mentioned earlier, it’s also characterized by desires that are radically defended. This is what we see in verses 29-30 and the examples of the right eye and the right hand.
To radically defend our desires is going to have in view the preservation of the kind of righteous heart that Jesus is calling us to in the Sermon on the Mount -- to a kind heart that could have anything sinful placed in front of it, and it would not touch it because the heart doesn’t want to.
And in order to be able to fully explain what Jesus is teaching us in these next two verses, we’re going to need to turn our attention to some other important biblical principles concerning sin and the heart and the nature of man -- which means that we’ll need to wait until next time to thoroughly discuss it all.
So I hope you’ll come back.
And I hope you will think more and more about the fact that Christ is after your heart. His will is for his people to want to follow in his righteous way out of delight and not out of mere external obligation and compliance. He wants our hearts.