The Radical Defense of Pure Desires
Not only is true righteousness concerned with defining pure desires the way God defines them, but it is also concerned with the positive quality of aggressively and radically fighting against all which would intend to pollute them.
We find ourselves in the middle of Jesus's second example of the kind of righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
The first example is found in verses 21-26. In this example Jesus first gives a negative part of his instruction, which is that we should not even be angry with our neighbors. It is not enough just to not murder them, but it is required for true righteousness to not even have a heart of anger towards another person. And then Jesus gives the positive part of the instruction at the end of this section, where he says that instead of being angry we ought to aggressively pursue peace. We are to recognize that we may not so much as worship God when we are holding on to sinful offenses that we have committed against others. And we are to see that we must urgently and quickly take care of the things that we have done to send against others. That is his first example of the kind of righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.
And the second example of this kind of righteousness begins in verse 27 .
“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.If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell”
And just like we found in the first example of Kingdom righteousness, we see here in this text that Jesus uses both a negative and a positive to make his point clear. The negative is this -- It is not enough just to meet up to the letter of the Law by not outwarding committing adultery. Rather, God desires that you not so much as want or desire to be unfaithful to your marriage covenant.
The Pharisees had abused divorce in order to seem as if they were keeping the 7th commandment, but in reality they were violating the 10th commandment (which says, “you shall not covet…”), along with also breaking the spirit of the 7th. You'll remember that last time I mentioned how it was that in Jewish culture of the day in which Jesus taught -- that a man was free to divorce his wife legally for any reason whatsoever. So if a man found someone else whom he would like to be with, instead of committing the outward act of adultery he would simply divorce his current wife and marry the other.
And what Jesus makes clear with his instruction in verse 28 is that the very desire of that man to want to be with someone other than his wife is itself a violation of what God had always intended the seventh commandment to be.
For those whose hearts were regenerated and therefore were inclined to love and obey God, the Ten Commandments were a means for them to outwardly express their inward devotion to him.
But if you had no inward devotion to God, then these Commandments become nothing more than a moralistic or a legalistic set of rules to follow in order to feebly attempt to earn favor in the eyes of God. (Which we know to be a ridiculous pursuit because no one can earn favor in the eyes of God -- Which is why we all need a Savior who has earned favor in the eyes of God to stand in our place and be our righteous substitute.)
So Jesus takes this false notion that God is pleased with a person simply by them conforming to an outward principle, and he makes it abundantly clear that true righteousness concerns the heart -- it concerns our desires and what we want. Jesus is saying that the righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is one that is characterized by the radical definition of pure desires. It is not enough to define pure desires as wanting to measure up to a limited set of outward instructions. That is what the self-righteous heart longs to do, because we would love to be able to earn glory and honor for ourselves if we can check all the boxes on a list. But Jesus says that this is not true righteousness. True righteousness concerns being pure in our inward-most parts. It concerns being pure in our hearts.
So, what then is the right way to define pure desires? If we don't define purity according to the letter of the law, then what do we define pure desires to be?
The true definition of pure desires is similar to what we learn from Matthew 5:8.
The true definition of pure desires is similar to what we learn from Matthew 5:19.
But we also learn from the specific example before us in Matthew 5 27-28 what pure desires are defined to be.
We have to remember that the main point of what Jesus is teaching in this example is that we should not desire or want that which is forbidden. So the instruction that he gives is not limited only to those who are married, since only married people can be adulterers. The application is universal, because anyone can have desires for that which is forbidden.
The word that we have translated “lust” in our Bibles is simply the word for “desire.” So to desire a woman who is not your wife is the sin of wanting to adulterate your current marriage. It is the sin of longing to be done with your marriage in order to have another one.
It is the sin of desiring what is divinely forbidden from you.
But why does Jesus use adultery as the example?
Why not stealing? Which is the taking of something which is forbidden.
Why not lying? Which is a form of verbal communication of that which is forbidden.
Why not materialism? Which is a form of treasuring and pursuit of that which is forbidden.
Why is it adultery that Jesus uses as his example? Why use the example of a kind of sensual pursuit of that which is forbidden?
The reason is because marriage is an institution in which we understand the Providence of God to have a kind of binding effect upon. So in order to fully understand the principle which Jesus is communicating, we should ask the question, what else has God bound us to?
He has bound our soul to our body for this life.
He has bound our person to our gender.
He has bound child to parent, and parent to child, at least for a season of time.
He has bound spouse to spouse for this life.
He has bound a person to their human limitations and to their own personal sufferings -- again, at least for this life.
And more than these things, he has bound those whom he has redeemed to a new master, who is Christ. He has bound his people to walk in the good works which he prepared beforehand, as Ephesians 2:10 says.
And the truly righteous heart recognizes those things to which God has bound them, and that heart is content with it all. What I think Jesus is telling us as a principle is that we should be thoroughly content with everything that God has obviously and providentially and firmly bound us to, such that we do not long for that which is outside of his provision.
We should not want to adulterate our marriages, because it is what God has bound us to.
We should not want to commit suicide, because God has bound our soul to our body.
We should not want to neglect our family obligations, because God has bound us to our families for an appropriate amount of time.
We should be those who can truly express from the heart the words to the great hymn text, “Whatever My God Ordains Is Right.” In the late 1600s, Samuel Rodigast penned these words:
WhatevÂ’er my God ordains is right,
Holy His will abideth.
I will be still whateÂ’er He does,
And follow where He guideth.
He is my God,
Though dark my road.
He holds me that I shall not fall
Wherefore to Him I leave it all
WhatevÂ’er my God ordains is right,
He never will deceive me
He leads me by the proper path,
I know He will not leave me
I take, content,
What He hath sent
His hand can turn my griefs away
And patiently I wait His day
WhatevÂ’er my God ordains is right,
Though now this cup in drinking
May bitter seem to my faint heart,
I take it all unshrinking
My God is true,
Each morn anew
Sweet comfort yet shall fill my heart
And pain and sorrow shall depart
WhatevÂ’er my God ordains is right,
Here shall my stand be taken
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
Yet I am not forsaken
My FatherÂ’s care
Is round me there
He holds me that I shall not fall
And so to Him I leave it all
The heart of Kingdom righteousness defines pure desires in complete accordance with the good will of God.
What God wills is what we must want.
But there is a problem. Even though we do know what this kind of pure desiring is like, if indeed we are truly one of his Kingdom citizens -- it is also true that we know what the opposite is like. We still find ourselves wanting and doing what is contrary to the good will of God. And sometimes we do so in grievous ways.
And I think that it is this reality which helps us to see the positive element to Jesus's instruction in this example of Kingdom righteousness.
Not only should we be sure to not wrongly define pure desires, but we should be actively seeking to defend ourselves against them. Since it is true that we will continually battle with sin and with our desires for sin, we must be positively engaged in radical defense measures at all times.
And this is the point of verses 29 and 30. Not only does true righteousness radically define pure desires, true righteousness radically defends them.
So let's begin by unpacking what Jesus says in these verses, and then we'll move from there to understand why and how we should defend our desires.
The Radical Defense of Pure Desires
It might be that these are the hardest verses to interpret that we’ve come to so far in the book of Matthew. I don’t think it’s difficult to figure out the meaning, but it will take some time to hit everything that’s here. So hang on and I’ll do my best to walk us through every piece of what our Lord is saying.
The first thing we need to do is to rightly understand what it means for something to “cause you to sin.” Because it almost appears as if Jesus gets things in the reverse order.
What does James 1:13-15 say?
“Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
What does he say causes sin? An eye? A hand? No -- my desires are the root cause of sin.
Sin without exception does not originate in any way outside of us. It come from within. Every time. Never does another person, or an object, or a driver -- nor an eye nor a hand or any part of our human body ever make us sin.
What does does Jesus mean about our eyes and hands causing us to sin, as the ESV words it?
The Greek word for “causes you to sin” is a form of the verb, skandalidzo. We derive our English word “scandal” from it. And it carries the idea of making someone stumble -- of causing offense -- of being offensive.
The NASB picks up that sense; it reads: “If your right eye (or your right hand) makes you stumble.” And I think that’s the better way to put it. The idea is that the eye and hand are waring against us in such a way as to get us to sin of our own desire.
I think the idea that Jesus is conveying is this -- “If your right eye is offensively assaulting pure desires, get rid of it....and if your right hand is offensively assaulting pure desires, get rid of it.”
It is as if our righteous and pure desires are a clean fountain of water which springs from within the heart of a city, and there are forces which are actively and offensively seeking to pollute it. In this way the eye and the hand are seen as enemies to pure desires, and they therefore must be actively defended against.
We also observe that Jesus specifically refers to the right eye and the right hand. This is because right-ness was viewed in Jewish tradition as being superior to left-ness. (This is in no way a political statement -- it’s just a statement about the metaphor of human chirality.)
The right eye was the “good” eye -- it was the one with the best perception. A story was told of the 2nd-century Jewish zealot named Bar Kokhba, that he murdered a man who was known as the “right eye” of Israel. This man was regarded to be the wisest and most perceptive man known around...hence the nickname, “right eye of Israel.”
And the right hand was the “good” hand. It was the most productive and most holy hand. It was by the right hand of God (so it was believed) that the Ten Commandments were written. So the right was to be used for holy tasks, and the left was to be used for common tasks.
All this to say that the right eye and the right hand were regarded as the best and holiest features that a person had. If there was anything right about you, it was your right eye and your right hand.
So what Jesus is making clear to his Jewish audience is the fact that even the most prized and valued and trusted facets of our person will bring assault upon our pure desires. There is nothing about us that will have the decency to not offend us by waging war against having pure desires.
Therefore, we are to be defending ourselves against these members by employing what strategy? What is Jesus’ recommended course of action? For the right eye -- pluck it out. For the right hand -- cut it off. In other words -- utterly remove that which is offending the purity of your desire for righteousness.
This is, in effect, the positive quality of kingdom righteousness that Jesus is advocating -- that those with righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees will evidence it by working to radically remove whatever is warring against pure desires.
So we’re making progress in unpacking what Jesus is teaching, but there are still just a couple of questions left to be answered.
One question is this -- why is he talking about actual physical aspects of our persons as things which can affect our desires? I don’t know about you, but my physical eye does zero to influence what I want. I don’t consult in any way with my cornea or my retina or my pupil when evaluating what I want to do. Same for my hand. I do not ask my metacarpals what they want to do today. No -- all of my physical and tangible members are complete servants of my desires. The flowchart is simple -- my mind and heart dictate what my body does. Not the other way around. So why is Jesus talking about things that seem to pertain to the body and not the heart?
We’ll answer that in a minute, but we first need to also figure out what the other part of verses 29 and 30 are talking about. He says at the end of verse 29 - “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” And at the end of verse 30 - “For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
What is he saying? Are we in actual danger of losing salvation and going to hell if we sin? Or if we don’t pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands?
He’s not saying either of those things, but he is making a very serious and sobering statement. There is a gigantic truth that he’s insinuating in concluding each verse with the warning of hell.
It’s not a warning which says that we can fall away from grace and end up in hell.
He’s not saying that if you have a certain sin habit that plagues you for your entire life, and you never ever fully “conquer” it, that you obviously were not a Christian.
And he’s not saying that you’ll for sure end up in hell if you don’t throw away your home computer because it’s too much of a temptation. But he is saying that there is a reality about a person which indicates that they are going to end up in hell.
There is something that is always true of those who are a part of the kingdom of heaven which is also never true of those who are not a part of the kingdom of heaven.
There is something uniquely characteristic of those who have repented and embraced the Lord of the Kingdom as their master -- something which is not a characteristic of those who remain the captain of their own fate.
For those who have been placed into the Kingdom of Heaven -- for those who have tasted of the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of the power of regeneration -- every one of these people without exception know what it is to radically defend themselves against impure desires.
- They know what it is to have a heart which produces truly righteous desires, and what it is to have those desires met with the opposition of fleshly temptation.
- They know what it is to then engage head-on in the battle to not succumb to what the flesh so skillfully seeks to move us toward.
- They know what it is to agonize in defeat, when the flesh has swayed them to sin.
- And they know what it is to glorify God by finding the way of escape.
The true citizen of the kingdom of heaven knows what it is to engage in battle the offensive antagonists against their pure desires. Whether it be a right eye that must be plucked out. Whether it be a right hand that must be cut off. The truth is -- we are willingly and actively defending the desires of our hearts from the powers which seek to sway them towards sin.
You won’t end up in hell because you succumbed to what your flesh was tempting you to do. But you will end up in hell because it is true of you that you never fought the temptation.
What Jesus is saying is that our eternal destiny is evidenced by whether or not we are willing to radically defend pure desires.
Those in his Kingdom fight for pure desires at all costs. But those who aren’t in his Kingdom don’t give a rip about fighting for having the right desires.
- They might fight for being regarded as a good kid. Or for being regarded as a fine “Christian” man or woman.
- They might contend earnestly to demonstrate their piety and generosity.
- They might wage war against the evils of culture -- they’ll take public stands against all kinds of societal immorality.
- They might even go so far as to try to defend doctrinal orthodoxy.
You could do ALL of those things and still not evidence what it truly is to be a part of the Kingdom of heaven...because you won’t fight against what your flesh seeks to move you to DESIRE. You might do plenty of fighting for things that seem righteous on the outside, but Jesus says that the fighting that really matters is the fighting that goes on on the INSIDE.
If you’re not fighting temptation to sin, but rather are readily falling into sin without giving it a second thought...then you need to consider if you’re the person who needs to pay serious attention to Jesus’ warning in these verses.
To you he is saying, out of the abundance of his mercy, that it is far better...IT IS FAR BETTER to be one who wars against the sinful passions of your flesh than to be one against whom God wars for all eternity.
The sacrifices that you’ll have to make in order to defend your heart desires against sinful impurity are to be considered nothing in light of the sacrifice of your soul for all eternity if you won’t. Be one who fights sin. So that you won’t be one who follows sin headlong into hell.
So if we were to summarize Matthew 5:29-30 we would say that Jesus is powerfully and vividly illustrating for us the necessity of evidencing a battle against that which wars against our pure desires. He is indicating that true righteousness involves the positive defense of pure desires -- no matter how great the cost of the battle.
And we need to be really clear in seeing that it’s not a battle for the outside that Jesus is talking about -- it’s a battle for the inside...for our desires. Anyone can do just about anything for any number of reasons to protect what they do on the outside. But only those in the Kingdom of heaven fight with vigor to protect their heart desires from becoming impure.
So we get back to the question -- if this is a battle of the inward part of us...if it is a battle to defend our desires, then why is Jesus using physical, bodily references to eyes and hands that war against our desires?
And the answer is because he’s not actually referring to flesh and blood eyes and hands. He’s referring to something that can be figuratively thought of as having eyes and hands and tongues and feet and ears (because it is closely related to our actual physical existence) -- but it is still something that operates at the level of our heart desires and not on the level of our physical bodies.
This battle with the metaphorical eyes and hands that seek to influence our desires towards sinning -- it is a battle that the Bible tells us is NOT a war that is in any way physical in nature. The battle of sin is not a physical battle in any way. And this truth can’t be made more explicit than in what we read in Ephesians 6:12 - “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Our war is not physical, but is spiritual. And in that text in Ephesians, Paul talks about how it is that we wrestle with one of our main spiritual enemies -- Satan and his forces. They are the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers, the spiritual forces, as he puts it.
And these spiritual agents of evil are all about carrying out the exact same scheme of the devil from the beginning -- they aim to get us to question God just like the serpent did to Eve in the Garden. And they aim to do so only by feeding us lies. Such is the one facet of our spiritual battle.
We find that we also are engaged in spiritual battle with something referred in the NT as “the world.” John the Apostle discusses this conflict in his first epistle; we read this command in 1 John 2:15-17 -- “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
The world is the system around us that is actively seeking to fashion men and women into its mold. The world is an ideology -- a kind of way of thinking that whispers in our ears that the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life are all actually good things, and that the desires of the Spirit of God are all actually bad things.
The world seeks to reverse reality so that we’ll conform our desires for sin without shame. And it does so in concert with the devil’s lies to get us to desire things contrary to the goodness of God.
And both of these work in perfect agreement with the third of our spiritual enemies. And it is this third enemy that I believe Jesus is referring to specifically in Matthew 5:29-30. This third enemy is so closely connected to our actual physical flesh that we find it simply referred to in Scripture as “the flesh.” It’s not our actual physical flesh and body, but it is a spiritual force which sometimes makes us feel as if our very bodies are raging against our souls.
And the best way I can think of to define the flesh is by saying this -- “the flesh” refers to the spiritual element of sinful temptation which is inherently connected to our cursed body.
The flesh is present because this cursed body is present. When we die, guess what? We don’t have to battle this monster called the flesh anymore. Paul was looking forward to that being a reality. He gives us a very intimate account of what it is like to battle with the flesh at the end of Romans 7. Turn there and let’s read of his personal experience that is very much like our experience.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being,but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
Notice what he says about the flesh:
- It moves him to do what he doesn’t want to do.
- He gives it the liability and the responsibility for his sin -- which is to say that the flesh is where his sin actually comes from.
- It wages war with his mind to entice him to do its bidding.
- It seeks to brings him into submission to the law of sin.
And this is the same battle that I believe Jesus is referring to in Matthew 5:29-30.
It’s a battle in which our desires are being assaulted with temptation from our flesh. And it is only natural for those who are a part of the Kingdom of heaven to strive radically against what the flesh is enticing us to want to do...just like Paul had to do.
He tells us of this conflict between flesh and desire when he writes this in Galatians 5:17 -- “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
It doesn’t get more explicit than that. The desires of the flesh are against those of the Spirit, and they seek to keep us from doing what we want to do. Notice, also, how Paul makes the same assumption that Jesus makes -- that the Christian is a person who has new desires which will be at conflict with the flesh.
And Paul even calls us to the same radical defense of our new desires when he writes in Romans 13:14 that we should “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Removing the flesh’s right eye or right hand sure sounds like not making provision for it.
So we are called as Christians to radically defend not our actions, but rather our desires from the enticements of our flesh.
And it is the fact that we do this battling (and not the even the fact that we are victorious) which evidences our righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. Because self-righteous people never care to fight for pure desires. They only care to fight for pure-seeming actions.
So if you long to radically defend your desires against impurity, and if you therefore willingly seek to make no provision for the temptations of your flesh...then guess what MUST be true of you? There’s no other explanation for such a reality except for the fact that you were born of God and placed into his Kingdom.
Now. At this point I have a list of some practical ways in which we can all look to accomplish the defending our our pure desires. And some of these things include a lot of other texts and some really really important theological considerations.
But we are out of time for this morning, and I think we have enough to chew on in thinking about what our Lord has instructed us in with these deeply convicting verses. So you’ll again have to come back next time for us to finish the full discussion on the Righteousness of Pure Desires.