Listen to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:27-32: "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. 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. 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."
You know what I wish? I wish Dave Stone were preaching today! I wish we hadn't decided to preach verse by verse through the Sermon on the Mount — this is a tough, controversial passage! Who wants to preach on adultery, lust, hell, and divorce?
How can I balance the high standards of Jesus with His grace and forgiveness to those who fall short? How can I discuss such sensitive subjects without offending the sensibilities of people or violating the dignity of the pulpit? Let's just sing another song or two and go home!
Well, I really can't do that in good conscience. The Apostle Paul told the elders at the church in Ephesus that he was glad that he preached to them "the whole counsel of God." It's the preacher's job to communicate all of God's Word to people. We take an oath to preach the word "in season and out of season" and not just to "say what itching ears want to hear."
Remember, today, I'm not the letter writer; I'm just the mail carrier. I'll do my best to teach how I understand these words from Jesus to apply; you do your best to receive them in love.
Actually the subject of marriage and sexual purity is so important that we don't dare pass over it even though it creates tension. If this helps to prevent one affair, one divorce, one broken heart, or one addiction, it will be well worth the time we spend today. More importantly, if one child is given a secure, loving environment in which to grow up or one soul is saved for eternity, God will be praised. So let's look again, carefully, at what Jesus said.
Jesus began by repeating the Old Testament prohibition: "Do not commit adultery." There was a positive reason for that negative command. Sexual intimacy is so powerful — it is to be expressed in marriage only.
A car is a powerful machine. But it's an awesome responsibility to drive a car. An uncontrolled car can crash into a marketplace and kill a number of people, so government authorities put parameters around driving. You have to be sixteen years old. You have to pass a test. You can't drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. You have to travel within a speed limit. There are all kinds of restrictions. Why? Doesn't the government want us to enjoy driving? Don't they want us to get to our destination? Of course! The restrictions are there for the benefit of society because driving is a wonderful, but powerful privilege.
Sex is a wonderful, powerful gift from God. It seals the covenant relationship of marriage and continually renews the commitment. It often produces children who need the security of a permanent parental relationship in the home. It expresses mutual love in an incomparable and pleasurable way.
God, who designed us, wants this powerful gift to be experienced in the safest, most meaningful, uninhibited environment possible. For our personal benefit and the benefit of others in society, He restricted sexual intimacy to marriage only. Outside those parameters sex initially creates excitement but wounds and kills in the end.
That's why it's so important that marriage be regarded as a divine institution, not a human invention. If marriage is man's idea then society can totally disregard it, easily dissolve it, or completely modify its definition to include same sex partners or polygamous relationships.
But it was God who created the first man and woman. It was God who performed the first marriage ceremony. It was God who said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one." It was God who said, "What I join together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:5-6).
One of the primary ways that you are to be distinctive as a Christian is that you honor God's boundaries. You don't commit adultery. You respect sexual intimacy as a powerful gift from God that is to be expressed in marriage only. The Christian recognizes there is no such thing as casual sex any more than one can be a casual motorcycle rider or casual pilot for very long. It's too important.
In the Old Testament, when Potiphar's wife said to Joseph, "Come to bed with me. It's Egypt. Everyone has affairs here. My husband will never know," Joseph fled saying, "I can't do this thing and sin against my God." He was different. He was a man of integrity.
Since God's people are commanded not to commit adultery, we are wise to be alert to those times when we're particularly vulnerable. The Bible says we're to be sober and alert because our adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.
I've read that you are more vulnerable to commit adultery when:
1. There is a lack of intimacy in your marriage. That lack of intimacy can be physical or conversational. 1 Corinthians 7:4-5 says that Godly couples should be intimate consistently so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
2. You are more vulnerable to adultery when you experience grief or depression. When you're emotionally drained, you are susceptible to the attention of someone who promises to pick you up and make you feel better. So be alert.
3. Another period of vulnerability occurs when there is a long period of separation. (When military duty or job responsibilities separate you, temptation increases because you're alone and you lack accountability.)
4. When you spend a lot of time alone with a person of the opposite sex you're more at risk. If two of you work or jog together or even if you're involved in a mutual project at church with a person of the opposite sex, that is the breeding ground for strong temptation.
I know a preacher's wife who has an understanding with her husband that she always has to approve of his secretary. She has a 50-50 principle. The secretary has to be over 50 years old and 50 pounds overweight! That preacher's wife recognizes the potential temptation!
5. You are more vulnerable when you are successful. If you accomplish something significant you may think you deserve someone better. That's why so many CEO's have trophy wives or mistresses. The Bible says, "Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall."
6. You are also more susceptible to adultery when you are too close to another couple. Many affairs begin when two couples are together too much. They step over the line in conversation and a chemistry develops. The innocent parties are often blind to what is taking place, and when the affair is disclosed they are shocked. Be cautious about doing everything with the same couple all the time.
If you want to be loyal to Jesus Christ, be alert to the enemies "M.O." and stand firm. For Jesus didn't come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it and He repeated the seventh commandment, "Don't commit adultery."
But Jesus went deeper than just prohibiting adultery. He went to the core of the problem-the heart. "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).
The Bible calls the soul of our being — our innermost thoughts — the heart. It speaks of a pure heart, contrite heart, deceitful heart, proud heart, the broken heart. We're to trust in the Lord with all our hearts, praise Him with all our hearts, and speak the truth from the heart. And, "The fool says in his heart there is no God."
Jesus said, "For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery . . . " (Mark 7:21). Adultery begins in the heart-the innermost thought life. So the way to assure a lasting, loving marriage is guard your heart. Maintain pure thoughts. Don't give Satan a foothold in fantasy.
Let's say you're eating a snack early one evening at the kitchen table. Your children are upstairs getting ready for bed. All of a sudden you see a drop of water hit the kitchen table. Then there's a second, quickly followed by a third. You look up at the ceiling and there's a moist spot on the ceiling and water dripping down from it. What do you do? Grab a towel and start mopping up? No. You race up the stairs and get to the source. You discover the children have plugged the drain and allowed the bathtub to overflow. You turn off the faucet, pull the plug, and lecture the children. You deal with the source, not the symptoms.
The law emphasized the importance of right behavior-the results. Jesus emphasized the importance of the heart-the motive. "You have heard 'Don't commit adultery.'" Let's correct the source-don't look at a woman lustfully. Don't commit adultery in the heart.
I don't know of any passage in the Bible that is more needed than this. The August 9th Courier Journal carried a story about a random check of computers used in the Kentucky State Transportation Department. It read, ". . . about 35 state computers, spot-checked on four randomly chosen days, were found to have gained access to pornographic web sites 6,000 times!" If that's being done on office time, against the rules, imagine what's going on in homes at night where there are no restrictions!
Both men and women struggle with Internet pornography and chatroom fantasies — what the Bible calls "evil imaginations." Lust is an awful affliction, ensnaring a lot of otherwise good people. Leaders of our Women's Bible Studies say they are inundated with calls from women who say that their husbands are involved in Internet pornography and show little interest in them anymore.
Kamp Kanakuk, a large, well, known Christian Camp in Missouri, has decided they will no longer allow any clothing bearing the label of Abercrombie and Fitchâ to be worn at their camp. The trustees determined that the clothier's quarterly is intentionally eroding the morals of young people. When Kanakuk's trustees heard Abercrombie and Fitchâ was advertising thong underwear for seven year old girls with the words, 'Eye Candy," stamped on them, they had heard enough. "That's why this summer the name of Abercrombie and Fitchâ will not be welcomed inside our gates-not on our hats, not on our shirts, not anywhere! We are choosing to take the higher road. We invite you to come along for the journey."
Everywhere you turn, even clothing ads, there is visual temptation. It's very difficult to take the high road and avoid lust since there is so much intentional stimulation.
Lust is looking at a person for the purpose of deliberately stimulating desire. It is not just appreciating someone's beauty. Some Christians take this to extreme and conclude it's wrong even to notice beauty. But there is a difference between appreciating beauty and lusting after someone. We instinctively admire attractive people.
Here's a picture of three different actresses. One is very attractive, one is average, and one is homely. Let me ask the men to raise your hand if you think Catherine Zeta Jones is the most attractive of the three. (Some of you are afraid to raise your hand because your wife is sitting beside you!)
We've heard, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." That's not true. We have an innate sense, a God-given instinct, for what is beautiful. That's true in just about every culture.
Women have the same instincts. Here is a picture of three men. (Photograph of Bob Russell, Dave Stone, and Kyle Idleman on screen.) One is handsome, one is average, one is homely. Now, I'm not going to ask you which is the least attractive because Kyle is new, and I don't want to hurt his feelings! But you know, don't you?
As we mature, we should see the inner beauty that God sees. But it's not wrong to notice and admire physical beauty. When God converts you He doesn't strike you blind. The Bible speaks of Rachel and Sarah as being very attractive. It speaks of Absalom and Joseph as being handsome and well-built. It wasn't wrong to notice that.
Lust is looking at another person for the purpose of stimulating desire. John Maxwell defines lust as "any thought that, if you actually carried it out, would be a sin." If it's wrong to lust, it's wrong to deliberately create lust. John Stott points out to women that it is one thing to make yourself attractive. It is another thing to make yourself deliberately seductive. The Bible warns those who give drink to a drunkard that they will be held accountable. In the same way those who intentionally stimulate lust will be answerable for their contribution to sin.
It's interesting that Jesus spoke these words to a culture where women wore loose fitting clothing that covered them from neck to ankle. It's every man's battle even when women don't dress provocatively.
Ross Brodfuehrer, in The Southeast Outlook devotional, wrote that, "Lust is the addiction we can hide. No blood work or CATscan can show it. But we know where it is. We don't even need Playboy or Penthouse Magazine. And the drugs are all around us. On TV, billboards, even walking by us just before communion on Sunday. The first battleground is the heart; it is the beachhead. Once it lands there, there is no stopping where it might go.
Solomon said, "As a man thinks in his heart so is he" (Proverbs 23:7).
I can see three primary reasons that Jesus was so adamant in His condemnation of lust.
First, it destroys natural desire. Initially pornography seems to enhance romance in marriage. But before long, the lust becomes an end in itself and there is a loss of interest in marriage love. That's why Proverbs 5:18-23 reads: " . . . may you rejoice in the wife of your youth . . . may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man's wife? For a man's ways are in full view of the LORD, and he examines all his paths. The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly."
Secondly, lust is wrong because it's addictive. Just as surely as one can become addicted to gambling or alcohol, people become addicted to pornography or fantasies. The Bible describes them as, "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:19). What would you say to a young man who said to you, "I tried cocaine the other night. It made me feel good"? Whatever you would say to that young man, I would like you to say to yourself about pornography. You remember, it's dangerously addictive.
Thirdly, Jesus warned against lust because it can condemn you to hell. "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).
I was traveling on the interstate the other day and drove through a construction zone where the speed limit was reduced to 55 miles per hour. There were two interesting signs trying to motivate drivers to slow down. One was positive, the other negative. The one was written in child-like letters: "Slow down! My daddy works here!" The other was negative; it read simply, "Double fine." One is a plea, the other a threat. Which of those two signs motivate most drivers to slow down? I think both are good, both are needed, but I suspect the one that appeals to the pocketbook prevents more speeding than the one that appeals to the heart.
Jesus used both positive and negative motivations to persuade us to live rightly. "If you love me keep my commandments." "If you don't obey me, you will be cast into hell — where the fire is not quenched and the worm does not die." "It's better for you to live your life with one eye or one arm than to enter into hell." Obviously Jesus doesn't mean literally gouge your eye out if you lust because you can still lust with one eye. He is saying, "Take whatever action necessary to terminate lust, even if it sounds extreme."
Drop the magazine subscription. Move the computer to a public place. Cancel the movie channels. Get rid of the television if you have to. Take a different route to work. When you walk into the motel room, cancel the adult movie access immediately. Don't go to that restaurant anymore. Change jobs if necessary. Don't go to the beach.
One Christian man says he doesn't wear sunglasses to the beach because it's too easy to look without his wife or Christian friends knowing the direction of his glances.
The reason you go to extreme measures to avoid lust is that it can drag you into hell. You are in a war for your own soul. Satan is seducing you with the intention of dragging you to hell with him. He knows if he can get you to fantasize about adultery, even if you never act out, your mind will be so polluted you have no room for God; your conscience will be numb.
Just because you accepted Christ and were baptized into Him does not give you license to sin and flirt with disaster. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-2 Paul wrote, "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain."
Some of you in addictions say, "I get started, and I just can't quit." That's not true. Let's say you're home alone. You put an x-rated video into your VCR, and then you hear a car pull in your driveway. You look out the window and see me walking up to your front door. Could you stop? I'll bet you could. It's all a matter of who you envision coming to your front door. If you envision Jesus living with you and in you, you can quit.
The Psalmist asked, "How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Psalms 119:9-11).
The final two verses of this section record an additional restriction: "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).
We're tempted to dismiss this teaching as no longer applicable to today because divorce is so common in our era. But Jesus spoke these words when divorce was extremely common. All they had to do was sign a certificate of divorce — it was easy! The woman at the well had been married five times. But Jesus taught His followers to think and act differently than the world. They were not to get a divorce. The only exception was if your mate had been unfaithful. Sexual promiscuity breaks the exclusive covenant.
Yet even if there has been unfaithfulness, the ideal is to repent and forgive — renew the commitment the way God forgives and renews His relationship with us. I don't think we ought to interpret Jesus as saying, "If your mate had an affair get rid of him." I think He was saying, "If there is continual unfaithfulness, if there is no repentance, if it can't be reconciled, divorce is the last resort."
If someone is divorced for another reason, however, don't marry him or her. Encourage them to reconcile to their mate and work it out. Jesus repeated this teaching later and "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).
Non-Christians aren't going to accept this teaching — they scoff at this. The nominal Christian isn't going to accept this teaching either. It's too strict. But if you really want to make Jesus the Lord of your life, you are to accept it. You are to be distinctive. You are to treat marriage as a sacred covenant.
This is a thorny issue and raises a lot of difficult questions. Sincere Christians disagree on the answers. But I'll ask a few of the questions and give you my opinion.
1. If adultery is the cause of the divorce is the innocent party free to remarry? Yes. The Old Testament concept of divorce freed the party to remarry. If Jesus meant differently, He would have explained.
2. What if adultery wasn't the cause but the divorced mate refuses to reconcile? Should the Christian continue to wait and burn with passion or is he/she free to remarry? I think the Christian should wait for reconciliation and discipline the desires.
3. What if the previous mate has remarried-is the other free to marry? I think so. There has been a severing of the covenant. Deuteronomy 24 says that if a divorced person marries another and then divorces again and wants to renew the first marriage, it is not permissible. Since the marriage covenant has been defiled and reconciliation is not possible, the unmarried person is free to marry another.
4. What if there was a divorce and then the ex-partner dies? 1 Corinthians 7:39 reads, "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord."
Billy Graham used to tell about a man whose nagging wife died. As they carried her coffin to the grave, the pallbearers stumbled over a rock and the casket fell, burst open, and the jolt brought her back to life. She was only in a coma. She regained her health and lived for another two years until she died again. As they were carrying the casket to the grave, the husband said, "Watch out for that rock!" God's word gives permission for the widow or widower to remarry. That is not adultery.
5. What if the divorce occurred prior to becoming a Christian? There is considerable disagreement about this. But the elders of this church and I are of the opinion that if the divorce occurred prior to coming to Christ there is freedom to remarry. The Bible says, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
The ideal would be for the previous mate to become a Christian and the two to be reconciled. But if that's not possible, it's not God's will for a couple to be unequally yoked. 1 Corinthians 7:15 reads, "But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances."
6. The most important question is this: If I divorced and remarried against God's will, can I be forgiven? Yes. There is no sin that God cannot forgive. The Bible says that the blood of Jesus Christ, cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:9). Corrie Ten Boom said, "There is no pit so deep that the love of God does not go deeper still."
The woman at the well had been divorced five times, but Jesus treated her with respect, forgave her, and welcomed her testimony. So if you've violated God's will for marriage, you can't go back and unscramble eggs. You can't undo your mistakes. But Christ can forgive you and give you a fresh start. Receive His forgiveness and go on to live for Him.
What concerns me is not those who have been divorced and have sought God's forgiveness, but those are married, who call themselves Christians, but who think they can exploit God's grace. I hear people say, "I know God says don't divorce, but He wants me to be happy. God and I talked it over and I'm at peace. He'll forgive me. That's His job. He understands."
That attitude really concerns me as your minister. It is disturbing to see so many divorces within the body of Christ. We provide thirteen weeks of premarital instruction. We teach you clearly that marriage is a permanent, sacred covenant. Yet I hear of couples breaking up after one or two years. I hear of some of you who have been Christians all your lives, married for twenty years or more, panting after the mate of another (like animals) and filing for divorce just like you've never known Christ.
Brothers and sisters, this should not be! I am so frustrated with this attitude, I don't know what else to say! I beg you to be distinctive. Hebrews 10:26 says: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left." God can't do any more for you than He's done.
One of the reasons Jesus said that divorce is not an option is that if you think there's an escape you'll take it when the going gets tough. There's a big difference between a person who says, "My mate and I are having serious trouble. If this doesn't get better, I'm going to file for divorce," and a person who says, "My mate and I are having trouble. I'm going to live with this person for the rest of my life; we better work this out or my life is going to be miserable."
One of the reasons Jesus said, "Don't divorce," is that he hates to see the people He loves go through so much misery. Divorce seems so simple but in the long run so many people hurt so much for so long.
I've talked with dozens of couples who have gone through divorce. They almost always say, "It was so much more painful than I thought. I had no idea how much it would hurt my parents, my children, and my friends and how ongoing it would be. Bob, tell people who are struggling to stick it out."
The people who have been married for 35 years or more almost always say the same thing. "We went through some rocky times. There were times I didn't like my mate much. But we're really glad we stuck it out. We love each other. We have a relationship with our children, our grandchildren and our God that made it worth it all. Tell young people to stick it out."
I beg you to take God seriously. You're in a spiritual battle for your eternal soul and the eternal souls of your family. The Lord didn't call you to be happy. He called you to be obedient. Stick it out! In the end, you'll be blessed and you'll be thankful you did.
Remember that story several weeks ago about the mountain climber who was hiking in eastern Utah and was trapped by a thousand pound boulder that landed on his hand? Aron Ralston couldn't dislodge his hand and soon ran out of water. After five days, he put a tourniquet on his arm, deliberately broke the bone in his forearm, then he took his pocketknife and amputated his own arm below the elbow, freed himself and with one arm repelled to the bottom of the canyon and hiked out where he met rescuers who were looking for him.
How could a man do that? I saw Ralston interviewed on the David Letterman show the other night. He explained that he realized he would not survive unless he took drastic action.
If a man can do that to save his life for a few years, you can take drastic action to save your soul for eternity. If Satan has you trapped and the weight of sin is bearing down on you, take whatever action is necessary to escape. It's not a physical surgery that's needed but a mental one, a spiritual one. It's a matter of the heart.
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3:5-6). Jesus Christ is calling out to you to rescue you. He came to seek and save those who were lost. He can lift any burden, He can free anyone entrapped in the world. "Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved."
In a moment we're going to have a song of invitation. I know people are reluctant to come forward after a message like this. They think, "If I go forward people will think I've committed adultery or I'm addicted to lust." The truth is most who respond each week have usually made decisions in advance. People respond for the same reason: we have all sinned in one way or another and we all need the forgiveness of Christ and the encouragement of the church.
Maybe this would be a great time for those of you who are already Christian and considering joining this church to choose to come forward. Every sheep needs a fold and every Christian needs a church. If you'll come right now as we sing, maybe you'll make it a little easier for someone who needs to accept Christ and be baptized into Him to follow.
Bob Russell is Senior Pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.