We should keep in mind that the crowd to whom Jesus spoke during His Sermon on the Mount were also people who had spent their lives under the hypocritical influence of the Pharisees, the rulers and teachers in Israel. As we learned in our earlier study of the Sermon on the Mount, it is obvious that much of what Jesus said was nothing less than a correction of the false teaching of the Pharisees. Jesus even told the crowd that they would not get into heaven unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees (see Matt. 5:20), which was another way of saying that the scribes and Pharisees were going to hell. At the end of His sermon, the crowds were amazed, in part, because Jesus was teaching “not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:29).
Early in His sermon, Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of those who claim to never have committed adultery, but who lust or who divorce and remarry. He expanded the meaning of adultery beyond the physical sinful act between two people who are married. And what He said would have been obvious to any honest person who would have just given it a little thought. But keep in mind that, until Jesus’ sermon, most of the people in the crowd would have thought that it was lawful to divorce for “any cause.” Jesus wanted His followers and everyone else to know that God’s intention from the beginning was a much higher standard.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”; but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to go into hell. And it was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:27-32).
First, as I pointed out earlier, notice that Jesus’ words about divorce and remarriage not only directly follow His words about lust, linking them to that degree, but that Jesus equates both as being adultery, linking them even more so. So we see the common thread that runs through this entire portion of Scripture. Jesus was helping His followers understand what obeying the seventh commandment actual entails. It means not committing lust and not divorcing and remarrying.
Everyone in His Jewish audience had heard the seventh commandment read in the synagogue (no one owned personal Bibles), and they had heard the exposition as well as observed its application in the lives of their teachers, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus next said, “but I say to you,” but He wasn’t about to add new laws. He was only going to reveal God’s original intent.
First, lust was clearly forbidden by the tenth commandment, and even without the tenth commandment, anyone who thought about it would have realized that it is wrong to long with desire to do what God condemns.
Second, from the earliest chapters of Genesis, God made it clear that marriage was to be a lifelong commitment. Moreover, anyone who thought about it would have concluded that divorce and remarriage is much like adultery, especially when one divorces with the intent to remarry.
But again in this sermon, it is clear that Jesus was only helping people to see the truth about lust and the truth about divorce for any cause and remarriage. He was not laying down a new law of remarriage that had heretofore not been “on the books.”
It is interesting that very few in the church have ever taken Jesus’ words about plucking out their eyes or cutting off their hands literally, as such ideas run so counter to the rest of Scripture, and they clearly serve only to make a strong point about avoiding sexual temptation. Yet so many in the church attempt to interpret quite literally Jesus’ words about the remarried person committing adultery, even when such a literal interpretation contradicts so much of the rest of Scripture. Jesus’ goal was to get His listeners to face up to the truth, with the hope that there would be much fewer divorces. If His followers would take to heart what He said about lust, there would be no immorality among them. If there was no immorality, there would be no legitimate grounds for divorce, and there would be no divorce, just as God had intended from the beginning.