[K:NWTS 21/1 (May 2006) 42-48]

The Law from the New Mount

Matthew 5:27-28

James T. Dennison, Jr.

It would appear that the obvious point of this passage is the sin of lust, including everything that incites to lust. The ready application would be an attack on the pornography industry which Judge Robert Bork has called a "national plague." Mainland China is not about to permit digital pornography to become a national plague within her Internet lines, so she has banned it: `Puritanism' with a Marxist face! Ironically, the guardians of America's reading habits, the American Library Association (ALA), have taken the opposite tack from Communist China—restriction of pornography on the Internet, even in public libraries, would be a serious violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and an insidious threat to our liberties. The Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union are still reeling from the recent United States Supreme Court ruling upholding the Children's Internet Protection Act which requires local libraries to place filters on their Internet computers so as to block sexually explicit material.

Ever since Hugh Hefner discovered that airbrush pornography sells, American males have been exercising their liberties. And if Bob Guccione's Penthouse empire eschewed the airbrush, it was to outsell the Playboy centerfold. Alas, we must give equal time to the liberties of the female devotees of pornography—Playgirl and other assorted beefcake erotica are a testimony to the EPA—Equal Pornography for All.

It would appear that the moral to the story is that lusting after a woman as well as lusting after a man is a multi-billion dollar industry. Adultery—as defined by Jesus in Matthew 5—sells! Recall the Hollywood box office blockbuster of a few years back: Clint Eastwood and Merle Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County"—a film about two adulterers. And recall the people leaving the movie theaters in tears at the end of that film. And why were they in tears? Because Eastwood and Streep couldn't continue their adultery! Hollywood's message? Adultery sells! But I should not slight the moral paragons of the sports industry. Basketball star Kobe Bryant wears the `scarlet letter' and is accorded multi-media coverage to advertise his adultery. Indeed, adultery sells!

The degradation and dehumanization of men and women in reducing them to the genital is an ugly and vicious depravity. Nor is the evangelical and Reformed church exempt from the plague. Ministers are guilty of adultery with their parishioners; counselors are guilty of adultery with their counselees; educational leaders are guilty of adultery with their secretaries. I knew a seminary professor who had his Playboy subscription sent to his seminary mailbox, not to avoid his wife's notice, but to advertise his liberty to the student body when he peeled off the wrapper each month. The social consequences of this dreadful liberty for pornography are legion: rape, murder, abuse, frigidity, bondage, chains, whips, sadomasochism.

But we have not so learned Christ. And we are quick to point to the Sermon on the Mount as providing the consummate warning against illicit sexual fantasy including titillation from photo, video, digital image. As good Augustinians, we acknowledge that sin—even sexual sin—begins in concupiscence. Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 7 (and I paraphrase): sin is first in the desire before it is in the deed.

And so we quote Matthew 5:28 as a standard proof-text for the connection between sin in the heart and sin in the act. We are careful to guard our exegesis from overkill by noting the prepositional phrase "to lust after her." Not every look upon a woman is adultery of the heart. Female beauty may be admired, as may male handsomeness. But the gaze, which has as its intent the illicit sexual use of a woman or a man, is equivalent to a violation of the seventh commandment. Hence we warn men and women everywhere to repent of adulterous desires as well as adulterous acts.

So, it would seem, does our Lord in our text. In fact, it would appear that Jesus' unique contribution to Biblical sexual ethics is the notion that the lustful thought incurs guilt, as does the lustful act. It would appear that Jesus is saying something brand new in the history of morals—adultery of the heart is as bad as adultery of the body. And to buttress this interpretation of Matthew 5:27-28, the antithesis in our Lord's vocabulary is cited: you have heard it said by them of old, but (strong adversative) I say unto you.

The difficulty with this viewpoint is that there appear to have been a number of contemporary first century Jewish traditions prohibiting lust of the eye. For instance, the so-called Testament of Isaac commands: "do not look at a woman with a lustful eye." The Testament of Issachar reads: "nor was I promiscuous by lustful look." And the Leviticus Rabbah virtually echoes Jesus: "even the one who commits adultery with his eye is called an adulterer." My point is that the uniqueness of Jesus' teaching on sexual ethics in the Sermon on the Mount is notnot that adultery includes the lust of the eye as well as the lust of the flesh. This concept appears to have been commonplace in first century Judaism.

Well then, if Jesus is not contributing a unique new moral insight—the "mental" dimension of illicit sexuality—what is he doing in Matthew 5:28? If he is not merely focusing on an internal moralistic category, what is his unique teaching here in the Sermon on the Mount? To answer this question, we must examine the context of Matthew 5:27-28. We cannot remove this passage from its context so as to atomize its ethical truth. We must see Jesus' ethical teaching in broader context—in the broader context of Matthew's gospel.

Now the broader context of the gospel of Matthew is the fullness—the fullness of the history of redemption with the coming of Christ. In Matthew 3:15, Jesus says to John the Baptist that he has come to "fulfill all righteousness." And what particularly is this fullness? "And from that time Jesus began to preach and say, `Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Mt. 4:17). The dawn of the kingdom of heaven and the era of eschatological fullness—that is what Jesus is proclaiming in Matthew's gospel. But notice, interestingly, this eschatological fullness replays the past history of Israel. In Matthew 2, Jesus descends into Egypt. In Matthew 3, Jesus passes through the waters. In Matthew 4, Jesus goes to the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. And now, verse 1 of chapter 5, Jesus goes up to a mountain. And from this mountain, Jesus reviews the Law and the Prophets (5:17). Did you notice the pattern Matthew has described: Jesus out of Egypt; Jesus through the waters; Jesus to the wilderness where he is tested; Jesus to the mountain? Jesus' life like Israel's life. You do see it, don't you? Matthew shows you Jesus, the new Israel—the true Israel—the Israel whose very own history is a replay—a recapitulation—of Israel in Egypt, Israel at the Red Sea, Israel in the Wilderness, Israel at Mt. Sinai.

It is the fullness, which has arrived in Matthew 5; it is this eschatological fullness, which is new and distinctive and unique as we read the Sermon on the Mount. We cannot read Matthew 5:27-28 without understanding Matthew 1-5 and the arrival of the fullness of the kingdom of heaven. We arrive at the new mount (Mt. 5:1) and at this eschatological mountain, we hear the law—the law of the kingdom of heaven. The eschatological law of the eschatological kingdom—a heavenly kingdom and its heavenly law.

Jesus, the new mountain, the law in the context of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. It jumps right out at us in the list of beatitudes—Matthew 5:3-10. Notice the first beatitude: "blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." And the last beatitude (v. 10): "blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The beatitudes are enclosed by the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven forms an inclusio around the blesseds attached to the time which Jesus brings. The kingdom of heaven has come and the meek are blessed; the time of the kingdom has come and the merciful are blessed, the pure in heart are blessed, the peacemakers are blessed. And why are the blessed? Because heaven is a blessed place. Every one of the beatitudes is an anticipation of the blessed arena of the kingdom of heaven.

So (and here is the unique and singular element in Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount)—Jesus' Sermon on the New Mount is a sermon about life in the kingdom. It is a sermon about life in heaven. Jesus is telling his disciples—telling us: here is what it is like to live out of the kingdom of heaven. It is to possess the kingdom now; it is to possess heaven now; it is to live now as a mirror image of the heavenly kingdom in this world, even as we await the arrival of the consummate fullness of the world to come. Our life in Christ is a life of beatitude already; our life in Christ is a life in the kingdom of heaven already. The law from the new mount is not the law from Sinai per se—it is the law from heaven itself. Jesus eschatologizes the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. From Matthew 5, the law is now seen from the standpoint of heaven itself.

This is not moralism, nor is it legalism. This is not abstracting the law as an absolutistic legal order. No, Jesus is transferring the law to heaven and he is saying to his disciples who live in the kingdom of heaven—now, live out of heaven—live out of the law of the kingdom of heaven. Live as if you were in front of the face of God in heaven. That, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is Jesus' unique contribution to ethics in the Sermon on the Mount.

Return with me to our text, Matthew 5:27-28. Let us now consider this text in the full light of its context. Let us consider Matthew 5:27-28 in the light of the fullness—the eschatological fullness—the redemptive historical fullness of the arrival of the kingdom of heaven. Imagine yourself immersed in the atmosphere, the environment, the arena of heaven itself. You are seated before the throne of God; you are nestled at his footstool basking in the glory-presence of the King of kings: your mind, your heart, your body are transformed by that arena—that heavenly glory. Can you commit adultery in heaven? In heaven, can you gaze upon a woman, upon a man, with lust? The purity indeed the holiness of heaven cannot abide lewd thoughts, let alone lewd acts. So those who belong to the kingdom of heaven are powerfully and wonderfully moved by the atmosphere to which they belong—by the King of the kingdom to whom they belong—by the heavenly life they now possess. Reduce a man or a woman to a sexual object? an object of personal gratification? an object of selfish sexual gratification? No! Heaven won't allow it! My heavenly kingdom-life will not permit it! My Savior has brought me into the arena he inhabits—into heaven—and he has given me, ever so graciously given me, the life he now lives by the power of his resurrection from sin and death. Resurrection life is the life of the kingdom I now inhabit; resurrection life is the life of the kingdom of heaven and I now live in the life of that heavenly kingdom.

My union with Christ is a sweet union with the resurrection life of the kingdom of heaven. And out of that Christ-centered, heaven oriented, resurrection life, I now live. How can I commit adultery if my life is united to the resurrection-life of my Lord and Savior? I now live out of this heavenly kingdom; I now live out of union with this wonderful Savior. My indicative state—united to Christ by faith—is inseparably joined with my imperative acts—"do not commit adultery."

Jesus is asking you to measure your gaze—what you look at—by the standards of heaven. Is this not exceedingly helpful in our struggles with sexual temptation and sin? What I look at must be measured by the standard of heaven. Could I look at that picture, that movie, that screen, that scene if I were in heaven? Could I look upon that woman or that man in that picture, that movie, that screen, that scene if I were in heaven? Pornography is bondage; beefcake erotica is bondage—they are slavery, slavery to the base, crass, vile degradation and dehumanization of another being made in the image of God. Jesus is helping us immensely here in the Sermon on the Mount; he is placing human sexual ethics in the light of the glory of heaven.

With every adulterous temptation, with every lascivious inducement, with every lewd image, I turn my heart to heaven and rejoice that Jesus has united me unto himself, that he has seated me already in his heavenly kingdom, that he turns my mind to things above—to the wonderful blessings of life before his glorious face. And so I see women as Christ sees them—made wonderfully, beautifully in God's own image—not to be degraded, debauched, dehumanized, reduced to objects. And so the Christian woman sees men—fearfully and wonderfully made in God's image—not to be seduced, manipulated, tantalized, reduced to or toyed with as objects of illicit fantasy.

In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus provides a new motivation for the sons and daughters of his kingdom. He says, "I have brought you to this new and eschatological mountain in order to show you the fullness—in order to show you what was veiled from even Moses' face. I have brought you to this new and eschatological mountain so that you may understand what I have brought with me into history. And as you live out of the fullness of the kingdom which I have brought into history, little children, live as if you were living in heaven—even now. Live as if you were standing before the glorious throne of God—even now. Live out of the life given to you from above." Live with delight in your husband, your wife—even as Christ lives with delight in his beloved spouse and she with him. Live with dignity and respect for the sexuality of men and women everywhere—even as God himself has granted them that dignity and respect.

Sons and daughters of the kingdom of heaven, walk even now as the children of the eschatological kingdom in union with the eschatological King.