The text for this sermon was a text that must be included in a series about relationships and sexuality: Matthew 5:27-37 (link). This is toward the beginning of Jesus’ so-called “Sermon on the Mount,” which runs from Matthew 5 all the way through to the end of Matthew 7.
Although the whole Sermon on the Mount disrupts the prevailing beliefs of the time, this section is particularly disruptive, as he repeats the phrase, “You have heard it said … but I say to you.” This is an important feature of verses 27-37, and we need to be careful about how we interpret it. Often, we come to these verses, hear the extreme ways that Jesus speaks, and think he is issuing moral commands meant to burden us. But as I stressed in the sermon, I implore you to believe something different: Jesus is not issuing moral commands meant to burden us. He is unveiling what it means to be fully human as God intends. These teachings are about living into God’s design.
For the umpteenth time in this series, I stressed the importance of getting the gospel right. We will only interpret this passage incorrectly if we wrongly believe we have to obey in order to earn favor from God—i.e., if I can just control my lust, then God will love me. But, it’s the other way around: we don’t be faithful so as to earn God’s favor. Instead, we rely on God’s grace in order to be faithful. (That’s worth repeating. That’s worth tattooing to your hand!)
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at the passage:
Matthew 5:27-30 — This section focuses on a proper definition of adultery. For Jesus, it’s not just a physical act, but the lustful imagination that constitutes adultery. Woh. Jesus is so serious about God’s design for marriage—fidelity, exclusivity, sacredness, etc.—that he doesn’t even want adultery to take place in our hearts.
To make his point, Jesus employs a rhetorical device that appears often this section of the Sermon on the Mount: hyperbole. That is, exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally. I made more of this in the sermon than I will here. Point is: we can’t live into God’s design by our own exaggerated effort. Rather, we must lean into Christ, so that by his grace, we can receive what we need to live into God’s design. (For a reminder about our insufficiency and God’s grace, check out this sermon on 2 Corinthians 12 from July 25, 2021)
And as stressed in the sermon, it’s important to know that Jesus is not condemning initial impulse associated with sexual attraction. Instead, he’s suggesting that it violates God’s design when we indulge an intentional gaze or lustful imagination after the initial impulse. The natural attraction we feel is part of God’s gift that helps attract us to our spouse. Erotic desire, though itself good and God-given, can also be a source of temptation that leads toward the fire of Gehenna (The Greek word that gets translated “hell”). But, as a result of the curse, that attraction can be misdirected. The good news is that Jesus reversed the curse, and we can lean heavily on the grace offered in Christ. When we recognize misdirected erotic desire, we can, by God’s grace, look to deny that desire and redirect that desire back to our spouse.
Another thing that helps us live into God’s desire is to be mindful of what we learn in Genesis 1—we are all made in the image and likeness of God. Lust takes people made in the image of God and turns them into objects made for our pleasure. People should never be treated as objects. When we objectify people, we dehumanize people in a way that dishonors God.
Matthew 5:31-37 — In this passage, Jesus presents us with an even fuller picture of God’s design for relational faithfulness. In the sermon, the first point I made about this was that Jesus’ comments about divorce (in vv. 31-32) are not unrelated to the passages before and after. It may be stating the obvious, but if people could control their bodily lusts on one hand (vv.27-30) and were committed to complete integrity and truth-telling on the other (vv. 33-37), there would be fewer, if any, divorces. Lust and lies grow up like weeds in the midst of a relationship. Of course, if we’re going to live into vv. 27-30 and 33-37, we need Christ’s help. That’s why, once again, this comes back to the first sermon in this series: identity in Christ (link). We only live into God’s design when Christ lives in and through us. And sure enough, marriages that are Christ-centered, church-attending, missionally-active rarely experience divorce.
I could have made many more points about vv. 31-37, but decided to do just one more think in the sermon: address those who have experienced divorce. For those in this category, there have been some awkward moments during this series. I wanted to take a moment and say two things: First, I hope they are secure in Christ. If so, they can navigate all this in such a way that lands squarely in God’s redemptive arms. Second, I wanted to stress our approach to divorce: The big ‘C’ Church seems to have swung the pendulum from harsh excommunication all the way to permissive ignorance. But here at FRC, we want to hold the tension—and hold it as much as we possibly can, as long as we possibly can, as often as possibly can—the tension between exalting God’s design (fidelity, exclusivity, permanence) and gracefully responding to the reality that we live in a fallen world full of flawed people. This is ‘easier said than done,’ but God’s calling us live into that tension as best we can.
Questions for Further Reflection
(1) As always, start with recollection and with an awareness of how God stirred in your head and heart. We do this by asking a simple set of questions: What did you hear in the text and in the sermon? What main points did Drew make? Can you name the implications that Drew out?
(2) What do you make of Jesus using exaggeration/hyperbole in order to make his point? Why did he do that? How does it help you?
(3) As a church (and as individuals), what practical steps can we take to live into the pastoral vision presented in this sermon? i.e., how do we hold the tension between the marital ideal while simultaneously making space for the fallenness that leads to divorce? How do we create space for divorcees to experience healing and redemption? How do we create safety for victims of abuse to come forward, and how do we help them leave those abusive situations?