“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.” (Matthew 5:29-30, ESV)
Looking at this text apart from any context, there are a few things we could automatically (and erroneously) conclude. We could conclude that Christ is telling us to mutilate our physical body, and that if we fail to literally cut off the part of us that made us sin, we will find ourselves being cast into hell fire on the day of judgment. Further, we could conclude that every time we yield to temptation, we lose our salvation, and thus our salvation is entirely dependent on us being as holy as possible all the time.
Overlooking the fact that these conclusions sound an awful lot like what certain Catholic monks and ascetics believed, what’s the problem?
Well, there are numerous. First of all, both the Pentateuch and the Pauline epistles repeatedly condemn the act of physical self-mutilation. In Deuteronomy 14:1 Moses tells the children of Israel: “You are the sons of the LORD your God. You shall not cut yourselves or make any baldness on your foreheads for the dead.” I’m ignorant of the specifics, but as far as I’m aware cutting oneself was a rite practiced by the pagan nations surrounding Israel – a practice that the children of Israel were by no means to emulate for any reason.
1500 years later, the Apostle Paul had this to say to his beloved congregation at Colosse:
“Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Col. 2:16-23)
It is generally agreed upon by commentators that Paul was refuting an early form of the heresy of Gnosticism with these words. In essence, Gnosticism taught that matter is inherently evil, and that to truly obtain salvation one must receive some divinely acquired, spiritual ‘higher knowledge’. It’s not hard to envision how such beliefs lead to a rigid asceticism, and Paul rightly declares that severity to the body is worthless in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
The truth is, even if I were to cut off my hand or my foot or gouge out my eyes, I would still not be able to cut off my sinful nature – I would not be able to rid myself of the fountain of wickedness within me. I would not, through depriving myself of the means to sin, rid myself of my predisposition and desire to sin. Hence the Lord through his prophet Joel cries “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13)
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are desperately sick and in need of a Savior, and no effort of ours – no self-mutilation, no asceticism – will be of any value in curing our souls. In fact, Isaiah, speaking on behalf of his people and ultimately about the condition of mankind as a whole, says “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
Get this: if you’re not in Christ, your very best deeds – the very best things you’ve ever done, the things you’re most proud of – are an abomination to God. Those are your very best deeds, and He abhors them! What then must He think of your worst deeds? How then could you be so presumptuous as to think you could be accepted based on your own merit?
So, thus far we have established that:
1) God forbids self-mutilation.
2) Even if God hadn’t forbidden self-mutilation, scripture makes it clear that such a thing is of no value against the indulgence of our sinful desires.
Having established these things, we must now answer the question: Did Jesus contradict the Scriptures?
Short answer: No.
To understand what Christ is saying, we need to understand the context. Christ made this statement on two separate occasions in the book of Matthew – once in the Sermon on the Mount (Comprising all of Matthew 5-7), and once in a discourse to His disciples in Matthew 18.
In the first of these contexts, this statement immediately follows Christ’s equation of hate with murder, and lust with adultery. The purpose of the sermon as a whole is to show Israel that God’s standard of holiness is so much higher than theirs. In Matthew 5:20 He says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Now, was it possible for his hearers to produce the kind of righteousness He was describing? Absolutely not! – or, as I’d say in Low German, Nicht mal mais!(Not even close!) And that was the point. For them (or us) to be seen as righteous before God, they would need a righteousness that didn’t come from the law, since the law is incapable of producing righteousness.
In emphasizing His point, Christ uses hyperbole to grab the attention of his listeners. Truly it is better to enter into life disfigured than to be cast into hell a whole person. Christ emphasizes the holiness of God, and the earnestness with which we should be pursuing him; He emphasizes the seriousness of sin, and its results. God demands nothing less than absolute perfection.
As mentioned previously, this verse is mentioned in two separate contexts, and in its second instance the meaning has more to do with discipleship and the church.
Let’s explore Matthew 18 a bit to get an idea of the big picture.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:1-3)
Christ opens the passage by emphasizing the fact that to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must humble ourselves and become as little children – that is, we must realize our lack of ability to come to Christ on our own, and depend entirely on what God Himself has done for us. But then the passage takes a very interesting plot twist:
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (v. 4-6)
It becomes evident pretty quickly that the Lord isn’t simply speaking of actual children; He’s speaking of spiritual children – those who have humbled themselves and believed on Christ, but are young in the faith. Whoever deceives such a one and leads them into sin is worthy of being drowned in the sea with a millstone around his neck. To be truthful, that’s the reason I haven’t blogged in a long time. I don’t want to lead God’s people into sin through erroneous doctrine or handling of the scriptures; rather, I want to help them grow.
“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” (v. 7-10)
Here we see the so-called “problem verses” in their proper context. Christ is using these statements to communicate some very important truths. Firstly, He’s warning us, very strongly, to avoid leading His little ones into sin. They are His, their angels always see the Face of their Father, and the way we treat them is ultimately the way we treat Christ Himself (v. 5).
How are Christ’s little ones most often led into sin? Through bad examples set by those who know better. If we go to 2 Peter and Jude, and observe the denunciations of false teachers found in those epistles, one thing that stands out very quickly is the fact that their sinful lifestyles are highlighted:
“They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing.” (2 Peter 2:14-15)
“Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones.” (Jude 7-8)
Ultimately, this statement of Christ’s serves as a strong warning to take sin seriously, with application both to the saved and the unsaved. Christ died to save us from sin; let us not live in it and teach others to do so. And may we be willing to do whatever necessary to keep ourselves from sin. The pursuit of Christ is worth it; the pursuit of sin isn’t. One leads to life, the other leads to death. If we’re in Christ, we’ve chosen the way that leads to life; may we walk as though that’s true of us.