“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.” (Mt 5:29-30)
I doubt there’s a Christian alive who hasn’t been troubled by this verse at some point in their lives. It’s one of those things you read that causes you to do a double-take. What?! Did Jesus really say that? Was He serious? I’d better ask the pastor.
I’ll guess the odds are ten to one you came away thinking that Jesus wasn’t being serious. Afterall, Jesus is the kindest person there is. He healed people. Surely He doesn’t want us to go around maiming ourselves. Then you looked around your church and saw that no one had actually chopped off their hands and so you took comfort in the fact that everyone thought the same way as you did. There’s safety in numbers.
No doubt this is an uncomfortable pair of verses. Maybe you don’t think about them that much. But your interpretation of Jesus’ words is extremely important! So let’s cut to the chase with this question: was Jesus being figurative or literal when He made this statement? If you think He was using a figure of speech, how do you know that He wasn’t speaking metaphorically all of the time? Do you just assume that anytime Jesus said something that was tough to swallow that He was speaking figuratively? Or if you think Jesus was being literal, what are you going to do about it? Have you done what He said or have you ignored Him? Hmm. It seems your choice is presumption or disobedience. This is a tricky one. Let’s look more closely at the arguments for each conclusion.
Was Jesus speaking figuratively?
Jesus loved metaphors, especially when describing the kingdom of heaven. “It’s like a mustard seed” and “it’s like a treasure buried in field” and “it’s like a pearl of great price.” Jesus often used word pictures to convey revelation.
I guess the default view is that Jesus is making another metaphor when He tells us to gouge out our eyes and chop off our hands. “Jesus is using strong words to convey something about the seriousness of sin. He’s not really preaching self-mutilation but self-denial. What He means to say is we must be sensitive to sin and renounce it and run from it and do whatever it takes to avoid it.”
Does this sound familiar to you? It should, for this has been the standard interpretation for most of church history. But there are two fatal flaws with this conclusion. First, it assumes that Jesus was exaggerating and Jesus never exaggerated. Preachers sometimes exaggerate to make a point but Jesus always meant what He said and said what He meant. He is Truth personified. It is inconceivable that He would play with words for the crude purpose of ramming home a lesson. When Jesus spoke in parables He did so to conceal truths, not to stretch them (Mt 13:13). In any case, the passage above is not part of a parable. The context is the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus has just been speaking about anger and lust. His language is plain because the issues are serious. There is nothing metaphorical about His choice of words.
The second flaw with this interpretation is that it suggests we can do stuff to save ourselves from hell. Maybe we don’t have to self-amputate, but we can do things like confess, abstain, renounce and what have you. There’s nothing wrong with these things; the error comes in thinking we can save ourselves by doing them. No doubt it is better to enter eternal life handicapped than for your whole body to go to hell. But it does not follow that you can do things to earn eternal life.
Was Jesus speaking literally?
Most people think Jesus was speaking figuratively because they cannot conceive for a second that He meant what He said. But what if He did? Does it then follow that He actually wants us to chop off our hands? Of course not! We are sanctified by the blood of the Lamb, not our severed limbs (Heb 10:29). Self-mutilation does nothing to deal with sin for sin is conceived in the heart not the hand (Mt 5:28). Besides, if you chop one hand off you’re left with another. You can still sin!
So what’s going on here? Why would Jesus tell us to do something He doesn’t really want us to do? He’s doing it so people will realize the absurdity of trying to impress God with their acts of self-righteousness. He’s preaching law on steroids not so that you will try to keep it but so that you will give up pretending you are.
It is hard for some Christians to grasp the idea that Jesus could preach both grace and law without confusing the two, but He did. Jesus is the perfect physician. He knows exactly what medicine you need. If you’re broken and hurting you’ll get grace, but if you’re self-righteous and religious you’ll get law. A self-righteous person is one who thinks he can impress God with his religious performance. The only language he understands is law. He says, “all these commands I have kept from my youth, what else do I lack?” And Jesus responds, “Okay, you asked for it, here it is – receive some more law.”
Why preach the law?
The law is not a standard to live up to, but a mirror that reveals our faults. The law was not given to help you overcome sin, but to help sin overcome you (Rms 7:8-9). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus was preaching to people who thought they would be judged righteous if they kept the law. But instead of being silenced by their inability to do so, they had watered it down making it easier to keep. In Matthew 23 Jesus gives some specific examples of how the Pharisees had diluted the law, but in Matthew 5 He sets about raising the standard of the law to its proper level. In other words, He was polishing the mirror.
Why did Jesus do this? Why did our gracious king spend so much time preaching the law? Because some people will never appreciate the good news until they’ve heard the bad news, which is this:
“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20)
The law is holy, righteous and good, but try to live by it and it will condemn and kill you (2 Cor 3:6,9). The purpose of the law is to bring man to the end of himself and reveal his need for a Savior (Gal 3:24). If you are self-righteous, you will never appreciate Jesus until the law has done its job and plowed the pride out of your smug little heart. I’m a decent person, you say. I’ve never killed or committed adultery. Not good enough, says Jesus. God knows your heart. If you’ve entertained murderous or lustful thoughts you’ve as good as done it. You’re in danger of hell-fire. This is a serious business, says Jesus. If you persist in this pathetic course of self-reliance, you had better be prepared to go the whole way even if that means sacrificing an eye and a hand. (Paul says something similar in Galatians 5:12.)
And knowing there would be some religious wackos out there who might miss the point and actually go to such extremes, Jesus hits them with this:
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:48)
God expects perfection and nothing less. If you’re not perfect, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re in serious trouble. Now here’s the good news:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt 5:17)
Jesus fulfilled all of the requirements of the law on your behalf. You are not perfect, but thank God you have a perfect high priest!
“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” (Heb 7:25-26)
Why did Jesus make such a big deal about the law in Matthew 5? He did it to prepare our hearts for the good news of God’s grace. Jesus is saying you can either trust your own law-keeping performance or you can trust His. But what you can’t do is dilute the law to some standard lower than perfection and think that impresses God.
Jesus wasn’t foolin’
Jesus was born under the law and fulfilled the law to redeem those under the law so that we might receive the full rights of sons (Gal 4:4-5). Because of what Jesus has done we are no longer under the law but the grace of God (Rms 6:5). The good news is that His righteousness far surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees and He offers it to you as a free gift (Rm 1:17).
To the answer the question at the top of this post – was Jesus serious? – yes, He was deadly serious! He was so serious that He suffered and died to redeem you from the curse of the law that He himself preached. So the next time someone tells you that Jesus was playing with words, that He didn’t really mean what He said, don’t let them get away with it. Don’t let them water down His words to suit their own religious performance. Jesus was not exaggerating to make a point. Neither was He using fear to motivate us to pursue dead works of religion. He was telling us that God expects nothing short of perfection and that He – Jesus – is the only hope we have.