Pluck it Out, Cut it Off!
When I was a relatively new Christian, I remember trying to figure out how to study the Bible. A class I took on this said that the best thing is to take what Scripture says literally, unless the text indicates otherwise. This has been a very good guide, as I’ve found that most Scripture should be taken literally.
One passage that bugged me was when Jesus talked about plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand if either of them caused you to sin. The passage in Matthew 5 reads as follows (see also Mark 9):
“27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.”
I usually heard this interpreted as something like, “Well, Jesus didn’t mean this literally. He was just speaking about how serious sin is.” While it’s true that here Jesus is demonstrating the seriousness of sin, I actually think that He is being very literal. If your eye makes you sin, Jesus says literally pluck it out; if your hand causes you to sin, literally cut it off.
What? Really? Well, before you pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, let’s consider what Jesus is really saying.
This passage is in the context of Jesus’ sermon on the mount. He is talking about what a believer is like (for example, “poor in spirit” is a person who realizes he is a sinner, as opposed to a self righteous person). He also speaks to the Law, but raises the bar, demonstrating the intent behind the Law. Therefore, when He says you shall not commit adultery, He says if you look at a woman with lust you have already committed adultery. Think about what this means. Even if you’ve never physically committed the act of adultery, just thinking about it is the same in God’s view. That’s a pretty heavy message. Then, as if to pile it on, Jesus says if your eye causes you to sin (i.e., commit adultery), pluck it out!
Now, the idea of cutting off a body part to save the rest of the body is not a new one. We do this routinely with cancer. To stop the spread of cancer to the rest of the body, it’s sometimes necessary to cut out the cancerous parts to save the rest of our body. From this perspective, what Jesus is saying makes perfect sense. If totally removing sin from our life was as “simple” as cutting off a hand, who wouldn’t do that?
Unfortunately, our sin is not concentrated in a single extremity. Our problem goes much deeper. Our sin pervades our entire being, and that was Jesus’ point. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5) Romans 3 says, “10 as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; 11 There is none who understands, There is none who seeks for God; 12 All have turned aside, together they have become useless; There is none who does good, There is not even one.” A person who realizes this is poor in spirit, indeed.
Our sin is not caused by our extremities or a single body part, and plucking out our eye or cutting off our hand won’t have any effect on keeping us from sinning. Like the person whose cancer has spread beyond a single body part, our entire body is infected with sin. The only way to get rid of it is to kill the body completely. Our old man must die. We must, as Jesus told Nicodemus, be born again, from above.
That is exactly what God does for us when He saves us. Just as we were completely dependent on God for our physical birth, we are also dependent on Him for our spiritual birth. As part of this birth, we also died. Galatians 2 explains:
“19 For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Likewise, Romans 7:
“4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”
On the one hand, these passages are clear and understandable; on the other, I still struggle to comprehend what it means that it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. The reason I find it difficult to understand, I think, is because although I have been crucified with Christ, I still sin. I don’t want to sin, but I still do. Thankfully, Paul deals with this very issue in Romans 7:
“15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
This is a lifelong struggle for us as believers. We carry around a body of death, full of sin, and this body wars against the Spirit who lives and dwells in us.
“16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” (Galatians 5)
Our goal is to be led by the Spirit that we may walk in the Spirit. This is accomplished by the work of the Spirit through the study of the word of God.
So, in conclusion, we see that Jesus was indeed speaking literally about plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand if they cause us to sin. While our problem is much bigger than that, God’s solution is even bigger. He saves us, gives us new life, and indwells us with His Spirit. We have all that we need in Christ; we lack nothing. By His grace, let’s seek to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, knowing that one day we will be like Him, without sin forever more (1 John 3:2).