It's not apparent in most Bible versions, but Jesus was referring to coveting in Matthew 5:28 and not lust when he taught about looking at women. Translators usually use the word “lust” to communicate the original text, but the actual Greek term refers only to neutral desire, not anything sexual or sinful in nature. It is this misunderstanding that usually leads to much confusion.
What Jesus was saying in this verse was that coveting, or the intent to commit adultery is what’s actually equal to adultery, not just merely looking at someone. Jason A. Staples (Ph.D., UNC-Chapel Hill), Assistant Professor at NC State University discusses this at length in his Misinterpreted Bible Passages article. If the desire and plan for committing adultery were present, but just not the opportunity, and if one would take the chance if they got it, then they would already be guilty of adultery. In this context, that is considered coveting.
So why cover coveting? Isn’t it just some archaic word from the tenth commandment? And what’s it got to do with sex you may wonder? Well, it has a lot to do with it.
God tells us in the Ten Commandments not to covet anyone’s wife. In this prohibition, sex is obviously a primary reason to covet. The Greek word used in Matthew 5:28 for covet (ἐπιθυμέω; epithumeó) is the same word used in Exodus 20:17 of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). It tells us “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex 20:17 LXX). But just what is coveting?
In the PragerU video on the subject, coveting is defined as intensely desiring things “to the point of seeking to take away and own something that belongs to another person.” In other words, coveting is lust which requires actual intent to possess something. Praeger then goes on to clarify that the tenth command about coveting is “the only one of the ten commandments that legislates thought.” So then, when it comes to intent, even our thoughts are of the greatest importance. Even so, just because you thought it doesn’t mean it’s a sin.
There's an entire spectrum of desires ranging from initial knowledge and curiosity, which are not sinful, all the way to coveting, which is a sin. In between are varying degrees of desire, most of which are not sin, such as interest, appreciation, arousal, nascent fantasy, and possible others. Passionate fantasizing may or may not be wrong, but it isn't until you cross the line of intent to possess that the desire then becomes sinful (which usually happens when engaging with someone). At that point, intent may either be negligent, reckless, knowing, or purposeful, all of which are degrees of intent and therefore qualify as coveting.
Men are attracted to women visually. That’s a given. Does a man sin by desiring to ask a single woman out on a date, or just by thinking about a woman and becoming sexually aroused? Is arousal the same as intent to engage with someone? Or is arousal sin, even if it's for a woman who is already married, but which there is no intent to pursue and steal?
The simple desire (lust) for something prohibited is not a sin. That's called temptation. If we were to imagine having sex with someone not our spouse with zero intent to actually do it, according to Jesus would that qualify as sexual sin? Suppose we observe an attractive individual jogging in form-fitting exercise apparel. Is that sinful? Or if we see adultery in a movie, are we ourselves then guilty of sexual immorality? The answer to each of these questions is undoubtedly the same. No.
To be clear, merely thinking about someone sexually is not sinful, as opposed to coveting and scheming to steal or harm them. Similarly, as an example, if someone smells or hears or sees you grilling BBQ, and then becomes hungry and imagines eating it, is that the same as stealing it or even planning with intent to take it? Or suppose someone is a social drinker. When they're around friends and feeling good, certain aromas, even the sight of a drink can seem intoxicating. They may go out evenings and weekends and look forward to that time to unwind. You might even say they lust after it.
Lust: Don't Even Think About It?
The word "lust" in most Bibles is misleading. Jesus actually referred to intent and coveting in his teachings, not dogmatic thought crimes.
Read this next
In general, craving BBQ or having a drink is as normal a thing as eating or sleeping, or it should be when people don't unnaturally prohibit it. After all, why wouldn't it be? The good Lord Jesus certainly ate and drank and was even known as a vintner of sorts (John 2). So then, should we condemn and shame someone for their natural appetites when God doesn’t even do that? Absolutely not. However, many Christians sure try to when it comes to masturbation and viewing nudity or porn.
People lust for all kinds of things that God made good like food, drink, sleep, sex, beauty, love, family, friendship, meaning and more. Even Jesus lusted to eat the Passover before he was murdered. The lust for sex, even the mere sight of it is a good and natural desire from God. Should we really oppose him on this one by refusing it entirely and throwing the good thing he's given us back in his face?
Coveting is certainly lust (desire), but not all lust is necessarily coveting. Most married Christian men love their wives and do not covet other women. Although there could be lustful feelings of attraction, it’s usually not to the point of coveting. If it were, there would either be much more infidelity or far fewer Christians.
Lust is a neutral desire, neither good nor bad, although it can be used for either purpose. We must exercise Holy Spirit self-control in order to avoid coveting, as Staples informs us.
Have some constructive feedback about this article?
Matthew 5:28 is a notoriously misinterpreted verse with a complicated history, and a reputation of being a marriage killer.
When it comes to immorality, what some think of as sexual "sin" (such as porn) is really a matter of conscience.
"Jesus does not say that the thought and the action are equivalent, as is often taught. The passage (Matthew 5:28) does not say, 'Once you've thought it, it's the same as actually having done it.' That very notion is absurd!"
Jason A. Staples, Ph.D.
Sign Up For Updates
Receive email updates when new content is published. Unsubscribe anytime.
A critical look at why people think pornography is wrong. However, the real problem is not porn itself. But rather, it's how we think about it.
"Matthew 5:27-28 is not a condemnation of lust or sexual desire, nor does it mean that every red-blooded male necessarily sins every time a beautiful woman walks into a room (or onto a movie screen or anywhere else she may appear). On the contrary, “lust” itself is not a sin but leads to sin if it is not properly governed and put under the authority of the Spirit"
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus was not raising the bar or setting an impossible standard. Rather, he was clarifying lust and coveting. His intent was for us to keep his commands, not out of religious moralism, but out of loving thankfulness for his great sacrifice for us. It's only by following the leading of the Holy Spirit with a grateful heart that we can have the freedom Jesus offers.
Christiansexdeception.com (via web.archive.org)
By: Jason A. Staples, Ph.D.
Sexual self-pleasure is a gift from God. Yet many Christians continue to condemn the practice. Why?
By: Dennis Prager
Everyone knows that the Bible says sexual lust is wrong. Except when it's not. After all, Jesus lusted, so it can’t be that bad.