What does it mean to look lustfully at someone?

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Jesus’ statement that if anyone looks at a woman “lustfully” then he has already committed adultery with her in his heart is perhaps one of the more difficult teachings in the Bible. It is not just difficult to fulfill, it is also somewhat difficult to even understand in the first place. What constitutes looking lustfully at someone?

First, let’s set the context of this statement. The verses of interest here are Matthew 5.27-28. In verse 27 Jesus begins addressing the topic of adultery. Now this is one of the 10 commandments (see Exodus 20.14; Deuteronomy 5.18), but the Pharisees have a tendency to be only concerned with outward actions rather than purity of heart (see Matthew 23.27-28). Jesus is countering this attitude by saying that adultery starts in the heart. God cares about our heart. If our heart is right then the external actions will follow.

Now, let’s look at the actual statement:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

This is the Greek of v.28:

ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

I’m assuming that most of the people reading this don’t know Greek, so I’ll take some time to explain this. Hopefully this won’t be too confusing, but if it is feel free to skip it.

The part of this verse that is of particular interest for this topic is: πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι:

  • πρὸς (pros) is a preposition which most often denotes direction towards something (usually is translated “to”).
  • τὸ (to) is one of the many forms of the Greek article, which does not function the same as the English article (which is “the”).
  • ἐπιθυμῆσαι (epithymēsai) is an infinitive which here refers to having a sexual interest in someone.

This particular construction of a preposition + a form of the article + an infinitive is fairly common and occurs in at least 128 verses. The one specific to this verse (pros + to + infinitive) is used at least 7 other times1 in the New Testament:

  • Matthew 6.1 (in order to be seen)
  • Matthew 13.30 (to be burned)
  • Matthew 23.5 (to be seen)
  • Matthew 26.12 (for burial)
  • Mark 13.22 (to lead astray)
  • Luke 18.1 (to the effect that they ought)
  • Ephesians 6.11 (that you may be able)

In all these uses the construction is either denoting purpose or result. Most of the time it is taken to denote purpose, but result is also possible. The preposition pros is really just denoting direction, so it could also refer to the goal towards which someone is striving. Thus, this construction could also denote result.

So, coming back to the verse that we are discussing here we can ask the question: is this construction denoting purpose or result?

If it is purpose then the idea is something like: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman for the purpose of desiring her sexually has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

If it is result then the idea is something like: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman and it results in him desiring her sexually, then he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Personally, I think purpose is more likely because that seems to be the sense in the other cases where this construction is used. However, result is also possible, but I think it is less likely.

In the end though it is not important which option you choose here. Why? Look at what the verse is saying again: if you look at a woman either for the purpose of sexually desiring her, or with the result that you sexually desire her (e.g. look for a while) you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. The mere act of looking at a woman with sexual intent already makes you guilty of adultery. Why?

I think the words of Jesus later in Matthew 15.19-20 provide an answer to this question:

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person.

The adulterous thought was already in your heart (the center of your being where your thoughts, feelings, and desires are) and was looking for an opportunity to present itself so that it could be acted upon. This is premeditated looking. You already have the desire for adultery, you are just looking for an opportunity to fulfill that desire. The Pharisees thought sin (including adultery) was a purely external act and if they avoided committing the actual act then they would not be guilty of the sin. What Jesus is saying is that you need to cleanse and purify your heart, your inner desires, because they are what cause you to sin. Once you have purified your heart then the external behaviors will follow.

Now, to be clear, I do not think that this is the same as looking at someone and finding them attractive. It is a bit absurd, I think, to believe that God created humans, including our sex drive, and then also believe that when God came in the flesh he somehow expects us to not experience this natural desire that he created. It just seems ridiculous to say that our sex drives are natural and created by God and then to also say that if we experience these desires then God says that we sinned. It sets up a situation where it is impossible to ever follow God’s command.

So, I do not think that Jesus is addressing human sexuality as a whole in this passage. He is addressing the specific topic of adultery. That is, of being unfaithful to your spouse. Even entertaining the thought of adultery makes you guilty of adultery. I want to make sure that is clear here. Sexual desire is a natural part of being human. Committing adultery is not.

I will close with the words of John Cassian (d. 435) on this verse:

On this account God, the Creator and Author of the human race, being better acquainted than anyone else with the nature of his own handiwork and with how it could be corrected, applied the remedy to the spot where he knew that the causes for the malady were produced in the first place, when he said “Whoever looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” On observing our wanton eyes he blamed not them so much as that inner sense which makes bad use of them to see. For the heart that sees in order to lust is feeble and wounded by the dart of pleasure. By its own viciousness it diverts the gift of sight rightly bestowed on it by the Creator to the working of wicked deeds and takes advantage of vision to produce in itself the hidden disease of desire. Hence this salutary command is enjoined on the person whose viciousness gives rise, under the pretext of a look, to the worst of maladies. For it is not said: “Guard your eyes with all care.” It would surely have been necessary to keep special watch over them if the disposition of lust arose from them. But in fact the eyes do nothing more than offer the soul simple possibility of seeing, and so it is said: “Guard your heart with all care.” Thus medicine is applied chiefly to the spot where the misuse of the eyes’ function certainly occurs.

– Institutes 6.12

Photo by Ric Matkowski on Unsplash

  1. Results according to this search parameter in Logos: lemma:πρός BEFORE 1 WORDS lemma:ὁ BEFORE 1 WORDS @V??N ↩︎

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary