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Matthew 5:28 says

"but I -- I say to you, that every one who is looking on a woman to desire her, did already commit adultery with her in his heart." (Young's literal)

It seems to be a blanket statement - all women. Does this include looking at one's own wife?

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The question has three levels, on the first level the answer is NO, on the other two levels the answer is YES.

1st level:

Sexual relationship which is necessarily connected with a bodily desire is not sinful in the context of marriage, thus neither does it fall under the censure of Jesus, unless childbearing is also sin, which it cannot be. Thus, therefore the desire of another woman than one's own is at stake. "Marriage is holy and the marriage bed undefiled" (Hebrews 13:4).

2nd level:

Sexual relationship even in the context of marriage should not go to excesses, for even the marriage according to the NT is a great mystery that, among other things, also accounts to reduction of excessive sexual passions, "burning", in humans (1 Cor. 7:9). Now, if someone enters marriage, on the contrary, for giving a free vent to his excessive sexual phantasies and proclivities, moreover coercing his own spouse to the same, then such a marriage will cease to be soul-improving and God-pleasing, but will lead to a moral depravity of both spouses. In this sense, excessive sexual passions and desires should be checked also in the context of marriage, so that Jesus' words then apply also to the case, when one looks at one's own wife with a selfish lustful desire, for as a famous saying goes "lust kills love".

3rd level

Jesus' words can address, among the others, also those who wish to be perfect in a more short-cut and intensive fashion, the voluntary eunuchs, who can contain His words about remaining celibate (Matthew 19:12), who dare to expose their hearts and lives to such an excess of divine grace, as to overcome even the sexual urges and feel happy even without sexual relationships and long more towards God than towards even the most romantic love-affair with a woman, or, in case of a woman, with a man. Such small amount of Christians have their souls already in an angelic state, the state of Jesus' soul, which state all Christians should aspire at, even the married ones, for in the Heavenly Kingdom there will be neither marriage nor sex (Matthew 22:30). Now, if such a voluntary eunuch does not protect his elevated calling and will miss his previous stage and succumb to his desire for women, this will be a sin, for he will exchange a better for the worse, which means that he will no more bear the intensity of grace that enabled him to abstain from women without any infringement upon his happiness in God.

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    As usual, I enjoy your well-though-through and balanced approach. I especially appreciate your thinly veiled comments against rape in marriage - a great sin made even worse by its veil of pretended decency via marriage and a curse to modern life. +1.
    – Dottard
    Mar 11 at 2:14
  • @Dottard Thanks, I value much your estimation - indeed, there is a difference between official status and ontological condition, even if the two are connected: official status of marriage should bear an ontological significance of making spouses better and more upright persons, make a better space and context for cultivating love; but if marriage is abused for sexual laxity, then love will diminish as much as lewdness will increase, then the official status of marriage and the ontology that should be at work in it will part their ways. Mar 11 at 6:11
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No, because it is impossible to commit adultery with one’s own wife. Adultery by definition is committed with another man’s wife.1 2 The context of Matt. 5:28 is adultery;3 therefore, the “woman” in Matt. 5:28 is another man’s wife, not one’s own.

Footnotes

        1 Lev. 20:10; Deu. 5:21
        2 Also, see Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 216, “Adultery,”: “Sexual intercourse of a married woman with any man other than her husband. The crime can be committed only by and with a married woman.”
        3 Matt. 5:27


References

The Jewish Encyclopedia: A Descriptive Record of the History, Religion, Literature, and Customs of the Jewish People from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Ed. Amram, David Werner. Vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1907.

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    Thanks for this - do you think here Jesus isn't meaning to include unmarried persons, then? I.e., 'looking on a woman to desire her' if both are unmarried isn't 'adultery in one's heart'? Mar 9 at 0:14
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    Matthew 5 is taking the Jewish laws (like adultery) and expanding them to greater moral principles (like lust) - and then Jesus goes on to say that you've broken the law even though you haven't literally done what the law prohibits. So I don't think your argument works - just as you can't commit adultery with your wife, so you can't commit murder without killing, but Jesus says those who hate have broken the law against murder.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 9 at 9:20
  • You are presumably looking at jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/865-adultery
    – Henry
    Mar 9 at 23:28
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    @AnthonyBurg regarding your comment: There are numerous categories of sexual sin listed in the law, but the 10 Commandments only lists "You shall not commit adultery", which suggests that adultery can be considered a blanket category for all sexual sin, not merely "married-and-engaged-in-sex-with-someone-not-your-partner". Mar 10 at 21:27
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    @GalacticCowboy The biblical definition of Adultery isn't "married and having sex with someone not your partner", it's "having sex with a married woman". Under the Law of Moses, it's perfectly fine for a married man to have sex with an unmarried woman; he's simply required to marry her afterwards (remember, polygamy between one man and multiple women was allowed). Also, if adultery was meant to be a blanket description of all sexual sins, then the Law of Moses wouldn't have gone into such great detail about what counted as incest.
    – nick012000
    Mar 11 at 1:11
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The short answer is: NO.

While a husband should not lust after his own wife in an unloving way (by objectifying her), we have to be careful not to expand the interpretation of this verse beyond Jesus's intention in light of the larger pericope (Matt 5:17-48): Six examples of fulfilling the law beyond the righteousness of the Pharisees.

V.27 includes verbatim LXX quotation of the 7th commandment of not committing adultery (another man's wife), so in V.28 the verb ἐπιθυμῆσαι (epithymēsai) frequently translated "to lust after" seems best to be linked with the 10th commandment of "you shall not covet your neighbor's wife" (Ex 20:17), especially since

the Greek word usually translated “lust” in this passage (ἐπιθυμέω; epithumeô) is precisely the word for “covet” (Hebrew חמד) in the Tenth Command in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament)

(source: "Whoever Looks at a Woman With Lust": Misinterpreted Bible Passages #1)

which is also the opinion of R.T. France in his NICNT commentary on Matthew:

The “woman” in Jesus’ declaration is thus to be understood also as another man’s wife (see p. 192, n. 46), and the looking “in order to desire her” (literally) specifically of wanting (and planning?) sexual relations (hence my translation “wants to have sex with her” above). The focus is thus not (as some tender adolescent consciences have read it) on sexual attraction as such, but on the desire for (and perhaps the planning of) an illicit sexual liaison

In addition, Jason Staples in the article linked above said we should also be careful NOT to restrict ἐπιθυμία ("lust") to be a sexual term, since in Platonic thought the word refers to the irrational seat of appetite,

an assumed part of each human person - deriving from God-given bodily desires that are amoral in themselves, neither inherently sinful nor entirely depraved. As such the presence of such “lusts” is in no way sinful; it is simply a part of being an embodied person. But directing these desires towards taking, obtaining, or enjoying what is not lawful is forbidden—that action (itself an act of the will) is forbidden by the Tenth Command and is sin.

In fact, in Luke 22:15 Jesus used the word in "And He said to them, ‘I have lusted [ἐπιθυμέω] to eat this Passover with you before I suffer!'" Jason then pointed out other use of the word in non-moral context within Matthew and Luke as well as some grammatical analysis, concluding with his paraphrase and warning:

In modern terms, Matt 5:27–28 could be paraphrased as follows: “Obviously, having extramarital sex is wrong, but the moment you decide to start down that path, adultery is already in your heart.”

Finally, Jesus does not say that the thought and the action are equivalent, as is often taught. The passage does not say, “Once you’ve thought it, it’s the same as actually having done it.” That very notion is absurd! Rather, Jesus says that adultery has been committed in the heart, that the will has already bent itself towards adultery. Again, the emphasis is on intent—that is, without the decision to move towards adultery, the act would never be committed. Therefore, Jesus says, deal with the primary problem of intention and adultery becomes a non-issue. As will be shown below, the suggestion that the thought and action are equivalent can cause much harm.

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  • Ah, good insight here that it's specifically linked with the command against coveting your neighbour's wife (making emotional affairs even more directly relevant). I still stand by my answer though, that we can read it more broadly.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 9 at 22:30
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. Mar 10 at 16:35
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In the phrase “who is looking on a woman to desire her,” the word “to” is key. In other words, the problem lies in the intent with which one person looks at another, when a person looks at a woman “to desire her.” Intention is rooted in the mind and the heart:

  • He went on: ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come – sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.’ (Mk 7: 20-23)

Thus desire in and of itself is not the issue. The problem lies within, in the intention with which one person looks at another. This principle can be applied whether the question is adultery or another type of sexual impropriety. It may apply to a person's own spouse only in the strictest sense and that is, when they look upon their spouse merely as an object of self-gratification.

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In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7 Jesus shows what it means to truly follow God. To enter the Kingdom of Heaven your righteousness must surpass the righteousness of the Phrarisees (5:20) - those who were most committed to strictly following the Jewish Law. In Matthew 5:21-30 Jesus takes two concrete prohibitions of the Jewish law, and expands them to teach about the greater principles of the moral law - and then he goes on to say that by violating the broader moral principles it is as if you have broken the original Jewish Law. So the one who hates and swears with contempt at his brother or sister is subject to the same judgement as the one who actually commits murder.

Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV): You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Here Jesus expands the prohibitions of adultery into the general moral evil of lust. Adultery still remains the specific act of someone who is married having sex with someone who isn't their spouse. But there are many who have sinned who have not committed adultery. Consider that emotional affairs are a recognised problem and considered by many people to be just as problematic as sexual affairs. Christians likewise consider the intentional use of pornography to be included in what Jesus speaks about here, as it is quite literally looking at a woman (or man) lustfully.

So what about a man looking at his own wife? I would say that not everyone "looking with desire" does so with the same intentions. A healthy marriage will include a healthy sex life, which will include appreciating each others' physical bodies, wanting to look at each other, and being aroused by each others' bodies. In the context of a healthy marriage where mutual fulfilment and delight is the goal, this is healthy and righteous "looking with desire". I'd say there is also a healthy but lesser amount of desire that a dating or engaged couple should have for each other.

But it's also possible to look at your spouse with an unhealthy lust - what we'd now call objectifying another person - seeing them just as an object for meeting your own sexual appetites, not an equal partner in sex, marriage, and life. I think this is included in Jesus's declaration. And just as most of us have angrily lashed out at someone else, most of us have objectified another human, and in this way we too are law-breakers.

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He can not commit adultery with his own wife, but he could commit adultery with someone else’s wife if he doesn’t curtail his fleshly desire. Thus, a wife should.be honoured, nurtured an loved; not lusted.

40-50% of marriages in western societies end up in divorce. The reason for this is because they were based on lust, not love

“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thess 4:3-7)

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