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For reference, here's the text of Matthew 5:27-30:

“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. If your right eye causes you to stumble, 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 stumble, 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.

Does this mean literally? Aside from the obvious issue that you'd get locked up pretty fast for self-harm, I don't think anyone's limbs or eyes (or anything really) would survive very long under a literal interpretation of this...

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So many good answers, had to burn 3 of the 5 upvotes i have left :) –  RCIX Sep 2 '11 at 14:28
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up vote 16 down vote accepted

I don't think its meant to be interpreted literally. I take it as "Do everything you possibly can to avoid sinning."

relevant example: I have a co-worker of refuses to go to the beach since he would be tempted to engage in lust-related activities.

Whether you agree with my coworker's interpretation and level of devotion to the literal word is not my point. My point is he is making some sacrifices to lead what he thinks is a good life.

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Agreed. I recently got rid of my smart phone because it was too distracting and brought temptations for porn/etc. It was also, one of the more useful things I owned, but keeping it wasn't worth it if it caused me to sin, so I got rid of it. I don't even miss it anymore :) –  InvisibleBacon Sep 2 '11 at 14:57
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I am not sure how this passage can be interpreted in any way but literally, except for the fact that it is simply outrageous. Even if your reinterpretation is correct, "everything you possibly can" would include self-dismemberment. What context clues helped you to arrive at the conclusion that this was not intended to be accepted as a literal commandment? –  George Cummins Sep 2 '11 at 16:26
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@George Cummins In the same vein though, most people aren't doing all they can to avoid sin, before even approaching cutting off your hand. If you cannot avoid sin without cutting off your hand, then it is better to do so. However, in 99% of the cases, we don't have to go that far to avoid it. Usually it means as the answer says: stop going to the beach, get rid of the smartphone, etc. The level of sacrifice needed isn't necessarily going to be that great, but if it is the only thing that you can do, then even perspective says yes, it is better to do that than sin. –  Ben Richards Sep 2 '11 at 18:10
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@George I would, but if it came down to that, the situation already has become dire. It would be similar to being given a choice between dying or losing a leg. Full disclosure, I doubt most of us would ever encounter such a situation, if it is even possible for there to be one. I consider it to be an extreme example used to make a point, which the New Testament does a lot. –  Ben Richards Sep 2 '11 at 18:36
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I'll present a logic argument. Given: a) we're all sinners b) this passage is to be interpreted and applied literally. We all then should be walking around eyeless and handless. –  xanadont Sep 4 '11 at 3:04
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The three uses of Law in Reformed1 and Lutheran2 theology explains this very well. One very important purpose of Law is to let us see our own unrighteousness, so that we could understand how dependent we are on the grace of God.

It was clear from the Old Testament that people couldn't strictly follow the Law of God. Here Jesus makes it even clearer. Consider what Jesus had said just before:

Matthew 5:22 (ESV)
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.

This Law laid down by Jesus damns us all, showing that each one of us is utterly wicked and deserves Hell. Similarly the passage cited in the question will show that we cannot meet God's standards.

Now, what should we do about it? The passage is correct in saying that we'd be better off with only one eye in Heaven than in Hell with both eyes. But would cutting off just one body part stop us from sinning, or cure us from original sin? No, of course not! Jesus is using these words to really strengthen the point: there is no way that we'll evade Hell by our own deeds. We desperately need God's grace.


References:

  1. Calvin's first use of Law, as stated in Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.7.6

    First, by exhibiting the righteousness of God,—in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God,—it admonishes every one of his own unrighteousness, certiorates, convicts, and finally condemns him.

  2. The Lutheran second use of Law, as stated in Formula of Concord VI.1

    secondly, that men thereby may be led to the knowledge of their sins

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  1. There is a story of a saint whose eyes kept getting him into trouble with lust and fornication, so he blinded himself (I will have to find the reference, but good luck to anyone who wants to try!)
  2. 'Eye' and 'Hand' are firstly metaphorical, the eye being the means by which we see and know, eye may refer to knowledge, so primarily it means to cast off knowledge that may be your 'right eye', i.e, your 'best knowledge', but if it causes you to sin, get rid of it. Likewise for 'hand', which is the means by which we do work, 'hand' may refer to works or habits which we have. Even if these are our 'right hand', i.e, our best works and habits, if they are somehow causing us to sin, we need to stop them.

Examples of these principles are in the scripture. For instance, consider the Rich Young Ruler, for whom his wealth is causing him to forsake the Lord ('and he turned away sad, for he was very wealthy') - he would have done well to 'cut off his right hand'.

Likewise with Simon Magus and the young woman with the fortune telling spirit; their 'knowledge' may have been true and powerful, but it was causing them to sin. Traditionally it is said that Magus finally died trying to best the Apostles in Rome, but the young woman relinquished the spirit (her 'special knowledge') to receive the Spirit. In such a case, would not Simon burning his books be quite like 'gouging out his eye,' considering that by his power he allegedly could fly through the air!

But yet, that was what was needed. There are saints who were sorcerers and burned their books to 'gouge out their eye!' That knowledge would be gone, but also with it the sin that it brought them.

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As a Bible literalist I take this one literally.

When you don't believe that your salvation can be taken, then this means nothing, because you don't fear God.

Ezekiel 33:12 (NIV)

Therefore, son of man, say to your people, ‘If someone who is righteous disobeys, that person’s former righteousness will count for nothing. And if someone who is wicked repents, that person’s former wickedness will not bring condemnation. The righteous person who sins will not be allowed to live even though they were formerly righteous.’

Yes this is old testament but God is unchanging and this is still true in the new testament.

Hebrews 10:26-27 (NIV)

26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

So understand that a true Christian is fighting against their flesh every day. Their flesh continues to want to sin but the spirit wars against it in order that you may not trample the precious blood of Jesus.

Galatians 5:17

For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

During this war inside of you, you can literally be torn in a ball on the ground crying out to God, that He may come and save you from your flesh. This war is going on constantly and is difficult to persevere through.

Hebrews 12:4

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

And He's right, I have not resisted to this point. But Jesus tells us that if you cannot control yourself, then do whatever is possible in order to prevent yourself from sinning.

This is why I see this verse as a literal verse.

But when people do not fear God and they do not know that they need to repent of their sin, then this verse means nothing to them. Because they are not at battle with their flesh.

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The best way to get interpretations of Bible passages is to look at a commentary. There are plenty to choose from, and any Christian bookstore will have a huge number available.

For now I'm going to direct you to Matthew Henry's commentary, because he's free, well-known and online.

In summary, it's intended as an indication of the seriousness of sin. If your only choice is between losing a limb, and being cast into hell for an eternity, lose the limb! Think Aron Ralston here.

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Yes, this passage can be taken literally. But no, it is not a command. Jesus is saying that you will be better off if you cut off a hand that makes you sin, but he does not command you to do so.

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In order to show you the wisdom of seeking God: look at all the parallel references (such as Matthew 18) in the NT to what the body is, what the body parts are. The 'eye' is just one kind of person in the Body of Christ; the 'hand' is just another kind of person in the Bodgy of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:21).

You should conclude that Jesus is (Gasp!) telling His followers to carefully check the fruit of those who claim to be His, and to cut off those members who are causing the young and innocent to fall into sin, because it is better to protect and save the innocent than lose them due to the activities of the guilty.

In other words, it is far better to protect the whole body of Christ by cutting off the people who are dragging it into defilement, than that the whole body of Christ become defiled and thrown into hell. Or, see it in a local context.

Of course in these days when 'churches' are just man-made institutions instead of living, loving, daily relationships of intimate fellowship...and in these days of cheap grace and pop christianity when we think we are move 'loving' and 'forgiving' than God Himself, few find it worthwhile to cut anyone off. That just isnt 'christian' you know? Someone might think you are judgmental!

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" The Bottom Line is.." I " believe" most of the Objectors and Nit-pickers. yeah NIT PICKERS ! Go pick some... OK . The real issues are; you just want to find ways to avoid becoming a Christian. So in your mind you can tell yourself; " It's just a a fable" but Christ is real and IF you end up going to hell.. Do you think The people who tried to convince you on this site are going to be losing any sleep over it ? No; because they gave a good effort. We usually get what we ask for ( God offers grace and forgiveness. But You Resist ! if you want separation from God, that's what you'll get. Just realize He holds the universe together. So where does that leave you ? " But the children of the kingdom will be thrown outside into the darkness. People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth.” and It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched." How would you like to end up there ? But just keep UP your arguments: When you find yourself gnashing your teeth for all eternity... maybe then you'll think again but it will be too late

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