How can a man “commit adultery in his heart” with a woman if they’re both single?

Q. Jesus said that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  But what if neither one is married?  How could that be adultery?  And I don’t think many married couples would be together if there weren’t some lust involved.

The saying of Jesus that you’re asking about comes from the part of the Sermon on the Mount where he’s showing that legalistic interpretations of the law of Moses are contrary to its true spirit and intentions.  The Pharisees taught that so long as you didn’t literally break a commandment, you were still law-abiding if you did anything just short of it.  For example, you could lose your temper and beat somebody up terribly, but so long as you didn’t kill them, you wouldn’t have broken the commandment that says, “You shall not murder.”

Jesus teaches, by contrast, that the desire, intention, and attempt to commit an action are all of one piece with the action itself.  The commandment against murder is actually meant to warn us away from hatred, bitterness, and assault, not just actual murder.  Jesus taught an inward righteousness whose goal was to be “perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect,” in thought, word, and deed.

The first two examples that Jesus chooses to illustrate this teaching come from the Ten Commandments:  “You shall not murder” and “you shall not commit adultery.”  The Ten Commandments themselves were not meant to be interpreted legalistically.  That is, their meaning was not supposed to be limited to a strict literal reading, as if they were forbidding only the specific named practices.  Rather, they were all provided as examples of the kinds of things that God does and doesn’t want us to do.  We are supposed to determine from them, by inference and analogy, many other kinds of things that we should and shouldn’t do.

This principle is illustrated right within the Ten Commandments themselves, when the last one says not to covet your neighbor’s wife, or his house or land, or any of his servants, his ox or his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.  In other words, specific examples are given to illustrate a principle that is meant to be applied generally.  As I write in my Deuteronomy-Hebrews study guide, “The Ten Commandments are a brief but powerful moral code because they teach general principles through specific rules that can be applied to a wide range of contexts. The literal application of these rules is narrow, but they all provoke reflection on their underlying principles, and these can speak to a broad variety of situations.”

The commandment against adultery, therefore, is not meant to show  just  that a person who is married shouldn’t have sexual relations with someone else they’re not married to.  Rather, it shows more generally that sexual relations should take place only between a husband and wife within marriage.  This general application would also rule out sexual activity between two people who aren’t married.  And Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount shows that there should also not be the desire, intention, or attempt on their part to have sexual relations—even through that long, lingering look.  This teaching also shows that any use of pornography is not in keeping with God’s intentions.

But how, then, would anyone get married “if there weren’t some lust involved”?  I think it’s important to distinguish between sexual attraction and lust. I believe that people can experience a pure sexual attraction for another person that is actually expressing a deep admiration for everything about them—their body, yes, but also their character, personality, passions, abilities, and even the depth of their Christian commitment.  Feeling this kind of attraction can be a sign that perhaps you should think and pray carefully about marrying this person.

Lust, on the other hand, is a shallow, self-indulgent desire.  It wants simply to consume something of another person based on their most superficial characteristics.  Someone who’s attracted to you in that way isn’t paying you much of a compliment (they hardly know you) and it’s not time to think about marrying them.

Put simply, without that sexual spark in a marriage, it’s going to be a long 50 years.  But that spark is supposed to be ignited when everything about one person finds companionship, challenge, help, and mystery in everything about another person.  If it’s simply a mating instinct, there’s a whole lot more both people could discover about themselves, each other, and God’s purposes for their lives by waiting before mating.

How could God call David a “man after his own heart” when he committed adultery and murder?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

In my first post in response to this question, I looked at why God rejected Saul as king.  In this post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

I think much of our difficulty in understanding how God could apply this phrase to a man who became an adulterer and murderer comes from the way we use the phrase today.  For us it means “just the kind of guy I like” or “someone who does what I would do in a situation.”  But that’s not what the phrase means when Samuel uses it to describe to Saul the kind of king God is seeking to establish a dynasty in Israel.

The Hebrew phrase is actually “a man according to God’s heart”—one who is in accordance with God’s wishes for the kingship.  Samuel makes this clear by observing, “You have not kept the LORD’s command,” that is, that the kingship should not be treated as divine or as encompassing priestly powers.

David set an example for all subsequent kings by never acting as if he were a divine king or priest-king.  (Uzziah, by contrast, one of his successors, was punished for going into the temple of the LORD to burn incense, effectively claiming to be a priest-king.  The priests challenged him, saying, “It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the LORD. That is for the priests.”  Uzziah was smitten with leprosy and had to turn over royal power to his son as regent.  “His pride led to his downfall,” the biblical narrator observes.)

David was always devoted to the LORD as Israel’s supreme ruler and he never turned aside after other gods.  This heart of loyalty became the standard by which all later kings were judged.  The Bible says about Abijah, for example, “His heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.”  We might think of a “man after God’s own heart” as one whose heart is fully devoted to God.

King David, St. Martin’s Church, Yorkshire, England

But even such men and women need to be very careful about how they respond to the challenges and especially the disappointments of life.  David committed adultery after his army officers, out of a commendable desire to protect his life, made him stay back in Jerusalem when they went out to war.  For a military commander like David, this idleness and apparent uselessness were hard to bear. One may surmise that he tried to find renewed validation by getting a beautiful woman for himself, Bathsheba.

He should have regarded her as strictly off limits because she was another man’s wife—in fact, the wife of one of his trusted “mighty warriors,” Uriah the Hittite.  But instead David abused his kingly powers and committed adultery and murder to get her.  In a divine judgment, his royal house was torn apart in the next generation.  So no divine approval of David’s actions can be found in the earlier description of him as a “man after God’s own heart.”

But here David provides an example in another way.  Beware, men and women:  even if you are devoted solely to God, you have to flee temptation, recognizing that it will assault you most strongly when you are at your weakest.  (For many men, this comes on the “down slope,” when they’ve held an important position but now are facing some new limitations on their role or reductions in their status, as David was here.  Be especially vigilant under these circumstances!)

Is the story of the woman caught in adultery a later addition, and if so, what are we supposed to do with it?

Q. In your John study guide, you have a note at the end of Session 8 that says the story of the woman who was caught in adultery “was most likely not an original part of the gospel of John.”  Sure enough, in my Bible the passage is in italics and there’s a note that says, “The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11.”  If that’s true, then who added stuff like this that wan’t there in the first place?  And what are we supposed to do when we get to these parts? Ignore them?

The gospels were all written about a generation after Jesus lived.  They’re based on a stream of oral tradition coming down from his day about what he said and did.  Not everything in this tradition was put to use by the gospel writers.  But in the case of the story of the woman who was caught in adultery, it seems that something more from this oral tradition found its way into the gospels after they were written.

This story appears at John 7:53-8:11 in some later manuscripts; it’s also found in different places in other manuscripts:  after Luke 21:38, after Luke 24:53, after John 7:36, and after John 21:25.  With so much attestation, it’s likely that this story is part of the genuine tradition coming down from Jesus.

Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

None of the gospel writers included it, perhaps because it could be misunderstood to condone adultery.  But it’s such a powerful episode when rightly understood (“let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) that people who knew about it added it to the gospels later.  This may originally have been as a “gloss” or marginal note, which later got added to the text itself.  In several manuscripts it’s marked as an addition by asterisks or other symbols.

Bruce Metzger, who was of the leading textual critics of our day, writes in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament that while “the case against … Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive” (that is, it’s pretty clear that John didn’t include this story in his gospel originally), the account “has all the earmarks of historical veracity.  It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places.”

So even if we can make a good judgment that something probably wasn’t in the original manuscripts, we still need to ask whether it might be part of the tradition coming down from Jesus.  In this case, the story probably is. That’s why I do encourage groups to discuss the story, just not as part of their regular meeting.  In the study guide I say that the story “probably preserves a genuine episode from the life of Jesus” and I suggest that groups discuss it over dinner before doing the next session.  (Even if a group didn’t usually have a meal together first, this would provide a good occasion to do that at least once.)