The Sermon on the Mount
By E.H. “Jack” Sequeira

14 – Mortifying the Flesh

Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, 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 sin, 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.

This text has been taken literally by many Christians, especially in the early Christian church in the Third and Fourth Centuries.  And even today, many sincere Christians take this somewhat literally.  And it has caused a lot of suffering.  We know in some Churches there were actually individuals who cut their hands off and plucked their eye hoping that this would save them.

When we were in Ethiopia, I discovered something among the Coptic monks.  The European Church was part of the Coptic Church of Egypt and a lot of the monks up in the monasteries were eunuchs.  They had castrated themselves to try and liberate themselves from the problem of the sexual temptations that come.  Do you think they were successful?  (I will bring it up again.)

We need to look at this text and I would like once again to emphasize:  never read a text out of context.  We need to get the context first before we interpret a text; otherwise, we can do the same thing as the early Christians did.

Two facts were revealed as we studied verses 21-28.  Christ was dealing with two areas in terms of how He understood the law and the prophets in contrast to how the scribes and Pharisees were teaching.  In the first place, we look at sin.  And we discover that, to the scribes and Pharisees, sin was an act.  A temptation became sin when a person performed the act.  To Christ, a temptation became sin when the idea was cherished in the heart or mind.

The second difference we saw was obedience.  To Pharisees, obedience was external — do’s and don’ts.  We call it “the letter of the law.”  To Christ, obedience was internal, when you obeyed from the heart.  Now keep this in mind because this is the context.  If we interpret verses 29-30 of Matthew 5 with the mentality of the scribes and Pharisees, then we will take Christ literally and we will have to say, “The only way for us to lead holy lives is to cut off our body parts.”  Where are you going to begin?

Let’s take this text seriously.  To the Pharisees, the right side of the body was good and the left side was bad.  By the way, this was true even in our country and in the western world for many years.  I remember my brother and sister are both left-handed.  My father forced them to go to the right hand because the left hand belonged to the devil.  The Pharisees had the same idea.  The right eye was good and the left eye was bad.  But if the right eye offends, something is wrong, so you pluck it out.

Let me ask you a question.  If I remove the right eye, will I still see?  Yes.  And will the left eye lead you to temptation?  Yes.  So, if you use the right hand to steal (the scribes and Pharisees did not use the left hand, even if you were left-handed you were forced to use the right hand), if you cut off the right hand, would that stop you from stealing.  No.  Let’s go beyond that.

If Christ did not mean that we should literally pluck our eye out and cut our hand off because it is an offending body part, what did he mean?  First of all, let’s keep in mind that the Bible does not teach that our human body, with all its parts, is in and of itself evil.  That is a Greek concept, not a Biblical concept.  The Greeks believed that matter was evil.  The Bible says that we have a sinful nature because there is a force, a power dwelling in us called the law of sin.

If we are to deal with sin, you cannot solve the sin problem by cutting off your hand.  Because to God, sin is not an act.  Sin is a desire that is cherished.  Do you need your hands to be tempted to steal?  No.  Even if I cut off both my hands and I see something I want, I will still be tempted to steal.  But because I cannot use my hands, I will find somebody else to help me.  And I will say that “I didn’t do the stealing; he did it.”  You are kidding yourself.

Paul tells us in Romans 7:23:

...But I see another law [another principle, another force] at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

There is a force that brings my mind into captivity and if my mind says, “yes,” I have sinned, even though I may not have performed the act.  I discussed this issue especially with one of the Coptic monks in Ethiopia who became an Adventist and actually got married (as a Coptic he had to be good by practicing celibacy and he was a eunuch).  I asked him, “Don’t you ever have a temptation when you look at a woman to lust?”  He said, “Yes, but I don’t commit the act.”  “But you desire to commit the act?”  “Yes.”  So I told him that he had not solved the problem and he agreed.  But he did not know it at that time and he was doing his best.

Please remember that sin begins in the heart.  Let me give you an example.  Matthew 15:1-2:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?  They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

What did Jesus say?  Matthew 15:10-11:

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand.  What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

Jesus’ disciples asked him to explain the parable.  Matthew 15:17-20:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’”

“It is not what you eat that defiles you; from the heart comes all these terrible things.”  Remember that Jesus is not telling you that literally you are to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye.

If the source of my sin is the law of sin, where exactly is it found?  Where is that law of sin dwelling?  It is part of the life you received from Adam.  The life we received from Adam is a sinful life.  Let me put it this way:  God created Adam out of the dust of the earth.  When God was creating him from dust, could Adam think at that time, could he move?  When did his thoughts come to him?  When was it possible for him to live, to move.  When he became a living soul, a living person.  He could think, move, do things.  That life that God gave him was a sinless life.  It was a life in the image of God.

The moment he sinned that life became bent toward self.  That is “the law of sin in my members.”  If I cut off my hand, it is true the hand dies but do I die?  No.  Therefore, I have solved the problem of the hand but I have not solved my problem.  What then is the solution?  Only death will eradicate the problem.  That is why I want to remind you of Romans 8:4.  Christ condemned the law of sin in the flesh, the flesh that He assumed.  We’ll start with verse 3:

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, [here’s verse 4] in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

The death of Christ struck at the very source of our sin problem.  That is a Biblical truth.  But that death was not a single death, it was a corporate death.  How many died in that death?  All.  2 Corinthians 5:14 says, “When one died all died”:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.

In baptism, what do we do?  Baptism is a public confession that I have identified myself with Christ and Him crucified, which means that His death is my death.

It is in this context that Paul is discussing baptism in Romans 6.  He says, “We have died with Christ, were buried with Him, and were raised with Him.”  And then he explains in verse 10 that in that “He died, He died to sin”:

The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

Sin, singular, the power of sin came to an end in the death of Christ.  In verse 11:

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

“Likewise, in the same way, because you were baptized into Christ, you must consider yourselves dead to sin.”

In fact, Romans 6:6-7 says that when this old life is dead, the human body is deprived of its power to sin:

For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

What has this to do with cutting off your hand?  Remember that Christ literally died to sin.  The human life He assumed actually died on the cross; it was not make-believe.  But I have died only by faith.  What is faith?  Turn to Hebrews 11:1.  It is important that we understand a very important factor about faith:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Faith is a reality, but it is a reality in Christ that I have accepted; it is a hope that I have not yet experienced.  When you are baptized in Christ, the old life does not literally die, it is still there.  It is still in you.  And it is this life that is a hindrance to each believer.  Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:6, “That which is born of flesh is flesh”:

Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

In other words, a man who is baptized into Christ does not have any change of nature.  His nature remains sinful to his dying day.  Do you know that our nature remains sinful?  So what Christ is saying in this statement in Matthew 5:29-30 is that inward obedience, when you obey God from the converted heart (that is where the change has taken place), it always involves suffering in the outward man because the two will not agree.

The best example I can give you is Christ Himself.  Let’s turn to Hebrews 2:10:

In bringing many sons to glory [us], it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author [or the source] of their salvation perfect through suffering.

And then in verse 18 it specifies a little more:

Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Was Christ tempted?  Yes.  Like whom?  Like us.  Did He give in to temptation?  No.  Did He obey and did it cause Him suffering?  Yes.  One more text in Hebrews 5:8-9:

Although he was a son [the Son of God], he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him....

Will Adam, and will we, in the New Earth suffer every time we obey God?  No.  Otherwise, heaven would be no heaven.  Do we have to suffer here when we obey God?  Yes.  Why?  Because there is something in you and me that is out of harmony with God.  The Bible (King James Version) calls it “the flesh.”  Romans 8:7 says that the mind controlled by the flesh is enmity with God, is not subject to the law of God, and can never be:

...The sinful mind is hostile to God.  It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.

In other words, we have a nature that cannot be transformed, that cannot be reformed.  What is God’s solution to that nature?  I will come to it in a moment, but one more text about suffering:  1 Peter 4:1.  You need to read the whole section but verse 1 gives us the basis for the rest of the passage:

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.

What Christ is telling us in Matthew 5 is that obedience that comes from the heart always involves suffering in the flesh and that suffering is as painful as if you have cut off your hand or plucked out your eye.

Let me read you something from Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing.  Listen to how Sister [Ellen G.] White explains the same passage which we are studying.  (Page 61):

“The soul, corrupted and deformed, is to be purified [transformed] that it may be clothed in the beauty of the Lord our God.  In order for us to reach this high ideal, that which causes the soul to stumble [Please remember that the words ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘heart’ are in the same area.] must be sacrificed.  It is through the will that sin retains its hold upon us.  The surrender of the will is represented as plucking out the eye or cutting off the hand.  Often it seems to us, that the surrender of the will to God is to consent to go through life maimed or crippled.  But it is better, says Christ, for self to be maimed, wounded, crippled, if thus you may enter into life.  That which you look upon as disaster is the door to highest benefit.”

I am going to read something from a book by John Stott.  This is the book we used with the Sermon on the Mount at the college.  Listen to how this excellent scholar interprets this passage:

“The commandment to get rid of troublesome eyes, hands, and feet is an example of our Lord’s use of dramatic figures of speech.  What he was advocating was not a literal, physical self-maiming, but a ruthless, moral self-denial.  Not mutilation, but mortification is the part of holiness He taught.  And mortification, or taking up the cross to follow Christ means to reject sinful practices so resolutely that we die to them or put them to death.”

In other words, Christ is saying that if you want to experience the obedience of a true Christian, it will be painful.  Keep in mind that Christ is not saying that you must have this obedience to go to heaven.  But He does make a statement that sounds that way, so we need to look at it.  The second half of both this study’s verses say, “It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”  It says it twice — Matthew 5:29-30:

If your right eye causes you to sin, 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 sin, 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.

Now I would like to give you some other texts in the New Testament which conforms with what we have just said.  In Luke 9:23, Jesus said:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

“If any man follow me, let him deny himself daily.”  Is it easy to deny yourself?  No.  Is it painful?  Yes.  Especially with inherited and cultivated habits.  You ask people who are victims of smoking how painful it is to say “no” to that.  It is a struggle, but please remember that is because our flesh is not converted and is unconvertible.  It does not mean that you are unconverted.  It is the devil telling you that.  The Bible says that you will have to deny self daily.  There is a text that will help us in Romans 8:13.  This is very important.  Self is part of me.  It is the very essence of my being.  It is impossible — I repeat it — impossible for self to deny self.  That is why I am giving you this text.  Let’s read verses 9-13 to get the whole sense of the passage.  Verses 9-10:

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.  And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.  [This passage is dealing with believers.] But if Christ is in you, your body is dead [not literally, but because you have surrendered this body to the cross] because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Remember that the body is dead, not literally, but by faith.  And if you want the best proof, pinch yourself; if you feel the pain, you are not literally dead.  Verses 11-12:

And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.  Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation — but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.

Now verse 13:

For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die [this is saying the same thing that Christ said about it being better to cut off a member than go to hell]; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live,....

You cannot mortify the deeds of the body yourself.  Justification is by faith.  Sanctification is also by faith.  Our part from beginning to end — “the just shall live by faith.”  The just will be saved by faith, will live by faith, and will be glorified by faith.  It is the work of the Spirit.  Now turn to Galatians 5:24-25 and I want to remind you of the context:  the fruit of the Spirit.  When the Spirit lives in you, He doesn’t only mortify the flesh but He produces fruit:  love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, and faith.  Can you imagine what our Church would be like with this fruit?  Meekness, temperance — against such there is no law.  Now we have the context, look at verse 24:

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Turn back to 1 Corinthians 9:27 and listen to what Paul has to say about himself:

No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

One more text — Colossians 3:5:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.

Now let’s look at the last part of Christ’s statement:  “It is better for my hand to be cut off than I should go to hell.”  Let me put it this way.  Is the devil happy when you accept Christ?  Why not?  Two reasons:  he has lost a subject of his kingdom and he wants company when he gets burnt up — misery loves company.  And he is deprived of both of his desires when you accept Christ.  Is it true that when you accept Christ it is impossible for you to be lost?  That is a tough one.  Let me put it another way.  If you accept Christ, is it impossible for you to leave Christ?  No.

There are two extremes that we must avoid.  It is very interesting that those who go to one extreme are condemning the other and vice versa.  But both are wrong.  One extreme teaches that every time you make a mistake you become unjustified, so that you go in and out of Christ.  The other extreme is once saved, always saved.  They are both wrong.  Does a Christian, every time he falls, become unjustified?  Nowhere in the Bible does it teach that.  Does the Bible teach that once you accept Christ it is impossible for you to leave Him?  No.  How am I saved?  By faith.  As long as I believe in Christ, salvation is mine.  But is it possible for me to say goodbye to my faith?  Yes.  That is what the devil wants.

One of the ways the devil has is to use your flesh to discourage you.  He will get you to fall down until you say, “It’s no use.”  And there are many Christians who have left the Church for this very reason.  They were raised with the idea that every time they fall they are lost.  They are tired of going in and out of Christ and they have nothing but failure so they say, “I might as well go to the world.”  The flesh is your greatest enemy in your Christian life.  It is not your neighbors or the person in the church who doesn’t greet you, it is not the Pastor, not your brethren — it is the flesh that is your greatest hindrance in the Christian walk.

But it is more than a hindrance, it is a tool that Satan will use to get you out of Christ.  And the moment you say, “It is no use.  I might as well give up Christ,” then he has got you.  Remember (I am paraphrasing from Steps to Christ) that we will have to come to the foot of the cross many times because of our shortcomings but we are never forsaken.  But there is something in you that Satan is trying to use to pull you out and the Bible calls it the flesh.  And that flesh belongs, as far as the Christian is concerned, on the cross of Christ.  That is where it belongs.  Daily you must remind the flesh, because it is still alive and wants to pop up its ugly head, you must remind it that it is crucified.

Now I want to give you a text about those who will be alive at the second coming of Christ.  Turn to Jude; I’ll start with verse 21, but I want to give you verse 23.  This is counsel to Christians who are justified in Christ.

Keep yourselves in God’s love [His love is the basis of your salvation] as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.  [The only person who needs mercy is sinners.]  Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

In the last days even fashions will go.  We won’t worry about what we wear and what we eat.  But now I want to give you verses 24-25 of Jude:

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy — to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.

Remember that there is a battle that we are fighting.  The battle is the flesh and when the Spirit says “no” to the flesh, it will be very painful.  The devil got Eve into his camp and then he used Eve as an instrument to get Adam.  Could God give Adam another wife?  Yes.  But was it painful for Adam to say goodbye to Eve?  Very painful.  It was so painful that he was willing to die for Eve.  He should have been willing to die for Christ.  He chose Eve.  She could not save him.

You will have to die.  Whether we like it or not we will all have to die.  But those who are willing to die for Christ — no problem.  He will raise you up.  Choose you this day whom you will serve.  But remember it is costly to live the Christian life.  All your lives you will have to drag this flesh.  I have some bad news to you who flee to the mountains.  You may say goodbye to the evil cities and environment but you will not say goodbye to the evil flesh; it will come with you.  And the devil will use the flesh there in the mountains to destroy your faith.  Only those whose faith is rooted and grounded in the love of God and His saving activity in Christ will be able to stand.

I hope that you will be willing to suffer with Christ for a season.  Because that is what it will cost.  And my prayer for you is that you will want to obey God and reveal God, not because you want to go to heaven, but because you want to reveal Christ.

It is my prayer that, just as Christ was willing to suffer, we will be willing.  I will close with this text.  He endured the shame and pain of the cross.  Do you know why?  The cross was the most shameful kind of death ever invented by man and was an extremely painful death.  Hebrews 12:2:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author [source] and perfecter of our faith [our salvation], who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

What was the joy?  Three times the Son prayed, “Father, if possible, remove this cup” and three times the Father said, “No, I will not spare you the cup.”  Why?  Because the Father set before the Son the joy to see us in heaven, because He is the author and finisher of our faith.

My prayer is that for the joy that is set before us, the joy of glorifying Christ, let us be willing to endure the cross, self-denial.  That the world may see Christ in us.  It is my prayer that, as disciples of Christ, we will be willing to suffer for a season.  I look at Paul, flogged how many times?  Shipwrecked how many times?  In prison, deprived of food, he held on.  Because for Paul, he said, “For me to live is Christ and to die is profit.”

May God bless us.  We have life because Jesus died.  We who have received this life may be willing to die to self and live for Christ.  We should say thank you to God that we are willing to suffer with Christ for a season.  The disciples were, and we must be willing for the joy that is set before us.

Can you see that Christ is not saying you must cut off your hand?  That won’t help you.  Even if you cut off your ears, you will still be able to hear in your mind.  Cutting off your body parts cannot put away the evil thoughts that come out; you will still remember what you heard ten years ago.  You will still remember the things that you read, even if you pluck out your eyes.  It doesn’t help.  The problem is much deeper than the members of our body.  May God bless us.

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