Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt not commit adultery. 28But I say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27–28, Darby Translation
The word “lust” to most readers of that verse probably carries with it the idea of “strong sexual desire.” And as a noun, “lust” certainly does mean that, among other things. However, as a verb, which is how it is used in the above verse, the word “lust” means something much simpler: to have a strong desire or a craving for something. Pleasure (sexual or otherwise) is merely the implied ends of lusting, not the means thereof. (Why else would someone crave something if not for pleasure of one sort or another?)
And so it is in the Greek. “To lust after” is a translation of the word ἐπιθυμέω, which carries a very simple meaning according to Strong’s: “to set the heart upon, i.e., long for (rightfully or otherwise).”
The word — in Greek and English — is not inherently sexual, so we must not simply assume it. Stick with “desire to have” as a working definition for the time being.
So thus far, substituting the meaning for the word, the above passage looks like this, modified words emphasized:
Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt not commit adultery. 28But I say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to desire to have her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27–28, Darby Translation
Matthew 5:28 is often used to declare that any “sexual thoughts” about a woman is equivalent to committing adultery, and so it is a sin. But such is not the case, for “sexual thoughts” aren’t a part of this verse. Stopping with our meaning-for-word interpretation we just quoted, we are left with a problem: If it is adultery to desire a woman, how on Earth is anyone ever supposed to get married? surely “adultery in the heart” isn’t the birth of marriage‽
To answer that question, we must look at the context of this desiring: “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” the seventh commandment. What is adultery?
The word “adultery” both times it is used in the quoted passage comes from the Greek word μοιχάω, which simply means “to commit adultery.” For further clarification, we must look at the word from which μοιχάω is derived: μοιχός, which “denotes one ‘who has unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another.'”
So let’s do another meaning-for-word swap, and again all modified words are emphasized:
Ye have heard that it has been said, Thou shalt not commit having unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another. 28But I say unto you, that every one who looks upon a woman to desire to have her has already committed having unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27–28, Darby Translation
What Jesus does is reveal the link between the seventh commandment and the tenth (“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” Exodus 20:17).
In other words, if you covet your neighbor’s wife, then you have already committed adultery with her. We all know that much.
But what doesn’t this verse say?
This verse does not teach that if you “lust” after an unmarried woman that you commit adultery with her. It could perhaps be said that it is okay to desire (or “lust after,” if you prefer) an unmarried woman, for if you do not desire her, how will you marry her?
Paul would seem to agree with that in 1 Corinthians 7 when he teaches that rather than burning with passion caused by abstinence, you should marry.
We’re often taught that lust is bad. And certainly, lusting (coveting) after anything which is already spoken for is bad. But it seems to me that an overextending interpretation of our primary passage in Matthew has led to a lot of prudishness within the churches when it comes to sexuality. We’re taught that it’s bad and can only lead to bad things. All the while the Song of Solomon, an explicit love song of two star-crossed lovers who (and correct me if I’m wrong) were not even married yet, sits right in the middle of the Scriptures taunting everything we think we know about holiness and sex.