In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus said:
“And if your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from you. For it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should be cast into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and cast it from you, for it is better for you that one of your members should perish and not that your whole body should depart into Gehenna.”
What does Jesus mean by pluck out your right eye and cut off your right hand?
With each verse in the Bible, it is vital the meaning is determined by the verse's context. The context of Matthew 5:29-30 centers around the anticipation by the Jewish people of the coming Messiah and the expectation that the Messiah would establish God’s kingdom of peace on the earth.
This anticipation and expectation finds its roots in the Law of Moses and the Prophets who foretold of this coming Messiah and kingdom he would establish on earth (Isaiah 9:6-7; Jeremiah 23:5-6; Daniel 2:44, 7:14).
The people understood from Scripture that righteousness was required to enter Messiah’s kingdom. One group of people looking forward to the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth was the Pharisees. The Pharisees sought after righteousness so they could enter Messiah’s kingdom, but it was an external righteousness based upon obedience to the Ten Commandments (Romans 10:1-5).
They attempted to become righteous before God (clean, pure) through morality and religious activity (Luke 18:9). Through their attempts, they became self-righteous and self-deceived, thinking they achieved the righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom of God. Yet, their hearts were unclean and impure, disqualifying them from entering the kingdom.
Jesus knew that the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom was internal righteousness...a clean, pure heart. In leading up to Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus taught it was the “poor in spirit” and “pure in heart” who would enter the kingdom of God.
The poor in spirit were those who admitted the sinful condition of their hearts and accepted the forgiveness of Jesus, thus qualifying them to enter the kingdom. Those in this group were the prostitutes and tax collectors (Matthew 21:31-32).
The “pure in heart” were the “poor in spirit”. Their hearts had been purified by acknowledging their sin and through belief in the Messiah (Romas 10:4).
The Pharisees were the very opposite of the “poor in Spirit.” They were proud in spirit, boasting in their self-righteousness, their morality, and religious activity. They boasted about their obedience to the Ten Commandments and rejected what Jesus told them, which was their hearts were dirty, unclean, and impure and that they broke the commandments inwardly.
Since the Pharisees mistakenly believed that righteousness and entrance into the kingdom of God was achieved through external means, totally rejecting the truth that their hearts were unrighteous, Jesus challenged them on their belief. If they really thought the righteousness needed to enter the kingdom of God was gained through external behavior, then, according to Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense that they should remove any part of their bodies that would prevent them from entering the kingdom...such as an impure eye or hand?
Jesus challenged the false belief of the Pharisees when he told them to pluck out the right eye, if that was the eye which would cause a person to violate the commandment in the Law of Moses which says, “Do Not Commit Adultery.” He told them to cut off the right hand, if that was the impure hand which would cause one to steal and violate the commandment, “Do Not Steal.” He could have very easily said, “Cut out your tongue so that you do not lie and violate the commandment which says “Do Not Lie.”
Jesus told them that is better to lose one member of the body rather than to perish and miss out on the kingdom of God on earth. The word perish during the time of Jesus meant that a person would fall under the judgment of God when he removed all sin and sinners from the earth prior to establishing his kingdom on earth.
Gehenna, which Jesus spoke of, was the place in Jerusalem where trash was burned and removed from the earth. Metaphorically speaking, Jesus compared God’s judgment, when he removes sin and sinners from the earth, to Gehenna.
The Pharisees were very familiar with God’s purifying judgment that was to come and with Gehenna. They would refer to Gehenna as what God’s judgment would be like when he purified the earth of sin and sinners when his kingdom was established.
Now Jesus was telling them, for the purpose of exposing their own faulty belief system, that if they wanted to live in the kingdom of God and stay out of Gehenna (God's purifying judgment), taking no chances of missing the kingdom, then pluck out the bad eye and cut off the bad hand if one of those members of the body would make them unrighteous and keep them from entering the kingdom.
Jesus is teaching that it is not a bad right or left eye, or bad right or left hand that makes a person unrighteous. But it is the heart.
Just before Matthew 5:29-30, Jesus said that if a person is angry in his heart toward another person, he has committed murder. He also said that if a person has lust in his heart toward someone, he has committed adultery (Matthew 5:21-28).
By his teaching in these verses, Jesus is seeking to convince his Jewish audience, especially the Pharisees, that it is internal righteousness that is required to enter the kingdom of God, not external righteousness. If it was external righteousness that was required, then, according to Jesus, they should remove whatever part of the body that could possibly make them unrighteous and cause them to be disqualified from entering the kingdom.
The internal righteousness required is freely given to those who are “poor in spirit” and who “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” This righteousness comes from God by grace and is received through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-25; Galatians 2:21).
In summary, the purpose of Jesus telling the Pharisees to pluck out the eye or cut off the hand that would cause them to stumble (sin) and miss the kingdom of heaven was to expose their faulty belief system that righteousness is achieved through external morality and religious activity, rather than simply received by grace through faith in Jesus.