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Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
A strong craving or desire, often of a sexual nature. Though used relatively infrequently (twenty-nine times) in Scripture, a common theme can be seen running through its occurrences. The word is never used in a positive context; rather, it is always seen in a negative light, relating primarily either to a strong desire for sexual immorality or idolatrous worship. In secular literature, the word indicates only a strong desire and can carry either good or bad connotations. The Greek word epithymia [ Matthew 13:17 ). In these instances the New International Version does not translate the word as "lust." Rather, it is translated as "desire, " "longing, " and the like. The context surrounding the word lends to this translation in such instances. However, in Scripture, as translated in the New International Version, the word is used for a strong desire that is negative and forbidden. Indeed, the unregenerate are governed and controlled by deceitful lusts or desires (Ephesians 2:3; 4:22; Colossians 3:5; Titus 2:12 ).
In the Old Testament, the word is primarily used to describe idolatrous activities, although it does have sexual concerns in at least two instances (Job 31:1; Proverbs 6:25 ). In both, the context is negative in meaning and is accompanied by a strong warning of God's impending punishment on those with such a strong, all-encompassing desire for inordinate affections. The lust involved in the realm of idolatry involves Israel's strong desire to be like other nations, who worship their gods of wood and metal. The language of Job is especially potent in regard to sexual immorality. Job is kept from looking "lustfully at a girl" because he knows that God's plan is "ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong." In the other Old Testament instances, the meaning clearly displays an idolatrous relationship, primarily Israel's desire to be like her surrounding neighbors (cf. Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 13:27; Ezekiel 6:9; 16:26; 20:24,30; Nahum 3:4 ).
In Numbers 15:39 Moses is told by God to command that the Israelites wear tassels on the corners of their garments to remind them of the commands of the Lord. This reminder is seen in contradistinction to the outcome of not wearing the tassels, namely, "going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes."
Almost half the occurrences of the word and its derivatives are in the Book of Ezekiel. In every instance, it refers to Israel's idolatrous worship. An interesting display of this attitude is seen in chapter 23, where God's prophet uses the parable of two adulterous sisters, Oholah (representing Samaria) and Oholibah (representing Jerusalem). The imagery involves sexual lust but is descriptive of Israel's spiritual idolatry. Just as Oholah's and Oholibah's love was misdirected toward the officers of enemy armies, so Jerusalem's desire was for the things of her enemies. Throughout the parable, God warns of the judgment that awaits Oholah and Oholibah for their idolatrous lust. Indeed, such judgment occurred for Oholah (Samaria) in 722 b.c., when Assyria conquered her. Oholibah (Jerusalem) fell in 586 b.c.
In the New Testament, the word moves from referring primarily to idolatry to referring instead almost exclusively to sexual immorality. While the idea of idolatry is not completely absent, the primary intention is as a strong, inordinate desire for sexual relations. This sexual immorality, however, is not intended to represent actions alone since lust occurs first as a thought in the mind. The warning is to stop the lust before it moves into the realm of action. For instance, Jesus commands that a man is not to even look at a woman lustfully (i.e., with a desire to have sexual relations with her) because that is the same as committing the physical act of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30 ); both are sin.
In each of the texts where Paul uses the word, it clearly is condemnatory of sexual immorality, both homosexual (Romans 1:26-27 ) and heterosexual. The command from Paul is to utterly destroy those inordinate desires that most often manifest themselves in the area of sexuality (cf. Colossians 3:5 ). Paul continues to warn that we must learn to control our bodies and be sanctified rather than giving in to our base desires, which is characteristic of those who do not know God (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ).
Paul is not alone in pointing out that the lustful lifestyle is characteristic of lost humanity. Peter concurs, and exhorts his readers to quit living as they did before they received Christ. He points out that lust is evidence of a pagan lifestyle (1 Peter 4:3 ). Also, according to Peter, lustful desires (not necessarily just sexual desires, but desiring anything more than one desires God) are a basic motivation inherent in human sinful nature (2 Peter 2:18 ).
It is obvious from John's writings that our lusts do not come from God but from the world. However, we are reminded by John that the world and its desires (lusts) pass away, whereas "the man who does the will of God lives forever" (1 John 2:16-17 ). Here we see that our lusts are in direct violation of God's perfect will, because they usually are misdirected, moving and leading us away from God to our own selfish desires.
Our lusts have a very powerful influence on our actions if they are not caught and corrected immediately. We must remember that lust occurs in the mind and is not a physical action in and of itself. It does, however, have great potential of becoming an actionindeed a very damaging action. That is why we must heed the admonition of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:5 : "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."
Daniel L. Akin
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Lust'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/l/lust.html. 1996.