Text: Matthew 5:21-26
The first thing we need to understand, here, is that Jesus is not overturning the Law nor is He altering it in any way. When He references what the people had heard, He is referencing the teachings of the Scribes and Pharisees.
We said, last week, that Jesus gives the correct understanding and application of the Mosaic Law and, in this first lesson on the Law, He wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter, literally.
“Jesus goes behind the act of murder itself to declare that the anger and hatred which give rise to it, though not capable of being examined in a human court, are no less culpable in the sight of God. The continued validity of the sixth commandment is assumed, but a legalistic interpretation which restricts its application to the literal act alone is rejected.” —Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Matthew.
You see, the actual act of murder, the killing itself, is the end result of the sin. In order to develop that more, shall we turn to the Epistle of James.
“13 And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. 14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.”
James is not referencing the death from murder, like our primary text talks about. Instead, he is talking about the worst kind of death, spiritual death and that death is eternal. Let us turn back to our text and learn from the Holy Spirit.
James points out that you cannot be tempted except that you desire the thing in the first place. Logically, then, we see that unrighteous anger is rooted in the desire to destroy another person. This may seem a little extreme but we really need to process the fact that Jesus is intent on our understanding that no matter how “perfect” that we might believe we are, absent grace we find ourselves hopelessly devoid of any real chance at Heaven. I don’t want to take us too far down a rabbit trail, but in this lesson, Jesus is illustrating the doctrine of Total Depravity.
5:21 “You have heard that our fathers were told.” Jesus begins his detailed “filling” of the Torah (v. 17) with one of the Ten Commandments, implicitly alluding to this underlying ground for all obedience to God. In Judaism, the citation of a Scripture text implies the whole context: in this case, all Ten Commandments, not merely the quoted words.
The phrase “The ancients were told” could also be rendered “the ancients told, or said.” In the first instance the implication would be that the ancients were told by God, in which case Jesus would be referring to God’s revealed Word. The ancients. For Him to contradict God’s Word in any way would be totally out of the question in view of verses 17-19. In the second rendering the implication is that the ideas the ancients taught were primarily of their own devising. That must be the correct approach.
Jesus customarily referred to the Scriptures by such phrases as “Moses commanded,” “the prophet Isaiah said,” “it is written,” and such. Here His words are much more general and therefore cannot refer directly to the Old Testament. Jesus shows that, even in regard to the specific biblical commands against murder and adultery, their tradition was at variance with the Holy Scripture, which reveals that God’s primary concern has always been for inner purity, not simply outward compliance.
The rabbis of past generations were often called the “fathers of antiquity,” or “the men of long ago,” and it is to them that “the ancients” (vv. 21, 33) refers. Jesus was contrasting His teaching—and the true teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures themselves—with the Jewish written and oral traditions that had accumulated over the previous several hundred years and that had so terribly perverted God’s revelation.
In his Institutes (Library of Christian Classics, vol. 1, p. 372), John Calvin wrote,
“Let us agree that through the law man’s life is molded not only to outward honesty but to inward and spiritual righteousness. Although no one can deny this, very few duly note it. This happens because they do not look to the Lawgiver by whose character the nature of the law is to be appraised. If some king by edict forbids fornication, murder or theft, I admit that a man who does not commit such acts will not be bound by the penalty. That is because the mortal lawgiver’s jurisdiction extends only to the outward political order. But God, whose eye nothing escapes and who is concerned not so much with outward appearance as with purity of heart, forbids not only fornication, murder and theft but lust, anger, hatred, coveting and deceit. For since He is a spiritual Lawgiver, He speaks not less to the soul than He does to the body.”
Among Jesus’ most amazing departures from what would be considered traditional teaching were His insistence that tradition and Scripture were in conflict and that inner righteousness, not outward form, is the central and necessary characteristic of a right relationship to God. (Side note, this is one of the major problems that we, as Baptists have with Rome: The Roman Church elevates tradition as equal to the very words of Scripture and Jesus makes clear that tradition is not ever equal to the Scripture.) We will spend the remainder of our time, today, looking at that very concept.
“5:21-48 Six times Jesus contrasts traditional interpretations of OT texts or themes with his understanding of their meaning and application. In five of the six antitheses, he also prescribes proactive, positive action as an antidote to what is prohibited. Presumably similar action is implied in the remaining instance (to prevent divorce) as well.”–DA Carson
Looking at this, we see that Jesus corrects six misinterpretations or, as we referenced last week, “abolishing of the Law.”
5:21 murder. The sixth commandment (Exodus 20:13) prohibits the taking of another human life. Now, the KJV renders this as, “Thou shalt not kill.” So does this mean that all killing is wrong? No; the verb refers to all killing except in war, capital punishment, or self-defense. Jesus’ assertion internalizes the command so that one who harbors rage or spews out spiteful words is also guilty of sin and its consequences (v. 22). The matter is so serious that one should leave a worship service, if necessary, to be “reconciled” (v. 24) to a fellow believer and “settle matters” (v. 25) if at all possible.
5:22 angry. The dangerous and destructive effect of human anger is likewise stressed throughout Scripture (Proverbs 20:2; 22:3; 29:22; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Ephesians 4:31; Colossians 3:8; James 1:20). Anger typically entails a desire to damage or destroy the other person, either in some personal way or literally in the form of murder (Matthew 5:21 and James 4:1–2).
The scribes and Pharisees said that a person who referred to another as Raca, meaning “empty head,” was in danger of being sued for libel before the council (The Sanhedrin). To bring this into more modern terms, Raca would have the modern connation of calling someone an idiot or jackass. So am I saying that calling someone an idiot is as severe as murdering them? I’m afraid so. Calling someone a fool or an idiot is closely related to anger, in that it represents a destructive attack on one’s character and identity. This attack on the person, made in God’s image, is so fundamentally horrible, that the Lord equates it with murdering them.
- Jesus exposes the essence of the scribes’ heresy. To them, the law was really only a matter of external performance, never the heart. Jesus brings the law back to the matters of the heart. “The supervision of the Kingdom does not begin by arresting a criminal with blood-red hands; it arrests the man in whom the murder spirit is just born.” (Morgan)
- We should emphasize that Jesus is not saying that anger is as bad as murder. It is profoundly morally confused to think that someone who shouts at another person in anger has sinned as badly as someone who murders another person in anger. Jesus emphasized that the law condemns both, without saying that the law says they are the same things. The laws of the people could only deal with the outward act of murder, but Jesus declared that His followers understood that God’s morality addressed not only the end but also the beginning of murder.
- Barclay, commenting on the specific ancient Greek word translated angry: “So Jesus forbids forever the anger which broods, the anger which will not forget, the anger which refuses to be pacified, the anger which seeks revenge.”
- “The words ‘without cause’ probably reflect an early and widespread softening of Jesus’ strong teaching. Their absence does not itself prove there is no exception.” (Carson)
Note that the very first murder was the result of Cain’s anger that God did not accept his sacrifice, which, incidentally, was made in defiance of God’s revelation. (Genesis 4:1-17)
The first specific prohibition of murder is found in Genesis, in God’s instructions to Noah: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (9:6). Here the penalty for murder and the reason for its seriousness are given. The penalty was death for the killer, and the reason for such severe punishment was that man is made in God’s image. To take the life of a fellow human being is to assault the sacredness of the image of God. This assault, Jesus teaches, begins in the heart.
I may beat a dead horse a little but I really want to drive this home: By beginning with the prohibition against murder and showing its true nature, Jesus utterly destroys any illusion that we might have of our own self-righteousness. Consider that there is not a person alive who can claim to have never been angry without cause and there is not person alive who can say that they have never called a person an idiot or stupid.
From John MacArthur
“Here Jesus begins to specifically point up the inadequacy of the righteousness in which the scribes, Pharisees, and many others trusted. Because their view of righteousness was external, their view of themselves was complimentary. But Jesus shatters that complacent self-righteousness by beginning with the accusation that a person is guilty of murder even if he is angry with, hates, curses, or maligns another person. In a statement that may have shocked His hearers more than anything He had yet said, Jesus declares that a person guilty of anger is guilty of murder and deserves a murderer’s punishment.”
Do I mean to say that a person who is angry without cause is in danger of hell? I’m afraid so. Remember that we have to have better righteousness than the Scribes and Pharisees in order to see Heaven.
So what do we do about the fact that sin lurks in the heart and waits to destroy? We repent and we pursue reconciliation. Repentance is the English rendering of metanoeo and it means to change your mind or change your thinking. So in repentance we change our thinking about ourselves and our righteousness and we agree with God that we are totally depraved and helpless to do anything about it. As a result we come to Jesus because He is our only hope of being restored into a relationship with the Father.
I want you to understand that repentance and the subsequent request for pardon is sufficient to spare you a place among the damned. However, repenting and asking for pardon does not restore your relationship. Looking at verses 23-25 in our text, we can see how important reconciliation is; it is so important that God Himself, in the person of the Lord Jesus, commands us to cease worshipping and go to be reconciled to the person we have sinned against. Do you understand how radical that is? Stop worshipping and go to be reconciled to the person you have sinned against! This statement takes everything you know about worship and sets it on its head.
In other lessons, I have referenced Micah 6:8, but I want to show that verse, along with the previous two verses to help you understand. (This is perhaps the quintessential OT passage on God’s expectations in worship.)
6 What can we bring to the Lord? Should we bring him burnt offerings? Should we bow before God Most High with offerings of yearling calves? 7 Should we offer him thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Should we sacrifice our firstborn children to pay for our sins? 8 No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Turn also to Hosea chapter six. Reading verse six, “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”
If you will remember our earlier lesson, the whole of the Torah is to love God and love your neighbor, so reconciliation with another party is vital. Now, I need to point out that reconciliation is not always possible. There are times when the other party is so wounded that they are not able to reconcile with you and there may be times when one of the two parties is so steeped in sin that reconciliation is not possible.
In summary we have this quote: “Jesus is kind. His aim is to reach into our hearts, grab that anger and that ‘murder in miniature,’ and then pull it out and lead us to a place of reconciliation.” – Jim Salladin