“You shall not murder.” Have you unlawfully shot, stabbed, or bludgeoned anyone to death? If not, can you say that you’ve kept this commandment? Listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 5:21–26.
Beware of anger! Listen to Jesus. His language is strong, contrasting what you heard and what he says. Is he doing away with a commandment here? No. that would contradict what he said about not abolishing but fulfilling the Law and the Prophets. His expansion on the sins of murder and adultery would be pointless if he were removing what God had commanded. Notice that Jesus does not use the way he sometimes introduces quotes from Scripture, “It is written.” Rather, he says, “You have heard.” Here, and in the other examples in this chapter, he quotes a commandment of God—and along with it the explanation or application made by rabbinic leaders, which sometimes limited or blunted what God said. In each case, instead of relaxing what God says, he sharpens it. He gets to the heart of the commandment and to the attitude behind it. His, “But I say” is an authoritative claim, see Matthew 7:28–29. He is telling you, as his disciples, what he, the Messianic King, expects of his subjects. How do you live in the new era which his coming has introduced? “The fulfillment of the law, like the fulfillment of the prophets, while presupposing and reaffirming its divine truth and authority, predicates the dawn of a new era. The law and the prophets do not produce their own fulfillment. It is the presence of Christ alone which accomplishes this end, and this fact, in the light of Matthew’s total witness to Christ, clearly involves new divine action and speech. The fulfillment of the law and the prophets represents not a mere repetition or reiteration of the old revelation, but the announcement of the appearance of the age to which the old age looked forward.” (pp. 197–198). “No hint is given of a relaxing of the authority of the law; on the contrary he indicates that the demands of God are more comprehensive and more exacting than men had supposed.” (p. 199). (Ned B. Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ).
Angry words deserve the fire of hell. Jesus applies this to the Sixth Commandment. You have heard, You shall not murder, and whoever murders faces judgment. The murderer was to go through a judicial process to determine if he was guilty of murder, see Numbers 35 and the establishment of the cities of refuge. Jesus parallels the consequence for murder with anger—which he says, subjects you to judgment. There is righteous anger. God is angry with the wicked. Psalm 139:21–22 has the godly Psalmist echoing that hatred. We are probably not as concerned as we should be about the things that God hates. But most of our anger comes, not from imitating God’s holiness, but from our sinful desires and lack of self-control. The is the only place the word raka occurs, a term of contempt. It seems to be serious enough that legal consequences could be envisioned, though taking the matter to the Sanhedrin might be seen as the equivalent of making a federal case out of a nasty post in the comment section of a website. Jesus’ listeners might be almost chuckling at the idea—when Jesus says that calling someone a fool puts you in danger of the fire of hell. Yes, Paul can describe the Galatians, who are in danger of abandoning the gospel for a works righteousness as “foolish.” But that’s not the context in which we tend to use the word or equivalents when we’re driving. Jesus’ point is that the sin of murder begins long before a life is actually ended, as God’s conversation with Cain points out. The attitude of your heart is a very serious matter, not to be excused. The righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is a righteousness that comes from the heart.
A priority over worship. Anger and resentment get in the way of worship. “Therefore” ties this in with what Jesus has just said. Those attitudes in your heart interfere with true worship. Worship is not just something external you can do while you are ignoring the ethics that Jesus requires. Love for God and love for your neighbor are intertwined. You cannot properly worship God if the sin of unjust anger and resentment is building in your heart. The idea is not new. The prophets kept telling God’s people that their worship was an abomination to the Lord because they were going through the motions, but were not living in obedience to their God. So, what do you do?
Go to your brother and be reconciled. Remember that Jesus is delivering this sermon in Galilee. The place where you brought your offerings was Jerusalem, some 80 miles to the south. Jesus commands you to leave your gift, go and be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. The responsibility is yours to go to your brother if he has something against you—not just if he has sinned. Matthew 18 describes the latter situation, but with the same command to start by going to your brother. Ideally, when conflict arises between Christians, they ought to bump into each other as they go to each other seeking reconciliation. You cannot control others, as Paul recognizes in Romans 12:18, but you do have a responsibility to pursue peace.
Resolve matters quickly. Sin involves being “against.” Jesus is doing more than giving practical advice about trying to settle out of court. He does recognize the cost of conflict. As Genesis 9 makes clear, the reason that murder is such a serious sin is not just that it takes the life of a victim. It is first of all a sin against the God who made mankind in his image. It is a sin against the Creator. In a culture that treats taking life cheaply (at least in the case of the not-yet-born and the frail elderly) remember the seriousness of the sin. Sin is first of all against God. Because of that, it is also against our fellowmen. “Have we sufficiently appreciated the fact that, in a sinless world there would have been no ‘against’? The essence of sin is comprehended in the word ‘against.’ Sin is first of all against God and because we are against God we are against our fellowman.” (John Murray, Principles of Conduct, p. 166). If you need to be reconciled quickly with a human adversary, how much more do you need to be reconciled with God! And you need to do it quickly!
Deal with the situation of being “against.” Do you find yourself discouraged by your anger? Are you convicted by the attitude you’ve held towards family members, neighbors, and fellow church members? Are you bothered by what you muttered under your breath when someone cut you off in traffic last week? You should be convicted, but don’t be discouraged. One of the reasons that Jesus points out your sin is so that you realize it is not something that you can resolve simply by counting to 10 (though that may be wise at times). You can’t simply resolve to do better. He is telling you that at heart and by nature you, like Cain, are a murderer, even though, by God’s grace you have not killed your brother. He came to reconcile you to God and God to you. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16–21: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. ” The law and the prophets, even in their details, the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven, all continue to be important. But they have taken on a new, encouraging role. “The gospel removes an absolute law-gospel antithesis in the life of the believer. How so? Briefly, apart form the gospel and outside of Christ, the law is my enemy and condemns me. Why? Because God is my enemy and condemns me. But with the gospel and in Christ, united to him by faith, the law is no longer my enemy but my friend. Why Because now God is no longer my enemy but my friend, and the law, his will—the law in its moral core, as reflective of his character and of concerns eternally inherent in his own person and so of what pleases him—is now my friendly guide for life in fellowship with God.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. By Faith, Not by Sight, pages 117–118).
Have you broken the commandment, You shall not murder? Yes, but as you trust in the One who suffered without anger and reviling, who laid down his life for you, rest assured that he did it for your forgiveness. Know that the Spirit who has been poured out on you is the Spirit of peace. Know that the holy God is reconciled with you!