You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. —Matthew 5:21-26
God is a life-giving Friend to us life-taking sinners. Why? Because on the cross Jesus suffered the life-taking wrath of God in our place. So now, for us angry sinners, coming to God is not like being incinerated. Coming to God is like coming up for air.
But how many people believe that? And how can we experience it if we don’t believe it? Here is how good God really is. Do not try to clean yourself up first. Do not try to resolve your anger first. Come to God first, with all your frustration, and he will receive you for Jesus’ sake. Then you’ll start changing, because you’ll start feeling that God is not angry at you. The cross is the end of God’s wrath, and of ours – if we’ll receive it.
When we’re not connecting with his goodness, we start acting like Pharisees. Remember what Jesus said last week? “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). We learned last week that the Pharisees saw themselves as God’s Marines. They were the few, the proud, the brave. They scorned the weaklings and under-achievers. But when no one was looking, they found every loophole. They didn’t believe God was moving toward them with his goodness. They believed they had to activate God by their own goodness. It’s how we all naturally think, and it doesn’t do us any good at all. Do you believe that God loves you in your hypocrisy, for Jesus’ sake? Dare to believe it. It’s the good news of the Bible. The more we believe it, the less hypocritical and the more righteous we become, the more human we become.
In the rest of Matthew chapter 5, the real Jesus describes real righteousness. It goes deeper than surface-level compliance with the letter of the law. The Pharisees were strict at that level. But Jesus tightens the screws far more. Why? Does he want us feeling completely defeated? Yes. He wants us under no illusions. It’s hard for us to see ourselves. It’s painful. But we must. If we think we’ve obeyed God because we haven’t done the really bad things, we’re not ready yet. The way into his kingdom is not avoiding disobedience; the way in is failure so bad all we can do is fall to our knees. Then our hearts crack open to the love of God. Then we start changing. The Lord’s purpose today is to destroy our smug status quo. Then he can love us the way sinners need to be loved – on terms of his powerful grace. Let’s be reduced to need together now. It’s the only place of blessing.
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says “You fool!” will be liable to the hell of fire. —Matthew 5:21-22
That is strong language. And he means every word of it. But let’s understand what Jesus isn’t doing here and what he is doing. Jesus is not rejecting the Ten Commandments. He is restoring the true power of the Ten Commandments. Over the centuries, layers of tradition had glommed onto the Ten Commandments in the way people read them. People grew up hearing, “You shall not murder,” and their preachers told them, “Here is what that commandment means.” The rabbis did this with all the Ten Commandments. They were telling people, “See that sixth commandment on the page of your Bible? I’ll tell you how you can avoid getting into trouble over that. Here is where the sixth commandment draws the line. Just stay on this side of that line, and you won’t be liable to judgment.”
All their lives people had been schooled in how not to step on the land mines of the Ten Commandments. They hadn’t been taught how to receive the love of God. They were only taught how to dodge the judgment of God – or so they thought. But is avoidance all God had to say to us in the sixth commandment? “Here’s how to stay out of jail”? Is that God’s great message to us in the sixth commandment? That’s how people had been reading it for centuries. Jesus is taking that age-old trivializing of God’s law, and he is dipping it into the acid bath of his own searching insight, and he is showing us what God had really meant all along. When God said, “You shall not murder,” he was really saying, “You shall spread life.” The Ten Commandments show us the heart of God by showing us what is opposite to the heart of God. The sixth commandment never was God’s way of coaching us in how to stay out of prison; it is his way of opening up vast fields of opportunity for us to help more people come alive through relationships of love. That’s the kingdom of heaven entering our world today.
Here is how clueless we can be. We can think, “Sure, it’s a violent world. But that’s not on me. I’m against all that. I haven’t shot anyone. I’ve obeyed the sixth commandment. I’m okay. The sixth commandment is for other people, really bad people.” But that way of thinking is the righteousness of the Pharisees. That is the paper-thin veneer of goodness so well established in our own city today. Don’t we see it everywhere? Don’t we see it in ourselves? Here’s the fact we all must face. Jesus is not speaking here to murderers. He is speaking to law-abiding citizens who wouldn’t dream of murdering anyone and condemn those who do murder. He is speaking to nice people up on the high moral ground, looking down on the violent, congratulating themselves they’d never do anything like that. Jesus is speaking to you and me. And he is saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).
Jesus sees three kinds of people. One, murderers. Muslim terrorists, Mafia godfathers, abortionists, gang leaders. Two, Pharisees who wouldn’t hurt a flea. Three, kingdom people. The great dividing line in Jesus’ mind is not between the murderers and the Pharisees. They’re both on the same side. But Jesus creates out of both murderers and Pharisees a new group of human beings who actively spread life to all around, because he has made them alive by his love.
Here’s how deep his love wants to go into our hearts. Verse 22: “Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Some Greek manuscripts add a phrase here, as you see from the margin in your English Bible: “Everyone who is angry with his brother without cause will be liable to judgment.” Some Greek manuscripts include the words “without cause” and other manuscripts don’t have those words.
Let me build a brief sidebar here. What about the manuscripts of the New Testament? Have we lost the original New Testament? Do we have to recover it somehow? And how do we know? The New Testament was copied and preserved carefully. The edition of the Greek New Testament I use compiles the best of around 316 manuscripts, some as early as the second and third centuries. By contrast, my edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics is based on five manuscripts, the earliest of which is the tenth century A.D., about 1300 years after Aristotle. And I have never heard anyone say we need to recover the lost Aristotle. Bruce Metzger, an expert in the field, says, “The textual critic of the New Testament is embarrassed by the wealth of his material.” We don’t have to wonder if we have the original New Testament. We have it. The problem is that a few words and phrases were added in along the way. The task of scholarship is not to re-create a lost New Testament but to weed out scribal additions from later times. That’s what we’re looking at here in Matthew 5:22. What happened was that a copyist along the way inserted the words “without cause” to clarify what Jesus meant.
That copyist was wrong to put those words into the New Testament, but he was right in how he understood the Lord’s point. Jesus isn’t condemning all anger. He himself got angry. Sometimes it’s wrong not to be angry. But when we’re angry without cause, without warrant, and it’s only our pride and touchiness, that kind of anger, Jesus says, violates the sixth commandment. In other words, when I am angry that way, I’m not just guilty of anger; I’m guilty of murder. God didn’t not create us and Jesus did not die for us and the Holy Spirit did not come to us so that we wouldn’t slaughter each other. The Triune God did all that so that we’d be oxygen to one another, by his grace.
One of the primary ways we either give life or take life is by our words. So Jesus flies right into the center of that hurricane. Verse 22: “Whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The “council” was their Supreme Court. We tell ourselves, “But it’s only words. It’s not like I’m doing anything to this person.” Jesus is saying that, to him, one insulting word is a federal case in his kingdom and enough to send us to hell, because it’s murder. The Bible says, “Rash words are like sword thrusts” (Proverbs 12:18). A rash word is a stab in the heart. The sound of the word itself quickly fades away, but he wound in the heart takes time to heal. Husbands, Jesus is saying, “Not only should you never insult your wife and murder her precious heart. You should use loving words to build her up.” Real righteousness builds more shalom for more people. For example, come to church early, to greet people and show an interest in them and welcome them. Hypocrisy hangs back and congratulates itself that it hasn’t split the church. Real righteousness builds community. That is exactly where the Lord takes us, with two illustrations:
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. —Matthew 5:23-24
Do you see here the priority of life-giving reconciliation, even above worship? If we’ve driven a brother or sister away and still go on worshiping as if everything’s fine, it’s not fine with the Lord. He is not asking for private worship, with broken friendships all around. He wants corporate worship, with healed friendships coming together.
Do you see how the Lord changes the way he’s speaking? In verse 22 he speaks in the third person: “… everyone who is angry.” Now he shifts to the second person: “If you are offering….” He’s making it personal to you and me. Here’s the scenario. I’m sitting in church. A memory enters my mind. There’s a brother out there I have wronged. I didn’t just hurt him; I harmed him. There is a difference. Jesus loved everyone well, and some people felt hurt. Real love will disappoint some people. But that’s not the scenario here. The Lord is thinking here of someone I have wronged. I don’t think about it much, because I don’t want to. That person thinks about it a lot. And the Lord thinks about it. So he makes sure that that memory enters my mind. But I’m in church. I might think, “Church is so important, that person can wait.” But what does Jesus say? “Once you’ve breathed new life back into that person, then your worship will mean something to me. Keep God waiting, if you have to. But go make it right.” Jesus isn’t just building a culture of life; he’s rebuilding a culture of life where we are, in our really messy lives with so many broken relationships. He has the power to heal all of it. Then ex-enemies will be worshiping him as dear friends.
That’s the priority of reconciling. Now, secondly, the urgency of reconciling:
Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. —Matthew 5:25-26
Here the picture is not worship but a lawsuit. You’re facing a court battle. And the Lord is saying, “Before the situation completely explodes, while a peaceful settlement is still possible out of court, go sort it out. It will be costly to humble yourself and do this, but it will be far more costly not to. But don’t let the alienation sit there. Don’t let it grow. Don’t let it harden. Reconcile quickly.” That’s what “You shall not murder” is really all about. It’s about loving people actively and making every relationship better as the urgent priority of our lives. And if we refuse, the Lord is saying, in verse 26, that we will find ourselves imprisoned in ourselves, until we finally own up. But we escape our self-invented confinement through honesty about ourselves. “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Here at Immanuel, we do that at care groups. I hope you’re in.
Here’s what a life-giving person can look like. A week ago yesterday Jani and I gave a friend a ride to a wedding. This person is a member here at Immanuel, an older lady. She is really righteous. How do I know? Here’s how the conversation went at one point. “Ray, I just love our church.” “Great. What do you love about it?” “I love the music.” “I’m so glad. What do you like about the music?” “I like the beat.” “Really. Why?” “Because all the young people like it.” And I have to believe that at that moment Jesus said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about” – completely unselfish, others-oriented, is the kingdom coming down into our world.
Real righteousness puts others first. The Lord himself did. He died to forgive us. He sent the Holy Spirit to enliven us. As his blood-bought, alive people, here is what every one of us can do with his grace. Two things.
One, make up with everyone you’ve wronged, as much as you can. I’m not saying it’s easy. Sometimes it’s impossible. But we’ve got to try. The Bible says, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone” (Romans 12:18). And make that a priority, even above worship. God made you a priority.
Two, let’s all enlarge this Immanuel environment of shalom. Bring more people in. They need the oxygen God is giving here. Everyone we know is weak and delicate and vulnerable and exhausted. And we’re not here just to keep from harming them. We are here to spread life to them. Bring them in. Pray them in. Actively. Urgently.
That is the kingdom of heaven. And that’s what God really meant when he said, “You shall not murder.”