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Matthew 5:21-26 by Robert Dean
Like being zapped by a bolt of lightning, the religious leaders of Jesus' day were shocked by what He was teaching His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. Not only did these Pharisees try to obey all the Law but they had invented rules about the rules. See how Jesus ignored their human righteousness and taught that it's possible to commit murder in our hearts by having unjust anger at people and calling them insulting names. Understand that he was pointing out to them that only He could fulfill the Law and live a perfect life. Accept the importance of believers' settling grievances with others quickly instead of letting them fester so our prayers will be answered.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:42 mins 50 secs

Murder and Mental Attitude Sins
Matthew 5:21-26
Matthew Lesson #030
April 13, 2014

The issue that we see here is that Jesus is talking about two different interpretations of the Mosaic Law. He is going to challenge the interpretation of the Pharisees, an interpretation that is somewhat shallow, somewhat superficial. In contrast to it He is going to present a divine viewpoint understanding of the mandates, the prohibitions and positive commands that are in the Mosaic Law.

What had happened in the history of Israel since the return from captivity in Babylon is that a desire sprang up among the religious leaders to figure out some way to keep the people from violating the Mosaic Law. It was their violation of the Mosaic Law, specifically in the area of idolatry as they understood it, that led to their expulsion from the land in divine discipline in 586 BC. So some 200 years after their return from Babylon which began in 538, especially during the period from about 250 BC until the time of Christ, there was the development of what came to be known as second temple Judaism, Pharisaical theology or rabbinical theology. Their basic approach was that is there are 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law then in order to protect those from violation they would come up with various other principles where if they weren't violated then those inner 613 commandments would not be violated. So they began to construct, as it were by analogy, a fence of commands around the Mosaic Law. This first fence had been constructed under second temple Judaism. A second fence was going to be constructed through Mishnaic theology and Talmudic theology in the period after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. We are just thinking about the development of second temple Judaism.

So in one sense the Pharisees were multiplying the commandments. In one sense they are expanding on the commandments, giving people more and more regulations so that they could maintain a certain "purity" or "righteousness". The problem was that the righteousness that they were promoting, even though they have more and more commandments, is really a superficial form of righteousness, a form of righteousness that looks merely on the outside, on external behavior, rather than internal behavior. Jesus challenges that in six contrastive statements, beginning in verse 21 of this chapter and going down through the end of the chapter in verse 48.

As we look at this we have to understand the context. The Sermon on the Mount is notoriously one of the most difficult passages to understand because on the surface, especially in terms of how some of the terminology has been translated, it appears to be presenting a works salvation, or at other times it appears to indicate that a person is required to have certain perfection before they are saved, or perhaps if they commit certain sins they can lose their salvation. So we have to understand this context.

As I have been studying this I have realized that going back to this introduction to this section and we look at the initial sort of prelude to the sermon, the introduction to the sermon in the beatitudes, that in this main body of the sermon there is a second introduction, as it were, found in vv. 17-20. I have highlighted a couple of words for emphasis. As Jesus is about to challenge the rabbinical interpretation of the Law He wants to make it clear up front that He did not come to destroy the Law or the prophets, but to fulfill. What we see in the six sections is that He is showing what the true, genuine fulfillment of the Law is in terms of its true application. But He uses this terminology here, "I came not to destroy but to fulfill", and He uses a similar form of the same word in verse 19 where He says, "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments". In verse 17 He uses the word KATALUO twice, which means to destroy, to demolish, to annul, to invalidate, to break, to abolish. Those are all various English words that are used to translate this word KATALUO. The root verb is LUO. It is intensified by the addition of the preposition KATA. When we get to verse 19 He says, "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments". He uses the root word LUO at that point. But what this does is in terms of the language Jesus is using, is showing that verse 19 is a direct outgrowth of verse 17. It begins with a therefore. He is drawing a conclusion from what He has said in vv. 17, 18. So v. 19 is not running off and talking about some other topic, it is continuing along the same line. He says, "I didn't come to abolish or destroy this", but in contrast He gives an example of some who do teach to abolish or to nullify the commandments of God.

Understanding vv. 19 and 20 helps us to break out the understanding of what Jesus is saying in vv. 21-48. Verse 19, "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others {to do} the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches {them,} he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." We have covered this but as a reminder, Jesus is contrasting two different groups. On one hand we have a group that seems to minimize the application of the Law. They are trying to reduce it to just something pretty simple and superficial rather than understanding the full significance and import of the commandments. That really is going to be represented by the Pharisees, by the Pharisaical teaching. He is not talking about them individually in terms of their individual salvation status; He is talking about what they are teaching.

So there is one group minimizing the interpretation and application of these commandments. They are contrasted with another group that is fulfilling the commandments. They are doing and teaching the commandments. They will be called great in the kingdom of God. The first group, because they are minimizing things, are really giving people excuses and rationales for why people don't really need to fulfill the Law; they really don't need to apply it in its true intent in their own lives, they can just skirt around the edges as it were and not really obey it in its fullest intent.

Notice that Jesus is saying that people in both of these groups are in the kingdom. What does that mean? That means He is viewing both of them as having an eternal destiny in the kingdom of heaven—the millennial messianic kingdom. Both groups are viewed here as saved. He is not contrasting a group of those who are saved and are fulfilling the commandments versus those who are not saved. The kind of righteousness that is covered in v. 20 has to do with experiential righteousness.

This was a major issue in the New Testament time between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Josephus writes in Antiquities, Book 13:

What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side. But about these two sects, and that of the Essens, I have treated accurately in the second book of Jewish affairs.

So Josephus tells us that there is this tradition, this oral law from the Pharisees, that they are using as the standard accepted interpretation of Old Testament law.

So Jesus begins: Matthew 5:21 NASB "You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'"

He is referring to this body of oral tradition that the Pharisees have been teaching and He is going to contrast it with His own interpretation which begins in verse 22: "But I say to you". The Pharisees are minimizing the Law. They are saying that all you need to do is avoid the literal physical act of murder and you are okay. It doesn't matter what mental attitude sins are associated with it, it is just that literal physical act of murder that is wrong. They had forgotten the point that James later makes in James 2:10 NASB "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one {point,} he has become guilty of all." What Jesus is going to point out is that no matter how minor, no matter how "least" the commandment is, if you violate it in the most simple, unobtrusive white lie, you are still guilty of violating the entire Law. When we look at this from the perspective of God's justice we see that all sin violates God's justice and God's righteousness and whether it is a relatively minor abridgment of the Law that is as much a violation of the Law and renders us just as guilty before God as if we have sacrificed our children on the fiery arms of Molech. What Jesus is pointing put here is that it is not just the overt sin; it is the mental attitude sins that produce the overt sin that are the real danger.

NKJV "in danger of the judgment". The word "judgment" there is simply the word indicating a judgment or a verdict. It remains to be seen whether this is a divine judgment or the judgment of a human court. The command that Jesus is referencing here is the sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13: "You shall not murder". The old KJV translated it, "Thou shalt not kill", and that has led to a lot of erroneous application. The word in the Hebrew ratsach does not mean just simply to kill. It refers to homicide, to manslaughter, to unauthorized taking of human life—unauthorized by the Mosaic Law. The Law authorizes the taking of human life in certain circumstances. For example, in a war. It is authorized to take the life of the enemy. That was legal in the Mosaic law. It is legal to take the life of someone who is seeking to take your life. Self-defense is grounded in the Mosaic Law and in the Judeo-Christian heritage. That is the foundation for the second amendment in our bill of rights. It doesn't give us the right to bear arms; it recognizes that we already have the right to bear arms and that that right to bear arms shall not be abridged by any act of Congress. That is grounded in the principle of self-defense, which has its root not just in the Mosaic Law but before the Mosaic Law it was legitimate to take the life of one in self-defense. Also it doesn't prohibit execution for capital crimes. Execution for those who commit capital murder is grounded in the covenant God made with Noah in Genesis chapter nine.    

What about those who are unjustly condemned? That is really simple. We are dealing with the principle here. We are dealing with the fact that God is omniscient. Don't you think that God knew that there would be court cases where innocent people were wrongly convicted? And yet God in His omniscience and wisdom still delegated the authority to take human life for capital crimes, so that individual case that are tragic are not worthy of negating the law without committing blasphemy against the basic character and holiness of God.

Jesus is going to contrast the divine viewpoint here: Matthew 5:22 NASB "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty {enough to go} into the fiery hell."

"But I say to you" – emphasizing His own authority. This is one of the signs in Scripture that Jesus understood that He was fully God. This is one of the things that we are told here impressed the crowd because no one spoke with the authority that Jesus spoke. Jesus said, "This is what you have heard the Pharisees say, but I say to you": setting Himself up as an absolute authority, speaking as if He is God Himself—and He is.

Angry "without a cause" [NKJV] – there is a justifiable anger. But Jesus is not dealing with that; He is dealing with unjustifiable anger. "You good-for-nothing" [raca in NKJV]. Raca is an Aramaic term and is an insult, a term of derision. It is basically saying: You are an idiot; you are an empty-headed fool, etc. It was a harsh statement. "… supreme court" or "council" in NKJV. The word there is Sanhedrin. "… whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty {enough to go} into the fiery hell." The word "fool" is MOROS from where we get our term sophomore [wise fool]. There is no "hell fire" or "fiery hell" in the Greek. It says, "the Gehenna of fire" and that is not what appears in most Bible translation and 98 per cent of Bible dictionaries and commentaries. It is amazing how many people assert that "hell fire" is what it means, with no evidence whatsoever. Then there are those who make contentions such as that Gehenna began to be used as a term for eternal damnation during the inter-Testamental period, as a indicated by a group of writers called the Pseudepigrapha. The trouble is that 80 per cent of the references used to support that contention, those texts that are cited don't even use the word Gehenna. There are only about three that actually use the word Gehenna and they were probably written much later in the Christian era and were influenced by a post-Christian second or third-century distortion than indicating an inter-Testamental belief that would have been commonly shared with the disciples, with the Jews when Jesus was talking. There is no evidence at all that between the use of the term valley of Hinnom in Jeremiah in the Old Testament and the time of Christ that supports the contention that it had changed its meaning from the historical meaning of a place of judgment, spiritual failure and divine discipline to the idea of eternal damnation. There is no support for it, but people cite things and they say them but they are just reading a preconceived notion into the evidence.

So what we see here is three different situations. You will also hear that there is a gradation here going through different levels of judgment. In fact, you can read in some sources that this refers to different levels of adjudication: that in the first case there is a danger of the judgment. This would be a lower court reading. "In danger of the council" would be interpreted by some to be the Sanhedrin, and then the final one is related in all views to divine discipline from the Supreme Court of heaven.

However when we look at this, in the first case we have someone who is angry (mental attitude sin) with a brother without a cause. No human court can ascertain the mental attitude state of an individual. No human court punishes for your mental attitude. It is argued that none of these are related to human courts, they are all talking about divine judgment. In the first case there is someone who is angry without a cause, and he is in danger of judgment from God. Whoever says of his brother raca (that "You are an empty-headed idiot") shall be in danger of the council. There is no just a human Sanhedrin, there is also the thought of an ultimate council in the heavens, the council of God, the Trinity. Then the third, "whoever says, you fool", shall be in danger of the Gehenna of fire."

So what Jesus is saying is that if you have a mental attitude sin of hatred toward a brother, that is just as much a violation of the Law and God's righteousness as murder. So even if the Pharisees have minimized this that is wrong: that if you are guilty of the smallest violation of the Law, the least of the commandments, you are guilty of the whole Law. He is saying that if you are trying to avoid breaking the Law you have to keep the Law in its fullest extent. Otherwise no matter what you have done in violation of the Law and no matter how small it is, you are worthy of divine judgment, just like what happened to Judah from the worst sins they committed in the Old Testament that led to their destruction in 586 BC.

What we are seeing here is perhaps a foreshadowing or hint that of you don't get it right now by repenting and accepting Jesus as the Messiah and preparing for the messianic kingdom, another judgment like the one in 586 BC will come. And that, of course, is what happened in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70. Therefore He is saying, as law-breakers even if it is minimalist, you are no different from those in ancient Judah. The Jews of Jesus' day were in danger of divine judgment personally and corporately, just as the Jews of Jeremiah's day were judged by God in the valley of Hinnom.     

The valley of Hinnom became known as a site where the worm lived. (The worm is "maggot") It became a burial site. It was not used in the Old Testament as a reference to eternal condemnation but as a place of divine discipline on the nation Israel for their spiritual failure. This is what Jesus is warning: If you don't apply the Law in its fullness, if you don't fulfill the Law, you won't have the kind of righteousness necessary for the kingdom. And instead of the kingdom coming in there will be divine discipline again. He is not threatening eternal condemnation; He is threatening temporal divine discipline.

Jesus calls the Pharisees fools in Matthew 23:17. Some people ask: well, isn't Jesus contradicting Himself? What He is talking about in Matthew 5:22 is insulting somebody out of anger where it is motivated by a mental attitude sin. God calls those who are apostates, those who have rejected truth. "The fool as said in his heart, there is no God". Jesus uses the term "fool" not out of a personal mental attitude sin of anger towards the Pharisees, but is making a theological, doctrinal statement that they have divorced themselves from reality by rejecting the truth of God's Word and they have become fools who are spiritually blind.    

He then goes on to describe a couple of examples related to this principle. This is fairly easy to understand, unlike what we have just looked at.

Matthew 5:23, 24 "Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering."

This is a principle that we have studied recently: that we are to seek peace with all people. We are to make sure that not only do we have a right relationship and fellowship with God but also that we maintain a horizontal fellowship with those around us. If at all possible we should seek peace with all men. So this is a picture of the fact that if we are going to worship God (in the church age, if we are going to walk by means of the Spirit) then we need to make sure that we are not giving a cause of offence to those around us, if possible. Some people just walk around looking for reasons to be offended. There is nothing we can do about those kinds of people. But this is where we have created a conflict and we need to resolve that conflict because as long as that conflict continues it is a sinful situation.

Matthew 5:25 NASB "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison."

This is a slightly different circumstance that involves a legal situation and Jesus is using this to emphasize the importance of making things right quickly, not letting things fester. Basically you need to settle your grievance out of court and the offender needs to remove the occasion for the other person's anger. Once you go before the judge the decision may go against you and you will go through a lot of red tape, a lot of complications, a lot expense. You need to settle out of court otherwise the judge may really lower the boom on you.

Matthew 5:26 NASB  "Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent." The application is: If you are not going to the Lord to seek forgiveness for sin, and you let this continue and fester, then the long term consequences in terms of divine discipline will be much worse than if you had settled accounts, both by resolving the problem with your brother as well as resolving it before God through confession of sin.

So the principle that we see in these two examples is the same principle that we have from the Old Testament in Psalm 66:18 NASB "If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear". Just because you are a nice person doesn't mean God is going to hear your prayers. Just because you are a Christian doesn't mean God is going to hear your prayers. If we have sin in our life that is unconfessed then Scripture is very clear that God will not hear our prayers.