The first thing I’d like for us to do is get clarity on a few little (but important) details that apply not only to this passage, but to all of them coming our way here in Matthew chapter 5. Look at v. 21.
“You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment.”
The first thing I want to point out is the introductory phrase, “You have heard that it was said …” This was a commonly-used phrase by rabbis when they taught, not only because it was a simple and effective way of preaching expositionally (read and explain, read and explain), but because the vast majority of people in Jesus’ day could not read and went entirely off of what they HEARD.
But the second thing, and perhaps the most important thing, is that Jesus isn’t critiquing or questioning the actual law, but the common way in which it was being taught to the people. And this teaching that put Exodus 20 (You shall not murder) and Numbers 35 together put the emphasis on the LEGALITY of the law and not the RELATIONAL aspects of the law.
And this is something we’re going to see throughout the rest of chapter 5 … the slow and steady bending of the law to be more LEGAL than RELATIONAL … an emphasis on the LETTER of the law instead of the SPIRIT of the law, which leads to a blinding self-confidence and self-righteousness instead of a humble introspection.
In this case the scribes and Pharisees reduced … REDUCED … the teaching of the Scriptures to this: “You must not murder because if you do, you will be in danger of going to court and jail.” So the full scale implication of the commandment is removed. It became purely LEGAL, not relational, which leads to legalism, not LOVE. And Jesus blows this way of looking at Scripture out of the water, and teaches us something about worship and relationships in the meantime. Look at v. 22.
22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.
Jesus says that to interpret the commandment “You shall not murder” strictly in terms of taking the life of another is merely to interpret the law in a way that enables most of us to keep it … NO PROBLEM. Yet the reality is, according to Jesus, that ALL of us are guilty of breaking this commandment … and in a GRIEVOUS manner. The LETTER of the law may say, “murder,” but the SPIRIT of the law is that anger in our heart at a brother IS murder.
To hate … to feel bitter … to have this unpleasant, unkind feeling of resentment towards a person, especially a Christian brother … is to be guilty of something just as reprehensible as murder.
Now, let me guess what you are doing in your mind. You are trying to figure out how in the world Jesus could equate murder with internal anger. And if you are doing that, you are thinking about BEHAVIOR, not your HEART.
Think about it just for a moment. Isn’t it odd that the Ten Commandments standards are relatively LOW if you read only the letter of the law and not the SPIRIT? Anyone who is truly honest with himself knows that even though he may generally keep the letter of most of the law, there’s GOT to be more. Surely I’m not OK if I simply refrain from taking that person’s life. We KNOW there is something wrong with us when we are angry, right?
The SPIRIT of the law is that anger = murder.
Rob is Teaching Pastor at Blackman Baptist Church.