21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. – Matthew 5:21-26 ESV
Jesus has just finished saying, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19 ESV). This was a direct reference to the Pharisees and other religious leaders who were guilty of playing fast and loose with the Law. Jesus would make a habit of referring to them as hypocrites, accusing them of putting their own man-made laws ahead of God’s commands. They would find ways create loop holes regarding the Law by making their own set of counter commands that allowed them to claim strict obedience while actually ignoring God’s commands altogether. So, Jesus puts a kibosh on their little scheme by revealing that adherence to God’s law was not open to interpretation or alteration. Not even He, the Son of God, was free to eliminate or amend a single law. In fact, Jesus is now going to show that obedience to the Law required far more than merely external adherence. Keeping the letter of the law was not enough. It wasn’t so much about rule-keeping as it was about the condition of the heart.
One of the phrases you will hear Jesus use repeatedly in these verses is “you have heard that it was said.” Grasping its meaning is essential to understanding what Jesus is saying. He is addressing perception versus reality. With the “help” of the religious leaders and interpreters of the law, the Jews had become confused about what the commands of God actually were. By saying, “You have heard”, Jesus is claiming that their understanding of the law was skewed and inaccurate. Somewhere along the way they had missed the whole point. It really wasn’t about legalism and rule-keeping. It was about the condition of the heart. NOT doing something didn’t mean you had NO desire to do it.
For instance, Jesus addresses the common perception regarding God’s command not to commit murder and labels it as inaccurate and insufficient. It wasn’t just about taking another person’s life. It was about hatred, and hatred stems from the heart. In fact, Jesus is getting to the heart of the issue (excuse the pun). Murder is an expression of hatred or contempt. And just because you manage to refrain from committing murder doesn’t mean you lack the desire to do so in your heart. Later on, in this same gospel. Matthew records the words of Jesus where He clarifies the true source of murder and why God created a law against it.
“But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you.” – Matthew 15:18-20 NLT
Jesus spoke these words in response to an accusation leveled against His disciples by the scribes and Pharisees. They had come to Jesus, in a huff, wondering why the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate. This was one of the many man-made laws they had created that were of higher importance to them than the rest of God’s law. They were obsessed with outward purity and were accusing the disciples of eating with impure, defiled hands. And Jesus would have some very strong words for these men:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” – Matthew 23:25 ESV
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 ESV
God is concerned about the condition of the heart. That is why Jesus makes the argument that it is not only those who commit physical murder who are guilty and worthy of judgment, but those who hate. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22 ESV). Whoever insults his brother or, out of hatred, calls him a fool, is just as guilty as a murderer. Jesus knew the heart of man. He was well aware of the pride that welled up in the hearts of those who could claim to have kept God’s law because they had never committed murder. But Jesus gives them the bad news that, in God’s eyes, their hatred was just as condemning.
Most Bible translations label the topic of this section of Jesus’ sermon as “Murder.” But what Jesus is really talking about is love or the lack of it. Most of us have kept God’s command not to murder, but every one of us is guilty of having hated another human being. You see, our perception is that murder is forbidden and everyone who commits murder will be judged. But Jesus reveals that the reality is much different. Hatred is forbidden and anyone who hates his brother is just as guilty before God as if they had murdered him. God’s ultimate desire for us is not we simply refrain from murder, but that we replace our hatred with love. Animosity and hatred were rife within the Jewish community, and they saw nothing wrong with it. In fact, they would come before God with their offerings and sacrifices, while harboring hatred for one another. Jesus says, “if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT). How can you expect to show love to God by offering sacrifices to Him when you can’t even show love to those around you. The apostle John reveals the absurdity of that mindset.
If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters. – 1 John 4:20-21 NLT
It is so easy for us to excuse our hatred of another human being. We justify it and rationalize it away as being well-deserved. We see our hatred as harmless. But Jesus would say that it devalues the life of another human being in the same way that murder does. It takes away their dignity. It diminishes their worth. We view them as unworthy of our love, all the while forgetting that God sent His Son to die for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8). He had every right to hate us, but instead, He loved us. The apostle Paul reminds us of the amazing reality of that love.
Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!). – Ephesians 2:1-5 NLT
God loves, and so should we. This isn’t about an absence of murder, but the presence of hatred and a lack of love for others. A world devoid of murderers would not necessarily be a place marked by love. A decline in the crime rate does not reflect a change in the hearts of men, but is more likely tied to increased law enforcement. The law can enforce compliance, but cannot change the hearts of men. Paul wrote of his former relationship with God’s law:
I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! – Romans 7:7-8 NLT
Paul could try to refrain from coveting, but his heart would do everything in its power to disobey God’s law. Coveting could not be stopped by a law. It could only be controlled. The law can only manage behavior, but is incapable of changing the motivation behind the behavior. A speed limit sign does not get rid of the desire to speed. It simply controls it by threatening punishment for disobedience. But fear is never the right motivation for obedience. It can force compliance, but it can never change the sinful disposition within.
Jesus came to change the hearts of men and women. He came to do what the law could never have done. Paul tells us the good news of what Jesus later accomplished by His death on the cross.
The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 NLT
Not only are we capable of refraining from committing murder, we are able to love one another. We can even love our enemies. Not in our own human strength, but because of the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We have the capacity to love as God has loved us.
Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.