We have been studying the Sermon on the Mount for a couple of months or more now, and we are continuing today in the passage before us. However, it’s important to recognize the context of the verses we are looking at. They must be understood in context with all that has been said before it.
The Sermon on the Mount may also be called the Manifesto of the Kingdom of Heaven. I believe that is a better title because it describes the purpose of Christ’s sermon. Jesus is presenting the characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is a spiritual kingdom, and Jesus is the king. The Jews were expecting a physical king who would overthrow the yoke of Rome and restore the nation of Israel to prominence in the world, from which the Messiah would rule on the throne of David. But Jesus, the Messiah, comes the first time to establish a spiritual kingdom in which He rules in the hearts and minds of His people.
So at the beginning of HIs message, He gave a list of characteristics of the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are what we call the Beatitudes. And if you will remember, these characteristics come as a result of a transformed heart – their new nature reflected in the behavior Jesus described.
Then Jesus describes the reaction of the world to His citizens. Jesus says that the world will hate them, and persecute them for His name sake, but their persecution will result in a greater blessing. He says that they will be like salt and light in the world, affecting the world by righteousness and truth. And in response to that testimony of righteousness and truth, Jesus says that the world will glorify God because of their good works.
Starting in vs 17, Jesus begins to articulate how that life of righteousness will be carried out in the world by His citizens. And basically, Jesus says righteousness will be established in His kingdom by keeping the law. He says He did not come to abolish the law, but to accomplish the law. Righteousness is established by the law. The law is the way of life for a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. It is how God’s righteousness is manifested. It is how we manifest that we are the children of God. It is how we manifest that we love the Lord.
One of the key phrases to this section of the sermon is found in vs 20, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness then of the Christian must exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, who were considered the arbiters of the law. The scribes and Pharisees were in attendance that day, by the way. And effectively, Jesus just publicly said that they were not going to enter the kingdom of heaven, in spite of their legal expertise, in spite of their self righteousness, in spite of their religious ceremonies, Jesus said that was not enough. One must exceed their righteousness in order to be a citizen of heaven.
So starting in vs 21 then, Jesus begins to expound the law that the scribes and Pharisees purported to be keeping. He takes six examples of the law and expounds them, contrasting what the scribes and Pharisees taught in regards to the law, and what He had to say about it.
Notice He begins with “you have heard that the ancients were told.” He was not talking about the law of Moses versus the teaching of Christ. But rather He is referring to the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes. And Jesus’s response to their teaching is to say, “but this is what I say.” In other words, Jesus is presenting Himself as the ultimate authority of what the law says, and the correct interpretation of it.
Today we are going to examine the first illustration that Jesus gives concerning the law of murder. Jesus said in vs 21, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 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.”
The Pharisees taught the law of Moses, but in such a way as to diminish the import of the law. They did this in this instance by linking these two injunctions together. Both are found in the law of Moses. The first is found in Exodus 20, in the 10 commandments, the second is found in Numbers 35:30. But in connecting them, they managed to diminish the scope of the law of God, and diminish the consequence from God or injury to God’s holiness, and instead just emphasize a civil responsibility. If you murder, they say, you will be liable before the judgment, meaning a civil magistrate. So by neglecting the import of the law of God, to be holy even as He is holy, and the consequence of not doing that, they emphasize instead a lesser consequence; that of offending a human court. By keeping the letter of the law then, and not physically murdering someone yourself by your own hand, they managed to be able to say that they kept the law but still commit murder in their hearts.
Now if you study Exodus 20, in the original 10 commandments you would find that the word “you shall not kill,” means “murder.” The word kill would be better translated as murder. The law does not refer to capital punishment. In fact, God commands the death penalty for the breaking of certain laws. Neither does the law refer to war. Nations are given the responsibility by God to defend their countries. And God often uses such conflicts to accomplish His purpose of judgment in the world. We just saw that in our study of Joshua and the battle of Jericho.
Neither do I think that the text of Exodus 20 has anything to do with self defense. I think that the Bible teaches that we have the right to protect our lives, and the lives of our families, and those about us when we are assaulted and attacked by those who would kill us. So the commandment is speaking of murder and not to kill in a justified means.
So in expounding this law regarding murder, Jesus is saying in effect, “You believe that it’s wrong to murder because if you do you’ll be in danger of judgment.” And on that point the scribes and the Pharisees would have agreed, because that is what they taught from their rabbinical tradition. And their belief that they did not commit murder was one way in which they convinced themselves they were righteous. They thought since they avoided murder then they must be righteous, that they had kept the law of God.
And I’m sure that Christians today could identify with the Pharisees at that point. But, this is precisely where Jesus wants to expose the error in their theology. Jesus is going to show how their righteousness must exceed the standard of righteousness which was claimed by the Pharisees. So He proceeds from verse 21 to verse 48 to give six illustrations of how our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus expounds the law based on HIs authority to interpret the law, because He is the author of the law. His exposition exposes the self righteousness of the Pharisees. It exposes their superficial view of God. And it exposes their feelings towards others.
First of all, Jesus’ words to them exposes their self righteousness. They thought they were righteous because they didn’t kill. “Your religious system,” is what He’s saying, “your your tradition says you are not to murder, because if you do you’re in danger of judgment from the courts. That is the tradition that’s passed down to you.” Their self righteousness was not founded upon the truth of the law, but on a diminished version of the law.
Their interpretation of the law was you shall not murder l because if you do, you’ll receive the judgement of the courts. But what about murder as an offense to God? What about God’s holy character? They had limited the law so that they didn’t even mention God. They didn’t mention divine judgment. They said nothing about the heart. Their interpretation stopped short of all that God intended. Yet because they didn’t murder and didn’t get into legal trouble, they were self-righteous, self-satisfied and thought they were justified before God.
So Jesus goes on to rebuke that thinking in verse 22, and says this, “But I say unto you – ” He is going to give them the right interpretation. “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.” Jesus is saying, it’s not just an issue of physical murder, it’s the source of murder; the anger and hatred of the heart.
In Matthew chapter 15:19, we see that murder is a manifestation of an evil human heart. Matthew 15:19 says, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Murders, thefts, and the evils that men do, do not happen because of social or financial deprivation. They happen because of a degenerate human heart. Murder happens because the heart is evil and desperately wicked, according to Jeremiah 17:9. John 8:44 says the devil is a murderer and the natural man is of their father the devil. We have murderous thoughts in our hearts because we are children of the devil. So Jesus is saying that the motivation for murder is an angry and hateful heart and that renders us guilty of murder.
We hear about people that commit murder every day on the news, and I’m sure most of us can’t imagine that we would ever do that. We can’t understand the type of person that would actually murder people. And yet we get angry at people. We may even hate people because of something that we think they have done to us. We may belittle other people, or even curse them. We hold a grudge against them. We have bitterness towards such people. And Jesus is saying, that is evidence of the heart of a murderer.
The root of murder is anger. It’s the motivation for murder, and even if it is not carried out physically, in God’s eyes it deserves the same punishment. In verse 22, He is saying, “You’re in danger of the judgment. You’re in danger of the council. You’re in danger of hell fire.” Our Lord is saying that what is in your heart is what God judges.
Listen to 1 John 3:15. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Hate brings you nearer to murder than any other emotion. And hate is merely the extension of anger. Anger, hatred, is the manifestation of the heart of a murderer. And by the way, hatred and anger can even kill the person who possesses it. It will destroy you from the inside.
Jesus says, “If you have anger or hatred in your heart, you are guilty of murder.” And He uses three illustrations to reveal this sin in verse 22.
First one. “Whosoever is angry with his brother, the KJV inserts this phrase “without a cause” shall be in danger of judgment.” Now that’s the first illustration. I think that there may be some justification for the phrase “without a cause. It may be that there is a righteous anger that is allowed under that phrase. There were times when Jesus took a whip and drove out the money changers and kicked over their tables. There are times when God’s wrath reaches its limit and is poured out on a city or a people. There are times when the vengeance of God goes forth and nations or people are swept into eternity.
And there are times when a believer has a cause to be angry. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry, and sin not.” There is a righteous kind of anger. We have a cause to be angry at sin, but to love the sinner. (as we sang in the song previously) We have a right to be angry at sin because it destroys people. It ruins lives. Sin causes men and women to be destroyed, to be shut out of the kingdom of heaven and condemned to an eternity without God, an eternity in hell. We have a right, if not an obligation to be angry at sin. And yet we must not take our own revenge. We must leave room for God. In fact, we are to love the sinner, snatching them like a brand from the burning to save them from the destruction that sin causes.
I think the type of anger that Jesus is talking about is perhaps best translated by the word ma-levolence. Malevolence means malicious anger, hatred, wishing evil on another person, wishing harm. That’s the sort of anger that Jesus is referring to here. So anger, or malevolence is equal to murder in God’s eyes. Jesus says such is in danger of judgment. And that judgment is not just of the civil authorities, but that judgment is from God.
Notice the second illustration He uses in verse 22. “Whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council.” The Hebrew word Raca is an untranslatable word. It’s really an epithet. It’s a curse word. It’s a word of contempt, of derision, of hatred. James 3:6 says, “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” With the tongue we curse men, and Jesus is saying that condemns us as a murderer.
There’s a third illustration in verse 22. “Whosoever shall say, you fool, “moros” – from which we get our word moron “ – shall be in danger of hell fire.” Notice there is a progressive nature to the attitudes that Jesus is exposing. To call someone a fool, in the sense in which it is meant here, as a form of derision, as word of condemnation, is to take your anger and hatred to another level. And so Jesus correlates this escalation to a corresponding escalation in punishment; from judgement, to the council, and now to fiery hell.
Notice the word “fiery hell” at the end of verse 22. The Greek word translated “hell” there is the word gehenna, It refers to the valley of Hinnom. The valley of Hinnom was the garbage dump of Jerusalem. It was a public incinerator that burned all the time, 24/7, it never went out. Jesus uses that as a picture of hell. And He says if you have been angry or if you ever say a malicious word to someone, or if you ever cursed them, you are as guilty and as liable for eternal hell as a murderer is because you have the heart of a murderer.
So Christ’s exposition of the law exposed the self righteousness of the Pharisees. The second effect of Jesus’ exposition of the law is found in verses 23 and 24 which is to expose their superficial worship of God. Worship was a major part of life of the scribes and Pharisees. They publicly paraded their worship. They were always in the temple worshiping God, making sacrifices, carrying out the ceremonies of the law. They believed their worship resulted in righteousness. But our Lord here condemns that very worship.
Look at verse 23, “Therefore,” in other words, the “therefore” means since God is concerned with the heart, since God is concerned with attitudes toward others, how you feel about your brother, how you speak to your brother, and whether or not you curse your brother, since God is concerned about the heart listen to this. “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.” In other words, reconciliation comes before worship. You cannot negate your dispute with a brother by your worship to the Lord. The sin of anger or hatred or an argument with someone is not overridden by your church attendance and your worship.
Under the Jewish system of worship, If a man committed a sin, he understood that a breach was between himself and God. The relationship was broken. It was to be remedied by a contrite and broken heart, and a man was to confess his sin, and a man was to manifest repentance, contrition and brokenness. And then in order to manifest outwardly that inward feeling, he was to bring an animal as a sacrifice. The ceremony wasn’t the issue. The heart was the important thing. God said obedience of the heart is better than sacrifice. The sacrifice was merely an outward symbol of a repentant, obedient heart. And so when the breach came, and the man repented and in sorrow asked forgiveness, and set things right with God, he then brought a sacrifice. That principle is what Jesus is saying here.
Sometimes we sit around and say, “How can we make our church more of what it ought to be?” People sometimes say, “How can we improve our worship? And they think, well, maybe if we had more of a certain kind of music. Maybe if we had other activities, or special music, or better sermons, or whatever they may think would improve the worship service.
Listen, if you want to improve worship, then everybody who has something against a brother, go home and take care of it. And come back when you’ve made things right. Take care of the sin in your life, and then we’ll see the power of the Spirit of God in our midst.
Psalm 66:18 says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” First Samuel 15:22 says, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offering and sacrifice, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken is better than the fat of rams.” Worship without obedience gets no where with God. Jesus says, leave worship, and get right with your brother first, then you can worship God right and enjoy the fellowship of His Spirit.
Finally, Jesus’s words expose our relationships with others. He’s already introduced that in verses 23 and 24. And now He gives a specific example in 25 and 26. He says now that you’ve left to get it right so you can worship God, “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. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.”
Notice first of all the urgency in the Lord’s admonition. Do it quickly. Don’t put it off. There is a tendency in matters of reconciliation especially to put it off until tomorrow. Jesus says, don’t put it off. Make friends, or reconcile quickly, lest he follow through with the courts and you end up in prison. And once you are in prison, you will not be able to reconcile then. You won’t have the means to repay.
Does Jesus mean that the time will come when the person will die and you’ll be unable to reconcile? Does He mean the time will come when God will chasten you and judge you, and it’ll be too late? Possibly either or both of those things. He doesn’t really explain it further than that. But what He is saying is you can’t worship Me unless your relationships are right. So be quick about it and make things right. Don’t let them escalate to the place where there will be a civil judgment made and somebody loses in the end. Don’t let anger and disagreements stew and fester until they boil over and there is no more possibility of reconciliation. Don’t let it go to the place where God in, in judgment, moves in. Act quickly.
I think even more to the point, Jesus is saying that we must always remember our relationship to God. We must not only be concerned with the brother who we are in disagreement with, but we must think of ourselves before the ultimate Judge, who is God. God has the power over all the courts on each and heaven. He is the Judge, and HIs laws cannot be nullified and are absolute. He has the right to demand that every last cent is repaid. So what are we to do? Let us come to an agreement with God as quickly as possible. Do not delay, do not put it off.
How do you see yourself this morning in light of the law as Jesus expounds it? Have you seen that you have sinned against your brother? Have you seen that you have sinned against God? Act now to make peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. His terms are easy, and His burden is light. Make peace with God by acknowledging your sin and confess it, and utterly repent of it without any defense or self justification. Humble yourself and if necessary even make a fool out of yourself to make things right with those whom you have hated or been angry against.
Then the Lord will say to you, that He will forgive your sin even though you are an undeserving sinner and guilty before God, and in regards to the debt you owe that you can never repay, God has sent Jesus into the world to pay the penalty for your sin upon the cross so that you might go free. You can be forgiven. You can have peace with God and man. Call upon the Lord today that you might be forgiven and receive a new heart that you may be obedient to all that He requires of you. Don’t delay. Call upon Jesus today. He has given us an offer of peace. Be reconciled to God. And in exchange, God will give you a new heart, a new nature, that you might be a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.