April 13 – Jesus on Murder: Contrast to the Rabbis

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.—Matt. 5:21–22a

With just two sentences Jesus shatters the rabbinic view of murder, which was so complacently self-righteous. Because of their externalism and legalism, the Jews had an inflated view of themselves. But Jesus destroyed that thinking with the declaration that a person guilty of anger, hatred, cursing, or defamation against another is guilty of murder and worthy of a murderer’s punishment.

All anger, hatred, etc., is incipient murder, as the apostle John writes, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15a). By that biblical standard, we are all guilty of murder—after all, who has not hated someone at one time or another?

Not only does Jesus here sweep away the rubbish of the rabbinic, traditional view of murder, His total indictment blasts away any notion of self-justification so common to everyone. The way the Jews thought in Jesus’ time is identical to people’s prevalent thinking today. Even believers can feel proud that they are “not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers” (Luke 18:11)—and we could add “murderers.” Jesus in that parable and in this passage says we are all potentially capable of the worst sins, even murder, because of the sometimes evil attitudes of our hearts.

Not to consider the state of your heart and confess thoughts of anger and hatred, which can lead to taking someone’s life, is not to consider that the Lord can hold you guilty of murder.

What benefit is found in knowing that you and I are capable of the most heinous crimes imaginable? Does recognizing this startling piece of information have an effect on your relationship with God and your resultant manner of living?[1]

The first of six illustrations of heart-righteousness that Jesus gives in 5:21–48 deals with the sin of murder: You have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not commit murder.” As discussed in the previous chapter, the ancients refers to the rabbis and scribes of old who had devised the many traditions with which Judaism had become encumbered and which had virtually replaced the authority of the Scriptures. In the first two illustrations the ancient teachings to which Jesus refers are traditional interpretations of scriptural commands.

The murder of Abel was a terrible act, which Cain knew violate divine law (Gen. 4:9, 13). But the first specific prohibition of murder is found later in Genesis: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (9:6). Here the penalty for murder and the reason for its seriousness are given. The penalty was death for the killer, and the reason for such severe punishment was that man is made in God’s image. To take the life of a fellow human being is to assault the sacredness of the image of God.

The specific commandment to which Jesus here refers is from the Decalogue, which every Jew knew The command “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13) does not prohibit every form of killing a human being. The term used has to do with criminal killing, and from many accounts and teachings in Scripture it is clear that capital punishment, just warfare, accidental homicide, and self-defense are excluded. The commandment is against the intentional killing of another human being for purely personal reasons, whatever those reasons might be.

Just as Satan is the father of lies and of those who reject and rebel against God, he is also the original murderer (John 8:44). Men are themselves accountable for murders they commit, just as they are accountable for every other sin; but every sin, including every murder, is inspired by the would-be murderer of God.

Even so, we cannot blame Satan for our sins, because fallen human nature shares the presence of evil that Satan personifies. Jesus said it is out of a person’s own heart that “come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19). We do not sin simply because of Satan or because of social deprivation, stressful situations, bad influences, or any other external cause. Those things may tempt us to sin and make sinning easier, but when we commit sin-or even intend to commit sin-it is because we decide to sin. Sin is an act of the will. When in their rejection of God men “did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful” (Rom. 1:28–31).

“There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers” (Prov. 6:16–19). Murder is a despicable manifestation of a fleshly heart. The seriousness of the offense is seen in one of the last declarations in God’s Word: “Outside [of heaven] are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying” (Rev. 22:15).

The Old and New Testaments are filled with the names of murderers. In the Old are Cain, Lamech, Pharaoh, Abimelech, Joab, the Amalekites, David, Absalom, Zimri, Jezebel, Haziel, Jehu, Athaliah, Joash, Manasseh, and many others. The New Testament list includes Herod,Judas, the high priests, Barabbas, Herodias and her daughter, and others. Biblical history, like human history in general, is filled with murderers.

Jesus’ hearers were aware of the prevalence and seriousness of this sin. No doubt most of them were in full agreement with capital punishment for the crime and were convinced that they were innocent of that particular evil.

But now Jesus attacks such self-confidence by charging that no one is truly innocent of murder, because the first step in murder is anger. The anger that lies behind murder-anger which many people think is not really a sin-is one of the worst of sins. To one degree or another, it makes all men would-be murderers.

The Lord’s teaching about murder, whether the act is committed outwardly or not, affects our view of ourselves, our worship of God, and our relation to others.

The Effect on Our View of Ourselves

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 shall say to his brother, “Raca,” shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, “You fool,” shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (5:21–22)

The first effect of Jesus’ words is to shatter the illusion of self-righteousness. Like most people throughout history, the scribes and Pharisees thought that if there was any sin of which they were clearly not guilty it was murder. Whatever else they may have done, at least they had never committed murder.

According to rabbinic tradition, and to the beliefs of most cultures and religions, murder is strictly limited to the act of physically taking another person’s life. Jesus had already warned that God’s righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20). As the chosen custodians of God’s Word (Rom. 3:2) the Jews, above all people, should have known that God commands heart-righteousness, not just external, legalistic behavior. But because most of them had come to converse in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, and because the rabbis had created a vast collection of traditions, which they taught in place of the Scripture itself, the Jews of Jesus’ day were ignorant of much of the great revelation God had given them. Rabbimc interpretation of Scripture also obscured the divinely intended meaning.

As already pointed out, the traditional command you shall not commit murder was scriptural, being a rendering of Exodus 20:13. But the traditional Jewish penalty, whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court, fell short of the biblical standard in several ways. In the first place it fell short because it did not prescribe the scriptural penalty of death (Gen. 9:6; Num. 35:30–31; etc.). The traditional penalty for murder was liability before a civil court, which apparently used its own judgment as to punishment. In the second place, and more importantly, God’s holy character was not even taken into consideration. Nothing was said of disobedience to His law, of desecrating His image in which man is made, or of His role in determining and dispensing judgment. In the third place nothing was said about the inner attitude, the heart offense of the murderer.

The rabbis, scribes, and Pharisees had confined murder to being merely a civil issue anti had confined its prosecution to a human court. They had also confined its evil to the physical act. In doing so, they flagrantly disregarded what their own Scriptures taught. Long before the time of Christ, David had acknowledged, “Behold, Thou dost desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part Thou wilt make me know wisdom” (Ps. 51:6; cf. 15:2). The Lord said to Samuel, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

In saying, But I say to you, Jesus was not contrasting His teaching with that of the Old Testament (cf. Matt. 5:17–19) but with that of rabbinic tradition. He was saying, in effect, “Let me tell what the Scriptures themselves say, what God’s truth is on the matter. You cannot justify yourselves because you have not committed the physical act of murder. Murder goes much deeper than that. It originates in the heart, not in the hands. It starts with evil thoughts, regardless of whether or not those thoughts are brought to consummation in action.”

Here Jesus begins to specifically point up the inadequacy of the righteousness in which the scribes, Pharisees, and many others trusted. Because their view of righteousness was external, their view of themselves was complimentary. But Jesus shatters that complacent self-righteousness by beginning with the accusation that a person is guilty of murder even if he is angry with, hates, curses, or maligns another person. In a statement that may have shocked His hearers more than anything He had yet said, Jesus declares that a person guilty of anger is guilty of murder and deserves a murderer’s punishment.

It is possible for a model, law-abiding citizen to be as guilty of murder as anyone on death row. It is possible for a person who has never been involved in so much as a fist fight to have more of a murderous spirit than a multiple killer. Many people, in the deepest feelings of their hearts, have anger and hatred to such a degree that their true desire is for the hated person to be dead. The fact that fear, cowardice, or lack of opportunity does not permit them to take that person’s life does not diminish their guilt before God. In fact, as the Lord makes plain in the following three illustrations of heart-murder, those who consciously desire the death of another person are not free from guilt.

All anger is incipient murder. “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15)-making all of us guilty, because who has never hated another person? In light of the context John used the term brother in the sense of a fellow believer. But Jesus’ emphasis was wider than that. Most of those who heard the Sermon on the Mount made no pretense of belief in Christ, and He used brother in the broad ethnic sense of meaning any other Jewish person in that culture.

Jesus strips away every vestige of self-righteousness. Not only did He sweep aside all the rabbinical rubbish of tradition, but He also swept aside the self-justification that is common to all of us. His indictment is total.

In the spring of 1931 one of the most notorious criminals of that day was captured. Known as Two-gun Crowley, he had brutally murdered a great many people, including at least one policeman. It is said that when he finally was captured in his girl friend’s apartment after a gun battle, the police found a blood-spattered note on him that read, “Under my coat is a weary heart, but a kind one, one that would do nobody any harm?” Even the worst of men try to exonerate themselves. Such obvious self-deceit as that of Crowley’s seems absurd, yet that is exactly the attitude the natural man has of himself. “I may have done some bad things,” he thinks, “but down deep I’m not really bad.”

In essence, that was the self-righteous attitude of the scribes and Pharisees, as it is of many people today. Comparing ourselves to a bloodthirsty criminal makes us seem very good in our own minds. Like the Pharisee in the Temple, we feel proud that we are “not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers” (Luke 18:11). What Jesus says in the present passage is that we are just like those other people. Even if we do not take someone else’s life, even if we never physically assault another person, we are guilty of murder.

Sociologists and psychologists report that hatred brings a person closer to murder than does any other emotion. And hatred is but an extension of anger. Anger leads to hatred, which leads to murder-in the heart if not in the act. Anger and hatred are so deadly that they can even turn to destroy the person who harbors them.

Jesus’ main point here, and through verse 48, is that even the best of people, in their hearts, are sinful and so are in the same boat with the worst of people. Not to consider the state of our heart is not to consider that which the Lord holds to be the all-important measure of true guilt.

In verse 22 Jesus gives three examples that show the divine definition of murder: being angry with another person, saying Raca to him, and calling him a fool.

The Evil and Danger of Anger

everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court. (5:22a)

We know from other Scripture, and from Jesus’ own life, that He does not prohibit every form of anger. It was in righteous anger that He cleansed the Temple of those who defiled it (John 2:14–17; Matt. 21:12–13). Paul tells us to “be angry, and yet do not sin” (Eph. 4:26). Although the principle is often abused and misapplied, it is possible to have righteous anger. Faithfulness to Christ will sometimes demand it.

In our day of peace and harmony at any cost, of positive thinking, and of confusing godly love with human sentimentality, we often need to show more anger against certain things. There are things in our country, our communities, our schools, and even in our churches about which we have no excuse for not being angry, vocally angry. Many of the trends in our society, many of the philosophies and standards to which our children are exposed, and some of the unbiblical philosophies and standards within evangelicalism need to be challenged with righteous indignation, because they attack the kingdom and glory of God. God Himself is “angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11, KJV).

But Jesus is not talking about anger over God’s being dishonored, but rather selfish anger, anger against a brother, whoever that might be, because he has done something against us, or simply irritates and displeases us. Orgizō (to be angry) has to do with brooding, simmering anger that is nurtured and not allowed to die. It is seen in the holding of a grudge, in the smoldering bitterness that refuses to forgive. It is the anger that cherishes resentment and does not want reconciliation. The writer of Hebrews identifies its depth and intensity as a “root of bitterness” (Heb. 12:15).

Such anger, Jesus says, is a form of murder. The person who harbors anger shall be guilty before the court. To be guilty before the civil court should have been to be guilty of murder and deserving of the death penalty. Anger merits execution, because the fruit of anger is murder.

The Evil and Danger of Slander

and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca,”shall be guilty before the supreme court. (5:22b)

Raca was an epithet commonly used in Jesus’ day that has no exact modern equivalent. Therefore in most Bible versions, as here, it is simply transliterated. A term of malicious abuse, derision, and slander, it has been variously rendered as brainless idiot, worthless fellow, silly fool, empty head, blockhead, and the like. It was a word of arrogant contempt. David spoke of persons who use such slander as those who “sharpen their tongues as a serpent; poison of a viper is under their lips” (Ps. 140:3). It was the type of word that would have been used by the soldiers who mocked Jesus as they placed the crown of thorns on His head and led Him out to be crucified (Matt. 27:29–31).

A Jewish legend tells of a young rabbi named Simon Ben Eleazar who had just come from a session with his famous teacher. The young man felt especially proud about how he handled himself before the teacher. As he basked in his feelings of erudition, wisdom, and holiness, he passed a man who was especially unattractive. When the man greeted Simon, the rabbi responded, “You Raca! How ugly you are. Are all men of your town as ugly as you?” “That I do not know,” the man answered, “but go and tell the Maker who created me how ugly is the creature He has made.”

To slander a creature made in God’s image is to slander God Himself and is equivalent to murdering that person. Contempt, says Jesus, is murder of the heart. The contemptuous person shall be guilty before the supreme court, the Sanhedrin, the council of the seventy who tried the most serious offenses and pronounced the severest penalties, including death by stoning (see Acts 6:12—7:60).[2]

21–22 Jesus’ contemporaries had heard that the law given their forefathers (see Notes) forbade murder (not the taking of all life, which could, for instance, be a judicial mandate: cf. Ge 9:6) and that the murderer must be brought to “judgment” (krisis [GK 3213], which here refers to legal proceedings, perhaps the court set up in every town [Dt 16:18; 2 Ch 19:5; cf. Josephus, Ant. 4.214 (7.14); J.W. 2.570–71 (20.5)]; or the council of twenty-three persons set up to deal with criminal matters, Str-B, 1:275). But Jesus insists—the “I” is emphatic in each of the six antitheses—that the law really points to his own teaching: the root of murder is anger, and anger is murderous in principle (Mt 5:22). One has not conformed to the better righteousness of the kingdom simply by refraining from homicide. The angry person will be subject to krisis (“judgment”), but it is presupposed this is God’s judgment, “since no human court is competent to try a case of inward anger” (Stott, Message of the Sermon on the Mount). To stoop to insult exposes one not merely to (God’s) council (synedrion [GK 5284] can mean either “Sanhedrin” [NIV] or simply “council”) but to the “fire of hell.”

The expression “fire of hell” (geenna tou pyros, lit., “gehenna [GK 1147] of fire”) comes from the Hebrew gêʾ-hinnōm (“Valley of Hinnom,” a ravine south of Jerusalem once associated with the pagan god Moloch and his disgusting rites [2 Ki 23:10; 2 Ch 28:3; 33:6; Jer 7:31; Eze 16:20; 23:37] prohibited by God [Lev 18:21; 20:2–5]). When Josiah abolished the practices, he defiled the valley by making it a dumping ground for filth and the corpses of criminals (2 Ki 23:10). Late traditions suggest that in the first century it may still have been used as a rubbish pit, complete with smoldering fires. The valley came to symbolize the place of eschatological punishment (cf. 1 En. 54:12; 2 Bar. 85:13; cf. Mt 10:28; 23:15, 33 [18:9 for the longer expression “gehenna of fire”]). Gehenna and Hades (11:23 [NIV text note]; 16:18) are often thought to refer, respectively, to eternal hell and the abode of the dead in the intermediate state. But the distinction can be maintained in few passages. More commonly, the two terms are synonymous and mean “hell” (cf. W. J. P. Boyd, “Gehenna—According to J. Jeremias,” in Studia Biblica 1978 [ed. Livingstone], 2:9–12).

“Brother” (adelphos, GK 81) cannot in this case be limited to male siblings. Matthew’s gospel uses the word extensively. Whenever it clearly refers to people beyond physical brothers, it is on the lips of Jesus, and its narrow usage is almost always Matthean. This suggests that the Christian habit of calling one another “brother” goes back to Jesus’ instruction, possibly part and parcel of his training them to address God as Father (6:9). Among Christian brothers, anger is to be eliminated. On the other hand, it is possible that Allison (Studies in Matthew, 65–78) is right in detecting (along with some church fathers) an allusion to Genesis 4, where Cain slays his brother Abel.

The passage does not suggest a gradation and climax of punishments (so Hendriksen, 297–99), for this would require a similar gradation of offense. There is no clear distinction between the person with seething anger, the one who insultingly calls his brother a fool, and the one who prefers, as his term of abuse, “Raca” (transliteration for Aram. rēkâʾ, “imbecile,” “fool,” “blockhead”). To a Greek, mōros (GK 3704) would suggest foolishness or senselessness; but to a speaker of Hebrew, the Greek word might call to mind the Hebrew mōreh (from the verb GK 5286), which has overtones of moral apostasy, rebellion, and wickedness (cf. Ps 78:8 [77:8 LXX]; Jer 5:23).

Many Jewish maxims warn against anger (examples in Bonnard), but this is not just another maxim. Here Jesus does not merely offer advice; he insists that the sixth commandment points prophetically to the kingdom’s condemnation of hate.

Jesus’ anger, expressed in diverse circumstances (21:12–19; 23:17; Mk 3:1–5), is no personal inconsistency.

  1. Jesus is a preacher who gets down to essentials on every point he makes. Thus for a clear understanding of his thought on a particular issue, one must examine the balance of his teaching (cf., e.g., 6:2–4 with Luke 18:1–8). Similarly, to learn all Jesus says about anger, it is necessary to integrate this passage with others such as 21:12–13 without absolutizing any one text.
  2. When suffering, Jesus is proverbial for his gentleness and forbearance (Lk 23:34; 1 Pe 2:23). But if he comes as Suffering Servant, he comes equally as Judge and King. His anger erupts not out of personal pique but out of outrage at injustice, sin, unbelief, and exploitation of others. Unfortunately, his followers are more likely to be angered at personal affronts (cf. Carson, Sermon on the Mount, 41–42).
  3. In the context of the balance of themes in Scripture, the handling of hatred is not exactly like the handling of, say, lust or greed. Lust and greed must be suppressed; better, we must triumph over them. But there is a certain sense in which Righteous hatred is to be encouraged (cf. Ps 139), “an indignation wholly directed to wickedness and evil, purged of moodiness, petulance, inflamed irritability, unreasonable suspicion” (Oliver O’Donovan, “Scripture and Christian Ethics,” Case 12 [2007]: 22). Merely to suppress all anger fails to recognize that Scripture also mandates, not least by the example of Jesus, righteous anger—and still love for our enemies. O’Donovan further comments:

When I learn so to hate that I long for the justice of God, then I recognize that that same justice is precisely what my enemy needs. The injustice in the relation is to be put right not only for me, but for him too, because it is God’s justice, which is like the sun which he makes to rise on the evil and the good, and the rain which he sends on the just and the unjust. So I begin to love my enemy as myself, by discovering that what I want for myself I want most profoundly for him too.[3]

5:21 The Jews of Jesus’ time knew that murder was forbidden by God and that the murderer was liable to punishment. This was true before the giving of the law (Gen. 9:6) and it was later incorporated into the law (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17). With the words, “But I say to you,” Jesus institutes an amendment to the teaching on murder. No longer could a person take pride in having never committed murder. Jesus now says, “In My kingdom, you must not even have murderous thoughts.” He traces the act of murder to its source and warns against three forms of unrighteous anger.

5:22 The first is the case of a person who is angry with his brother without a cause. One accused of this crime would be in danger of the judgment—that is, he could be taken to court. Most people can find what they think is a valid cause for their anger, but anger is justified only when God’s honor is at stake or when someone else is being wronged. It is never right when expressed in retaliation for personal wrongs.

Even more serious is the sin of insulting a brother. In Jesus’ day, people used the word Raca (an Aramaic term meaning “empty one”) as a word of contempt and abuse. Those who used this epithet were in danger of the council—that is, they were subject to trial before the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the land.

Finally, to call someone a fool is the third form of unrighteous anger that Jesus condemns. Here the word fool means more than just a dunce. It signifies a moral fool who ought to be dead and it expresses the wish that he were. Today it is common to hear a person cursing another with the words, “God damn you!” He is calling on God to consign the victim to hell. Jesus says that the one who utters such a curse is in danger of hell fire. The bodies of executed criminals were often thrown into a burning dump outside Jerusalem known as the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. This was a figure of the fires of hell which shall never be quenched.

There is no mistaking the severity of the Savior’s words. He teaches that anger contains the seeds of murder, that abusive language contains the spirit of murder, and that cursing language implies the very desire to murder. The progressive heightening of the crimes demand three degrees of punishment: the judgment, the council, and hell fire. In the kingdom, Jesus will deal with sins according to severity.[4]

5:21, 22 You have heard … But I say to you. See vv. 27, 31, 33, 38, 43. The quotes are from Ex 20:13; Dt 5:17. Jesus was not altering the terms of the law in any of these passages. Rather, He was correcting what they had “heard”—the rabbinical understanding of the law (see note on v. 38).

5:22 You good-for-nothing. Lit. “Empty-headed.” Jesus suggested here that the verbal abuse stems from the same sinful motives (anger and hatred) that ultimately lead to murder. The internal attitude is what the law actually prohibits, and therefore an abusive insult carries the same kind of moral guilt as an act of murder. hell. A reference to the Hinnom Valley, SW of Jerusalem. Ahaz and Ma nas seh permitted human sacrifices there during their reigns (2Ch 28:3; 33:6), and therefore it was called “the valley of Slaughter” (Jer 19:6). In Jesus’ day, it was a garbage dump where fires burned continually and was thus an apt symbol of eternal fire.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 112). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 290–295). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 181–183). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1219–1220). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[5] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Mt 5:21–22). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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