(Delivered Sunday, October 3, 2004 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture is taken from the New King James Version.)
I once spent an hour or so visiting with a man who, according to his own testimony, had built his life around keeping everyone as afraid of him as he could.
He was a rather big man physically - decorated with tattoos and body piercings; and he had learned to give off such an intimidating glare that people kept their distance from him. It was working on me. I was certainly intimidated by him. But the more I talked with him, the more I came to see the truth about him. He was, in fact, a very insecure and fearful man; and his fearsome image was just how he managed to protect himself. As we chatted, he became quite open with me; and even vulnerable enough to share with me some of the things that he feared and regretted in his own life. The more he opened himself up to me, the less intimidating he seemed to me.
And then, as we talked, he shared one of the things that concerned him the most. He told me that, for years, he had been haunted by the concern that - on one occasion in the past - he might have killed a man. (And at that point, the intimidation factor kicked in again for me!) He had no way of knowing for sure that it had happened, because he had run from the scene; and there really wasn't any way to confirm the fact, or go back and make things right. All he knew was that he 'might' have once killed a man; and the mystery plagued him. Though he put forth a tough image, it greatly bothered him that he might actually be murderer. (And after hearing that, there were then two of us who were bothered!)
Now, I share that story with you to ask you this question: When I describe such a person, how do you feel about him? Do you look down on him? Do you think of such a person as wicked and contemptible? Perhaps a vile murderer? Well, dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I myself must come before you today with an honest admission. I do not merely think that I might have murdered a man. I happen to know for a fact that I have murdered a man. In fact, I am guilty of having murdered many people. I have murdered people at the work-place. I have murdered people from my old neighborhood. I have very often murdered people on the roads and freeways. I have murdered some politicians and prominent community leaders. I have even dared to murder people who were my own brothers and sisters in Christ. I confess to you that I stand before you today a murderer many times over.
Think of that man I told you about. If you think of him as vile and contemptible, you need to think of me that way too. Even more so - because he only thinks he might have killed a man; while I know for certain that I have killed many.
Now that I have your attention (and before you pull out your cell phone), please let me explain. I have never ended anyone's physical life. That, of course, is what we typically think of when we think of murder. I'm not guilty of having done that; and obviously, if I had been, I certainly wouldn't be able to stand before you today serving as your pastor. If I had been guilty of taking anyone's physical life, I would have been brought to justice, convicted and sentenced by the court of law long ago. No; I'm not guilty of that kind of murder. How thankful I am that I have never done such a thing! But according to the words of Jesus in this morning's passage, I am just as guilty of murder as if I had maliciously taken the physical life of another man.
And what's more, so are you. You may feel personally insulted at my having accused you of murder; but if we take the words of our Savior seriously, we must admit that this sanctuary is filled today with people who have been murdered by someone else, and who are themselves guilty in the sight of God of committing vile murders. or both. I think it's safe to say that some of you have committed murder on the way to church this morning. Some of you may have even been committing murder during the worship service itself!
Before you discount that assertion, please hear the words of the only authority that counts - our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ - as they are recorded in this morning's passage. Listen to what He says about murder; and then tell me whether or not we're all guilty many times over! He taught His disciples and said,
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.' But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny" (Matthew 5:21-26).
Now you see why I have to admit to being a murderer many times over! And by the way; welcome to the club!
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We have been studying the Lord's Sermon on The Mount over the past several weeks. Most recently, we've seen that he taught His disciples about His relationship to the Old Testament law. He revealed to them that they were not to be mistaken about His mission. He didn't come to, in any way, set the law aside - as some might have thought. Rather, He asserted that He came to fulfill that law in every respect. And in explaining His mission of fulfilling the law, He elevated the concept of what it means to be obedient to God's law up to its proper level. He told them;
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:17-20).
I can't help but think that those who heard our Lord were amazed at what He was telling them. He was teaching those who would be His followers that, with respect to the law, their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. They surely would have thought that no one could keep the law more strictly than the scribes and Pharisees! But this was because they had misunderstood what it meant to conform to God's law. The scribes and Pharisees had reduced obedience to God's law to a superficial matter of merely conforming to the outward "letter" of the law. And here, Jesus taught that true obedience meant a deep, heart-felt, inward conformity to the actual intent of the law. The rest of the fifth chapter of Matthew is nothing else but a large illustration of the difference between conformity to the outward "letter" of the law, and the genuine obedience to real "spirit" of the law that is to characterize His disciples.
The very first illustration Jesus gives us is that of the sixth commandment; "You shall not murder" (Ex. 20:13). And I believe He chose this one for a reason. This would be a commandment that even the most imperfect scribe or Pharisee could boast of having kept - if only in terms of the strict letter of the law. Even today, when I talk to unbelieving people about the Ten Commandments, they often defend themselves by pointing to their supposed obedience to this one commandment. "Hey; I'm certainly not perfect," they say; "but come on! I'm not as bad as some people. After all, I haven't murdered anyone." There might even be some of us here today that would defend themselves in that same way.
But as we look closer at Jesus' words, we discover that we can only say that we haven't 'murdered' if we're looking at the strict letter of the law, and not at its true intent. And as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to be characterized by a higher obedience to God's law than a mere conformity to its outward 'letter'. Our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. It's not enough that we have not physically taken the life of another. God's intention is that we do nothing, or say nothing, or think nothing, or even wish nothing, that in any sense takes away from the personhood or dignity of another. That, according to the Lord's teaching, is the real intention of God's commandment, "You shall not murder." To do otherwise is to commit what I like to call "heart-murder".
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Let's consider Jesus' words a little closer this morning. Let's begin by examining . . .
1. WHAT IT MEANS TO COMMIT 'HEART-MURDER' (vv. 21-22).
Jesus began by identifying what people typically thought of when they thought of that commandment. He said, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.'" When Jesus spoke of what was said to "those of old", He wasn't necessarily speaking of the commandment itself. And please understand; He was certainly in no way setting His own teaching against His Father's commandment! What He was speaking of here was the particular way in which that commandment had come to be interpreted by the teachers and scholars since the ancient times of the Jewish people. He was speaking of what the people had heard "said to those of old"; and was about to show how they had not been interpreting that commandment correctly.
The ancient teachers had taught the people a mere "letter-of-the-law" interpretation of the sixth commandment. They had taught that the commandment was being kept if someone had merely refrained from taking, or had been careful to protect, the physical life of another human being. They had restricted the intended application of that commandment by combining it with Numbers 35:30: "Whoever kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the testimony of witnesses . . ." In their minds, this made the sixth commandment to be speaking only of something that could be witnessed and tried in a court of law - that is, an act of physical murder. The sixth commandment certainly meant that much; but the 'spirit' of that commandment meant much more than just that.
Look at what Jesus then does. He steps in and says, ". . . But I say to you . . ."; as if to say, "You have heard what the ancient teachers have said about the commandment of God; that its intention is limited to prohibiting the matter of taking someone's physical life. But I say to you that its true intention is much more than just that alone."
By the way; do you realize what a remarkable thing it is that Jesus, in this context, says, "But I say to you . . ."? He is asserting Himself as an authority even greater than the ancient teachers! Think of that! As the Son of God in human flesh, He is asserting Himself as the true interpreter of God's law! In fact, in the original language, He speaks emphatically: "But I say to you . . ." He - and He alone - is the true interpreter.
This, incedently, was one of the outstanding features of Jesus' teaching ministry. He didn't merely quote other authorities. He dared to speak and teach from His own divine authority! When people heard Him speak, the Bible tells us that "they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority" (Luke 4:32); and "not as the scribes" (Matthew 7:29). The scribes tried to lend authority to their teaching by quoting from others; but not Jesus. He didn't need to borrow authority from anyone else. He already had all authority (Matthew 28:18). As someone has said, this word "I" in Jesus' teaching is the single most important word in the whole of His sermon!1 It demonstrates to all that He was the King, teaching with royal authority!
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Now remember; our Lord was not asserting His authority, and saying, "But I say to you . . ." in such a way a to contradict the sixth commandment. He was not saying that the ancient teachers were wrong about the divine authority of the commandment itself; nor was He now introducing something new and different from that commandment. What He was doing was asserting His authority to correct the interpretation that the ancient teachers had placed on that commandment. They had made it out to be merely a matter of refraining from taking someone else's physical life. But Jesus revealed that it was really meant by God to prohibit anything we might do to take away from the personhood and dignity of another. We're not to kill another human being by taking his or her physical life; but neither are we to then go on and "kill" that same person by assassinating his or her personhood. And that, according to our Lord, was the real 'spirit' of that commandment all along.
Look at how Jesus teaches us this. He says that, from times of old, the people were taught that the sixth commandment strictly meant that, if anyone took the physical life of another, they would be in danger of judgment (meaning, the judgment of human courts). But then He says, "But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without cause shall be in danger of the court." In other words, whoever is angry with his brother is just as guilty before God of breaking the sixth commandment as the man who rises up and murders another!
It sounds as if Jesus made the sixth commandment so strict that it would be humanly impossible to keep, doesn't it? People have often sought to soften the edge of Jesus' words. In fact, some ancient copies of the New Testament tried to soften the edge of these words by adding the phrase "without cause"?". . . whoever is angry with his brother without cause . . ." The King James Version and the New King James Version feature those words; but they are not found in the oldest and best of the ancient Greek texts.
Scholars tell us that those were added later; and it's easy to understand why. They certainly suggest something that was true - that is, that someone who was angry with their brother for any reason at all was certainly not automatically guilty of murder. After all, Jesus Himself displayed anger at times. Jesus was angry when people dishonored His Father's temple, or when people behaved hypocritically, or when they used innocent people for selfish and ungodly reasons. Jesus was never angry "without cause", though. And so, perhaps those ancient copies, by adding the words "without cause", were simply trying to make it clear that Jesus was not making all expressions of anger into an automatic act of heart-murder.
But what Jesus actually said is much more profound than that; and it still retains something of its edge. The verb as it's found in the original text is a present passive participle; and a correct translation would be, ". . . Whoever is being provoked to anger - in an ongoing, habitual way - toward his brother is liable to judgment . . ." In other words, Jesus was speaking of an ongoing habit of being angry toward a brother - an ongoing habit of holding a grudge. It's not "Whoever HAS BEEN angry with his brother . . .", but "Whoever IS angry with his brother . . ." in the sense of a continual state of mind.
There's an old folk-saying that says, "He is a fool who cannot be angry; but he is wise who will not remain angry." And as true as that saying may be, we have an even greater authority. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote, "'Be angry, and do not sin'"; and there, he's quoting from Psalm 4:4. But then, he explains what it means to be angry without sin; ". . . Do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil" (Eph. 4:26-27). In other words, we're not to hold on to our anger against someone continually, but we are to make sure our anger is set aside before the sun sets and the day comes to an end. We're not to go to bed in anger, and wake up in the morning with our anger still hot. And Jesus is telling us that, when we do not let go of our anger - when we let the sun go down while we still hold on it, when we keep on being angry toward our brother and hold a grudge against him - we are sinning and are guilty of murder.
Now that alone is enough to make murderers out of us all. But it certainly gets worse. Jesus goes on to say, "And whoever says to his brother, 'Raca!' shall be in danger of the council." "Raca" was an Aramaic term of contempt. It was an insult that, according to some scholars, meant something like "empty head". It's a derogatory term that might be comparable to insults people might use today when they disrespect someone else: "Knucklehead!" "Rocks for brains!" "Numskull!" Jesus teaches us that such names, spoken in a moment of anger, are acts of heart-murder that are forbidden in the sixth commandment. They take away from the human dignity and personhood of another; and such words are enough to make someone guilty of murder before the highest courts of the land!
And there's more! Jesus then goes on to say, "But whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be in danger of hell fire." The Greek word used here is mõros; and it's a term that constitutes a serious attack on the personhood of another. To call someone "Raca!" is to merely attack their head; but the sense of calling them a "fool" is to attack their spirit. It's the difference between carelessly and thoughtlessly calling someone "dummy", and seriously condemning someone as a complete and utter reject in the sight of God - a "fool" in the worst sense. Jesus says that that's enough to put someone in danger of the very fires of hell.
And I hope you can see the point of all this. It means that the real intention of God's commandment against murder is much greater than merely the prohibition of the taking of a physical life. It's real intention is that we do nothing, or say nothing, or think nothing that would, in any way, diminish the humanity of another. We are never to commit heart-murder.
In fact, God's real intention behind the sixth commandment is far more than that, negatively speaking, we refrain from killing our brother. Rather, it's that, positively speaking, we faithfully love our brother. The apostle James wrote, "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:14-15).
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Now let's face it: this makes us all into murderers in God's eyes, doesn't it? It may be true that no physical blood was shed; and it may be true that no human court can actually convict us of such acts of murder in the heart. But God does see it us guilty of murder just the same. Some of us here this morning are committing ongoing, unrepented acts of murder even as we speak. How unspeakably evil in the sight of God this is!
So then; what do we do about it? Well, we can be thankful that Jesus doesn't leave us in the dark as to what to do. Do you see the word "Therefore" in verse 23? That's were Jesus tells us . . .
2. HOW WE REPENT OF ACTS OF 'HEART-MURDER' (vv. 23-26):
Jesus gives us two illustrations - the first one from the perspective of worship in the temple, and the second one from the perspective of the court of law.
First, Jesus says, "Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar. and there remember that your brother has something against you . . . " And what a picture this is! A man is coming to the temple to offer his free-will offering to God. He's thinking that nothing is wrong. He thinks that he's doing his faithful religious duty - just as those do who faithfully attend church, or put money in the offering plate, or listen to long sermons without complaining. But then - right in the very act of performing his religious duty - he remembers something! (Isn't that the way it is? Whenever we truly seek to draw near to God, He lovingly but gently causes issues in our lives to come up that had - to that point - remained undealt with.) And so, as this man was bringing his gift to God's altar, he then remembers that a brother has something against him. And note that it's not that he has something against the brother; but that the brother has something against him.
I believe that the "something" should be seen in the context of what Jesus says in verses 21-22. Perhaps, as the man was approaching God's holy throne, the Holy Spirit brings it to his mind that he has held on to his anger toward a particular fellow believer, and has refused to let that anger go. Or perhaps he there remembers that he had casually exposed the contempt he holds in his heart for a particular neighbor, or a workmate, or a family member, by his having called them an insulting name. Or perhaps there - right before the altar - God convicts him of the fact that he has dared to slander another in hatred and bitter resentment. As such a man stands before God, ready to offer his gift on the altar, God makes him stop and recall that he is guilty of 'murder in the heart' and dares to stand before His holy presence. How could a holy God receive the gift of such a man, until he repents of his heart-murder?
Jesus says that, before taking another step toward the altar of God, such a man is to do the following: ". . . Leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." In this, Jesus teaches us that God places a higher priority on the heart-condition of the giver than He does on the gift itself. The offerer is to come back; but only after having made things right with the brother he has been murdering.
And I would suggest that this has particular application to our church when we come before the Lord's Table to participate in the communion meal. We should never come to the "communion" table with "murder" toward each other in our hearts. There's an interesting line from an ancient church document called The Didache (or "The Teaching of The Apostles"). It's an ancient church manual, intended to summarize the apostles instructions on how the church was to conduct itself. It does not have authority over us, as do the Scriptures; but it is still very informative. And in it, we read these words: "And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled . . ."2 I believe that reflects the appropriate application of Jesus' words to us, when we approach His table to share in the communion meal.
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Now, that first illustration was taken from the realm of worship. But Jesus' second illustration is taken from the realm of law. He says, "Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him . . ." The word "adversary" is one that refers to a legal opponent; and the picture is one of a man walking down the road on his way to the court to stand before the judge. Along the way, he meets up with his opponent in law. It's to the advantage of the one man, in such a situation, to work out terms of agreement with the other while "on the way" - that is, to settle out of court quickly, before coming before the judge.
I believe Jesus is giving us a picture of the threat of judgment before God. Our Lord has already spoken of such judgment in this passage (v. 22); and I believe He is urging us, in very serious terms, to make peace quickly with the one we've been murdering - while there is still time; while we are still on the "road" of life, and before we are ushered before the throne of God together. Jesus urges us to seek terms of settlement now, while we can; "lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be throne into prison."
Again, this illustration should be seen carefully, and in the context of "heart-murder". The man or woman who harbors 'heart-murder' against another brother or sister - and who will not repent - will stand as guilty of 'murder' before the throne of God. And in that case, that person's "adversary" will have every right to hand them over to the righteous judgment of God. "Assuredly," Jesus says, "I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny." This isn't meant to teach us that we can buy our way out of God's judgment. Quite the opposite, this is meant to impress upon us that it is impossible to buy our selves out of it. And it's meant to reinforce to us the urgency of making things right with our brother while we have the chance in life. We must do it "quickly".
Now you might ask, "But would God put a believer under such judgment?" And I would say no; of course He wouldn't. All of the wrath for our sins has already been placed on Jesus; and there is, for the forgiven saint in Christ, no fear of eternal judgment. But then I have to turn the question around and ask, "Would a true, genuine believer continue to hold, unrepentingly, to such a murderous attitude toward another professing believer?" And the Bible's answer to that is also a "no". As we've already seen, the apostle John said, "Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (1 John 3:15). A life-style of unrepented heart-murder is not the life-style indicative of a believer. And again, this simply underscores the urgent need to repent now - while we can, and before we face the judgment seat of God!
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I confessed to you that I, myself, have been guilty of murder in the sight of God. I have, in my heart, killed many. But how grateful I am that God has had mercy on me. He graciously pardons all heart-murderers who turn to Him, and from their murderous ways. He never turns us away when we repent, but graciously washes us and cleanses us of our sins when we ask Him. And when we repent of our acts of "heart-murder", and turn to Jesus for forgiveness, we give clear evidence of the fact that we truly are disciples of Jesus Christ.
And so now, as we draw near to the Lord's table this morning, let me ask you: Has the Holy Spirit stopped you short, and brought something to your remembrance? Has he revealed to you that you have been committing murder in your heart toward another; and that He wants that matter taken care of before you come to the communion meal? Perhaps He is urging you to refrain from partaking of His table until you have reconciled with the one who has something against you. Perhaps He is even calling you to stop, before you partake of His supper, and make things right with someone in this very room today.
May God lead you to do so now - while you are still "on the way".
1Fredrick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004) 1:208.
2J.B. Lightfood and J.R. Harmer, eds., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 234.
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