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Matthew 5:21-26

“The Sixth Commandment”


In the verse immediately prior to this passage, Jesus is recorded as saying; “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” (vs.20). But what did Jesus mean by this? Just how much righteousness is required to enter the Kingdom of God? In what way did the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees come short of God’s requirement? Precisely what is expected of a person in order for them to gain entrance into God’s Kingdom? The answers to these questions are given in the rest of the sermon. The statement above is in fact the theme verse of the sermon. The entire point of the sermon is to explain the righteousness that is needed in order to gain entrance into the Kingdom of God.

The reason that Jesus introduced the main portion of His sermon in this way is because He was going to speak to people who believed they already knew the answer to this question. It was an answer supplied to them by the prominent teachers of their day; the scribes and Pharisees. These teachers rooted what their taught in the Old Testament, so surely what they taught must have been right.

However, the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees did not accurately reflect what God had revealed in the Old Testament. Although the movement of which the scribes and the Pharisees were a part had honorable beginnings; over the years their understanding of the Law of God had become distorted. They indeed set out to be righteous people, and righteous according to the definition of the Law of God. However, as the rest of this Gospel reveals, something had gone terribly wrong. They were Christ’s most consistent and dogged adversaries. Since Christ is God in the flesh, their opposition to Him demonstrated they really had not properly understood God’s Law. Their problem had its genesis in their underestimation of the power of sin and their overestimation of their own capacity for righteousness.

To demonstrate where the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees went wrong, Jesus teaches through a series of “antitheses”. These are contrasts between the interpretations of the Pharisees and the true intent of God’s Law. The first of these related to the interpretation of the sixth commandment.

I. The Rabbinical Understanding: (vs.21)

Jesus opens the first antithesis, by saying; “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’” (vs.21). When Jesus says, “you have heard” He is not referring to the Old Testament, but to the oral tradition that was the basis of the teachings of the scribes and Pharisees in the synagogues. These contemporary rabbis did not believe they should directly interpret the Scriptures, but relied upon the interpretations of acknowledged scholars of the past. Those interpretations were considered to convey the meaning of Scripture with authority. It is these interpretations that Jesus challenges. It needs to be remembered that the reason that Jesus’ audience “heard” these things is because the average individual would not have either the Scriptures or rabbinical teachings in printed form, but would only learn those things through the oral teachings in the synagogue.

It is helpful to note at the outset, that the Hebrew term in the original Mosaic Law specifies that the commandment is against premeditated murder and not generic killing.

The teaching of the scribes and Pharisees was that the commandment only prohibited literal physical murder; therefore, anything short of murder was not addressed by this commandment. As Jesus will demonstrate, their teaching was not so much wrong as it was incomplete. The problem with the interpretation of the rabbis was that it made this commandment one that almost everyone could obey, and in total made obedience to the Law seem far easier than it actually was.

II. The Revelation of God’s Intent: (vs.22)

Having quoted the common teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus then explained the true intent of this commandment, “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” (vs.23).

Jesus explains that there is more to murder than simply the act of killing another person. As Jesus will demonstrate in each of the antitheses, the problem of sin is not simply one of outward behavior; it is a matter of a person’s heart. It is in the heart that every sin begins, and it is the sin in one’s heart that is the reason for sinful behavior and choices. Jesus says that anger is a violation of the sixth commandment; being “angry” means to have an orientation or disposition of hostility and antagonism toward another person. Later on one of Jesus’ disciples will put the matter even more clearly:

  • “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
  • I John 3:15

    The reason then that anger is a violation of the sixth commandment is because anger is the source or root which develops into murder. Jesus speaks specifically about being angry with one’s “brother”. It is common in contemporary circles to interpret this as a reference to any human being. However, that is not what Jesus is saying. A “brother” in that context referred to one’s family in either a narrow or broad sense. The Old and New Testaments do not teach the universal brotherhood of mankind. Instead, the brother is one who is a fellow Jew; and later one who is numbered among the followers of Christ. This does not mean that being angry with others outside this definition is acceptable; it simply means that the Law was given to the community of those in covenant with God (just as all national laws apply to those within a given nation and not to those of other countries). The focus is on how the people of God are to relate to one another.

    It is the animosity created by uncontrolled anger that leads to murder (see the example of Abel and Cain-I John 3:10-12). Anger can be righteous (as proven by the fact that God Himself is angry over certain things, and ye is always morally perfect). However, the clear sense here is that of rage that is within the heart that causes one to be hostile and hateful toward another. It is also important to note that Jesus is not saying that being angry in one’s heart is as bad as actually murdering another person. He is simply explaining that one has violated God’s commandment when he or she allows anger to fester in their heart.

    In the King James tradition (both old and new), this verse contains the qualifying phrase “without a cause”; however that phrase is absent from all modern translations (NASB, ESV, NIV, HCSB, NLT, NRSV, & NET). The reason these versions omit the phrase is because there is very little manuscript support for it; thus it is best not to accept it as a part of what Jesus originally said. Having pointed this out however, in principle, the phrase is correct because of what was noted above; that there are righteous reasons to be angry with another person.

    Jesus then cites a specific example of expressed anger outside of murder “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”. The example is verbal slander. The examples literally translate as “idiot” and “moron”, which by today’s standard may seem a bit mild in terms of a verbal lashing. However, the point is that lashing out (regardless of the words used) is a way of viciously attacking another person and is an expression of the same hostility that leads to physical murder. So, a physical and a verbal assault have the same root cause. In this verse Jesus speaks of three different consequences for the sin of anger; the judgment, the council, and hell fire. Some interpreters suggest that this expresses an escalation in the seriousness of the punishment that the sinner faces as a result of ever more serious sins. However it is better to understand that all three references to coming under judgment are meant as largely synonymous; referring metaphorically to eternal judgment. Support for this conclusion is found in the fact that there does not seem to be a clear progression of more and more serious sins. Rather they all seem to be different ways of describing the sin of anger. Therefore it does not logically follow that Jesus would refer to gradations of punishment for essentially the same sin. In addition Jewish literature at the time described God’s heavenly tribunal as a supreme court or Sanhedrin parallel to the earthly one. Also no one would be brought to a human court in that time for anger; and it is difficult to see how a literal punishment from such a court would in any way be comparable to eternal judgment in Hell. The point is simply that not only murder, but hostility in one’s heart will result in eternal damnation.

    III. The Practical Application: (vs.23-24)

    Jesus next gives an example of the lengths His followers are to go to in order to restore a relationship damaged by uncontrolled anger; “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” (vs.23-24).

    In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying to His audience, it is important to remember the realities of their circumstances. Gifts from the Jewish people would be offered on the altar of the Temple in Jerusalem (and nowhere else) during the Divinely established feasts of the year. Jesus’ audience were Galileans, and thus they were all approximately 80 miles from Jerusalem and the eventual journey to takes gifts to the Temple would have to be made on foot.

    In light of these realities Jesus told His audience that, if while waiting in a long line to make an offering 80 miles from home, they should recall that they had morally wronged someone (in context it can be assumed it was a sin related to anger), then they were to stop what they were doing; immediately go home, and then only after reconciling the relationship return to make their offering.

    Some have asked whether or not this indicates that our relationship with other people is more important that our relationship with God? Clearly, the Scriptures teach that in truth our relationship with God is primary over everything. Jesus’ point here is that one’s relationship with God cannot be separated from one’s relationship with other people. The love that is meant to bind us to God is meant to bind us to one another as well. The real point is one that is repeated in Scripture often; that obedience to the commandment to be loving and compassionate to others is more important than faithfully performing religious rituals:

  • “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.”
  • Hosea 6:6

    Jesus’ point is that a person must deal with the hostility in his or her heart before worshipping God, because as long as one holds on to that bitterness, one cannot have a harmonious relationship with God.

    In this verse there is a subtle change in language that is invisible to English readers. In these two verses Jesus switches from using the second person plural pronoun to using the second person singular pronoun. This change indicates that Christ is making individualized application to His hearers, so each one will have a sense that this is something that they themselves must take to heart.

    Two more principles emerge here. First, Jesus’ teaching demonstrates that doing one right thing does not cancel out something else that one did that was wrong. Often human beings think in terms of good and bad things being weighed in the balance; but that is not what God desires for His people. The righteousness God demands from them is not that it exceed their sin, but that they be thoroughly righteous and without evil. The second principle is that the responsibility to reconcile lies with the offender. It is not wrong for the one offended to reach out; but the moral obligation belongs to the offender.

    IV. The Motive for Obedience: (vs.25-26)

    Jesus closes this antithesis with an analogy from the legal system of that Day. The point is to instruct His disciples and the multitude in why they should be motivated to resolve all the relational disputes they may be involved in. Jesus said, “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” (vs.25-26). The analogy is meant to illustrate the idea that it is wise to make it a priority to avert punishment before it is too late.

    Jesus advises His audience to “agree” with your adversary. The Greek word translated as “agree” means to create friendship or comradery with someone else. In other words, seek to turn an enemy into a friend. The imagery that Jesus employs is that of a debtor and a creditor going to court to settle the matter of the indebtedness that exists between them (clearly the financial debt in the analogy represents a moral debt in real life). Therefore, the “adversary” refers to an opponent in a lawsuit. The purpose in the analogy is to press home the urgency to settle matters before judgment makes such a settlement impossible.

    The idea is that once the court has rendered a verdict it is too late to attempt to work things out privately with those we have offended.

    In the analogy, the “prison” that would come to the mind of the hearers would be a Roman debtor’s prison. That imagery of course represents the place of torment identified above as Hell. Jesus tells His audience that it was absolutely certain that without a doubt (using a double negative for emphasis) that those sentenced to punishment would not be released until they paid everything back to the last penny. In the Roman world, as in our day, the penny was the smallest piece of money. The problem with a debtor’s prison was that one went there because they could not pay a debt. In the prison one earned no money so there was never a way to pay off the debt and thus be released. Therefore this sort of prison was ideal to represent eternal judgment. The warning was that the sin of anger and having hostility toward others in one’s heart, if not dealt with would result in not entering the Kingdom of God.


    In this passage we learn that the first way in which one’s righteousness must excel that of the scribes and Pharisees is that it is not enough to not murder, one must not have hostility in one’s heart toward others (particularly one’s fellow believers).

    The idea that Jesus is teaching disciples that sin results in damnation might cause a person to wonder how this fits in with the matter of eternal security. This is why some commentators try to explain why this teaching does not apply to modern Christians. However, in context Jesus is teaching the true meaning of the Law. The purpose of the Law is to demonstrate that we are guilty of sin; it is not to point the way to salvation (Rom.3:19-20). In order for Jesus’ audience to appreciate the truth of the Gospel; they first needed to be convinced that they were sinners in need of salvation. His teaching on the Law would make clear that no one He was speaking to was righteous enough to inherit the Kingdom of God; this would prepare them for to realize their need of a Savior, and to be ready to hear the good news that one had come.

    In the Bonds of Christ,

    Pastor Michael Huard

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