Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift. Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily, I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

Matthew 5:21-26

There is more than one way to kill a person.

Yes, the violent taking of a human life is the most obvious. But Jesus said you can kill with anger that is internalized. You can kill with vicious words like “Raca” or “Fool”!

The end result is the same, a human being is decimated, whether physically or psychologically.

Such action ought to be foreign to the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Those who are poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungering after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers have the power to be free from such evil conduct and attitude. That power is love, the law of the kingdom of heaven.

But, are we free from such action?

You have to answer this for yourself.

In dealing with the subject of murder, Jesus had to contend with the Scribes and Pharisees who had powerful influence upon the people of that day. They taught the people that only the deed of murder was forbidden by the law of Moses. They did this on good authority, for they claimed that they had the ‘ancients,’ the men of old time, on their side.

Jesus meets them at the point of controversy, when He says, “Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time….” These old-timers were the leaders of the people upon the return from captivity in Babylon. During the interval of their absence in a foreign land, the people became influenced by Babylon. They lost the knowledge of their native tongue, Hebrew, and instead became adapted to the Aramaic language. The laws of Moses were written in Hebrew, so the Jews became dependent upon the “scholars,” the Scribes, to speak to them about the law and to explain it to them. Hence Jesus said, “Ye have heard that it was said…”—that is, that oral tradition is…. The situation was much like the time of the Reformation when the people did not have the Bible in their native tongue and they depended upon the church to explain things.

This tradition, taught by the Scribes and put into practice by the Pharisees, was summarized by Jesus this way: “Thou shalt not kill, and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.” On the surface, this appears to conform to the Mosaic law, that is, the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” So far they are correct, but when they added “and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment,” they express their own commentary on that law. This was in error in two ways. First, they limited infraction to the deed that would get them into trouble. Secondly, they emphasized the judgment (which was the local judge), rather than being concerned about the Judge of heaven and earth. They did this because their concept of the law was in error. They were concerned about the letter of the law rather than the spirit. They focused their attention upon external behavior, rather than on inward attitudes and the condition of the heart. They viewed the keeping of the law as not doing evil and they conveniently overlooked the doing of good. When the Scribes and Pharisees examined themselves in the light of the sixth commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”) they concluded, “I have not killed; I did not take the life of my neighbor.” This made them look upon themselves as the keepers of the law, righteous before God, and therefore self-righteous and better than others.

This aroused righteous indignation in Jesus.

It hath been said…, but I say unto you. That is the contrast. Will we follow the ancients with their tradition of men, or will we listen to Jesus who said not one jot or one tittle of the law shall pass away, until all be fulfilled. The real issue is the fulfillment of the law by Jesus, the demands of the law required of Him that cried, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Hence it smells of the sulfur of hell. It requires of Him the sitting at the right hand of God, dispensing the Holy Spirit upon His beloved church, by which the law is written in our hearts.

That law then is not limited to avoiding murder; it includes loving the brother and sister.

Jesus deals with the negative aspect first.

Whoever is angry with his brother without cause is in danger of the judgment. Jesus does not say that anger is sinful. God Himself is angry with the wicked every day. Jesus was angry with the Pharisees. Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:26, “Be ye angry and sin not, let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” Anger without cause is sinful anger. It puts us in the wrong. We have no justification for it. The emphasis of this word is also anger that is internalized, when we do the ‘slow burn,’ when we let our minds play over and over how angry we are at someone, and we have thoughts of contempt and evil about him. At other times, we may vent this anger by name-calling. Jesus uses two illustrations. We might, first of all, call a man “Raca”—a word of contempt used in the days of Jesus. It had the connotation of judging worth, mental ability. At its root it means empty, hence empty-head, stupid, numskull, or, in today’s usage, airhead. The other word, “thou fool,” is more severe. It judges the brother’s character before God. The fool says there is no God. Moses used this terminology when he smote the rock and called Israel “rebels” (Num. 20:10), on account of which he never entered into the land of Canaan. It is playing God and assassinating another’s character.

The concern of Jesus focuses upon the brother or sister. We may not do this with any neighbor; but particular emphasis falls upon the family of God. This applies to our marriages, the way we treat each other as husband and wife, parent and child, fellow members of the church, our Christian neighbors with whom we work or next to whom we live. Sin against the sixth commandment is not just taking another’s life. It has to do with the condition of our heart as it is manifest in the way we treat the neighbor and speak to him or about him.

Accountability for such conduct is before God. Jesus says in verse 22 that whether we are called before the judgment (the local judge which in the day of Jesus had the power to kill by the sword, with the approval of the Roman government) or the council (the Jewish Sanhedrin, which functioned like a supreme court in Jerusalem and had the power to stone to death), ultimately we have to deal with God. He alone has the power of Gehenna, the fires of hell. What a powerful way to expose the Pharisees’ concern for men while they ignore the God of the law.

Now Jesus deals with the positive aspect of the law, that is, with love. What better way to demonstrate love than to be reconciled to our brother or sister who has a grievance against us.

“If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift at the altar and first be reconciled to thy brother and then come and offer thy gift.” Jesus refers to the act of sacrifice. The people would come with their gift (a lamb, a turtle dove) to the priest at the altar for sacrifice. Part of their worship required spiritual reflection. They had to meditate upon their sins, on how they related to God and their neighbor. Upon doing this, if such a person remembers that his brother has a grievance against him, he must first be reconciled.

Jesus deliberately chose to say “hath ought against thee.” Sometimes we have something against our brother. This we are instructed to resolve in Matthew 18. But, here, we either know or imagine that our brother has something against us. We might be in the wrong, as far as he is concerned, and this causes a rupture in our relationship. Probably he is not on speaking terms. He might be avoiding us. We are suspicious that something is wrong. This would be the easiest for us to brush aside, for we could easily reason, “That’s his problem. If he doesn’t like the way I live, let him come to me.” This applies to our home life within marriage, to our dealing with our children, and to our dealings within the church.

Be reconciled to thy brother. Then come and offer thy gifts. The initiative must come from us. We cannot pray at home; we cannot come to church on the Lord’s, Day; we cannot take the Lord’s Supper, until we are sure that not only am I right with my brother but he is right with me.

Why is this? The answer is the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven and the law of love that governs its citizens. If we truly love each other, we will be reconciled. We cannot be right with God if we are wrong with each other. “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? This commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.” Or listen to Psalm 66:18: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.”

God’s love for us is experienced in our love for Him and each other. Anger, hatred, is a barrier in the covenant of love.

The seriousness of this is that we have to deal with God. In verses 25, 26 Jesus illustrates this. If a man has financial difficulty, he ought to deal with his creditors, lest he be taken to court and the judge find him guilty and he be imprisoned until he pay the last cent.

We had better settle our differences here, rather than have to stand before God’s judgment seat in the day of Christ. He has the power of Gehenna, the fires of hell.

How these words must humble us all.

Rather than being self-righteous, let us cling to the cross of Jesus and look to our Lord and cry for His Spirit of love.

The love that reconciles!


* Reprinted from the November 1, 1990 Standard Bearer (vol. 67, no. 3) with minor edits.