Matthew 5:21-26

There are a few things that I want to say about the rest of this chapter before we get to the specifics of the next six verses.  And, you know, the four and a half months we have spent on the chapter so far has come at a time when our faith has been tested greatly.  And I don’t think it peculiar that the difficulties encountered since October coincide with the preaching of this text!

The Lord Jesus began His sermon with the fundamental nature and character of those who live in Him.  He said that we all are mournfully aware of our own sin nature and anguished at the consequences of worldly rebellion.   But that the gift of perfection – the perfect sacrifice – is ours through living in Him.  And that, as a result of showing mercy, and bringing peace, and being openly righteous with others, we would be persecuted by the world order.  And that the ugliness and vileness which comes our way is occasion for rejoicing, for, in it, we share His suffering.

And in it all we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  And savour and life is derived from His body – it isn’t ours apart from Him or outside of Him.  Whatever is His is ours, because we partake of Him.

And His nature is lawful.  Not only did He perfectly keep every stroke of the Law, but He confirmed and established its eternal validity – and condemned and judged, openly, publicly, the religion of the day, which degraded and abased the content and intent of God’s Holy Law.  And in Him we, too, are to be holy Law-keepers.  And, in doing so, we condemn and judge lawlessness wherever we go.  And it grieves the Spirit of Christ in us, and it grieves us when we fail to be doers rather than just hearers.  And, even in the rejoicing which is ours in our perfect covering, we still cry out in torment with Paul, as he says, “I do what I don’t want to do, and I don’t do what I want to do.”  It’s awful.  It’s awful to want to be righteous like the One in Whom we live – to hunger and thirst for it - and to still have this magnetic sin nature.  And the more I deal with it, the more I am driven to say, “Thank God for His grace toward us.”  “Thank God for our sin covering.”

The next twenty-eight verses contain the epitome of Paul’s terse statement that the Law is a schoolmaster driving us to Christ.  Not only was this a withering public attack on the contemporary leaders and their teaching, and not only was this a confirmation of the original full intent of God’s Law, but, it was then, and it is now, a devastating condemnation of the whole of mankind! – For none are righteous – no not one.  This is describing of the fallen nature of man. 

Jesus gives six examples of Pharisaical antinomianism in these twenty-eight verses, and then gives examples of how the fullness of the Law involved should be rightly interpreted.  And there will be none of us who will leave this place, after the next six weeks of worship, who will leave self-satisfied with their present religious affections.  We will all have to flee to Christ for His covering and for His righteousness.

Now, as you look at the entirety of what remains of chapter five, and you see the six examples of Pharisaical law-keeping, each example begins in the same manner:  “You have heard that it was said....”  Verses twenty-one, twenty-seven, thirty-one, thirty-three, thirty-eight, and forty-three.  You’ll notice that Jesus did not say, “God said....”  And He did not say, “It is written....”  And He did not say, “So saith the prophet....”  He said, “You have heard that it was said....”  He is referring to the tradition of the elders.

Now, We have said on several occasions that the Pharisees had added to and detracted from and distorted the Law of God.  In all of these instances that is definitely the case.  But one additional thing was prevalent among them – and it was damning and deserving of judgment – of which Jesus spared none.

You see, the Pharisees thought that the interpretation and application of the Law was their jurisdiction – in court!  And that the only thing a court can deal with is the outward manifestation of lawlessness!  So, for example, if a woman went to bed with someone other than her own husband, the Pharisees’ concern was only the circumstances of the alleged sin.  Who were the witnesses, and what do they say, and what is the punishment?  The exterior letter of the law was dealt with, and fullness and intent of the Law which was clear from the beginning, was never considered or taught to the people!  After all, why should the people concern themselves with these things, since the Pharisees are the lawyers? – Nobody else knows anything or should know anything! 

So, for many generations, and even centuries – especially since the seventy year captivity in Mesopotamia – the Pharisees’ tradition had been handed down to posterity.  And it was this that Jesus makes reference to when He says, “You have heard that it was said....”  He knows that the Pharisees aren’t exegeting the ancient text given to Moses, but the tradition of their forefathers!  And every time He says it – “you have heard that it was said...” – it is the repetitive pounding of condemnation on their heads!  All through the Gospel records He does the same thing, and the Pharisees hated it – and they hated Him for it!

So they dealt only with the exterior letter of the Law.  Who got killed?  Who killed him?  Who are the witnesses?  What were the circumstances?  What shall the punishment be?  But Jesus is the Word of God Incarnate!  It is His Law that these Pharisees were distorting!  And they were the teachers of the Law – but the people knew nothing of it except this exterior letter that the leadership dealt with in court!

So the letter of the Law became an end in itself.  And if you didn’t kill someone, then you were righteous with regard to this Law!  And not only was this Law distorted from its original intent and full content, but it became court mandated only, rather than a love response to God and His grace and mercy.  So Judaism, by the time of Christ, had lost the Law of God by its sin, and by the traditions of the scribes and Pharisees; and the Gentile nations had the Law of God only in general revelation, since Israel presented no picture of Godliness to the world order.

But the Word of God came in the fullness of time, and He proclaimed the Kingdom of the Heavens was at hand!  And He begins with the nature of His people who live in Him, and their obedience to the fullness of the Law of God.

 And He does that by publicly contradicting the Pharisees’ tradition:  “You have heard that it was said....”  “But I say to you....”  “You have heard that it was said....”  “But I say to you....”

And you can immediately hear the Authority with which He speaks – in opposition to the ones who, for centuries, have distorted His Own Words!  As I have said a number of times, this was the Word made flesh!  And the New Testament says that the prophets of old spoke by the Spirit of Christ!

So the Words of God had been added to, and detracted from, and distorted in context; and the tradition of the lawyers had become the law of the land; degenerate men had used the Law to their own benefit, and justice for the weak had suffered; the court system by which these lawyers operated dealt only with exterior manifestations of lawlessness while personal and public piety went untaught!  The moral absolutes from God had been replaced by a substitute morality – which is the very definition of antinomianism.

And that’s the way it has been all through history, hasn’t it?  There have always been hosts of reasons why man would not live under God’s Law; but he’s always come up with some moral substitute (which, of course, is immoral).  And he then claims goodness and self-righteousness because he adheres to that substitute morality!

And this is the very thing that Jesus condemns with such vigor during His entire ministry!  The Law always, from its beginning, pointed to God’s grace and righteousness in Christ Jesus, in Whom we must live, by faith, in order to be justified!  And the Law then provides the absolutes for righteous life in Him!  And not only for personal piety – but for societal piety!

And the Pharisees not only were guilty of self-righteous antinomianism, they were the teachers of the nations!  But they were the blind leading the blind, according to Jesus, righteous on the exterior (so it seemed) but rotten and degenerate on the inside.  And teachers receive double retribution for leading the people into substitute religion.

So, now, let’s look at the first of Jesus’ examples of Pharisaical religion – beginning at verse twenty-one. 

“You have heard that it was said to former ages, ‘you shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be held liable in judgment....’” 

This “in judgment” here at the end of the verse means in the court.  And it’s necessary for us to know that there was a court system in Israel which was based on the legal system given in the Law of Moses.  But this court system was thoroughly degenerate – and was primarily used to uphold the law of the Pharisees!  It long ago had ceased to be a system of justice for everyone equally.  But the system was still there!  And it was the same system which we have in this country.

Each city had its own local court, and then there was what was called “the assembly,” which was the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  It heard weightier cases and was the one to which appeal could be made from the lower courts.  And if a defendant were found guilty at the Sanhedrin, then he might be executed and thrown into the burning fire below the south wall of the city – called Gehenna.  It was the symbol for hell.  And it was the place where those went who were rebellious to the traditions of the elders!

Well, Jesus begins by correctly stating the Law of God, “you shall not kill.”  Remember, now, that this is the tradition of the Pharisees that all the people had heard for centuries.  And the law is stated correctly.  But the second part of His statement is the addition of the elders!  “Whoever kills shall be held liable in court.”  Well, what’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that found in Scripture?  It certainly is!  In Numbers chapter thirty five.

Then, it might be asked, what’s wrong with it?  Isn’t their tradition the same as Scripture?  And the answer is, “No!”  What the Pharisaical tradition had done was to take the Commandment out of Exodus chapter twenty, and add to it the law concerning the court system in Numbers chapter thirty-five!  And made that one law!  And in doing that, they distorted the full intent of the Law in Exodus twenty, which is later filled out in its content!  To combine the two the way they did weakened the Commandment to just the question of committing actual murder!

They had effectively evacuated the Commandment of its truly great content by taking two points of Law out of their contexts and unlawfully joining them together.  And the result was a law which was emasculated of the judgment of God and placed in the hands of the civil magistrate!  You see that the penal sanctions do not mention God’s judgment at all, do they?  “You must not kill; and if you do, then you are liable to punishment by the civil magistrate!

And the Pharisees could demonstrate, to any willing listener, that the whole text of their teaching came directly out of the Law of Moses!

But Jesus says, “No!”  The teaching of the Pharisees is utter travesty!  They have so reduced the Law, and confined it, that it is no longer, in fact, the Law of God!  It no longer conveys the character and morality of the One Who spoke it!  The Pharisees have effectively reduced it within bounds designed to render themselves righteous, and happy, and all-powerful as teachers of the law!  They have reduce it to where they can keep it, and they’ve made it applicable only to their courts so they can control the people with its sanctions – and they could kill, because they did it through the court!  And ultimately, they have taken away the driving force of the Law which sends men fleeing to the Savior for their true justification.

And our Lord answers the Pharisees’ error in verse twenty-two.  And, as you can see, He retains the constraints of the court system.  In doing so, he says that the elders can’t reduce the content of the Law by putting it in the context of the court punishing exterior lawlessness!  The court system doesn’t eliminate God’s judgment against breakers of the whole content of the Law!  The court can’t protect one who is angry with his brother from the divine retribution specified in God’s holy Law!  Because a man who is enraged against his brother is a murderer!

And the lower court can’t do that – and the assembly can’t do that – and he can’t be free of the fires of Gehenna, or hell, simply because the Pharisees changed the law and the courts deal only with outward crimes!

And Jesus then gives two examples of murderous anger, which the Pharisees say they are not responsible for, and from which the limitations of the court system can’t absolve them!  Raca is an Aramaean term of utter contempt, and a character and reputation assassination – saying that this person is worthless as a human being.  Moray is the Hebrew term meaning fool – or uselessly wicked.  And no court system – not even the Sanhedrin itself – can sustain innocence by only dealing with the exterior crime of taking life itself.  The judgment of God is upon murderers – all the way into the fires of hell – and murder includes an embittered heart, and character assassination, and destroying reputations, and passing on an evil report, and envy of another’s possessions or rank or position.  And this is the condition of men from birth! 

Anger is a disorderly passion, and it shows a murderous heart.  And a person with a fierce and angry disposition, and who is not dealing with it in faith has no part in Christ!  For no murderer shall enter into the Kingdom! 

Who shall enter the Kingdom – and even inherit it? 

“Blessed the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of the Heavens... blessed the merciful, for they shall receive mercy... blessed the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God... blessed the ones who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of the heavens.”


Anger and retaliation against those who are against you?  Brothers?  No way.  It is murder.  It is not included in the character of Jesus’ people.

And Jesus takes that a step further – to the positive side of the Commandment!  If you have done something wrong, and your brother is angry with you, you should not even worship until you have loved him enough to reconcile his anger!  Verses twenty-three and twenty-four.

In other words, the Pharisees and their court system are so far from understanding the full content of this Law, that they don’t even know the negative aspects, much less the positive ones!  And the positive side includes the protection of life, reputation, livelihood, family – and personal piety!  In your neighbors!  The very opposite of pharisaical intent!

That is why Jesus brings up lawsuits here.  Although the ultimate Lawsuit being referred to here is God’s lawsuit against all unregenerate men; and everyone is here enjoined to be reconciled to God while he’s in the way, or we’ll be eternally indebted to Him for the shed blood of His Son, and the breaking of His eternal Law-Word!  The debt to God is never paid in hell!  It is an eternal debt!

But Jesus commands us to be reconciled to those who might sue us, for lawsuits are a legal form of murder!  For reputations, families and livelihoods are destroyed in lawsuits.  And passions are inflamed and fierce!  Calvin counsels doing everything possible toward reconciliation in order to avoid the courts, for not only do we risk the destruction of those things already mentioned, but the risk is always there for impious thoughts and emotions!  He says that if you must protect yourself in court against a determined and angry person, then make sure that anger, bitterness and immoderate passions are foreign to your disposition as you provide self-protection.

We must love our neighbors, and be merciful to them, and bring peace to them – as the salt of the earth and light of the world.  Not murder them with anger!  Anger and bitterness inflame, and they kill the bearer!  And that is a desperate situation, so do it quickly, Jesus says!

But if there is to be one overriding consideration concerning this issue of anger, it is to be the character of Jesus Himself as seen in the context of the beatitudes.  God says to us,

“Though you are a guilty and foul person before Me, and the bill you owe Me is one you can never pay, I have sent My Own Son into the world and He has paid it for you.  He has cancelled it.  He didn’t do it because you are loving and kind and good – He did not do it because you have done nothing against Me - it was while you were an enemy, hateful in yourself, hating Me and hating others.  It was while you were foul and unworthy that I sent Hem.  And He came deliberately and gave Himself even unto death.  And it is because of all this that I forgive you utterly and freely and absolutely.”

You see, this issue is one of life itself!  When we hated Him, He died for us!  When we were foul and hateful, He gave Himself for us!  And now, since we live in Him, we are to be salt and light -–the savour and life of Jesus.  And anger and retaliation only bring death.  It’s murder.

So come – agree with God quickly, while you are still in the way.  Confess and make restitution – still the anger in your brother’s heart.  Insomuch as it is in your power, receive the anger and return life.  That is what Jesus did for us. 

The issue here in the Law points directly to Christ for He gave when He was hated.  Therefore we must do the same.  The Pharisees didn’t see that.  But we must – and we have to become doers of the full content of this Law.