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The Sermon on the Mount

Matters of the Heart

Matthew 5:21-26
21 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.’ 22 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. 23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
NKJV

Does following God’s rules mean we are legalistic?

What is legalism?

Jesus commences His Sermon on the Mount with a discussion of how to join the New Community, the Kingdom of Heaven (5:1-6; the first four Beatitudes).  Jesus follows this up with a discussion of the general principles for living in the Kingdom of Heaven (5:7-12; the second four Beatitudes).  Next, He explains that those who are citizens of His new Kingdom must witness their citizenship (5:13-16; they must be salt and light).  Jesus then pauses to explain that His mission and ministry is not a new or novel teaching.  His teachings are directly from the Old Testament.  We learned that Christ Himself is the focus of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament and that all of the law and prophets find their fulfillment in Jesus (5:17-20).

Jesus now returns to His theme of being citizens in God’s Kingdom, a kingdom Matthew calls the Kingdom of Heaven.  The religious leaders taught about God’s kingdom.  However, the scribes and Pharisees taught a kingdom of rules and regulations, a kingdom of one rule piled upon another.  Their starting point was the Law, but they buried God’s Law under mounds of synthetic interpretations.

Rather than following the commandments of men, Jesus teaches us that following God and being citizens of God’s Kingdom is a matter of the heart.  We must follow God in our spirit, that is, in our “heart,” not our intellect.  For the religious leaders, righteousness and membership in the community are determined by one’s obedience to the rules, a works-based righteousness.  Contrary to this position, Jesus maintains that life lived in the community, indeed, admittance to the community is based upon the condition of one’s heart.  While the Pharisees were interested in the external obedience, Jesus / God is interested in our internal character.

To demonstrate the truth of His position, Jesus now proceeds to provide a series of examples.  Each example comes from one or more the basic laws (the Ten Commandments or the Shema (Deut 6:4-10, etc.)) or the general law of Moses.  In contrast to the works-based teachings of the Pharisees, Jesus shows us how a proper interpretation and application of God’s Law comes from one’s heart, not from a blind obedience to a black and white rule.  His first example is the crime of murder, the sixth commandment – “You shall not murder” (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17).

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.

 

Yes, the people of Israel had certainly heard this.  This and the examples to follow all come from the rabbinical tradition.  Jesus will contrast this tradition with the truth of God.  First is a statement of the sixth commandment.  Jesus is probably not directly quoting the Old Testament here since He normally refers to the Old Testament in terms such as “it is written,” or with reference to the prophets or Moses (“the Law and the Prophets”).  More than likely, Jesus is referring to the rabbinical teachings passed along to the people by the religious leaders.  “It was said to those of old” by the Rabbis . . . .

These teachings are generally commence with the Scriptures, but include the additions of men.  Here is sets forth the “philosophy” of God’s truth about the value of human life as expressed to Noah after the flood (Gen 9:5-6) as well as God’s attitude toward Cain (Gen 4:8-15).  Notice in the Scriptures that murder is the first recorded crime.  

“Murder” is the correct rendering since the underlying Hebrew (ratsach, sometimes translated “kill”) did not include killing in self-defense, wars ordered by Yahweh, capital punishment following due process of law, or accidental manslaughter.

Therefore, there is nothing wrong with what the people heard.  The issue, as we will see, is what the people had not heard.  Jeremiah tells us the heart is deceitful and in the case of this commandment, the heart deceived men by limiting God’s judgment to the crime of murder, a crime most of us will never commit.  Accordingly, on the surface, most of us do not need to worry about this commandment.

Jeremiah 17:9-10 (NKJV)
9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? 10 I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, Even to give every man according to his ways, According to the fruit of his doings.

We might note that history tells us the rabbi’s had changed the commandment to provide that whoever kills someone shall be liable in court. 

Jesus says that murder is not the real issue.

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.

 

In the mind of God, the commandment represents but the tip of the iceberg.  Murder is the final step in a sequence that starts with anger.  Unfortunately, we all suffer from this issue of anger, thus, we have all broken this commandment.  Unless we seek the spiritual cause behind the commandment we will fail to understand God’s standards.

In the Greek, “I” is emphatic, that is, it carries the emphasis of this portion of the sentence.  Jesus is stressing the He Himself is telling the crowd that anger is the issue.  In other words, the emphasis of the sentence comes from God (Jesus), not mankind.  James’ letter picks up this same theme, so we can readily see that this particular lesson to the Jews is also a lesson to the Church.

James 4:1-3 (NKJV)
1 Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.

Notice, however, that Jesus had more to say to the crowd than simply “don’t get angry.”

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.

 

Raca” means something along the lines of “good for nothing” or “empty-headed.”  I found one commentator who translated it as “you blockhead!”  The NLT and the Message apparently translate the word as “idiot.” 

“You fool” can be viewed as calling someone “stupid” or “dull” or as carrying the idea of cursing someone.  Essentially Jesus equates cursing to murder! This could be tough on our modern society!

While there might appear to be some degree of increasing penalty in these phrases, the idea is that when you commit these heart driven cries or deeds of anger, you are committing the same crime – murder!.  He who speaks out in anger receives punishment.  He is judged by the “council” (the court) and sentenced to a punishment (“hell fire”).

It is possible that Jesus is emphasizing relationships between those who are members of the community, thus, the use of the term “brother.”  In our terms, the idea is addressed to disagreements between Christians.  However, this is too narrow of a view considering the overall teaching of the section.  Jesus is concerned about how those who are members of the community act toward others, not just other members but also against “opponents.”  On the other hand, Jesus calls upon us to show we are His disciples by showing our love for one another (John 13:34-35).  If we are disputing with each and wronging each, we cannot be showing love.  Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer. 

Or, if you prefer, all murder is anger.  Sociologists and psychologists report that hatred brings a person closer to murder than does any other emotion.  Hatred is but an extension of anger.  As we saw in James, Scriptures tell us the same thing as our modern doctors and “experts.”  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.  As we said at the beginning of the lesson, the problem is in the heart.

1 John 3:15 (NKJV)
15 Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.

It is important to keep in mind that Jesus is interested in teaching the crowd about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Moses emphasized the need to love God (Deut 6:4-5) and to love men (Lev 19:18).  The background of Jesus teaching is a combination of these two greatest commandments along with the knowledge that simple anger leads to murder, as is shown in the case of Cain and Able.  Able is murdered, not because he did anything to Cain but because Cain became angry at God and since he could not carry out his emotions against God, he struck out at Able.

The solution is not to decide in your mind that you will never murder anyone.

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

 

The solution to is reconcile yourself, to seek forgiveness.  There is a change in the Greek text.  In the first couple of verses, “you” is plural, but here Jesus switches to a singular “you.”  The condition of the heart must be filled with love, not hatred or anger by YOU the individual. 

1 Samuel 15:22 (NKJV)
22 So Samuel said: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams.

The example is one which all Jews would recognize.  If you were bringing your sacrifice to the Temple for an offering to God, you must do so with a pure heart.  If you approach the priest (altar), and suddenly remember your “brother” has a reason to have a grievance against you, that is the time to make the situation right.  If you have wronged someone, you cannot approach God.  The way to be rid of the anger is to fill your heart with love by offering yourself to the brother you have injured.  When there is animosity or sin of any sort in our heart there cannot be integrity in our worship.

The “brother” is one who you have wronged.  The concept is very similar to the idea of the neighbor who the good Samaritan helps.  If you wronged someone, that person is your brother.  Paul’s discussion of the condition of one’s heart at communion is an extension of this teaching (1 Cor 11:17-34).

It is possible to read the Greek as though it is the brother who has done the wrong.  The Greek is vague enough to allow for this reading.  Either way, Jesus still says that it is your duty to make reconciliation. 

Romans 12:18 (NKJV)
18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.

There is a lot of discussion over what level of grievance qualifies for the apology envisioned under this verse.  No precise answer to this question exists.  Guidance, however, comes from the Old Testament.  We go back to Moses.

Leviticus 19:18 (NKJV)
18 You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

If you have a brother who thinks you have wronged him, does not love require that you attempt to correct the misunderstanding?

Notice that Jesus re-emphasizes the true spiritual meaning of the commandment.  The Old Testament everywhere teaches that under certain circumstances offerings are not acceptable to God (Gen. 4:5; I Sam. 15:22; Isa. 1:11; Jer. 6:20; Amos 5:22; Mic. 6:6).  The New Testament makes it clear that the gift derives its value from the heart of the giver (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4; Heb. 11:4; cf. John 3:16).

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. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

 

Should Christians not use the court systems?

 

Notice that neither in the earlier verses nor here is there any hint of who is morally right.  The issue remains love and relationships, not moral right or wrong.  The difference is that now the brother is called an adversary or opponent and the parties are in court.  The penalty is cast in terms of a jail term and a fine or monetary judgment.  The implicit meaning is that if you “wronged” your neighbor, you cannot win.

 

The emphasis is on attempting to resolve the issues yourself, in private, before a third party becomes involved.  The third party will take the solution out of your hands and you lose the ability to exercise Godly love. 

 

In v22, Jesus speaks of the fires of hell.  One might assume, therefore, that while here He speaks of an earthly judge, the ultimate emphasis is on the heavenly judge, the One who has the ability to assign you to the fires of hell.  God will judge the heart.  This judgment will be based, at least in part, upon your outward efforts, but it is the condition of your heart that controls your eternal judgment and the benefits or rewards of heaven.

 

Accordingly, the only way one may fulfill and keep the sixth commandment is by being “pure in heart.”  Sound familiar?  The condition of one’s heart is the controlling factor in obedience to this commandment.

 

Hendriksen, in his commentary on Matthew summarizes this section as follows:

 

“Be not surprised about the urgency of my command that you be reconciled; for, should it be that you were to pass from this life with a heart still at variance with your brother, a condition which you have not even tried to change, that wrong would testify against you in the day of judgment. Moreover, dying with that spirit of hatred still in your heart, you will never escape from the prison of hell.”

In closing this lesson, I might point out that the emphasis is upon you, not your brother.  It is up to you to do all that is in your power to accomplish the reconciliation.  This is true regardless of whether the other party has committed any wrong.  If he needs to seek forgiveness also, that is his issue, not yours.  Your responsibility is to do all that is within your control to bring about reconciliation.

What’s in your heart?

 

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