Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5:21–22

Matthew 5:21-22
“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.”
(NET Bible)
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.

Feelings and taunts have God’s attention

In 1956, The Four Lads became famous when their song “Standing on the Corner” reached number 3 on the Billboard charts. The young man in the song watches all the girls go by and celebrates the fact that “you can’t go to jail for what you’re thinking.” Is that so?

Jesus makes it clear that our every feeling and word receive the attention of heaven’s court. What is decided there goes far beyond jail! Just because you are not a murderer is no reason to feel smug about your standing with God. Have you considered your thoughts and feelings?

A new frame of reference

When the NET Bible translates “it was said to an older generation” (5:21), you get the erroneous impression that a recent generation is meant. But the NET’s Notes reveal that the Greek phrase means the ancient ones. “Do not murder” (Exod. 20:13) was a command given to Moses at Mount Sinai — over a thousand years before Jesus — as part of what we call the Ten Commandments.

Like the young man in the song, who felt no danger from what he was thinking, many Jews in Jesus’ day felt self-assured about keeping the law. After all, “Do not murder” is easy to keep — right? In teaching his disciples the righteousness required to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus opens with the law of murder, a topic the disciples were already counting in their own favor. Killing another person makes one “answerable to judgment” (5:21, my translation).

By the time Jesus finished speaking the words recorded in 5:22, none of his disciples was comfortable anymore! Far from focusing only on the outward act of murder, God looks on the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). R.T. France says: “The actual committing of murder is only the outward manifestation of an inward attitude which is itself culpable, whether or not it actually issues in the act of murder.”[1]

Jesus tells his disciples that anger with their brother will make them answerable to judgment (5:22a). Anger is an emotion, and it presents danger. It is easy to reach the erroneous conclusion that all anger is sin, but Paul actually commands, “Be angry and do not sin” (Eph 4:26). The NET Bible’s Notes say, “Christians are to exercise a righteous indignation over sin in the midst of the believing community.”[2] We are made in God’s image, and we may experience righteous anger for the same reason God does: encountering sin in the form of injustice, mistreatment, exploitation or disobedience. For example, Jesus angrily drove the money changers out of the Temple (21:12–17).

But the surprises are far from over! Jesus imagines first that a disciple calls his brother raka, which means numskull or fool (5:22), making the speaker answerable to judgment. Then, whoever calls his brother a fool will run the risk of the hell’s fire (5:22). These insults are hard to distinguish. In 23:17, Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees fools, showing that the mere act is not sin.

Some scholars think the background lies in the story of the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:1-8). After becoming very angry with Abel — without a cause — Cain invited him to the fields where Cain murdered Abel. God even warned Cain of his danger (Gen. 4:6–7), but he did not listen.

In every case within Matthew 5, Jesus was dealing with feelings, attitudes and words that could — in the worse case — lead to murder. Our evening news and morning papers are replete with examples of death that began with anger or insult. Jesus told his disciples that God will evaluate not only murder but any inward feeling or outward word that creates a context promoting evil.

The demands of discipleship

Jesus looks within those who would be his disciples. That is why such externals like attending church or even serving in some capacity only form the surface of what he considers. Our every thought, feeling, and word will be subject to judgment by our Lord. He has given us the Holy Spirit to enable us to mature inwardly as well as outwardly.

The Apostle James frequently deals with themes from the Sermon on the Mount:

“Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you?” (James 4:1).

Our challenge is to allow the Holy Spirit to mold our lives to be more like Jesus inside and out!

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 199.

[2] Net Bible’s Notes for Ephesians 4:26.


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