By Keith Sharp
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 to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but 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 thy 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” (Mat. 5:21-26).
One cannot expect pure water from a polluted fountain (cf. Ja. 3:11). Nor can one expect to serve God acceptably with a heart full of evil. The law of Moses primarily dealt with the outward actions of men. The law of Christ is superior in that it primarily deals with the heart, the source of all conduct, whether good or evil (cf. Matt. 12:33-35). The Master’s teaching concerning killing and anger well illustrates this difference between the covenants. What is the meaning of Jesus’ lesson about killing and anger?
To understand the law of the Lord on this matter, we must be familiar with the Old Covenant regulations Christ replaced. What killing did the law of Moses prohibit? Accidentally taking the life of another person was not the killing forbidden by Moses (Num. 35:22-25). Nor did the law against killing include the administration of the death penalty in a legal case for just cause, since the Old Testament demanded the death penalty for at least eleven crimes (murder-Ex. 21:1214; patricide or matricide-Ex. 21:15; kidnaping-Ex. 21:16; cursing parents-Ex. 21:17; manslaughter of pregnant woman or her unborn child-Ex. 21:22-23; malicious carelessness-Ex. 21:28-29; witchcraft-Ex. 22:18; bestiality-Ex. 22:19; idolatry-Ex. 22:20; rape-Deut. 22:25-27; and blasphemy-Lev. 24:15-16). Nor did the command, “Thou shalt not kill, ” include taking the life of another in legitimate warfare, since the Lord of hosts led his people, Israel, into battle (e.g. , Num. 31:1-5; I Sam. 15:1-3). Rather, the law against killing prohibited murder, i.e., taking the life of another human unlawfully (whether human or divine law) and with malice and / or forethought (cf. Num. 35:16-21).
Under Moses’ law, the one guilty of murder was “in danger of the judgment”. In other words, according to this correct comment of the rabbis, which they had added to the law, the murderer was to be brought before the town court. Jehovah specified the punishment for murder-death. But he left it to the people to organize courts to judge the cases (cf. Deut. 16:18). Each city or town of the Jews had a court of elders, usually composed of seven men, which was the lowest court in their judicial system. Cases could go from these to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
How did Christ Jesus change this law? He did not change the definition of killing. So far as the outward act is concerned, the Lord accepted the definition of murder given by the law of Moses. Therefore, as accidental killing of another human, the lawful and just execution of capital punishment and just warfare were not murder under the Old Testament, neither are they under the New Testament. As unlawfully taking the life of another human with malice and/or forethought was prohibited by Moses, so it is by Christ. But the difference between the covenants is that Jesus does not merely condemn the overt act of murder itself. He goes to the very root and source of sin and prohibits the attitude of heart and the words which lead to the outward crime.
In announcing His law, the Lord Jesus deals with the progressive nature of sin. He speaks of three degrees of sin, each a step closer to the outward act of murder. “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.” What does Jesus here condemn?
Not all anger is wrong. “God was angry” (Ps. 7:11). Jesus was angry (Mk. 3:5). Christians can be angry without sinning (Eph. 4:26). There are different kinds of anger. One Greek word described anger which quickly and perhaps violently rose and just as quickly subsided. Another term (the one used here) denoted “long-lived anger; . . the anger of the man who nurses his wrath to keep it warm;… the anger over which a person broods, and which he will not allow to die” (William, Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Vol I, The Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1 to 10, (Philadelphia, 1958), p. 135.) The anger that will not be satisfied, that will not “forgive and forget,” that continues to fester like a sore, is a deadly sin. The qualifying phrase “without a cause” is absent in the American Standard Version, making all such smouldering grudges, whether with or without cause, sinful. Paul admonishes, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath” (Eph. 4:26).
Also sinful is the anger that vents itself in spiteful words. “And whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” “Raca” was an arrogant term whereby the Jews expressed contempt for one they considered to be “senseless” or “empty-headed” (J.H. Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Chicago, 1889), p. 561). It scorned a man’s intelligence. The word “fool” did not just impugn a man’s intellect; it was an attack on his character. It was the term describing one who was “morally worthless” (W.E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan N.J., 1940), II, 114).
As the Lord expresses a progression of sin, he also expresses a progression of punishment. He figuratively uses Jewish forms of judicial punishment to teach divine judgment. The one who holds a grudge is in danger of “the judgment,” i.e., judgment by the local court. The one who calls his brother, “Raca,” is in “danger of the council, ” i.e., the Jewish Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the seventy revered elders in Jerusalem. He who hurls the epithet, “fool,” toward his brother is “in danger of hell fire”.
Even the term “hell fire” is derived from a Jewish background. The terrible Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where babes had been burned in worship of the idol god Moloch (cf. 2 Kings 16:3), was the receptacle for the cities refuse, and the constantly burning fires accentuated the repulsiveness of this pit of filth. The term is fittingly used in the New Testament to describe hell, the place of eternal punishment of sinners (cf. Mt. 10:28).
The Lord Jesus does not teach that these sins literally lead to Jewish processes of law. Rather, he uses these processes figuratively to teach the divine judgment upon smouldering anger and angry words. Thus, the Master recognizes in his doctrine the progressiveness of sin: smouldering anger, contemptuous speech, malicious speech against one’s character, murder. He goes to the tap root of the weed and decrees that even those who practice the first three steps shall come under the punishment of God.
The Master has well taught the importance of removing all malice from our hearts toward others. But, what if someone is angry with me, whether justly or unjustly? Should I simply have the attitude that, since I have no ill will toward him, then I have no obligation? To the contrary, it is so vital that I seek to be reconciled to one who holds malice toward me that it takes precedence over public worship.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first to reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift (Mat. 5:23-24).
Again the Lord employs Jewish practices to teach a lesson to His own disciples. The “gift” was the sacrifice; the “altar” was the altar of burnt-offerings in the court of the Temple in Jerusalem. One might have stood in line for hours awaiting his turn to give the priest the sacrificial victim. But if he remembered that one had “aught” (anything at all) against him, he should first seek to win back his friendship, then worship the Lord. One cannot be right with God while wrong with his fellow man, (cf. 1 .Jn. 4:20). There is a real danger in thinking we can cover up our injustices to others by worship toward the Father. This was a common attitude of the Jews (cf. Matt. 15:1-9). But God will not accept our veneration if we are guilty of wrong toward other people (cf. Isa. 1:15). A person who reverences God while his brother has something against him, unless he has made a sincere effort to be reconciled to that brother, is a hypocrite, and his worship is vain. The proper relationship to our fellows must precede even veneration of God (cf. Matt. 9:13).
Notice, the Master does not teach that we should only seek to be reconciled to the one who, has a just grievance against us. If he has anything at all that causes him to reject us, even an imagined wrong, we should go to him and seek to be reconciled.
The Master then stated a short parable to illustrate the urgency of being reconciled to an angry brother.
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 (Mat. 5:25-26). The illustration is of a lawsuit. One’s “adversary” would be his opponent at law. He, the creditor, seeks satisfaction in court against you, the debtor. Under Roman law, the adversary and the defendant would come to court together. At any time before formal proceedings had begun, the defendant could make a settlement with his adversary for whatever he would accept. But once the court proceedings were under way, the matter had to be settled by law. The “officer” would be the court official parallel to a sheriff, who had the power to put one unto jail. The reference is to debtor’s prison, which was common until modern times. A creditor could have a debtor thrown into prison until the debt was paid in full. Of course, this often meant permanent imprisonment. The “farthing” was the Roman “quadrans, “the smallest Roman coin. It represented the smallest portion of debt. Once the judicial precess had begun, the entire debt would have to be paid, down to the tiniest sum. Jesus wisely warns the defendant to settle the matter “quickly”, before he is taken to court. He should seek to win over his adversary by demonstrating good will and the willingness to fairly settle the debt. He should not be stubborn and intractable.
This is a great lesson, even in the civil realm (cf. Prov. 6:1-5; Rom. 12:18; 1 Cor. 6:1-8). I have known brethren who seem to love to settle their differences in court and who are constantly embroiled in legal proceedings. They should take notice.
But the real lesson is in what the parable illustrates. If you have wronged another, or if another even imagines you have, the time for reconciliation is now. Seek his friendship quickly. Delay can only make the matter worse, perhaps causing you to lose a friend or brother, or even worse, causing the Judge of the universe to cast you into hell.
A basic principle of the law of Christ is that all sin is rooted in an improper attitude of the heart. Thus, Christ will not be satisfied if only the outward acts are correct. He demands obedience “from the heart” (Rom. 6:17). We must carefully cleanse our hearts of smouldering anger, grudges, and cleanse our tongues of angry words. We must diligently teach our children not to hold grudges against their playmates and not to call them by reproachful names.
Does a friend or brother have something against you, whether a just or imagined grievance? Do not wait for him to come yo you. Go to him. Do not delay. Go now. “If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18).
Truth Magazine XXII: 34, pp. 551-552
August 31, 1978