“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: 22 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.” –Matthew 5:21-22
There are many facets to living out the Christian life. One facet focuses upon external behavior and that is important. The Word of God does teach the doctrine of holiness and the Christian finds himself turning away from many practices that were formerly embraced. Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, the great Presbyterian preacher, was once asked whether or not a Christian should smoke or drink. Dr. Barnhouse replied, “I do not know. It all depends on who is controlling the life. Really, he continued, I do not worry about those things. Whenever anyone offers me a cigarette I just open my heart and say, ‘Holy Spirit, how about it? Do you want a cancer stick to puff on?’ And when someone offers me a drink I ask, ‘Holy Spirit, how about it? Do you want a shot of booze.’”
Due to personal conviction many Christians have felt compelled to break away from certain dependencies, and to pray for the ability to change self-destructive behavior patterns. The end result is a difference in clothing, in viewing habits, in finances, and in personal conduct. While focus of attention on the outward behavior is essential to living out the ethics of the Christian life, it can also be misleading. A person can begin to conform to religious conduct only to have a wrong spirit and heart.
We have all met people who love rules and regulations but have no grace, no tolerance for human error. They keep the Law and become angry when others violate the rules. Grace is not recognized in their speech or in their behavior.
Jesus was aware of this problem in His day. There was a group of people called the Pharisees who were very scrupulous about obeying the rules. They were intolerant of others who did not measure up to their standard of perfection and spoke in comprehensive terms of contempt about them.
Taking the Law of Moses that the Pharisees appealed to for their righteousness, Jesus began to teach that rather than keep the Law, as they believed themselves to be doing, the Pharisees were guilty of breaking the holy commandments of God. How was that possible? Jesus explained.
In summary, as we have read, the Lord taught that there is an outward performance to the Laws of God. But there are also inward principles to realize. There is the letter of the Law, but there is also the spirit of the Law. The Pharisees were good at keeping the letter of the Law but they had no idea of the spiritual nature of the commandments.
By calling attention to the spiritual dimension of the Law it must not be thought that Jesus was in some way becoming a New Law Giver or was in any way opposing the Law of Moses. John Calvin notes, “Christ, in fact had not the least intention of making any changes or innovation in the precepts of the Law. God there appointed once and for all a rule of life, which He will never repent of.”
The Bible teaches us that the Moral Law is holy, just, and good. By keeping the Law there is joy and life. When Moses had given the Law to Israel he declared to the assembly, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before thee life and death” (Deut. 30:19).
By quoting the Law of Moses, Jesus was not contrasting His teaching to the Great Law Giver but was arguing against the popular understanding of Moses which was corrupted. For example, the Law said simply enough, “Thou shalt not kill.”
Not many people kill. Probably you have never taken a knife and stabbed someone so that they died or taken a gun and shot someone to death. You may have been tempted to do that but it has not happened. Therefore, it would be easy for us to feel very holy and to say we are righteous before God in this matter of murder. The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill” and we have not killed.
“But what about the reality of killing a person with the tongue?” Jesus would ask. “Is it not possible to speak about a person in such a way that truth is distorted, insinuations are made, and a reputation is destroyed or marred? Is that not soul murder?”
It is a sad truth that people who will not kill physically will try and hurt another person through expressions of anger manifested by the tongue. Jesus declared that these expressions of anger constitute murder. Of course, not all anger is murder. Not all anger is wrong. There is a holy anger. In Mark 3:5 we read that Jesus became very angry with the Pharisees for their lack of love towards a sick man. They did not want him to be cured on the Sabbath day. The Bible says, “And when he had looked around about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other.”
In Romans 9:22 God’s present anger towards the nation of Israel for national unbelief is presented. In John 3:36 we read how the wrath of God keeps on abiding on those who disobey the Lord Jesus and His gospel. The Christian who is angry with injustice, the slaughter of the innocents, and the mindlessness of criminal acts of violence is not sinning.
Paul said in Ephesians 4:36, be ye angry and sin not. While not all anger is sinful, most is. Jesus spoke of anger which is unholy. It has no ground or root in righteousness. Such anger is explosive, self-centered, other directed and is destructive.
Unholy anger is that anger which is without a cause. Unholy anger lashes out at others to wound without reason. There is no respect for feelings and no sensitivity of the soul. For example, a woman simply walked into her house one day and her husband snarled out, “Are you so stupid you cannot even shut a door when you walk in?”
This is not simply the language of irritation. It is the language of anger without a cause. Such a surly and ill-natured attitude towards a person is actually a violation of the sixth commandment, says Jesus, and deserves to be punished (with death). When in the spirit of contempt and utter disgust anyone says to another person, “Raca,” meaning “You blockhead”, Jesus said that such a person is worthy of being condemned to death by the (Jewish) Supreme Court (the Sanhedrin). And in that same frame of mind and heart, when a person says to someone, “You idiot,” “You moron” or “You fool,” he deserves to die. The Lord is not just thinking of physical death either but of eternal death in the hell of fire (Dr. W. Hendriksen).
Those who heard the Lord speak could almost visualize the fires of hell for just outside the city of Jerusalem was the Valley of Hinnom. Once in this valley, a generation of Jews, steeped in idolatry, offered their children as a living sacrifice to Molech (Jer. 7:31).
A good king named Josiah stopped this abomination. He destroyed the place of worship and made a garbage dump of the area. A fire was always kept burning in the valley to consume the carrion, and all kinds of filth collected about the city. Jesus pointed to the Valley of Hinnom and said, “That is exactly what hell will be like.” To break the laws of God is no small matter. Murder is not something that is only done with a weapon. It is an attitude of the heart. Therefore, the Lord makes the valid point that words are not neutral. They express the heart. Words have meaning and consequences associated with them.
Many times people will hurt someone with their words but not want to be held accountable. Perhaps you have had the frustrating experience of dealing with that person who hurt or discredited another individual and then, when exposed said, “Oh, I did not mean it that way,” or “You misunderstood; I was misquoted.”
In the day of ultimate judgment there will be no evasion from the effects of our words. God is going to call people into strict account for every idle word spoken. This is why the Bible teaches Christians to be swift to hear but slow to speak. Our Lord knows that the tongue can be a terrible thing.
“The boneless tongue, so small and weak,
Can crush and kill, declares the Greek.
The tongue destroys a greater horde,
The Turk asserts, Than does the sword.
The Persian proverb wisely saith,
A lengthy tongue–an early death!
Or sometimes takes this form instead,
Don’t let your tongue cut off your head!
The tongue can speak a word whose speed,
Say the Chinese, Out strips the steed.
The Arab sages said in part,
The tongue’s great storehouse is the heart.
From Hebrew was the maxim sprung,
Thy feet should slip, ne’er let the tongue.
The sacred writer crowns the whole,
Who keeps his tongue doth keep his soul.”
It is obvious from this passage how strongly Jesus wants the lives of people to be different. Jesus teaches that unjustified words of anger, and words of contempt, must not be spoken because if they are then the spirit of the sixth commandment has been broken. There is not a person who has not broken the sixth commandment at some time. God calls upon us to repent of this sin and to cease from doing it in the future. We are also commanded to do something else and that is to be reconciled to each other.
In the early church there was a beautiful practice. Prior to the taking of communion all the differences among the brothers and sisters in Christ were made up, in the spirit of love, before Holy Communion was served. It is the will of the Lord, and it must be done.
Perhaps there is someone the Lord wants you to be reconciled with. It may be a spouse. It may be a former friend. It may be someone at work. The gospel exhortation is to speak evil of no one. May God grant us grace to keep not only the letter of the Law but the spirit of the Law as well.