The genius of the system of government prescribed by the Constitution of the United States of America is the system of checks and balances created by the separation of powers in our three branches of government. Our forefathers wisely planned for the protection of an abuse of power in our government by dividing powers among the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches. The Executive Branch (led by the President) has the authority to enforce or “execute” the laws of the land. The Legislative Branch (made up of both Houses of Congress: Senate and House of Representatives) has the authority to create or “legislate” the laws of the land. The Judicial Branch (the Supreme Court and the lower courts) has the authority to interpret or “adjudicate” the laws of the land. A recognition of man’s propensity to evil and the abuse of power led our founding fathers to divide the powers of our government in three separate branches in which a system of “checks and balances” is in force. Each branch serves as a check on the other branches to ensure their proper use of power.
Jesus, however, needs no such system of “checks and balances.” There is no separation of powers for Jesus. Instead, Jesus possesses the authority to make, interpret, and enforce the laws of His kingdom. He can revise, revoke or replace the laws of the Old Covenant for the use of His New Covenant community. That is exactly what Jesus is demonstrating in Matthew 5:21-48. In these verses, there are six antitheses in which Jesus asserts His divine and kingly authority by saying, “You have heard . . . .” “But I say to you . . . .” Jesus is showing that He is the true Prophet who Moses said would come and to whom the people would listen (Deut. 18:15). This prophecy is fulfilled in the Sermon on the Mount with the response by the crowd to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:28-29,
And so it was, when Jesus had ended these sayings, that the people were astonished at His teaching, 29 for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.
In verses 21-26 we find the first section in which Jesus asserts His unique authority to interpret and apply the Old Testament. Here He authoritatively interprets the prohibition against murder contained in the sixth commandment (Ex. 20:13), as including not only the external act of murder, but also the inward motivation of anger.
Matthew 5:21-26 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.
I. Exposition: What They Heard, v. 21.
First, Jesus asserts what His audience had already heard. What they had heard were the words of the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). The 1st Century world in which Jesus lived was largely an oral society. Not many could read and write. What they knew of God’s laws had been passed down to them from mouth to ear by the teachers of the law. Included in this teaching was the interpretation given by these teachers. Correctly, the Jewish audience had heard that whoever commits murder will be in danger of the judgment. There were penalties included in the giving of the Law to Old Testament Israel. Namely, disobey and die! This is what they had heard.
II. Explanation: What Jesus Says, v. 22.
In verse 22, Jesus asserts His authority as an interpreter of the law. The statement “But I say to you . . .” is emphatic. There is an emphasis on the one speaking: the “I” – Jesus. He is speaking authoritatively. Though He begins with the conjunction “But,” Jesus is not revoking the prohibition against murder. Instead, His authoritative interpretation of this commandment takes it a step further (or should I say inward). The commandment merely refers to the external act of murder, but Jesus states that the inward attitude of anger is liable to exactly the same kind of judgment as the action of murder (Notice the identical language at the end of verse 21 and the first sentence of verse 22.). Although the exact same words are used, there may be a contrast in thought between the judgment of human authorities for murder and the judgment of God for anger. A human court can never truthfully convict a man of an inward disposition, that ability belongs to God alone. The judgment of a human court may result in death, but God alone has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell.
Anger is clearly a serious matter, since Jesus links its punishment along with the punishment for murder. The link between anger and murder is clear: anger is the root cause for murder. The apostle John states the case strongly in 1 John 3:15 where he states,
Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
Although your anger may not lead you to actually commit murder, it is viewed as such in the sight of God. Anger is the desire to get rid of someone. An angry look and an angry word are often the result of heart that wants to see the other person dead. We’ve all heard the saying, “If looks could kill….” You may escape the judgment of an earthly court, but you will not escape when you stand in the presence of a holy God.
But Jesus’ interpretation of the sixth commandment includes another component. Not only is the evil attitude of anger guilty of the penalty for murder, the evil and angry utterances of our mouths are also cause for judgement.
Jesus says that whoever says “Raca!” to his brother is in danger of the council. The council in view here is the Sanhedrin. The very word translated council here is the Greek word is a form of the noun sune,drion (sunedrion). The word “raca” was an Aramaic word of contempt, a mild curse word. It probably comes from an Aramaic word meaning “empty.” It was an insult to someone’s intelligence having the idea of “empty-headed.” Modern day English equivalents would be “nitwit,” “blockhead,” “numskull,” or “bonehead.” To call one such a term in the 1st century would cause you to be in danger of punishment by the council of the Sanhedrins.
But Jesus says that the punishment will be much more severe for the one who says, “You fool!” to his brother. This person will be in danger of the flames of hell. What is the significance of this term that results in such a severe penalty. Well, first off, the saying of this word is clearly related in the context to an attitude of anger. This is the word of someone who is exploding in anger at his brother and calling him a fool. The term translated “fool” is a form of the Greek word moros from which we get the English word, “moron.” The word for us has clear connotations of idiocy, but for the first century Hebrew it had the idea of moral deficiency. The word “raca” has the idea of an empty head, but the word “moros” has the idea of an empty heart.” It is the fool who has said in his heart: “No God!” (Ps. 14:1). It is the fool who therefore lives as if there is no God in a morally deficient way. Thus, to call someone a “fool” in Jesus’ day was to say they were a godless heathen headed straight to hell. Jesus says that if you say that about your brother in anger, you are going to hell yourself!
The reference to “hell fire” is to gehenna. Gehenna was a ravine south of Jerusalem called the Valley of Hinnom which was a garbage dump in the days of Jesus and burned continually. Previously this same valley had been a place where the Canaanites burned their children alive in sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 23:10). Jesus used it as a symbol for eternal punishment. This is to be distinguished from the term hades which was a general term for the Hebrews of the place of all departed spirits. Gehenna is always used to refer to a place of fiery and everlasting punishment “where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” Hell is a real place and a place populated by real people. Here Jesus warns that those who have angry hearts and angry words are destined for “hell fire.”
III. Application: What We Are to Do, vv. 23-26.
Finally, in verses 23-26 Jesus applies His authoritative teaching on murder and anger. His application is very simple: Deal with anger immediately! Don’t be controlled by anger, instead confront your anger and deal with it biblically. Jesus gives two illustrations in these four verses illustrating how quickly we should deal with our anger. The first is from a situation in worship and the second from a situation in the world.
First, Jesus gives the illustration of a man offering a sacrifice at the temple. The animal has already been killed and he is just about to place the sacrifice on the burning altar where the flesh will be consumed and the smoke would ascend heavenward. All of a sudden he remembers a source of conflict between him and his “brother” (used 4 times in vv. 21-26). What should he do? Should he finish the sacrifice? After all everything is already ready. No! Leave the gift at the altar. Go and be reconciled with the brother. Then return and offer your gift at the altar. Sometimes the other person will not be reconciled (See Rom. 12:18). But you must do what you can and leave the rest to God and the individual. This is how serious the problem of anger is. It must be dealt with immediately. Don’t put it off!
Second, Jesus gives the illustration of a man being taken to court by an “adversary.” Should he fight the charges against him in court? Jesus provides wise legal advice here to settle out of court. It is many times better to settle out of court than risking the decision of an unknown judge. But that is not the point. Jesus’ point is not to give sage legal counsel, it is to illustrate the importance of dealing with anger immediately. While you’re still on the way to the court, before you ever see the judge, agree with your adversary while you’re traveling on the road to the court house. Otherwise you risk the judge handing you over to the officer who would throw you into prison where you would stay until your debt was paid. And how would you pay the debt while in prison. Instead, settle out of court! Settle immediately! Deal with your anger, before your anger takes you farther than you want to go, keeps you longer than you want to stay, and costs you more than you want to pay.
In other words, with these words Jesus is warning of the importance of not delaying in dealing with the problem of anger. The apostle Paul makes the same argument in Ephesians 4:26 when he said, “Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.” The point is not to wait until just before sundown and deal with your wrath. No, Paul is saying deal with your wrath immediately!
Anger can destroy relationships and divide friends and families. Just this week I heard the story of someone my age who had an argument with a friend in high school over 15 years ago and they’re still not reconciled today! What a tragedy! Neighbors who won’t speak to one another. Family members who can’t get along. And worse of all, professing Christians who are holding grudges against other professing Christians. Deal with this problem immediately! Don’t wait until next month, don’t wait until next week, don’t wait till tomorrow, don’t wait until this sermon is over! Get up right now and go be reconciled. Repent right now of the anger in your heart and ask God to take it away. Many times the reason that we stay angry is because we don’t want to let go of it. For some sick reason, we enjoy the rush of being angry at a certain individual. Let it go, let it go now!
How can you do it? How can you deal with the anger in your heart? If you’re a child of God you can “put away from you” wrath and anger. Paul exhorts the Ephesians in Ephesians 4:31-32,
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. 32 And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.
How do we over come wrath and anger toward others? By remembering that we were once “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), but God had mercy on us and forgave us. If God forgave you and removed His wrath toward you, how much more should we be willing to forgive and remove our wrath from someone who has sinned against us so much less than we have sinned against our Holy Creator?!?!
If you’re not a believer, then you can’t deal with anger on your own. You cannot take enough anger management classes to solve the problem. It is only by coming to know the God who removes His wrath toward our sins by freely forgiving our sins because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that you can come to live with the ability of dealing with the problem of anger.