Jesus begins by giving us the standard of righteousness in Matthew 5:17-20; He says that He came to fulfill the Law of Moses and that not one iota or tittle will change until all is fulfilled. In other words Jesus gives us the example of righteousness that is required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And He is the only one capable of doing that.
The Pharisees and Scribes, the most religious people in Israel, used rabbinical traditions to lower the standard of righteousness of the Law so that it became humanly feasible. And they did that by only focusing on the externals, on what you did, without considering your heart, your motivation.
This is precisely where Jesus attacked them. Back up to verse 20, He says that God’s requirements should not be relaxed one bit, "For I say unto you that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven."
Not murdering is not enough. He then proceeded from verse 21 to verse 48 to give six illustrations of how our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. And we begin tonight with just the first illustration. They had convinced themselves because they didn't kill anybody they were holy, they were righteous. Jesus said they were totally wrong. Let’s listen to what He says.
Matthew 5:21-23, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you.”
Matthew 5:24-26, “leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
The Jewish people at the time of Jesus were totally dependent upon this tradition. Because the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and they did not any longer speak Hebrew. Since the Babylonian captivity they spoke Aramaic. And when they came back from captivity, the scribes did not translate Scripture in their own language, they kept people in ignorance.
And so the rabbis, would tell them what they thought it meant, and this gave them a tremendous power because the people couldn't verify whether it was true or not. Jesus said to them that they taught falsehood because the people only received partial knowledge. Your teaching says you must not murder, because you will be punished by the civil court of Israel.
But what about God's holy character and what about His standards? Oh that didn't even enter into the discussion. They had made this so mundane they didn't even mention God, they didn't even mention divine judgment, they said nothing about inner attitudes and they said nothing about the heart. All they said was don't murder or you'll get in a lot of trouble.
They forgot the Old Testament which says that God desires truth in the inward parts in Psalm 51:6. The Old Testament also says that "You shall love the Lord your God, with all their heart, soul, mind and strength." God who knows the hearts of men will judge them.
In other words the part of God's law they left out was the internal part. It wasn't enough for you not to kill; God is concerned about what is going on the inside. They had restricted God's commandments to an earthly judicial court; they had restricted God's commandment only to the act of murder.
Here Jesus teaches them that murder is the end result of a heart attitude that starts long before the act of murder. Jesus teaches them even anger at your brother or insulting your fellow men will cause you God’s judgment.
And that's why Jesus goes on in verse 22, and says this, "But I say unto you." Here Jesus gives us the correct interpretation. Jesus simply says it isn't the issue of murder alone; it's the issue of anger and hatred in your heart. You cannot justify yourself because you don't kill, because if there's hatred in your heart you are the same as a murderer.
And yet sometimes we Christians get so angry on the inside with someone, we mock people, we may curse people, we may feel bitterness toward people, we may nurse grudges toward people, we have bitter feelings toward people and Lord Jesus is saying, that is all the same as murder.
Jesus swept aside all the rabbinical traditions, and He put the emphasis of the Law back where God had it from the beginning and where the emphasis belonged. The Pharisees and scribes did what all men like to do; they lowered God’s standards so that in their mind they could achieve that.
Anger is the root of murder; and the Lord Jesus says anger and murder deserve equal punishment. In verse 22 He is saying you're in danger of the judgment, you're in danger of the council; you're in danger of hell fire. Even anger with a brother to any degree is the same in God's eyes as murder, and so who is a murderer? The answer is all of us.
Listen to 1 John 3:15, "Whosoever hates his brother is a murderer." And brother here is used in a broad and generic sense, in terms of social relationships, people in your life. Not your spiritual brother because nobody listening to Jesus at that point would have understood the term. And so in God's eyes it's no different than killing someone.
Do you know that hate brings you nearer to murder than any other emotion? And hate is merely the extension of anger. And by the way hatred and anger can also kill you, because it can cause cancer and eat you alive on the inside. Jesus uses three illustrations to reveal this sin in verse 22. Let's look at them.
“Everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Jesus is not talking about righteous anger here. There are times when a believer has a right to be angry, in fact the more mature we get the angrier we get about some things. Some of the trends in our society we ought to be angry about, like things that poison our kids on the internet, our own sin, etc.
But here Jesus is talking about selfish anger, you're angry with a brother. When you hold a grudge against somebody, when you hold bitterness against somebody you are as guilty as the person who kills and you deserve the same judgment. He is saying in effect that the one who is angry is as guilty as the one who kills.
Now let’s look at the second example that Jesus uses in verse 22, “whoever insults his brother will be liable to the court.” Insulting is also condemned as murder; this is another person who ought to get the same death penalty. He's saying to the Jews, God's standard penalty for anger is the same as for insulting somebody.
In some English translations it says Raca, which is an unusual term. It's hard to translate; it was sort of a term of derision. It is an expression of slander against a person. What Jesus is saying is what you feel inside is enough to send you to hell as much as what you do on the outside, do you understand that?
There is a third illustration in verse 22, “and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire.” In the Hebrew Bible a fool was one who rebelled against God. And so to call someone a rebel against God, if you're doing it as an epithet of hatred, then it is a sin. "The fool has said in his heart, there is no God," it says in the Psalms 14:1.
This is worse than the word Raca and it is the same as damning someone to hell. If you have ever said to someone, go to hell or God damn you because of your anger, you are a murderer. When Jesus referred to hell, what He was saying is it is an eternal, never ending fire in an accursed place where the rubbish of humanity will burn forever.
Jesus’ words have a second effect in verses 23 and 24. They affect not only their self-righteousness but they affect their worship of God. The scribes and Pharisees were in the temple all the time making sacrifices and carrying out the law tradition. Their life was a life of worship, but our Lord Jesus here condemns that very worship.
In Matthew 5:23-24 He says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
If a Jew committed a sin, a barrier came between him and God, the relation was disturbed. It was to be re- medied by a contrite and broken heart, and a man was to confess his sin, and a man was to manifest repentance and brokenness. And then in order to manifest outwardly that inward feeling he was to bring an animal as a sacrifice.
The animal sacrifice wasn't the issue, the attitude of our heart was. God says that obedience in the heart is better than sacrifice; the sacrifice was merely an outward symbol of a repentant obedient heart. And so when the barrier came and the man repented and in sorrow asked forgiveness and set things right with God, only then he brought a sacrifice.
And the man gets there and he's got the sacrifice in the hands of the priest and he puts his hands on it and all of a sudden Jesus is saying to him, stop right there. You remember you have your brother who has something against you? Don’t make that sacrifice until you make things right with your brother. Remove the barrier between man and man before you remove the barrier between man and God.
Beginning in Isaiah 1:11 God said to Israel, "For what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me?" says the LORD; I am full of your burnt offerings, the fat of rams, the fat of beasts, I delight not in the blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats. Your incense is an abomination unto me; your new moons and your feasts my soul hate; they are trouble unto me; I am weary of the whole thing."
Why? "Your hands are full of blood. Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:16-17) He's saying, don't you dare come to Me with your religion until you've made your life right with the poor and the oppressed and the orphans and the widows. In other words deal with your brother first and then deal with Me.
Since God is concerned with internal things, since God is concerned with attitudes toward others, how you feel about your brother or sister and how you speak to your brother or sister and whether or not you curse your brother or sister is more important than worship. But there is more.
You may know that somebody's upset at you, even though you may not feel anger toward them, or you don't un- derstand why they feel like they do, and you don't feel any anger. But if they do you better go and settle that. God doesn't want anybody angry with you, because that makes you guilty of murder.
So Jesus says, "When you bring your gift to the altar," when you come for worship, "and there remember your brother has anything against you, leave there your gift before the altar, go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, then come and offer your gift." In other words reconciliation comes before worship.
There are times when we come to church and there is a bad feeling against somebody else in our fellowship or a neighbor, and yet we do absolutely nothing about it. There's a fellow Christian that we don't particularly care for and something has happened, and we let that thing settle to become bitterness and the Bible says, you offer nothing to God, He is not interested in your worship.
Psalm 66:18 says, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me." First Samuel 15:22 says, "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 listen is better than the fat of rams.”
There might be people angry with me without me knowing it. But when I know somebody's angry with me and I try to reconcile with them and I do my best and I ask their forgiveness and I try to make it right, and they still don't forgive me, then there's nothing more I can do and then I am free to worship God.
And then Jesus gives us specific examples in verses 25 and 26. The idea is here that you're worshiping and you've got a debt. And it's come to the place where you're actually being dragged into court over this debt. The key on it is in verse 25, "Come to terms with your accuser quickly."
And Jesus is saying settle your case out of court if you can. Don't let this thing continue and continue till you're on your way to court, and then somebody will lose and get thrown into prison and never be able to pay it back.
Don't let it go too far, is the idea. Don't let it go to the place where God in judgment moves in, act before then. In the final analysis He's saying that God is the real judge, and hell is the real punishment. And if you don't want to make things right, you may find yourself in an eternal hell, with debt that never could be paid.
The truth is that we've all worshiped in hypocrisy, we've all been angry, we've all said malicious things, we've all thought a curse, or said a curse, we all have not reconciled to a brother, we've all done that. So what are we going to do?
And that is exactly what Jesus is after. He wants to drive us to the fact that none of us can be righteous on their own. This fact will drive us all to our knees at the foot of the cross to accept the imputed righteousness that only Jesus Christ can give.
God had every reason to be angry with us. God had every reason to hate us. God had every reason to curse us, righteously. God had every reason to send us to hell, because we are murderers. But you know something?
Even though we're murderers, He loves us, He forgives us, He pays our debt and He seeks to reconcile us to Himself in His eternal kingdom because He wants to have fellowship with us. Now if a holy God desires to be reconciled to murderers like us, can we find it in our hearts to be reconciled to our own brothers? He gives us a great example. Let's pray.