X Close Menu

Matthew 5:21-26

If you were to have asked the majority of Pharisees of the first century what they thought about “righteousness” they would probably have defined it in terms of obedience to the 248 positive commands and the 365 negative prohibitions found in the Law of Moses, on top of which they would undoubtedly have placed their oral tradition consisting of insights and interpretations on how the Law should be applied to life. Although that sounds quite impressive, Jesus said to his disciples (and you): “For I say to you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Does that mean we’ve got to come up with a 249th command and a 366th prohibition? Is it merely an issue of doing more? If not, what then did Jesus mean? If the righteousness he requires of us differs from that of the Pharisees in a qualitative rather than quantitative sense, what is it? Jesus answers this question by putting before us a series of antitheses.

Six times in Mt. 5:21-48 a contrast is highlighted: Vv. 21a / 22a; 27a / 28a; 31a / 32a; 33a / 34; 38a / 39a; 43a / 44a. But the question is this: with whom or with what is Jesus contrasting his own teaching?

Several views have been proposed.

·          Some would argue that the contrast is between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Moses. The more radical approach is to suggest that Jesus portrays himself as the New Moses and thus the giver of a New Torah, a new law. On this view Jesus is repudiating and contradicting Moses. The point of his words is something like this: “You have heard or are aware of what Moses taught in the Old Testament. But I teach something quite new and different.” Clearly, this can hardly be correct, for Jesus has just stated that he did not come to abolish the OT but to fulfill it. Furthermore, there is nothing in what Jesus actually says in the antitheses that contradicts anything Moses said (although he did abrogate certain parts of the Mosaic code, such as the death penalty for adultery).

·          The most likely scenario is that the contrasts in view are between the teaching of Jesus and the perversion and misunderstanding of the Mosaic law on the part of the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is not setting himself over against Moses but over against the distortions of Moses by the rabbis in Israel. We must distinguish between the written Torah and the oral tradition in Israel. The latter, known as the Halakah, by the end of the 2nd century had come to be regarded as equal in authority to the written law of God. Both were thought to have been given at Sinai and transmitted faithfully down through the centuries. This view emphasizes Jesus’ use of the words “heard” and “said”. The point is this: Jesus does not say, “You have read in the written Word of God,” but “You have heard it said . . .” Jesus was opposing the oral tradition of the scribes, not the written Word of Moses. By whom was it “said”? By the rabbis, those who expounded, interpreted, and applied the Law to the people. For example, in the last “antithesis” Jesus declares, “You have heard that it was said . . . hate your enemy” (5:43). But nowhere in the OT are God’s people told to hate their enemy. Jesus is challenging an oral distortion of Moses, not one of his written declarations.

·          On the other hand, it must be admitted that Jesus did in fact expand and intensify the OT law. As the so-called “antitheses” will indicate, Jesus internalized what many in Israel had reduced to a merely external ritual. Jesus thus made explicit what in Moses was only implicit. In forbidding murder, Moses was not approving anger. In forbidding adultery, Moses was not approving lust. Jesus aimed only to unfold and develop what Moses left unsaid and thus what was open to distortion and misapplication by the Scribes and Pharisees.

A.             The Principle is Announced – 5:21-22

Several points deserve our attention:

1.              The translation, “you shall not kill”, is incorrect. The OT law does not prohibit all forms of killing (capital punishment and just war being notable examples). It should be rendered “you shall not commit murder.”

2.              Jesus makes it clear that simply because you don’t commit the act of murder, you have not thereby exhausted what the law was ultimately designed to accomplish. The Pharisees mistakenly thought that so long as they did not take another human life they had discharged their obligation to their fellow man. They believed that as long as their hands did not perform the outward act the inward attitude of the heart was irrelevant. But Jesus says: “You have been led to believe that it was sufficient simply not to kill. You have been led to believe that your responsibility to others was fulfilled in the observance of the external letter of the law alone. But I say to you that the thoughts and intent of your heart is no less important in the eyes of God.”

In other words, the attitude is equally as important as the act. Anger, says Jesus, is incipient murder! Real righteousness does not consist in merely abstaining from murder. Real righteousness, the righteousness that must characterize the citizens of the kingdom of heaven, extends to the motive in your heart. Says MacArthur:

“It is possible for a person who has never been involved in so much as a fist fight to have more of a murderous spirit than a multiple killer. Many people, in the deepest feelings of their hearts, have anger and hatred to such a degree that their true desire is for the hated person to be dead. The fact that fear, cowardice, or lack of opportunity does not permit them to take that person’s life does not diminish their guilt before God” (293).

Jesus is focusing on the source of our behavior. It isn’t enough to focus on what we do. He wants to focus the light of God on who we are.

In Matthew’s gospel, “brother” (v. 22) consistently means a fellow member of the believing community, i.e., a disciple of Jesus (see 5:44; 7:3-5; 12:49-50; 18:15,21,35; 23:8; 25:40; 28:10). “Jesus does not thereby imply that it is all right to be angry against those who are not believers; rather, he applies his injunction first of all to those against whom anger is most inappropriate. That is to say, it is particularly bad for Christians to get angry at other Christians who have themselves also been spared God’s wrath” (Blomberg, 107).

3.              What kind of “anger” does Jesus have in mind? Dallas Willard (TheDivine Conspiracy) points out that in its simplest form anger is a spontaneous response that can actually perform an important function in life. Anger, says Willard, “is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life. . . . The primary function of anger in life is to alert me to an obstruction to my will, and immediately raise alarm and resistance, before I even have time to think about it. And if that were all there was to anger, all would be well. Anger in this sense is no sin, even though it is still better avoided where possible” (147-48). Unfortunately, however, it most often doesn’t stop there.

Two words in Greek for anger: (a) thumos = quick burst of temper; the anger that surges and then subsides (as, for example, when we experience an explosive loss of temper); and (b) orge = the deep-seated animosity that seethes; the long-lived anger over which a person broods and nurses and will not let die. This is the anger that we fan continually, taking it from a smoldering ember into a raging fire of bitterness and resentment. We devote energy to keeping the anger active and intense: we constantly remind ourselves of how wrongly we have been treated by others. It is this latter anger that Jesus has in mind, although he certainly would not approve of the former either.

4.              Some manuscripts add the words, “without a cause,” in order to allow for the expression of what we call righteous indignation. There is certainly a place for that kind of anger. In other words, not all anger is inherently evil. Paul tells us, “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Eph. 4:26). If all anger were evil the Bible would not attribute wrath to God. Even Jesus experienced anger. But, as Carson points out,

“Our problem is that we burn with indignation and anger, not at sin and injustice, but at offence to ourselves. In none of the cases in which Jesus became angry was his personal ego wrapped up in the issue. More telling yet, when he was unjustly arrested, unfairly tried, illegally beaten, contemptuously spit upon, crucified, mocked, when in fact he had every reason for his ego to be involved, then as Peter says, ‘he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats (but kept entrusting himself to Him who judges righteously).’ From his parched lips came forth rather those gracious words, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’” (42).

5.              Several other terms need to be defined. First, Raca (v.22) is an untranslatable Aramaic word that means “empty.” When used in derision of someone’s intelligence it is equivalent to our “empty-headed nitwit” or “you blockhead” or “you boneheaded idiot”! Second, the word translated “fool” (v. 22) is more, from which we get the English word “moron.” This goes beyond “raca” and attacks the dignity of the person himself/herself. It is one thing to call someone an “idiot,” but something else to call them a “worthless idiot.” [I should point out, however, that not all commentators see a distinction in the terms. Hagner argues the words are “roughly equivalent, with the latter [more] involving no escalation of offense” (117).]

Of course, there are times when men and women are fools. Jesus said so himself (Mt. 7:26; 23:17,19; Lk. 12:20). Scripture teaches us to recognize it also (Pss. 14:1; 49:10; Prov. 1:7,22,32). Thus, as Blomberg points out, “both of these prohibitions against the use of insulting names undoubtedly carried the implicit qualification of ‘where unjustified’” (107). But Jesus is not talking here about stubborn rebellion against God or about theological foolishness. He has in mind the deliberate and malicious belittling of a person’s dignity as a human being. He is describing that demeaning, denigrating disdain and contempt for another person. This is a verbal assault on their dignity as someone created in God’s image. If “raca” belittles the person’s mental strength, “fool” attacks his/her moral substance and personal value. Says Willard: “In anger I want to hurt you. In contempt [which, being worse, is embodied in the use of the terms “raca” and “fool”], I don’t care whether you are hurt or not. . . . You are not worth consideration one way or the other. We can be angry at someone without denying their worth. But contempt makes it easier for us to hurt them or see them further degraded” (151).

A third term to note is “gehenna” (translated “fiery hell” in v. 22), a reference to the valley immediately southwest of Jerusalem that is still visible from the Mt. of Olives. At one time it was there that human sacrifices were made to the pagan deity Moloch (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; cf. Jer. 7:31; 19:5ff.). When King Josiah brought religious reform to the nation, Gehenna was condemned and came to be used as a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. In addition to common refuse, the corpses of criminals considered unworthy of burial were piled there. The smoldering fires of Gehenna never went out, its flames fanned and endlessly stoked by the continuous supply of refuse. In Jesus' day, Gehenna was a visible representation of Hell. Cf. Mark 9:47-48. Gehenna is used 11x in the synoptic gospels, always on the lips of Jesus.

But how can Jesus speak of such severe punishment for mere verbal assault on another person? I would challenge the adjective “mere”! Our problem is that we have not properly reckoned with the destructive impact of our words. The old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” is simply wrong. Someone once calculated that it takes 9 compliments to undo the painful impact of 1 criticism. Character assassination and the assault on one’s spirit through verbal denigration is often the worst form of pain. I’m reminded of a mother who sent to Dr. James Dobson a note that her 4th grade daughter had received from a classmate at school. I haven’t corrected the spelling errors. As you read it, try to envision the impact on her soul:

“Awful Janet,

Your the stinkest girl in this world. I hope you die but of course I suppose that’s impossible. I’ve got some ideals.

1. Play in the road

2. Cut your throad

3. Drink poison

4. get drunk

5. knife yourself

Please do some of this you big fat Girl. we all hate you. I’m praying Oh please lord let Janet die. Were in need of fresh air. Did you hear me lord cause if you didn’t we’ll all die with her here. From Wanda Jackson.”

B.             The Principle is Applied – 5:23-26

Using situations from his own cultural and historical context, Jesus proceeds to illustrate the point.

Read Jeremiah 7:8-11.

1.              First Illustration (vv. 23-24) – He pictures a faithful Jew who in conformity with the law (Ex. 25:2; Lev. 1:2f.) has come to the altar with an offering. In the middle of his praise and prayer (!), it dawns on him: “Since God has been so gracious and good to me, shouldn’t I treat my brother likewise?” He remembers: “John Smith and I are not on speaking terms; there is something for which he blames me.”

Note several things.

·          The question of who is at fault is irrelevant. Jesus doesn’t single out the guilty party and insist that he take the initiative. Each is responsible to make the first move, regardless of who is mostly to blame.

·          There is no indication that the grievance this brother has against you must be a justified one before action is taken. In other words, even if someone only thinks that he has a right to be angry or bitter with you, take action. He may have no legitimate grounds whatsoever; but that is not a relevant consideration.

·          It is more important to be reconciled with your brother than to engage in religious ceremony (cf. Jer. 7:9-10). That isn’t because religious ceremony is trivial or secondary. It’s because religious ceremony must be free of hypocrisy if God is to be honored and you are to be blessed. “Men love to substitute ceremony for integrity, purity, and love; but Jesus will have none of it” (Carson, 42). We all love to cover over broken relationships with “church”. Jesus’ point for us today is that coming to church and asking God’s forgiveness is not enough. We must first ask the forgiveness of the one we’ve offended, or seek reconciliation with the one who has offended us. Worship is not always enhanced by better music or better preaching. But it is enhanced by better relationships!

·          We must also be realistic: simply seeking reconciliation doesn’t guarantee it will occur. The person to whom we go, seeking peace, may insist on staying at war! Says Paul: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom. 12:18).

2.              Second Illustration (vv. 25-26) – As with all parables, we must be careful not to press the illustration in these verses beyond its simple, and most likely, singular, point. As Blomberg notes, “as a metaphor with one central point of comparison, the details of vv. 25-26 must not be allegorized. No spiritual counterparts to the adversary and officer appear, nor does v. 26 support the traditional Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, as if one could ever pay enough to get out of hell” (108). The point of the story isn’t to admonish you to avoid a trial. That is common sense. The point is the urgency to take steps now to reconcile and to restore the friendship, because court proceedings and the results may make it impossible later on. This applies even if it means being unjustly taken advantage of (cf. 1 Cor. 6:7). If quarrels are not ended now, they breed bitterness, and the relationship may become damaged beyond repair.


Our Lord’s focus is clearly on the importance of dealing with internal enmity toward others. It isn’t enough just to control the outward display of our feelings while we allow the alienation to continue. We often think it is enough simply to avoid conflict. But that is precisely what the Pharisees believed. Jesus does not merely forbid fighting and arguing. He forbids those inner feelings and urgings which cause it. We must work by God’s grace to purge ourselves of the internal anger and resentment that lead to outbursts of hostility. Otherwise we are simply substituting one form of Pharisaism for another.