Are You A Murderer?

By Linus Chua, adapted from message delivered on 30th March 2008 in PCCMorning Worship Service

“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 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” (Matthew 5:21-26)

We can think of the relationship between verses 17 - 20 and verses 21 - 48 in this way – in the former, Christ lays down the general principles concerning the law while in the latter, He provides specific illustrations and cases of how those principles may be applied. This is similar to the way God gave His people the Law in the Old Testament. First, He gave them the Ten Commandments, which may be considered a general summary of the law, and then He followed that up with particular cases or case-law applications to further explain, clarify and illustrate the broad principles.

There are six parts in this section and we can easily identify them by the words, “Ye have heard that it was said...” They are sometimes called the six antitheses because after the words, “Ye have heard that it was said…” Christ would follow up with another statement, “But I say unto you…” The word “antithesis” simply means contrast or opposite. So here are six opposites or six contrasts.

The first from verses 21-26 has to do with the Sixth Commandment. The second from verses 27-30 has to do with the Seventh Commandment. The third from verses 31-32 has to do with the issue of divorce. The fourth from verses 33-37 has to do with oath-taking. The fifth from verses 38-42 has to do with retaliation, and finally, the sixth from verses 43-48 has to do with how we treat our enemies.

Now the question is this – how should we view this series of antitheses or opposites? What exactly does Christ have in mind when he said, “Ye have heard that it was said of old time…But I say unto you…?” Unfortunately, many Christians interpret this section as a series of criticisms, disagreements and dissents from the law. In other words, many understand these verses in terms of a sharp contrast between what the Old Testament law taught and what Christ was teaching. So according to this approach, Christ was essentially saying, “This is what the Law of Moses said but that belongs to past.

It is outdated and no longer applicable now that I have come. Let us put it aside, and let me show you a better way.”

But is that what Christ was saying? Let me give us three reasons why that cannot be so. Firstly, we have already seen in the earlier verses that Christ did not come to set aside or destroy the law but to confirm and establish it, and that every part of the law continues to be valid for all time. If Christ were setting aside or replacing or adding to the Law in these six antitheses, He would be plainly contradicting Himself and confusing His audience.

Secondly, if Christ were really contrasting His teaching with the teaching of the Old Testament law, then He would be very unfair in condemning and rebuking the scribes and Pharisees. Why? Because according to such an interpretation, the scribes and Pharisees were being condemned and rebuked for not keeping a law which they did not know anything about! But how can that be? Indeed, everything about such an interpretation would be muddled up in light of verses 17-20.

The third reason why Christ could not have been contrasting the Old Testament law with His own teaching is found in the phrase “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…” When Christ quotes from the Old Testament, He normally uses the phrase, “It is written…” or a better rendering would be “It stands written.” We see this for example in His replies to the devil’s temptations in Matthew 4 where, three times, Christ said to Satan, “It is written…” and then followed it up with a direct quotation from the book of Deuteronomy. He never ever uses the phrase “It was said” as a formula for introducing quotations from the Old Testament.

In fact, all the New Testament writers never use the word “said” to introduce an Old Testament quotation without explicitly specifying that the source of the quotation is God Himself or His word. And so it is clear that Christ is not referring directly to the Old Testament when he said, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…”

Now if He was not referring to the Old Testament, then what was He referring to? The simple answer is this: Christ was referring to the oral traditions of the Rabbis and their understanding (or misunderstanding!) of the Old Testament law. In other words, Christ was speaking against and criticizing, not the Law itself, but the false and inadequate understanding of the law, which the scribes and Pharisees were teaching. This view is confirmed by the phrase “by them of old time”. Christ was not opposing the content of what was written of old time. Rather he was opposing those persons of old who had misunderstood or misapplied the Law.

The people who were listening to Christ would have understood that He was referring to the practice of the scribes to appeal for authority to what was said of old by the Rabbis. The scribes commonly cited what the old Rabbis said and we have abundant evidence of this practice from ancient Jewish writings. For example in the Talmud, which is a record of Rabbinic discussions on Jewish law and customs, you can find on almost every page statements such as “Our Rabbis taught” or “Rabbi Eleazer said” or Rabbi Judah says in the name of Rabbi Eleazer” or “This is the view of Rabbi Meir” and so on.[1]          

And so let us summarize what we have been saying so far. In this section from verse 21 to the end of the chapter, Christ presents a series of six contrasts and antitheses with respect to specific laws in the Old Testament. The contrast is not between His teaching on the law and that of the Old Testament’s teaching, but between a right understanding and use of the law, and a distorted and inadequate understanding of it. Christ exposes the errors of the scribes and Pharisees and provides us with the proper interpretation and application of the Law.

This is a very important point which I hope you will bear in mind when you read this passage. Let us now look more closely at these six contrasts or antitheses.

The first of these has to do with the sin of murder.

The Bible contains the names of numerous murderers, both in the Old and New Testament. The first criminal in history was Cain, who murdered his younger brother Abel. And since that time, murder has been a constant part of human society. Besides Cain, there was Lamech, who boasted to his two wives about having killed a young man. Then there was Pharaoh, who ordered the killing of countless Hebrew baby boys, and Abimelech, who slaughtered his seventy brothers (Judges 10), and the list goes on – Saul, David, Joab, Absalom, Jezebel, Ahab, Athaliah etc. In the New Testament, the list includes Herod the Great, the High Priests, Barabbas, Herodias, Saul of Tarsus and Herod Agrippa. Biblical history, like human history in general, is filled with murderers.

Outward and physical murder is a terrible crime and according to God’s law, it is to be punished by death. But the two questions we need to ask ourselves are: “Who is a murderer?” and “Am I a murderer?” It is very easy for a person who has never committed this crime to think nothing about the Sixth Commandment and about those passages of scripture that warn against this sin. But in this passage, Christ attacks such self-confidence by showing that no one is truly innocent of murder. Why? Because the first step in murder is anger, and anger is a sin that every man, woman and child has committed. And to one degree or another, it makes all men would-be or potential murderers.   

We may divide this first antithesis into two parts. Firstly, in verses 21-22, Christ deals with the relationship between murder and anger, and secondly, in verses 23-26, He gives two illustrations demonstrating the seriousness of anger.

Murder and Anger (vv. 21-22)

In verse 21, Christ said, “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.” Now let us ask ourselves, “Where have the Rabbis and scribes gone wrong in terms of their understanding of the Sixth Commandment?” Let us first examine what is said and then what is not said. Remember that error can be discovered not just by what is said but also by what is left unsaid.

The phrase “Thou shalt not kill” is taken directly from the Sixth Commandment, but the phrase “and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment” is something that the Rabbis added. Is this a valid addition? There are some who would find fault with them at this point, but I think to be fair to the Rabbis, what they have added is indeed consistent with what the Law taught. The words, “shall be in danger of the judgment” simply mean that the person who has committed murder shall be brought before the court with at least two witnesses, according to Numbers 35, and be given the death sentence.

So on the surface, it would seem that no fault can be found with the way in which the Rabbis have interpreted the Sixth Commandment. But it is in what they did not say that their fault appears. Their interpretation of this law was terribly inadequate for they restricted it only to the outward and physical act of unlawfully taking another person’s life. And as long as one does not do so, then he has kept the law and is free of guilt. Murder was seen as a purely civil issue to be dealt with by the civil court. The full wealth and meaning of the Sixth Commandment had been overlooked by these experts of the law.

But Christ, as the true interpreter of the law, comes and restores to the people a right understanding of it. Verse 22 says, “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…” Christ is essentially saying that the beginning of the outward act of murder is sinful anger or hatred. Think of how many outward murders in history have been committed because of such an attitude within. And so Christ teaches us that to harbour such an ill-natured and evil attitude towards a brother is actually a breaking of the Sixth Commandment and deserves to be punished.

Now it is clear that the punishment here in verse 22 is different from the punishment mentioned in verse 21. In verse 21, the judgment or punishment refers to civil punishment or civil penalty which the State has the authority to carry out against the criminal. But here in verse 22, the punishment refers to eternal punishment or the punishment which God Himself will execute upon the sinner. No human judge can do that. No human law court has the authority and right to punish a person solely on the basis of the thoughts and feelings of that person.

But not so with God, who sees and knows all things, including the secret things of our hearts. David said to Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:9, “And thou, Solomon my son, know thou the God of thy father, and serve him with a perfect heart and with a willing mind: for the LORD searcheth all hearts, and understandeth all the imaginations of the thoughts.” Angry thoughts, inner resentment, bitterness, and hatred towards another person are known to God. And though they are concealed by an outwardly friendly appearance and disposition so that no one in the world will ever suspect, yet God knows.

Some Christians have this wrong idea that in the Old Testament, God was not concerned about a person’s heart and attitude, and that it is only in the New Testament that God suddenly takes an interest in what goes on within. This is certainly not the case. Time and again, we are taught even in the Old Testament that God wants His people to be pure both in the inside and on the outside. Proverbs 6:16-18 says, “These sixthings doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood (that is outward murder), An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, (that includes inward murder).”

Again in Zechariah 7:10, we read, “let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.” And in Zechariah 8:17, “let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour;” And finally in Leviticus 19:17-18, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart…but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” The scribes and Pharisees ought to have known better. The Sixth Commandment cannot be limited and restricted to just the outward action of murdering another person. Instead, it also commands a positive and loving attitude towards others.

I want to remind us again that Christ does not change or add anything to the Old Testament law. He simply draws out its full implications based on what the Old Testament itself has revealed. Far from abrogating or doing away with the law, Christ shows us what the law meant even from the Old Testament times.

In verse 22, Christ goes on to say, “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.” What does Christ mean? Is He speaking about some kind of progression and climax of sin and punishment? There are some who interpret this verse in such a way. They would say that being angry with your brother without a just cause is the least serious of the three sins mentioned. Saying ‘Raca’ to your brother is worse and deserves greater punishment. But the worst of all is to call someone a fool and thus to deserve eternal damnation.

Now it is true that there is such a thing as degrees of sin and degrees of punishment but to interpret verse 22 in this way is to misinterpret it and to misunderstand the point that Christ is making. Christ is emphasizing just one central lesson here – that the root of evil lies in the heart. To be angry with your brother without a just cause is already a very grievous sin and it deserves eternal damnation.

But what does it mean to say to your brother ‘Raca’? The word is probably an Aramaic term which has no exact modern equivalent and so in most translations, it is simply transliterated. It is basically a term of abuse, derision, slander and insult. In modern day language, it is something like calling a person a brainless idiot or a blockhead or a worthless fellow or a silly man. The seriousness of the sin lies not so much in the word itself but rather in the spirit which it is spoken, namely, a spirit of contempt, disdain and utter disrespect.

A person who shows contempt for a brother deserves to be judged and condemned by the council, which refers to the Sanhedrin or the council of seventy that tried the most serious offences and pronounced the severest penalties, including death by stoning. Similarly, Christ says that when in the same frame of mind and with the same spirit, you call someone a fool, you deserve to be cast into the fire of hell. 

Again, we must understand that it is not always wrong to call a person a fool. Psalm 14:1 calls an atheist a fool. The book of Proverbs contains numerous references to and descriptions of fools. We must not be afraid to tell someone, based on the standard of God’s Word, that he is a fool or that he is acting foolishly. But what Christ is warning us against is calling someone a fool out of a spirit of contempt, hatred and malice.     

Let us summarize what Christ is teaching in these verses. He is saying that sinful anger (the kind that leads to bitter words) is, in its very nature, murder. It is murder committed in the heart and unless he repents, the person with such an attitude faces everlasting punishment in hell. It does not matter that in the eyes of men, this kind of attitude and spirit is not considered sinful. In God’s eyes, it is a sin and such a person stands guilty before Him.

Two illustrations (vv. 23-26)

In order to show the seriousness of this sin, Christ gives two illustrations. The first from verses 23-24 is drawn from Old Testament temple worship while the second from verses 25-26 is drawn from the court of law.

Christ says in verse 23, “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee…” Now before we move on, I want us to notice two things. Firstly, there is a change from the plural to the singular. In verse 21 and 22, Christ addresses the people in the plural “Ye”. But now, in verse 23, he changes to the singular “thou”. It is clear that Christ is becoming very personal now. He is addressing each individual in particular. Let each man examine his own heart.

Secondly, the word “therefore” shows that what the Lord is about to say follows directly from what He has just said. There is a close connection between a person’s relationship with others and his relationship with God. A strained relationship with another person will affect one’s worship of God.   

In this illustration, Christ describes a person who, according to Jewish custom, is bringing an offering to the altar. But while he is there, he suddenly remembers that there is something that is not right in his relationship with one of his brothers. What should he do? Should he carry on with the sacrifice and then deal with the conflict later on? Christ says in verse 24, “Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.  

The phrase “hath aught against thee” refers to a grievance which your brother has against you. In other words, your brother is offended or unhappy with you for some reason, which may or may not be a legitimate one. It could be that you have done no wrong to your brother and you bear no ill feeling towards him. Nevertheless, you are aware that he has some grievance towards you. Christ teaches that we are to make every effort to be reconciled with him and to do whatever is required so that he will have no more grievance against us. The aim of going to that brother is so that the cause of disharmony might be removed and that a peaceful relationship might be restored.

Now this is indeed a very high standard that Christ requires of His people. Many of us would tend to reason in this way, “I have no grudge against him; I have done him no wrong; the fault lies entirely with him; why should I be the one to initiate the process of reconciliation or go out of my way to restore the relationship?” But Christ is saying that regardless of who is responsible for this breach in relationship, we should seek to be reconciled with him first before we come to worship God.

Who would have thought that the implications of the Sixth Commandment were so far reaching? Not only does it require me to have a right attitude towards my brother, but it also requires me to be concerned about my brother’s attitude towards me and to make every effort to remove any feelings of hatred and anger which he may have towards me.

Why does Christ require us to go, as it were, this extra mile? John Murray provides something of an answer when he says, “The grievance entertained by the brother is something that disturbs the relationship between brethren; it causes disharmony and estrangement. And such estrangement is the fountain of the sin with which Jesus is here dealing, the sin of murder. This rupture of relations, the worshipper cannot ignore, even though he be faultless. This grievance on the part of the brother may be but the rudimentary movement of estrangement. Yet, if it is not remedied, it will fester and will develop into the antithesis of “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.””[2]

And so we learn that the sin of anger and hatred within a person not only affects relationships in the Church but it also affects our worship of God. John MacArthur wrote, “True worship is not enhanced by better music, better prayers, better architecture, or even better preaching. True worship is enhanced by better relationships between those who come to worship…When there is animosity or sin of any sort in our heart there cannot be integrity in our worship.”[3]

Again, what Christ is teaching is not new. Samuel said to King Saul, “Hath 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 hearken than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam 15:22) And later in Psalm 66:18, we read “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me:      

The Lord’s second illustration is found in verses 25-26. “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.

This illustration has to do with a financial debt that has been incurred. In those days, it was common practice to imprison a person for an unpaid debt. Debtors were jailed till the debt was paid in full. Roman law provided that the offended party could bring the accused with him to face the judge. The two could still settle the matter themselves on the way to court, but not after the court has become involved. If a man has wronged an opponent at law, he should settle the account with his opponent quickly before they appear before the judge and there is no way out of prison until he has paid the last penny.  

The main point of the illustration is to teach that we must make every effort, without any delay, to make our relationship right with our brother before it is too late. The emphasis here is on immediate action. The time of reconciliation is always right now. Tomorrow may be too late. We should not wait till just before coming for worship to seek to set things right. Instead, we should seek reconciliation as soon as possible, without delay.

In the final analysis, Christ is not speaking about an earthly judge but about the heavenly judge; and it is not about an earthly prison but about the prison of hell. This is clear especially when we compare this passage with the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. Christ ends that Parable with the words, “And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses (Matt. 18:34-35).”

If we do not deal with the attitude of hatred and anger in our hearts towards another in this life, then such an attitude would testify against us in the Day of Judgment, and we will never escape from the prison of hell.


In closing, let us briefly review the two things that we have seen in this chapter. Firstly, we saw that the Sixth Commandment forbids not just the act of murder but also sinful anger, the kind that leads to bitter and insulting words, and in its very nature is murder. Inward anger and bitterness is but the beginning of outward murder, and both are hateful in God’s sight.

Secondly, from the two illustrations that Christ gave, we saw that it is vitally important to seek reconciliation with our brethren without delay and regardless of whether we are at fault or not. Unless our relationships with one another are right, we will not be able to worship God aright for as the Apostle John says in 1 John 4:20, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

If there is one thing that we must take away from this passage, it is this – that we have all failed to keep God’s law perfectly. If you are an unbeliever, you urgently need to seek salvation from the anger and curse of God that rests on all who break His law, even at the slightest point. But if you are a believer, these words of Christ ought to shatter any self-righteousness and self-confidence that you may have, and to drive you to Him, who alone has kept God’s law at every point. Oh how we need His mercy and forgiveness, and His grace to enable us to follow Him more closely and to keep His law more fully.