21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But 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, 24 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.
Last week we heard Jesus say that he had come to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. Yet, for at least the last five centuries, there has been ongoing debate over how Christ’s teaching relates to the law of the Old Testament. The Reformers believed there is perfect continuity between Christ’s teachings and the law. Jesus did no more than explain what was already in the law.
Men such as Luther and Calvin argued that Jesus’ repeated formula, “You have heard it said… but I tell you…” is not a correction of Old Testament law. Rather, he is correcting the traditions and interpretations of the scribes and Pharisees of his day. He was simply amplifying the deeper meaning of scripture. In fact, Jesus taught that the law of God is an essential diagnostic tool. Whether we break it or keep it, and whether we encourage others to break it or keep it, is an indication of our true spiritual condition.
The law has always been and shall always be the standard for evaluation in the Kingdom of God (5:19). But, unlike the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, the law is not the standard for entrance into God’s kingdom. Jesus made this quite clear when he told his disciples that unless their righteousness surpassed that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, they would certainly not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.
The other branch of the Reformation, represented by the Anabaptists, believed that Jesus’ new teaching was a radical departure with the Old Testament. They held that certain aspects of the Old Testament were abolished by Jesus’ teaching. Some even held that Jesus’ teaching was completely opposed to the law given through Moses, as had the heresies of the Marcionites and the Manicheans. After all, John wrote, “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:17).
It is true that Jesus’ teaching is radically new and supersedes the old covenant, but it is also in continuity with the old. Jesus brought completion to the Law and the Prophets. His proclamation, “I have not come to abolish… but to fulfill” (v. 17), speaks of this completion. The word “fulfill” has the idea of completion within it. In fact, it is sometimes translated as “complete,” as it could be in verse 17. One example would be the laws of sacrifice and of diet. Jesus fulfilled them because he validated and superseded them in his own person and work. 
In fulfilling and superseding the Old Testament precepts, he established continuity with the old covenant. Jesus brought radically new teaching that superseded the Old Testament law and prophets but did not contradict them.
MURDER, THEN AND NOW (V. 21)
Here, in verses 21-26, Jesus gives the first of six examples that show a person’s need for a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (v. 20). His first example is the Old Testament teaching on murder, to which he attaches radical new teaching. 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
Perhaps like some of his listeners, you might think, What does a law on murder have to do with me? According to Jesus, it has everything to do with all of us. This statement it’s one of the foundation passages about human relationships in the Bible. Jesus’ teaching on the underlying reason behind the rule goes far beyond the simple preservation of human life to the preservation of human relationships. In particular, he describes what Kingdom relationships look like. Jesus is teaching that our horizontal human relationships affect our vertical heavenly relationship.
When Jesus tells his audience, they have heard it said, “Do not murder,” he is listing the 6th commandment from Exodus 20:13 exactly as it reads in the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX). His additional comment, “anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,” is an accurate summation up the judgments listed for murder in the Mosaic law.
This was not only the Pharisees interpretation, but it was also the accepted interpretation of the law itself. So this teaching and interpretation was true. It was true as far as it went. That is where the radically new, superseding teaching of Christ enters into the picture.
DEEPER MEANING (V. 22)
22 But 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.
This was a very strong statement. It openly claims that those who were guilty of holding others in contempt are guilty enough to go to hell. Jesus says the Old Testament law condemns murder precisely because the underlying sin is contemptuous anger. The outward act is simply a manifestation of the inward sin. Jesus means what he says. And we need to let that sink in.
Clearly, Jesus is not speaking of every kind of anger here. He was angry when he drove the money changers out of the temple (John 2:13-22). He was angry with those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3: 5). Later on in Matthew 23:17, he will call the Pharisees “blind fools.” Jesus was angry at sin and injustice and mere outward shows of religion, but he never became angry at personal insult or affront directed at him.
The apostle Peter says when Jesus was dying, “23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Righteous anger is pleasing to God. But so is trusting into God’s sovereignty in placing us in difficult relationships where our self-centered flesh wants to strike back when hurt rather than entrusting ourselves to the One who judges justly. We are quick to become angry at personal affronts but slow to become angry with sin and injustice and open rebellion against God.
Jesus uses the Aramaic word, “raca,” meaning “empty-headed.” Scholars have suggested some more modern substitutes like idiot, nitwit, bonehead, and jerk. I think we can relate to all of those, especially since those are some of the more repeatable things we yell when driving. By using such language, we demote another one of God’s image bearers to the level of a nothing, a nobody. It is a totally contemptuous word.
The word “fool” is a translation of the Greek word “moros,” from which we get out English word “moron.” In ancient language, it did not involve contempt for one’s intelligence but for one’s moral condition. It was applied to those who denied God’s existence and as a result fell into further evil. The psalmist sang, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). 
Jesus is teaching that the law against murder condemns angry contempt in all of its forms — animosity, malice, hostility, malevolence, wrath, and revenge. But he’s not suggesting a ladder of offenses, as if one is worse than the other. He is simply offering multiple examples of the same hateful, murderous contempt to make his point. And his point is that our self-loving, self-serving hatred of others deserves God’s eternal wrath.
Not shedding blood does not make us safe from God’s wrath against the sin of murder. We are all of us guilty enough to receive punishment if we have ever exercised anger and contempt against another person when we are offended. Jesus has not diminished God’s holy law, he has used it to expose our own sins at their very deepest level. Often, it is at a level that other people do not see because it involves conversations we have only with ourselves inside our own sinful heads and hearts. Jesus is telling us that our hearts, by nature, are murderers.
The radical righteousness Jesus requires is not simply refraining from outward sin. It requires a change at the deepest levels of our whole being. That means that our only hope is in the Last Adam, who fulfilled all righteousness and offers it freely to us. Have you done that? Are you trusting in to the perfectly lived righteousness of Christ? Murderers are welcome here. All who are exhausted and poor in spirit and starving and thirsting for righteousness are welcome here.
What this means for us on a practical level is that we must beg God to purge from us any delusion of spiritual superiority or relative morality. If, like me, you have grown up in church and had a long association with Christ and his Word, it is possible to feel a little more superior to the rest of the empty-headed, foolish people around you in this messy world. A level of smugness makes words like fool, jerk, and idiot as natural for us as breathing. If your driving doesn’t convince you of that, think about the way you describe other people whose politics are opposite from you.
Christ makes it clear that we must confess and repent our smugness for what it is: contempt of another life, another image-bearer of God, another soul owned by God (not by you). If anyone ought to know who they are and what is within them, it is those of us who came to Christ with dirty hands, a mourning spirit, and a starvation for the righteousness of God. We are to seek after meekness, not self-righteousness.
VALUING RELATIONSHIP (23-26)
Having established that the underlying principle of the law against murder is the value God places upon all souls, Jesus gives two examples. The first example touches upon the Old Testament laws of sacrifice. The second deals with legal disputes in the temple courts.
First, he says in verses 23-24, “23 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.”
“The worshiper has entered the great Temple of Herod with his sacrifice and has passed through the concentric courts (the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of Women, the Court of Men). Beyond him lies the Court of the Priests, into which only priests could pass. The worshiper is standing at the threshold of the court. His hands are on the sacrifice, and suddenly he remembers that he has wronged his brother. So he turns and retreats through the great courts. He must first make things right with his brother.”
First, we need to understand the context into which Jesus is speaking. These two verses have often been used to suggest that if you were at odds with someone, you should not take the Lord’s Supper. That is actually a very dangerous confusion, or co-mingling, of law and gospel. The Lord’s table is not the sacrificial altar of the great Jerusalem temple.
Christ is speaking to people who were still under the Mosaic law’s sacrificial system and must continue to make sacrifices at the temple until Christ’s final, perfect sacrifice was complete at Calvary. The Lord’s table is our sign and seal that Christ’s cross work is complete and that all of our sins (past, present, and future) are forgiven and forgotten in Christ. It is the place where sinners who trust into Christ are welcome regardless of their circumstances.
Jesus’ point is that no external duties of worship under the law are sufficient to forgive our deep sins of the heart. You cannot cover over sin with ceremony any more than Adam and Eve could cover theirs with dead fig leaves. As St Author of Hebrews explained:
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. 2 Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? 3 But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. 4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
No amount of ceremony, regular worship attendance, or even generous giving will ever produce a clear conscience. Psalm 66:18 speaks to this. “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Jesus’ point is that the law demands more than outward appearance or ceremonial performance. It demands absolute perfection of heart and hands. As David sang in his song of repentance, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” 
The Mosaic law did not allow any sacrifice for the sin of murder. When David’s sin of murder was publicly exposed, he was without any legal means of absolution. So, when Jesus equates demeaning others to the offense of murder, he is preaching a hopeless message to even the most fastidious of outwardly-obedient law keepers. An impure heart has no real hope in any outward religious ceremony – even the central temple rite of animal sacrifice.
His second example, in verses 25-26, is of a legal situation. “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.” 
Understanding the context in which Jesus gives these two examples saves us from confusion. These two examples are not pieces of advice, or laws, either for church behavior or for solving legal problems. Instead, they are illustrations of how vital it is to have right relationships with others. Religious ceremonies cannot cover over a bitter heart. Bitterness left unresolved can have more than emotional and spiritual consequences; it could lead to litigation, debtors’ prison, and economic devastation.
Ultimately, the one with whom we must seek reconciliation if we ever hope to develop hearts liberated from murderous smoldering animosity, is Messiah Jesus himself. Only by trusting into his perfect law-keeping life as our righteousness and into his sacrificial blood-shedding death as the payment for our sins, can we receive the recreative work of the Holy Spirit to gradually dissipate our contemptuous anger. The Spirit roots around in our hearts, convicts us of our murderous nature, moves us to repent, and empowers us to become poor, meek, starving for righteousness – peacemakers who proclaim God’s peace treaty with humanity.
Hear Messiah Jesus’ words this morning. Turn to him who says:
21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. 22 For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. 
 Hughes, R. Kent. The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom (Preaching the Word). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Pe 2:23.
 Hughes, op. cit.
 Hughes, op. cit.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Heb 10:1–4.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 51:17.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 5:24–26.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Jn 5:20–24.