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The Sermon On The Mount


Chapter Nine

The Law and Murder

"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 aught 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, while 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


The discourse which our Lord delivered on this occasion entirely corresponds with the new era which it marked in the history of God's dispensations. The revelation from Sinai, though grafted on a covenant of grace (i.e. the Abrahamic: Gal. 3:19-"added"), and uttered by God as the Redeemer of Israel, was emphatically a promulgation of law. Its direct and formal object was to raise aloft the claims of the Divine righteousness, and meet, with repressive and determined energy, the corrupt tendencies of human nature. The Sermon on the Mount, on the other hand, begins with blessing. It opens with a whole series of beatitudes, blessing after blessing pouring itself forth as from a full spring of beneficence, and seeking, with its varied and copious manifestations of goodness, to leave nothing unprovided for in the deep wants and longing desires of men. Yet here also, as in other things, the difference between the New and the Old Testament is relative only, not absolute. There are the same fundamental elements in both, but these differently adjusted, so as fitly to adapt themselves to the ends they had to serve, and the times to which they respectively belonged.

"In the revelation of law there was a substratum of grace, recognized in the words which prefaced the ten commandments, and promises of grace in blessing also intermingled with the stern prohibitions and injunctions of which they consist. And so, inversely, in the Sermon on the Mount, while it gives grace the priority and the prominence, it is far from excluding the severer aspect of God's character and government. No sooner, indeed, had grace poured itself forth in a succession of beatitudes, than there appear the stern demands of righteousness and law-the very same law proclaimed from Sinai-and that law so explained and enforced as to bring fully under its sway the intents of the heart, as well as the actions of the life, and by men's relation to it determining their place and destinies in the Messiah's kingdom" (P. Fairbairn).

It is with these "stern demands of righteousness" that we are now to be engaged. The transition point is found in verse 17, though in the verses preceding our Lord had intimated the trend of what was to follow, by likening the ministry of His servants to the nature and action of "salt." Verses 17-20 contain the preface of all that follows to the end of chapter v. In affirming that He had come to "fulfill" the Law, Christ signified, first, that it was His mission as the faithful Witness of God and the Teacher of His Church to expound the Law in its purity and spirituality, and to rescue it from the corruptions of the false teachers of that day. Second, to exemplify its righteousness in His own conduct by rendering to it a personal. perfect, and perpetual obedience, in thought and word and deed. Third, to endure its curse in His people's stead.

To understand a discourse, nothing is of greater importance than a clear grasp of its object and design. If this be not definitely understood, then the plainest statements may appear obscure, the most conclusive arguments unsatisfactory, and the most pertinent illustrations irrelevant. A great deal of the obscurity which, in most men's minds, rests on many passages of the Scriptures is to be accounted for on this principle. They do not distinctly perceive, or they altogether misapprehend, the purpose of the inspired writer, consequently they fail to understand his arguments and true meaning. Considerable misapprehension has obtained in reference to those sections of our Lord's Sermon which we are about to consider, in consequence of mistakes as to their object or design. Yet there is no excuse for this: by carefully weighing verses 17-20 the scope of what follows is obvious.

The words of Christ in verse 17 make it plain that He had not come here to antagonize or annul the Law of God, as they equally exclude the idea that it was His design to replace it with a new law. Is it not strange, then, to find Mr. Darby (in his "Synopsis)," after giving an outline of the contents of the Sermon, subjoining a footnote to verses 17-48 in which he says, "In these the exigencies of the law and what Christ required are contrasted," which would be to pit the Son against the Father! In verse 20 the Lord Jesus enunciated a general principle, and from verse 21 onwards He was engaged in illustration, by varied examples, how and wherein the righteousness of those whom He would own as subjects of His kingdom exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

It should be self-evident that the distinctions which Christ proceeded to draw between what had been said by the ancients on certain points of moral and religious duty, and that which He Himself solemnly affirmed, must have respect, not to the real and actual teaching of the Law and the prophets, but rather to the erroneous conclusions which had been drawn therefrom, and to the false notions founded thereon, which were currently entertained at His advent. It were blasphemy to imagine that Christ was so inconsistent as to contradict Himself on this occasion. After so definitely asserting His entire accord with the Law and the prophets and His own dependence upon them, we cannot believe for a moment that He would immediately afterwards set Himself in opposition to them. This must be settled at the outset if we are to have hearts prepared to weigh what follows.

"The scribes and Pharisees of that age had completely inverted the order of things. Their carnality and self-righteousness had led them to exalt the precepts respecting ceremonial observances to the highest place, and to throw the duties inculcated in the ten commandments comparatively into the background, thus treating the mere appendages of the covenant as of more account than its very ground and basis" (P. Fairbairn). Therefore it was that when He proceeded to expose the inadequacy and hollowness of "the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees," our Lord made His appeal to the testimony engraved on the two tables, and most commonly, though not exclusively, to the precepts of the second table, because He had to do more especially with hypocrites, whose defects might most readily be revealed by a reference to the duties of the second table (cf. Matthew 19:16; Luke 10:25 and 18:18).

The first commandment brought forward by Christ on this occasion was the sixth of the Decalogue: "Thou shalt not kill." All that the Pharisees understood by this was a prohibition of the act of murder; but our Lord insisted that the commandment in its true import prohibited not only the overt act but every evil working of the heart and mind which led to it, such as unjust anger, with contempt and provoking language. Such an interpretation should not stand in need of any argument. The spiritual mind would rightly reason from such a law: if He who desireth truth in the inward p arts (Ps. 51) condemns murder, then it is evident we must abstain from all that might lead to that culmination of wickedness; and so it would be discovered that "Thou shalt not kill" really signifies "Thou shalt not hate."

"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" (Matthew 5:21). To what, or rather to whom, did our Lord refer in His "them of old time"? Certainly not to Moses, nor to His Father, as the plural "them" unequivocally shows. Then to whom? In answering this question, let us also show wherein lay the special need for Christ here to expound and enforce the Law. Unfortunately for the nation, there was ample opportunity for the scribes and Pharisees to corrupt God's Law, for the rank and file of the people were unable to read the Scriptures in their original tongue. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity they had largely forgotten their own language, and therefore could not read the Hebrew text.

Obviously, it was the duty of the learned to supply the people with a plain and simple translation of God's Word into the Chaldee or Aramaic. But the proud and selfish rabbis were concerned not with the glory of God and the good of the people, but with the exaltation of their own order. Therefore, instead of preparing a translation which could be read by the masses at large, they were accustomed, in the synagogues, to read off a loose rendering of the sacred text (alleged to be simpler than the original), intermingled with their own explanatory remarks. It was this ancient paraphrase of the Law with the comments of the rabbis that the scribes and Pharisees reiterated, and to which our Lord alluded when He here mentioned "them of old time."

God's commandment, "Thou shalt not kill," was capable of expansion into the widest spiritual meaning, prohibiting all hatred against our fellows. But the scribes and Pharisees restricted it to the bare act of murder as an external crime, as is quite clear from the next verse, where it is referred to as a crime for the consideration of the judicial courts of earth. Thus they were guilty of restricting the scope of God's command, and by connecting it with earthly courts both suggested to their hearers that only external deeds are sinful, and also removed the very wholesome fear of the judgment to come, when God shall lay bare not only the actual deeds of men, but even their innermost thoughts, and account the murderer in desire and intention equally guilty with the actual slayer of his fellow.

Ere passing on, let us make three remarks. First, how strangely has history repeated itself! If the religious leaders of Israel refused to make a plain translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the speech used by the people upon their exodus from the Babylonish captivity. keeping them in ignorance of the pure Word of God, determining to retain matters in their own hands and exalting their own order; so the papacy (after the desolating persecution of the early Church by the Roman emperors) refused to make an accurate translation of the Scriptures (clinging instead to the faulty rendition of the Vulgate version), corrupting her dupes by the additions, restrictions, and alterations she made to Divine revelation; her present-day prelates and priests reiterating what was said by their predecessors "in old time."

Second, how worthless is antiquity as such! As there is a class of people who make a fetish of what is modern and despise anything of the past, so there is a certain type of mind which is strongly attracted by the antique and which venerates hoary traditions. But antiquity is no infallible mark of true doctrine, for this exposition of the sixth commandment had obtained among the Jews for centuries past, yet Christ, the great Doctor of the Church, rejected it as false, and therefore the argument which the papists use for the establishment of some of their dogmas and practices drawn from antiquity is of no effect. Equally worthless are the appeals of Protestants to the Reformers and the Puritans unless they can show that their teachings rested upon a clear "Thus saith the Lord."

Third, how thankful we should be that we have the pure Word of God reliably translated into our mother tongue! To the multitudes of His day Christ said, "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time"; but to us He can exclaim, "Ye may read what God hath said." This is a wondrous and inestimable privilege-purchased by the blood-shedding of many of our forefathers-that the Holy Scriptures are no longer confined to the learned and the abbot of the monastery. They are accessible to the unlearned and the poor, everywhere, in simple English. But such a privilege carries with it, my reader, a solemn responsibility. What use are we making of this precious treasure? Do we search it daily, as did the noble Bereans (Acts 17:11)? Are we nourishing our souls thereby? Is our conduct governed by its teaching? If not, double guilt lies at our door.

"But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without 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" (v. 22). This is far from being the easiest verse of Matthew v to interpret, and the commentators vary in their explanations of its details; yet its general meaning is plain enough. With His royally authoritative "I say unto you," the Lord Jesus at once swept aside the rubbish of the rabbis and placed the Law of God before His hearers in all its majesty and holiness, propounding the true interpretation of the sixth commandment. No matter what you may have heard the scribes and Pharisees teach-whether from themselves or from the ancients-it was but the bluntings of the sharp edge of God's precept. I, the incarnate Son of God, who seekest only the glory of the Father and the good of souls, declare unto you that there are three degrees of hatred, falling short of the actual deed of murder, which expose a man to the judgment of God as a violator of the sixth commandment.

First, "Whosoever is angry against his brother without cause "brother" would be one Jew against another; for us, against a fellow Christian; but in its widest scope, against a fellow man, for by creation all are brethren. It is not anger simply which Christ here reprehends, but unwarrantable and immoderate anger. There is a holy anger, as appears from the example of Christ (Mark 3:5) and the apostolic precept, "Be ye angry and sin not" (Eph. 4:26). It may be asked, How are we to distinguish godly anger from that which is unlawful? The former proceeds from love or righteousness, has in view the good of him against whom it is exercised, and looks to the glory of God, whereas unholy anger issues from pride and desires the injury of the one against whom it is directed. Anger is lawful only when it burns against sin, and this is equivalent to zeal for the Divine honour.

In His first singling out of unjust anger when expounding the sixth commandment, Christ did hereby teach us in general that whenever God forbids one sin He at the same time forbids all sins of the same kind, with all the causes thereof; and in particular that specific passion from which most murders proceed. Since, then, unjustified and immoderate anger is a breach of the Decalogue deserving of Divine punishment, how diligently and constantly we should be on our guard, lest this headstrong affection break forth, seeking grace to restrain and nip it in the bud. Now in order that we may subdue this lust that it prevail not, lay to heart this commandment which forbids rash anger, and frequently call to mind bow patiently and mercifully God deals with us every day, and that therefore we ought to be likeminded toward our brethren (Eph. 4:31, 32).

The second branch of the sin here condemned is, "whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca," or, as the margin renders it, "vain fellow." What is here prohibited is that scorn, arising from uncontrolled temper, which leads to speaking contemptuously. All abusive language is forbidden by the sixth commandment, all expressions of malignity issuing from a bitter heart, for as Matthew Henry rightly pointed out, "all malicious slanders and censures are 'adders' poison under their lips' (Ps. 140:3), and kill secretly and slowly." The Spirit of God refers to Ishmael's jeering at Isaac as "persecution" (Gal. 4:29), and the same may be said of all bitter speaking. Yea, the prohibition here extends to the gestures of our body-a sneer, the wagging of our head (Matthew 27:29). Therefore are we required to make conscience of every gesture, every casting of the eye (Gen. 4:6), as well as every passionate word.

The third degree of murder mentioned by Christ is censorious reviling or calling our brother a "fool." It is not the simple use of this English word which renders us guilty of this crime, as is clear from Luke 24:25; 1 Corinthians 15:36. A benevolent desire to make men sensible of their folly is a good work, but the reviling of them from an ungovernable rage is wickedness. With the Jews "fool" (moren) signified a rebel against God, an apostate, so that the one using this term arrogated to himself the passing of judicial sentence, consigning his fellow to hell. This was the very word Moses used (in the plural form) in Numbers 20:10, and for which he was excluded from Canaan. It is to be observed that never once does the Lord designate His people "rebels," though on several occasions He charges them with being rebellious.

One other thing remains to be mentioned. In the different degrees of penalty mentioned by Christ, He alluded unto the various courts of judgment in vogue among the Jews for punishment, which He applied to the Divine judgment which should fall upon those guilty of the sins He here condemned. And let us say in conclusion, there is no way of escaping the Divine curse upon these sins except by humbling ourselves before God, penitently confessing the murderous passions of our hearts, and the manifestation of the same in gesture and speech; suing for His pardon through the atoning blood of Christ.


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