The Sermon On The Mount
The Law and Murder-Concluded
"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" (vv. 23, 24). Christ here drew a practical conclusion from what He had declared in the preceding verses, in which He enforces the duty of preserving Christian love and peace between brethren. First, He held up to view the false interpretation of the sixth commandment given by the ancient rabbis and perpetuated by the scribes and Pharisees (v. 21). Second, He gave the true meaning of it (v. 22). And third, He here propounded certain rules of concord between those that be at variance. If even a secret feeling of anger, and much more so a contemptuous or maledictory reproach, constitutes in God's sight a breach of His Law, and that He will not accept the worship of those guilty of such a crime, we must, without delay, remove every root of bitterness that might spring up and produce so deadly a fruit.
Our Lord here spoke in the language of the dispensation then in force, but the principles He enunciated on this occasion apply equally to Christian ordinances, especially the Lord's supper: the maintenance of righteousness and amity between one another is indispensable to fellowship with the thrice holy God. "It was the doctrine of the scribes, and the practice of the Pharisees corresponded with it, that anger, hatred, and the expression of these, if they did not go so far as overt acts of violence, were among the minor faults; and that God would not severely judge men for these, if they were but regular in presenting their sacrifices, and observing the other external duties of religion. In opposition to this, our Lord teaches that, according to the righteousness of His kingdom, having one's mind not subject to the law of justice and love, would render all external religious services unacceptable to God" (J. Brown).
Under the Mosaic law various gifts and sacrifices were presented to Jehovah, some of them being absolutely obligatory, others optional-"freewill offerings." Broadly speaking, those gifts were of two kinds; propitiatory and eucharistic: the one for obtaining Divine forgiveness, the other as expressions of thanksgiving. Christ alludes here only to the latter, but under it He comprehended all manner of true outward worship, whether legal or evangelistic. The Lord Jesus had not yet offered Himself to God as the great anti-typical sacrifice, and therefore He conveyed His lesson through the terms of the ceremonial law; but we have no difficulty in transferring what He then affirmed unto ourselves. It was as though He said, If thou comest to worship God in any way, either by prayer, hearing His Word, offering sacrifices of praise, or celebrating the Lord s supper, you must live in peace with your brethren, or your worship will be rejected.
It is indeed solemn and searching to ponder the important practical principle which our Lord here enunciated. How deceptive is the human heart, and what numbers impose upon themselves in this matter. But we cannot impose upon that One before whom everything is naked and open. Of old the Jews were guilty of this very thing. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith the Lord: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks. . . .And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear" (Isa. 1:11, 15). Why? "Your hands are full of blood." While they cruelly oppressed their brethren, the worship they offered unto God was an abomination unto Him. So again in Isaiah 58:5, 6, we find Jehovah despising the religious fasts of Israel because they omitted those acts of mercy which He required, and instead were guilty of evilly treating their fellows.
The Lord charged the people with the same sins in the time of Jeremiah: "Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely . . . and come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name?" (7:9, 10). Other passages might be quoted, but these are sufficient if we duly lay them to heart. From them we ma y learn that the performance of any outward service unto God is displeasing to Him if it be separated from unfeigned love of the brethren. To serve God acceptably we must perform not only the duties of the first table of the Law, but also those of the second. Make no mistake, my reader, the Holy One abhors all professions of piety from those who make no conscience of endeavoring to live in peace with their brethren.
"Therefore, if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother bath aught against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar" (vv. 23, 24). The words "thy brother hath aught against thee" clearly signify, "If you have done him some injury" or he has cause of complaint (either real or fancied) against you. If you have treated him in some way inconsistent with the fraternal relationship, if he be conscious that you have wronged him, then you must promptly seek to right that wrong, no matter what the cost may be to your pride or interests. It may be that you were guilty of what some would lightly dismiss as "only an outburst of temper," which you regretted afterwards; nevertheless, peace has been disrupted, and God requires you to do everything in your power to lawfully restore it.
Does not failure to heed this rule go far to explain why the supplications of so many of the Lord's people remain unanswered? What numbers fondly imagine that so long as they are regular in their attendance at the house of prayer, and maintain a reverent demeanor therein, their petitions will prevail, even though they be at enmity with some of their brethren. Not so; the words of the Psalmist on this are much too pointed to be misunderstood. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18). Before bending the knee in prayer, let us call to mind that we are about to draw near unto Him who is as much the Father of the offended brother as He is ours, and that He cannot receive us while we continue casting a stumbling-block in the way of the other. No worship or service can be acceptable to God while we are under the influence of a malicious spirit.
"Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother." This means there must be a sincere and penitent acknowledgment of the offence committed and proper restitution made for any injury done, so that by all proper means and reasonable concessions we seek forgiveness from the one offended. "In this case the person, instead of offering his gift, is to go immediately to his brother, and to be reconciled to him; dismissing all malignant feeling from his mind, he is to repair the injury he has done to his brother. If he has deprived him of his property, he is to restore it; if he has calumniated him, he is to do all that lies in his power to counteract the effect of his calumny, and acknowledge his regret for having acted so unbrotherly a part. In this way he is likely to be reconciled to his brother, that is, to be restored to his brother's favour" (J. Brown).
The question may be raised, What can be done in a case where the one whom I have offended is no longer accessible to me?-one perhaps who has moved to far-distant parts. Answer: every effort must be made to obtain his or her address, and then write them a confession of your fault and your grief for the same, as frankly as though you were speaking to them. But suppose their address be unobtainable? Then in such a case you are hindered by Divine providence and God will accept the will for the deed, if there be a willing mind, providing you have done all you can to right the wrong, and have humbly confessed the same unto God and sought His forgiveness.
It should be pointed out that in this rule concerning reconciliation with an aggrieved brother, the Lord furnished a third direction for the expounding of God's commandments. First, He showed that under any one sin prohibited in the commandment God forbids all sins of the same kind, with all the causes thereof (v. 22). Second, that to the breach of any commandment there is annexed a curse, whether it be specifically expressed or not (v. 22). And now, third, that where any vice is forbidden, there the contrary virtue is enjoined; and on the contrary, where any virtue is commanded, the opposite vice is reprehended. Herein the Divine laws evidence their superiority to human, for man's laws are satisfied by abstaining from the crime prohibited, though the contrary virtue be not practiced; so long as we abstain from murder, it matters not though we fail to love our brethren. But God requires not only abstention from vice, but also the practice of virtue.
Another general principle is brought out in the verses before us, one which is of considerable importance in the correct interpreting of many New Testament passages, namely that to be "reconciled" to another does not signify so much to cherish kindly feelings towards one with whom we have been offended, as to be restored to the favour of one we have offended. This throws light on such a statement as, "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10), the primary reference in which is to the Redeemer's propitiating God and obtaining for us His blessing-the same holds good equally of Ephesians 2:16, and Colossians 1:21. In like manner, "Be ye reconciled to God" (2 Cor. 5:20) means not only throw down the weapons of your warfare against Him, but, primarily, be restored to His favor.
One other important principle enforced by Christ in our passage is that there are degrees of value in the several duties of Divine worship: all are not equal, but some are more and some less necessary. The highest degree of holy worship is prescribed in the first commandment: to love, fear, and rejoice in God above all, trusting Him and His promises. The second degree is to love our neighbors as ourselves, living in accord with them, and seeking reconciliation when any division exists. The third degree consists of the outward ceremonial duties of God's worship: and that these are inferior to the other is clear from Christ's "first be reconciled to thy brother." Even the outward solemnities of Sabbath keeping are to give place to the works of love. God esteems mercy above sacrifice. Alas, how many today are sticklers for the details of baptism and the Lord's supper who will not even speak to some of their brethren!
"First be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (v. 24). This is far from implying that the regaining of his brother's esteem is a good work which entitles him to the favour of God. No; the man who rests his hope of the acceptance of his religious services on the consciousness that his brethren have nothing against him is leaning on a broken reed; the only valid ground of hope for the acceptance of either our persons or our worship is the free grace of God. But it means that, when peace has been restored, he must not forget to return and offer his gift; for although God will not receive our worship unless-so far as in us lies-we are on loving terms with our neighbors, yet the performance of our duty to men in nowise frees us from obligation of direct service to God.
"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" (vv. 25, 26). This is one of the passages appealed to by the papists in support of their Christ-insulting dogma of purgatory: that they have to apply to such verses as these in order to bolster up their error shows how hard pressed they are to find anything in the Scriptures which even appears to favour their vile tenets.
The Roman expositors are not even agreed among themselves. Some take the "adversary" to be the Devil, and the "judge" God Himself; but others among them suppose the "adversary" to be God administering His Law, the "judge" they regard as Christ, the "officer" an angel, and the "prison" to be purgatory; "the way the span of our life on earth. Agree with God while thou art in this life, lest thou come before Christ in judgment, and He cause His angels to cast thee into purgatory, and there thou remainest till thou hast made full satisfaction for all thy venial sins. But such a concept utterly ignores the context, where Christ lays down a rule of reconciliation between man and man, and not between God and man. Moreover, such an interpretation (?) pits the Father against the Son. Finally, it denies the sufficiency of Christ's atonement, making the sinner himself the one who provides satisfaction for his venial sins.
Many Protestant commentators regard verses 25 and 26 as a parable which portrays the grave peril of the sinner and his urgent need of believing the Gospel. Injurious conduct toward our fellow men renders us noxious to the wrath of God, who is our Adversary-at-law. We are in the way to the judgment-seat and our time here is but short at best. But a way of reconciliation is revealed in the Gospel, and of this we should avail ourselves immediately. If it be neglected and despised, then we forsake our own mercies, and close the door of hope against us. If we die with our sins unpardoned, then nothing awaits us but a certain judgment, and we shall be cast into the prison of hell, and being unable to offer any satisfaction to Divine justice we must there suffer the due reward of our iniquities for ever and ever. Such a concept may evidence the ingenuity of the commentator, but where is the slightest hint in the passage that Christ was speaking parabolically?
Personally, we see no reason whatever for not understanding our Lord's words here literally. Christ had exhorted the party doing wrong to seek to be reconciled with his brother, by acknowledging the offence and making reparation according to the injury inflicted. In support thereof, He had advanced the solemn consideration that until this be done communion with God is broken and our worship is unacceptable to Him. Here (knowing how proud and obstinate the human heart is, and how slow men are to yield and submit to this duty) Christ descends to a lower level, and points out another reason why it is highly expedient for the offending believer to put matters right with him whom he has wronged, namely lest the aggrieved one go to law, and this involve him in costly litigation, or even procure his imprisonment.
"Agree with thine adversary" is just the same as "be reconciled to thy brother," for "adversary" is a general name applied to all persons in common who have a controversy or are at variance with each other. "Agree with" the one you have provoked, seek restoration to his favour, by repairing the injury you have done him. An injured one, or a creditor, might at any time sue him, demanding that his case be tried in a magistrate's court. While on their way thither, there was still time to come to an amicable agreement between themselves, but once they appeared before the magistrate the matter would pass out of their hands, and be subject to the decision of the court, whose business it is that strict justice be impartially enforced.
The view given above was held by the renowned Calvin, "If in this place the judge signify God, the adversary the Devil, the officer an angel, the prison purgatory, I will readily subscribe to them (the Papists). But if it be evident to everyone that Christ thus intended to show to how many dangers and calamities persons expose themselves, who prefer obstinately exerting the rigor of the law to acting upon the principles of equity and kindness, in order the more earnestly to exhort his disciples to an equitable concord, pray where will purgatory be found?" Verses 26 and 27 are to be regarded as a warning of what may befall those who heed not the command in verses 24, 25. If we refuse to humble ourselves and strive to preserve peace, we must not be surprised if others deal harshly with us and sue us at law. In closing, it may be observed, that Christ here approves of the magisterial office, his proceeding against the guilty and of imprisonment.