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Matthew 5:21-22 “Superior Righteousness, Part 1a: Murder”

Updated: May 26, 2023

Jesus laid down a tremendous gauntlet in v. 20. His disciples had to be thinking: (a) what on earth could He mean when stating that their righteousness had to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees and (b) why did He connect that statement with His condemnation for those who tamper with the Law? Jesus spends the next 27 verses providing examples of what this superior righteousness looks like and demonstrating that the scribes and Pharisees are guilty of loosening every commandment they could get their hands on. Matthew 5:21-48 contains six such examples of superior righteousness and accurate understanding of the Law and the Prophets.

Most English translations keep track of these examples with the paired phrases “you have heard it said…” and “but I tell you.” The “but I tell you” creates the appearance that Jesus is contrasting or contradicting what He says the disciples have at one time heard, but this misunderstanding must at once be corrected. Jesus spent a great bit of time and effort to state that He was not interested in abolishing, changing, or altering a single pen-stroke of the Law. He cannot seriously be offering contradictions to it now. These six examples are often incorrectly called “antitheses”, but they are nothing of the kind. The Greek conjunction δὲ is seldom used in a strong contrastive force and always joins two clauses together in some fashion. The range of meaning is wide, but here it is better to understand δὲ in each of the six statements of Jesus (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν – So I tell you) as a loose additive (and, so).[1]

Upon closer examination, these six examples appear to have been presented in a specific order. While the introductory language to all six are similar, they are not identical. Only the first (v. 21) and the fourth (v. 33) are introduced with the full formula “you have heard that the ancients were told” (ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς άρχαίοιος). This observation begins to suggest two sections of three examples each, the first consisting of murder (vv. 21-26), adultery (vv. 27-30), and divorce (vv. 31-32) while the second follows with examples of false vows (vv. 33-37), personal vengeance (vv. 38-42), and love of neighbor (vv. 43-48). Some are attracted to this presentation by suggesting that the arrangement is supported by various base texts. Each of the first three examples is reputed to come from Deuteronomy (murder = Deut. 5:17; adultery = Deut. 5:18; divorce = Deut. 24-13) while the second set all are supposedly found in Leviticus (vows = Lev. 19:12; vengeance = Lev. 24:20; love = Lev. 19:18). Unfortunately, this suggestion does not hold much water when we realize that (a) the triad arrangement cannot be sited to commands found in Deuteronomy vs. commands found in Leviticus, (b) the triad is not really a triad, and (c) Jesus is purposefully choosing His words to pick up where the Old Testament left off.

Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus: When we examine the source texts of the first “triad” it is obvious that the first two (vv. 21&27) are quotations of the 6th and 7th commandments. Most Sunday school students would be able to tell you that those commandments are first given in Exodus 20 and are repeated in Deuteronomy 5. The first “triad” is thus based on Exodus and Deuteronomy. Regarding the second “triad”, only the last statement (v. 43) is exclusively found in Leviticus. The first portion of the statement in v. 33 (You shall not make false vows) is found in Lev. 19:12, but the second portion (but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord) is more like statements found in Num. 30:2 and Deut. 23:21-23. Likewise, variations of the statement found in v. 38 (an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth) is found in Ex. 21:24, Lev. 24:20, and Deut. 19:21. In other words, there is no Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus division.

The “triad” is not a triad: It would be sad to miss the point that out of these six similar statements only the first two are direct quotations of the 6th and 7th commandments. The rest of these statements refer to laws that flow from concepts that have their headwaters in the Ten Commandments. The simplest connection is the one between vv. 27-30 and vv. 31-32, that is, between adultery and divorce. Jesus hints at the nature of this arrangement by first abbreviating His introductory formula to a simple “it is said” (ἐρρέθη) with a connective δὲ, thus linking the discussion of divorce to the previous discussion of adultery. After this cue, Jesus begins again with the full introductory formula in v. 33 with the understanding that He is now expounding implications of the commandments within the Law rather than the commandments themselves. The triad is thus not a triad at all, but two foundational commandments provided as examples followed by various implications that flow from them.

Jesus continues the final thought of the Old Testament: It is striking how the language here (you’ve heard it said…but I say to you…) resembles the flow of Malachi (This you do…yet you say…). The religious leaders of Malachi’s day (the priests) had led the people so far astray that they were practicing a dead and wooden religion without a shred of holiness in their lives. By using this language, Jesus picks up Malachi’s indictment and carries it further to continue the revelation of Israel’s dead and wooden heart. Not only this, but the leaders of Israel had created a canon of their own teaching and thus rejected the word of the Lord. Thus, Jesus steps onto the scene with personal authority to pick up the indictment where Malachi left off.

It is interesting that Jesus begins His exposition of the Law and unmasking of the scribes and Pharisees with the commandment against murder. There are at least two reasons for such a beginning. First, it is generally accepted that the Ten Commandments might be divided into two tables where the first four (no other Gods, no idols, revere the name of Yhwh, remember the Sabbath) reveal the design of relationship between man and God. The fifth commandment (honor father and mother) serves as a linchpin to connect to the second table (do not murder, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness, or covet) which reveals God’s design for man’s relationship with other men. The reason the Law is so divided is simple: Man might be able to fake his relationship with God in the view of others. But if he breaks God’s will for his fellow man, then he has already broken relationship with God. By beginning with murder, Jesus proves that the scribes and Pharisees head a company that has already broken fellowship with God.

Second, murder was used as the medium to draw a line of distinction between the very first follower of Yhwh and the very first active rebel against Yhwh’s promise and plan. When Cain slew Able (Gen. 4:1-16), he declared himself to be anti-Yhwh.

You heard that the ancients were told: “You will never murder” so whoever murders will be guilty to the court. So, I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be guilty to the court; so, whoever says to his brother “Raka!” will be guilty to the supreme court; so, whoever says “Fool!” will be guilty into the hell of fire.

Just as many conservatives complain about revisionist historians who revise historical events in such a way to cast a particular light on a contemporary agenda, regardless of the accuracy of such statements, the scribes and Pharisees were something of reductionist theologians in that they gutted the Law of significance in order to create a command that is easily attainable. In this sense, they were able to boast great success in keeping the Law perfectly. It is not Jesus who alters the Law, but the scribes and Pharisees who have subtracted all meaning of the Law and sucked out of it any light that might reveal God’s nature, character, and will. Here Jesus exposes their faux righteousness before describing His surpassing righteousness.

Contemporary Righteousness (v. 21)

You heard that the ancients were told: “You will never murder” so whoever murders will be guilty to the court.

Jesus’ introduction requires some scrutiny. He is clearly alluding to the Law as given on Sinai, specifically the sixth commanded recorded once in Exodus 20:13 and again in Deuteronomy 5:17. Yet, Jesus does not introduce the quotation (and a quotation it is) with the expected “it is written”. Jesus is not addressing the Scriptures themselves but to what the disciples have heard regarding the Scriptures. He is not recalling a passage of Scripture but the popular interpretation of a specific passage. This is an important distinction going forward.

The statement “you heard” (ἠκούσατε – the aorist presents the action in a general sense. This statement is common knowledge.) does not indicate that the disciples were illiterate (some would go on to write the New Testament) but that what Jesus refers to is not written down and was thus passed down orally; i.e., through public exposition in the synagogue. The conjunction ὅτι (that) introduces what the disciples would have heard; namely, that the ancients were told not to murder and in such a case that one murders, they will be found guilty by the court.

The point is simple enough. The disciples were among those who were taught that their fathers were given a simple instruction: thou shalt not murder.[3] The phrase that follows is not found in conjunction with the commandment in Exodus or Deuteronomy, but the idea that capital crimes will be tried by a legal court is supported in several places within the law (Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:12; Deut. 16:18-20; 17:8-13) and is certainly implied with the divine prohibition of murder from the beginning (Gen. 9:6). The problem is not that the disciples were told incorrectly. All this information is 100% accurate, biblical, and true. The problem is that they were told that the way man keeps the sixth commandment is purely through the legal system. The sixth commandment had been reduced to two parts: (a) not killing and (b) legally prosecuting those who do. The disciples heard that the ancients were commanded by God to treat murder as a legal matter and thus it is kept and abided by in a legal sense. This utterly misses the point on so many levels.

Murder is not primarily a legal issue so much as it is a spiritual issue. The crime of murder is not even primarily against one’s fellow man but against the God whose image that man bears. This is made ever so clear in the same verse that we first see the precedent for trial and capital punishment: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Gen. 9:6 NASB). Cain’s murder of Abel made this fact evident. His anger against his brother had its roots in total defiance against God’s explicit commands regarding worship.[4] Yet, by the first century men were being taught that the commandment was reduced to a simple legal matter. Not only did the scribes and Pharisees teach that the commandment was possible to keep, they taught that it was easily kept in the realm of civil governance. Their righteousness was easily legislated and enforced by human means. Jesus corrects this illegitimate thinking by extending their logic to its natural conclusion.

Kingdom Righteousness (vv. 22-26)

It is a mistake to consider the post-positive δὲ as introducing a contrast (but). If what follows is truly an antithesis, then Jesus would either be saying (a) you’ve heard it said, ‘don’t murder.’ But I tell you, ‘By all means, murder!’ or (b) you’ve heard it said, ‘don’t murder’ and to prosecute murderers. But I tell you, ‘Don’t bother prosecuting murders.’ Clearly, neither of these is the case. Jesus is not introducing a contrast at all. Rather, He adds to this line of thinking in order to show the ridiculous conclusions that must be reached. The goal is to first correct the silly notion that murder is something that can be kept via human legislation and then to offer some pointed application for His listening disciples.

Jesus’ Correction (v. 22)

So, I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be guilty to the court; so, whoever says to his brother “Raka!” will be guilty to the supreme court; so, whoever says “Fool!” will be guilty into the hell of fire.

Even though Jesus offers no antithesis, He places tremendous emphasis upon Himself as the source of instruction. The independent pronoun in conjunction with the verb (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω) is woodenly translated: So I, I say to you… The implication from v. 21 is that the ancients were told by God. Either from the midst of smoke and fire on Sinai or through the mouth of His prophet Moses, Yhwh spoke to Israel and told them, “thou shall not murder!” As we have repeatedly said, Jesus is not offering a correction regarding what Yhwh has said. He is, however, placing Himself on equal foot with Yhwh, make no mistake. As One who speaks for Himself with the same weight and authority as Yhwh of hosts, Jesus offers three examples that take the scribes’ and Pharisees’ definition of righteousness in the realm of murder to its logical conclusion.[5]

Jesus first presents an image of anger and the logical legal answer for it but does so most specifically. Jesus doesn’t speak of anger in general but frames the discussion to be all-inclusive: all who are angry translates the singular demonstrative participle ὁ ὀργισόμενος which indicates one who is known by the action. The object of such a one’s anger or wrath is his brother. This designation is much more specific than his fellow man[6] but indicates one who shares kindred blood, nationality, and/or religion. On might immediately place this in a Jewish context, which is getting warmer. But Jesus has already made several statements regarding true familial relationships (i.e., the blessed being sons of God (v. 9) and the disciples having a Father in heaven (v. 16) that frames “brother” in the context of a believer or a fellow follower of Jesus.[7] Yet, by using the terms “brother” in the context of anger and murder, one can hardly miss the allusion to the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Much can be said of such anger, but the point is simply that anger normally precedes the act of murder. If one legislates the result of anger, why not legislate the anger itself? Jesus uses the same wording here (ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει) as the description of what the disciples have heard regarding the legislation of murder (ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει). Jesus is drawing out their own conclusions: If murderers are to be tried and found guilty by the court, then I say that those who are angry with their brothers will also be guilty. If the commandment against murder is something that can be kept via legislation, then one would expect that all related items can also be kept the same way. If trying a man for murder translates to kingdom righteous, then so does trying a man for anger. Jesus’ point is not to suggest that the courts make anger a capital offense but to demonstrate (a) the shortcomings of the human legal system and (b) expose the ridiculousness of such a shortsighted exposition of what it means not to murder. It is truly an absurd thought to confine the commandment of murder exclusively to a legal and civil sphere.[8] Jesus continues with two more examples.

Secondly, Jesus moves from the emotional/spiritual response of anger to a concrete expression of anger: name calling. Some English Bibles leave ῥακά (Raka) untranslated. The Aramaic loan word has a meaning of “empty” but is usually used to indicate that someone is “empty headed.” English equivalents range from “numbskull” to “blockhead.”[9] The logic (or lack thereof) is similar to the first example but now has more teeth because both concepts of (a) anger and (b) judgment have been given concrete expressions: specific insult and the gathered Sanhedrin.[10] If the physical manifestation of anger which is murder is worthy of a tribunal, then why not a different physical manifestation of the same thing? Surely, such a “crime” would not be too insignificant for the Sanhedrin! What many translations call “the supreme court” reflects the high Jewish court called the Sanhedrin (συνέδριον) over which sits the high priest. There is no higher court in Israel.

Finally, Jesus continues to drive the logical train right off the proverbial cliff. Notice that no longer is the object of wrath/insult a “brother”. This is emphasized by the change of insult. While ῥακά (empty headed) and μωρός (fool) are more or less synonymous,[11] the first is an insult that would not be used outside of Palestine while the second would have been understood anywhere Greek is spoken. Jesus deftly opens the discussion past the realm of “brother” to a generalized audience. Since the primary victim of murder is God whose image man bears, then all men bear that image. Therefore, it matters not if it is a “brother” or not. The court must sentence the guilty party (again the manifestation of anger is a verbal insult) to a punishment worthy of the true crime: fiery hell for slandering God’s image bearer. But there’s just one problem with such logic: no human court is able to condemn a man to hell, much less send him there.

The scribes and Pharisees define righteousness in the most reduced manner possible. They consider the commandments in a purely legal and civil sense and therefore presume that they, and the nation, are not only able to keep them but consistently do. Jesus’ point is a simple one: one cannot keep the law by reducing it to a legal matter only. Sin against God is a greater misdeed than a crime against man and therefore human courts are not able to inflict the appropriate punishment. Even if they were, what a farce it would make of justice. This is a taste of what the scribes and Pharisees call “righteousness.

To be continued next week with Jesus’ application.

[1] David Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the First Gospel (New York, NY: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1993), p. 64-5.

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 113.

[3] The future indicative οὐ φονεύσιες reflects the Hebrew imperfect (תִּרְצָח) negated by אֹל, a construction that means never and thus carries a clear imperatival meaning. The Greek future aspect is simply attempting to reflect the Hebrew imperfect rather than make a predictive statement.

[4] The first murder was a result of a disagreement regarding orthopraxy. The one who was innovative and attempted to bring what was unauthorized into the worship of God murdered the faithful one who submitted himself to only what Yhwh commanded.

[5] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 218-9.

[6] John Broadus, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, An American Commentary on the New Testament (Forgotten Books, 2012), p. 103.

[7] Charles Quarles, Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church, NAC Studies in Bible & Theology 11 (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011), p. 110.

[8] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), p. 230.

[9] Broadus, p. 103.

[10] Nolland, p. 230-1.

[11] Lenski, p. 220.

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