21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Dr. Luginbill of Ichthys touches on this and many other teachings on the sermon on the mount well through what he says below (quote from private email between him and myself)…
In terms of the interpretation, we ARE damned for a single sin . . . if we weren’t saved by the blood of Christ. This is our Lord’s point here and many other places, challenging the assumptions of the self-righteous who assumed that since they were “following the Law” as they redefined it they were worthy of salvation; in fact of course the purpose of the Law is to demonstrate human sinfulness and the need for a Savior. No one hearing this who is the least bit honest with him/herself will think that they are innocent of the charges here. We’ve all said things we regret. Conclusion? We are all damned . . . absent faith in the Messiah, the One who was standing before these people, challenging their false sense of security from “following the Law” as it was being erroneously interpreted.
Jesus now moves on from what some have called “The heart of His Message” (the whole purpose of Jesus’s coming, which was to fulfill the Law) and now begins to correct the false teachings and applications of the religious system that had instituted them many years prior (one of the main reasons Jesus spoke this sermon). But this He also did (Jesus spoke these words above for two reasons) to expose the people’s inner sinfulness to lead them to Himself (one of the primary purposes of the Law). The motivation behind Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:21-22 (as well as much of the rest of the sermon on the mount) was to get the Israelite nation to see their utter helplessness before God. The Jews needed to stop relying on the Law to be saved and trust in the person and work of their Messiah who stood before them. And this Jesus did in the very next section of the sermon for the very same reason He told His listeners to cut off a hand or gouge out an eye if it offended them Matthew 5:29-32 (something no one has ever done). There could be no remission of sins without the shedding of blood Hebrews 9:22).
Our text says that whoever says “You fool” would be guilty enough to go into Hell. Jesus phrased things this way to show the people that all are guilty and stand condemned before God apart from the sacrifice of Christ (and one’s faith in it). Since no one is perfect (and even all believers have committed this sin multiple times throughout their lives), those hearing these words should have concluded that the only way to be saved was through faith in Christ. Jesus expressed the truth this way to get the people to see the impossibility and futility of trying to earn salvation through the works of the Law. Since everyone stands condemned apart from Christ even over one sin, then there can only be one way out of that predicament (through faith in Jesus Christ).
To put it this way, Adam became spiritually dead the moment he sinned, which was only one sin! However, God did not hold it against Him once He believed in the Messiah (Adam and Eve’s acceptance of the coats of skin offered by our Lord demonstrated their faith in Christ’s future sacrifice). Once a person believes, no sin or amount of sins can separate them from Christ (no one loses their salvation over one sin because that would be a works-based gospel-the very thing Jesus taught against!). The believer who does commit such a sin should rejoice that it is covered by the blood of Christ (1 John 2:1). But the unbelieving Jew (or any unbeliever today) should see the utter futility of trying to work their way to heaven by trying to keep the Law perfectly because (absent faith in Christ) just breaking one of the commands would still result in condemnation (you fool!), unless said person became a believer by ceasing to gain salvation through their own efforts. Matthew 5:21-22 demonstrates the impossibility of being saved apart from faith in Christ. The believer who stumbles in any area remains secure as long as they remain believers because the only sin for which Christ could not die was the eternal sin of rejecting Himself. So, although Christ’s death was for all and covered all people, one can only reap its benefits by accepting this sacrifice of sacrifices. So Jesus indirectly told the people they weren’t perfect and couldn’t save themselves. Any and all sins could only be forgiven through faith in Him. In other words, one sin of any type would result in condemnation (as was Adam’s case at first- Romans 3:23 and Romans 6:23) absent faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus was the ultimate teacher/preacher par excellence and laid everything out perfectly. In other words, He told his listeners what they needed to hear without compromise and in a way that would keep those who didn’t want the truth from inflicting severe harm on Him and His ministry (the parables are a prime example of this Matthew 13:34- also to confirm Israel’s unbelief). But to His disciples (those who really wanted the truth and not just the miracles) He would explain things more clearly and in-depth (we will discuss this specific point under “Audience” further below). Jesus said in Luke 10:8 “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of God has been given to you (i.e., the disciples=believers), but to the rest it comes by means of parables, so that they may look but not see, and listen but not understand.
To continue our passage, our Lord wasn’t contradicting the sixth commandment (a reference to Exodus 20:13) but bringing out its true meaning (as He would do in the next verses that follow, dealing with the other commandments) by combating the misuse and abuse of their proper application by Israel’s religious leaders, particularly the Scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the Law. Many within the religious class of this time believed that murder only consisted of physically taking someone’s life. However, Jesus pushed back against this false idea by demonstrating that all murder starts in the heart and has already occurred once a person has done so inwardly; it can very well express itself outwardly through words (verse twenty-two).
Those who killed others under the Mosaic Law were subject to a local jurisdiction. However, Jesus contrasted not only physical murder to murder of the heart but also did so with differing consequences based on the severity of the offense. In verse twenty-two, our Lord now brings out the whole meaning of this Old Testament command. Murder can be accomplished in the heart and then expressed through words and actions, not resulting in someone else’s physical death.
In this case, someone who is angry and goes so far as to say to one of their neighbors, “raca” (an Aramaic term originating from the Aramaic word reqa meant in our context to convey a person as inferior, empty-headed, and worthless next to everyone, but especially the wrongdoer) and call them a fool demonstrates their poor spiritual state. Matthew 5:22 is the only place in the New Testament where the word “rhaka” shows up.
The judgments spoken of in verse twenty-two above show that there will be consequences for the offender in this life and the next (assuming they remain unrepentant). The first judgment given to the angry person would refer to a local jurisdiction in the surrounding area. The one who used the word “raca” would likewise have to face an even higher court (the Sanhedrin for the nation of Israel to whom our Lord spoke). Finally, the individual who demonstrates their hate and unbelief through another offense, perhaps slightly more severe, will face the great white throne judgment at the very end of time right before eternity’s commencement (Revelation 20:11-15). Nevertheless, giving one’s life over to sin (unbelief) will bring eternal condemnation if no repentance is forthcoming. The word “hell” (the fire of Hell) comes from the Greek word geena and refers to the Kidron valley right outside Jerusalem, where fire was continuously ablaze to burn garbage. Jesus used it here as a metaphor to describe literal Hell and the Lake of Fire to come later.
23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
The word “therefore” connects to the previous verses and means “since this is the case, you should do this.” These verses imply that a local jurisdiction is in mind (verses twenty-five and twenty-six involve the higher court of the Sanhedrin). This passage describes the proper code of conduct for each scenario. The first is the person angry with their brother or sister, the second is the one who uses the word “raca,” and the third involves the person who calls one of his/her neighbors a fool. Verses twenty-three and twenty-four prescribe the appropriate reaction to the first instance mentioned (before a local judge while offering a gift on the altar), while verses twenty-five and twenty-six for the second situation involving the Sanhedrin. Both of these were (during Jesus’s time) the protocol of the day. However, one of the spiritual applications of this is for the individual to repent, confess (showing the authenticity of each through actions such as the ones we have mentioned in our passage), and retrieve harmony and fellowship through reconciliation. Believers still need to apply these moral principles today (although we don’t offer gifts or sacrifices or have any possibility of facing the Sanhedrin).
Ultimately, the main point of these verses is that nothing is more important than reconciliation with God (nor should anything come before it 2 Corinthians 5:20). Why wait to get saved when you could die at any time? Don’t wait before it’s too late! Are you an unbeliever? Then you need to get saved!
We need to remember the audience to whom Jesus spoke these words. The principle taught in these two verses still applies today, but not the practice of offering a gift at an altar, which only the Israelites of that time partook in. The New Covenant had not yet begun, so the rituals of the Mosaic Law were still in practice. Today, the church need not fret over such religious observance because those things were a shadow of what was to come in Christ and have since disappeared.
Again, it is not the external motions that count (trying to work one’s way to heaven) but the inward change and attitude that matters. So important were these truths that Jesus said that all offerings at the altar should temporarily stop (representing a prospective convert putting off all delays and distractions to believe in Christ) so that the two parties could amend their situation to avoid further spiritual dangers and damage from emerging. Mere external rituals can never substitute the need for genuine inward change (nor can they earn salvation). Otherwise, the problem could only get worse. That is why the offender needed to show that their change of heart and mind was sincere by demonstrating it through action toward the other person involved (faith without works is dead James 2:17;26). Our Lord desires true repentance, reconciliation with God and man, restoration of fellowship, and forgiveness over any offering or sacrifice (offerings and sacrifices were only applicable during this period, of course).
The above should cause us to reflect on our own lives and how we orient ourselves toward sin. Do we really wish to overcome it, or are we lying to God in our hearts through mere rote confession so that we can turn around and do the same thing repeatedly?
In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. 33 So he ended their days in futility and their years in terror. 34 Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again.35 They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer. 36 But then they would flatter him with their mouths, lying to him with their tongues; 37 their hearts were not loyal to him, they were not faithful to his covenant. 38 Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.39 He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.
25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Our two verses in our context link with the two before. The Israelites (and all unbelievers today) should have reconciled with God through faith (instead of works) before their life ended and it was too late. Once a person is in Hell (synonymous with the prison in Jesus’s analogy), there is no getting out because no human payment can make right what should have been dealt with before the fact. Once a person’s time on earth is up, it’s up, and there are no repeats.
Matthew 5:25-26 now deals with the situation regarding the Sanhedrin (the court and judge). If the wrongdoer can avoid having charges pressed against them, they should make peace with their “adversary” to avoid going to court and jail altogether. Similar to the situation in our previous verse is the need to make peace as quickly as possible before the situation escalates into something worse. Herein lies the whole point of Matthew 5:23-26; seek reconciliation with God before it is too late!