Matthew 5:17–26. The First Command. The Bad Words We Say.
Key Notes: Anger and aggression. Abusive words.
The next material in the Sermon on the Mount is important—dense and sharp-edged—and in pointed contrast to the Beatitudes.
“The beatitudes were too easy. The commands are too tough. “
5:17–19 “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly , I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments… shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”
“Think not ” implies that after reading the Beatitudes, one might believe that Jesus’ new era of blessings had eliminated the OT Law. Only grace is in view. Far from that, Jesus will fulfill the OT Law in three ways.
*He will spell out the OT Messianic prophecies that were being fulfilled and will be fulfilled (both soon and later) concerning Himself. Lk.24:2
*He will affirm all of the Ten Commandments and enrich their meaning, commandments that are binding to this day.
*He will make our obedience to the commands possible through the work of the Holy Spirit whose indwelling depends on His death and resurrection. Rom.8:4
5:20 “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is a crucial block thrown up against legal religion. The scribes and Pharisees were the legal elite, unsurpassed in their devotion to the Law. Jesus discounts their efforts. He is making the first part of the case for the New Birth to replace human efforts to please God. The other verse that is also crucial in this first phase is Rom.3:20 (KJV).“For by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight, for by the Law is the knowledge of sin.”
The Pharisees cannot make the grade of God’s demand for holiness. The Law does not solve the problem of sin; it makes sin more obvious. Together, these verses put the nail in the coffin of legal religion. In the rest of chapter 5, Jesus will give us six examples of OT Law restated by His demands for heart-righteousness.
5:21 You have heard that it was said…’you shall not kill ’ and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council and whoever says ’you fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.…”
The Greek word for fool is “moros”, from which we get the word moron. The word “moros” in the Gospels is used for spiritual stupidity and failure, such as the foolish virgins who did not keep oil for their lamps. The other word, “raka”, is more obscure, but is considered a similar insult.
Six times in six cases, Jesus will say “but I say unto you”, with " I" emphasized using the personal pronoun. He is taking up the authority of the OT as its Author and filling it full of meaning, making it more internal and impossible to perform by mere human effort.
In this first case, Jesus equates killing with its motive, anger, using a rhetorical crescendo, warning us of Hell. He disallows anger against a brother, even denying the use of an insulting word. His focus is on our intentions, the aggressive impulses from which anger, insults, beatings and ultimately murder originate.
Aggression is one of the most basic human drives. It motivates our drive for success, our small conquests, our acquisitive instincts. You can feel it in the way we drive our cars and the way we shop, the games we play and even the way we split wood. God gave us aggression as He gave us our sexuality, for our survival and advancement. How we use these primordial drives is a topic of these discussions.
We humans are very gifted in abusive language, or insults. Insults can be divided into categories. Notice the bite in these sets of words.
Mental: air-head, crack-pot, moron, idiot, imbecile, drip, stupid
Animal: dog, rat, snake, weasel, turkey, frog, swine, worm
Racial: jig, spic, gook, nigger, wop, kike, whitey
Political: Nazi, fascist, communist, right-wing, rabble-rouser, demagogue, enemy
Sexual: whore, fairy, queer, slut
Political correctness frowns on the use of such words, and we must agree. If we cannot use such words against our Christian brothers, how much more must we protect the feelings of those who have not yet met the Lord?
But we reserve religious epithets for our spiritual brothers:
wishy-washy, compromiser, man-pleaser, hypocrite, legalist, heretic, apostate, etc.
We do not associate anger with killing and certainly do not associate insults with killing.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But they do.
May God forgive us.
But how can we not be angry with our brothers and sisters—other members of the body of Christ? So much is at stake and so many things are done wrongly. How are we supposed to give legitimate criticism?
*The method for settling church disputes is outlined in Matt.18:15–20
*The discipline of elders is discussed in I Tim.5:17–22.
Both are to be done with care and without the use of epithets. Even if you consider the hardened and unrepentant as a “Gentile” and a “tax-collector” Jesus does not authorize you to say so, only to reject the person as such.
How can we not be angry?
James reminds us that “The wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God” (Jm.1:20, KJV). Our righteous indignation is at best, half- righteous.
Paul admonishes us “Be ye angry and sin not. Let not the sun go down upon your wrath, neither give place to the devil." (Eph.4:27, KJV)
So anger is going to happen. We must then go quickly into apology. In our own homes, we should not go to our beds with our fellowship broken. But it is so difficult to say “ I am sorry. Please forgive me.” We know we are right to demand an apology from the other person.
5:23 ”So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you [for the hateful words you last said], leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.”
Jesus is saying that we should not be talking to God about mercy and reconciliation (the sacrifice on the altar) until we apologized to our Christian brothers and sisters. That is hard to do. We know we are right. We were justified in what we said.
5:25 I think Jesus turns the direction slightly again.
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge….” This passage suggests that ultimately we will have to deal with God. We must settle accounts with Him quickly, every day.
We are not going to be able to do as Jesus commands. We are entitled to our angry words and the other person should apologize for upsetting us. We know we are right. And besides….
It makes us feel bad to be so far off the mark. We are wise once again to start our spiritual walk at the bottom, to be Poor in Spirit, then Mourning, then Meek, then Hungering and Thirsting after Righteousness. Brokenness is the way to spiritual revival.
“God loves me enough to accept me as I am--in the Beatitudes.
God loves me too much to leave me that way--in the Commands.”
(Matthew. A Commentary. F.D.Brunner. Eerdmans,’87. Vol. I; p.195)
P.S. Psychology would suggest that it is better to express anger than to repress it. Repressed anger comes out in all kinds of unhealthy ways, such as passive-aggressive behavior, psychosomatic disorders, and depression. Fortunately, we have many acceptable outlets for aggressive feelings, mostly physical activities such as bowling, tennis, running, and hard work-- cleaning house or digging in the garden.