The Heart of the Law - Matthew 5:21-26
Several years ago a physicist professor got pulled over for running a stop sign. So, he did what any academic would do... he wrote a 4 page paper pleading his innocence but his paper was different. Since he was a physicist, his paper was full of equations, formulas, and graphs that supposedly proved his innocence. And he was acquitted. Frankly, a judge who spent more time studying the law than studying math doesn’t have time to deal with the case.
Needless to say, his story was all over the news and the internet because we love stories like this. He was able to get off on a technicality of his own creation.
We love the technicalities and loopholes of the law. It makes us feel like we’re obeying it even when we’re trying to get around it. In the moment, we don’t care about the spirit of the law or it’s intent - it’s about self-preservation.
It’s about getting out of the ticket even if you actually ran a stop sign. Traffic laws aren’t on the books to be a burden to you and me (even though they may feel like it). They were created to keep us safe.
We see something very similar in our passage this morning. The Pharisees wanted to follow the letter of the law and ignore the spirit of it. They hadn’t murdered anyone - so they thought they were free to pat themselves on the back.
Like the Pharisees we want to follow the letter of the law and ignore the spirit of the law. I don’t think I need to convince anyone of the heinousness of murder. We intrinsically know it’s wrong and therefore you and I, like the Pharisees believe we’re pleasing God because we haven’t killed anyone. And so we feel enabled to bury anger, rage, and hatred deep in our heart. Murder is obvious, but anger can be hidden.
So how do we view the law appropriately? How do we view it in a way that honors God?
Hopefully, it’s clear that in this passage Jesus is addressing one the ten commandments, specifically, the 6th Commandment: you shall not murder. The Pharisees thought that the ten commandments only dealt with outward actions like murder, but Jesus shows us that the law dealt with something much deeper: your heart.
What Jesus shows you and I is that the 6th commandment was always about more than refraining from murdering someone - it was about anger and hate. Jesus rips the law out of the hands of the self-righteous Pharisees and says, “you were never keeping the law to begin with!”
From this passage we learn three things, which are on page six of your worship guide: First, keeping the law is more than appearances, second, keeping the law is more than understanding it, and lastly, keeping the law requires your heart to change.
Keeping the law is more than appearances (v. 21)
Jesus says in verse 21, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
Keep in mind, this passage and the passages that follow all stem from verse 20, which says, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus is setting his teaching against the teachings of the Pharisees and Scribes. That’s why he begins verse 21, by saying, “You have heard that it was said.”
You might be thinking, if Pharisees and Scribes taught “you shall not murder,” were they not teaching the law? It’s a straightforward commandment. How can you possibly get that wrong?
It’s what they added to the end of the commandment. Look at verse 21 again. ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
“Liable to judgment” is a reference to judicial proceedings. In other words, The Pharisees and Scribes rationale for not murdering someone is to avoid jail time.
By adding those words to the end of the 6th commandment, the Pharisees and Scribes reduced the commandment to a yes or no question when it was intended to be applied to the broadest possible way!
Think about it, God said, “you shall not murder.” When you leave it there you can correctly deduce - I shouldn’t think murderous thoughts. Or I shouldn’t let anger and rage fester in my heart.
The Pharisees and Scribes wanted to believe they could perfectly keep the law. They thought not murdering someone was keeping the sixth commandment perfectly. And you see appearances meant a lot to them. They wanted to look righteous. They wanted to look holy.
If you look at verse 21, God is left completely out of the equation. They fail to mention who wrote the sixth commandment. And because of their omission, there’s no spiritual dimension to commandment whatsoever and so it fails to address the real issue at hand: the anger, the rage, and hatred in one’s heart that drives him to commit murder.
Allowing anger and rage to fester in your heart is the only way someone can commit a horrific crime like murder.
By the Pharisees standard, they could harbor hate and sin in their heart… but if they didn’t murder someone, they didn’t sin. They were only treating the symptoms of their disease.
Two days after Christmas in 1999, the space shuttle Discovery touched down after a successful mission to work on the Hubble telescope.
A few days later a NASA engineer noticed a massive crack on the left wing.
Unsure of what caused the problem, NASA didn’t do anything. They had just completed their mission. Sure there may have been some issues, but it was an overall success.
On February 1, 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The cause: a damaged left wing caused by a piece of foam breaking off from the shuttle’s external tank which allowed the hot atmospheric gases to destroy the shuttle upon re-entry.
NASA celebrated what appeared to be a successful mission and ignored what turned out to be a deadly issue. Things are not always the way they seem.
Hatred and anger is what drives someone to murder, but the Pharisees and Scribes ignored that. Who cares! The Pharisees and Scribes wanted to look like they were keeping the law.
They were more concerned with looking like they were keeping the law than actually keeping it. They wanted to pats on the back. They enjoyed convincing everyone else that they were keeping the law.
It forces you and I to ask ourselves a question: Are you more interested in looking like a Christian than actually trusting in Christ for the salvation of your soul?
We all know that what’s going on externally isn’t always indicative of what’s happening internally. Only you know what’s going on in your heart. You and I can easily convince everyone around us that everything is fine and hide the fact we’re harboring anger, rage, resentment, and hatred in our hearts.
Keeping the law is certainly more than maintaining appearances, but it’s also more than having a correct understanding of it.
Keeping the law is more than understanding it. (v. 22)
Interestingly, Jesus isn’t bothered by the Pharisees and Scribes strict observance to the law. Rather he is outraged by the fact their inward attitude doesn’t reflect their external obedience. So, in verse 22 he corrects the problem.
He says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
He moves the law from this outward external thing, to an inward heart thing. It’s no longer just refraining from murdering someone. Jesus makes it about what lies in the dark places of your heart. It’s about your emotion, how you think about people, and what you say.
Out of your heart your mouth speaks. Notice how there is an increase in severity of the offenses in verse 22: anger, slander, verbal abuse.
Isn’t that how it normally goes? You harbor anger in your heart, which leads you to making a few slanderous comments, which eventually become full blown verbal abuse.
Letting sin fester in your heart will only lead you to bad places. Which is why Jesus makes the point that as your offenses become more severe, so will your punishment.
It begins with broad judgment from folks around you, to facing courtroom penalty, to eternal punishment. You see giving in to sin - allowing it to fester and grow in your heart - has eternal consequences.
The Pharisees and Scribes thought they understood the law. They thought they were keeping it while ignoring the condition of their heart.
Not that long ago a pastor friend of mine explained to me something that I found really helpful. He told me that there is a major difference between admitting sin and repenting. You can acknowledge something is wrong all day.
You can confess you shouldn’t have done this or that. But those things are totally different from repenting. Expressing true remorse and turning from sin is a totally different thing from simply stating something is sinful.
The problem is, people demand forgiveness when they haven’t truly repented. You can certainly forgive someone that hasn’t repented. But it’s always interesting when someone demands it from you especially when they just acknowledge sin.
Assenting to sin and repenting are two totally different things. Most people understand repentance, but they don’t always want to necessarily do it.
It’s a lot like the Pharisees. They thought they understood the law. They thought they were keeping the law. But Jesus was saying, “no, you’re completely wrong!”
Jesus took the control completely out of the hands of the Pharisees. They thought the law was just about your actions - when really it’s about the condition of your heart.
Jesus corrects the Pharisees and Scribes understanding of the law. Jesus takes the law from being possible to keep to impossible to keep. By making the law impossible to keep Jesus shows us our need for him.
You’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. So we need a perfect substitute to stand in on our behalf before a Holy God. The punishment we deserved was poured out on Jesus Christ on the cross.
When no one else properly understood how to keep the sixth commandment - Jesus did. He kept the law perfectly. He live perfectly and died horrifically.
At the end of the day, you and I both know that unrighteous anger, hatred, and rage are wrong. You shouldn’t allow those sinful emotions to take root in your heart.
But simply recognizing and acknowledging that doesn’t mean you’re keeping the law. It doesn’t mean you’re following what Christ is saying in this passage.
It’s like how people try to pass off acknowledging sin as repentance. It’s two different things. And that’s what we see here.
Understanding what the law, the sixth commandment requires, and truly keeping it are two different things. In order to keep the law our hearts need to change.
Keeping the law requires your heart to change. (vv. 23-26)
Jesus moves from the negative in verses 21 and 22 to the positive in 23-26. He says don’t do this, but do this instead.
The setting that Jesus uses as an example in verse 23 is worship. He says, “so if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go.”
The Jewish people would take gifts into the temple and offer them on the altar in worship. And Jesus says, go to the person that has something against you and settle it before you go into worship.
You know, what Jesus says here makes a lot of sense. Our relationships with each other have an impact on our relationship with God. Anger and animosity with one another will create distance between you and God. Settle your dispute so you can draw near to God.
That’s why Jesus says leave your gift at the altar and be reconciled with your brother. Is there someone you need to be repent or reconcile with today?
It’s with this passage in mind, you’ve probably been told to repent and be reconciled with one another prior to partaking in the Lord’s Supper. If you’re harboring anger in your heart against someone, please don’t wait to be reconciled!
Regular repentance is part of the Christian life and it’s not easy.
Martin Luther set off the Reformation by nailing "The Ninety-Five Theses" to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. The very first of the theses was: "Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
What makes Christians different from the rest of the world isn’t that we don’t sin. What makes Christians different from the rest of the world is how we respond to sin: we repent. We seek reconciliation with our brothers and sisters.
No one enjoys eating slice after slice of humble pie. But this is what our Lord Jesus calls us to! We’re to take up our crosses and follow him.
Christ takes it even further in verses 25-26. He says if an accuser takes you to court - try to settle with him quickly.
It’s one thing to quickly make peace with a loved one. It’s another to quickly make peace with someone you don’t necessarily know or like. It’s harder. Lauren and I, for whatever reason watch a fair amount of crime shows. You have more pity for the person that’s repentant - that shows remorse for their actions.
It’s the person who’s arrogant you want the judge to throw the book at. Those who lack repentance are dealt with more harshly. That’s what Christ is getting at in verse 26. But I think there’s an even more profound way of looking at verses 25 and 26.
It’s with Christ as the judge in verse 25.
You see those who repent of their sins and put their trust in Christ will be forgiven, while those who never repent, never turn to Christ, will be eternally punished and separated from God.
Just as we need to repent to one another quickly, we need to repent to the Lord quickly.
But your heart has to change. You have to want to please the Lord and that requires the Holy Spirit. He needs change your heart of stone into a heart of flesh.
I have to be honest, when I first moved here and someone offered me chicken bog - I had major doubts. I’ll eat just about anything, but I don’t like the word ‘bog.’ The name is doing the food no favors.
You really can’t go wrong with chicken and rice. So I got over it and tried chicken bog. I had my doubts but it turns out it’s pretty good.
I had a change of heart when I came to chicken bog. But the Lord has to change your heart in order for you to truly keep his commands.
Perhaps you become angered easily. Maybe you give into some other sin easily. Have you grown so accustomed to that sin it doesn't even bother you anymore?
Is your heart growing cold toward the things of God? Do you really think that the commands of Christ are for your good? Or do you think you know better?
Pray that the Lord will soften your heart.
Pleasing the Lord and obeying his commands is more than actions. It’s more than understanding. Truly keeping the law is about your heart.
Do you enjoy the things of God? Do you want to please him?
Are his commands a duty or a delight for you? Psalm 119:97 says, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”
Too often we think of God’s law as a burden. It weighs us down. Restrains and restricts us. In fact, verses 21-23 are stated in the negative.
But there’s also an implicit positive command in these verses that can be easily overlooked.
Think about this: what’s the opposite of anger? It’s peace and love.
If we’re commanded not to give anger and hatred a foothold in our hearts, that means we should let peace and love overflow from our hearts.
Love and peace should define us as Christians. We should love because he first loved us.
When you consider what God has done for the believer - it puts things in perspective. He loved so much he sent Christ to die so that we could be reconciled to him. That’s the model we need to reflect on and follow.
When we go to the table in a few moments, let’s remember it’s not a table of separation. It’s not a reminder of God’s anger toward us. Rather it’s a reminder of God’s love. It’s a reminder of how God has made peace with man. 1 Peter 4:8 says “love covers a multitude of sins.”
People will frustrate you. People will make you angry. They’ll sin against you and you’ll sin against them. But the question you and I need to ask ourselves is this: will you repent quickly and love generously?