The Sixth Commandment
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Bible Passage: Matthew 5:17-26
We will continue our study in the Sermon on the Mount. If you remember, the first week, I said that Jesus would offend everyone on purpose. That really starts today. We have completed the introduction and now we come to the body of the sermon, beginning in Matthew 5:17:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
It is difficult for me to overstate the importance of this verse. Jesus has already mentioned the prophets back in verse 12. And he will mention the Law and the Prophets again in chapter 7, near the end of the sermon.
Jesus wants to make it absolutely clear to his audience that his own teaching fits with the teaching of the Old Testament. He’s not betraying the Jewish faith. He’s bringing fulfillment to it.
This is important because the religious leaders repeatedly accused Jesus of rejecting Old Testament commands. But Jesus anticipates that criticism and defends Himself.
18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
An iota is the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet. A dot is a tiny stroke used to distinguish between Hebrew letters. Jesus is saying unequivocally that God’s Law still matters, and it will continue to matter until the end of time.
I want to pause here briefly and address a concern that some of you may have. If you are familiar with Old Testament law, then you know there are many laws that Christians no longer follow. We no longer keep the ceremonial laws regarding sacrifices and rituals and cleanliness as they were written. There were also civil laws and case laws that were given to the nation of Israel.
That’s a lengthy discussion that I am willing to have with anyone who may be interested. Let me know and we can talk, but I want to focus on the intent of Jesus in this sermon.
Right now, Jesus is preaching to the choir. You can imagine the Jewish people nodding along as a rabbi talks about the importance of the Law. You can imagine the religious leaders grinning from ear to ear, thinking to themselves – “Yes, he IS one of us!”
Talking to ancient Jews about the law is like talking to Americans about the Constitution. You’d get a lot of nods and applause, even if most of the people in the room have never actually read it.
19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
And now you can imagine some of the normal people in the crowd getting a little uncomfortable, because most people know they’re probably guilty of relaxing some commandments. But the religious leaders are loving it. “Tell it Jesus! Preach! Amen! Amen!”
They considered themselves to be experts on the Law and they looked down on everyone else. But Jesus continues…
20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
And this is where we could play the sound effect of tires screeching or a record player scratching. Everyone stops nodding in agreement. Everyone is now uncomfortable, including the religious leaders. Jesus just told this crowd that none of them are good enough to enter the kingdom of heaven, not even the best among them.
It reminds me of the moment in 2 Samuel 12, after David committed adultery and murder. Do you remember? Nathan the prophet tells David a story about a rich man who took a poor man’s only lamb for himself. David was outraged and demanded justice, but then Nathan pulls the rug out from under David. “You are the man!”
That’s what Jesus did here. Jesus has the crowd feeling good about themselves and then he rips the rug out from under them. He has the entire crowd’s attention – most of all the men who think of themselves as law keepers. And then he gives a shocking example.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
That’s the sixth commandment. It’s also a very basic commandment – easy to recall and easy to keep. The vast majority of people on the earth will live their entire lives and never break this commandment, right?
And that’s probably why Jesus chose it as his first example. Almost no one believes they are guilty of breaking this commandment.
22 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.
Jesus teaches that anger breaks the sixth commandment. And by teaching this, Jesus breaks everyone’s understanding of the commandment.
No one listening to Jesus believed they were guilty of committing murder, but Jesus teaches that all of them are guilty of breaking the sixth commandment. How is that possible? Surely, there is a big difference between being angry with someone and taking their life?
It may help to give this verse some context. Remember, Jesus is speaking to real people and there are several instances in the Gospels when Jesus actually knows what people are thinking and feeling and he speaks directly to them.
Just moments before verse 23, Jesus mentioned the scribes and the Pharisees by name. He publicly embarrassed them, claiming that their righteousness was not good enough for God.
Do you think maybe they were angry with Jesus, their brother? Do you think some of them might even be muttering insults under their breath?
What happens inside us when we become angry with another person? There’s an impulse that rises up, a reaction to feeling offended. The other person becomes an object of contempt, meaning they are less valuable to us. We may even try to say or do something to the other person to intentionally devalue them.
That’s why we call people names. That’s why we speak insults. Anger, resentment, frustration… they lead to hate. The other person becomes a villain, and we may try to damage their character. We may even wish they didn’t exist. I have certainly felt that towards someone. And what Jesus teaches is that all of this comes from the same place.
Any of our efforts to devalue another human being, according to Jesus, qualifies as a breaking of the sixth commandment. Murder, of course, is the ultimate way to devalue another a human. But according to Jesus, insulting someone is in the same neighborhood.
This concept of value is why Christians oppose abortion. Abortion is absolutely a violation of the sixth commandment. Someone is saying that overall, it’s better for me if that human life doesn’t exist. My life and how I want to live it is more valuable than this infant.
This is also why Christians oppose neglecting orphans, or the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the homeless – the reasons people ignore the needs of others is often because of a judgment that such people are less valuable. My own needs are more important to me than my neighbor’s needs.
It’s possible some of the things I just said made some people a little angry with me. But that’s exactly the sort of response Jesus expected from his sermon. Is it possible that we have misjudged ourselves? That we are worse than we think we are? That’s the point.
All the ways we choose to devalue another human being, all of it makes us guilty of breaking the sixth commandment. The Westminster Larger Catechism agrees with this assessment, stating that the sixth commandment requires:
“charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceable, mild and courteous speeches and behavior; forbearance, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil; comforting and succoring the distressed, and protecting and defending the innocent.”
And besides murder, the sixth commandment forbids:
“…sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations; provoking words, oppression, quarreling, striking, and wounding.”
This fits with what Jesus taught in Matthew 5. Look at what He says next in verse 23.
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Notice that Jesus does not say, “If you have something against your brother.” Instead, he says, “If your brother has something against you.” Think about that. That’s a big shift. If you know someone is angry with you, Jesus thinks you have a responsibility to deal with it.
And notice that He doesn’t qualify it. It doesn’t seem to matter if the person’s anger is justified. I may be innocent. I may have done nothing wrong. But if I know there’s tension, if I know you have a problem with me, I have a responsibility before God to do something about it.
In other words, personal reconciliation is at the heart of the sixth commandment. Not only am I forbidden from devaluing my brother. I have a responsibility to pursue peace. In fact, it is more important to Jesus that we reconcile with another person than if we go to church! Don’t come worship at my altar until you get that right!
And then, as if that’s not hard enough, he takes it a step further.
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
In other words, work it out quickly, while you have the chance. The Apostle Paul says something very similar in Romans 12:18 – “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
And by now, everyone in His audience should feel offended. Refusing to live this kind of peaceable life makes all of them (and all of us) commandment breakers, worthy of hell. Jesus says, “You will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” No mercy for you. Not even a penny!
Great sermon, right? It really warms the heart, like chicken soup for the soul. Just kidding.
But what is Jesus trying to do? He is trying to show his hearers their own spiritual bankruptcy, even the ones who think they are doing well.
Jesus began the sermon with a focus on the heart. Poor in Spirit was the necessary precondition for repentance and faith.
And now he teaches us that sin also has necessary preconditions. Anger leads to contempt leads to murder… it begins in the heart.
Keeping the law is not so simple as keeping a checklist of dos and don’ts. The Law exposes and judges the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. God is not satisfied with the life any of us would offer Him, if not for Jesus.
But after a few short years of ministry, Jesus demonstrated perfect fulfillment of the sixth commandment by going to the cross. Jesus was wrongly accused, condemned, and crucified. Jesus had the absolute right to respond to His accusers in righteous anger. He could have brought the wrath of God down on their heads.
Peter writes: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” And what did Jesus say to the Father while He suffered?
Instead, He muttered a prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus raised the standard of the Law far beyond anything we could ever hope to keep. He humbles us. He empties us. And, as Peter continues,
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”