Would you please explain Matthew 5:21-22? Why are there distinctions in judgments and penalties, and what do they mean?


In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus speaks about literal murder as well as feelings and expressions of hate. The passage reads as follows:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ [Margin: Lit, in Aram., Empty head] shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell [Margin: Gr. Gehenna] fire.”

As seen above, the New King James Bible, as well as most translations, render the last expression as “fool.” However, as this word is understood today by the common reader, it does not seem to be much worse than the term “Raca” (i.e., “empty head”). Why, then, the strong difference in potential judgment?  Some commentaries and
translations admit that they don’t really know what the word means, which they render “fool.” Some say, one cannot translate this word.

Others equate the word for “fool” with “child of hell” or “profane.” Some say, “godless person,” or, “go to hell.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words feels, the word means, “a morally worthless person.”

An interesting possibility is proposed by the Lamsa Bible, which renders the passage in this way:

“You have heard that it was said to those who were before you, You shall not kill, and whoever kills is guilty before the court. But I say to you that whoever becomes angry with his brother for no reason is guilty before the court; and whoever should say to his brother, Raca (which means, I spit on you) is guilty before the congregation; and whoever says to his brother, you are effeminate [Footnote: Aramaic, brutish; abnormal. We might want to add here that the word “effeminate” conveys the thought of being “womanly” or “unmanly”–a sexual reference to homosexuality], is condemned to hell fire.”

Throughout the Bible, the concept of a “fool” is equated with one who denies the existence of God or His role in man’s life. In Romans 1:21-22, 26-27, Paul explains the truth that man, when acting and being foolish, may engage, in some cases, in the practice of homosexuality: “… although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their FOOLISH hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became FOOLS [Note that this is not the same word as the one used in Matthew 5:22, but it conveys a similar concept]… For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful…”

The Nelson Study Bible gives the following explanation to Matthew 5:21-22:

“‘You have heard’ refers to the teaching of various rabbis rather than to that of Moses. Jesus was questioning the interpretation of the Jewish scholars, not the Old Testament itself. The scribes and Pharisees said that a person who referred to another as Raca, meaning empty head, was in danger of being sued for libel before the council (or the
Sanhedrin). On the other hand, Jesus said that whoever calls another a fool will have to answer to God. That is not to say that calling someone a fool will condemn a believer to eternal punishment in hell. Rather Jesus was saying that to utter such words is to place oneself in a worse condition at the time of judgment (see 1 Cor. 3:12-15).”

We might note, in this context, Christ’s warning in Matthew 12:36-37:

“But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Matthew Henry makes the following well-considered comments to Matthew 5:21-22:

“The laws of God are not novel, upstart laws, but were delivered to them of old time; they are ancient laws, but of that nature as never to be antiquated nor grow obsolete. Killing is here forbidden, killing ourselves, killing any other, directly or indirectly, or being any way accessory to it. The law of God, the God of life, is a hedge of protection about our lives.”

We remark, in passing, that these comments do not leave any room and do not give any exception or justification for killing in war. God considers killing in WAR as MURDER as much as any other intentional killing of a human being, including abortion and suicide (Please read our free booklets, “Should YOU Fight in War?” and “Are You Already Born Again?”). To continue with Henry’s comments:

“[The Jewish teachers contended that] the law… was only external, and forbade no more than the act of murder, and laid no restraint upon the inward lusts, from which ‘wars and fightings come’ [compare James 4:1-2]. This was indeed the fundamental error of the Jewish teachers, that the divine law prohibited only the sinful act, not the sinful thought… Christ tells them that ‘rash anger’ is ‘heart-murder’ (v. 22)… he that is thus angry [please note here that righteous indignation is excluded, i.e. godly anger with cause; compare Mark 3:5], would kill if he could… he has taken the first step towards it… He tells them, that giving opprobrious [i.e., showing scorn or reproach; abusive] language to our brother is tongue-murder, calling him ‘Raca,’ and ‘Thou fool’… ‘Raca’ is a scornful word, and comes from pride, ‘Thou empty fellow.’… ‘Thou fool,’ is a spiteful word, and comes from hatred; looking upon him, not only as mean and not to be honoured, but as vile and not to be loved… ‘he that is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment’ and anger of God; he that calls him ‘Raca, shall be in danger of the council,’ of being punished by the Sanhedrin for reviling an Israelite; ‘but whosoever saith, Thou fool,’ thou profane person, thou child of hell, ‘shall be in danger of hell-fire,’ to which he condemns his brother. Christ would thus show which sin was most sinful, by showing which it was the punishment whereof was most dreadful.”

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown likewise point out in their “Commentary on the Whole Bible,” that Christ, as the “Lawgiver and the Judge,” gave the “true sense” of the law against murder, explaining with an “authoritative tone” the “deep rich of the commandment.” The violation of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” leads to “judgment,” that is, “to the sentence of those inferior courts of judicature which were established in all the principal towns, in compliance with Deuteronomy 16:16. Thus was this commandment reduced, from a holy law of the
heart-searching God, to a mere criminal statute, taking cognizance only to outward actions.”

The commentary continues to explain that Christ focused on the heart and mind of the perpetrator.  We might add that John later explained: “Whoever hates his brother IS a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15).

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown also take the position that all three punishments, listed in Matthew 5:21-22, are references to “divine retribution… though this is expressed by an ALLUSION to Jewish tribunals. The ‘judgment’… was the lowest of these; the ‘council,’ or ‘Sanhedrin,’–which sat at Jerusalem–was the highest; while the word used for ‘hell fire’ [in Greek: Gehenna fire] contains an allusion to the ‘valley of the son of Hinnom’ (Josh. 18:16). In this valley the Jews, when steeped in idolatry, went [to] the length of burning their children to Molech ‘on the high places of Tophet’–in consequence of which good Josiah defiled it, to prevent the repetition of such abominations (II Kings 23:10); and from that time forward… a fire was kept burning in it to consume the carrion and all kinds of
impurities that collected about the capital.”

The commentary continues to explain that the ancients understood that “the final punishment of the [unrepentant] wicked [was] described in the Old Testament by alluding to this valley of Tophet or Hinnom (Isa. 30:33; 66:24).”

In other words, Christ’s allusion to punishment in Gehenna–elsewhere described as the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15), which will DESTROY or “BURN UP” the wicked [compare Malachi 4:1]–has reference to those who maliciously refuse to repent of their evil ways. Christ said that EVERY sin can and will be forgiven man, upon repentance, except the sin against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). If we reject the workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we reject God’s power in us which could change us. Permanent refusal to change is tantamount to sin against God and His Spirit. For instance, if we refuse to overcome hate toward others, God’s Holy Spirit, dwelling in us, will ultimately leave us (compare again 1 John 3:15).

To understand why it is so serious to call a brother a “fool”–the meaning of which might include a “child of hell” or an “effeminate,” that is, a sexually abnormal person–is because it is the fate of those kinds of people to end up in the lake of fire, unless they repent (compare Revelation 21:8; 22:15). It is a serious matter to falsely call a brother or a sister in Christ a sexually immoral person or a “dog,” i.e., a homosexual. This is not to say that we must blind our eyes to true facts. Paul was not afraid to point out that some, including in the church, were–or had been–sexually “abnormal” (compare 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 5:9-13). However, Christ warned us not to make incorrect charges of immoral conduct against others, and especially our brethren, because of motivation of hate and malice.

To conclude, we want to quote from the following helpful analysis, found in The Broadman Bible Commentary:

“Jesus traced sin back to disposition, attitude, or intention. The overt act of murder has its root in anger, hostility or contempt for another. Jesus cited anger…, insulting one’s brother… and calling another fool… as being crimes for which one is [or should be] brought before the court (local court of 23 persons), the Sanhedrin (highest ruling body of the Jews), or for which he is liable to Gehenna. No court seeks to convict a person on the grounds of feeling or attitude, but feelings of anger or contempt are as dangerous as are the outward crimes for which one is brought into the courts or considered liable to hell [i.e. Gehenna fire–that is, ultimate extinction]. Jesus’ words… are to be understood as radical protests and warnings against wrong feelings toward another… That Jesus had his own community in mind is reflected in the recurrence of ‘his brother,’ a term reserved in Matthew for a Christian brother. Anger and contempt are not only self-destructive but destroy the fellowship of the church.”

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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