John H. Gerstner, a former professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, observed on one occasion that modern authors write as if they had never met a righteous man or a virtuous woman. If that is correct, it presents a serious problem for us: What, then, is righteousness? And where can righteousness be found?

We might ask the same questions at this point in our study of the Sermon on the Mount. The acknowledged moral giants of Jesus’ day were the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. They made it their lifetime goal to study and obey the Scriptures. But Jesus has just said that the only people who can enter the kingdom of heaven are those who possess a righteousness surpassing the righteousness of these teachers. Where, then, shall we turn to discover what true righteousness is like? We must turn to Jesus, of course. But in addition to that, we can turn to what Jesus talks about in the next section of the Sermon on the Mount. He has called for a righteousness surpassing that of the Pharisees in verse 20. Now, from verse 21 to the end of chapter 5, He explains what a righteousness that “surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law” is like. We need to think about these verses carefully, because there is no better treatment of the differences between these two kinds of righteousness anywhere else in the Bible, and we must have this better righteousness.

Our starting place is to understand that the contrasts in this section are not between Moses’ teaching and Jesus’ teaching. Jesus has already stated His intention to uphold the Old Testament law. William Barclay is entirely wrong when he writes that “Jesus quotes the Law, only to contradict it, and to substitute a teaching of his own.” Rather, the contrasts are between the way the law had been mishandled by the Pharisees and how it should be handled. When Jesus quotes from the Old Testament, He says, “It is written” (take a look at Matthew 4.4, 7, 10). But in these verses, when He introduces the Pharisees’ and others’ mistaken teaching, He begins, “It was said” or “It has been said” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), indicating that what He is rejecting is not the Old Testament teaching but those human interpretations that had distorted it.

Murder: The Sixth Commandment – The way Jesus handles this material is by contrasts (“You have heard that it was said … but I tell you …”), and the point at which these contrasts begin is the sixth commandment. Ever since Sinai, the Jews had known “you shall not murder”; it was part of God’s law. But the leaders of the people had joined that commandment (found in Exodus 20.13) to Numbers 35.30, which demanded death for murderers, implying that the sixth commandment referred only to the specific act of killing.

Is that all murder is? asked Jesus. Is it nothing but killing? Suppose a man wants to kill his enemy but is stopped by some unexpected circumstance. Is he innocent just because he didn’t get a chance to follow through on his desire? Suppose he is too cowardly to kill but would like to do it. Or suppose he is just afraid of getting caught. What if he only hates his enemy? Or insults him? Is he still innocent of breaking this commandment?

No, says Jesus. In a human court the only acts that can be judged and punished are external acts, because human beings can look only on outward things. They cannot see the heart. But in God’s court “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment,” and anyone who merely says, “ ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (v.22).

This is not earth-shatteringly new, of course. The Pharisees and other teachers of the law should have discovered this deeper meaning of the sixth commandment by themselves. William Hendriksen observed rightly, “There was no excuse for the fact that in their interpretation of the sixth commandment the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, in agreement with the men of long ago, were omitting the main lesson. Moses had emphasized love for God (Deuteronomy 6.5) and for man (Leviticus 19.18). Not only that but the very first domestic quarrel narrative, the story of Cain and Abel, had in a very impressive manner pointed up the evil of jealous anger, as being the root of murder (Genesis 4.1-16). … Accordingly Jesus, in interpreting the sixth commandment as He does, far from annulling it, is showing what it had meant from the very beginning.”

There is something else in these verses. It is true that they interpret the sixth commandment definitively. We now know exactly what the words “you shall not murder” mean. But in addition to that, Jesus also tells us what to do when we do become angry or when we know we have done something wrong to someone else. (1) We must make the wrong right, being reconciled to our brother (vv.24-25); and (2) we must make things right immediately, even before we worship God (vv.23-24).

The reason God comes into the picture is because the sin of anger, like all sins, is ultimately against God and must be made right before Him. This is why Jesus talks about being “thrown into prison” until “you have paid the last penny” (vv.25-26). It is not just a human prison He is thinking of. It is hell, which brings the end of the section (v. 26) back to what Jesus warned His hearers of at the beginning (v.22).

You have heard…‘You shall not murder’; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement. But I say to you everyone who is angry [whoever insults] with his brother will be liable to judgement;”