Matthew 5:21-22 (NKJV): “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!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”
1) The heart of the problem
We live in a time where it is so easy to lash out against other people and slander those who disagree with us, especially on social media. The current political division and tension between people living in the United States [with differing viewpoints, primarily] create an environment based on anger and justification and are continually corroding self-control and wisdom. Real issues are pressing this country--issues that should be addressed and dealt with in the best way possible. But what is the best way possible, and how do we navigate that? Ultimately, the turmoil we are witnessing, along with the decreasing presence of peace, is not caused by any policy, organization, or particular person--rather, it is ultimately caused by a sickness in the heart of man.
In Matthew 5, Jesus identifies the root of the issues of man. Christ acknowledges the reality that the Israelites of that time had been living in: “it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’” The status quo was simply, “If I murder someone, I am then in danger of the judgment. But, if I don’t murder anyone, then no judgment for me.” Not so, says Jesus. In usual Christ fashion, Jesus ups the ante to 1000%, simply saying that even being angry at someone without a cause or calling someone a fool will put you in danger of hellfire. I think it can be easy to look at the first part of Christ’s words and say, “But, Jesus says if you are angry without a cause, it’s a bad thing--so, therefore, it’s ok for me to be angry at this person because I have a good reason!” But what is deemed a worthy cause or a good reason? Is it by your standard alone that these things are defined? And if it is by your standard, doesn’t everyone then have their own standard? Where is the line in which you are justified? When we walk in this way and try to justify ourselves in sin, we are no longer dealing in truth.
Please do not hear what I am not saying. There is a difference between wisely working toward something to reach a solution and/or gaining understanding and fighting to prove a point to feed one’s own ambitions. We are drawn to a path that is not Christ’s, and it can look desirable when we get angry with other people. The key aspect that Jesus is identifying is that we are more than just the external, outward-focused impact that we cause. What Jesus is focusing on in Matthew 5 is the internal environment within each of us that flows out from our hearts. Is Jesus saying that simply muttering the words “You fool” will get us sent to hell? No, it’s not the words themselves that will be judged, but the heart from which the words flow.
2) One standard of goodness
The word itself, “fool,” is a pretty mellow word compared to some of the verbiages that have been concocted in recent generations. The word fool means someone who “acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person.” (Google definition). The Hebrew word “raca” that Christ used is defined by some as “empty-headed, foolish, or vain.” All-in-all, the point is that they are derogatory words. And words are made to be derogatory to achieve the purpose in which they are made: to deride, belittle, and/or insult someone. It is the purpose behind the prose that Jesus is addressing, and to properly address the issue, Jesus has to bring the matter to the heart--for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). This is why Christ mentions anger; anger is an emotion that occurs within us and moves our outward actions. If a person is angry at someone and that anger moves them to murder that person, the true sin started within the heart of the murderer. This is why we need new hearts: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26 NIV).
The problem with us humans is that we constantly want to justify ourselves. As previously mentioned, we try to be the victim to attain the high ground and obtain our moral justification. The phrase, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” is not so far off in many ways. When everyone determines what exactly defines good by their own individual standards, it is easy for everyone to feel justified in calling someone else an idiot when it suits their reasoning. The Truth, however, says something different, and He says that there is only One standard of goodness: God, and God alone. In reality, sin cannot be justified because all sin is utterly wicked to a holy God. If God alone is perfect--not having the slightest notion of evil within Himself--then, truly, all of us are unable to justify wrongdoings against others. Even if the sin is something as seemingly small as being angry at someone without reason, it is still an abomination compared to God.
So then, do we simply just stop cursing people and force ourselves to stop having any negative emotions whatsoever to please God? If God is holy, and He alone is the moral standard to which we answer, then there can be no other solution to our sin problem than God Himself. Take this simple equation: If we--being sinful and fallen--represent the number 0, then God--being holy and righteous--represents the number 1. So, no matter what 0 does, it cannot reach 1. We can think the two numbers are pretty close and that there isn’t that big of a difference, but in reality, there is an infinite amount of distance that separates them (0.1, 0.01, 0.001, etc.). The only way that 0 can reach 1 is if 1 is added to 0. In this way, God came down to us and died on the cross so that we may live, for life is in the Son: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12 NKJV). If we believe in Jesus and follow Him, God makes His home within our hearts, and we receive the 1 that completes our equation. But if we do not accept God’s sacrifice and eternal life for us, then we remain infinitely separated from Him, as 0 is from 1. This is why Christ says God alone is good; the spectrum of “goodness” is simply 0 (everything) and 1 (God).
3) God sanctifies the sacrifice
God has given us access to the Key of heaven, and finding it really is as simple as 0 + 1. All we have to do to receive God’s blessing in Christ is believe. When we believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that He rose on the third day, and that by His death and resurrection, we are redeemed, we accept the gift that God has given through His Son and have eternal life. There is nothing more to it; by believing in our hearts that Jesus saved us, we have the assurance that we will spend eternity in the place we were made to exist: with God. Yet, we see that Christ is saying, “anyone who calls someone a fool is in danger of hellfire.” What is He saying? Jesus is illustrating the awesome goodness of God--that not even a sinful emotion escapes Him. And by emphasizing this reality of God’s holiness, Christ is ultimately stressing Himself all the more. Because, without God, it is impossible to get into heaven--God is heaven. If God is entirely holy, and if we are to exist with Him in heaven, then we will have to be holy as He is. This is why God says, “and you shall be holy; for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44 NKJV).
Therefore, the true answer to Matthew 5:21-22 actually has nothing to do with monitoring how we speak or trying to make ourselves better in any way. Truly, all Christ is calling for is faith. Faith to believe in God and that He can do the work within us that we need and that His grace is enough to change us. We can’t--and never will be able to--make ourselves holy. In Leviticus, it wasn’t the sacrifice that sanctified the altar, but the altar that sanctified the sacrifice. Why else do we think Paul wrote, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12:1 NIV).
The sacrifice in itself was just a slain animal, but with God, it was made holy. Thus, Paul writes that we are called to be living sacrifices, offering up our bodies and lives to the Lord. Now, don’t go jumping into a fire or anything--that’s not what Paul is trying to communicate. Nonetheless, if we are following Christ, we are called to offer up our lives to God as a sacrifice, and it is in this submission to God that we receive the fire of the Holy Spirit. By harboring the Holy Spirit within us, we bear the fruit that God wants. This is something that will come by God’s power alone, but that does not mean we won’t be led to do practical things either. Making a disciplined effort to seek Christ daily, or setting aside a certain amount of time each day to read the Word, are acts of faith that God will honor and reward (Hebrews 11:6). While we may not always “feel” God’s presence or be able to acknowledge that He is even with us, we are promised that He is: “... ‘and they shall call His name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (Matthew 1:23 ESV).
Can it be that God has such a high standard--the highest standard--because what He offers is that good? If God is as holy as He is, and He has given His Son for us that we may receive His life, then what could outweigh the worth of the Living God’s love? Truly, then, Paul’s words ring true: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 BSB). God is that good, and when the deepest part of our soul calls out to Jesus, He will unfailingly come to our rescue every time.