Transcending the Law: Matthew 5:21–22

Transcending the law (3)

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9) Matt 5:21–22: Christ preached, “You have heard that it was said to the ancient ones, ‘You shall not commit murder.’”

In this passage, Jesus contrasted the teaching of his day with the true meaning of the Pentateuch.

Rabbis employed the formula, “You have heard that it was said” when speaking of religious tradition.[1] “It was said” implied that God himself spoke the command.[2]

“The ancient [ones]” referred to the people who first received the Mosaic law.[3]

Jesus quoted, “You shall not murder” (phoneuō) directly from the Greek translation of Deut 5:17.

Although Hebrew has seven words meaning “to kill,”[4] the term used here refers to intentionally taking someone’s life.[5]

Thus, it involves an act of premeditation. In addition, phoneuō includes abetting murder and benefiting from this crime (1 Ki 21:11–19). The penalty was death (Num 35:16–21).[6]



“Anyone who commits murder will be liable to judgment” likely derives from Num 35:20–24, 30–34.

That passage emphasizes the need for legal proceedings to determine whether someone intentionally killed another person. The process also sought to prevent blood feuds from occurring.[7]

A Jewish apocryphal work noted, “He who works the killing of a man’s soul, kills his own soul, and kills his own body, and there is no cure for him for all time.”[8]



At the time of Christ, competing Jewish factions vied to win people over to their interpretation of obedience to the Mosaic law through lengthy debates.[9]

Jesus found fault with the rabbis’ application of the Old Testament (OT).[10] By emphatically proclaiming, “but I say to you,”[11] Christ invoked his own authority as the Messiah.[12]

He equated his decree to the rest of Scripture while explaining the original intent of God’s law.[13]

Christ’s words did not violate the law: they transcended it.[14]

Jesus looked beyond a person’s behavior to an unrestrained heart which generates murder (1 John 3:15).[15]

Contrary to the frequent perception that Christ loosened the requirements of the Old Testament (Matt 5:17–20), here he made the rigor of the commandment far greater.[16]

A person’s character matters just as much as behavior.[17]

Anger violates God’s commands, for it forms the basis for murder. Therefore, both receive the same judgment.[18]

Our rage strips people of their value as image-bearers of God (Gen 1:26–27; Matt 12:34–37; Matt 15:18–20).[19]

Some manuscripts say, “Anyone who is angry with his brother without reason.”  The words in italics appear to be a later addition intended to make the command easier to keep.[20]

“Brother [or sister]” likely refers to another believer.[21]

However, later in the sermon Jesus ordered, “Love your enemies and pray on behalf of the ones persecuting you” (Matt 5:43).[22] This expands the command to all people, not only to fellow Christians.[23]



The punishments outlined in this verse increase in severity, even though the sins seem roughly equivalent.[24]

Those “subject to judgment” would have appeared before either the local religious authorities (sanhedrin),[25] a group of twenty-three men who determined the outcome of capital cases (m. Sanhedrin 1.4), or the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, which was the highest Jewish council. It consisted of a group of seventy-one priests, scribes, and elders.[26]

However, anger did not come to trial before the Jewish courts except in highly controlled communities like that of the Essenes of Qumran.[27]

The Community Rule of the Dead Sea Scrolls says:

If [someone] has spoken in anger against one of the Priests inscribed in the Book, he shall do penance for one year and shall be excluded for his soul’s sake from the pure Meal of the Congregation.

But if he has spoken unwittingly, he shall do penance for six months…Whoever has deliberately insulted his companion unjustly shall do penance for one year and shall be excluded.[28]



Raka” appears only here in the New Testament.[29] Rabbis commonly employed it as an insult.[30] The term implied that the person addressed was “empty-headed” or foolish.[31]

In that culture, calling someone “an idiot” was considered a serious offense, for it demeaned the person’s name.[32] For the same reason, calling someone “a bastard” resulted in forty lashes (b. Kiddushin 28a).

Greco-Roman society also considered defamation an actionable injury.

For example, Gaius (ca. 130–180 AD) wrote, “Outrages are atrocious either by the act, as when a man is wounded, horse-whipped, or beaten by a stick; or from the place, as when an affront is offered in the theater or the forum; or from the persons, as when a magistrate or senator is insulted by one of lower rank.”[33]



These types of insults reveal attitudes of contempt which the Lord condemns.[34]

The heavenly court hears every word we speak (Matt 10:26–30; Mark 4:22–25). Slandering another person merits the punishment which would have been given to the ones we falsely accuse (Deut 19:16–19).[35]

Jewish courts under Roman rule could no longer carry out the punishments for capital crimes (John 18:31–32). Therefore, for Jesus, “the Sanhedrin” appears to refer to God’s heavenly court.[36]

That tribunal shall condemn the guilty to destruction “into the Gehenna of fire.”[37]

Earlier in Israel’s history, parents burned their children to death as sacrifices to the Canaanite god Molech in Gehenna (Ps 106:37–39; Jer 7:31; 2 Ki 23:10).[38]

By the time of Christ, Gehenna served as Jerusalem’s city dump. Since garbage continually burned there,[39] it provided an apt metaphor for the fires of hell.[40]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Matt 5:21–22. Why are anger and insults akin to murder? What do they do to us?




Go to Be Reconciled to Your Brother (Matt 5:23‒24)

[Related posts include Be Reconciled to Your Brother (Matt 5:23‒24); Made in the Image of God (Gen 1:26 cont.); and Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); Sin Lies Stretched Out (Gen 4:6‒7); Cain Arose against His Brother (Gen 4:8); Intertestamental History; Greek Translation of the Old Testament; Ancient Literature; and New Testament Textual Criticism]

[Click here to go to Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Brothers (Genesis 4:1‒16)]


[1]Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 111, 115.

[2]Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 241.

[3]R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 200.

[4] Wilkins, Matthew, 241–2.

[5] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200.

[6] Wilkins, Matthew, 241–2.

[7] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200.

[8]W. R. Morfill, trans., The Book of the Secrets of Enoch (2 Enoch) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1896), 60.1,

[9]Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 181.

[10] Wilkins, Matthew, 240.

[11]Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 319. Greek verbs include a personal pronoun. Adding the word “I” to the verb makes it emphatic.

[12] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 111.

[13] Wilkins, Matthew, 240–1.

[14] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 112.

[15] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 183.

[16] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 114.

[17] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 182.

[18] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 116.

[19] Wilkins, Matthew, 242.

[20]Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 113. Italics mine.

[21] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200. In Greek, a masculine plural can refer either to only men or to a group of mixed genders.

[22] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 116.

[23] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200.

[24] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 200–1.

[25] Wilkins, Matthew, 242.

[26]Anthony J. Saldarini, “Sanhedrin,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (ABD), 6 Vols., David Noel Freeman, Ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 5:975–80, 576–7.

[27]Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 182.

[28]Geza Vermes, trans., The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, 4th Ed (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 1995), 1QS7:2–4, 79,

[29]Joachim Jeremias, “Ρακα” (raka), in Theological Diction of the New Testament (TDNT), 10 Vols. Gerhard Kittel, ed., Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans., (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1964–76), 6:973–6, 973.

[30] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 116.

[31] Wilkins, Matthew, 242.

[32] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 116.

[33]Gaius, Institutes of Roman Law by Gaius (trans. Edward Poste, rev E. A. Whittuck; Oxford: Clarendon, 1904), 3.225, 427–8,

[34] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 201.

[35] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 184.

[36] Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 184.

[37] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 201–2.

[38] George C. Heider, “Molech (Deity),” ABD 4:895–8, 897.

[39] France, The Gospel of Matthew, 202.

[40] Hagner, Matthew 1–13, 117.