Open Matthew 5:21-22.
This verse scared the life out of me as a young teen. I understood Jesus to say that, if I ever felt angry, I would be consigned to hell. So, I was never angry! No matter how I felt, I wasn’t angry! If my emotions could damn me, I would damn them. I would become a purely rational being, like Spock from Star Trek.
Only later did I discover other verses like, “In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26). So, anger wasn’t sin? Eventually I found some verses where God was angry, and I guessed he wasn’t sinning. I couldn’t imagine God sending himself to hell for being angry.
So what was Jesus saying? There had to be more to this text than I understood.
Jesus had been anointed as Israel’s king, announcing the restoration of God’s reign (4:12-25). What joyful blessing for the ones who’d missed out (5:1-12)! His subjects were the God-taste for the earth, the God-light for the world (5:13-16). This was all a bit much for those who thought he was minimalizing the Law (5:17). In their minds, God’s kingship could only be restored when Israel was more obedient, so they actively played the role of the people’s accuser. Jesus agreed that God’s Law was important for his nation, but then he set out to out-law the lawyers at their own game: “If you don’t do better than these Torah experts and Pharisees, you’ll never have God’s kingship restored” (5:20).
For 600 years, Israel had been locked up under foreign rulers. Could they ever regain their freedom? While ever their leaders kept prosecuting the case against them, taking the role of their accuser, the people would stay locked up. Their case was as hopeless as the guy who was imprisoned until he could pay his fine, so he could never earn money to pay his fine. “The truth is, I tell you, you’ll never get out until you’ve paid the last cent” (5:26).
But if Israel’s accusers wanted to play the legal accusation game, Jesus could beat them at their own game. I don’t mean Jesus was caricaturing God’s Law: his case is more genuine than his accusers’. But the point that Jesus made was that there is no hope for Israel if all their leaders do is point out their failures. They don’t need a leader to accuse them but to fulfil the law for them (5:17).
That’s the context in which Matthew 5:21-26 makes sense. Jesus makes the case that the Laws given by their heavenly king are so important that they need to grasp not merely the legalese but what their king intended when he gave them these laws. At the same time, he’s making the point that playing accuser — pointing out where his people have failed — will never restore them to God’s reign: they can’t “enter the kingdom of heaven” that way (5:20).
So here is Jesus’ case to out-law the lawyers at their own game. “You’ve heard that our ancestors were told, ‘Don’t murder!’ Any murderer faces the prospect of judgement.” (5:21). But then Jesus explains what the heavenly king actually wanted for his people when he gave this law: “I tell you that it isn’t only those who commit murder who are guilty. Anyone who wants to take the life of his brother is just as guilty and should face the same punishment. On what evidence could he be judged if he hasn’t committed the act? On the evidence of his words! His angry words are enough to convict him of dehumanizing a family member, of treating them as worthless trash” (5:22).
So who should do the convicting? In Jesus’ time, a murder case could be heard by a local court consisting of 23 members, or by the higher court in Jerusalem, the 27-member Sanhedrin. If judged guilty, the murderer could be put to death. Since Israel’s law came from God, anyone they hanged was seen as condemned by God also (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
But when the human courts failed, God himself had been known to step in. The most shocking murders in Judah’s history involved parents burning their children alive as sacrifices to appease false gods. The worst offenders were Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6). They were kings, responsible for justice in Judah. When the rulers are murderers, who stops them?
That’s when God intervened to overturn their power and terminate his representative kingdom. He decreed that Judah would become “a prey and a spoil to all their enemies” (2 Kings 21:14). Babylon invaded. Judah’s armies were slaughtered. So many people were dead that it was impossible to give them a decent burial. The valley where they had burned their children in sacrifice became a mass grave where the dead were piled up and burnt. Jeremiah saw it as divine justice on the murderous rulers (Jeremiah 7:30-34; 19:1-9).
Jeremiah proposed renaming this notorious place as Slaughter Valley. Originally it belonged to Hinnom’s family, so it was called Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom). Transliterated into Greek, that was Gehenna. In English, it’s usually translated hell. It became the classic precedent of judgement by God, when the heavenly sovereign stepped in to bring to an end the nation that so misrepresented him.
This is the word Jesus used in verse 22. He reminded his audience of the Ge-Hinnom fires where so many had died and they lost the kingdom. They were condemned because of their rulers. In Jesus’ day, the kingdom had not been restored and their rulers were still condemning them.
So, perhaps we can hear Jesus’ words like this:
Matthew 5:21-22 (interpretive paraphrase):
You’ve heard that God said to our ancestors, “No murder!” so you understand that any murderer faces the prospect of judgement (i.e. capital punishment). That is not an adequate grasp of what God required of his people. I tell you that every person who is angry with a member of the family faces the prospect of judgement (the death sentence).
How would the authorities know you had murder inside you? By your words. Anyone who verbally bullies a family member faces the prospect of the death sentence from human authorities. Whoever declares another person to be worthless faces the prospect of a death sentence from the highest authority, like the people who were burnt in Gehenna.
What do you think? Was Israel’s true king outgunning the lawyers, prosecuting the case against the Law experts who kept the people in exile from God’s reign?
What others are saying
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 115–116:
“Shall be liable to the judgment,” occurs identically in v 22. But two further occurrences of ἔνοχος ἔσται (“shall be liable to”) in v 22 are linked with “the sanhedrin” and “the Gehenna of fire.” It is difficult to solve the exegetical puzzle regarding whether the four references are essentially synonymous or the last two are meant to involve higher penalties (as Str-B argue, 1:276), and whether we move through three different courts, the local, the sanhedrin, and the divine. Jeremias, however, is probably correct when he argues that the passage simply contains “three expressions for the death penalty in a kind of crescendo” (TDNT 6:975). This, however, is a rhetorical device and the differences have no literal significance (just as the offense of anger is essentially the same in the three instances). … The συνέδριον, “sanhedrin” (cf. v 22), was the highest court in Jerusalem (composed of seventy-one members). The eschatological reference to “the Gehenna of fire” in the fourth sentence (v 22) is undoubtedly climactic. And since the judgment of the local and main sanhedrins would have been anticipations of the final judgment, we are probably justified in hearing an echo of this in the first two references to “judgment.” This is especially true if, as we have argued, v 22b, c are illustrative of 22a. The point in all four cases is that anger, as the root of murder, deserves in principle the same penalty. The use of this language of the courts points by deliberate irony to the impossibility of understanding this material casuistically (thus Guelich, Sermon, following Zahn).
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