Murder Begins in the Heart – Matthew 5:21-26

In this fifth part of my series on the Sermon on the Mount, we will look at Matthew 5:21-26.

21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!  (HCSB)

Up until verse 20 of the Sermon on the Mount, the call for internal righteousness is presented in a positive light. Now, Jesus begins to address things in a negative light.

As we proceed through this passage, we’ll be concentrating on four themes found within this passage.

  • Murder/anger in a physical, emotional, or verbal sphere. 
  • Being subject to judgment.
  • An adversary/accuser.
  • Being reconciled to one another.

First, let’s define key words/concepts that we will explore.

  • Murder: The biblical understanding of murder is contained in Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. The commandment says “kill,” but the original meaning of the Hebrew word is murder. Therefore, the 6th Commandment talks about the taking of another person’s life for personal or selfish motives. Jesus takes the understanding further by saying that even contemplating this action in our hearts is evil (Elwell).
  • Judgment: In Scripture, it is closely related to God’s justice. In all His relationships, God acts justly and morally. Human beings, created by God, are morally structured to positively respond to God’s righteous demands on their lives. Divine judgment, involving God’s approval or disapproval upon each human act, is a natural consequence of the Creator-creature relationship between God and humanity. Thus judgment, simply defined, is the divine response to human activity. God, the Creator, must also be God the Judge. Since God is just, He responds with either punishments or rewards to what each person does. One’s moral accountability to God, a quality not shared by the rest of creation, is an essential ingredient of being created in God’s image. Creation in the divine image meant that God and man could communicate with each other in such a way that all people were able to understand God’s moral requirements and willingly respond to them. In a purely technical sense, judgment includes God’s approval upon acts which please Him; but more frequently, judgment is understood negatively in the sense that God punishes those who violate His commands. Since the fall, all human activity stands under God’s negative judgment (Elwell) Rom 2:12 All those who sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all those who sinned under the law will be judged by the law.
  • Reconciled: Restoration of friendly relationships and of peace where before there had been hostility and alienation. Ordinarily, it also includes removing the offense, which disrupted peace and harmony. This was especially true in the relation of God with humanity when Christ removed the enmity existing between God and mankind by His sacrifice. Scripture speaks first of Christ’s meritorious, substitutionary death in effecting the reconciliation of God with sinners; of sinners appropriating this free gift by faith; the promised forgiveness and salvation that become the sinners’ possession by grace; and, finally, reconciliation to God (Elwell).
    • Rom 5:10   For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life!
    • 2 Cor 5:19  That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us.
    • Eph 2:16  He did this so that He might reconcile both to God in one body through the cross and put the hostility to death by it.
  • Accuser/adversary: Any foe, opponent, or enemy of God and his saints. The apostle Peter’s description of the devil as “your adversary.”
    • 1 Peter 5:8   Be serious! Be alert! Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour.
    • This has led to the use of “the Adversary” as a reference to Satan in literature and popular speech. The Hebrew noun שָׂטָן (satan) means “adversary” or “accuser.” The term appears in Job 1–2 as a title for a heavenly being who has some sort of prosecutorial or adversarial role in the heavenly court (Elwell).
      • Job 1:6–9  One day the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them. The Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” “From roaming through the earth,” Satan answered Him, “and walking around on it.”Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? No one else on earth is like him, a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing?
      • Zechariah 3:1  Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, with Satan standing at his right side to accuse him.
    • The word can also be used in a general sense for an accuser in a human legal context.
      • Psalm 109:6  Set a wicked person over him; let an accuser stand at his right hand.
    • Or for a military or political enemy
      • 1 Samuel 29:4   The Philistine commanders, however, were enraged with Achish and told him, “Send that man back and let him return to the place you assigned him. He must not go down with us into battle only to become our adversary during the battle. What better way could he regain his master’s favor than with the heads of our men?
    • By the New Testament, the Hebrew word satan has come into Greek as Σᾰτάν (Sătan), a name for the devil (Barry).
      • Luke 13:16  Satan has bound this woman, a daughter of Abraham, for 18 years—shouldn’t she be untied from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”
    • This being’s role as an accuser is mentioned once in the NT where Satan is called ὁ κατήγωρ (ho katēgōr, “the accuser”) (Barry).
      • Revelation 12:9–10  So the great dragon was thrown out—the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world. He was thrown to earth, and his angels with him. 10 Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: The salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Messiah have now come,
        because the accuser of our brothers has been thrown out: the one who accuses them before our God day and night.

Verses 21-22  21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors,  Do not murder,  q and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’  will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire.

As noted above, the definition of murder is the premeditated killing of another person. The Hebrew word is rasah and does not apply to killing animals (Genesis 9:3), defending your home (Exodus 22:2), accidentally killing someone (Deuteronomy 19:5), executions conducting by the state (Genesis 9:6), or involvement in certain types of warfare. It does apply to accessory to murder (2 Samuel 12:9) and those who have a responsibility to punish known murderers but fail to do so (1 Kings 21:19).

Since man was created in God’s image, a person should not murder another.

The penalty for murder was death; it was not to be reduced to a lesser sentence (Numbers 35:31).

The phrase “you have heard” is an introduction to three forms of murder that do not include the physical act of taking another’s life.

  • Anger (1 John 3:15) When we are inappropriately angry with people, we attempt to take their identity and value as God’s creature away from them, the ultimate form of which is the physical act of murder. The righteousness expected of God’s subjects is not only in avoiding physical murder but in eliminating anger from our relationships.
  • The second case is calling another disciple “raca,” a transliteration of an Aramaic term implying “empty-headed.” This term of contempt was a personal and public insult. Name-calling was highly insulting in Jewish culture because a person’s identity was stripped away, and an offensive identity substituted (Wilkins).
  • The third case is saying “you fool” to a disciple. This likewise was highly insulting in Jewish culture, because moral connotations were attached to the term (Proverbs 10:23). The original language word for “fool” is a form of the Greek word moros (the origin of the English word “moron”), indicating a person who consistently acts like an idiot. To treat one’s brother with such contempt was to strip away his personal identity and wrongly make the person into something he or she was not (Wilkins).

The Jewish rabbis taught against such anger and such words. They spoke of ‘oppression in words’ and of ‘the sin of insult.’ They had a saying: ‘Three classes go down to Gehenna and return not—the adulterer, he who puts his neighbor openly to shame, and he who gives his neighbor an insulting name.’ Anger in a person’s heart and anger in a person’s speech are equally forbidden. (Barclay)

Do we commit murder? By this definition, yes. We lose our temper and keep hold of our grudges. We gossip. We kill by neglect, spite, and jealousy. And we would learn that we actually do worse things than these if only we could see our hearts as God is able to see them. It is no accident that even in our speech, such things sometimes are termed character assassination, or that we speak of destroying a person by words. This is literally true, and we do it. Jesus says we are not to be that way as Christians.

Those who are slaves of their anger, who speak in a demeaning or disrespectful way to others, who destroy another’s good name, may not have committed murder in action, but they are murderers in their hearts.

Of course, there is righteous anger. Jesus spoke in righteous anger against the hypocritical so-called leaders of His day. Paul spoke in justified anger against the legalizers who were trying to undermine the true faith of the Galatian believers. David gave voice to anger in the imprecatory Psalms. But, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not very often that our anger is like that; we must admit that far more often we are angry at some wrong done against ourselves, real or imaginary, some insult, or some undeserved neglect (Boice).

Finally, “brother” in this passage is not a reference to a biological sibling; it refers to a spiritual brother or sister. Matthew 5:44, 7:3-5, 12:49-50, 18:15, 21, 35, 23:8, 25:40, 28:10.

This does not mean it is ok to be angry with non-believers. However, Jesus is saying that it is particularly bad to get angry with fellow believers who have been spared God’s wrath. Restraining one’s wrath against a fellow believer is a virtue still desperately needed today.

Verses 23-24  23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Here, Jesus is dealing with occasions when His disciples have offended another person, not when they have been offended. Reconciliation is the responsibility of the one who has wronged someone else, though a reciprocal attitude is understood (Matthew 18:21–22; Mark 11:25). The expression “offering your gift at the altar” assumes a sacrifice being given in the temple at Jerusalem. To leave immediately indicates the importance of reconciliation because Jesus’ audience was from Galilee, and the effort to attend the temple sacrifice was significant (Wilkins).

Of course, we cannot guarantee that another person will agree to be reconciled with us, but we should make every effort “as far as it depends on” us (Romans 12:18). “Has something against you” probably implies a “just claim” and also suggests that we ought not to bring up our grievances with others that they do not yet know about but that we deal with situations in which others remain upset with us. How many of our churches would or should be temporarily emptied if these commands were taken seriously? The Christian sacrifice is first of all one of trusting in Christ, but true discipleship will necessarily lead to reconciliation with fellow believers. Neither one without the other can save a person (1 John 1:8–9 with 2:9) (Blomberg).

But two important things have to be noted. First, it was never held that sacrifice could atone for deliberate sin. If someone committed a sin unawares or was swept into sin in a moment of passion when self-control broke, then sacrifice was effective; but if a person deliberately, defiantly, callously and with open eyes sinned, then sacrifice was powerless to atone.

Second, to be effective, sacrifice had to include confession of sin and true repentance; and true repentance involved the attempt to rectify any consequences sin might have had. The great Day of Atonement was held to make atonement for the sins of the whole nation, but the Jews were quite clear that not even the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement could avail unless people were first reconciled to their neighbors. The breach between human beings and God could not be healed until human beings could reconcile their differences. If someone was making a sin offering, for instance, to atone for theft, the offering was held to be completely unavailing until the thing stolen had been restored; and, if it was discovered that the item had not been restored, then the sacrifice had to be destroyed as unclean and burned outside the Temple. The Jews were quite clear that people had to do their utmost to put things right themselves before they could be right with God. (Barclay)

Jesus is also clear about this basic fact—we cannot be right with God until we are right with one another; we cannot hope for forgiveness until we have confessed our sin, not only to God, but also to others, and until we have done our best to remove the practical consequences of it. We sometimes wonder why there is a barrier between us and God; we sometimes wonder why our prayers seem unavailing. The reason may well be that we have erected that barrier, through being at odds with our neighbors, or because we have wronged someone and have done nothing to put things right (Barclay).

We see starting in these two verses and ending with verse 25, a remedy for anger.

  • Admit we get angry – verse 23
  • Correct the injustice – verse 24
  • Act immediately once we realize the injustice we committed – verse 24
  • Ask God to change our heart – verse 25

Romans 12:19-21 “Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. But if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.”

Verses 25-26  25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison.  26 I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!

These two verses have caused some interesting discussion amongst theologians and differing religious views. The main thrust is of averting God’s wrath on Judgment Day before it is too late to change one’s eternal destination. The Roman Catholic church uses, incorrectly, these verses to support the idea of purgatory. However, we could never pay enough for our sins to get out of hell (Blomberg).

Jesus likely has two ideas in mind in these verses.

  • He is giving practical advice. It is the experience of life that if a quarrel, or a difference, or a dispute is not healed immediately, it can go on breeding worse and worse trouble as time goes on. Bitterness breeds bitterness. If at the very beginning, one of the parties had had the grace to apologize or to admit fault, a grievous situation need never have arisen. If ever we are in a disagreement with someone else, we must get the situation corrected quickly. It may mean that we must be humble enough to confess that we were wrong and make an apology; it may mean that, even if we were in the right, we have to take the first step towards healing the hurt. When personal relations go wrong, in most cases immediate action will mend them; but if that immediate action is not taken, they will continue to deteriorate, and the bitterness will spread in an ever-widening circle.
  • It may be that in Jesus’ mind, there was something even more basic than this. It may be that He is saying: ‘Put things right with your neighbors while life lasts, for someday—we don’t know when—life will finish, and we will go to stand before God, the final Judge of all.’ The greatest of all Jewish days was the Day of Atonement. Its sacrifices were held to atone for sin known and unknown, but even this day had its limitations. The Talmud clearly lays it down: ‘The Day of Atonement does atone for the offenses between man and God. The Day of Atonement does not atone for the offenses between a man and his neighbor unless the man has first put things right with his neighbor.’ Here again, we have the basic fact—we cannot be right with God unless we are right with one another. We must live so that the end will find us at peace with all people (Barclay).

Remaining imprisoned until a debt is repaid down to the last penny elicits a sense of impossibility, since the debtor had no chance to work to create funds. The “penny,” kodrantes, is the Roman bronze/copper coin quadrans, the smallest Roman coin. Jesus uses this scenario to return to the seriousness of the problem of anger. Unreconciled anger is the inner equivalency of murder, which is impossible to repay. To leave problems unreconciled is to allow the sin that has been created to continue to destroy relationships between people.

Fulfilling the law’s command, “Do not murder” is not accomplished simply by avoiding legal homicide. Jesus reveals that the intent of the law is to nurture relationships. Jesus’ disciples must have a daily urgency about maintaining a healthy life in their relationships, both with other disciples and with non-disciples. Anything we do that strips away the personal distinctiveness of a brother or sister is sin, and it is our responsibility to become reconciled.

Our internal heart attitudes are manifested in our external behavioral attitudes.

When we reflect on the message contained in Matthew 5:21-26, we see a message that is timely in today’s world. That is one of treating people with dignity. The striking feature of the first antithesis is its emphasis on the dignity of the human being created in the image of God. Not only are we not to take the physical life of a human, but we are not to do anything that demeans a person’s dignity.

Another essential feature of the first antithesis is our responsibility to be ministers of reconciliation so that human relationships reflect the glory of God. Jesus’ illustration of hurrying to make reconciliation even if the disciple is offering a sacrifice accentuates the urgency of maintaining healthy relationships. Religious activity that attempts to appease our relationship with God is meaningless if it is not based on purity in our human relationships. We are not to come to worship with the knowledge that we have treated someone wrongly.

As ministers of reconciliation, however, there are limits to what we can accomplish. We cannot force another person to forgive us. Sometimes it takes time for another person to trust us after we have hurt them. The obligation remains for us to pursue reconciliation, but it may not be according to our timetable. That is why we should be so careful with our words and actions. We can never take back a word uttered, and a hurt inflicted often leaves lasting scars.

Jesus’ sayings require us to think carefully about what He is not saying. It is possible to be angry and not to sin (Eph. 4:26). Throughout Scripture, we see evidence of righteous indignation against sin, which is called anger. Jesus demonstrated this in the cleansing of the temple (Matthew 21:12–17), and in His parables, God displays anger and wrath (Matthew 18:34; 22:7). In the criticisms against the religious leaders during his final fateful week in Jerusalem, Jesus referred to the teachers of the law and Pharisees as “blind fools” (Matthew 23:17), using a related term to what he prohibits in 5:22. But this was not flippant name-calling. They really were fools because they were blindly allowing their religious practices to distort their lives with God.

Jesus’ teaching is sometimes used to advocate opposition to capital punishment. But the prohibition of the Old Testament that Jesus continues to uphold is against murder, not killing per se. Moreover, Jesus is addressing personal activity, not governmental responsibility. The judicial taking of life in punishment for crime is authorized in Exodus 21 and is the most likely intention of Paul’s statements in Romans 13:1–5. There are four areas where the taking of life is sometimes justified according to these passages: capital punishment, maintaining law and order, self-defense, and a just war (Wilkins). These ideas will be looked at later as we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount.


  • First, we need to understand the foundational principle that Jesus talks about here and in other places in the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t always the literal interpretation of His message, but often the figurative interpretation that convicts us. The odds of anyone reading this post and committing actual, physical murder is close to, if not completely, nil. However, probably 100% of those reading or hearing this message has at one time or another committed “murder” in the sense that Jesus is talking about here. We need to understand that our words can create deep pain, and once we understand that to pray for the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us in our conversations. For some, this may be a difficult and slow transformation, but Jesus is calling for us to stop using destructive speech even as we watch the world around us filled with destructive speech on a continual basis. We can either conform to our Lord and Savior, or we can conform to the world around us. We have control over the direction we take in this area.
  • When we realize that we have hurt someone, we need to be quick in mending the situation. Often, we won’t do this because of pride. Pride is the root of all sin. Pride caused Satan to try and usurp Yahweh’s rightful place. Humility and submission are characteristics of Jesus. We also control whether we will remain prideful and display the characteristic of Satan, or practice humility and submission as followers of Christ. This is true even if the wronged person refuses our apology. Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, not troublemakers.
  • If we struggle in this area, we need to pray and ask God to change our hearts. We need to be transformed from the inside out. All of us are in need of major heart surgery, and Jesus is the great physician. He can cut all the disease out of us…if we submit to His Lordship. In today’s world, submission is not a popular practice. Yet, imagine how different the world would be if we practice submission.
  • Finally, the one connecting theme through this passage is to treat others with dignity and respect. Don’t we want others to treat us in that manner? If we expect that from others, we should demand it of ourselves in our interaction with others. All of us are created in the image of God regardless of our gender, the color of our skin, our ethnicity, or our denomination. When we get to heaven, there won’t be separate sections for these groups. We will ALL live in peace and harmony with each other. Shouldn’t we strive for that here?

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