January 18 2015

You Have Heard That it Was Said…


Scripture reading: Matthew 5:21-26. 


Jesus begins this portion of the Sermon on the Mount with, “You have heard that it was said to those of old…” He begins an exposition of God’s laws in each of the next five subsequent sections with that same phrase. “You have heard that it was said…” What is quite interesting is that when he then quotes what was said it is more often than not just a direct quote from the Old Testament.


There exists disagreement among scholars when Jesus says, “to those of old” or “to the ancients” whether he refers to God’s words or the words of commentators or teachers of the law. In both cases, whether he is quoting Moses or an ancient speaker, Jesus communicates the intent of the law. That is, the law is not designed primarily to regulate outward behavior but, rather, it was intended by God to reveal our heart. It would not be the law that would change our heart, but the law would expose our hearts so that we would flee to God Himself for a change within us.


“You have heard that it was said…” Have you heard things? Of course, you have. But it could be that the things you have heard were not the whole picture. It was, possibly, just a partial picture. It may have been a wrong picture.


“You have heard that it was said…” What the people in Jesus’s day heard was spoken to God’s people by God’s people. So it is in our day. Many things have been spoken but it is not always the whole picture.


A year or two ago I met up with evangelist Jed Smock at the Missouri State University in Springfield, MO. Jessica and Suzanne also were part of that experience. While Jed was preaching I engaged a young man in conversation about eternal matters. He said he would like to believe but he found one particular doctrine troubling. That was the doctrine of hell. He could not just bring himself to believe in it. I spoke with him for about 10 or 15 minutes and I hope that what I said to him was used by the Holy Spirit to persuade him otherwise. That same day I walked by a bench and one of the other evangelists was sitting with a different student and he was voicing the same objections. The incidents of that day were not peculiar. They are quite common with those who do not hold to the faith. Many people object to the reality of hell as taught by our Lord. Why do you think this is? Answer: The answer is simple enough. It is because it is such an unpleasant idea. And one of the easiest ways to get unpleasant ideas out of one’s head is not to believe it.


But we must never practice such a thing. We must never assess the truth of a doctrine merely because we do not like it. Yet, even Christians do this and they do it quite often. Of course, we should assess the truth of a teaching on whether the Scriptures actually teach it as opposed to having “heard that it was said.” Let us keep this in mind this morning as we look into the teachings of our Lord here.

[I] In order to understand any portion of Scripture the first thing to ascertain is: to who is the author speaking or writing? Knowing the original audience helps a great deal when we both try to understand and to apply what is being taught.


Our passage is part of the marvelous Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew.


Matthew 5:1-2 gives us this information. “…his disciples came to him.” Verse 2 continues, “And he opened his mouth and taught them…” The pronoun “them” refers to the last noun given, which is “his disciples.” This teaching was for his disciples.


In fact, not withstanding Hollywood movies that show Jesus giving this sermon to a vast crowd (which he did do numerous other times), it even appears that he was speaking only to his disciples. Verse 1 should be understood that way because he saw the crowds (there were so many people) that he retreated to a mountain (away from them) in order to teach his disciples privately. This is the meaning as shown by a comparison of his teaching the same subjects to his disciples alone in Mark 3 and Luke 6. This was the position of such great exegetes as John Calvin, Matthew Henry, John Peter Lange, and Robert Govett, among many others such as Watchman Nee.


The Sermon on the Mount is not for the lost, it is for saved people. It is for us.


It was said under the Old Covenant, that “you shall not murder.” This command is not only still binding upon man but the Lord is about to explain its deeper significance. It was said under the Old Covenant that those who are guilty of murder will be liable to judgment and it also prescribes the penalty for those who are found guilty during earthly judgment. That penalty is death. This too is still binding even though some of our states have done away with the death penalty. Missouri has the death penalty.


In verse 22 Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” This is further confirmation that the teaching of Jesus here is meant for his disciples, for the word “brother” is reserved for those who belong to the household of faith.


[II] “…will be liable to judgment.” The judgment to which Jesus refers is not an earthly judgment, though he will use earthly judgments as illustrations of the judgment to come. The judgment to which he refers is his own judgment of his saints upon his return to the earth.


Some Christians think that there will either be no judgment of Christians at all because Christ died for their sins or else that, if there is one, it is nothing to be concerned about. Both of these notions are grievous mistakes. They arise because some Christians seldom read their Bible and only know the most basic concepts of the faith.


It is true that the disciple of Christ will not come under judgment for eternal perdition. There is an eternal, never-ending penalty to be paid if one dies in their sins. Christ has paid that and his payment is applied to those who repent and believe. But there will be a judgment of his own people. This will be a judgment in consideration of accomplishments as well as sins. The consideration of sins is not to determine eternal destiny but to determine worthiness for the kingdom.


Paul refers to this judgment numerous times in his writings. Time does not permit us to look at the many passages. But let us read one that deals with the same issue that Jesus does here. It is Romans 14:10-12. READ.


Note that in Romans 14 Paul is dealing with relationships among brothers, that is, relationships within the church. He asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” He is not expecting an answer. It is a rhetorical question. It is a polite way of saying, “Stop judging your brother or sister!”


He asks, “Why do you despise your brother?” The NIV has: why do you treat them with contempt? As we will see shortly, this question deals directly with what Jesus is teaching. It is another rhetorical question. Paul is saying, “Stop treating your brother or sister with contempt.”


Why should we not judge and why should we not treat with them with contempt? Because “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Who will? We all. That means all without exception. To emphasize this even more Paul writes in verse 12: “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Each of us! Without exception.


Paul emphasizes what many Christians either deny, ignore, or pass over lightly.


What is it that will be judged? For Christians, their entire lives after there coming to faith. But our Lord focuses on the sin of anger. He says, both remarkably and alarmingly, “that everyone who is angry with a brother will be liable to the judgment.”


Should this not concern you?


[III] What makes a person liable is not some outward act. It is the anger itself, unexpressed. This lone statement by our Lord ought to motivate us to exercise self-control over our emotions and our hearts. Our emotions are under the control of our will.


[IV] He goes on to say, “whoever says ‘Raca’ will be liable to the council.” The word “Raca” means vain, empty, or good-for-nothing. It is an insult. It is a signification of contempt. To speak negatively about a brother or sister is to demonstrate contempt. This is the same thing that the apostle Paul warned about.


The council to which Jesus refers is the Sanhedrin. The first judgment alludes to a local judgment. In Hebrew culture there were local judges, as seen in Deut 16:18, and the highest court or council, the Sanhedrin. What Jesus is communicating is that even to be angry will make one liable, but then to act on that anger by saying a negative thing about that person is a more serious offense.


It is a heavier offense and entails a heavier penalty. The Sanhedrin had the authority to impose harsher sanctions, even death, than the local elders.


[V] Most modern English translations next have: “And whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the fire of hell.” This is yet a more serious judgment for a heavier offense still. But why would calling someone a fool be worse than calling them “empty” or good-for-nothing?


The answer is that a better translation is  “Rebel.” So, Young’s Literal Translation and the Recovery version both translate it with rebel. Two other translations known for their accuracy, Lexham and NET, indicate in the footnotes that this is another meaning of the word.


Without taking the time to explain why “rebel” is, more likely, a better translation, consider the ramifications. If one is calling a brother or sister a rebel it is patently untrue. Belonging to Christ, God does not count them as rebels but you do! Further, whereas “Raca” merely manifests contempt, a sin, “Rebel” claims that you know the person’s heart and you assess it badly: a serious offense indeed.


[VI] What is the danger of assessing a brother or sister’s heart in such a way? According to Jesus you become liable, accountable “to the hell of fire.” The English word “hell” is quite imprecise and in some translations it is used to translate four different words or phrases in Greek. However, each of these words or phrases describe a different place. Here, the word is Gehenna, a Greek word which transliterates the Hebrew phrase ge Hinnom, “the valley of Hinnom.” This was a place just outside of Jerusalem where refuse was burned. In modern parlance: a garbage dump where the fires continually burned. This is the picture that Jesus wanted people to have in their minds. It was a place where the unwanted things went and were purged from Jerusalem.


It is a terrible place to go! But it is not the same place as the “lake of fire” after the final judgment, the judgment at the end of all things, the judgment that determines eternal destiny.


 As we have seen, the judgment to which Jesus refers is not the final judgment but a judgment of his own. What will come before this tribunal are the sins, like anger, committed after we have come to Christ and become one of his own.


Here is an important question:


[VII] If an offense is committed by a believer is there no hope? Must they endure the Gehenna of fire? The answer is certainly not! God’s mercy is available through repentance. When we repent of a sin it is removed from the recordation of accounts against us. In one sense this is a legal matter before God. But what God is mostly after is the transformation of our hearts. And transformation takes place when we are convicted of our own sins and turn away from them by the power of the Spirit.


This then is why Jesus gives this teaching – so that his own disciples will not remain in their sinful states of mind and that they will be transformed.


In verses 23 - 25 he even tells us how to repent. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar…” Jesus spoke these words when the temple was still standing. Sacrifices were still going on as well as the offerings described in Leviticus.


The practices of the New Covenant, such as praying, giving a monetary offering in the collection plate, singing songs, evangelizing could be substituted for “the altar.” When we are offering our gifts now and we remember that things are not right with another brother or sister, leave your gift. God does not want it. He wants you to live in harmony and love with your fellow disciple.


Jesus says in verse 25:         Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.

The accuser is your brother or sister.

The judge is God.

The guard is an angel.

The prison is the place where are you are purged.


Verse 26: “Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” This verse makes more clear that this entire passage is not speaking to unbelievers because an unbeliever will never be released from the prison that awaits. The discipline that is here described is clearly temporary.


Someone may say, “But this is purgatory!” It is unlike purgatory in two respects.

  1. Rome teaches that purgatory begins at death and ends at Christ’s appearing. The Scriptural teaching, both here and elsewhere, is that it begins at Christ’s appearing. It’s duration is left unsaid.
  2. They also teach that people can be delivered from purgatory by prayers, masses, and indulgences. All of those are man-made ideas.


The question is not, “Is it purgatory?” But, “Is it Scripture?” If these words were not spoken to disciples then you must be able to prove it. But if they were, bow to it.


[VIII] The final matter that we must allow to penetrate our hearts is when the Lord says, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court…” We have already identified the accuser as a brother or sister. By the phrase, “while you are going to court,” Jesus means that while you are both still alive. James says that our life is like a vapor that appears for a little while and then passes away. Our lives our short. Our lives are as short as a walking trip to the court within the bounds of a city like Jerusalem.


We are all walking right now on our way to court. You may have heard that it was said, “You don’t need to worry about your sins if you are a Christian.” But I say to you, Come to terms with your and brother or sister while there is still an opportunity. Once we pass this veil that opportunity will be past.