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Jamieson Commentary on Matthew 5:21-26

From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871).

The Spirituality of the True Righteousness in Contrast with That of the Scribes and Pharisees, Illustrated from the Sixth Commandment. (Mt 5:21-26).

21. Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time—or, as in the Margin, "to them of old time." Which of these translations is the right one has been much controverted. Either of them is grammatically defensible, though the latter—"to the ancients"—is more consistent with New Testament usage (see the Greek of Ro 9:12, 26; Re 6:11; 9:4); and most critics decide in favor of it. But it is not a question of Greek only. Nearly all who would translate "to the ancients" take the speaker of the words quoted to be Moses in the law; "the ancients" to be the people to whom Moses gave the law; and the intention of our Lord here to be to contrast His own teaching, more or less, with that of Moses; either as opposed to it—as some go the length of affirming—or at least as modifying, enlarging, elevating it. But who can reasonably imagine such a thing, just after the most solemn and emphatic proclamation of the perpetuity of the law, and the honor and glory in which it was to be held under the new economy? To us it seems as plain as possible that our Lord's one object is to contrast the traditional perversions of the law with the true sense of it as expounded by Himself. A few of those who assent to this still think that "to the ancients" is the only legitimate translation of the words; understanding that our Lord is reporting what had been said to the ancients, not by Moses, but by the perverters of his law. We do not object to this; but we incline to think (with Beza, and after him with Fritzsche, Olshausen, Stier, and Bloomfield) that "by the ancients" must have been what our Lord meant here, referring to the corrupt teachers rather than the perverted people.

Thou shall not kill:—that is, This being all that the law requires, whosoever has imbrued his hands in his brother's blood, but he only, is guilty of a breach of this commandment.

and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment—liable to the judgment; that is, of the sentence of those inferior courts of judicature which were established in all the principal towns, in compliance with De 16:16. Thus was this commandment reduced, from a holy law of the heart-searching God, to a mere criminal statute, taking cognizance only of outward actions, such as that which we read in Ex 21:12; Le 24:17.

22. But I say unto you—Mark the authoritative tone in which—as Himself the Lawgiver and Judge—Christ now gives the true sense, and explains the deep reach, of the commandment.

That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca! shall be in danger of the council; but whosoever shall say, Thou fool! shall be in danger of hell-fire—It is unreasonable to deny, as Alexander does, that three degrees of punishment are here meant to be expressed, and to say that it is but a threefold expression of one and the same thing. But Romish expositors greatly err in taking the first two—"the judgment" and "the council"—to refer to degrees of temporal punishment with which lesser sins were to be visited under the Gospel, and only the last—"hell-fire"—to refer to the future life. All three clearly refer to divine retribution, and that alone, for breaches of this commandment; though this is expressed by an allusion to Jewish tribunals. The "judgment," as already explained, was the lowest of these; the "council," or "Sanhedrim,"—which sat at Jerusalem—was the highest; while the word used for "hell-fire" contains an allusion to the "valley of the son of Hinnom" (Jos 18:16). In this valley the Jews, when steeped in idolatry, went the length of burning their children to Molech "on the high places of Tophet"—in consequence of which good Josiah defiled it, to prevent the repetition of such abominations (2Ki 23:10); and from that time forward, if we may believe the Jewish writers, a fire was kept burning in it to consume the carrion and all kinds of impurities that collected about the capital. Certain it is, that while the final punishment of the wicked is described in the Old Testament by allusions to this valley of Tophet or Hinnom (Isa 30:33; 66:24), our Lord Himself describes the same by merely quoting these terrific descriptions of the evangelical prophet (Mr 9:43-48). What precise degrees of unholy feeling towards our brothers are indicated by the words "Raca" and "fool" it would be as useless as it is vain to inquire. Every age and every country has its modes of expressing such things; and no doubt our Lord seized on the then current phraseology of unholy disrespect and contempt, merely to express and condemn the different degrees of such feeling when brought out in words, as He had immediately before condemned the feeling itself. In fact, so little are we to make of mere words, apart from the feeling which they express, that as anger is expressly said to have been borne by our Lord towards His enemies though mixed with "grief for the hardness of their hearts" (Mr 3:5), and as the apostle teaches us that there is an anger which is not sinful (Eph 4:26); so in the Epistle of James (Jas 2:20) we find the words, "O vain (or, empty) man"; and our Lord Himself applies the very word "fools" twice in one breath to the blind guides of the people (Mt 23:17, 19)—although, in both cases, it is to false reasoners rather than persons that such words are applied. The spirit, then, of the whole statement may be thus given: "For ages ye have been taught that the sixth commandment, for example, is broken only by the murderer, to pass sentence upon whom is the proper business of the recognized tribunals. But I say unto you that it is broken even by causeless anger, which is but hatred in the bud, as hatred is incipient murder (1Jo 3:15); and if by the feelings, much more by those words in which all ill feeling, from the slightest to the most envenomed, are wont to be cast upon a brother: and just as there are gradations in human courts of judicature, and in the sentences which they pronounce according to the degrees of criminality, so will the judicial treatment of all the breakers of this commandment at the divine tribunal be according to their real criminality before the heart-searching Judge." Oh, what holy teaching is this!

23. Therefore—to apply the foregoing, and show its paramount importance.

if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught—of just complaint "against thee."

24. Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother—The meaning evidently is—not, "dismiss from thine own breast all ill feeling," but "get thy brother to dismiss from his mind all grudge against thee."

and then come and offer thy gift—"The picture," says Tholuck, "is drawn from life. It transports us to the moment when the Israelite, having brought his sacrifice to the court of the Israelites, awaited the instant when the priest would approach to receive it at his hands. He waits with his gift at the rails which separate the place where he stands from the court of the priests, into which his offering will presently be taken, there to be slain by the priest, and by him presented upon the altar of sacrifice." It is at this solemn moment, when about to cast himself upon divine mercy, and seek in his offering a seal of divine forgiveness, that the offerer is supposed, all at once, to remember that some brother has a just cause of complaint against him through breach of this commandment in one or other of the ways just indicated. What then? Is he to say, As soon as I have offered this gift I will go straight to my brother, and make it up with him? Nay; but before another step is taken—even before the offering is presented—this reconciliation is to be sought, though the gift have to be left unoffered before the altar. The converse of the truth here taught is very strikingly expressed in Mr 11:25, 26: "And when ye stand praying (in the very act), forgive, if ye have aught (of just complaint) against any; that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive you," &c. Hence the beautiful practice of the early Church, to see that all differences amongst brethren and sisters in Christ were made up, in the spirit of love, before going to the Holy Communion; and the Church of England has a rubrical direction to this effect in her Communion service. Certainly, if this be the highest act of worship on earth, such reconciliation though obligatory on all other occasions of worship—must be peculiarly so then.

25. Agree with thine adversary—thine opponent in a matter cognizable by law.

quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him—"to the magistrate," as in Lu 12:58.

lest at any time—here, rather, "lest at all," or simply "lest."

the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge—having pronounced thee in the wrong.

deliver thee to the officer—the official whose business it is to see the sentence carried into effect.

26. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing—a fractional Roman coin, to which our "farthing" answers sufficiently well. That our Lord meant here merely to give a piece of prudential advice to his hearers, to keep out of the hands of the law and its officials by settling all disputes with one another privately, is not for a moment to be supposed, though there are critics of a school low enough to suggest this. The concluding words—"Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out," &c.—manifestly show that though the language is drawn from human disputes and legal procedure, He is dealing with a higher than any human quarrel, a higher than any human tribunal, a higher than any human and temporal sentence. In this view of the words—in which nearly all critics worthy of the name agree—the spirit of them may be thus expressed: "In expounding the sixth commandment, I have spoken of offenses between man and man; reminding you that the offender has another party to deal with besides him whom he has wronged on earth, and assuring you that all worship offered to the Searcher of hearts by one who knows that a brother has just cause of complaint against him, and yet takes no steps to remove it, is vain: But I cannot pass from this subject without reminding you of One whose cause of complaint against you is far more deadly than any that man can have against man: and since with that Adversary you are already on the way to judgment, it will be your wisdom to make up the quarrel without delay, lest sentence of condemnation be pronounced upon you, and then will execution straightway follow, from the effects of which you shall never escape as long as any remnant of the offense remains unexpiated." It will be observed that as the principle on which we are to "agree" with this "Adversary" is not here specified, and the precise nature of the retribution that is to light upon the despisers of this warning is not to be gathered from the mere use of the word "prison"; so, the remedilessness of the punishment is not in so many words expressed, and still less is its actual cessation taught. The language on all these points is designedly general; but it may safely be said that the unending duration of future punishment—elsewhere so clearly and awfully expressed by our Lord Himself, as in Mt 5:29, 30, and Mr 9:43, 48—is the only doctrine with which His language here quite naturally and fully accords. (Compare Mt 18:30, 34).

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