You Shall Not Murder (Exodus 20:13; Matthew 5:21-26)

Daniel L. Sonnenberg

There’s a story about the late evangelist Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth Graham.

In an interview with Ruth in the days when Billy was on the road a lot, she was asked, “Mrs. Graham, with Billy gone so much of the time and with so many children to take care of, have you ever considered divorce?”

After thinking a moment or two she said, “Divorce? No. murder? Yes.”

Of course, she was joking. And I suspect that few here today or watching this message have committed a physical murder or even considered doing so.

However, I should warn you about getting too comfortable, because the commandment against murder goes much further than the summary stated in Exodus 20 as we will see when we also consider Jesus’ teaching on this topic in the Sermon on the Mount.

First, we read Exodus 20:13.

You shall not murder.

And next, we read its companion passage from the New Testament Matthew 5:21-26

“You heard it was said to those of old, “’You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 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. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

  • Much more could be said on this topic than there is time today, especially concerning ethical questions of life and death such as abortion, euthanasia, suicide and the like.
  • But I will touch on them in the application section of this message.
  • My approach will be to describe and define what murder is according to the Old and New Testaments, then to outline positive actions we can take to prevent murder in ourselves and in others.
  • Initially, the Bible doesn’t give us a definition of murder.
  • Instead, it gives us the story of the first murder in Genesis 4, shortly after the fall of man:

“In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Able and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Cain spoke to his brother Abel. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him. (Gen 4:3-8).

Notice two things in this passage that we will see again in the New Testament.

  • Cain’s attitude of anger toward his brother preceded his action of murder. His brother’s offering was acceptable to God and his was not.
    • This made Cain jealous of his brother and angry with him.
  • Cain’s murder was a willful act of disobedience to God.
    • God gave him the opportunity to repent of his anger and avoid any sinful action, but Cain instead chose to turn his anger into murder.
  • Also, here we find the first penalty for murder.
  • It was not the death penalty, but a further cursing of the ground so that Cain could no longer make his living as a farmer.
  • This made life very difficult for him because at that time men were not permitted to kill animals for food.
  • But later in Genesis, after the flood, God permitted killing of animals for food, and prescribed the death penalty for murdering a human being.
  • He said to Noah, “I have given every moving thing that lives on the earth to you for food, just as I have given you grain and vegetables. But you must never eat any meat that still has the lifeblood in it. “And I will require the blood of anyone who takes another person’s life. If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image. (Gen. 9:3-6 NLT)
  • Notice the difference between human beings and animals here.
  • Human beings are unique in the creation because they are created in the image of God.
  • That is what makes human life sacred and why it should be preserved by laws and penalties – because we are created in God’s image.
  • Later, in Exodus, Numbers and Kings, we find descriptions of the various kinds of murder and their penalties.  
  • In Exodus 20:13, the sixth commandment teaches, “You shall not murder.”
  • It does not say, ‘You shall not kill’ but, ‘You shalt not commit murder’.
  • The root of the Hebrew verb (rasah) used here for the first time is a specific term for murder.
  • It is never used for executing a criminal or slaying an enemy in battle.
  • It is used for both premeditated murder and unpremeditated murder or what we would call ‘man slaughter.’
  • The verb also describes killing for revenge (Num 35:27, 30), assassination (II Kings 6:32) and negligent homicide (Exodus 21:28-30).
  • Also, we find stories of suicides throughout the OT, which are always cast in a negative light.
  • But the penalties vary from one type of murder to another.
  • For some, the death penalty is prescribed.
  • But in the case of manslaughter or unpremeditated murder, the law provided a measure of protection from revenge by the family of the deceased by sending the perpetrator to one of the cities of refuge.
  • And in the case of negligent homicide, the law made it possible for family of the deceased to choose a ransom instead of the death penalty.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus teaches on murder in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Jesus begins by saying in Matt. 5:21, “You heard it was said to those of old, “’You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
  • When he says, “But I say to you,” Jesus is not correcting the Old Testament itself here.
  • Rather, he is correcting the misunderstanding of the Old Testament many of his hearers had adopted.
  • Their leaders had joined the sixth commandment in Exodus 20:13 with Numbers 35:30, which demanded death for murderers, implying that the sixth commandment referred only to the specific act of killing.
  • Here, Jesus seeks to return his hearers to the original intent of the commandment against murder with a wide variety of applications.  

We can summarize Jesus’ teaching on murder in 3 points:

1. Anger harbored against a brother is the same as murder and can even lead to physical murder.

  • Jesus said, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
  • In other words, in God’s eyes, unresolved anger is equal to murder.
  • And as we saw in the OT story of Cain and Abel, unrepented anger can lead to murder.

2. Judging a brother or sister as inferior, or worthless, or as a liability to society is the same as murder.

  • Using terms for others like the Biblical word “Raca” which means “stupid idiot” and the word “fool,” which means “worthless” are not just evil names we call another.
  • They betray a condescending, contemptuous judging attitude that says the world would be a better place without them.
  • This attitude is also equal to murder in God’s eyes and liable to the hell of fire.
  • And, incidentally, it doesn’t excuse us when after using such terms we say, “Bless their heart.”

3. Unresolved conflicts with those outside the church can lead to murder

  • Jesus said, “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.”
  • He is speaking of someone, usually outside of the church whom you have made into your enemy by causing them anger or harm in some way.
  • For example, cutting someone off in traffic, a car accident that was your fault, a personal debt you have not paid back, or some other law that you have broken. That person, or the state is angry with you, angry enough to have you thrown in jail or worse.
  • So when these things happen, what should we do? What’s our motivation for obeying this commandment?
  • Listen to Rom. 13:9-10.  
  • Paul wrote, For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom. 13:9-10 ESV)
  • Our motivation is love for one another. Love for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Love for other human beings. And love even for our enemies because Christ loved us first when we were his enemies.
  • Then how should we apply this commandment? Here are several ways to consider.

1. Resolve conflicts quickly with your brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Jesus urged His hearers to promote and hasten the process of reconciliation with fellow believers.
  • He said, “If a brother has something against you, go to them and be reconciled.”
  • Reconciliation is more important than worship. Get it right before you attend worship.
  • It may be something you actually did or something that they imagined you did.
  • Even if you think you are innocent, if you notice that their countenance falls when they see you, or if it troubles you, go and seek to be reconciled.
  • Unresolved conflicts only intensify.

2. Consider others as more important than yourself and build them up with your words

  • Instead of judging others as worthless, as Philippians 2 says, Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Phil. 2:3 ESV)
  • And remember what James 1 says about the tongue, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (Jas. 1:26 ESV)

3. Resolve conflicts quickly with your enemies.

  • Jesus also said, “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court,
  • Jesus is saying in so many words, “try to assuage their anger against you, try settle out of court so you can to avoid a longer sentence or steeper penalty, try to keep them from wanting to murder you.”
  • Illustration: cut her off on the plane after visiting my mother in OH.

4. Know the symptoms of suicidal thought, seek help for yourself if you are having these thoughts, and seek to help others who may be having these thoughts.

  • If you or someone you love is seriously depressed and may be considering suicide, they may be tempted to think the following two thoughts: 1) I’m a burden to my family; and, 2) they will be better off without me.
  • So you should reassure them that this is only temporary and they will recover in time. And you should encourage them to seek counseling with a pastor or professional counselor.
  • And you should ask them these three questions: 1) have you considered suicide? 2) do you have a plan? 3) do you have the means to carry out your plan?
  • If they say “yes,” to all three questions you should take immediate action to get professional help for the person.
  • Note that you will not cause them to commit suicide by bringing up the subject. But by bringing it up you may give them an opportunity to talk about what they are feeling and even prevent it.

5. Act with diligent care and attention in any area of your life that might cause the untimely death of another person due to gross negligence.

  • You should act carefully and attentively in your work, in driving or flying motorized vehicles, with firearms, with your children, with your elderly parents, in and around your home, and any other area that may pose a significant danger to others.

6. Attempt to stop abortion on demand.

  • This includes not only seeking to change legislation, but also providing tangible help through counseling or meeting material needs for those who are tempted to abort their children.

7. Attempt to prevent euthanasia or mercy killing.

  • The current laws exist to protect those without a voice: the disabled, terminally ill and elderly, who might otherwise feel pressured into ending their lives.
  • The value of life should not be determined by its benefit to others, or what it can contribute to society but rather, that human beings are created in the image of God.

8. When a person is dying of starvation, disease, or natural disaster, do everything in our power to save their lives.

  • For example, refugees whose lives are in danger in foreign countries, may need to be allowed to find sanctuary in America, even though some jobs may be taken in the process and some economic sacrifices may have to be made by Americans to find a place for them.          

9. Be willing even to lay down your life for others.                                   

  • 1 John 3 says, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:15-16).
  • Once we have made the decision to give up our life for our brothers and sisters, we find it possible to put the interests of others above our own.
  • We find it therefore necessary to “take up our cross daily,” dying to self, which is what the New Testament tells us the Christian life is all about.


This sermon is indebted to the following sources:

Categories: Articles, Sermons, Sermons by Scripture, Sermons by Topic

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