The Ten Words: The Sixth
On one hand, the 6th commandment, “you shall not murder”, is probably the most universally accepted of all the ten commandments. By God’s restraining grace, humanity seems to have an innate knowledge that murder is wrong. On the other hand, according to the law of Jesus in Matthew 5, each of us probably murders every day! What are we to make of this, and how does this apply to each of us daily? To answer these questions, we need to step back to look at the commandment itself and evaluate what it does and does not mean, getting to the root understanding of murder. Only then can we put the commandment within the context of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 5 to help us grow in holiness each day.
Murder is the unjust snuffing out of a human life. This is slightly different than killing, which is the general taking of a human life for any reason. Why make this distinction? The Bible is clear that there are indeed times when killing is mandated. Ecclesiastes 3:3 says that there is a time to kill. God commands killing on many occasions in the Old Testament, both to the nation of Israel in their dealing with ungodly nations inhabiting the promised land and to courts in their carrying out capital punishment against certain sins. The New Testament also makes clear that the government is authorized to wield the sword, to kill, when punishing certain lawbreakers. So we must first dispel the notion that all killing is wrong. But what then is murder and why is it wrong when other kinds of killing are acceptable? To answer this, we must venture back to when God authorizes justified killing: Genesis 9. After Noah and his family exit the ark, God authorizes the use of capital punishment to be carried out upon individuals who murder, who unjustly take the life of another human. The underlying justification for this is that mankind, as God’s image bearers, has inherent dignity, and if anyone takes that dignity for granted by flippantly killing someone, they forfeit their own life in return. And so murder at its root is the ultimate devaluation of the inherent dignity of an image bearer. There are a host of implications here for “just war theory” and for modern debates over capital punishment that can be covered in the future. We want to focus instead on how Jesus views the 6th commandment and what this means for us.
Jesus says in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” While on the surface this may appear to be a stretch or even a redefinition of the 6th commandment, Jesus is ultimately reminding us of the underlying principle behind the commandment. Remember that the Pharisees are so intently focused on following every jot and tittle of the law that they always fail to miss the purpose of the law itself. By giving what seems to be a stretch of the law, Jesus is highlighting the utter failure of the Pharisees to understand its purpose. If murder is ultimately the devaluation of the inherent dignity of an image bearer, then Jesus is highlighting the fact that anger falls within the exact same category. When someone does something that makes me angry, anger is the fruit of my devaluation of their inherent human dignity in that moment.
What does this practically look like? Perhaps the most vivid and convicting example is road rage. Perhaps someone cuts you off in traffic or someone is going 5mph (or km/h for my European friends) under the speed limit. Our first reaction is often anger, perhaps because they endangered my life or they don’t seem to care that I have a busy schedule to keep. Our first sinful impulse in that moment is to lash out at that other driver in some manner. Perhaps we move to pass and then cut off the guy who cut us off. Perhaps we rudely cross over a double yellow line (no passing allowed) to get around them in haste. In our anger we have failed to value the inherent dignity of the recipient of our anger. This is what Jesus is getting at in Matthew 5. Anger is the fruit of the same underlying sinful condition that murder is: the devaluation of another person’s life. Of course, what’s even more saddening in road rage is that that devaluation can lead to the death of that person by causing an accident ourselves as we respond in anger. This is one obvious example, but it hits home for many of us I would imagine. Christians rightly cry out against abortion, the devaluation of human dignity. Christians should uphold capital punishment as the right punishment for the devaluation of human dignity. But let us also consider how each of us, within the silent confines of our own heart, devalues the life and dignity of others each and every day as we respond in anger to any number of perceived offenses.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.