So last week we experienced a sudden change of direction.
God has been speaking to his people from the top of Mt. Sinai for a while now, outlining the constitution for his new nation of Israel. He is describing the boundaries of the covenant he wants to make with them. And the first four commandments were all about how God wants his people to love him.
But the fifth commandment last week suddenly introduced the idea of love for parents. Which felt like a strange leap from one subject to another — until we realized that our relationship with our human parents is a kind of earthly echo of our covenantal relationship with God. Our human parents gave us life; God gave us life; so just as we owe God our lives, we also owe our parents our lives. We realized that dishonouring our parents is very closely linked with dishonoring God.
And as we talked further about this, we realized it is possible to break the fifth commandment in two equal-but-opposite ways: we can dishonor God by under-honouring our parents, but we can also dishonor God by over-honoring our parents. And we talked a bit about where those limits lie: on the one side, at the very least, God calls us to provide for our parents’ physical and social needs when they are old; on the other side, God calls us to disobey our parents if they demand false worship, hypocrisy, or that we give up our gospel rest in Christ.
But at this point we could ask: is that all? Are those the only ways we might fail to honor our earthly parents and our Heavenly Father?
And the answer is: no. That is not all. There are also other ways that we might fail to keep the fifth commandment.
And really, if we are paying attention to the way God has structured his commandments so far, we should already be expecting some further explanation, some more details on what it looks like to break or to keep the fifth commandment.
See, God’s whole speech began with a positive command: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
And that left us wondering what exactly God meant by that. So God went on to define that positive command with two negative commands: “You shall not make idols, you shall not misuse my name.” Then we understood better what he meant when he said, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Then God made another positive command: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.”
This also left us wondering what exactly he meant, so God went on to define that command with two commands, one positive — “work six days a week” — and one negative: “stop work on the seventh.”
Well, last week, God spoke another positive command: “Honor your father and your mother.” So:
If we are sitting here wondering what exactly that means in greater detail, we really should expect God to follow up now with a negative comandment or two.
And as we read the next verse we do find that it is another negatively worded commandment:
 “You shall not murder.”
Seems pretty clear. I don’t think any of us are going to disagree with this commandment. Obviously “do not murder” is a good principle upon which to build a constitutional society. Just as obviously, murdering somebody is a pretty good way to bring dishonour upon your parents. So if we want to honour our father and our mother, one of the best ways to do that is to avoid murder.
But this seems so obvious to us that we might wonder why God feels like he has to say it! Isn’t an idea as fundamental as this so fundamental that it should go without saying?
Well, apparently not. We think “You shall not murder” makes good, intuitive sense. But apparently this is not the case for everyone on earth.
And the truth is — according to scripture — murder has been a problem for human beings right from the beginning.
The first recorded sin was eating the forbidden fruit. The very next recorded sin was murder! — Cain murdered his brother Abel in the chapter right after Adam and Eve ate the fruit. And among Cain’s descendants, murder became a regular way to deal with problems, right up until Noah’s flood. And even after the flood, the rest of the Book of Genesis regularly features murders and attempted murders — even within Abraham’s and Isaac’s and Jacob’s family — the family which has here become the nation of Israel, standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, listening to God say, “You shall not murder.”
So maybe, given mankind’s history, it makes sense for God to tell Israel, “Hey! No murdering!”
But this is where we say, “Okay, sure, this is a useful command for primitive people like the ancient Israelites. We are civilized, however.”
…are we though?
Let’s look at some of the examples from Genesis and see how different we really are from these ancient people:
Cain murdered his brother. What was his motivation? The bible says he was angry because Abel received a reward Cain wanted for himself: he was jealous.
Lamech, Cain’s descendant, murdered a young man for insulting him: he was motivated by revenge.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife, mistreated her servant Hagar until Hagar ran away, pregnant, into the desert, where she would surely have died if God had not saved her. What was Sarah’s motivation? She felt dishonored and jealous of Hagar’s pregnancy.
Esau, Isaac’s oldest son, planned to murder Jacob, his brother. Why? Again: revenge, because Jacob had tricked their father into giving him the greater blessing.
Jacob’s sons Simeon and Levi murdered every man in the city of Shechem in order to avenge the defiling of their sister Dinah: they were motivated by the desire to regain their sister’s honor.
And then a little while those same sons made plans to murder their brother Joseph, because they hated him. Why did they hate him? Because they saw that their father loved him more than any of them. They were jealous.
When we look at the stories of murder and attempted murder in Genesis, we find these recurring motivations: jealousy, anger, revenge, dishonour, hate. Now, can we honestly claim that we have never experienced these kinds of corrupt desires? Perhaps we are more like these ancient primitive people than we care to admit!
But this is where we might object: “Sure, we experience corrupt desires and negative emotions and all that. But we do not actually act on them!”
…don’t we though?
Jesus, in the New Testament, has a rather different perspective.
This is what he said during his famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel: “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.’ True enough, and pretty obvious, right? But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” So:
Jesus says that even if we do not actually act on our corrupt desires — our jealousy, anger, hatred — we are still subject to judgement, we are still in danger of the fire of hell.
So Jesus’ words suggest that there is far more meaning contained in this very simple commandment than we thought at first. God is not just saying, “You shall not murder,” he is saying, “You shall not be angry,” “You shall not be jealous,” “You shall not hate.”
…but now we really have some objections, don’t we!
For instance, we might say at this point: “Wait a minute! Is Jesus saying that calling someone a fool is as bad as murdering them?”
The answer is: no.
Obviously murdering somebody is worse than calling them a bad name. Jesus does not say that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to the same judgment as anyone who actually murders a brother or sister, he simply says they will be subject to judgment. Scripture makes it clear that some judgements are more severe than others, and that there are differing levels of punishment in hell. A murderer will experience a more severe judgement than a man with a hot temper — but the point Jesus is making here is that a man with a hot temper will still experience judgement.
Jesus was talking to people — like us! — who were too quick to say, “Oh, well, I may be angry but at least I haven’t murdered anybody!” Jesus is correcting that attitude. He is saying, “Sure, you haven’t actually murdered anybody, but your anger is going to condemn you on Judgement Day if you do not get that sorted out somehow! Sure, you may not be way down in the lower parts of hell with the murderers — but you’re not going to be in God’s kingdom either!”
…okay. But this just leads us to our next potential objection:
Since murder really is so much worse than just thinking about murder, why didn’t Jesus just draw the line between actual murder and murderous emotions? Murder has obvious earthly consequences. Internal desires and feelings don’t. So why judge us for those?
Well, internal desires and feelings do actually lead to obvious earthly consequences.
For instance, James — who was one of Jesus’ younger brothers — wrote this in his letter to the churches: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.”
And then, in another place, John — who was one of Jesus twelve disciples — makes the equal-but-opposite point in one of his letters: “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” So:
James says that evil desires lead to fights, quarrels, and murder. John says that the opposite is also true: a lack of good desires leads to a lack of pity. These are obvious earthly consequences.
”But still,“ we might say, “Why didn’t Jesus reserve judgement just for the bad earthly consequences? Murder should be judged, yes, but not feelings of hatred; fights and quarrels should be judged, yes, but not desires; a lack of compassionate actions should be judged, yes, but not uncompassionate feelings. I mean: what if I desire but do not have, like James says, but I refuse to quarrel and fight? What if I hate a brother or sister, like John says, but then when I see them in need I go ahead and have pity on them anyway? How would it be right for God to judge me when my negative internal feelings do not lead to negative consequences in the world?”
Well…first of all: God’s Word says that is impossible.
As Jesus once said, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” If we desire but do not have, we are going to quarrel and fight, guaranteed. If we hate a brother or sister, we are not going to have pity on them when they are in need, we are going to celebrate their misery. Our core habitual emotions will always produce real consequences in this world. As Jesus also said once, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”
But second of all — and even more importantly — both James and John go on to tell us why our internal desires and feelings condemn us, even when we are not always acting on them.
This is what James says right after he rebukes Christians for the desires that battle within them: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”
And John makes the exact same connection! First he says, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” And then he goes on to say this: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, all sinful desire and emotion — comes not from the Father but from the world.” So:
James says that evil desires and feelings mean friendship with the world. And friendship with the world means hatred against God. John completely agrees. He says hatred, lust and pride all mean love for the world. And love for the world means no love for the Father.
…but now we might object further.
We might say: “Isn’t that just a bit strong? Are these guys saying that if I love anything in the world, I actually hate God?”
Well…yes. These are very strong statements.
Because there is a very strong connection between hatred and murder. Physically or spiritually, one way or another, we murder what we hate. If we hate a brother or sister, we murder them in our hearts. If we hate God, we murder him in our hearts.
And where does hatred for others and for God come from? It comes from our love for the world, friendship with the world. Therefore, these apostles are saying, those who love the world are murderers of God. And as John says very clearly in his letter: “No murderer has eternal life in him.” A very strong statement!
But…no, these guys are not quite saying that any love for anything in the world means automatic hatred for God.
For one thing, there are things in this world that we are supposed to love. Parents, for instance.
But even more importantly, we need to understand that when these men talk about “love” and “hate” they are not really talking about emotions in the same way we do in our modern world.
For us, words like “love” and “hate” are extremely emotional words. And this is why, when the apostles say, “Anyone who loves the world hates God,” we assume they are saying that God condemns people for their emotions. Which sounds unreasonable to us.
But that is not what Jesus or James or John are really saying. Yes, Jesus talks about anger. James talks about desire. John talks about a lack of pity. Those are all emotional expressions. But as we have already noted, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Our emotions are rooted in our most deeply held values. Anger and jealousy come and go, but what we love and what we hate does not easily change. So:
What these men are saying is that love and hate are actually indicators of our covenantal commitments.
When James says, “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,” he does not simply mean, “anyone who chooses to have affectionate feelings for the world,” he means, “anyone who commits themselves to the world.”
In the same way, when John says, “If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them,” he does not simply mean, “If anyone feels affection for the world,” he means, “If anyone commits themselves to the world.”
They are pointing out that a covenantal commitment to the world is evidenced by what we desire, and what we desire is evidenced in what we quarrel and fight about, who we have pity on and who we don’t.
So when Jesus says that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment, or that anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell, he is not saying we are judged simply because of our desires or emotions, or even because of the consequences of our desires and emotions. We are judged because of the corrupted covenantal commitment those desires and emotions are rooted in. The reason our internal desires and feelings condemn us — even when we are not always acting on them — is because they are rooted in our covenantal commitment to this world.
And as we have seen ever since the beginning of this series on the 10 Commandments, at a fundamental level our covenantal commitment to this world is actually rooted in our covenantal commitment to ourselves: our self-love.
Self-love is the poison we inherited from our first parents. They came to a decision point where they had to choose between continued covenant loyalty for the other, or a new kind of covenant loyalty to the self. They had to choose between giving away life to others and trusting them to give it back, or giving life to the self so that trust in others is no longer needed.
They chose loyalty to self.
And they plunged us all into a world where self-preservation is the rule of life. The reason we naturally love the world and hate God is because we think the world is what keeps us alive. And our central covenantal commitment is to giving ourselves life, no matter what it might cost others.
So what we are learning here today is that murder is nothing more than the final expression of giving life to the self. And we are learning that the real foundational sin condemned by this commandment is not actually murder — or even hatred or jealousy or anger — what is condemned is the covenant loyalty to the self that ends in murder.
And since we are all guilty of self-love, since we are all guilty of a covenantal commitment to preserve our own lives, our own honor, our own desires, our own feelings — no matter what it might cost somebody else! — even if we have never actually physically murdered somebody, we are all guilty of breaking this commandment.
In other words, as Jesus has said: we are all subject to judgement.
That is bad news.
Because how in the world are we going to escape from our own self-love? How are we going to escape from ourselves, from who we are as human beings?
And the simple answer is: we are not going to escape. This is simply impossible for us. I cannot escape from myself without ending myself, and that would be a fundamental violation of my own commitment to keep on providing life for myself!
We are not going to escape. But we can be rescued.
How? By entering into a covenantal relationship with Jesus Christ.
See, the poison we inherited is our fundamental commitment to give ourselves life. The only antidote is to return to a fundamental commitment to give others life. And we cannot do that without destroying ourselves, as we just realized.
But Jesus did what we cannot. When he was dishonoured by people who were acting out their covenantal commitment to the world and to themselves, Jesus did not respond by adopting the values of the world and dishonoring those people in return. He could have performed an honor-killing right then and there, and restored his personal honor by taking their lives. But instead of taking their lives, he let them take his.
Why? Because he was not really letting them take his life, he was letting his Father take his life.
And why did he do that? Because he trusted that his Heavenly Father would give his life back to him.
Jesus did what Adam did not: when he came to that decision point between covenant loyalty to others or covenant loyalty to himself, he chose covenant loyalty to others — covenant loyalty to the Almighty Other.
Jesus is the only man in history who has actually kept this commandment in all its fullness. Not only did he avoid murdering people, but he also gave away his whole life to give life even to murderers.
Therefore, the bible says, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The point is this: because Jesus fully kept this commandment, he was rewarded with the rule over all creation. And anyone who comes and bows down before him, and enters into covenant with him, will participate in the same reward. Jesus’ fundamental commitment to giving others life will be poured out upon us — and Jesus’ fundamental commitment to giving us life is infinitely greater than our fundamental commitment to give ourselves life. The antidote of his covenantal love for us is greater than the poison of our own self-love. Through him we can be rescued from ourselves, no longer subject to judgement.
So if you are here today, and you are not a Christian, and you have come to realize that your habitual anger, your scorn, your jealousy, your lack of compassion have estranged you from your parents, your brothers and sisters, your children, so that you stand triumphant but alone on a mountain of victorious quarrels, if you are finally waking up to the realization that the common factor in all your broken relationships is you, and if you are longing for some relief from your own self-sabotaging self love, if you are longing for some reconciliation somewhere, start with Jesus Christ: be reconciled to Jesus first.
Maybe you are wondering how?
Well, this is what Jesus’ disciple John says you should do. Right after he warns us, “Do not love the world or anything in the world,” he says this: “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.” Do you want to live and be reconciled to God? Then do the will of God!
But perhaps now you are wondering what is the will of God? John goes on to say: “This is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” This is the will of God: believe in the name — in the compassionate rescuing reputation — of Jesus Christ. Believe in Jesus, and you will be reconciled to him.
And just in case you still have questions about what that reconciliation looks like, Jesus’ younger brother James has something to say. Right after he warns us that “anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God,” he goes on to say this: “But he gives us more grace. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
If you do this, friend, God will become your Heavenly Father. And he will give back to you all the life that has slipped through your fingers in your attempts to grasp it for yourself.
But now, what about those of us who have already believed in the name of Jesus Christ, what are we supposed to do about this commandment? We were subject to judgement, but we are not anymore. Does this mean that when we get angry with one another it does not really matter? Are we allowed to despise people and call them fools now that we are no longer in danger of the fire of hell?
Well, just a moment ago I read the words of John, Jesus’ disciple. He said, “This is God’s command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.” We have already believed. So now we are called to love one another.
And remember, in biblical language, this means we are called to be covenantally committed to one another as he commanded us.
But what does covenantal commitment look like, practically speaking?
Well, covenantal commitment — covenantal love — looks like a return to the values of the original garden. Covenantal love means we are committed to relearning how to give life away to others, trusting them to give it back. And this necessarily begins with those who are closest to us: our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Okay. So we are supposed to relearn how to give life away to others, instead of taking it from them. But what does that look like, practically speaking?
Well, Jesus himself actually describes it to us.
Right after he explained that this commandment, “You shall not murder,” also means that “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment,” he goes on to say this:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”
In other words: reconciliation is actually more important than worship. God will not accept your worship if you are not willing to go and try to reconcile a relationship that has been broken by jealousy or anger or fear.
And then Jesus says: “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
In other words: if you are truly guilty of sin against someone else, repent quickly. Humble yourself and be reconciled before things pass the point of no return and your relationship is completely murdered.
Basically, Jesus is talking here about repentance and forgiveness. We were wondering what it looks like to give life away to others; this is what it looks like: repentance and forgiveness leading to reconciliation.
But how are repentance and forgiveness related to covenantal commitment, to giving love away?
Well, see: because I am a human being, I want you to love me. Your love gives me life. But when I do not get the life I want from you, I use my own self-consuming jealousy and anger to try and take it for myself. That is the opposite of repentance, that is the opposite of trust. And that is actually murder, because ultimately I am proving that I am willing to kill our relationship if you do not give me the life I think you owe me.
But if I come and confess my jealousy and anger to you, that repentance is a profound act of trust in the covenant that binds us together. When I confess how I have sinned against you, I am essentially giving my life to you, trusting that you will give it back to me by forgiving me.
And forgiveness works the same way. If you come to me and confess how fear, jealousy, anger, and self-love have led you to try to murder our relationship…now I have to decide whether I am going to trust you. And my inclination is going to be, “No!” After all, I have my bad self-loving habits; I know you have yours; it would probably be better for all concerned if we just went our separate ways and did not try to reconcile, right? But again, that attitude is actually a kind of murder, because ultimately I am proving that I am willing to kill our relationship for the sake of self-preservation.
But if I forgive you for your jealousy and anger, that is a profound act of trust in the covenant that binds us together as brothers and sisters. When I forgive how you have sinned against me, I am essentially giving my life away to you, trusting that you will give it back to me by not trying to kill our relationship again.
So, to summarise: we were wondering what are we supposed to do in response to this commandment, now that we are no longer subject to judgement. Are we allowed to indulge in anger and scorn, as long as we do not actually murder one another?
No. We are commanded to “to love one another.” Love=covenant loyalty to the other person. Covenant loyalty=relearning how to give life away. Giving life away=repentance and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness=reconciliation.
So what have learned here today is that the cure for murder is reconciliation. The cure for murderous emotions like jealousy, anger, and fear are confession, repentance, and trust.
This is what we are commanded to do: set aside every murderous inclination and choose reconciliation.
…but let’s be honest with one another now, brothers and sisters: we struggle to reconcile. We struggle to confess. We struggle to forgive. Jesus says he has rescued us from judgement, and he has promised to rescue us from our self-love — but the truth is we often do not feel very rescued, do we! We still experience jealousy, anger, and fear. And we have just learned that continued jealousy, anger, and fear are warning lights that point to our covenantal commitment to ourselves and to the world, and that “if anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.”
Does our continued experience of jealousy, anger, and fear mean we are not really Christians in covenant with God?
Well…we should examine ourselves carefully here. Jesus really is saying that no true Christian will continue to indulge in habitual jealousy, anger, fear, quarreling, and hatred. Anyone who does continue to indulge in these things is proving that they are actually still in a covenantal relationship with the world and with themselves rather than with God. People who are truly in covenant with Jesus Christ — people who have truly been baptised by the Holy Spirit — are going to learn how to practice confession and repentance leading to reconciliation with others who are also practicing confession and repentance.
So let us examine the evidence of our lives carefully: what kind of person am I? Is my speech dominated by cynicism, bitterness, criticism, anger? Do I have any intact, healthy, long-term relationships, or do I keep breaking them and moving on? Are my parents grieved by me? Do my children dread coming home for reunion dinners? Do I have a reputation among my brothers and sisters as a contentious person, high-maintenance, divisive, hard to please?
If the answer to those questions is yes, then…yes, we should seriously consider whether we really are a Christian. And if the answer to that question matters to us, then this is what we must do: confess our helplessness and cry out to Jesus. Ask him to rescue us from our covenantal commitment to self and world. Then turn, and repent, and begin to practice repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation.
But even if we find that we are not indulging in jealousy, anger, and fear, still we do all continue to struggle with these murderous emotions, which really do point to our unresolved love of self. We are Christians rescued from judgement, but what we really want to be is rescued from ourselves, our self-love. We have been promised healing. But when is that going to happen? And how? And is there anything we can do to participate in the process?
Yes, there is. By practicing repentance and forgiveness we are participating in the healing process. The more we practice giving life away again to others, the more our self-love will wither away.
But now, perhaps, we might have one last objection:
We might say that God is being unreasonable here. Confession is dangerous, because people are often vengeful and unforgiving. Forgiveness is perhaps even more dangerous, because people are often not truly repentant. So how can our Father command us to put our trust in brothers and sisters who are not trustworthy?
Well…here’s the thing: our Father has not commanded us to put our trust in our brothers and sisters. He has commanded us to put our trust in the covenant that makes us brothers and sisters. Because that covenant does not depend upon our faithfulness, it depends upon his. Even when we fail one another, we continue to be brothers and sisters, not because of our own efforts but because we are now the children of one Father.
When I confess how I have sinned against you, I am giving my life to you, trusting that you will give it back to me — but you might not. When you forgive how I have sinned against you, you are giving your life away to me, trusting that I will give it back to you — but I might not. Ultimately, however, we are not putting our trust in one another, we are putting our trust in Jesus Christ. Just like Jesus, we are not really giving our lives away to one another, we are giving our lives away to our Father. Why? Because we trust that our Heavenly Father will give our lives back to us even if our brothers and sisters fail to do so.
And it is this promise of perfect restoration that gives us courage as Christians to keep on reaching out in repentance and forgiveness, in reconciliation, even knowing the risks of betrayal and disappointment.
So, brothers and sisters, do we want to participate in our Father’s healing process? Then let us do this: remember the covenant that has given us life. As we learn to remember more and more consistently, we will find ourselves moved to practice repentance and forgiveness more and more. We will learn to give life away again to others. And as we learn to give life away more and more, we will find that jealousy, anger, and fear will gradually loose their hold on us. Not completely! Not in this life. But one day.
And so we will be healed.