You don’t need to grow up in church to know that murder is a wicked offense. Murder is treated nearly universally as a heinous crime. And it ought to be. God makes plain his hatred of murder the moment it appears in Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8). God legislates death as the appropriate punishment for those who unlawfully put others to death (Genesis 9:6).
Yet for all of our hatred of the murder out there, we can fail to hate the murder in here. But Scripture, and the words of Jesus in particular, will not allow us to hate murder at a safe distance. The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” exposes a universal problem and a universal need for forgiveness.
Different Kinds of Killing
The word used for “murder” in Exodus 20:13, Hebrew rasah, denotes the unlawful, premeditated, or immoral killing of another human, while also covering the unintentional causing of human death through carelessness or negligence. Of its forty-seven uses in the Old Testament, this verb is never used to describe killing in war, nor is it thought to apply to slaughtering animals or defending one’s home from invasion.
God’s law differentiated between willful and involuntary killing. Exodus 21:12–14 clearly states that the premeditated murder of another person was deemed worthy of capital punishment (see also Numbers 35:17–21).
“Seek to reconcile quickly with others. Replace hate and anger with words that give life and bless others.”
The accidental or involuntary causing of another person’s death, however, carried a slightly lighter penalty. Though it was not grounds for the sentence of death, the guilty party was banished to an appointed place (which later God would reveal as cities of refuge, Deuteronomy 19:1–13). This place offered sanctuary from the vengeful relatives of the deceased, but it was also away from home. The banishment often lasted for life because the guilty party would not be released until the death of the high priest (Numbers 35:25, 28).
So while discerning between consequences for different killings can be difficult, we all know it is a great evil to unlawfully take another’s life.
Why God Hates Murder
God shows his hatred for murder the moment it appears in Cain (Genesis 4:8). But why does God hate the act of murder so much? Two reasons stand out in Scripture.
1. The act of murder is an assault on God himself.
After God made a covenant with Noah never to destroy mankind by a flood, he set up a system to protect human life. Any man who unlawfully took the life of another would have his own life taken, “for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Here we see how precious and valuable human life is to God. To murder another human being is to murder what is most like God in creation. It is tantamount to an attack on the Creator of all life. This is why abortion is so grievous to God and Christians.
The Bible is clear that human life begins in the womb and not at birth. David declares that we were fearfully and wonderfully made in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13). God says to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). All human life is precious in the sight of God, and it is evil to think of any human life as disposable — whether the unborn, the elderly, the disabled, or the sick.
2. Murder assumes the authority and right reserved for God alone.
Only God has the right to give life and to take away life (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6). Job declared that life belongs to the Lord to give and to take away (Job 1:21). Consequently, the one who murders another human being is guilty of assuming the right and privilege that is God’s alone. He is guilty of rebellion against God and attempting to put himself in the place of God. In this way, murder is the offspring of the very first sin and breaks the first commandment by having a god (self) before the Lord.
A Sin Not So Easily Escaped
Now, one may say, “Well, I have never — nor will I ever — commit murder!” But two considerations give strong reason to take heed to this command and see it as relevant to all of us.
Carelessness or Neglect
As stated earlier, the Hebrew word employed in the sixth commandment would include causing someone’s death from carelessness or neglect. This command would have instigated a holy fear in the community to strive for caution and prudence in the affairs of life so that no one would be guilty of unintentionally taking someone’s life through recklessness.
There is a reason harsh penalties are given to people who drive under the influence of alcohol. Or consider a carelessness closer to home: texting while driving. We may put others’ lives in danger more often than we assume.
And then there is the issue of negligence. The principle of the watchman of Ezekiel 33 comes to mind. The Lord painted a picture through the prophet Ezekiel of a watchman who was put in position to warn the city of the coming sword against it. If the watchman failed to blow the trumpet and was negligent in his duty, then the blood of the people would be on his hands (Ezekiel 33:7–9).
We can be negligent in failing to warn others of danger or to speak up on behalf of those who are vulnerable and powerless. It is easy to condemn the silence of so many in Germany who did not speak out against the murderous atrocities of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. But are we equally vocal against the murdering of so many unborn here in our own country? Are we willing to speak up for the marginalized and the oppressed in our own culture?
Anger as Murder
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges his disciples to live according to the standards of the kingdom of God and not the standards of the world or even of the religious establishment around them. He tells them that their righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), who sought merely outward conformity to the law instead of inward transformation of the heart.
Jesus displays this exceeding righteousness by using the refrain, “You have heard that it was said, but I say to you . . .” He is not saying that what was written in the Old Testament is not true. Rather, he is correcting what they heard the Old Testament saying and giving them the correct interpretation of the Scriptures, especially in the light of his coming.
You have heard that 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. (Matthew 5:21–22)
The world understands that murder is a crime. The religious establishment focused on this outward nature of not murdering anyone. But the standard of the kingdom of God is not merely to avoid the shedding of blood. To be focused on the mere act of murder is to miss the heart of the command.
“It is not enough to not murder; you must eradicate hatred from your heart.”
Jesus insists that it is not enough to not murder someone; we must eradicate hatred from our hearts. Murder is not merely an action without any reference to the character of the murderer. Something more fundamental is at stake here. The sinful anger and wrath that lurked behind the deed itself is blameworthy and will be subject to judgment. John writes, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him” (1 John 3:15). The stakes could not be higher.
Repenting of Heart Murder
Do you feel the weight of this? Jesus is saying you are not safe from punishment just because you have not shed blood. If you have harbored anger, contempt, or malice toward someone else, you are guilty. Have you ever wished someone harm or, even worse, wished they were dead? Have you ever rejoiced over someone’s misfortune? Have you ever put someone down in your heart? Then your heart has known murder.
Again, the radical righteousness that Jesus demands is not merely a refraining from outward sin but a transformation of the heart by his love and grace. Our only hope is Christ, who fulfilled all righteousness and offers it to us as a free gift to be received by faith. So what must we do?
Turn to God and confess the sin of anger. Make no excuses for it. The story of Jonah is instructive.
In Jonah 4, Jonah is angry with God because God didn’t destroy Nineveh. The Lord asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). In other words, God is calling Jonah to look at his own life and his own heart. Is his anger justified? Does he not depend on the same mercy from God that God has given to the Ninevites? Does he have the right to decide who receives mercy and who doesn’t?
We too rarely look at our own hearts to see the root of the problem. But it starts here with a confession: I am sinfully angry.
2. Receive the gift of God’s grace in Jesus.
Abel’s blood cried out to God for justice. But Hebrews 12:24 tells us that Jesus’s blood speaks a better word. The blood of Abel speaks a word of condemnation: the murderer deserves death. And we are guilty as charged. We break the sixth commandment with the anger in our heart.
This is why Jesus came. He lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose so that we could have life in him, now and after death. For those who believe in him, the blood of Christ speaks a word of forgiveness and acceptance. By faith, receive this gift of grace!
3. Reconcile specifically.
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. (Matthew 5:23–24)
Jesus calls for a specific action here toward a specific brother. And notice that it isn’t someone that you are angry with. No, this is someone who is offended by you. You have done something to offend him, and God brings it to your mind. The first act of worship is for you to make it right with him.
God calls us to sensitivity in our relationships with others — not a vague sensitivity to imagined offenses, but rather dealing with real offenses that the Holy Spirit brings to mind against specific people. Seek to reconcile quickly with others. Replace hate and anger with words that give life and bless others.
And when we reconcile, we can go forth and resolve, God helping us, to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31–32).