The Ten Commandments show us how far we fall short of the perfection needed to approach God. They do this by causing us to understand sin. Paul says in Romans 7 that without the Law we would not know what sin is – “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’” (7:7). The commandments show us perfection by defining sin and then prohibiting it.
By showing us sin they make us aware of how sinful we are. Once we understand what sin is we also understand that we are utterly sinful – we sin all the time. So the Law says, “Here is what sin is – make sure you do not engage in it.” But once we know what it is we find that we cannot help but engage in it. As a matter of fact, knowing what it is makes us want to engage in it even more. In the same Romans passage Paul says, “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead” (8).
So the commandments define how we should live – how we were meant to live before sin came along. They show us what our true selves were in the image of God before Adam chose to rebel. But they do it by prohibiting the very behavior we cannot avoid because Adam rebelled. They show us perfection but leave us hopeless because to understand them is to understand our own sin and inability to obey them. The commandments are God’s terms for approaching Him and living with Him. But the terms are ultimately tragic because they are utterly impossible to meet.
That is why the real purpose of the Law is to point us to the gospel. Without the Law we do not fully understand our need for a Savior. Without the Law we have nothing to tell us how opposed to God and His standards we are. The point of the Law is to push us to exclaim with Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24). Therefore, the Law becomes more than God’s guide to living or His covenant with Israel – it actually becomes His gift to all mankind to show them their perilous state and push them to the Savior He sent. The Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith (Gal 3:24). The Law is a mark of God’s grace.
Perhaps no commandment better shows how far we are from God than the sixth. While the letter of this commandment is probably the easiest to keep of the Ten, its intent makes it impossible to obey. Jesus makes this clear in His explanation of it in the Sermon on the Mount. If all we have to do is to avoid murder then most are OK, but if we have to be perfect in regard to all thoughts of all people then all are guilty. The sixth commandment is far broader in its implications than the simple four word statement makes it appear.
You Shall Not Murder
It is important to understand that this is not a command against killing generally. The original King James translation – and the most common reading of the Ten Commandments – translates this as “Thou shalt not kill” and that is how the command is typically quoted. But that gives a somewhat different nuance to what this truly prohibits. The command is against murder. It does not prohibit war or capital punishment – two things God instructs Israel to do in other passages. It is against taking a human life either with premeditation or out of negligence.
This command actually predates almost all others. In Genesis 9:6 God tells Noah after the flood, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” The prohibition is ultimately based in creation. Murder is grave because it takes the life of an image of God. Man is the only image-bearer in creation so his life is sacred and his death is never to be taken lightly.
Jesus elaborates on this command in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 5:21-22, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.”
His point is that it is not enough simply to avoid murder. To fully obey this command we must avoid the thoughts that ultimately lead to murder. The one who is angry at his brother takes the first step on a path that leads to murder. The one who treats his brother with contempt or calls him worthless (Raca) takes a further step. And the one who calls his brother a fool is one step further still. Jesus’ point is that the actual act is simply a culmination of a series of sins. And ANY of the sins causes the one who thinks them or says them to violate the sixth commandment. Whether or not he ultimately commits murder makes no difference – the first thought that leads in that direction makes him guilty under the Law.
This can seem to be hyperbole. How can simple anger equate to murder? How can insulting someone be the same as murdering them? Jesus does not mean that the implications of thoughts and words are the same as the physical act. What He means is that the standard of holiness required to enter God’s presence is actually much higher than we realize. It is not enough to say we never murder; we must be perfect in every thought and every opinion of others too. We cannot even take the first small step toward murder. The standard is loving others as we love ourselves – to meet the standard means we never selfishly think poorly of others.
John states this principle even more bluntly in I John 3:14-15. After pointing to the story of Cain killing Abel he says, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.”
He echoes Jesus’ words and – as John almost always does – states them in very black and white terms. To hate is to be a murderer. This is why Cain is the example of those who hate. He was the world’s first murderer and the first one to clearly demonstrate the logical outcome of hate. He hated and his hatred festered and resulted in murder. No one murders without first hating. And hate is really nothing more than a desire to see the person hated removed from our lives. So to hate is really to be guilty of murder – in one sense – because that is where hate leads.
In equating the hater and the murderer John is faithfully reflecting the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21ff.). This is no exaggeration. It shows Jesus’ supreme concern for what goes on in the human heart. Hatred is the wish that another person was not there; it is the refusal to recognize his rights as a person; it is the longing to hurt or ultimately even to kill him. If I hate somebody, I am no different from a murderer in my attitude toward him. And with God it makes very little difference whether I actually have a chance to carry out the desires of my heart or not. People who hate are murderers according to Jesus and according to John and “you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” John is not denying the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for the sin of murder. The thief on the cross is an example that that can and does happen. What John is stating is the general principle that to take life is to forfeit life and no murderer has eternal life as a present and abiding possession. – Steve Roy
Note the eternal ramifications mentioned in both Jesus’ and John’s words. Jesus says, “…and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” John says, “…and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” This points to the perfection required to enter God’s presence but also to the love that characterizes Christians. The Christian who does not love does not exist (I Jn 4:8). The non-Christian who loves as God loves also does not exist because he cannot share what he does not have. Our treatment of others has eternal implications because it shows who and what we are. The one who belongs to Him loves. The one who does not love does not belong to Him.
And that points to what the sixth commandment is really all about. The positive version of this command is “Love one another.” That is the only way to abide by it. To measure up to all that it prohibits means we love others. John says this when he says that we know we are believers when we love the brethren. Love is patient, kind, not jealous; does not seek its own, does not take into account a wrong suffered, etc. There is no room in godly love for the thoughts and actions forbidden by the commandments. [Which sounds all well and good – but are we saying this is really possible for the believer? We can get to the point where we do not violate this commandment? See application below.]
What about times in Jesus’ life when He was angry? It is telling that His anger was typically directed at those who dishonored God, not at those who attacked Him personally. In Matthew 21:12-13, He cleared the moneychangers out of the temple; in Mark 3:1-6, He was angry at the Pharisees for their hardness of heart; and in Matthew 23, He called the Pharisees fools and other things because of their hypocrisy. Remember that on the cross He implored His Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him. He did not care about attacks on Himself, assaults on His rights or perceived signs of disrespect (I Peter 2:21-24). He cared about and became angry at sin.
Conversely, the anger and contempt the sixth commandment prohibits stem from pride. You do not treat me well so I lash out at you. You do not respect me or my rights so I insult you. You do not live up to the standards I establish for those I want around me so I ignore you or simply think poorly of you. I call you a fool or treat you with contempt or simply think you are worthless because of my selfish perspective that puts me at the center of every relationship. When I become angry at those who live as if the world is not about me I violate the sixth commandment.
Notice that nothing is said in Jesus’ words about justice. Nothing is said about what people deserve. Nothing is said about what someone does that makes us want to call them a fool or say they are worthless. That someone irritates us is apparently not important. There are no caveats or contingencies. Just like the fifth commandment, the sixth is stark and to the point. We cannot murder which means we cannot think thoughts of someone that might lead to murder which means we cannot think much of anything negative about someone at all.
Do we see now why the commandments send us running to the gospel? Do we stand a chance of keeping this? Do we not have the tendency to break this command numerous times a day? Do we understand how foolish it is to assume we can keep the Law in our own strength? We are utterly selfish if left to ourselves and we always see others through that prism apart from Christ. It is only through the gospel and the indwelling of the Spirit that we can love others in the way the sixth commandment demands.
And obviously we will never get to the perfect love required to be innocent under the sixth commandment – not this side of eternity. The Spirit will bear in us love for our brothers and love for others generally – and that love will increase as we walk with Him. But we never shed our selfishness and pride enough to abide by this in all ways at all times. As we mature in Christ our humility increases and our capacity to love increases. But loving others perfectly will not occur until we live with them on the new earth.
What does it look like to live this way? Paul’s definition of love in I Corinthians 13 is the pattern, but it really comes back to loving others as I love myself. I tend to be merciful to myself. I forgive me for all kinds of things and forgive repeatedly. I excuse my own behavior regularly. I want what is best for me and do all kinds of things to make my life better. I rarely talk badly about myself. I never talk behind my back. I try to present me in the best light to others. I never try to get back at me and I do not hold grudges against me. I am never bitter at myself. The bottom line is if I love others the way I love myself I will treat them much differently than my natural tendencies demand.
You shall not murder. You shall not hate which could lead to murder. You shall not say things that reflect the hate which could lead to murder. You shall not think thoughts that could lead to words that reflect the hate which could lead to murder.
And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us. I John 3:23