The sixth commandment is short. "Thou shalt not kill." Ratsach, the Hebrew word used here for "kill," is more properly translated as "murder." In the 46 times that the word is used in the Old Testament, almost every usage carries a sense of willful hurtfulness, blood vengeance, and murder, a sense of mayhem toward those around us. The sixth commandment commands us not to cross over the right of another person to life. We are not to willfully harm. We are to weigh someone else heavy; we're not to weigh them light.
This command is not interpreted as a prohibition against the slaughter of animals or fish for food. But it does prohibit harm to animals for harm's sake. This law prohibits all torture, mayhem, or harm that crosses over the right to existence.
This is a complicated law because the sixth commandment has so many ramifications. I read Leviticus 19 today, and you can see that Leviticus expands the law in terms of the verbal: "Thou shalt not go up and down the land slandering." The command is expanded.
Jesus expands the command
If that's true in the Old Testament expansion of the law, it becomes even more intensified in the New Testament fulfillment of the law. The grand expansion of this law is "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." That's the grand positive of the command, and it raises many different issues.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5, Jesus decided to take hold of this law himself and do his own expansion of Leviticus 19. He goes into even greater detail about what it would mean to go up and down the land slandering. We hear our Lord's expansion in a famous text, Matthew 5:21, slightly paraphrased (as are all the biblical quotations cited): "You have heard it said of old, 'You shall not kill. Whoever kills will be liable to judgment. 'But I say to you, every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable for judgment.'"
Jesus has now intensified this far beyond anything we may have imagined. We may have thought, "That's one law I haven't broken. I haven't murdered anybody." But did you weigh the person heavy? Did you cross over in other ways? The Sermon on the Mount has greatly intensified the sixth commandment: "But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother (sister) will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother (sister) 'Raca' is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift."
Notice our Lord bringing up the remembering part of the Law: "Remember the way God made the earth. Remember creation, and now remember distortion when we see a distortion of the law. Be reconciled to your brother or sister and then make your offering, come and give your gift." That's the Sermon on the Mount from our Lord.
Paul expands the command
The apostle Paul does the same thing. In Romans 12, he picks up our Lord's Sermon on the Mount to help us understand what Jesus meant. Jesus said if someone strikes you on one cheek, hold your ground, and do it with style—turn your other cheek. In Romans 12:14, Paul says, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Paul is recognizing a kind of vicious cycle that happens with cursing and with anger, and he says we're to break into that vicious cycle by blessing them, not cursing.
In verse 15, he says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." It seems Paul is saying that we should try to understand where the other person is coming from—where they hurt, where their pain is, where their rejoicing is. "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written, 'It is mine to revenge; I will repay,' says the Lord." Listen to this incredible finale: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink."
Paul endeavors to work at the source of anger, the source of wrath— sometimes sparing wrath because a person is starved, maybe starved emotionally, but starved for something--some new food. "So," he says, "give it to them." Then he quotes the Book of Proverbs: "In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." He doesn't mean fire to harm but fire to break through shells, to warm, and to give hope. "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." In chapter 13, Paul continues, "Let no debt continue outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the law."
The command is fulfilled by love
All of the commandments about not killing or committing adultery or stealing or coveting are fulfilled by love. Notice the grand simplification of the apostle Paul. Our Lord does the grand simplification in the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul does it too. All the commands and any other commandment are summed up in this one sentence: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is fulfilling the law. Doing wrong to the neighbor is what the sixth commandment really means. It's not just murder. It's willful wickedness, crossing over the neighbor and the neighbor's rights, the neighbor's life. This is not a simple command. This commandment touches many issues today.
"Thou shalt not ratsach"—thou shalt not take vengeance, move over or cross over the neighbor's right to existence—is now a huge command. It brings up all kinds of social issues, such as the gradations and the definitions of murder itself. In Western law, murder is defined across a broad spectrum: first-degree, premeditation, manslaughter, and second-degree murder. "Thou shalt not ratsach" is a complex issue. In other words, all the degrees of wickedness that harm our neighbors are under this sixth command.
Suicide, in which we harm ourselves, in which we weigh ourselves too light and decide we don't deserve to live—this command is also against that. Suicide is murder of the self. We have no right to do that. We cannot take our own life. We cannot take someone else's life. We cannot judge another one's right to existence or our own right to existence. This brings up the huge questions of euthanasia, the termination of problem pregnancies, of war, and of capital punishment when the community takes life. These are complicated issues, all brought up by the sixth commandment.
Our Lord understood how this command spread in many directions. He shows us how a strategy of hope and reconciliation can happen in the midst of the tragedy in this command. And there is tragedy in the sixth commandment; it admits that we harm each other. Jesus is not satisfied to simply show the limits of that harm and warn us. He shows us a strategy. He says if you're on your way with an offering, and you discover that your neighbor, brother or sister, has something against you, then make peace with that neighbor. Reconcile.
By the way, the word reconcile in Greek is katallasso, meaning "to bring a new element into an ancient crisis." A new element causes a change in that crisis. It's a catalyst. That new element is the love that Jesus Christ gives us. Jesus gives us a strategy of good, a strategy of love in the face of the tragedy that lies behind the sixth commandment.
Three principles flow out of this commandment
What is clear in the sixth commandment? Let's look at three great principles that flow out of the sixth commandment:
The first principle is this: We are not to do harm and destruction toward the people around us. The commandment takes away from us the right of private vengeance. That is one of the most obvious and simple interpretations of the sixth commandment. And that's the way the Jews understood it. If some wrong has happened to you, you may not take the law into your own hands. You may not commit an act of vengeance against someone who has harmed you. There is an interruption of that right.
Only the state or society may punish on behalf of a wrongdoing. You may not do it. You and I may not take vengeance in our hands. The apostle Paul repeats that vengeance belongs to God. God gives the community the right of protecting itself from the marauder. The community can act, but you cannot make a decision by yourself to do something that crosses over the right of another to exist or to weigh another person too light.
The second thing that's clear in the command is the sense of restraint. This restraint for individuals also places restraint on the community. The community can act only under restraint, and that principle of restraint is one of the grand principles of Mosaic Law. It isn't seen in the laws of the ancient peoples who surrounded the Jews. For instance, in Deuteronomy 17, cases of murder or wrongdoing must go through trials and hearings with witnesses. One community cannot come to a decision; it must be referred to another community and up through the various orders of society. The idea of appeal is in this ancient Mosaic law.
Built-in restraints slow down the process so there will be no impulsive street justice. One of the most famous quotations from the Old Testament, "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," is not a description of punishment but a restraint upon punishment to show that you shall not over-punish. There must be a sense of justice and equality in punishment.
Also Deuteronomy 19 has an instruction not to show prejudice toward the poor or defer toward the rich, implying equality and evenhandedness in justice. Again, this comes out of what they call the due process tradition, which means so much to us in Western law. The concept came out of this great Mosaic Law tradition. There should be restraint on the community.
War is an example. War is a bad choice. You cannot read the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, or the apostle Paul without seeing that war is always a bad choice. A community may decide to take fatal action or to take up arms against a marauder, but war must always be a bad choice. It may be the lesser of bad choices, a painful and grievous decision a community must make. But it must always make the decision in grief. It can never view war as exciting and wonderful. War must always be a sad moment in the life of a culture.
I was so touched when Norman Schwartzkopf, general of the Desert Storm allied forces, was interviewed by Ted Koppel. The general won my respect in a profound way when he described his own understanding and philosophy of warfare. He said, "I would never want to serve under a general who enjoyed war." He spoke about his heroes from World War II: Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall. He mentioned a couple of others who he said hated war. It made them safe to be generals in a war.
A police officer who gets to wear deadly force must hate to use deadly force. Anyone who enjoys weapons and loves to play with weapons and shoot them should not be an officer of the law. You must hate to use the weapon. Then it is safe for you to carry the weapon. There must be a sense of restraint, and that restraint principle comes from this ancient law. It's one of the things that we are grateful for.
The third great principle is the grand positive. The grand positive of this command is marvelous. Think of it. We are valued by God—not just our souls but also our bodies. God values you, and you should be weighed heavy by everyone around you. Whether you're a sojourner in the tents of the Jewish nation, whether you're rich or poor, a man or a woman, it makes no difference. You deserve to be valued. That is the grand positive. God weighs you heavy.
Enter the public arena with love
It is this wonderful news from the sixth commandment's grand positive that gives us our hope for reconciliation, our hope for the healing of the tragedy of the cycle. This is why our Lord and the apostle Paul give us a strategy of reconciliation, a strategy of sharing this good news of the high value God puts on life.
We have so many debates today in American culture. I think of the debates that we as Christians have to weigh into. There are debates about prison reform, capital punishment, termination of problem pregnancies, war, and euthanasia. All of these issues are before us. We as a society have to weigh in. We as Christians need to play a part. I want to urge you as Christians to weigh in in such a way that you become a model of hope.
I was grateful to see a group of Christians in Berkeley start a crisis pregnancy center. There's a crisis pregnancy center right here in Seattle. Young men and women care about helping others who are involved in a crisis pregnancy. They give advice to help them through the decision whether to keep their child or allow for an adoption, giving alternatives to the termination of pregnancy. These Christians are trying to be a positive, loving example. I think that we have to model that.
We also have to model love and grace and respect in the debate itself. Many Christians need to learn how to debate this difficult issue with grace and integrity, because we really have to struggle for a way to give hope in a very difficult situation. This is true of all these issues the sixth commandment brings to us. We have an opportunity to bring a new ingredient into an ancient cycle of hatred, fear, and despair.
Victor Hugo wrote a great novel, Les Miserables, in which he worked with this great theme as well. It is one of the three greatest novels I have read, and the musical version is completely faithful to the novel. The novel opens with a young man named Jean Valjean, who had been unjustly imprisoned for seven years for a small offense. He left prison with rage in his soul. There is no rage as bad as when you feel you've been wronged. Sometimes you'll do the worst things when you feel you want to get even. In the musical, this is powerfully portrayed in the opening scenes as Valjean tries to find somewhere to fit. He can't fit, and he's being shunned. As a parolee, he's being badly treated. His anger builds and builds and builds.
One night he goes into the home of Father Welcome, a bishop. He's given a meal, and the bishop, or monsignor as he is also called in the book, invites this fugitive to spend the night. While everyone is sleeping, John Valjean sees some silver candlesticks and silver cutlery. He steals the cutlery, and goes out into the street. The gendarmes catch him. They recognize the cutlery as belonging to the monsignor. They bring Valjean back. When the monsignor sees this young man with the cutlery, he sees something deeper than anyone else sees. In Victor Hugo's novel, the monsignor is a Christ figure. The monsignor says a surprising thing: he tells the gendarmes that Jean Valjean didn't steal the cutlery; he says that he gave it to Valjean, and then he asks Valjean why he didn't take the candlesticks, too.
Let me read you Victor Hugo's incredible portrayal of that scene. If you've seen the musical, you know this is sung in one of the most moving arias at the opening.
Jean Valjean was trembling in all his limbs; he took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with wandering looks. 'Now,' said the bishop, 'go in peace. By the bye, when you return, my friend, it is unnecessary to pass through the garden, for you can always enter, day or night, by the front door, which is only latched.' Then, turning to the gendarmes, he said, 'Gentlemen, you can retire.' They did so. Jean Valjean looked as if he were on the point of fainting; the bishop walked up to him and said in a low voice, 'Never forget that you have promised to me to employ this money in becoming an honest man.' Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of having promised anything, stood silent ….'
Do you notice what's happening here? This good intervention is giving Jean Valjean a new motivation source. This is what the gospel does. It brings a new view of life into an ancient cycle. And now comes the most moving scene: "Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of having promised anything, stood silent. The bishop, who had laid a stress on these words, continued solemnly [and in the musical this is sung by the bishop] 'Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil but to good. I have bought your soul. ... I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and give it to God.'"
We have to do that with our culture. We need to introduce a brand-new possibility, to withdraw the dark thoughts and bring a new possibility of hope. That new possibility of hope, of weighing one another heavy, comes from the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the One who can fulfill, and has fulfilled, the sixth commandment.
That's why the Christmas story is to be repeated in God's words time after time after time. Because that's the only way men and women will believe the prophecy and history and mystery that surrounds that baby. Would you believe that we have people today still waiting for the baby to come? Would you believe that we have folks who think the messiah is on this earth and will soon reveal himself? Stop looking for another messiah. Stop anticipating another gift, another answer, another provision from God for the needs of your life. You have him. Your problem is that you've just rejected him. He's here. I have no original message. I just come like a wandering Bedouin out of the field, saying, "The gift has arrived. Take him."
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Earl Palmer is a writer and speaker for Earl Palmer Ministries, and author of Mastering the New Testament: 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation (W Publishing Group).