Recently I received a call regarding this passage from Pastor Rick Lawrenson of Nags Head Baptist Church in Nags Head, North Carolina. Rick is preaching through the Sermon on the Mount, (a brave man!) and this passage was giving him trouble:
Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, “Raca!” shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, “You fool!” shall be in danger of hell fire (Matt 5:22).
The verse is difficult. How can someone who simply says “You fool!” be in danger of hell fire? If that is true, then it destroys the doctrines of eternal security and assurance of salvation. How can I be sure my destiny is God’s kingdom if by calling a person a fool I will end up in hell? Who among us has never said something equal to or worse than “You fool”?
The Millennial Kingdom Is in View
The disciples, who were Jews and also helped found the Church, can represent believers during the church age, believers during the Tribulation, or believers during the Millennium. There are details in v 22 which could only be true of the Millennium.
No one during the church age is brought before “the council” for saying “Raca!” (numskull, empty-head, or fool). No one is in danger of judgment simply because he is angry with his brother without cause. Similarly, there is no evidence that these things will take place during the Tribulation either. However, since the Millennium will be a time of the righteous rule of the King of kings and Lord of lords, a time when Satan is bound, there will be righteous judgment. Rampant sin will not be tolerated as it is today.
Fifty years ago even unbelievers rarely used the type of profanity or vulgarity that is common even among preteens today. Television and the movies have actually glorified foul language, violence, and immorality. For movies a G-rating, or even a PG or PG-13 rating, is considered commercially bad news. Thus movie producers will actually take a reasonably wholesome movie and add enough profanity, foul language, or nudity to gain the coveted “R-rating.” How strange.
If there are movies in the Millennium, they will all be edifying and wholesome. Those in the Millennium with natural bodies, believers and even unbelievers, will be reasonably moral since they know that open defiance will not be tolerated. Of course, believers with glorified bodies can’t be in view since they will be absolutely sinless (1 John 3:2).
Now let’s look at the three scenarios which our Lord presents.
Whoever Is Angry with His Brother Is in Danger of Judgment
Each scenario is introduced by “whoever.” The first concerns anger and judgment: “Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment” (or, simply, “shall be in danger of judgment,” since the definite article before judgment need not imply that a definite judgment is in view).
Why does Jesus refer to “his brother”? This could refer to one of three people: 1) one’s literal brother, 2) one’s ethnic brother, in this case a fellow Jew, 3) one’s spiritual brother, a fellow believer. While all three are possible here, option 1 is very unlikely. Why would Jesus put such narrow limits on this scenario? Even option 2 seems a bit narrow. There will be many Gentiles in the Millennium. Option 3 seems most likely. Jesus’ point is that if a believer is simply angry with a fellow-believer without a cause, then he will be in danger of judgment. The Lord Jesus will not tolerate that sort of conduct. The judgment is not specified. In light of the next scenario, it likely refers to a trial and possible fines, community service, or jail time. It could even result in capital punishment, since Jesus is here equating hatred with murder (see vv 21-22), which under the Mosaic Law was punishable by death.
Whoever Calls His Brother a Numskull Will Be in Danger of Criminal Prosecution
The word Raca occurs only here in the entire NT. It has a meaning very similar to the word fool found in the third scenario. Zane Hodges suggests that it is somewhat less harsh than calling someone a fool (Grace in Eclipse, p. 22). While that is certainly possible, it seems equally likely that this word is a synonym for fool (see BAGD, pp. 733-34).
If a believer during the Millennium calls a fellow-believer a fool, numskull, or an air-head (BAGD, p. 733), then he will be in danger of going before “the council.” The Greek word for “council,” synedrion, most likely refers to a local judicial council. Compare Matt 10:17 and Mark 13:9. Since it is used in those passages to refer to Jewish councils, it could be that this scenario is contrasted with the first one. Possibly the first one deals with two Gentile believers and this one with two Jewish believers.
The council is a judicial body which will judge the person in question. A criminal prosecution with criminal penalties is envisioned.
Whoever Says “You Fool!” Will Be in Danger of Hell Fire
This third scenario is distinctive in two ways. First, we find no reference here to “his brother.” This may suggest that this third scenario concerns an unbeliever. If believers will be judged vigorously for being angry without a cause or for calling someone a fool, what about unbelievers?
Second, the possible consequence is no longer “judgment” or “the council.” It is hell fire. The Greek here has tēn Geennan tou pyros, literally “the Gehenna of fire.” Since all of the other NT uses of this expression refer to hell, it is almost certain that it does here as well. Thus this judgment is eternal, unending torment in the Lake of Fire (cf. Rev 14:9-11; 20:11-15).
This scenario does not bring the doctrines of eternal security or of assurance into question. It concerns unbelievers who are in danger of hell. The believers who say the same thing face criminal prosecution, not hell. However, there is still a major question here: Why would God send an unbeliever to hell for saying “You fool!”?
Is This Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Such a Minor Crime?
It is important to recognize that Jesus doesn’t say that whoever says “You fool!” will be cast into hell fire. Instead He says that he will be in danger of that. There is a big difference in those statements!
For example, a person who commits murder today is in danger of capital punishment. Even so, the average person found guilty of murder in the United States today, counting all degrees of murder (e.g., first degree, second degree, voluntary manslaughter, involuntary manslaughter), spends less than three years in prison! While capital punishment is possible, it is extremely rare for a murderer to actually be put to death.
So, too, in the Millennium the unbeliever who calls someone a fool could face the death penalty. Yet this will probably be rare judgment. And, while capital punishment would be considered cruel and unusual punishment for such a crime today, in a righteous land it would not be. There is an OT example of this. Forty-two youths died for mocking the prophet Elisha (cf. 2 Kings 2:23-24, see also Deut 21:18-21).
“Wait a minute,” you say. The text says hell fire, not physical death. True. However, those are one and the same for the unbeliever. When an unbeliever dies, he is sealed in a state of eternal condemnation.
There are two ways to understand this third scenario. On the one hand, Jesus might be saying that in some cases God may immediately take the life of an unbeliever who calls someone a fool. No trial—simply immediate temporal judgment, which for the unbeliever leads to immediate eternal condemnation as well. This type of thing (God prematurely taking the life of an unbeliever because of some sin he or she has committed) happens even in this age. On the other hand, Jesus might be saying that an unbeliever who calls someone a fool will go to trial, may receive the death penalty, be put to death, and then spend eternity in hell. However, both of these scenarios could be true. In some cases God could take people’s lives directly. In other cases He could allow the criminal process to run its course. In the Millennium unbelievers who openly rebel against the King will face death and hell either by immediate judgment from God or by indirect judgment through the courts.
Application: Don’t Let Your Anger Turn to Sin
This verse shows that not all anger is sin. It is sin when you are angry with someone “without a cause.” It is also sin when you are angry, with or without a cause, and, in a fit of anger, you curse someone.
While this verse concerns the Millennium, it has application today. The point is, God detests hatred. When we hate others, we grieve God. As our loving Father, He disciplines us when we grieve Him. He teaches us through discipline what proper behavior is for children of the King.
The next time you become angry at your spouse, children, or co-worker, think long and hard before cursing them. Take a walk and focus on Christ and His soon return. Pray. Get some exercise. Get away from the temptation to explode and then don’t let the sun go down on your anger (Eph 4:26). Don’t be lulled into thinking that it’s no big deal if you shout at your spouse or kids. It is a big deal. It will be a major crime in the Millennium. That shows us that it is also a major crime today—in God’s eyes.