I suspect most of us have seen a sporting event where a split second made the difference between winning and losing. It’s never pretty, especially if your team or person is on the losing end, but it’s what makes sports interesting.
In language, it is amazing how often one little word can make a significant difference in meaning. Take the simply prepositions “to” and “by”. One the surface, small and seemingly insignificant. However, when used in context they can make a dramatic difference in how one sees or interprets a particular statement.This is the case in Matthew 5:21, where Jesus talks about anger and introduces his comment with this statement…”You have heard that it was said (to or by) those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment (ESV).'”
A majority of translations (NIV, NRSV, ESV and others) translate the preposition as “to.” Others such as the KJV use “by”. As always, context can be a factor in ones choice and in this case it seems that “by” is the better translation. Here’s the explanation used in Baker’s New Testament Commentary:
Reasons for rejecting the first interpretation (“to”) and accepting the second (“by”):
a. It would be very strange that Jesus, having just affirmed in most emphatic terms that he had not come to set aside the law or the prophets, would now suddenly turn around and do this very thing.
b. Had Jesus been referring to what Moses in the law had commanded he would have used different language; for example, “Moses commanded” (Mat_8:4), or “It is written” (Mat_4:4, Mat_4:7, Mat_4:10; Luk_2:23; Luk_4:4).
c. In later Jewish writings such famous rabbanim as Hillel and Shammai were called “fathers of antiquity.” The designation “the men of long ago” is accordingly an excellent designation for those who had orally interpreted the written Old Testament.
d. The expression “it was said,” though possible even as a reference to something written, is more readily associated with oral teaching and tradition than with that which had been put down in a document.
e. It is clear that when Jesus says, “You have heard … but I say” (Mat_5:22, Mat_5:28, Mat_5:32, Mat_5:34, Mat_5:39, Mat_5:44) he is drawing a contrast between two positions that are sharply opposed. This contrast is clearer when the two opposing clauses are “It was said by the men … but I say,” meaning “They said … but I say,” than it would be if they were, “It was said to the men … but I say,” meaning, “They heard … but I say.” (BNTC on-line commentary via E-Sword)
This explanation and interpretation seems more than plausible when one looks at the context especially, as pointed out, the previous verses 17-20. Looking at this and the following teachings of Jesus regarding some of the other “ten words”, the contrast of what was said “by” and what Christ now says becomes crystallized. But more important than that is the difference Christ stresses. He aims at the heart, “those of old” continue to stress the letter of the law.
It is often easy for me to justify my own behavior based on the letter of the law. My goodness, attorneys do it all the time with guilty clients. However, if I looked at my heart, my intentions, my motivations, I can clearly see that I am not in compliance with God’s demands. I can say that, as an adult, I have never hurt or attempted to kill anyone. However, when examining the intentions of my heart, that is an entirely different matter. Many times anger has poisoned my intent. Diminishing another person by words and accusations has handicapped my ability to approach God’s throne of grace with purity of heart. Belittling another to the point of beating them down and crushing their spirit is akin to taking their life and stripping them of the dignity due every child of God. And there is no legitimate way of justifying any of it – at least I don’t think so.
The difference between “I did not do that” and “I did not think that” is a chasm that can keep me from God’s presence and put me in a place were there is no release (v.26). My heart will never be pure as long as it harbors demeaning words and attitudes. An awareness that not only causes me to wonder, it causes me to clearly see how little progress I’ve made in my pilgrimage.
Father Spirit, let me find the strength of your Holy Spirit in conquering the issues of my heart. Let me seek purity of thought and sensitivity in speech, that you might be glorified.