The Heart of the Law, pt 1: Anger

Posted: August 28, 2011 in Matthew

Matthew 5:21-26, “The Heart of the Law, pt 1: Anger”

To read this section of the Sermon on the Mount, we sometimes almost expect to hear a boxing announcer shout out: “In this corner, the one who brought the Law: Moses; in that corner, the one who fulfilled the Law: Jesus!”  As if Jesus is nullifying everything that Moses recorded on Mt. Sinai, and proclaiming it to be a waste of time & breath.  Be careful of that assumption – it’s absolutely false!  Through the rest of Ch 5, Jesus will indeed be contrasting some aspects about the Law with His own word, but Jesus never once argues against the Law.  On the contrary, He upholds it & goes further with it – showing the very heart of God at the center of it.

Remember the context: Jesus had just got done saying that He had not come to destroy the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Ch 5:17).  Not once did Jesus teach that the Law was to be broken (whoever did would be considered least in the kingdom of Heaven), instead Jesus perfectly fulfills every single aspect of the Law.  The only way we ourselves can do the same is to be found in Christ.

Yet just because Jesus did not come to destroy the Law doesn’t mean that how the Jews interpreted the Law was correct.  As can happen in our own walk with Christ, the word of God is always good & valuable; it’s our interpretations of the word that can be off-base. (Which is how we end up with destructive teachings like the word/faith doctrine, etc.)  For the Jews, their faulty interpretations left them in legalism.  Instead of walking with their God in spirit & truth, they had imposed so many restrictions upon the word of God in the Law that they ended up not walking with God at all.  They had made themselves subservient to their interpretations of the letter of the Law, which left them with all sorts of loopholes of how to get around the letter of the Law – which in essence makes God irrelevant in the whole process.

Jesus never once buys into this.  God is anything BUT irrelevant to the Scripture; He is the one who gave us the Bible – He is the one to give us the interpretation to it.  And that’s exactly what Jesus does in this next section of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus looks at the letter of the law – the false legalistic interpretation through their tradition – and then Jesus brings us back to the heart of God in the matter.  This gets to the very heart of Christian morality & ethics.  Why is something right or wrong?  Something isn’t “wrong” simply because there is a punishment attached, nor is something “right” simply because we look for a reward.  Things are right & wrong based upon the character & nature of God.  The way we live our lives as disciples of Christ are based fully upon the person of Christ.  The way we live as children of God is based upon the character of God.  If we act according to His character, then it is right – when we act contrary to the One who bought us, it’s wrong.

Jesus gives several examples here in the rest of Ch 5 – the first being murder/hatred.  Why is murder wrong?  Because God alone gives life.  Why is hatred wrong?  Because God is love.  It goes back to His character & nature.  When it comes to anger, Jesus will address three main areas: the law regarding anger – the problem that arises with anger – and the solution to ongoing anger, and in the process He ties it all into the heart of God & the gospel.

Matthew 5:21–26 (NKJV)
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’

  • You have heard it said…”  Jesus will start each of His examples in the same way, contrasting what they had been taught with what Jesus is now teaching.  The problem wasn’t the word of God by itself, but the narrow interpretation of it that had been taught to them.  Many of the Jews had been completely reliant upon the teachings of the Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis – and seemingly some of them had not read the Scripture for themselves.   
    • How important it is to get the word of God into our hearts!  That we would be able to compare what we’re taught to what is actually written upon the page…
  • Example #1: murder.  Jesus quotes the 6th Commandment. (Exo 20:13)  Pretty straightforward, though it’s worth remembering that the Law specifically provided “murder;” not “killing.”  Sometimes we get the wrong idea that the Scripture prohibits the death penalty, and that’s not the case.  Individuals have no right to murder one another, but God specifically gives the government the right to bear the sword (Rom 13:4) in order to carry out justice (although it’s often done imperfectly).
  • What else was it Jesus quoted?  Technically, Jesus didn’t so much quote the law, as He did summarize it.  There are several verses which speak of punishment for murderers, ranging from the time of Noah (Gen 9:6, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man.”), to the law of Moses (Lev 24:17, “Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death.”)  There was a punishment that came with breaking the law of murder & it was clear that judgment would await those who committed the crime.  OT Law made the provision of Cities of Refuge that would allow those accused of murder to seek sanctuary, until the case was investigated.  Yet those cities did not excuse the actual crime.  If there was indeed a murder (and not self-defense), then judgment would be carried out (Lev 35).
    • Judgment is always carried out upon sin.  Always.  Even for Christians – except that instead of us bearing our own judgment, Jesus bore it for us because of His love & grace.
  • Again – why is murder wrong?  It’s not wrong because the 6th commandment says so; the 6th commandment merely informs us that it is against God’s law.  Why is murder wrong?  Because it goes against the character & nature of God.  God gives life.  He created man from the dust – He knits us together in our mothers’ wombs (Ps 139:13).  Because God alone gives life, we have no right to take life.  More than that, God IS life.  Jesus is the resurrection & the life (Jn 11:25).
    • If we’re going to live as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, then our lives need to reflect His life.  Because Jesus gives life, we can never consider taking it.  Whether it’s a murder that we be prosecuted in a court of law, or a murder that would seemingly be condoned by the state (abortion), murder is always wrong because it’s always against the nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.
    • Question: can there be forgiveness for someone who has engaged in murder?  Praise the Lord, yes!  Those who repent from their sin & surrender their lives to the Lord Jesus Christ as God do not find condemnation, but forgiveness.  All sin finds it’s answer in the cross of Jesus Christ – even murder.
  • At this point, it would have been easy for someone to attempt to justify him/herself.  “Jesus said my righteousness needed to exceed the Pharisees.  So far, so good – I haven’t killed anyone.”  Yet the problem is that the law never justifies; it only condemns by bringing knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  We can never use the law for self-justification.  Even if we think we can possibly meet the bare minimum letter of the law, Jesus shows that we don’t even come close the heart of God which is behind it.  See vs. 22…

22 But I say to you that 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.

  • It’s not just murder; it’s to be “angry with his brother without a cause.”  The phrase “without a cause” is not found in some Bible translations, though it is found in the majority of NT manuscripts, and is very helpful in clarification.  The Bible does not condemn righteous anger…we actually see it portrayed in Jesus when He cleanses the temple (Jn 2:15-17), and the Bible tells us to be angry, but not to sin (Eph 4:26).  The general emotion of anger is itself not a problem (after all, God created us with that emotion); it’s what we do with that anger that can cause problems.  Specifically, Jesus is referring to someone being full of wrath towards his brother.  When we hold onto our anger – when we relish in our grudges, there’s a problem.  We’re not acting like a disciple of our Lord who laid down His life for us while we were still sinners (Rom 5:8).  Our Lord cried out from the cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” (Lk 23:34) yet somehow we feel as if we’ve got the right to cherish our anger & dwell upon it.  Perish the thought!
  • The heart of God isn’t merely concerned with physical murder, but unjustified anger & hatred.  To engage in unrighteous anger is to commit in our mind what we may have refrained doing with our hands.  (JM Boice) “It is no accident that even in our own speech such things sometimes are termed character assassination, or that we speak of destroying a person by words.  This is literally true, and we do it.  Jesus says, we are not to be that way as Christians.”  The apostle John understood exactly what Jesus was getting at: 1 John 3:14–15, "(14) We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. (15) Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." []  God has called us to love one another – and love is diametrically opposed to hate.  When we seethe in our anger & burn in wrath towards one another, we’ve already committed murder in our heart.
  •  Objection: “Well, I know I can’t kill anyone & I know I can’t harbor wrath & grudges, but what if I just explode all my anger at once at them & get it out of the way?”  Jesus addresses that as well.  To call someone “Raca” was to verbally insult someone as being empty-headed.  Apparently the insult was so well known to the people, that Matthew doesn’t even bother translating it from Aramaic to Greek, and there were specific laws set up in the culture to punish people who used the insult.  Depending on your Bible translation, “council” is sometimes translated “Sanhedrin” – which is perhaps more accurate.  Jesus may or may not have been referring to the literal Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (considering He was in Galilee when He taught this), but “Sanhedrin” is basically a transliteration of the Greek. (συνέδριον)  The idea is that there could be legal repercussions for verbal insults.  If someone called another person an “airhead,” they could be held legally responsible. Not unlike our libel/slander laws today…  Yet notice the clarification: Jesus doesn’t limit the idea of insult to specific words that were included in the legal code – He takes it to general phrases of insult that might be used by nearly anyone.  “You fool” is basically calling someone a “moron” (from the Greek: μωρός).  Some scholars suggest that “raca” was an insult to someone’s intelligence; “moros” was an insult to their character.  Both were absolutely wrong, but just because one was condemned in the culture & the other accepted did not make it OK in the eyes of God.  Both were words of hate.
    • How might we do this today?  Perhaps if there was a voice recorder underneath the driver’s seat of our cars, we wouldn’t need very many examples!
  • BTW – notice the danger for those who heap insults on others, in spite of God: “hell fire.”  Literally, this is a reference to the fire of Gehenna – the valley of Hinnom.  This was a valley on the southern end of Jerusalem that had once been used for gross idolatry, and later became a refuse dump.  Tradition tells us that trash was regularly burned there, which provided a common word picture that Jesus used to describe the awfulness of Hell. “So is Jesus saying that we could live an otherwise perfect life, but with our insults of people, still incur the judgment of everlasting hell?”  Yes.  To hurl insults at another human being is to hurl insults at another creation of God – to despise another person for whom Jesus died.  We get offended when others insult or downgrade our friends & family – why would we think it is any different with Almighty God?  Especially when it comes to another believer in Jesus Christ!  (Jesus’ context is with the “brother.”)  We’re commanded to love one another (Jn 13:34) – Jesus prayed that we would be unified as one with each other (Jn 17:21) – it ought to be unthinkable that we could hurl insults upon them.
    • Beware of holding the judgment of men in a higher place than the judgment of God.  People may have thought, “If I call someone Raca, I might get caught, so I don’t want to do that – I’ll just harbor resentment in my heart & no one will know.”  No one?  GOD knows.  Human motivation in staying away from sin can be somewhat effective, but there’s always a limit that can be reached.  If we merely fear men, then there will eventually come a point in which we don’t care because we think we can get around it.  What we need to realize is that God always knows – and we should hold Him in far higher regard than any accountability of man!  Fear the one that can cast body & soul into Hell (Mt 10:28).
  • God takes our words seriously – far more than we do.  Think about it – even the 4th Commandment is dealing with our words.  (Exo 20:7) “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”  The words we use matters to God – especially what we say about God Himself & other people.  Why?  Because what we share from our mouths originated first in our hearts – and that goes a long way to demonstrating what kind of people we are & to whom we belong.  Matthew 12:35–37, "(35) A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things. (36) But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. (37) For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." []
    • Instead of insults, what should we be sharing with those with whom we might be angry?  Kindness.  Love, encouragement, forgiveness, the gospel… As Paul wrote to the Ephesians, may we be careful not to let any corrupt words proceed from our mouths, but only what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers (Eph 4:29).  We’ve been beneficiaries of the grace of God in our own lives – may we pass it on to others when they anger us.

23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

  • How to deal with anger/hatred?  Be reconciled.  Jesus gives a really practical example of what this might look like.  There are a couple of surprises here:
  • Surprise #1: the offended party.  It’s not us.  Jesus’ focus here is on US being in the wrong, rather than us being wronged.  Obviously there will be (many) times we get offended & Jesus will later deal in depth with issues of forgiveness.  For now, we need to remember that we are also the ones who offend.  It’s not limited to “other” people; it’s us as well.  WE are the ones that ought to humble ourselves; WE are the ones who have wronged other people.  Be careful of the tendency to read the Bible & only apply the passages of grace to yourself & the passages of justice to others – it goes both ways.  More often than not, we are the ones who ought to be seeking forgiveness & reconciliation. 
  • Surprise #2: the priority of reconciliation.  It even supersedes worship; it’s to take place immediately.  When the offense is remembered – even at the altar of God, it was to be of immediate importance to be reconciled.  When we keep the cultural context in mind, this is even more surprising than it may be for us in our culture.  For us, we may be in prayer, or in a worship service, and then remember we need to seek forgiveness, so we go immediately to be reconciled.  That may just be a phone call away, or maybe even speaking with the person next to us.  Yet Jesus was speaking to Jews in Galilee.  For them to “bring their gift to the altar” was for them to travel all the way to Jerusalem at great time & expense.  Jesus is saying, “Leave it all behind, go all the way back home, get reconciled, and THEN come offer your worship to God.”  Reconciliation is of immediate importance to God.
    • Sincere reconciliation is far better than insincere worship.  There are many people who can walk through the motions of faith.  They pray the “right” prayers, they’ve got the “right” words, they lift their hands in worship, whatever.  On the outside, they would appear to be truly Godly Christians.  Yet on the inside they are calloused to others, selfish in their motives, and have no evidence of the love of God in their heart.  Worship offered from someone like that means nothing to God – their words of praise are merely utterances of hot air that dissipate into nothing.  God isn’t looking for someone to go through the motions of worship; He’s looking for those who will worship Him in spirit & truth (Jn 4:23).  The person who sincerely seeks to be reconciled with his/her brother or sister in love is the person that shows evidence of a heart that belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ already.
    • King Saul attempted to go through the motions of worship, and was denied.  1 Samuel 15:22–23, "(22) So Samuel said: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, As in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, And to heed than the fat of rams. (23) For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, He also has rejected you from being king.” " []  Publicly, Saul would have appeared to have been extremely devout in the eyes of the people.  God had even used him to prophesy at times, so for this king to offer sacrifices after a momentous victory would have seemed to have been a glorious thing to do.  Instead, God gives a shock through Samuel as He proclaims that not only did Saul break the law by attempting to offer a sacrifice on his own, but he had not obeyed what the Lord told him to do in the 1st place.  Saul had an outward appearance of religion, but had no inward evidence of faith.  We need to be careful of a similar fate!  Those who attempt to pose as Christians, while harboring hatred towards others show no evidence of faith.  Those who attempt to offer God worship while ignoring the need to be lovingly reconciled with their brother show little evidence of faith either.

25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.

  • How important is reconciliation?  It prevents escalation.  The only way a modern plea bargain can be struck is if a deal is made before a judge declares his decision – it was no different in ancient times.  If one party could catch up with the other party on the way to court & strike up a deal, no decision from the judge would be necessary & peaceful reconciliation could be made.  Otherwise, the judge would make the decision & someone would be going to prison.  Would it be difficult to humble yourself & seek some sort of reconciliation with the offended party?  Of course – but it sure beats prison time!
  • Jesus gave the example to make the point.  If hate & murderous thoughts are the opposite of the heart of God, then what DOES God want?  Reconciliation & restoration.  To “agree with your adversary” is to come to terms with them – to get into their good graces again.  Sometimes that includes restitution for things we’ve done wrong – all the time, it includes humility & repentance.  We see a great example of this in Zacchaeus… Luke 19:8–10, "(8) Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” (9) And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; (10) for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” " []  When Zacchaeus had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, he couldn’t help but have his life dramatically changed.  What was the evidence?  The fact he desired to make restitution for the things he had done wrong.  His reconciliation with God was evidenced by his desire to be reconciled with his brothers.
    • Question: “What if the other person won’t be reconciled?  I’ve approached them in humility & try to talk things out & make things right – but they just won’t extend forgiveness.  Or they say they forgive, but they sure don’t act like it.”  Keep in mind that the only person’s actions you can ever control are your own.  You can never force anyone to forgive you; you can only go seek forgiveness.  If they refuse to extend forgiveness, they are now the one with the problem – not you.  (Jesus will have much to say about the person who refuses to forgive.)  We are simply to be obedient to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to attempt to be reconciled – if we do so sincerely, then we have done our part.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean we just mutter an “I’m sorry,” & then try to get out of true humility – but if we have indeed humbled ourselves & sought forgiveness, then we’ve done all we can do.  As Paul wrote to the Romans, “if it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.” (Rom 12:18)
  • Don’t forget that spiritually speaking, this same sort of reconciliation has already taken place on our behalf.  We had great offended God through our sin.  There is an Accuser (the Devil) that attempts to heap condemnation upon us, and we truly were guilty of everything for which we were accused.  Our debts against God were infinite & we were headed to the eternal debtors’ prison of hell with no hope for escape.  Yet Someone interceded on our behalf, made reconciliation for us, and paid our fine – down to the last penny.  That “Someone” is the Lord Jesus Christ!
    • Do what it takes to be reconciled.  Why?  Because God did what it took to be reconciled with us.

As Jesus begins His series of contrasts, He begins with murder & anger:

  • What’s the law regarding anger?  Don’t murder.  Yet God’s heart is not to be unjustly angry & hate.  The letter of the law might be easy for some, but the heart of the law goes far deeper.
  • What’s the problem with anger?  Festering anger is the same as murdering someone in our heart.  We’re acting contrary to our supposed role as disciples of Jesus Christ when we hate the people for whom He died.
  • What’s the solution for anger?  Reconciliation.  Make it immediate & recognize its importance.  Jesus did what it took to be reconciled with us – may we do what it takes to be reconciled with one another.


Why is murder & unjust anger wrong?  Because God gives life & the heart of God is love.  Beware of the tendency to try to look at the law in an attempt to justify yourself.  It simply can’t be done.  But then again, that’s the viewpoint of a legalist – and not a child of God.  Someone who is a disciple of Jesus Christ serves God not out of legalism, but out of love.  In love, we desire to live in such a way that exemplifies the heart of our heavenly Father.  God loves us – thus we ought to love one another.  God gave life to us, so we give the words of life to the world.

Have you received of the life that Jesus offers?  Perhaps you’re here as someone who has committed murder in the past.  You’ve been guilty of an abortion, or encouraging someone to get one.  There is forgiveness in Christ Jesus!  Perhaps you’re here as someone who harbors hatred & anger towards someone else.  Know that you’re already murdering them in your heart – but there is forgiveness for that as well in Christ.  Maybe you’re someone who needs to seek reconciliation.  By all means do it, but know you need to be reconciled with God. Turn away from your sin & surrender yourself to the Living Lord Jesus – ask to be made into one of His new creations, and He will be faithful to do it.

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