Friday, April 24, 2015

The Christian and Lust - Matthew 5:27-30

This past year, Tom Magliozzi of Car Talk fame passed away (Nov. 3, 2014).  Although the Magliozzi brothers stopped airing new shows back in 2012, Tom’s passing sounds the end of an era.  I used to really enjoy listening to their radio show on Saturday mornings on the NPR station in which they would give advice – often really funny advice – to callers who were having problems with their cars.  I’ll never forget one show in particular.  As far as I can remember it, here’s how the call went.  A young lady called in about her father’s car that had died years ago – and as the call progressed, it became obvious that she wanted to know if she was the one responsible for that.  You see, she had taken her father’s car on a road trip, and during the trip the check engine light came on.  Since the car still seemed to be working, she just ignored it.  Later, when sounds began to emerge from the engine, she decided she would fix the problem by putting some tape over the light so it wouldn’t bother her anymore.  She made it home, but the next morning when her father got in the car to go to work, the car’s engine basically blew up.  Evidently, her father never suspected her, and years later she was calling Click and Clack, probably hoping they would tell her, no, she had nothing to do with it. 

If that was her hope, she was grievously disappointed.  Not only did they tell her it was her fault, they actually were able to coax her father’s work number from her and then called him up at work, told him what had really happened, and then got her – she was still on the line – to apologize to her father for basically destroying his car.

Sin in the life can be a lot like engine trouble.  It doesn’t usually start out with smoke billowing out of the engine.  It usually starts small, but our conscience, like the check engine light, warns us that if we don’t correct ourselves and repent, there will be consequences to follow.  It is tragic when, like the young lady in her father’s car, we ignore our conscience, when we put Band-Aids over sin, when we refuse to follow the sin to the ground and root it out of our lives.  It is tragic because it is inevitable that serious consequences will inevitably follow upon ignored sin, no matter how small, how invisible to others, how seemingly insignificant the sin started out.

Unfortunately, all too often we just put tape over our conscience and keep on sinning.  And the reason we do so is often because what our conscience is warning us about is a sin that only we can see or know about.  That is to say, the sin is in our hearts and nobody can see into our hearts, and as long as it stays that way, we think we are all right.

There are two problems with that reasoning.  First, it is not true that nobody else sees our sin.  God sees our sin: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good” (Prov. 15:3).  “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?  I the LORD search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (Jer. 17:9-10).  Of all those who might know our sin, we really shouldn’t be concerned about other people: we ought to be concerned that God knows and sees our sin.  But the fact is that he sees every sin, no matter how hidden away we keep it.

And that leads to the second problem with thinking that secret sin is okay as long as it stays hidden: God will always deal with sin, either in the present in the form of discipline or in the future in the form of eternal punishment.  And since he sees all sin, there is no sin that will not be dealt with.  And in this connection the words of Hebrews 10:30-31 are significant: “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord.  And again, The Lord will judge his people.  It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

However, the fact of the matter is that we all have the tendency to externalize our obedience to God and be happy with ourselves as long as the way we are living appears righteous on the outside.  It is a strange thing that although religion has to do primarily with God, we tend practically to make it primarily about other people.

And that’s precisely what had led to the false interpretation of Exodus 20:14.  Just as the scribes had misinterpreted the prohibition against murder in a way that ignored the attitudes of the heart that lead to murder, such as unrighteous anger, even so they had misinterpreted the prohibition against adultery in a way that ignored the lusts of the heart that lead to adultery.  As John Stott has put it, “They thus gave a conveniently narrow definition of sexual sin and a conveniently broad definition of sexual purity.”[1]  Thus, Jesus says, “Ye had heart that it was said [to] them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  In other words, “Any and every sexual practice which is immoral in deed is immoral also in look and in thought.”[2]

A couple of points need to be made with reference to Jesus’ words in verses 27-28.

First, the prohibition against adultery and the lust that leads to it is not to be narrowly restricted to instances of men cheating on their wives or vice versa.  It is a prohibition against all sexual relations outside of marriage.  Nor is the prohibition directed only against men.  Women are not off the hook, as the rest of the Law demonstrates.  Under the Mosaic covenant, both men and women were punished for breaking the seventh commandment.  So we must not think of Jesus’ words as applicable only to men.  To define the terms of these verses in such narrow ways is to be guilty of the very sophistry that Jesus was seeking to correct.

Second, the emphasis of Jesus’ words is on the desires of the heart, on the imagination of the mind. According to our Lord’s words here, fantasizing about sin is sin.  The reason is clear: you don’t usually act out a sin that you haven’t already played and replayed in your mind.  That doesn’t mean that the act of adultery is not bad; it is.  Our Lord doesn’t repeal the seventh commandment and replace it with something else.  The point is that we shouldn’t think that we’re okay as long as we haven’t committed the act.  Rather, we are truly obeying the seventh commandment if we are fighting the sin on the heart level so that it never reaches the physical level.

Our Lord then goes on to in the next two verses (29-30) to apply and motivate the command of verse 28.  “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that they whole body should be cast into hell.  And if thy right hand offend thee, cut is off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that they whole body be cast into hell.” 

Here is how it is applied:  if sin begins in the heart, then we should be very careful about the inlets to the heart.  The eye is an obvious one.  Lusting is generally preceded by looking.  Eve looked at the forbidden fruit before she ate it.  David looked at Bathsheba before he sinned with her.  So if your eye causes you to sin by becoming an inlet for sin in the mind, then you need to pluck it out.  Job learned this: “I made a covenant with my eyes; why then should I look on a maid?” (Job 30:1).  Then he goes on to speak of his heart: “If . . . mine heart walked after mine eyes. . . . If mine heart have been deceived [enticed] by a woman, or if I have laid wait at my neighbor’s door” (v. 7, 9).  The same is true of our hands or feet (cf. Mt. 18:8).  We need to be careful about anything that might cause us to sin, that would introduce sin’s deceitful lies into our mind so that it begins to wrap itself around our hearts.  Jesus is saying what Paul would later say to the Romans, “Make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof” (Rom. 13:14). 

Now, it should be pointed out that Jesus was making his point by the use of hyperbole.  He didn’t mean for us to actually cut off our hands or pluck out our eyes.  Unfortunately, some early Christians – like Origin – took our Lord literally here and mutilated themselves.  However, that is a gross misapplication of our Lord’s words.  It should be obvious that our Lord is not calling for physical mutilation.  After all, his whole point is that sin is a thing of the heart and is to be dealt with on the heart level, and anyone should be able to see that even if you literally pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, that doesn’t root sin out of the heart.  A blind man can still sin in his imagination.  So mutilation doesn’t fix what Jesus meant to fix: sin in the heart.

What was Jesus doing?  He was simply putting in as gripping language as possible the utter necessity of dealing with sin on the heart level and removing anything that might tempt us to sin in the heart.  He is telling us that nothing should be more precious to us than obedience to God.  A book, a magazine, a movie, a place, a friendship, a job – if it causes you to stumble into sin, if it provides an opportunity for sin to find a place in your heart, then root it out, no matter how much it hurts to do so.

With these words, our Lord is not only helping us apply his command, he is also motivating us to do so.  You see that in the words, “it is profitable for thee. . . .”  Here is the amazing thing: as bad as plucking out an eye is, as bad as cutting off a hand is, it is still better for you to do that than to go before God with an eye that had let sin go into the heart or with a hand that has become an occasion for sin against God. 

Hear what Jesus is saying.   To profit in this connection is to escape being cast into hell.  Jesus is helping us to put things into perspective.  Sin can offer you no sweetness that will make it worth being cast into hell for it.  I can assure you, on the authority of God’s word, that there is no person in hell who thinks that the life they lived is worth suffering under the wrath of God for it.

There was a man who came up to a pastor and told him that he was in the grip of lust and was going to commit adultery.  The pastor said something that a lot of pastors would never say, but in light of Jesus’ words here, I think was entirely appropriate.  He grabbed him by the collars, got up in his face, and told him, “If you do it, you’ll go to hell.  Don’t do it.”  Now this pastor believed that all God’s people will be saved and not one of them will be lost.  But he also believed, and rightly so, that no one can say that they are one of God’s people if they are living in such blatant sin.  He also knew that warnings like the one in our text are meant to act, under God, as motivators to obedience so that the saints will persevere.  Now I’m not sure that I would have been as straightforward he was, but it is clear from Jesus’ words here and from his words in verses 21-26, that those who give themselves to such sin are clearly in danger of hell-fire.  The only way we can make our calling and election sure is if we are repenting of sin and walking in obedience to our Lord, if we are becoming the Beatitudes.

Now, I think at this moment, it’s important for us to stand back and survey what our Lord has told us about sin in verses 21-30.  We need to hear what our Lord says about sin because otherwise we are going to be programmed to think about it in the way the culture wants us to think about it.  And of course our culture wants to either to ignore sin or to make light of it, especially things like anger and lust.

First of all, our text tells us something about the nature of sin.  Sin defiles and pollutes the heart before it ever gets to the surface in overt acts.  As Jesus put it in other place, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh” (Luke 6:45).  That is why he hammers things like anger and lust.  Many, if not most, instances of murder wouldn’t happen if anger didn’t already exist in the heart of the murderer.  No one would commit sexual sin if it weren’t for lust.  

It also tells us something about the power of sin in the heart.  An angry person at first does not suspect that what they are feeling could very well end up in murder.  But how often has it done just that?  We must not fool ourselves that we are not like such people, that we would never commit murder.  To say such a thing is just to set you up to do the very thing.  If King David – a man after God’s own heart – was complicit in the murder of Uriah in order to cover up adultery with his wife, any of us could do it.  Or how often has a hidden sin like pornography led eventually to enslavement to lust and then unfaithfulness in marriage?  We need therefore to take sin seriously, not just after it breaks out in sinful acts, but long before when it is first stirring in the heart.

The second thing our text tells us about sin is the seriousness of sin.  Sin is not primarily serious because of the consequences in the here and now.  Jesus does not exhort us to steer away from anger problems because we might lose a job or alienate our loved one – or even because it might cause us to commit murder.  He warns us against it because sin brings people under the judgment of God – it exposes them to the danger of hell-fire.  The same with lust.  Why should you guard your heart?  He doesn’t tell us to do so because otherwise you might commit adultery and ruin your marriage.  He tells us to guard against sin in the heart because a failure to do so exposes us to hell.

We must never forget that though salvation is all of grace, damnation is all of man.  People go to hell not because of what God has done but because of what they have done.  According to our Lord’s words in John 5:29, those who will receive the resurrection of damnation are precisely those “that have done evil.”  We must never forget that “when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (Jam. 1:15).  We must never forget that whereas “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”, nevertheless it is equally true that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  Note that the death in Rom. 6:23 is contrasted with eternal life.  The implication is that the death under consideration is eternal death.

The third thing this text tells us about sin is that we need to mortify the sin in our lives.  This follows from the seriousness of sin.  If it as bad as our Lord tells us it is, then we need to mortify it.  “Mortification” is an old word that means “to put to death.”  The KJV uses it in Rom. 8:13 to translate thanatao: “For if ye live after the flesh ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” 

There is a school of thought in the Christian community that teaches that growing in holiness is the easiest thing in the world, as long as you have enough faith or believe the right things.  But Paul’s words, and our Lord’s words, should forever put that thought out of our minds.  To deal with sin is to put it to death.  It is to cut off a hand or pluck out an eye.  It can be at times a very painful experience.  You see a picture of it in Isaiah 6, when after he had confessed the uncleanness of his lips, an angle takes a hot, burning coal from off the alter and touches his lips with it to purge the uncleanness.  What a painful experience that must have been!  And yet that is what must be done when it comes to the sin in our lives.

If you take this passage seriously, you are going to have to amputate anything in your life that is a temptation to sin.  The thing may be innocent in itself, but if it is for you an occasion to sin, then you must cut it off.

That is why it is useless to try to lay down man-made rules at to what a person can see or where you should go or what you can do.  What may be a temptation to one person may not be a temptation to another.  People have different temperaments and react to things differently.  What may be a cause of sin to one person may not be to another.  However, that being said, we should not take Christian freedom as an excuse to sin.  Far from it.  Our Lord tells us that we should put to death anything in our lives that is a stumbling block to us.  If something causes you to sin – no matter what it is – cut it off!  As Christians, there are going to be places that we cannot go because to go there would be to make provision for the flesh.  There are going to be books that we cannot read or movies that we cannot watch because to do so would be to give sin an opportunity to gain mastery over our affections and imagination.  It is true that some people may not understand.  Some Christians may not understand!  But it is more important to obey Christ, even if it means plucking out an eye, than it is to avoid being thought of as a cultural Philistine. 

So put sin to death!  Think of this: the sin that you are toying with in your mind and heart is the very kind of thing that nailed Christ to the cross.  Jesus didn’t just die for murderers and adulterers.  He died for people who have problems with anger and lust.  He bore the wrath of God upon those sins just as much as he did the wrath of God upon the more open sins like murder and adultery.  God can no more have fellowship with a man whose heart is full of lust than he can with a man who has been unfaithful to his wife.  God can no more have fellowship with an angry person than he can with a murderer.  All sin is rebellion against God, no matter what its consequences are for those around us, and God cannot have fellowship with rebels.  That’s why it took the death of Jesus on our behalf to bring us to God, because all of us are guilty of breaking the sixth and seventh commandments in our heart and therefore all of us are exposed to God’s wrath.  We should put our sin to death, because our sin put Jesus to death.  If we really believe that, we cannot have a kind of lazy attitude towards sin.

May God give us such a heart for holiness, and such a love for his Son, that we make no bargains with the sin in our heart, but mortify it and put it to death.


[1] John Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 87.
[2] Ibid., p. 88.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Christian and Anger - Matthew 5:21-26

Must those who belong to Christ also follow him?  The key word in that question is the word must.  One might get the impression from certain Christian circles that it is indeed possible to have all the privileges of belonging to Christ without the responsibilities involved in following him.  But Jesus does not allow such an eventuality.  For he has already told us, “Except your righteousness shall exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven" (ver. 20).  That’s an amazing statement because the Pharisees were known as the righteous people par excellence.  Paul, speaking of his pre-Christian days, describes himself in this way: “as touching the law, a Pharisee . . . touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5-6).  Jesus is saying that anyone who belongs to him must follow him in such a way that his righteousness goes beyond even this.

But how is that possible?  I mean, after all, Paul described himself as “blameless.”  It doesn’t seem that you can get much better than that!  However, if you compare this to what Paul says about himself in Romans 7 it becomes clear that what he meant by blameless was “blameless in the eyes of other people.”  In other words, no one could point a finger at Paul and say, “You have broken this or that commandment.”  He was blameless in that sense.

And yet, after coming into contact with the living Christ, Paul realized that all his law-keeping was not really up to par.  For though he had paid close attention to the excruciating details of the law in terms of its external performance, he had neglected its authority over the heart.  Listen to how he describes the “ah-ha” moment when he realized the true reach of the law: “What shall we say then?  Is the law sin?  God forbid.  Nay, I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7).  It was the tenth commandment that made Paul realize that he hadn’t in fact kept the law: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died” (ver. 9).  Paul had come to realize “that the law is spiritual” (ver. 14).  It is something we all need to realize if we are going to truly understand the import of Matthew 5:20.

You see, Jesus requires of his followers obedience from the heart, not just the external performance of the letter of the law.  Those who don’t give their hearts to him cannot expect to inherit the kingdom of God.  That’s what differentiates the righteousness that Jesus requires from the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

The implication of this fact is that it matters what goes on in our hearts.  It doesn’t just matter in the sense that we can make our day better or have a more joyful existence upon this earth if we monitor our hearts.  Rather, Matthew 5:20 indicates that it matters eternally.  The kingdom of God is at stake!  Not in the sense that we merit God’s favor by pure hearts, but in the sense that pure hearts are an indication that we truly belong to Christ.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (ver. 8).  Our attitudes matter.  Our thoughts are significant.  God is the Judge of the heart.  There is coming a day “when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (Rom. 2:16).  To follow Christ therefore is much more than a public profession of faith in Christ; it is more than baptism, more than coming to church on Sunday, more than a participation in the means of grace.  To follow Christ is to be able to say with the psalmist, “With my whole heart have I sought thee: O let me not wander from thy commandments” (Ps. 119:10).

Christian paraphernalia does not make you a Christian; wearing a cross or a WWJD bracelet or putting a fish on your bumper does not make you a follower of Jesus Christ.  You are a Christian if you belong to Christ, and you belong to Christ if the Beatitudes describe the person you are becoming.  But you are only becoming the Beatitudes if you are waging war for the supremacy of Christ over your heart.  And that is happening if and only if you are daily confronting in the heart issues like the one in our text.  That issue is anger.

At first, one might wonder why Jesus would put such emphasis on anger.  At least, many Christians seem to have the attitude, “Well, I know I’ve got an anger problem, but I know God will forgive me, so I don’t worry about it too much.”  Such an attitude, as we shall shortly see, is entirely contrary to the words of our Lord in the text.  Anger is a huge problem, and if we don’t put it off and put on the opposite Christian virtues of love and forgiveness and longsuffering, then we are guilty of a sin that in God’s sight is equally heinous as the sin of murder.  And as the apostle John puts it, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him” (I Jn. 3:15).

And yet, anger is something most of us, if not all of us, deal with on a daily basis.  According to Jay Adams, “Anger is a problem for every Christian; sinful anger probably is involved in 90 percent of all counseling problems.”[1]  It is something that even the most sanctified wrestle against.  There is a story about the celebrated nineteenth century Cambridge evangelical preacher and pastor, Charles Simeon.  Evidently this was something with which he strove to master for much of his life.  And unlike many, he did wrestle against it.  Yet, his impatience and harshness would on occasion get the best of him.  According to John Piper,

His friends rebuked him as well. For example, he had the bad habit of speaking as if he were very angry about mere trifles. One day at a Mr. Hankinson's house he became so irritated at how the servant was stoking the fire that he gave him a swat on the back to get him to stop. Then when he was leaving, the servant got a bridle mixed up, and Simeon's temper broke out violently against the man.

Well, Mr. Hankinson wrote a letter as if from his servant and put it in Simeon's bag to be found later. In it he said that he did not see how a man who preached and prayed so well could be in such a passion about nothing and wear no bridle on his tongue. He signed it "John Softly."

Simeon responded (on April 12, 1804) directly to the servant with the words, "To John Softly, from Charles, Proud and Irritable: I most cordially thank your, my dear friend for your kind and seasonable reproof." Then he wrote to his friend, Mr. Hankinson, "I hope, my dearest brother, that when you find your soul nigh to God, you will remember one who so greatly needs all the help he can get" (Moule, 147).[2]

Indeed, we all need help when it comes to anger.  I used to think I was mild-mannered and a really great guy until I had children.  It has taken 4 little sinners to show me what a really big sinner I am in this area.  Of course, I don’t want to give the impression that I am a victim of my children!  Rather, the heart issues behind the anger that surfaced in dealing with my children were always there.  It just took interaction with other sinners to open my blind eyes to my own sin.  I hope it has been sanctifying.

How then, do we deal with anger Biblically?  First, we must realize the seriousness of the sin of anger.  Jesus begins in verse 21 a series of six contrasts in which he contrasts “what was said to those of old time” with his own teaching.  What is he doing in these verses?  Is he replacing OT law with his own?  I don’t think so.  Though “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not commit adultery” are from the Ten Commandments, Jesus is not dealing with the OT law directly, but with its misinterpretation by the scribes and Pharisees.  There are three reasons I think this is the case.  First, I think so because if Jesus were quoting OT directly, he would probably have used a different introduction.  Usually, when Jesus quotes Scripture, he uses the phrase, “It is written;” not, “you have heard that it was said.”  This would be, as far as I know, the only exception if he is quoting OT directly in these verses.  Second, he never in these verses rejects OT teaching.  There is no rejection of “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not commit adultery.”  The commandments are implicitly affirmed, not replaced.  Third, there are some instances where Jesus is clearly opposing tradition, not the OT teaching.  See, for example, verses 43, ff. 

You see this in our text.  When Jesus quotes those who spoke to them of old, they not only said, “Thou shalt not kill,” but added, “and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment.”  The force of this added expression is not necessarily in opposition to the OT, but it had the effect of externalizing the commandment.  When you put the commandment that forbids murder side by side with a warning of human judgment, you are in effect limiting the proscription of murder to only those acts which can be judged by men.  What Jesus is doing in these verses is not opposing the OT, but the limitation that some teachers put on the law by externalizing it.  Jesus wants us to see that the commandment against murder not only deals with overt acts of murder, but also those attitudes of the heart that lead to murder.  The law is spiritual, and Jesus wants us to see that.

This brings us to the seriousness of anger.  How serious is it?  The implication of Jesus’ words are that anger is murder in the heart.  Not only do overt acts of killing bring one into judgment, but – “But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (ver. 22).   Judgment-council-hellfire are not different degrees of punishment, but all refer to God’s judgment upon the sin of anger.  The judgment that is reserved for murder is also reserved for anger.  Jesus thus makes them the same.  That makes the sin of anger serious indeed.

Jesus does not mean by this that saying, “Fool” will get you a ticket to hell.  After all, Jesus referred to the Pharisees and scribes by this very name (Mt. 23:17, 19).  Rather, he is referring to expressions which are the vocalization of hate.  When Jesus himself uttered this word, hate was the farthest emotion from his heart.  But those to whom Christ is referring are those who utter spiteful words out of hate and a heart of murder.  Again, it’s the intention of the heart that matters.  Jesus is not asking us to gather a list of words we can or can’t say.  That would just be another form of legalism, the very thing against which he is speaking.  Rather, his words teach us again the importance of heart attitudes.

We not only see the seriousness of the sin of anger in what it is compared to, but also in the punishment reserved for it.  You see this most clearly in the words “hell fire.”  The text literally reads, “The Gehenna of fire.”  It is a reference to the Valley of Hinnom, “a ravine south of Jerusalem once associated with the pagan god Moloch and his disgusting rites, prohibited by God.  When Josiah abolished the practices, he defiled the valley by making it a dumping ground for filth and the corpses of criminals.  Late traditions suggest that in the first century it may still have been used as a rubbish pit, complete with smoldering fires.  The valley came to symbolize the place of eschatological punishment.”[3]  The idea of hell as a place of final punishment for the wicked is not some idea conjured up by imaginative theologians; it was taught by Jesus to be a very real place.  And it is this very fearful end that our Lord warns us of in reference to anger.  It is a serious sin.

Sometimes people will tell you that they just cannot control their anger.  This is just false.  Every one of us knows how to turn off the angry expressions and emotional outburst when it is advantageous for us to do so.  A man may yell at his wife and children at home and speak in utterly humiliating and hurtful ways to them and yet be perfectly restrained on the job because he knows his job would be at risk if he acted on the job as he acted at home.  So if you have excused your anger because you just couldn’t help it, you need to realize that you can help it by the grace of God.  Don’t deceive yourself!  Your problem is partly one of motivation.  Well, I’m not saying this should be the only motivation, but it should serve as one – if you don’t deal with your anger, according to our Lord, you are in danger of hell fire.  Those are his words, not mine.

Second, we must learn to use anger the right way.  Verse 22 suggests that we sin when we use anger wrongly.  There is a right way and a wrong way to use anger.  Scripture makes it very clear that anger is not always wrong.  Ephesians 4:26 tells us to “be angry and sin not.”  That is, it’s possible to be angry and not sin.  In fact, Jesus was moved to anger on several occasions, and we know that he sinned not neither was guile found in his mouth (cf. Mark 3:5).  Thus, there is a right way to deal with anger and a wrong way.  The wrong way is to vent it, as in our text.  The situation implied in the text goes something like this: there is someone with whom you have become angry.  They have wronged you in some way, or at least you perceive that they have wronged you.  It could be that some minor offense has been nursed and internalized for a long time until it becomes inordinately big to you.  Or maybe they really hurt you.  Inside the anger turns to hate and bitterness until you can hold it in no longer.  Then you blow up.  You vent your anger.  You call this person a fool, an idiot, or worse.  You verbally abuse them, if not physically.  That is sin, and that’s what our Lord rebukes in our text.

By the way, our Lord’s words are a clear rebuke to those who say it’s okay to deal with anger by venting it on some inanimate object, like hitting a pillow or a golf ball or whatever.  The reason that’s not okay is that this is still an expression of hate in the heart, which is spiritual murder.  That’s not how you deal with anger.

How then, do we Biblically deal with anger?  I am indebted to Jay Adams for the following insight: first, we don’t deal with anger by turning off the emotions which are given to us by God, but by controlling them and redirecting them.  We need to learn to direct our anger, not at the person we have a problem with, but at the problem itself.  As Adams puts it, “Anger is not sinful, but when it is directed towards others in order to hurt them and/or in uncontrolled outburst, it becomes sinful.  When it is turned into oneself in resentment and bitterness, it becomes sinful.”[4]  When we direct our anger at the problem instead of at the person, we are freed to love them and forbear with them even if it involves confrontation and rebuke.

This requires a vigilant watch on the heart.  It requires self-control.  It requires the help of the Holy Spirit!  Consider the following verses in the Proverbs (ESV):

·         A man of quick temper acts foolishly, and a man of evil devices is hated.  Prov. 14:17

·         Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.  Prov. 14:29

·         A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  Prov. 15:1

·         A hot tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.  Prov. 15:18

·         Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.  Prov. 19:11

·         Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare.  Prov. 22:24-25

·         A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.  Prov. 25:28

·         A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.  Prov. 29:11

·         A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.  Prov. 29:22

That brings us to the third principle of our text.  It is this: not only must we repent of the sinful anger in our own hearts, but we must also mend the relationships that our anger has damaged.  This is the point, I think, of verses 23-24.  What’s the connection between these verses and the preceding ones?  Note the connecting word, “therefore.”  It logically follows from what Jesus has just said.  How? 

I don’t think Jesus meant that just because someone is upset with us for any reason that we should feel guilty until we can get this person to like us again – and that if we don’t all our worship is meaningless.  If that’s what he meant, then our Lord would have spent his entire earthly ministry feeling guilty.  There were lots of people angry with him!  And the reason they were angry was because he spoke truth into their lives, he held them accountable, and they didn’t like it.  As a result, they became his enemies.  At one point, they even tried to throw him off a cliff.  Finally, they managed to crucify him.  No, he does not mean that the Christian must live a life free of enemies.

What then is the connection?  I think it goes like this.  In verse 22, your anger has caused you to lash out at someone to hurt them, verbally, psychologically, or even physically.  As a result of this, the relationship between you and this person has been damaged.  That is, I think, the situation under consideration in verse 23.  You bring your gift to the altar – you are in church meeting – and you remember this damaged relationship that is broken precisely because of your sinful anger.  Jesus tells you to quit everything and go and fix what you have broken.  The implication verse 24 is that God will not receive your offering if you do not.  Repentance does not only mean you determine not to be angry anymore, it also requires this further dimension of restoration and reconciliation. 

The fourth principle is that we should deal with this sin of anger quickly.  That’s the point of verses 25-26.  If our worship is not acceptable to God until we truly repent of our sin by reconciling ourselves to those we have alienated through our sin, then it is a truly urgent matter.  You must not delay, not even for a moment, when it comes to the necessity of putting things right.  It’s not just a matter between you and another person; it’s also between you and God.

The picture that our Lord invites us to imagine is that of a debtor and the one to whom he is indebted, who has become his adversary precisely because he has not paid his debt.  His adversary is taking him to the judge which will result in his being cast into prison until the debt is paid, and “verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” (v. 26).  The obvious course to take is to deal with your adversary now while you are on the way to the judge, or it will be too late.  This is an analogy.  Here we are traveling through life and in the course of things, we have offended a brother or sister.  Our hatefulness and spite has hurt them and they are our adversary because of it.  Without pressing the details of the story too far, it seems clear that our Lord intends the judge to represent God, who is the Judge of all.  The point is that if we do not forgive our brother and repent of our anger and get reconciled to him in the here and now, we can expect nothing but judgment from God.  He will not bless our worship; indeed, he will cast us into prison.

Lloyd-Jones sums up the idea of these verses well: “This is just a picture.  You and I are traveling through this world, and the law is there making its demands.  It is the law of God.  It says: ‘What about that relationship between you and your brother, what about those things that are in your heart?  You have not attended to them.’  Settle it at once, says Christ.  You may not be here tomorrow morning and you are going into eternity like that.”[5]

How do we become people who are not characterized by sinful anger?  First of all, you cannot really deal with the heart issues unless your heart has been changed by the Holy Spirit.  Sure, you can be externally a nice person, but our Lord is calling us to so much more than that.  Can you rid all the hate and anger out of your heart?  Only God the Holy Spirit on account of what Christ has done can do this in us.  It is on the basis of this reality that Paul exhorts believers to “put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth” (Col. 3:8).  Jesus not only died that we are forgiven people but also so that we would become forgiving people.

But ultimately, the motivation to put away anger comes from what our Lord has done for us (Eph. 4:31-32).  When we are provoked to anger by the sins of others, we need to remember that though our sins provoked God who is holy, nevertheless he has forgiven our sins through the atonement of his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.  He has forgiven us; let us therefore be ready to forgive others, and be longsuffering, patient, and kind.

[1] Jay Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual, page 359.


[3] D. A. Carson, Matthew 1-12 (EBC), p. 149.

[4] Adams, p. 355.

[5] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 202.

No Compromise (Rev. 2:12-29)

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