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.


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