Anger and Murder
Happy New Year! I’m not sure what comes to your mind when you think of a new year, but a new year usually brings this sense of renewal in people. The words “Happy New Year” is like hitting the refresh button on your computer! And people have been really pounding that refresh button leading up to New Years Day. Countless posts on social media are about the door being slammed shut on 2020; it’s a happy new year and everything will be different.
But is it? I mean, we are in the New Year now but when we woke up on New Years Day we still woke up to the same old life we were living the week before… I personally didn’t even know that it was New Year’s Day until my wife made New Year’s cookies! 2021 is here but it’s still not new. It’s still not “normal.” Meanwhile, people all over the world are longing and hoping to get the “normal” life back in 2021.
The “Normal” Life
Is this the case for us as the church? Do we look to 2021 for our “normal” to come back? The life where we don’t have to wear masks anymore? Or do we look to God for our “normal” to come back? Because our normal life as Christians is Genesis 1-2, where we dwell in perfect harmony with out perfect Creator.
There’s no denying that 2020 was abnormal, but even before 2020, our lives as Christians were already abnormal! If anything, 2020 should’ve shown us that this is not our true life. This is not our “normal” life! We’ve spent weeks talking about the Beatitudes, how the good life now is longing for your best life later on. So we long for the new and the normal life as we wait in this old and abnormal life.
This is the tension that Jesus presents as he preaches the gospel of the kingdom. About this physical yet also spiritual tension. The kingdom is here, but not yet in its fullness. We have one foot in the new creation, while the other is still here groaning in the pains of childbirth, longing for new life on the other side (Romans 8:22-25).
Yet the kingdom is at hand, and kingdom living starts now. Which is why Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 that “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” A better righteousness is required to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see that in Jesus’ words when he continues in verse 21.
You Have Heard, But I Say
From verses 21-48, every section starts off with this statement: “You have heard that it was said to those of old.” Essentially, it means: “You have heard the Scriptures as it was told to you by your forefathers. This is how you were taught.” As you can see in these sections, Jesus points out different parts of the OT law. The first one is familiar even to us today: “You shall not murder.”
And this capital crime = capital punishment: “And whoever murders will be liable to judgment.” In Numbers 35:31, it says that “you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” In essence, Jesus is saying: “This is how you practiced righteousness. Through these physical, external laws. The same righteousness that the scribes and Pharisees adhered to.”
Yet Jesus says that you must exceed that! There is a “better” righteousness required to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is why Jesus then says, “But I say to you…” In other words, Jesus says that You were taught this way, but let me tell you what I say it means.
Now, it is important to understand that the people listening to this were not necessarily nodding their heads in agreement and thinking, yes Rabbi, tell us what you say it means. I’m prepared to suggest that Jesus’ listeners had their teeth gritting. Fists clenched. Tensions were high (which likely started when Jesus said “don’t think that I have come to abolish the law” in verse 17).
Throughout his gospel, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus is the Messiah who came to fulfill all righteousness, and in this case to fulfill all of Scripture. Author RC Sproul comments: “The whole doctrine of justification by faith, the whole doctrine of salvation by grace rests on the principle that the law of God has been fulfilled by Christ.”
It is only through this sobering and comforting truth, it is only through the authority of Jesus as the “fulfiller” of the law, that we can then take in the gravity of Jesus’ following words when he says, “that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”
Anger Imperils Your Soul
It’s easy to make the connection that anger=murder. But if we just take a second and actually think about this, it would not be a very easy pill to swallow. Because Jesus says that the second you feel anger against someone, and in turn, let it out, is the second you take a knife to that persons heart.
And if that’s not bad enough, look at how Jesus equates the crime of anger with its outward results, it’s outward manifestations. Anger results in insulting your brother, which is murder (Raka was a contemptuous, abusive term back then, essentially meant bonehead). Today, we have our own versions of that). Even calling people fools is murder! As light as we think that may be, calling someone a bonehead or an idiot is the outward result of our inward anger. And again, we have our own paraphrases of that these days.
By taking this external law of murder and internalizing it, Jesus is saying that “you have not conformed to the better righteousness of the kingdom by simply refraining from homicide” (Carson, 2). Just because you’ve signed a criminal record check and the cops have cleared you in their books doesn’t mean you are cleared in Jesus’ books.
So this is not just a passage for “angry” people. Don’t think that some people are exempt from this because not everyone is prone to anger or letting anger out. Jesus is not talking about personalities here, but rather the nature of sinful man. (My wife Emily, she is so patient, so gentle, and I genuinely thought it was impossible for her to get even a little angry at anybody! That was until she married me)
But this is what makes Jesus’ words so hard to take in. Even the slightest form of anger at someone, or anything that breeds from that, is murder. And if found guilty, you will be liable to judgment. As Jesus outlines anger and its outward results as virtually equivalent, notice how he intensifies the judgment: “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.
From the local court (judgment) to the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin), then to the ultimate court (hell of fire). Here we see that it is unlikely that Jesus is just talking about human courts or capital punishment! As John Stott puts it, “no human court is competent to try a case of inward anger.” Simply put, the judge who brings the gavel down on the guilty is God Almighty himself.
The council is the heavenly council/courts, “in the presence of God ... Christ Jesus ... and the elect angels” (1 Tim. 5:21). Hell of fire is the ultimate court. The judgment seat of God. The place where the wrath of God is unleashed on the unjust, who “will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and [they] will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (Revelation 14:10).
Point being: Jesus points out that anger at someone is such a serious internal issue that it imperils, not just your body, but your soul. So it must be dealt with. Jesus gives two illustrations: one about the temple and one about the courtroom.
Reconciliation Precedes Worship
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar…” As many scholars note, we have to remember that these people were in Galilee. Offering gifts at the altar means an eighty mile trip to the temple in Jerusalem. Which would’ve been an important event as it could only happen around once or twice a year based on the circumstances. Yet Jesus says that if there, at the altar, you “remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
One thing we must notice here is that Jesus has just switched perspectives. He was just addressing “your” anger, but now he addresses “your brother’s” complaint against you. From 2nd person to 3rd person.
Now does this mean we’re responsible for anyone who has a grudge against us? Does that mean you have to track down that driver who was mad at you after you cut him off? Look at Matthew 5:11. If you’re a follower of Jesus, people will always have something against you. Therefore, you are not responsible for those circumstances because Jesus himself had so much opposition.
Rather, Jesus is implying here that your brother has something against you because you have wronged them, based on what Jesus has just addressed about you. “Your” anger at your brother. Now that, you are responsible for. As D.A. Carson says, “we are more likely to remember when we have something against others than when we have done something to offend others.”
Jesus says this is so serious that when you are worshipping and you remember that your brother has something against you because you’ve wronged them with your own anger, “leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Of course, we are not under the Mosaic Covenant and we don’t have to offer animal sacrifices at the temple. But in Romans 12:1-2, St. Paul says that through Jesus Christ, we now present our bodies as the living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God... this is your spiritual worship.
When was the last time we were sitting in church and remembered that someone had something against us because we have wronged them, and ran out of the building to talk to them or to at least give them a phone call? You might be thinking, “well doesn’t that seem quite radical and unrealistic?” Well I’ll let you ask Jesus that question. Because he seems quite clear when Jesus says leave the temple and go! Leave this important occasion (worship), and do the more important thing (reconciliation). Walk eighty miles from Jerusalem to Galilee to make peace with your accuser before you even come and worship.
Anger at someone has such serious implications for your soul that you can’t even worship God until you’ve sought reconciliation. And to do so with a sense of urgency. Look at this next illustration: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Do This Quickly
Notice that Jesus widens the category. From brother or sister to anyone that you have wronged in general. And when Jesus says that lest your accuser hand you to the judge, and the judge to the guard, that implies that you will be deemed guilty. So in order for you to escape judgment, go and be reconciled. Make peace with your accuser on your way to the court while there’s still time! Settle now rather than pay later!
If anger is a poison, then reconciliation is the antidote. You MUST find it quickly! Or else you will suffer. The words you will never get out till you have paid the last penny tell us that maximum penalty is inevitable if we don’t find reconciliation. “In the ancient world, debtors were jailed till the debts were paid” (Carson, 4). Friends, anger at someone is so deathly serious that Jesus urges us to do whatever it takes to find reconciliation with our accuser before it’s too late.
Another crucial point to notice here is that Jesus talks to you and I. If you remember that your brother has something against you, you are the one who has to go and find your brother. You are the one who has to come to terms quickly with your accuser. Jesus holds you responsible.
It Starts With The Heart
So what? Why do we need to know this? You might’ve noticed as we’ve gone through this passage, that Jesus did not focus just on the individual’s actions such as murder, but rather on the heart. A heart full of anger toward someone can lead to insults, name calling, and even murder. In other words, all of these are symptomatic of a corrupted heart, which is the main point Jesus is making here. It starts with the heart.
And for those of you who have been wondering, this is why Jesus didn’t contradict himself when he talked about anger and its results are serious cases of murder. If you remember, Jesus was angry (Matthew 21); he insulted the Pharisees (Matthew 12 & 23); and he called the Pharisees fools (Matthew 23). Simply put, Jesus did not just have a hissy fit and directed it at people. In all these cases, you will find a righteous reason behind it. This shows us that anger at sin and unrighteousness is not sinful in itself (Ephesians 4:26). But in our passage today, Jesus is dealing with murderous anger at somebody, which is not a result of righteous anger.
Murder comes from anger, and anger comes from the heart. James 4:1-2 outlines how anger starts in the heart: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder.” That’s where anger starts. Unmet expectations and unsatisfied desires. The passions at war within us. Jesus in Matthew 5 is saying that ‘under Moses you were good as long as you didn’t murder. But under Jesus, you’re not good because you do murder, in the heart.’
Matthew 15:19-20. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness and slander. These are what defile a person.” What comes out of us starts from the inside. The heart. And Jesus says this is what defiles us. And if we have a defiled and corrupted heart, how can we be “pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8)? And without a pure heart, how shall we see God? Do you see why Jesus takes anger so seriously? Why he urges us to reconcile with our accuser, and to do so quickly before judgment comes and it’s too late? It starts with the heart.
This is why God’s New Covenant promise in Ezekiel 36:26 is so comforting when He says, “I will give you a new heart. and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” As Jesus tells them “but I say to you” in Matthew 5:21-48, he engraves the law on those new hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). Which is why as New Covenant Christians, we follow the law as Jesus fulfilled them and taught them, because that is the only way we exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. In other words, we cannot just take the 10 commandments, put them on our wall at home, and live by them. Instead, we ought to put the name of Jesus on our wall and live by him!
God continues his promise in Ezekiel 36:27: “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ in us, that we can be pure in heart and follow His commands as he goes after the heart. Especially when it comes to anger being murder in the heart.
Now What? What Do We Need To Do?
New Covenant Christians deal seriously with anger at anybody. This means that we do not take the slightest form anger in our hearts for granted. Recognize that anger comes from unmet expectations and unsatisfied desires (James 4:1-2). It starts with the passions that are at war within you; it starts with the heart.
Pray David’s prayer in Psalm 51. Create in me a new heart O God, renew a right spirit within me. When you’re tempted to anger, shut that evil desire down before it conceives and gives birth to sin (James 1:14-15). The more you practice being pure in heart, the more you become like Jesus. And the more you become like Jesus, the more you love God. The more you love God, the more you hate evil. The more you hate sin, such as anger at someone.
New Covenant Christians deal seriously with anger at anybody, by seeking reconciliation with both man and God. A lot of times, we know anger is a poison, but instead of taking the antidote of reconciliation, we take pride. We take self defence. We’re more scared of swallowing our pride, rather than taking in Jesus’ words here.
Seeking reconciliation is how we “hunger and thirst for righteousness, and you will be filled” (Matthew 5:5)! You will be satisfied in Christ, and anger cannot ever do that. If you make a habit of not dealing with even the slightest form of anger or contempt at someone, you are committing high treason against the high King.
If you make a habit of not being reconciled to people you’ve wronged, are you sure you’re reconciled with God? Because not only do you reconcile with man but with God as well. When Jesus summed up the Law, he said love God, and the second is LIKE it. Love people. “We cannot divorce the way we relate to others the way we relate to God” (Grant Osborne, 9). This is why we can only worship after we have sought reconciliation with our accuser.
New Covenant Christians deal seriously with anger at anybody, by proactively seeking reconciliation with both man and God. Do this quickly, with a sense of urgency. We are not just peace-keepers, but rather “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). If you don’t approach reconciliation with a sense of urgency, what audacity do you have in claiming to worship God? Because according to Jesus, your worship is not acceptable. As Samuel says, “Obedience is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22).
In all these, we strive to love God with all our hearts. As we strive to hunger and thirst for righteousness. As we become more pure in heart. As we live lives of reconciliation as peacemakers. We can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ in us. Let’s do this as we go into 2021.