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Matthew 5:21-26, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there 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. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

I’ve seen real anger problems in my time as a counselor like the young married man who came to see me because he put his fist through a wall. There was also the young college student who tried to put his fist through a wall. He and his cast came to see me because he had an anger problem too. This is how we usually think of the issue of anger: visible manifestations of uncontrollable rage. Jesus has a much bigger picture of anger in mind in Matthew 5:21-26. In this passage, Jesus point is that we all have anger issues because we all have idolatry issues.

Jesus sets a high standard in the Sermon on the Mount for what it means to be a citizen of His Kingdom. He just told the disciples that to be a follower of His means to pursue a righteousness higher than that of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Everyone had thought that the Pharisees and the Scribes were the height of holiness. Jesus sees their attempts to satisfy God through works and says, “It’s not enough.” Now for many that would have been utterly discouraging news. If the Pharisees weren’t even good enough, then what hope was there for the rest of us? But, of course, that is part of Jesus’s whole agenda in the Sermon on the Mount. He is attempting to show the futility of pursuing God based on your own righteousness. Anger, as one example, is a heart problem and we can’t just change that by mimicking good behavior. We need new hearts, and that’s what the gospel promises.

The Truth About Anger

Jesus is unpacking a specific example of how we are to pursue a righteousness greater than that of the Pharisees; specifically in the realm of anger. He starts by drawing out the contrast. It’s important here to realize that Jesus is not opposing the Law of Moses. He has just finished in the preceding verses (Matthew 5:17-20) telling us that he has not come to undo the Law, but to fulfill it. His contrast is not, then, between Moses’s Law and His new law, but rather between the interpretation of Moses’s law given by the religious leaders and God’s original intent.

The religious leaders had significantly diminished the implications of God’s law. Jesus’s says: “You’ve heard don’t murder,” but “I am saying don’t be angry.” The level of righteousness God desires from His children is higher than just their outward actions; He instead desires to transform their hearts. The Pharisees had assumed that anger wasn’t that big of a deal, they thought that if they just didn’t harm others, they would be fine. Don’t take a life, but if you hate somebody that’s no big deal. This is certainly how we often view things. We may think that anger’s not that big of a deal. After all, we say, if you don’t let off some steam every once and a while, then you will likely kill somebody. We justify this line of thinking by thinking that it’s better to blow up and yell and scream then to take a life, right? So anger is just a part of life to many. The problems with this particular approach to anger are many, including the most important, Jesus does not view anger in this way.

The Pharisees say, “You can be angry, just don’t murder.” Jesus says, “Anger is murder in your heart.” As Jesus sees it, anger is not merely an issue of your behavior. It is an issue of your heart. Anger is deeply connected to worship. Our anger reveals our idolatry. That’s how the apostle James understands it. He writes in James 4:1-4:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

James says quarrels come from your desires; you want and do not have so you fight. Jesus tells us that it is out of the heart that hatred, anger, and fits of rage come (Matthew 12:34-37; Matthew 15:18-20). This is why Jesus talks about interrupting your worship in this passage to address your anger, because ultimately anger is an issue of worship. Our anger reveals our idolatry, and Jesus tells us you can’t worship two masters.

The Solution to Anger

The Bible has a lot to say about anger; one of the major things it tells us is that God is angry. God’s anger is righteous, and justified, and targeted at us. If we are going to have any hope of dealing with our anger, we have to first deal with God’s anger against us. We need to be reconciled to God before we can ever be reconciled to others.

This is really what the whole Sermon on the Mount is about. Jesus is pointing out the desperateness of our situation. God’s anger burns against your anger, but you can’t just stop being angry. We don’t just need a list of rules and techniques to address our anger; we need a Savior who can change our hearts! And it is from this starting place that we can begin to see change. The gospel provides God’s people with a model for dealing with anger.

1 Peter 2:21-24 helps to articulate this model. Two things are happening in this verse: one Jesus is bearing in His body my sins and offering me healing. He is also giving me an example of how I am to deal with my own anger. The gospel says that Jesus is my example. He had every right to get angry, to lash out in judgment and justice, but He didn’t. Instead, He showed mercy even to the point of dying for those who hated Him. The gospel says this is what you and I are to be like in our relationships. We are to demonstrate mercy and grace even to the point of sacrificing self.

Jesus goes on to outline for us the need for reconciliation in two other realms: reconciliation in the church – that is with your brother (Matthew 5:23-24); and reconciliation in your community – that is with your neighbor (Matthew 5:25-26). We are to seek to love our neighbors well, to deal with our bitterness and hostility towards them and to be reconciled to them. That, after all, is also the model of the gospel. It’s the way that God Himself has shown love to those who were His enemies (Rom. 5:8).

Anger as an Opportunity

Anger is a sin and sin is a big deal to God. But the temptation to be angry can also be seen as an opportunity for our own spiritual growth. Our anger reveals our idolatry, and if I am going to get to the heart of my anger, I need to see all my temptations to get angry, to be bitter, to hold a grudge, and to vent my frustrations as opportunities to expose the idols in my heart. When you are tempted to be angry, when you feel anger welling up in you, when you have those moments of impatience, ask yourself the following three questions:

  • What am I angry about?
  • Why am I angry about it?
  • How does the gospel say I should respond?

Think of anger as an opportunity: an opportunity to root out idolatry in your life and to point you again and again to the good news that Jesus has removed the anger of God from you in and through His finished work.

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