Scripture: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 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.” Matthew 5:21-22 ESV
Observation: This and the following five sections begin with the antitheses: “You have heard that it was said… But I say.” Here, Jesus does not disparage the Levitical law but strengthens it from merely an outward observance to the inward transformation of the heart.
The mandate to not commit murder stems from the understanding that Yahweh is the author of life and alone reserves the right to execute the termination of human life. As his vessels of justice, God granted Israel the right to take the life of enemies when waging war and to uphold capital offenses. But that is not what is in view here. Christ exposes anger as the root of unlawful murder. Even if we do not take another’s life, if we harbor malice and speak ill of others without seeking reconciliation (remaining verses 23-26), we will face the judgment of our Creator: eternal hell fire (v.22 above).
Of note, the expression “fire of hell” (Greek geenna tou pyros, literally, “gehenna of fire”) comes from the Hebrew gê-hinnōm (translated “Valley of Hinnom”). Located in a ravine south of Jerusalem, Israel’s ancestors once worshipped the pagan god Moloch, offering their firstborn to him (see 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Ezekiel 16:20; 23:37). Yahweh prohibited such detestable practices (Leviticus 18:21: 20:2-5) that violated the first and sixth of the Ten Commandments. Thus, good King Josiah abolished this horrid pagan worship rite, converting the ravine into a garbage dump and burial site for criminals (2 Kings 23:10). And in Jesus’ day, it still served as a trash heap that produced a smoldering fire.
Takeaway: While many Jewish maxims warned against anger, Jesus prophetically points to ungodly anger borne in hate as violating the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not kill”). Still, anger in itself is not sinful. Jesus expressed godly anger toward:
- Corruption and hypocrisy: He cleansed the temple’s outer court, driving out the money changers (Matthew 21:12-16). And he excoriated the religious leaders for leading the people astray—calling them blind fools (Mattew 23:17).
- Sin’s consequences: He grieved over the synagogue rulers’ hardness of heart toward the true intent of the Sabbath. So, filled with anger, he healed a man’s withered hand (Mark 3:1-5). Also, “deeply moved” by sin’s death sentence (Greek embrimōmenos means to “snort with anger”), he raised Lazarus from the grave (John 11:38-44).
While Christ paid the penalty for ungodly anger at Calvary, its lingering and devastating effects have plagued the church through the centuries: masked by holy wars, inquisitions, and modern-day schisms. And the early church was no exception. Paul addresses ungodly anger issues in his second letter to the Corinthians (12:20), Galatians (5:20), Ephesians (4:31), and the Colossians (3:8). And James speaks to the issue and warns that it does not produce the “righteousness of God” (1:20).
In the remainder of this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands us to reconcile with any in whom we harbor hate. Indeed, he adds to make it a priority before engaging in worship or seeking justice (vv.23-25). Similarly, Paul warns the Ephesians not to let the sun set on their anger (4:26). That’s the goal, but are we helpless to prevent ungodly anger? While there is no singular foolproof measure in our fallen world, we can redirect anger in a life-giving manner. Indeed, Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians and James’ letter to the Jewish converts provide a couple of preemptive tips:
- Instruct those under our authority in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In Ephesians 6:4, Paul urges parents to apply this approach in childrearing. Of course, this implies that we are putting into practice what we preach. So, gaining instruction from Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, both sides will learn to anticipate catalysts that provoke anger and rehearse how they will respond in a godly manner next time, thus developing new life-giving habits.
- James shares one such constructive habit in his letter to the church: be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19). When we humbly and carefully listen to what’s driving others’ anger before we respond, we are more likely to de-escalate the conflict. But this process requires us to be in touch with our emotions and spend time with the Holy Spirit discovering the thread of fear and hurt that drives our anger.
As always, grace abounds through the process. We need not fear the “hell fire,” for Christ paid the price in full when he asked the Father to forgive us because we know not what we do (Luke 23:24). But, as the above text implies, we too must forgive those who anger us. And sometimes, we must forgive ourselves. So the goal isn’t to eliminate anger but manage it by directing it toward life-giving outcomes. And when we humble our hearts and submit to the lead of the Holy Spirit, we can rest assured that our godly anger will not get the best of us but bring out the best in all of us.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you and your Son for expressing your righteous anger over the ravishes of sin and providing a costly solution that has reconciled us to you. Would you please help us humbly submit to the sanctifying work of your Holy Spirit in addressing the roots of our anger so that we might direct it in a life-giving way that brings forgiveness, reconciliation, and glory to you? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling
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