Murder in the Heart: Jesus’ Teaching on Anger (Matthew 5:21-26)

In Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus begins his commentary on the traditions of the Law by defining his relationship to the Law. His definition is staggering. Not only does he claim that he did not come to abolish the Law, nor that he has perfectly kept the Law, but that he is the fulfillment of the Law.

What does this phrase mean? It means that the Law points to and culminates in Jesus. It means that he is the righteousness that the Law points to. It means that his life and his work are the epitome and the completion of the Law. He himself, who he is and what he does, is the fulfillment of the Law.

As the Law’s fulfillment, Jesus can free his people from the demands of the law (Galatians 3:24) and enable them to live in accordance with the true intention of the Law. What is that true intention? To possess a genuine righteousness that is a light to the world and brings glory to God (Matt 5:6, 14). This righteousness, Jesus says, must far surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). How can it do that? Because it is a different kind of righteousness altogether.

In Matthew 5:21-47, Jesus begins to unpack the meaning of the true righteousness of the Law in the context of relationships. This should not surprise us, because Jesus himself describes the law as loving God and loving our neighbor. The two go hand in hand! Consider 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar.”

Jesus begins by quoting the law and confronting the religious leaders’ surface-level adherence to them. I believe He does this for three reasons. First, to expose the false righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. Second, to help us be poor in spirit by revealing our lack of true righteousness. And third, to motivate his people to pursue true righteousness (i.e. to be those who ‘hunger and thirst’ for it; Matt 5:6). Let’s consider these reasons in light of murder and anger in 5:21-26.

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘you shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever commits murder shall be answerable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be answerable to the court; and who ever says to his brother, ‘you good-for-nothing,’ shall be answerable to the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘you fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore, if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.

Jesus exposes the false righteousness of the Pharisees by pointing out that the oral tradition is focused primarily on the outward action, murder, and not the heart. Furthermore, he reveals that they were primarily concerned with human judgment (i.e. “the court”) when they should be concerned about divine judgement (“the hell of fire”).

Jesus reveals the nature of their hearts by pressing the concept even further. The religious leaders believed that they were not guilty of unrighteousness as long as they refrained from physically murdering someone. But according to Jesus, not only should those who murder be liable to divinejudgment, but also those who are angry and speak hateful words. Anger and harsh words go together, for ‘out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Matthew 12:34).

True righteousness, then, concerns the posture of the heart, not simply doing the right things or avoiding the wrong ones. This is the righteousness that no one has in themselves (Rom 3:23). Consider a toddler; no one has to teach them how to get angry and express it. It comes naturally. We get angry and say harmful things towards each another. We harbor the seeds of murder in our hearts and shoot flaming arrows of insults at fellow image bearers of God. This kind of behavior, Jesus says, deserves divine judgment.

At this point, we may be tempted to say with the Psalmist, “If you, O Lord, should count sins, who could stand?” But here’s the good news: though we should stand condemned, Christ stood condemned in our place on the cross. He lived a righteous life without a single hint of anger. He never spoke an insulting word to another human being. Yet He was delivered up to bear the sins of the world, to be judged as if he had harbored all of the angry, murderous thoughts in the entire world. But even at his death, he prayed for his Father to forgive those who were nailing him to the tree and insulting Him- the epitome of righteousness.

Those who repent of their sin and trust Jesus are given the record of this righteousness. They are also given Jesus’ Spirit, who will create in them a deepening “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:4) and help them begin to live it out. Part of that righteousness is doing away with any unrighteous anger and the words that follow suit.

But how can we do away with our anger? First, study your anger. Seek to determine what causes it. Most anger is caused by a blocked idol or goal. If your goal is to have complete serenity, peace, and order in your home, any obstacle toward the realization of that goal will create anger. If your idol is money, anything that threatens the accumulation and hoarding of your money will elicit anger. Likewise with material things. And then, out of a heart of anger, our mouth speaks. We don’t actually say things we don’t mean. We speak from the heart. So look to the things you say to help you diagnose what is causing anger in your heart.

So become a student of your anger and repent of any underlying sins or idols in your heart. Then fight back. One of the ways we can fight anger is with gratitude. “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). Looking for ways to consistently give thanks can gear our hearts towards thankfulness, which will be expressed in words of gratitude, encouragement, and love. That’s the first thing.

Secondly, if there is anyone we have wronged due to our anger, we must seek reconciliation. Jesus highlights the importance of pursuing peace in relationships by calling his followers to do the work of repentance and reconciliation before they come to the altar to worship him. Why? Because he isn’t concerned about the physical offering. He isn’t concerned about our how our voice sounds, how much money we give, or how often we attend worship. He is after our heart. And he is after peace and unity among the members of his kingdom. Why? Because peace, unity, generosity, humility, and love are all defining characteristics of his kingdom. They are the expressions of his righteousness. They make up the light that shines to the world that displays the glory of God.

So, is there any anger in your heart? Is there anyone you need to reconcile with? If so, look to Christ, the one who paid the penalty for all your anger and unrighteous words. Remember that you have his righteousness given to you, and you stand perfectly reconciled to God the Father because of Him. Believe you’ve been given the Holy Spirit to help you walk in righteousness. And then do the hard work of repentance and reconciliation. Then you can worship with a clear conscience and let your light shine before others so that you may bring glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

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