When Anger Turns Deadly (Matthew 5:21-26)
When Anger Turns Deadly
(One Truth: Walk in Truth)
November 4th, 2018
I. “I'm Mad. So What?”
Take a minute and look at the title of the message this morning...”When Anger Turns Deadly”.
It kind of sounds like the title of a Dateline episode, right? One of those true crime, TV documentaries. “Tonight's exclusive, a chilling tale of rage and revenge...When Anger Turns Deadly”. I'm guessing something like that came to mind for most of you when you saw that title. I'm guessing most of us pictured some volatile situation where someone snaps, and some offense, some slight, some disagreement, some kind of friction gets escalated, leading to a violent encounter in which someone loses their life. When Anger Turns Deadly.
Now, to be fair, all of us get angry at times, right? But have you ever been so angry you wanted to lash out at someone else? So angry you wanted to inflict some kind of pain on someone else? You might think, “Well, yes...but that doesn't mean I want to strangle the other person. I'm mad. So what? Everyone gets mad.”
And that's true, isn't it? Everyone does get mad. Jesus wouldn't disagree with that. In fact, the verses we're looking at this morning are built around that truth. Turn over to Matthew 5:21-26, and let's think together about what Jesus tells us about when anger turns deadly.
II. The Passage: "Everyone Who is Angry" (5:21-26)
Now, let's do a very quick review of the context here, of what we've already learned in this series so far:
You may recall that what we find in chapters 5-7 of Matthew's Gospel is the longest continuous block of Jesus' teaching preserved in the NT. Traditionally, his discourse here is referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount”. Since 5:1 tells us that he delivered this message on a mountain, we've simply been calling it Jesus' 'mountain message'.
Now if you've been with us, you may also remember that, in one sense, the essence of this 'mountain message' is summed up for us in 5:48...You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Sound pretty scandalous, doesn't it? Perfection? Jesus is demanding moral perfection? Yes, that's exactly what he's doing. If God, or the Son of God, expected anything less than perfection, it would be a cosmic and catastrophic compromise.
Now, to be clear, Jesus understands we are not capable of perfection in our sinful condition. That's why the whole 'mountain message' begins with the kingdom consolations of 5:3-11. The kingdom, or royal reign of God, has broken into our world in a new way through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We'll talk more later about how that makes all the difference.
But in spite of weaknesses, Jesus, because He loves us, still wants to show us the path of perfection, or what we might call, the way of holiness and wholeness. If there is a good path (i.e., direction for life) that enriches us and honors God, wouldn't you want to know about it? This whole 'mountain message' points us to that very path. And we begin here in verse 21 with the topic of anger.
In order to make sense of the parts and the whole of this passage, I'd suggest we look at how Jesus is answering three questions here, the first one being...
1. “How serious is my anger?” (vs. 21, 22)
[Verses 21-22...] “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.
Okay. One of the things we need to remember here is that Jesus just talked about his relationship to the Old Testament, and even specifically, to the Old Testament commandments. In light of what he had preached, and light of what he would preach, Jesus understood that many people might wrongly conclude he was (in some way) ditching the OT. But as we learned from verse 17, just the opposite was true: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
What does he mean by that? What does it mean that Jesus fulfills the OT? Well, what I explained last time is that Jesus himself is filling out the fullness of God's intentions for his people in light of the new covenant. He is not adding to the OT. He is unpacking it in light of the fullness and fulfillment about which its own pages speak.
And so, if we apply that to the OT commands, specifically and famously, the Ten Command-ments, then we could say that one of the ways Jesus fulfills the commands is by bringing out for us the fullness of these commands. And that's what he does here with the sixth command.
According to Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, number six of the Ten Commandments is the very thing Jesus quotes in verse 21, “you shall not murder”. As Jesus indicates here, those who were guilty of murder in ancient Israel would be brought into judgment. And according to Numbers 35:31, the penalty for murder was death. You take a life, you lose your life. Of course, none of the people listening to Jesus would take issue with these ideas.
Ah, but Jesus isn't finished. He continues in v. 22. Now, the idea of v. 21 was, basically, “God spoke and said this to your ancestors who were at Mount Sinai: you shall not murder.” But notice the stunning language Jesus uses to comment on that idea. V. 22: “But I say to you...” Whoa! In essence, he's saying, “God said to your forefathers...but I say to you...”. The way he taught was not lost on his listeners. It tells us at the very end of the 'mountain message', in 7:28-29...And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching,  for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.
They were astonished by his authority. But look again at what he's teaching them with this kind of astonishing authority. Verse 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.
What exactly is Jesus saying? He's telling his listeners (and us) that God's good path of perfection is concerned, not simply with the act of murder, but also with the heart behind it. What in most cases fuels the murderous heart? Anger.
To be clear, this is not anger in general. The Bible describes how God gets angry. The New Testament speaks about Jesus being angry. There most certainly is a righteous kind of anger. It's an anger provoked by the distortions and destructiveness of sin. Similarly, Jesus is not talking about human anger in general; for example, “Oh, I'm so angry about Netflix raising their prices...again.” No. Jesus is explicitly talking about the kind of anger involved in murder. It's anger directed at others, and it's anger informed by my own me-centered distortions.
But murder is just one example of what this kind of anger can do. As Jesus points out in verse 22, this anger is also manifested in our speech; in how we demean others. Jesus' words are more specific than the ESV word “insults”. Literally, Jesus is saying, “whoever says to his brother, “Raka”! That's an Aramaic word meaning empty. A comparable insult today might be something like, “You, blockhead!” or “You good-for-nothing”. Jesus adds another example at the end of v. 22... literally, from the Greek moros, the insult is “You, moron!”
Now, remember what we talked about at the beginning of our study. We talked about being so angry that you wanted to lash out at someone else; so angry that you wanted to hurt someone else; so mad, that you wanted to tear someone down with your words, to make them feel small, to make them feel worthless. And of course, that kind of angry heart can be expressed in any number of non-murderous ways, not just with hurtful words.
Now, I think if we're honest, all of us have struggled and do struggle with that kind anger. But that should drive us back to our main question: “How serious is my anger?” Well, what does Jesus tell us? As with murder, that kind of anger also makes us “liable (or subject) to judgment” ...even to the extent, as we see here, at the end of verse 22, liable “to the hell of fire”. There is divine judgment against both murder and the heart behind murder. God will judge those who take a person's life, AND those who tear down a person's heart. Whether we lash out in violence or with venomous words, we will be condemned.
When does anger turn deadly? Yes, when anger leads someone to take a life. But it also turns deadly whenever it lodges itself in the human heart. Why? Because sin leads to death, both physically and spiritually. Our poisonous words are evidence of our poisoned heart. Did Jesus' listeners understand this? They should have. Prov. 19:11... Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. Even in the Law of Moses, we read...
"You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” [Leviticus 19:17-18]
Many Jews might have patted themselves on the back that they were not murderers. But did they see anger in the same light? Do we? If we do, that leads to a second question...
2. “How should I address my anger?” (vs. 23, 24)
[Look at verse 23...] “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
The man or woman who takes anger seriously should be the man or woman, according to Jesus, who takes reconciliation seriously. If you know your anger has hurt someone else, for example, if you know your angry outburst, has fractured a relationship, so that now, (v. 23) “your brother has something against you”, if you know that, you will seek reconciliation; you will seek the forgiveness of the person who was victimized by your anger.
How high should that reconciliation be on your priority list? What does Jesus tell us here? He tells us that it should be our first order of spiritual business. When there is an unresolved issue like that, God is not interested in your church attendance, your Bible reading, or the consistency of your prayer life. He certainly wants to use those things. But He wants to use those things to drive you to reconciliation. That is the first thing on His list for you.
Is that true for you this morning? Is that first on God's list for you? Is there someone you need to go to, in order to seek forgiveness because of your anger? Are you here this morning trying to feel spiritually better by singing and praying to God, rather than by obeying God? If you are, Jesus is calling you to humble yourself, and to step out in faith. But if you go, can you be sure that person will forgive you? That things will be better? No. But God doesn't call us to go only if we're sure. He only calls us do what we can do. As Paul said in Romans 12:18... If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
But what if we don't choose God's path? Well, that brings us to a third question...
3. “How bad would it be to ignore my anger?” (vs. 25, 26)
We read in verses 25 and 26... 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.
While we might look at this passage as another bit of practical advice about legal matters, about personal grievances, I think this is actually more of a parable. But if that's the case, what's the point of this short parable? This is the point: deal seriously and swiftly with your offenses, before things get turned over to the judge.
Notice how this whole passage, Matthew 5:21-26 begins and ends with the idea of judgment. It's even there in the middle of the passage, in verses 23 and 24. Why so much about guilt and judgment? Because Jesus is trying to sober us up. He wants his listeners, he wants us, to understand that if we are to be whole, if we are to be holy, if we are to be righteous, if we are to walk that good path, if we are to live a life that is pleasing to the One who gave us life, then we have to deal with our hearts... your heart, my heart. Goodness that is merely external, that isn't at work in the deepest part of who you are, is not the goodness of God. In short, Jesus wants us to deal with our insufficient ideas about what is good and right.
III. Peace for the Angry Heart
Brothers and sisters, friends, what is good and right is not simply about doing the right thing externally. It's begins with being good and right on the inside. And Jesus Christ came into the world to make that possible. He came to replace the heart that lashes out, with a heart that loves instead.
Do you remember what I said about the kingdom of heaven, about the royal reign of God, breaking into our world in a new way through the person and work of Jesus Christ? It was the central theme of everything Jesus taught, and it's the foundation for his 'mountain message'. Why does this message begin with the kingdom consolations of 5:3-11? Because the coming of God's reign in Jesus meant that a new kind of life was possible.
Turn to Ephesians 4 and let's look at how the Apostle Paul spoke, not only of anger, but also about the leadership and liberation that came and still comes through King Jesus,
Be angry and [yet] do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,  and give no opportunity to the devil...  Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.  Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 4:26-27, 29-5:2)
Where can the angry heart find peace? In the person and work of Jesus. Here's why...
Because first, through the death of Jesus, true forgiveness from God is now possible; forgiveness for the poisonous thoughts, words, and actions of our anger-poisoned hearts. By trusting in Christ, we can be set free from the guilt Jesus talked about; we don't have to fear the judgment all of us deserve. And because the goodness and rightness of Jesus is given to all who believe, we can know and serve God forever, even though now, we are still sinners.
But there's more: second, if we “do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”, his power in us effects real change. We truly can let things like bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander [and malice] be put away from [us]. We truly can be “kind” and “tenderhearted”. AND, in light of the forgiveness we've received through Christ, we truly can forgive others. By God's grace, there is a new power at work in us, so that we really can pursue peace with others, just as Jesus taught. As we've been loved in Jesus, so too can we love others like Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, friends, are you angry this morning? Maybe you've buried that anger deep inside of you. Maybe its right at the surface, ready to break out. Wherever it is, however it's affecting you, don't avoid it. Don't minimize it. Don't rationalize it. And please don't feed it. Instead, face it. Face it in light of Jesus. Let his words from Matthew 5 convict you and drive you to God's forgiveness. But also let his words lead you down a new path, a path of humility, patience, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace. If we are following Jesus through the forgiveness of his cross, then we should be giving attention to and guarding our hearts from the poisonous anger God spoke to us about this morning. Let's pray for those very things.