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The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 5

Dealing with anger

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 5:21-26

Jesus takes a commandment from the Law of Moses and transforms it by looking at the attitude beneath. Anger needs to be dealt with quickly for the Christian.

Jesus takes a commandment from the Law of Moses and transforms it by looking at the attitude beneath. Anger needs to be dealt with quickly for the Christian.


Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 5 and our topic is ‘Dealing with Anger.’

Introduction and Recap

If you've been following the episodes in Series 4, you'll know that we are studying the Sermon on the Mount. We are looking at Matthew 5, 6 and 7, which is a substantial bulk of teaching that Jesus delivers on one occasion, when he is part way up a mountainside. He's got a large crowd in the background but is addressing his teaching particularly to his disciples - he's just appointed his twelve Apostles and there are many other disciples too. He's moved now, to a new phase of ministry where he's trying to form the Christian community by showing the lifestyle that it will live. The Sermon on the Mount is essentially about Christian discipleship lifestyle and, in the previous episodes, we've looked at a number of important issues that you need to keep in mind.

Luke's version of this sermon of Jesus, appears in Luke 6 and there's a section entitled Blessings and Woes there in which he explains that opposition and persecution are very likely to come to his followers, and to encourage them to find a sense of blessing in knowing God's presence and God's promise for them, even when they are experiencing hardships and difficulties. Moving to Matthew's account, in our second episode we looked at the Beatitudes: the inner attitudes of character that underlie Christian discipleship and we noted that Jesus starts with character and attitude - the inside of us, our inner life - rather than defining outward things that we must do. We'll find this same pattern in the teaching we're going to look at today, where the inner attitude turns out to be more important than just the outer action. Then we continued in our study and saw the two images, or metaphors, Jesus uses of his disciples as the ‘salt of the earth’ or the ‘light of the world.’

In our last episode, a very important one (Matthew 5: 17 - 20), we saw Jesus explain the relationship of his teaching to the Old Testament - particularly the Old Testament Law of Moses and also the traditional rules and regulations of the Pharisees or the other religious leaders. We noted that Jesus showed great respect for the Old Testament and explained that he wasn't abolishing it or doing away with it but that he was fulfilling it, bringing it to its final, destined purpose and conclusion by bringing in the New Covenant. We noted that the laws of the Old Testament, the Laws of Moses, are not laws that we as Christians are under, unless a particular law has been taken up by Jesus or one of the other New Testament writers and applied to the Church. We're going to find an example of that in the passage here, that happens very rarely. The Law of Moses is obsolete, it's not relevant to us now; we're not living by the Law of Moses, but there are a few particular laws (particularly moral laws) that are applied to the Church, either by Jesus or by one of the other New Testament writers, or Apostles.

That's the framework of thinking that we are adopting and that's the way we have seen Jesus explain what he's doing: he's not abolishing the Old Testament, he's fulfilling it. He basically said that all the outward religious laws of the Jews (and there were hundreds of laws at the time) would never be enough to enable people to find salvation and enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. That's a very remarkable thought. It goes against all of human thinking because almost every religious tradition is based on the idea that if you fulfil enough of the religious duties of that particular religion, it will bring you some form of salvation - now or in another life after this one. Jesus tells us something very different. He shows us that the basis of salvation is never going to be in religious duties and following laws; it's going to be in God's grace and your faith in believing in Jesus' death on the cross and the forgiveness that he offers you through it. However, at the same time, Jesus makes it clear that his followers will actually have a moral life which is deeper, more profound, than those of the Pharisees and the other teachers who had hundreds of religious rules to guide them. He's going to explain this fully in the passage that we're going to study. But let me go back to the previous verse, Matthew 5: 20,

‘“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law, (you'll) certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”’

Matthew 5:20, NIV

Something deeper than just obeying the rules and regulations of Judaism was needed and that deeper reality he now begins to describe. He's particularly dealing with the issue of anger in the next few verses, which is our passage for today, and it's Matthew 5: 21 - 26:

21“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 23“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. 25“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and (you'll) be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, (you'll) not get out until you have paid the last penny.”’

Matthew 5:21-26, NIV
Murder or Anger?

Let's go back to the beginning of this passage in order to try and understand its meaning more clearly. The topic appears to be murder, but it turns out to be anger. Verse 21:

‘“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’”’

Matthew 5:21, NIV

We need to pause here and analyse that statement, because in quotation - ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ - there are two statements put into one that have two very different sources. This is a key to understanding what Jesus is getting at. The first phrase - ‘You shall not murder’ - is a direct quotation from the Ten Commandments, but the second phrase - ‘and anyone who murders will be subject to judgement’ - is a saying of the Jews and the two were added together by the Jews in that traditional statement there. We need, first of all, to be aware that it's the first half of the quotation that is literally the Word of God; it comes from Exodus 20. Clearly, as Jesus is teaching on this, we realise that he goes much beyond the action of murdering - he goes much deeper into the human heart.

The Ten Commandments - Exodus 20

First of all, let's go back and think about the Ten Commandments themselves. I'm going to go back into Exodus 20, where the Ten Commandments first appear (they also appear and are re-iterated by Moses, 40 years later, in Deuteronomy 5 but the first statement of them is here in Exodus 20.) The first three commands are about how we relate to God and honour him: having no other god, not having an image and not misusing his name. The fourth commandment we've looked at in other episodes in Series 3, which is the commandment about the Sabbath. The fifth commandment onwards are commands about practical living in community - they're about social stability. I'm going to read those commandments from, verse 12 onwards, which obviously includes the command not to murder which appears in verse 13, because I want to give the context of this commandment. First of all, verse 12:

12“Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. 13“You shall not murder. 14“You shall not commit adultery. 15“You shall not steal. 16“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. 17“You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”’

Exodus 20:12-17, NIV

These commands are to create a just and a stable society. First of all, the honouring of parents is given as an important principle and then come commands that become relevant for us because they're reiterated in the Sermon on the Mount. We have, ‘You shall not murder’ and then, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ The commandment not to murder is to preserve the sanctity of life because human life comes from God (we are made, man and woman, in the image of God according to Genesis chapter 1) and murder is prohibited in Israel. An individual cannot take the law into their own hands and kill another individual; the taking of human life could only be done by those with judicial authority, public authority, and you can only do it in the name of that authority. A person's individual decision to kill another is always wrong in Judaism and it takes away a human life that God had created and God, as the sovereign over that life, can bring that life to an end at a time that he chooses. This was the basic position that the Jews held concerning murder and the sanctity and value of human life.This is the background to this saying here in Matthew.

If we go back to Matthew 5: 21, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ Jesus is endorsing that law and that principle. Here's an example of something in the Old Testament that is taken forward into the New Testament and it becomes as relevant to us as Christians, as the command was to the Jewish people under the Old Covenant because it was given in the Law of Moses but its relevance to us is defined by the fact that Jesus reiterated it and applies it to his disciples.

Beyond the Commandment

However, he doesn't just leave it there; he adds this interesting phrase, ‘But I tell you…’ He takes an Old Testament law and he deepens it. He goes inside the human heart. We all know that murder - that is the intentional killing of another person - not the accidental killing - the intentional killing, involves attitudes of anger and hatred and opposition to that person that are very deep rooted in the individual, otherwise they wouldn't take such a drastic action. ‘“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”’ Jesus goes on and explains, even cursing people - calling them a fool - is a risky thing to do if it's an expression of a heart attitude that's a continuous heart attitude.

Jesus, in these verses, identifies two underlying issues. One is a state of ongoing anger and the second one is an attitude of contempt for other people and he warns that these attitudes, in themselves, will ultimately bring about the judgement of God. People will be in danger of the fire of hell if they continue in these attitudes, so they are completely inappropriate for the Christian disciple. For Christian disciples when you say to them, “Well, you're not allowed to murder anyone else,” we would say, “Yes, we understand that. We have absolutely no intention or inclination to do that whatsoever." For most of us, we can say that for most of our lives. It just doesn't come into our thinking, for all sorts of obvious reasons but, if we then asked ourselves the question: Do we have a state of ongoing anger? Do we have an attitude of contempt for other people (we're willing to curse them and look down on them and dismiss them)? Then that's a much more difficult issue to deal with for us - a much harder question for us to answer, isn't it? This is about ongoing heart attitudes.

Illustrations from the Temple and Courts

Jesus then uses two illustrations to indicate the sort of thing we should do if we have these angry and negative attitudes towards other people. First of all, he illustrates it from the Jewish Temple. All Jewish men had to go up to the Temple to make sacrifices; there were three main feasts or festivals in the year - Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles - and they would go up as often as they could. Women often came with them, but it was the obligation of men to represent their families and to make sacrifices there, and so they would all have in mind this experience of making a sacrifice at the Temple. This is a very religious moment for them, one of great personal sacrifice, because they've either bought with money, or brought with them an animal from their flock, which they're going to allow to be sacrificed (something like a goat or a sheep) to be sacrificed in the Temple and they are giving away the value of that animal (which was very valuable in those days) in order to worship God. They're going to come and to pray to him; they're going to pray in the Temple, take time away from work to worship God and try and deal with the sins in their lives - that was their mindset. Jesus said, “Even though you're doing something as important as that - if you're on the way to the Temple, you're just about to make the sacrifice and you realise you've upset somebody else, they're really upset with you, you know it's your fault (because the fault of the person in the Temple is implied by the story, the way it's told) you're at fault, then it's more important to deal with that issue than to carry out a religious sacrifice. The fault there is probably the fault of anger: there's probably been some argument or dispute; some breakup of a relationship; some controversy; you've said some harsh things; you've expressed angry attitudes; maybe you've criticised; maybe you said, “You fool!” to somebody (or something worse than that - we can all imagine what that might be in our own languages) but in that situation, Jesus is basically saying the religious action you're carrying out is far less important than what's going on inside you. You need to sort it out and, interestingly enough, quickly. There's an emphasis in Jesus' teaching on dealing with these things quickly: don't let them fester, don't let them stay inside your life for a long time; they're much more difficult to deal with if you do that.

He takes the second example from the Jewish religious courts that met up and down the country and he imagines a situation where you have fallen out with somebody (maybe you've expressed anger to them, maybe you've cursed them in a similar way to Jesus described in the earlier verses) and you're going with this adversary, who's bringing a case against you in the court for the things you've done and said and maybe some other actions that have taken place alongside your anger (because anger usually leads to other actions and all sorts of negative things follow anger, as we all know) and Jesus said, “If you're going to the court, don't wait until you get before the judge and get condemned and charged and maybe end up in prison with a fine to pay. No, be reconciled. Ask for forgiveness, change your attitude, give up your anger, give up your judgemental attitude.” Two very vivid examples from everyday life that everyone who heard Jesus say this would relate to: they'd all been to the Temple, they'd all experienced the local courts and seen people going to the local courts; that is not where they wanted to be.


Let's reflect on this and find some and make some applications that we can find helpful. The first thing to notice is that anger is a very powerful emotion - I don't need to tell you that, you know that from your own experience. Jesus is quite clear in underlining this reality: anger is very powerful and it leads to fairly drastic outcomes, usually. Not only is anger a powerful emotion, but it needs to be overcome - anger is almost always based on negative things within ourselves and we have to deal with it quickly. Jesus implies here that you need to go and apologise to people if you've become angry and started shouting at them or done other negative things towards them - go and apologise and seek forgiveness and reconciliation. Wow! That's a difficult thing to do, isn't it, when we get angry? But it's part of Christian discipleship. The other person may not receive your apology - that's their responsibility; you have no responsibility for how they respond - but you do have a responsibility for taking the issue to them.

The other thing that emerges from here is the fact that it's actually God who is the judge. If people have wronged you, and it makes you angry, I can understand that - it's happened to me, many times; it's happened to you, probably, many times - and some of those things can be relatively painful and deep; they can have a big influence on your life. I'm not trying to minimise all that but God is the judge and he will always deal with people and hold them accountable for the things that they have done on the Day of Judgement - you can be sure of that. No one will be able to avoid the penetrating gaze of the Lord Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgement - who knows everything, our whole lives are open to him. We hand that responsibility over to him. What we don't want to do, as Christians, is to allow anger to remain with us and to then start contaminating our lives and to contaminate other people.

I want to draw your attention to an important passage that Paul writes in Ephesians 4: 26 and 27. He's here talking about how Christians in Ephesus should conduct their lives, he's being very practical, and he says (in verse 26)

26“In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27and do not give the devil a foothold.’

Ephesians 4:26-27, NIV

Deal with anger immediately through repentance and through self-awareness of where anger is driving you forward, and through forgiveness. Forgiveness has a tremendous power to break the strongholds of anger in our lives and the risk is that, if we remain angry, we ‘give the devil a foothold.’ This expression suggests that the satanic forces of darkness want to exploit the weaknesses of Christian disciples - and anger and hatred and judgemental attitudes towards other people are an area that they will exploit. They'll magnify the issue within us and make it one that makes our discipleship unfruitful unless we deal with it. Anger and unforgiveness undermine the reality of Christian discipleship and we need to ask ourselves the question - the practical question - as we come to the end of the session: “What's the application to me?”

What's the application to you? I don't know your life circumstances. I do know that some of you reading this will have had incredibly painful life circumstances, where you have suffered a lot at the hands of other people - I respect that. I take it seriously - but still I believe that the way forward for us as Christians is to forgive and to break the control of a simmering anger. Some people adopt another strategy: they know that anger is wrong and they suppress it - they internalise it, it becomes part of their inner emotion but very rarely, if ever, seen by other people. This too is dangerous - it leads to depression and other emotional difficulties and it doesn't resolve the issue. I would encourage you to face the anger that you may feel - long-term anger or short-term anger - and deal with it directly. Don't allow it to be a basis for judgemental sin, criticism or hostile activities against other people. Forgive those people and forgive yourself, if you feel you have done something unforgivable that you're angry with yourself about, and come into the freedom of those people who do not let anger control themselves. This is one of many issues that are part of Christian discipleship but it's an incredibly important one. We know that anger and division can be a ‘root of bitterness’ (as the writer to the Hebrews says) and divide people, divide families, divide marriages, divide churches, divide communities and it therefore has to be rooted out. Therefore Jesus' teaching here in Matthew is of incredible importance to us and I invite you, as we end this episode, to take a few minutes to reflect and think and pray about yourself and allow this scripture to become part of your life in a fresh way. Take whatever action you need to take and I'd encourage you to do it as quickly as you can because anger can be a habit. Unforgiveness can be very self-justifying and create a great pattern of self-justification and self-pity within the human person and that is not part of Christian discipleship. We can be free of all that - and I've known that freedom in my own life - it is a wonderful, liberating freedom and it takes our self out of the centre. We need to put Christ in the centre of our lives. Our own self-justification is not important; his glory is very important. Let's glorify him by dealing with this issue in our own lives and allowing the Sermon on the Mount to transform us as it has the power to do.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How important are the Ten Commandments today?
    2. How do you deal with anger?
  • Discipleship
    1. Why is unforgiveness so bad for spiritual and mental health?
    2. Listen to the song by Matt Redman, ‘The Heart of Worship’. Jesus’ teaching goes beyond the surface of our lives. Pray for each other as you open up to what Jesus wants to change in your lives.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Dealing with a bad attitude towards someone was more important than making a sacrifice at the Temple. Why is that, and how does it relate to the current day?
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