The Heart of Anger (Part 2)

Matthew 5:21-26

Tom Pennington  •  April 22, 2012
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I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 5. Sometimes, it's really hard to be a preacher. I was reminded of that this week because on Monday night my family and I were headed back home and we came, in our trip home, to a four-way stop. And as we came to that four-way stop, it was fairly busy; there were people at each of the four stop signs waiting their turn. And there was a gentleman across from me who rather than wait his turn at the four-way stop, he decided that he was in a bigger hurry and was more important than the rest of us who were waiting, so he turned in front of me. As I was getting to turn, he turned first and got in front of me, and overall I guess that was okay, but then—and you know what comes next—he slowed down. He slowed down. So, just to give him a friendly reminder, I came up close behind him. My wife would call it tail-gating. Not too close, mind you, to put him or us at risk, but just close enough to let him know that he had just violated one of the really important rules of the road. Now, I would like to tell you that my own conscience convicted me first, but the truth is, it was my wife. Can I tell you, it is very hard to live with a woman who actually expects me to live what I preach to you. On Wednesday, as I was locked away, studying and preparing for today, and as I was thinking about our Lord's teaching on anger, that simple event on Monday night came back to my mind. Because, based on what we are learning in Matthew 5, that one episode of relatively minor road-rage was a violation of the sixth commandment not to murder.

Now, let's look at Matthew 5 together and just to remind you where we are in this section we're studying, lets start at Matthew 5:20. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." Jesus says you're not going to be a part of my spiritual kingdom—you don't belong to me, you're not my disciple, you're not a true Christian–unless your righteousness overflows beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees. And then in the verses that follow, beginning in verse 21 through the end of chapter 5, Jesus provides six illustrations of how the righteousness of His disciples radically differs from, and surpasses that, of the Scribes and Pharisees. The righteousness of His disciples starts in the heart and then radiates, overflows out of the heart into their conduct; where the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was external. It was what others saw. They cleaned the outside of the cup but left the inside dirty, to use Jesus' illustration.

Now, in each of the six illustrations that Jesus uses here, He first shows us how the scribes and Pharisees had misinterpreted the Law. And then He goes on to explain its true meaning.

Now last week, we just really began to look at the first of these illustrations. Jesus uses the Old Testament law against murder as an illustration of the kind of righteousness He expects from His subjects. Let me read it for you, Matthew 5, and it's the paragraph that begins in verse 21 and runs down through verse 26. Jesus says:

"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing' shall be guilty before 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 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. Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent."'

Now to draw together Jesus' teaching in this paragraph, I worded it like this, and I shared this with you last time. Here's a summary of that paragraph. In God's court, sinful anger is the moral equivalent of murder, and so as Jesus' disciples, we must not tolerate it and we must be quick to seek reconciliation against those we offend.

Now, we noted last time in verse 21, the law against murder quoted. You notice verse 21 begins with Jesus simply quoting the sixth commandment. "You have heard that the ancients were told YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER." The sixth commandment forbids illegal, premeditated murder–the taking of another life outside of those few exceptions God allows, such as capital punishment for example, we looked at last time. That's the Law. That's what's required. We looked secondly last week at the law against murder misinterpreted. What did the scribes and Pharisees do with this command. The problem Jesus had was not with the sixth commandment. He's not about to say, it's okay now, to murder. Instead, His concern was with how the scribes and Pharisees had misinterpreted it. Notice how verse 21 ends. "and,( this is the rest of what the ancients were told, and notice it's not capitalized, meaning it's not quoted from the Old Testament) and whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court". That idea does occur in the Old Testament. But nowhere is it directly connected to the sixth commandment. So the scribes and Pharisees, then, have attached a statement about liability before local courts to the sixth commandment. And they have unwittingly, unknowingly undermined the sixth commandment in the process. That's what Jesus is saying. How? Well we looked at that last time, but let me just remind you. They undermine it, first of all, by restricting it to the act of murder. They made it all about the external act by attaching that whole idea of being liable to a local court.

Secondly, they interpreted it as entirely negative rather than positive. They made it all about the negative act. If you will simply not murder, then it's okay. Listen, it's not enough. God is not happy with you simply because you don't shoot your neighbor or your spouse. According to Jesus, it's not enough to avoid doing harm to your neighbor. Instead, you must do everything within your power to preserve and protect both the life and the reputation of your neighbor. And you do it because you love him. Only then, have you truly kept the sixth commandment.

The third way they undermined the sixth commandment is they made it primarily a crime against man. It was all about the local courts. It was all about giving account for the taking of another life. They sort of disconnected God from it. But at the end of verse 22, Jesus reminds us that murder and the anger from which it flows are both deserving of being liable in God's court, and being accountable to eternal hell. Because ultimately both murder and anger are rebellion against God and an attack on his own person. So murder, then, is primarily a sin against God. Genesis 9:6 says, if someone sheds another man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed. Why? For, because, in the image of God He made man. To attack a person made in the image of God is to attack God Himself, and it can't be tolerated. The scribes and Pharisees, then, had in those ways badly misinterpreted God's law, specifically the sixth commandment. So Jesus, then, sets the record straight.

Now that brings us to verse 22 and the law against murder explained. Jesus is going to explain what it really means. Look at verse 22. "But I say to you" Stop there for a moment. Think about that. Jesus is here claiming to have the sole right to give an authoritative interpretation of the ten commandments. Now, if Jesus wasn't who He claimed, that is the height of arrogance. Because He's essentially saying, forget what all those rabbis have said. Let me tell you what it really means. Why shouldn't He? Remember, it was the pre-incarnate appearance of the Son who showed up at Mt Sinai and gave the people of God the Law. It was the person we know as Jesus, the eternal Son who became man who appeared on Sinai and who spoke these commands from the cloud. Who better to explain them than the one who spoke them? So of course He's the best one. And He is saying, contrary to what the rabbis have taught you, let me explain to you the divine intention behind this command. Now look at verse 22. "But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, You good-for-nothing shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, You fool, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."

Now, obviously as you look at that verse, Jesus presents three different scenarios. But the question is, is there a progression here? Are these building? Is one sin worse than another? Is calling someone a good-for-nothing worse than being angry in your heart? And is calling someone a fool worse than calling them a good-for-nothing? The answer is no. There is no progression in the sins that are listed here. How do we know that? Well, let me give you a couple of arguments why there can't be any progression in the three sins that are mentioned in verse 22. First of all, it conflicts with Jesus' main point. Clearly the main point He's making in verse 22 is that all three of these sins render us guilty before God of having violated the sixth commandment. So they're all able to render us guilty.

But there's another reason He can't be talking about a progression of sins, one worse than another. Because, when you look at these words—and we'll see this as we work our way through them—the two epithets that are used, the two name-calling expressions here. They're essentially identical. One is not worse than the other. It's really no worse to call someone a fool than to call them a good-for-nothing. The point here is not the words we choose to express our anger, but the anger behind them. That's the point He's making. Anger in all of its forms is wrong. So, the sins are not a progression from bad to worse, but—this is important—the punishments are. Notice each of the three scenarios Jesus describes. The first one renders you guilty before local courts. The second one renders you guilty before the supreme court, and the third one renders you guilty before God's court. So, what was Jesus saying? The big point (before we look at each of the three) the big point Jesus is making here is that anger is a violation of the sixth commandment. That anger may stay hidden in your heart, and you may never tell a soul about it. You know, the Bible describes two kinds of anger. We're going to talk about that next week a little bit. There is an anger which is an outburst. It's the explosion. There's also the kind of anger that never expresses itself but stays in the heart. One is blowing up. The other is clamming up. They're both anger. It may be the kind of anger that stays in your heart, or it may be the kind of anger that blows up, that erupts as an outburst. And you may choose to express your anger in words, or frankly in any other way short of murder. But regardless, if there's anger, in Jesus' kingdom (this is His point) in Jesus' kingdom, sinful anger is the moral equivalent of murder.

Now, let's look at each of these scenarios individually. Look at the first one in verse 22. "everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court" Notice first of all that Jesus' statement here is an all-inclusive. Every one who is angry. Not one of us gets an exemption from this. He's talking about every single one of us. Any one, every one who is angry. And by the way, you know this but let me just reiterate it to you. He knows when you're angry. He knows every time you're angry. You remember I Samuel 16:7. "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at (what?) the heart"

He looks at the heart. He looks at your heart and my heart. He knows when we're angry. This week I was reading, and I came across Proverbs 5:21. Listen to this: "the ways of a man are before the eyes of the Lord, and He watches all his paths." God doesn't miss anything. That's both comforting, and it's unsettling as well, isn't it. So Jesus says that everyone who is sinfully angry—notice He says 'with his brother'. Now, He uses the word brother here in the widest possible sense. He doesn't mean your next of kin, your blood relative. He doesn't mean even your brother or your sister in Christ. He's using it in the same sort of large sense He uses the word neighbor. It's everybody. It's everybody you come in contact with. Every one who is angry with his brother—notice what He says—shall be guilty before the court. By court, here, Jesus is probably referring to the local courts that existed throughout the land to hear local criminal cases. In Deuteronomy 16:18 such courts were established, so that in any town of any size there were, according to the rabbis, 23 men who sat on a panel to hear the charges. It's kind of the preliminary idea to the jury that we have—a jury by one's peers. And so here were these 23 men who would listen to the case in a local court. Jesus is saying if you are angry you shall be guilty before the court. Now, remember, He's talking about violating the sixth commandment. He's talking about murder. If, in a local court, in Israel, in the first century, you were found guilty of violating the sixth commandment—of murder—you would be sentenced to the death penalty. Do you see what Jesus is saying? Jesus is saying if you are simply angry in your heart against another person, and if you were prosecuted of that anger in a human court, based on the divine intention behind the sixth commandment, you would be found guilty of having violated the sixth commandment. You would have been found guilty of murder, and that court would have legitimate cause to put you to death. Understand that in the eyes of God, anger is a capital offense. Sinful anger in all of its forms is a damning violation of God's law. That's the first scenario The local courts.

Now look at the second scenario Jesus describes. "whoever says to his brother, You good-for-nothing shall be guilty before the supreme court" The word translated good-for-nothing here, is actually—comes to us through Greek—but it's actually an Aramaic word, the language spoken by most of the people in Palestine in the first century. It's the Aramaic word rhaka. Literally, it means empty one. It's probably a reference to their head being empty—empty headed. In fact the leading Greek lexicon defines rhaka this way. "It is a term of abuse, a putdown relating to a lack of intelligence." Really, it's almost identical to our words stupid and idiot. That's really the English equivalent to this word rhaka that's translated here as good-for-nothing. It calls into question the intelligence of the person. Now, let me just say, don't misunderstand here. Jesus is not saying that the words 'good-for-nothing' or the word idiot or stupid are in and of themselves inherently sinful. I sometimes call myself stupid. Did you ever do that? He's not saying that's it's necessarily sinful to tease another person with these words. Jesus is talking about when we use such terms in anger. That's the point. When in anger, we say to another person, 'you idiot' or 'you are so stupid'. If we do that, Jesus says—notice what He says in verse 22—"whoever says to his brother you good-for-nothing (or you idiot) shall be guilty before the supreme court". Now literally the Greek text says shall be guilty before the Sanhedrin. Because that was the highest court in the country. Now why would Jesus say that? Well, what He says here makes perfect sense if you understand the culture of the first century in Israel. In first century Israel, all cases involving the death penalty had ultimately to be heard by the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was the highest court, it was the supreme court, it was in Jerusalem. It was composed of 70 elders of the nation plus the high priest who presided over it. They met on the temple grounds in Jerusalem. And that high court, the supreme court as it's translated here, had to affirm the convicted person was guilty of death. But under Roman law, only the Roman governor could actually carry out the death penalty.

So, here's how it worked. If a person in a small town in Galilee, let's say, was accused of violating the sixth commandment, of murder, their case would be heard before that court. If they were found guilty they would be sentenced to death. The case would then be referred to the Sanhedrin down in Jerusalem. It would go down before the Sanhedrin, and there, they would review the case from the local court. They would confirm the criminal's guilt, they would confirm that the death penalty was in fact the appropriate sentence, and then the Sanhedrin would have taken the convicted criminal to the Roman governor to be executed, just as they did with Jesus. So Jesus' point is this. If, in anger, you think or say to another person something like 'you idiot, you are so stupid' and if you were found guilty, on that basis alone, of violating the sixth commandment against murder, and if your case then goes to the highest court in the land, biblically they would have every right and every responsibility to uphold your conviction. Wow. Why?

Why is attacking a person verbally in anger such a huge issue to God? Why would He care so much? Well, you remember, back in Genesis 9:6 when God said to Noah 'if any man sheds another man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed' giving us the eternal responsibility for capital punishment. You remember the reason He gave? For, because, here's why. "in the image of God He made man". Well, fast forward to the book of James. I won't have you turn there, but you remember in James 3, James is talking about the tongue. And he says that if we use our tongues to curse another person, that is a terrible sin. And guess what reason he gives. For, because, in the image of God he's made. Do you understand that both the sin of murder and the sin of verbally assaulting someone else in anger is based on the fact that every single person is made in God's image. When you verbally attack a person made in the image of God, God says it's an attack on Him. You say, well, wait a minute. This is way too serious. That's not what I mean when I get angry with someone and call them names. I don't mean that at all. It's not an attack on God. Listen, you'd better wake up and smell the coffee because God says it is. It doesn't matter what you feel. This is how God takes it. When you verbally attack a person who has been made in the image of God, in reality, it is an attack on God Himself. And when you harbor in your heart the kind of contempt for another person that pours out in name-calling or yelling or cursing, God's perspective of what's happening at that moment is, in reality you are murdering in your heart. That's God's view.

Jesus presents a third scenario at the end of verse 22. "and whoever says, You fool, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell" Again, here's a person speaking out of a heart of anger. And in their anger, they say to someone 'you fool'. The Greek word translated fool is one you'll recognize. It's the word moros, from which we get the English word moron. Now, Jesus is not saying, again, that just simply using that word in fun or teasing someone is sin. He's not saying that it's wrong to use that word in any context—for example to warn someone that they are behaving foolishly, or to show them what scripture says about the person who rejects God, whom scripture calls a fool. Again, Jesus is talking about calling another person a fool as an expression of your anger. And by the way, let me just say, if calling someone a good-for-nothing or an idiot or stupid, or calling them a fool is forbidden, then certainly, even more vulgar terms and cursing someone is forbidden as well, and is included under what Jesus is saying here. Now, although the two verbal assaults in verse 22 are largely identical, there is a slight nuance of difference. A.B.Bruce explains it like this "Rhaka, translated as good for nothing here in our translation expresses contempt for a man's head. You stupid. Moro, translated you fool here, expresses contempt for his heart and character." You scoundrel. So anger in the heart or anger expressed in angry words can rightly cause you to be convicted before a human court of violating the sixth commandment. Now, pretend you hadn't heard anything else Jesus has said yet. This is all you've heard so far. You're in the crowd that day, you're hearing this. So far, those listening may have actually found this description humorous. I mean, after all, who in their right mind would think of taking someone to court for being angry. And obviously, none of them would have ever dreamed of trying to take someone before the Sanhedrin—the supreme court—for everyday verbal insults. And so they would have been shocked by Jesus' next words. And if you hadn't heard them, you should be shocked as well. Because Jesus says being angry in your heart and using angry words to express that anger can cause God to send you to hell forever. That's what Jesus says. Look at verse 22. 'whoever says, You fool, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.'

The Greek word for hell there is a word Gehenna that's brought straight over from Hebrew. There's a powerful word picture behind that word Gehenna. The Hebrew word is ben-hinnom. It means the valley of Hinnom. It actually describes a real valley southwest of the city of Jerusalem, just outside the city walls. Now this valley had a terrible history. If you were to go back and look at the Old Testament, the valley of Hinnom, southwest of the city of Jerusalem, just outside the city walls was desecrated by King Ahaz. King Ahaz, in the Old Testament, did this. Listen to 2 Chronicles 28:3. "He burned incense in the valley of ben-hinnom and he burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had driven out before the sons of Israel." So it was in the valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, where children were offered in fire as a sacrifice to the false god Molech, and later, Jeremiah tells us to Baal as well. So when the people repented of their idolatry, that site, the valley of Hinnom became a pariah. In fact, godly king Josiah, under his revival, he leveled the altars there that were in the valley of Hinnom. He leveled them. Ground them to powder. And then, he turned the entire valley of Hinnom into a garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem. A trash fire constantly burned there, giving off an odor that, if the winds were right would waft across the city. In addition, historians tell us that the bodies of criminals who were not believed to deserve a decent burial, were sometimes thrown on that trash heap, and their bodies were burned as well. Because of the trash that was there, the valley of Hinnom was also infested with all kinds of worms and maggots. So by New Testament times the valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna had come to serve as a profound picture of the future reality of eternal hell. Jesus himself used this word eleven times to refer not to the valley outside the city of Jerusalem, but to a place into which sinners would one day go. In Mark, Jesus describes hell as a place where, like the valley of Hinnom, "the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" Later, in Matthew, Jesus describes it as a place of eternal punishment. He uses those words. You know, it's real popular in our day not to like the idea of hell, and to just ignore it. You won't hear many series in churches about hell. It is unpleasant, but Jesus believed it and taught it. And He described it not as a place where you are annihilated and cease to exist. But He described it as a place of "eternal punishment."

Now, with that background, look again at Matthew 5:22. Jesus says "whoever says, You fool, shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell" Literally, the Gehenna of fire. If you are angry enough with someone to call them a derogatory name, Jesus says you are guilty enough by that act alone to go into the hell of fire. William Hendricksen, the Presbyterian commentator commenting on verse 22 writes this: "Jesus is teaching in this verse just one lesson, a very important one. He is saying that sinful anger, the kind that leads to bitter words, is in its very nature murder—murder committed in the heart. Unless he repents, the person with this kind of attitude faces everlasting punishment in hell. Whatever he may be in human eyes, before God he stands condemned and is on his way to a neverending death."

Now that we understand each of the three scenarios, lets put them back together as a whole. Listen carefully. Here's what Jesus is saying. If you become sinfully angry with another person, you have broken the sixth commandment. You are guilty before God of murder. And if God's law were enforced with its full meaning, every single time you are angry with someone else, you could be found guilty in a human court for breaking the sixth commandment, and you could be sentenced to death. And your conviction would stand all the way to the highest human court. But even more importantly, just one episode of anger, whether you hide it in your heart or whether you express it by calling someone a derogatory name in anger—just one episode will make you guilty before God. And Jesus says that when you stand before Him at the judgment–and He is the one who judges all according to the gospels and the book of Revelation—when you stand before Jesus Christ at the judgment, just one angry outburst, just one incident of harboring anger and hatred in your heart toward another person will bring sufficient guilt on you for Him to render you guilty of eternal hell. And so if the sixth commandment was applied as God intended, Jesus says, anger in the heart and all of its external expressions would render us guilty of a terrible crime in human courts, but more importantly, would make us guilty before God, and left unaddressed would condemn us to eternal hell.

Now folks, this forces us, doesn't it, to come to grips with our need for the gospel. We learn from Jesus words the terrible nature and the damning guilt of heart sins. We don't take it that seriously. When we get angry, what is our first response. Our first response is to blame either the people around us or our circumstances. That person, or that circumstance made me angry. It's their fault. You remember God's question of Jonah? 'Do you have a right to be angry?' What's our response to that question? Of course I have a right to be angry. Did you see what that person did to me, or said to me? I have a right. Let me ask the question a different way. Do you have a right, in light of how that person treated you, to murder them? Obviously your answer has to be no to that question. Yet every time we sinfully are angry with someone, we are committing the equivalent of murder. When we truly understand the law's standard, when we see how high God's holy standard really is, we begin to see our desperate need for the gospel, don't we? Because we tend to think of ourselves as pretty good, right? We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and we assume that since we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, since we think we're pretty good, when we stand before God, He will too! He'll be happy with us that we haven't shot our neighbor. But Jesus, who will judge every single one of us, gives us in this passage, a glimpse of what it would be like to stand before Him without the grace of the cross.

Have you been sinfully angry with someone this week? Have you yelled at someone in anger this week? Have you slandered someone by calling him or her names? Have you hated someone or been bitter in your heart toward someone? If you have done just one of those things this week, Jesus says you are a murderer. And that one experience of sinful anger would be enough to damn you to eternal hell. You see why our only hope is Jesus Christ, and the gospel? Because by that standard every single one of us here this morning are murderers. Not one of us can stand before God and say, I have a right to be here. You need forgiveness for your anger, just as I do. And you need a new heart that will enable you to turn from that anger. The bad news is, you can't get there on your own. The good news is, you can find forgiveness for your anger in Jesus Christ and His suffering on the cross. And you can find power in a new heart that He promises to give those who trust Him. Power over anger.

But how does verse 22 apply to believers? Well, now that you have a changed heart, and now that you have the power to obey, Jesus says, if you're going to be part of My kingdom, you'd better not tolerate anger in your heart. And you'd better not justify it as the other person's fault. And instead, you'd better seek to be reconciled when you do sin in anger. And that's what Jesus explains in verses 23 to 26, which we'll look at next week. You know when we really consider the scope and depth of our guilt before God, it drives us to praise, doesn't it. It drives us to praise Him and worship Him for the cross. Do you understand, believer, that during those hours on the cross that Friday afternoon, that God credited every single display of anger you have ever had to Jesus? And for those six hours He treated Jesus as if He had had those displays? And therefore, there's no eternal punishment for us because He took our punishment. That's what we celebrate in the Lord's table.

Let's bow our heads and prepare. Our Father, we thank You for the cup. We thank You that in it we have a reminder of our sins and how desperately evil our sin is that it would require such a sacrifice. But we thank You O God for the reminder in it as well of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, of Your grace to us in Him, that You would devise such an amazing plan. Father, help us, in light of what we studied together this morning, as we leave this place not to justify our anger. Not to tolerate any anger in our lives. Remind us O God of what it cost our Lord for every single expression of anger, and may we be resolved to live lives that are free from anger. And when we do sin in anger to be quick, even as our Lord will teach us, to be reconciled with those against whom we've sinned. We thank You O God for the cross. We thank You for our Lord and what He did for us, for it's in His name we pray. Amen.