In Matthew 5:21–26 Jesus outlines his interpretation and application of the sixth command, “Thou shall not murder” (Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). And though Jesus words are only six verses in length, we can learn at least eleven truths about anger from Christ’s wise words.
1. Anger is a matter of the heart.
As the cliche goes, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. And in Jesus first of six “antithesis” he clarifies that the point of command, “thou shall not murder,” is not really an antithesis at all. Rather, the command to not shed another’s blood is meant to awaken the heart of someone prone to anger. In other words, it is misguided to believe the Lord only cared about the heart in the New Testament.
The Lord has always cared about the heart. Each of the ten commandments were instructed to train the hearts of the Israelites. Deuteronomy 10:16 called upon the Israelites to “circumcise their hearts.” And the common indictment against Israel, under the old covenant, was the problem of their hearts (cf. Isaiah 29:13; Psalm 95).
Hence, Jesus is not giving a new commandment here, but reminding his disciples what the intentions of God were, are, and forever will be. In the law, God called his people to not murder so that it would awaken in them a desire to love, serve, and protect their neighbor. Therefore, Jesus rightly recalls the laws original intent and that the sixth command addresses a heart of anger.
2. A heart of anger is a human condition.
Four times the word “brother” (adelphos) is used in Matthew 5:21–26, and while some translations gloss this word “brothers and sisters” (CSB), there is great reason to take this word as the singular, masculine brother. Why? Because of the way Jesus stresses this word in the context of anger, murder, gift-giving, and the altar.
In other words, any follower of Christ steeped in Scripture can’t miss the echoes of the first murder in the Bible. In Genesis 4 Cain’s heart of anger led him to kill his brother. In that episode worship was the context. Thus, the fact that Jesus’ first illustration (Matt 5:23–24) takes place at the altar strengthens the connection to Cain and Abel.
Likewise, it shows us that the condition of anger is universal. It goes all the way back to Eden (or just East of Eden) and it resides in the heart of every person. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” And so it is found in Jesus words about anger.
To anyone who says, “I am not an angry person,” Jesus says, “You are deceiving yourself.” The law speaks to all people. It doesn’t speak to murders in the past tense, but in the future tense (“You shall not murder”). Thus, it teaches us that anger is a human condition that all of us battle, and thus all of us need the regenerative work of God to circumcise our hearts, putting to death our old nature and living in power that Christ’s Spirit brings.
3. A heart of anger is also a matter of life and death.
Just as the health of the heart is a matter for life and death, so is a heart of anger. In two verses Jesus makes mention of judgment, in one form or another, four times. The word “liable” which could be rendered “guilty” or “deserving” is mentioned four times in verses 21–22. And then in the second illustration (vv. 25–26), Jesus speaks of an accuser, a court, a judge, and prison. This after mentioning the way that such anger deserves the hell of fire—a reference the smoldering, trash dump in the Valley of Hinnom (gehenna).
In short, for Jesus anger is not a laughing matter, nor a common and excusable element of humanity. Rather, such destructive anger is worthy of an eternal condemnation.
To be sure, Jesus does express anger in his own life time. In Mark 3:1–6, he is angered by the hard-heartedness of the Jews for opposition to his healing on a Sabbath. Yet, in his anger he does not sin (cf. Eph 4:26). Rather, his anger is perfectly tinctured with grief and results in the healing of man’s withered hand (Mark 3:5).
Likewise, Jesus will in another place use the word “blind fools” (moros) to speak of the Pharisees. Yet, in so doing, he is not condemning a brother based on his own self-perceived importance. Rather, as a prophet like Moses and the very Word of God, he is identifying the Pharisees as recipients of God’s wrath, lest they repent and turn to the Lord for mercy.
In short, Jesus words are weighty words, not because he is tying up heavy burdens on his disciples like the Pharisees (23:4), but because he is speaking about life and death, salvation and judgment, heaven and hell. Accordingly, we should take his words with equally seriousness and listen to what he has to say.
4. A heart of anger comes out of the mouth.
Jesus moves from the heart to the mouth. As he will say later, “Out of the overflow of the mouth the heart speaks” (12:34), so here he applies the principle. The chief way anger is revealed is in our words. Thus, Jesus tackles the heart of anger by the words we speak.
Though many English translations hide his original words. The ESV says, “whoever insults his brother . . .”, but the original is more phonetic. Jesus says twice, “Whoever says . . .” — Whoever calls his brother a brainless fool (v. 22) or whoever calls his brother a rebellious fool (v. 22c) are the way we should hear his words. In both cases, anger is expressed and observed in our words.
So what do your words say about you? Might the lasting destruction of some be avoided if words were taken more seriously. Indeed, it is in our words that anger is first
5. A heart of anger is a heart of pride.
In his excellent little book From Pride to Humility Stuart Scott lists some 30 different manifestations of pride. Some of these manifestations of pride include anger, some do not. But here, we can see two aspects of pride that fuel and enflame anger.
First, there is the pride of thinking one oneself as smarter or better than another. As Jesus says, “Whoever says to his brother raka will be liable to the council.”
The word raka has the idea of brainless, stupid, or empty-headed. In Jesus day it was nearly a cuss word. And here, the name-calling suggests a sort of vanity that looks down on others, because the name-caller perceives himself as smarter than another. Tragically, this is the way so many whites (and white Christians) have looked down on blacks in our country.
In her book Doctrine and Race, Marybeth Swetnam Mathews chronicles the way name-calling, stereotyping, and racialized entertainment instructed multiple generations to look down on African-Americans as inferior to whites. And consequently, many whites inherited and embraced a pridefully elevated themselves by their skin color alone.
This sort of pride was and is wicked and depersonalizing. It has been used to justify men in their rage, and for others, it has led them to do nothing to stop the words or the violence of their peers. While the context was different in Jesus day, the root problem was the same—a prideful superiority among Jews was fueled by the way they looked down on others.
In general, when men and women boast in themselves and their superior knowledge, it will come out in their speech. And often such speech, as in the case of racial stereotypes and slurs that have demeaned blacks, is not a conscious decision but an accepted way of speech that shapes the heart as a sub-conscience level. In this case, Jesus warns those who take pride in their elite status or perceived intellectual superiority.
Ultimately, if Christ is our king, we must see how his saving grace frees us from every kind of elitism. Christ empowers us to walk in gracious humility by teaching us not to boast in our face, race, place, or even grace. Indeed, such pride only fuels the flames of anger.
Next, there’s also the pride of moral superiority. As Jesus says, “Whoever says moros will be liable to the hell of fire.”
Moros had the idea of being a rebellious fool. It is the word used of the man who built his house on the sand, instead of the rock (7:26). To us, such an illustration may sound like the man’s house collapsed because of his poor architectural decision-making. Yet that’s not quite the point of Jesus’ parable.
To build a house on the sand, instead of the rock, is a morally culpable act. Such a building project on the sand is a rebellion against God. And so we learn that moros is a word associated with rebellion. To call someone a moros was to called him “a God-damned fool.”
Again, such a shocking way of speech requires a heart that sees itself as morally superior to another. And painfully, the best way to illustrate this sort of pride among those who claim the name of Christ may be seen in the way church-going whites have looked down upon blacks or mean-spirited heterosexuals have harshly derided gays.
For reasons inspired by the devil, there have been ways in which church-going, Bible-quoting Christians (or so-called Christians) have perceived themselves as more morally acceptable to God than others.
Instead of seeing themselves as wicked sinners saved by the grace of God alone, many (but certainly not all Christians) have manipulated the Bible to condemn sinners. Instead of humbly coming to sinners as sinners themselves who have been redeemed by the shed blood of Christ, many in the church have prided themselves like the Pharisees of their moral superiority.
Yet, if we are truly Jesus’ disciples, the first thing we must learn is that Christ is righteous and we are not. He is resplendent in his character; we are from our heart to hair defiled by sin. Thus, we can never look at another person and call them “a damned fool,” without indicting ourselves as men or women deserving eternal condemnation.
In truth, this is what the gospel does. It frees us from finding our identity by elevating ourselves over others, taking pride in ourselves and slandering the out group. It crucifies us with Christ as the foolish rebels we are, and it raises us to life with an overwhelming sense of gratefulness for grace that leads us to be gracious to others.
All in all, there are many forms of pride that do not lead to anger. But mark it down, every time you rage with anger, pride is close at hand. And such pride is always opposed by the Lord.
6. A heart of anger has fuel and flames.
If pride leads to anger, it is important to distinguish what kind of anger pride produces. In Jesus words, he continues to use the word orgē. As Charles Quarles has observed, those most familiar with the Greek language (i.e., the early church fathers who wrote in Greek), make an important distinction between orgē and thumos. The former has an enduring and destructive tendency, while the latter is more spontaneous and short-lived.
Confirming this point, Quarles notes the grammatical context of the word in Jesus speech: “The present participle is progressive in nature. It describes an abiding, continuing, or habitual anger that characterizes a person. This is confirmed in verse 25 in which Jesus said that His disciples are to agree with adversaries quickly, without delay, not harboring their anger but seeking to resolve it at first opportunity” (Sermon on the Mount, 109).
Truly, therefore, we are to crucify both short outbursts of rage, what Paul calls “fits of anger” (Gal 5:20)—in fact, thumoi is the single word translated “fits of anger”—and the rage which boils under the surface and unleashes at the right moment. Even more, we should see how the two are related.
If anger is a fire, it seems orgē is the fuel and thumos the flame. While fuel by itself does not burn anyone; its ongoing presence always makes an environment combustible. Likewise, if thumos is the flame that erupts when a spark is lit, the more fuel is present the larger and more destructive the explosition.
Accordingly, it is important for followers of Christ to learn how to cut off the fuel supply and saturate their hearts with the water of the Word, such that sparks do result in explosions of anger. Only as both of these forms of anger are addresses, does the child of God begin to look like their Father in heaven. Peace-making depends on crucifying such anger and helping others to do the same.
7. A heart of anger (often) forgets its victims, but those scorched by anger don’t forget.
Another important lesson from Jesus is the way in which our peace-making depends on the other person. As verse 23 indicates, if you remember that someone has something against you, you are to initiate the process of reconciliation with them.
This order of operations reveals an important fact. Often times, angry people do not remember their anger. Especially, if it is fueled by alcohol/drugs or if it is just the normative way of life, they may not remember or recognize all the damage their anger has done. But certainly those whom they have hurt remember.
To this day I remember two episodes—one as a child, one as an adult—where the wrath of a family member and then a friend have been unforgettably seared on my memory. Unfortunately, the street goes both ways. How many fits of my anger have hurt others, especially my family, that I am not aware of?
Jesus words teach us to be peace-makers. Amazingly, Jesus doesn’t say “Don’t be angry!” He says, “everyone who is angry” is liable to judgment. He assumes the universal condition—all have become angry and sinned against others. Therefore, what he says next is of vital importance. For all who have been angry, Jesus commands: seek reconciliation.
And because we often don’t know who our anger is impacted, he gives us instructions for when we remember or when others bring to mind the pain our anger has caused. For all Christians, there will come a time when we remember something we’ve done, and we should at that time seek to make amends.
At the same time, we may also discover ways we’ve offended someone through many different signals— the coldness of greeting, the disinterest in a voice, the avoidance of a formerly close associate, or the unwillingness to return a call. When this happens, Jesus teaches us to seek peace with that person as much as it is possible for us (Paul gives the same counsel, Rom 12:19).
8. A heart of anger is only resolved by cross-centered reconciliation.
Jesus Christ came to make peace by the shedding of his blood. On the cross, he nailed the law with its legal demands to the tree so that his disciples could walk in harmony with God and one another. This is the positional truth from which all relational sanctification develops.
And in Jesus instructions about anger, it is important to see (1) all people sin in their anger and (2) the solution is not “not sinning.” Rather, the solution is reconciliation that finds its power and motivation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In this way, Jesus words in verse 22 condemn us all—we have all become angry with our brother. In our flesh, we are all Cain. None of us is without pride, and thus we have all called names because we have thought ourselves greater. Yet, in identifying us all as law-breakers, Jesus gives a way forward.
In verse 23–26, he gives two illustrations, whereby we might walk in the wisdom of Christ’s new covenant. And both of these illustrations turn on pursuit of reconciliation. Therefore, reconciliation is the only way sin, anger, and its deadly destruction can be overturned.
To say it differently, just as Jesus accomplished reconciliation, once and for all, on the cross, he teaches us, his disciples, to embody a ministry of reconciliation in our lives. Hence, there are few things more central to the Christian’s life than making peace with others and helping others to make peace. As Paul puts it, because God has reconciled us in Christ, we are given a ministry of reconciliation to others—both those outside the church and those inside.
9. Reconciliation is in service to worship.
The centrality of reconciliation could not be stressed any more plainly than in what Jesus says in verses 23–24. Speaking to a people still under the old covenant, whereby the whole nation centered themselves on the temple in Jerusalem and the calendar of Levitical feasts, he says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift before the altar [and hence, leave behind your own atonement] and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
These words, echoing God’s counsel to Cain, are given to Christ’s disciples to highlight the priority of reconciliation. Worthless are the ritualistic gifts that come to the altar, while broken relationships persist in the heart of the worshiper.
Again, this instruction is set the period Jesus and is clothed in old covenant garb, but it continues to have application today. Peter can say that prayers are hindered when a husband mistreats his wife (1 Peter 3:7). And Paul says that people have died for not taking the Lord’s Supper in the right manner (1 Corinthians 11:25–29).
Accordingly, true worship today must include self-examination, and it must include peace-making that seeks to make restitution to those who have been hurt by our anger. In truth, while this sort of thinking may lead some to believe that Jesus is presenting a new law, it is actually just applying the old covenant to those who will have the law written on their heart (see Lev 6:1–7).
10. Reconciliation must be made with unbelievers.
Reconciliation is not just a priority within the community of disciples (i.e., the church), it is also a priority for all relationships. In his second illustration (vv. 25–26), Jesus explains what to do when an accuser seeks to take follower of Jesus to court. And what Jesus says has so many practical applications for disciples who walk in hard and haphazard world.
First, from the context, we must presume that the accuser has a legitimate grievance. If the charge were false, it would be a situation of persecution for righteousness sake (see 5:10–12). But because the instruction is to seek reconciliation prior to court, it instructs us that in this case the accuser is correct in his assessment. Thus, the instruction for the disciple of Christ is humbly seek reconciliation prior to entering court.
Of course, this passage could be wrongly applied. It could be used to say that legal crimes can or should be solved outside of the halls of justice. But this makes Jesus words say too much.
First, under the system of elders, judges, and priests in Israel, it seems more likely that this is a personal offense—something like a civil lawsuit today. Second, Jesus is still dealing with personal offenses, not legal crimes. In the event of a criminal act today—e.g., any form of abuse—the law must be involved. Criminal investigations are needed in such instances and are ordained by God under the wisdom of Romans 13:1–7.
Still, Jesus words apply in that situation too. As Jesus words aim at the heart, they teach disciples who sin that the way of resolution is not the way of the world. Jesus repudiates the spirit which says ‘Lawyer Up!” Self-defense is not the way of Christ or the way of his disciples.
Rather, Jesus says that in the event that your anger injures others you need to seek reconciliation by confessing sin, admitting wrong, asking forgiveness, and pleading the mercy of God. If this includes a criminal investigation, the disciple of Christ should be volunteering himself for inquiry, not making excuses or obstructing justice.
Indeed, Jesus words are not just applicable in the safe confines of the church. They are powerful in all arenas of life. And when the disciple of Christ learns this, he or she is galvanized to stand for Christ in the world, because she knows that her Father in heaven cares for her (see Matthew 6:25–33; 7:7–11).
11. Rightly applying the Law of Christ shines the light of God into the World and builds up the Church.
In the end, when we do what Jesus says, God’s light shines.
Take great comfort in this—God’s kingdom is not advanced through a spotless bride. That bride will not exist until Christ returns. Rather, God advances his agenda through sinful people. And one of the most powerful ways we can witness to God’s grace is to admit our sin and especially our sin of anger to unbelievers and to ask them to forgive us!
To be sure, many unbelievers will not see this pursuit of reconciliation as good, true, or beautiful. But some will. And those whom the Father is calling to himself will see in your righteousness and your repentance the validity of the God who saves.
At the same time, the church does not grow only through agape feasts and joyful singing. It also grows through the practice of repentance and reconciliation. When one disciple sins against another and then proceeds to seek reconciliation with the offended party and the offended party, by God’s grace, forgives the repentant sinner, it strengthens the body of Christ. Just as microscopic tears in the muscle builds muscle, reconciliation creates stronger bonds in the body of Christ than if the two siblings had never sinned.
Again, there will be times when the body of Christ is broken by violent rage and lethal words, but even those acts of aggression cannot undo the greater love of God. And when the disciples of Christ learn the ways of peace-making, it will have the eternal effect of conforming us into the image of Christ.
Putting All This Together
All in all, Jesus words do more than loosen the laws of the Old Testament or tighten the screws of God’s commandments. They perfectly interpret what the Law says and apply it to disciples who have been given new hearts.
In other words, Jesus filters the law-covenant with Israel through his own words such that the old covenant informs the mind, even as the Holy Spirit of the new covenant purifies the heart. In this way, we both learn how to read the Old Testament and how to live by it.
Whereas the Law killed the old covenant saints, because in their flesh they couldn’t do it. Now, as new creations in Christ, there is life to do all Christ said, as he applies the Law of Moses to us. And as we’ve seen, this reading of the Law has tremendous practical benefits for Christ’s disciples today.
So take up and read! Listen to Christ and live! Be reconciled to others and worship! For this is why Jesus applies the law of Moses to our new covenant hearts.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
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