The Code of Righteousness: Anger

21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 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. 23 Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 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. 26 Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.” (Matthew 5.21-26)

“You have heard… But I say to you…”

Six times in Matthew 5.21-48 Jesus used the construct, “you have heard… but I say to you…” to contrast the righteousness of the Pharisees with the righteousness of the Kingdom (cf. 5.20). Some contend that Jesus was contrasting His new teaching with the old teaching of Moses. While much of what the people had “heard” was certainly from Moses (note vs. 21 and Exodus 20.13), there is no reason to conclude that Jesus was setting aside the teaching of the Law. He had already stated that none of the Law would pass away until all was fulfilled and emphasized that those in the Kingdom would keep even the least of the commandments (vss. 17-19). Furthermore, when Jesus referenced the Law He would say “it is written” (cf. 4.4,7,10). No, Jesus was not contrasting His law with the Law of Moses, rather He was contrasting true righteousness with the sham righteousness of the Pharisees. As Paul Earnhart has said, “It was not too much devotion to the law which elicited Jesus’ devastating attack on the Pharisees, but too little.”

The righteousness of the Pharisees: don’t commit murder (vs. 21).

The Pharisees taught some of what the Law said, for it certainly condemned murder (Exodus 20.13; Deut. 5.17) and warned of the judgment the guilty would receive (Numbers 35.30-31). But their teaching went no further than condemning actions which might result in civic punishment. Is that true righteousness? “But is murder merely an action, committed without reference to the character of the murderer? Is not something more fundamental at stake, namely, his view of other people…? Does not the murderer’s wretched anger and spiteful wrath lurk in the black shadows behind the deed itself? And does not this fact mean that the anger and wrath are themselves blameworthy?” (D.A. Carson)

The righteousness of the Kingdom: don’t be angry (vs. 22).

Jesus was not inventing a new teaching or replacing the teaching of the Law, for the Law itself condemned hatred and sinful attitudes toward others: “‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.” (Leviticus 19.17). God has always been concerned with our attitudes toward others, for those attitudes shape our actions. John, who was present when Jesus gave this teaching, would later write by inspiration, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (1John 3.15) True righteousness goes much deeper than refraining from committing violent action; true righteousness seeks to clear the heart of anger, contempt (expressed in the term Raka, “good-for-nothing” in the NASB) and mockery (“you fool”). These attitudes are what will bring man into judgment. Not the judgment of civil authorities, but of the Most High who can punish with hell fire!

However, we see in the gospels that Jesus felt anger. He forcefully cleansed the Temple (Matt. 21.12-13) and was angry with the Pharisees for their perversion of God’s will (see Mark 3.1-5; Matt. 23.17). The difference between Jesus’ anger and the anger He condemned is significant. Jesus was never angered over a personal slight to Him, not even when He was wrongfully abused, tortured and killed (1Peter 2.23). The one who could have called forth 12 legions of angels in His fury (Matt. 26.53), instead prayed for the people’s forgiveness (Luke 23.34). Jesus’ anger was over the sin and injustice He saw in others. His anger was significantly different from our’s, for we are quick to wrath at the slightest offense to ourselves. This attitude in us, this heart issue, is what Jesus aims to correct in His disciples.

True righteousness demands love, not ceremony (vss. 23-26)

What should be done when God’s standard of righteousness is broken, when we hate others and treat them as an enemy? The Pharisees would have pointed to the Law and demanded that sacrifice be made. But what good is ceremony if there is no repentance and restitution? So, Jesus demands that we do the very thing we dread the most: go to the one we offended by our actions, by our anger, by our contempt, and seek reconciliation. Only then will our worship be acceptable (note Amos 5.21-24; Jer. 7.21-23; Mark 12.32-33). Jesus concludes by stressing the importance of our seeking reconciliation (vss. 25-26). “In Jesus’ day as in recent centuries, a person who defaulted in his debts could be thrown into a debtors’ prison until the amount owed was paid. Of course, while he was there he couldn’t earn anything, and therefore could scarcely be expected to pay off the debt and effect his own release; but his friends and loved ones who were eager to get him out might well put forth sustained and sacrificial efforts to provide the cash.” (Carson). Jesus’ point is that we are the only one’s who can repay these debts, no one can bail us out! So, if my actions and attitudes have done harm to another, I must pay my debt now by going and being reconciled (vs. 24), or else await my sentence from the Righteous Judge.

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