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When Anger Becomes Deadly Matthew 5:21-26

I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.


Introduction: A Deeper Meaning of the Sixth Commandment

From an unknown source we get this interesting story:

A defendant was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence indicating guilt, but there was no corpse. In the defense’s closing statement the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, resorted to a trick: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” the lawyer said as he looked at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead in this case will walk in that door.” He looked toward the door. The jurors, somewhat stunned, all looked on eagerly. A minute passed. Nothing happened. Finally the lawyer said, “I made up the previous statement. But you all looked with anticipation. I therefore say to you that there is reasonable doubt in this case as to whether anyone was killed and insist that you return a verdict of not guilty.” The jury, clearly confused, retired to deliberate. Minutes later, the jury returned and pronounced a verdict of guilty. “But how?” inquired the lawyer. “You must have had doubt, as all of you stared at the door.” The jury foreman replied: “We looked, but your client didn’t.”

Obviously the man on trial knew the truth. He knew that the victim could never come through that door ever again because he had caused his death.

Missionary and author Lou Nicholes sited these statistics about murder in a sermon he gave:

"Over twenty-five thousand murders are committed in the United States every year which is an average of nearly seventy a day. This does not include suicides (self murder) and abortions (pre-birth murder) which, added to the above, is staggering."

Most Americans are appalled at these statistics, as they should be. And we often look down on those who commit such crimes and see them as somehow beneath us. However, if we are a follower of Jesus Christ we should realize that: "There but for the grace of God, go I."

We are all sinners and capable of sinning in all sorts of ways that we think that we'd never be able to do, given the right set of circumstances. And further, though hopefully most of us have never actually physically murdered someone, we have none-the-less committed the sin of murder sometime in our lives. Because that sin, like all sin, isn't just a physical act. It begins in the heart.

And that is exactly what Jesus was demonstrating in Matthew 5:21-26. These verses are a part of the larger context of Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon our Lord is showing His followers the ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven. In it Christ showed the full meaning of the Law of Moses and demonstrated that its demands were humanly impossible.

As Pastor John MacArthur has said:

"It closes off every possible avenue of human merit and leaves sinners dependent on nothing but divine grace for salvation. Jesus plumbed the depth of the law, showing that its true demands went far beyond the surface meaning of the words and set a standard that is higher than the most diligent students of the law had, up to this point, revealed."

In the verses that we are studying Jesus is giving the true interpretation of the Sixth of the 10 Commandments given given to Moses on Mount Sinai found in Exodus 20:13. It simply states: "You shall not murder."

The Sixth Commandment reminds us that God is the giver of life, and He alone has the authority to take it or to grant humans permission to take it.

And Jesus carries it even farther, demonstrating the sinful heart that leads to the breaking of this commandment, when He tells his followers that getting selfishly angry with your brother is like committing the sin of murder. Because, when you think about it, murder is the ultimate angry act against a person.

Let us look more carefully at what our Lord says about this commandment and how it applied to the followers of His day. And then we can see how it can also still be applied to the Body of Christ living in the 21st century as well.

But first let us look at the teachings of those religious leaders that Jesus was correcting.

I. The Scribes' understanding of the Sixth Commandment (21)

If you go back in the Sermon, Jesus describes the characteristics of true righteousness in the beatitudes (Matthew 5:13-16).

Pastor Scott Harris has this to say about the beatitudes:

'The righteous are poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting after righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. Because they are righteous, the unrighteous world will react to them with insult, slander and persecution. The righteous are the salt of the earth and the light of the world and they do their good works in such a way as to bring glory to God."

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Just to look at one of these characteristics, the poor in spirit are those who recognize their own spiritual bankruptcy apart from God. They understand their complete lostness and hopelessness apart from the grace of God.

And Jesus taught that what He was teaching was in complete harmony with the Old Testament. He was not abolishing even the smallest part of it. He was, instead, fulfilling it. The religious leaders of the day, the Scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, were perverting the plain teaching of the Law.

If we look in 5:21 Jesus begins with the words: "You have head it said." By that He wasn't referring directly to what God had revealed to Moses. He was talking about the teachings of the rabbis of past generations. And in His day, the religious leaders known as the Scribes and the Pharisees were perpetuating them. These people had distorted the true meaning of the Law.

Sadly, during the Exile, most of the people lost the ability to read and speak in Hebrew. They mostly spoke in Aramaic and in the trade language of the day, Greek. And though the Scriptures were translated into Greek by this time, they were so bulky and expensive that most common people couldn't afford to own a copy. So they couldn't read the original writings for themselves. Instead, they relied upon the religious leaders to tell them what it said. And if the leaders distorted it then the people would never know.

Also, by Jesus' time, even most of the religious leaders didn't interpret the Scriptures directly themselves. Instead they taught from the Talmud which is an exhaustive codification of the rabbinic traditions. Because of this the traditions of men had replaced the word of God.

In Matthew 5:21 we see how much the Scribes had reduced the penalty of murder when Jesus quotes them by saying:

"You have heard that the ancients were told, 'You shall not commit murder and whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court."

The term liable is the Greek word enochos. It has the meaning of being guilty and therefore liable for the judgment set by the court. That is why translations differ with the NKJV using “in danger of judgment,” the ESV using “liable to judgment ” and the NASB using “liable to the court” once and “guilty” three times

By saying this about murder religious leaders also didn't deal with the motives of the murder, which God is deeply concerned with. They defined sin by external actions alone and of course the Scribes were certain that they themselves were not guilty of such a heinous act since they had never actually physically murdered anyone.

And their interpretation wasn't completely wrong either. It is true that Scripture does teach that anyone who commits sin is liable to civil punishment by a court of law. Starting in Genesis 9:6 it states:

Whoever sheds human blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made mankind.

And Paul in Romans 13:3-4 tells us that the government doesn't bear the sword in vein. Obviously, it has the right to capital punishment for the worst of crimes such as murder.

So that isn't the problem with the interpretation. The problem is that it doesn't take it far enough. Not only doesn't it deal with the heart that lead to the motive, it also doesn't look at the eternal consequences of the act. It is heinous because it is an attack on God Himself since one is destroying the life of someone created in God's image.

Outside of godly reasons for taking a life such as a just war, self-defense and carrying out capital punishment as a part of government duty, the person who performs such an act is guilty before God as well as the civil authorities. And in Revelation 22:15 we see that murderers are among those who will be excluded from Heaven.

Jesus deals with all of this when he corrects the distorted view of the law concerning murder. He begins by showing that murder is not just the physical act but a matter of the sinful heart.

II. Jesus' Corrective Teaching on the Sixth Commandment

Murder begins with a heart full of anger toward another person so Jesus concludes that the punishment for the sin should start there. The ancient scribes said that the act itself is punishable by the court. Here is what the Lord tells us:

"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court."

We think we are pretty good if we compare ourselves with those who make the news for brutally taking someone's life. But the truth is that we aren't any better than someone who is in jail and convicted of the crime. For all of us have been angry at our brother or sister at one time or another.

In saying this, we aren't talking about all anger. Even the Apostle Paul tells us this when he commands:

"Be angry yet do not sin." (Ephesians 4:6).

There is a righteous holy anger that even God has. And it is that same fury that the God the Son, Jesus had when he drove the money changers from the Temple.

For instance, we all should be angry at the sinfulness in our society. We are right to be angry over sins such as those who promote homosexuality, calling it normal and demanding that we agree with them. We should be angry at the abortion industry that has killed literally millions of babies in the womb. We should be angry at those who kidnap children and adults and sell them into prostitution.

Jesus isn't speaking of this kind of righteous anger. Rather He's talking about selfish anger caused by sin that is common to us all. It happens because someone gets in our way or does something to displease us. Those who have this kind of anger are reluctant to forgive the person who has made them mad.

The Apostle John is dealing with something similar when he says that:

"Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." (I John 3:15).

Anger and hatred both come from a selfish heart full of sin.

According to Jesus, this kind of anger is progressive. One stage will lead to another that is worse. And with each stage there is a progressive punishment as well.

Anger brings one before the court.

The next stage is when you call someone 'Raca' or 'empty headed'. The New American Standard uses the term 'good for nothing.' The term 'raca' here is an Aramaic word and is derogatory. It's an insult much like we would say idiot, jerk or blockhead. To express the anger that is felt by calling someone such things makes one guilty before the Supreme Court. In Jesus' day that meant the Sanhedrin which listened to only the most serious of cases.

The final stage has the worst punishment. Jesus states:

"And whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell." (22)

This is when things progress beyond a mere insult and become slander of the person. Then you deserve literally the 'gehenna of fire.' The term originally referred to the Hinnom Valley, South-West of Jerusalem. The evil kings Ahaz and Manasseh permitted human sacrifices at this place during their reigns. It was also referred to as 'the Valley of Slaughter.' In Jesus' day it was a garbage dump where fires burned continuously and became a symbol of Hell's eternal fire.

So, we see that becoming angry with someone is not a little thing. God takes it very seriously and we must all guard against unrighteous anger and seek to make amends when we allow it in our lives.

III. Jesus' Teaching About Resolving Conflicts (23-26)

The brings us to the last section of Jesus' teaching about anger and murder. It is his command to quickly resolve all conflicts between brothers. He begins:

"Therefore, if your are presenting your gift before 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 them come present your offering." (23-24)

Jesus sees this as so important that, rather than doing what you might consider a spiritual duty first, you should go and make amends and try to solve the conflict. That is your first spiritual duty. Not to do this hinders worship.

Then in verses 25 and 26 Jesus is comparing a wrong that you have done against someone like the action that was required to be taken by debtors in his day. The best way to resolve a debt was to try to settle it out of court just between the two people, the one who owes and the one who was owed. If you couldn't settle it that way, it would go to a judge and he could throw the one who has the debt into debtor's prison until the full price is paid.

By giving this illustration Jesus emphasizes again the need to make amends with your brother eagerly, quickly and aggressively. In this case the judge would be God who would call you into account for the unresolved sin against your brother. For all sin is ultimately a sin against the Lord.


The bottom line to this is that we are all sinners in need of a Savior. And we ought to realize that when we get selfishly angry, call someone names, or slander the character of our brother or sister that, in the end, we are harming the image of God in some way and it is just as bad in God's eyes as if we had physically murdered them. Further, we have to realize that God will hold us accountable for those actions.

We have all broken God's law by murdering some of our brothers and sisters in our hearts. And every time we do this we must quickly make amends with them and ask for their forgiveness. Also, we must be willing to speedily forgive someone who comes to us humbly asking for our forgiveness.

For those of us who are saved we can thank God that we are not under the Law that points out our sins and condemns us. We are under grace. There is absolutely nothing we can do that will earn our way into heaven. For we have all broken God's holy law and have sinned against the perfect God who cannot look upon iniquity and demands sinless perfection.

But Jesus has accomplished what to us was impossible by dying on the cross for our sins. He died for murders such as we all are. And now by faith, He has taken our sins and given us His righteousness, so that when God looks upon us, He sees only Christ's righteousness in us. What a gracious and merciful God that we serve!!

© 2021 Jeff Shirley

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