In the last paragraph we saw that Jesus calls for a greater righteousness than that of the scribes and Pharisees. The point was to show that Law was to cause a person to sense their need for God’s help to attain righteousness. This is why Jesus is going to end this section of the Sermon on the Mount with the declaration, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Rather than feeling their inadequacy before the Law, what the teachers of the Law did was lower the requirements of the Law so that they could feel like they were doing the Law. Jesus is going to set the record straight about the intention of the Law. What Jesus is going to call for is a change from the inside out. The Law was not calling for outward conformity but an inward transformation that led to fruit of obedience. Jesus is about the clean out the heart. He will explore how the Pharisees’ righteousness had failed.
As each of these paragraphs begins in Matthew 5:21-48 you will notice that Jesus begins with the phrase, “You have heard that it was said.” What Jesus is quoting is what the scribes and the Pharisees were teaching the people about the Law. When Jesus is directly quoting the scriptures, he will say, “It is written” like he does in Matthew 4 during the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:5,7,10). We will notice that their quotations of the Law were sometimes accurate, yet how they were applying the Law was off the mark. It is important to observe, as we will notice as we go through this section, that Jesus is not abolishing the Law and giving his new covenant law. He just said in Matthew 5:17 that this is exactly what he did not come to do. So we cannot say that Jesus is giving his new kingdom law here. Rather, Jesus is teaching who belongs to the kingdom by showing that the people have not been living up to the demands of the law like they think they have. Jesus states the actual requirements of God’s law. John Calvin summed up what is happening in this section of Jesus’ teaching. “Christ restored the Law to its integrity, in that he freed and cleansed it when it had been obscured by falsehood.” While it is easy to criticize the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees for lessening the Law’s requirements, we may find as we study that we have done the same so as to justify ourselves before God’s law.
Anger and Insults (5:21-22)
As humans we are always inclined to lower the moral and spiritual level of the law. We try to make the law attainable by lowering it to a level that we think we can achieve. So Jesus is going to move the bar back to where it was originally set by God when the law was given. As we read this paragraph we see that the teachers of the law had lowered the standard to not doing something against another person that brought a civil penalty. So do not murder or commit any other high crimes that would bring you before the court and you have kept God’s law.
Jesus says that if you have anger against your brother you are just as liable to judgment before God as the one who murders. Please think about the weight of what Jesus just said. Kingdom citizens are not those who merely keep from murdering someone. Kingdom citizens are not those who merely keep from assaulting another. Jesus says that God’s law is much harder than that. Kept at this level we would give each other a high five, look around the room, and see that we have not killed anyone this week. We must be God’s people! Jesus says if you are angry with your brother you are liable to the judgment.
Jesus goes further and talks about the fruit of anger in verse 22. If you verbally insult your brother you are just as liable before God. If you say, “You fool” you are also liable for God’s judgment. We lower the law and say that we cannot physically harm another. Jesus restores God’s law and says you cannot be angry with your brother and you cannot insult them. Jesus’ concern is clearly about how we respond when someone does something to us. Not murdering the other person is not the goal. Our goal is to not be angry and lash out in our words against someone. We are not allowed by God to have a selfish or malicious response. Anger desires to harm the other person and words are often the vehicle for that harm. Jesus teaches us that our anger is what puts us in danger of the hell of fire. James made the same point.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20 ESV)
Anger keeps us out of God’s kingdom because anger is always a selfish concern. My rights have been violated. My feelings have been hurt. My sense of justice was violated. We want to often pretend that we have righteous indignation. But our anger is not in defense of God and his holiness. Our anger is a defense of ourselves, our rights, and our desires. This is not a new command that Jesus is giving but was always part of God’s law.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17–18 ESV)
Listen to what the law said. Do not hate your brother. Do not take vengeance. Do not bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself. Murder is not the threshold of sin and it never was. Hate was the threshold. Anger was the threshold. Listen to what the apostle John says.
Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. (1 John 3:15 ESV)
Is this a New Testament law alone? No, because three verses earlier he uses the example of Cain. He hated his brother and that is why he murdered Abel. God takes very seriously the heart of contempt for another person. Anger is not acceptable among us. God does not look only out the outward actions. God is looking at the heart. He knows if we have hatred, malice, and anger for another. We are liable for judgment when this is in our hearts.
God Given Solutions (5:23-26)
Jesus now gives us solutions to relationship problems and tells us seriousness of these solutions. Verse 23 pictures a person who has come to worship God. He has traveled a great distance from home to be able to worship at the temple. Yet, if he remembers that a person has something against him, he is to leave his offering to God, go back and be reconciled to your brother first, then travel back and worship God. God cares about our hearts. It is important to take care of offenses that may exist between other Christians before we worship. Worship is a sham if we hate our brother or sister in Christ. Worship is a sham if we are leaving wrongs unresolved. We are to live reconciled, peaceful lives. Notice that it does not matter what the wrong is or if you think you are justified in being upset. Go and reconcile before you come to worship. External worship does not cover over the sins of mistreating one another. Reconciliation is paramount to God. This is why we are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). We are supposed to intervene and help two people reconcile and come to peace. We must have the initiative to restore broken relationships.
Further, Jesus warns in verse 25 to not sit back and think you are right. Go and settle matters and do not let it escalate. Personal conflicts should be quickly resolved before matters are made worse. Evil consequences can follow for not making peace with others. This means we must learn to take responsibility for our mistakes. This means we must learn to say sorry to another person. We must love the other person more than being right. We must love peace more than defending our feelings or our rights. Notice that Jesus does not say that if someone has a problem with you that you just tell them to get over it or deal with you. You and I are called to deal with it by solving the problem, not by leaving the situation unresolved. God does not want our worship if we are choosing to be angry, bitter, or hateful toward another. Worship is not a cover for our moral failure. This is the very idea that Jesus means when he quotes Hosea, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7).
Why do we allow anger to remain in our hearts? I think the primary reason is that we enjoy the feeling of anger and the supposed advantage we now think we have over another person. I am angry so now I can manipulate the other person to bend to my will because they have wronged me. What a grievous sin! We are being evil, malicious, and devious when we choose anger because we are going to use it for our own selfish advantage. We want to control the situation. We want to control the relationship. This is sin!
Now what did Jesus just do? If I said how many of you have not murdered, I think we would all raise our hands. So then we would pat ourselves on the back and think that we have done well. But Jesus says that you have anger for another, hate another, or say malicious, insulting words to another you are liable to the hell of fire. Now if I ask you to raise your hand if you have never had anger for another, never had hatred, or never said an insulting word to another, no one’s hands would be raised. We are all guilty! This is where Jesus wants us. Jesus wants us to see our sin and admit our failures. He does not want us to try to justify ourselves or excuse ourselves. What was the first characteristic of those who are in the kingdom of God as given in the Beatitudes? Blessed are the poor in spirit. Jesus wants you to see your sin, admit your failure, quickly go correct your error with your brother or sister, and then come to God for forgiveness and worship our Lord who saves us from our sins. Anger quickly turns to sin. Reconcile quickly and do not justify yourself. See your moral failure and beg your Lord and Savior for mercy.