Anger Is Murder (Matt. 5:21-26)
To many in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees were the pinnacle of righteousness. It was shocking then to hear Jesus tell his followers that they must have a greater righteousness than them. The Pharisees’ problem though was that their righteousness was often only outward, whereas Jesus’ followers were called to inward righteousness as well. The remainder of chapter 5 (vv. 21-48) is comprised of six examples of this greater righteousness that Jesus called for in verse 20.
The command “You shall not murder” is broken when we fail to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In each of the six illustrations Jesus gives of the “greater righteousness” he’s calling his followers to, a common refrain appears: “You have heard that it was said...But I say to you.” Important to point out is how Jesus does not introduce these Old Testament verses with “It is written” (as he commonly did), but with “It was said” (by the scribes and Pharisees). Why is this significant? It means that Jesus isn’t negating the Old Testament verses he’s citing (see verses 17-18), but rather the way that these commands were often misunderstood and misapplied in his day.
Take murder for example (v. 21). The sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exod. 20:14) seems like a straightforward, easy-to-obey command, doesn’t it? The Pharisees took pride in the fact that they had not shed blood and taught others that so long as you don’t take someone’s life, you’ve perfectly kept this command. And yet Jesus takes his audience (and us) on an unsettling train of thought (v. 22): what is it that makes someone commit murder? What is the root behind the act? Something that all humans are guilty of: anger.
Let’s be clear about what Jesus is and isn’t saying here. He’s not saying that harboring bitterness in your heart toward someone is just as bad as shedding their blood. What he’s saying is that as the root from which murder flows, things like anger, bitterness, and insults are themselves violations of the sixth commandment and deserve God’s judgment. He’s saying that the command “You shall not murder” is broken a thousand times before murder is actually committed.
Jesus is taking anger far more seriously than most of us do. This is demonstrated in the two illustrations he gives in verses 23-26. In the first illustration (vv. 23-24), Jesus stresses the necessity of reconciliation. Since love for God and love for our neighbor are inseparable, it is impossible to worship God while harboring bitterness toward someone else. Such “worship” is just a show, and God won’t be pleased by it. James expands on this in his letter where he observes the hypocrisy of praising God with our tongue and then turning around and using our tongue to curse people who are made in God’s image (James 3:9-10). In light of the judgment that anger deserves (v. 22), Jesus also stresses the urgency of reconciliation in verses 25-26. As much as it depends on us (see Romans 12:18), we need to deal with inter-personal strife immediately.
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that not all anger is sinful. We see Jesus get angry in the gospels and even say “You blind fools!” (Matthew 23:17) to the Pharisees. How do we reconcile this with what he’s saying here? D.A. Carson has some helpful comments: “Indeed there is a place for burning with anger at sin and injustice. Our problem is that we burn with indignation and anger, not at sin and injustice, but at offense to ourselves. In none of the cases in which Jesus became angry was his personal ego wrapped up in the issue…Let us admit it – by and large we are quick to be angry when we are personally affronted and offended, and slow to be angry when sin and injustice multiply in other areas.”
- How does your own attitude about anger compare with Jesus’ attitude? Do you treat it with the level of seriousness that he does?
- Read 1 John 3:15. Why do you think John and Jesus consider anger to be a violation of the sixth commandment?
- Are there relationships in your life right now that need to be reconciled before “offering your gift at the altar”? What next steps need to be taken?
James 1:19-20 – “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 that God requires.”