Today we’re continuing on in our series ‘We’ve Got Issues.’ So far we’ve covered identity issues, relational issues, and financial issues. Today we turn our attention to an issue, that I think is one of the biggest issues in the Church today. But ironically, while this issue is so widespread, I also think this issue is rarely discussed or dealt with. What is the issue? Anger.
We live in a world where everyone is triggered. It’s a world on edge where it seems like everything wants to trigger us and where everybody around us is one small nudge away from (goat noise). Someone frustrates you and you get all (goat noise). Perhaps someone looks at you wrong to make you (goat noise). Perhaps you turn on CNN and they’re all (goat noise). And then you flip over to FOX and they’re also all (goat noise). Perhaps you start thumbing through Facebook, see someone post something you don’t like and you’re all (goat noise). Or perhaps you walk into the grocery and are told to put a mask on and you’re all (goat noise). Maybe you’ve gotten the vaccine, all of them, and you still get Covid twice and feel (goat noise).
Or more generally, you’re treated unfairly, you’re disrespected, someone cuts you off in traffic, you hit one too many red lights, you stub your toe, your friend wasn’t so friendly, your day didn’t go anything like you planned, your spouse doesn’t do what you like, your child doesn’t listen, your Netflix show keeps buffering, and at the end of the day your head hits the pillow and you’re painfully aware that you don’t even live up to your own standards and expectations, so you get (goat noise).
And all of these examples so far are mainly external, we could give just as long of a list if we look inward and examine anger in the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
In his book Good and Angry David Powlison says this, “We all have firsthand experience with anger gone wrong. We’ve dished it out. We’ve been on the receiving end. We’ve heard and seen others get angry at each other. At some point in each day we’re all affected by some form of anger gone bad…”
And yet while anger often goes bad in us, because we get angry about the wrong things and express our anger in the wrong ways, anger is something God does perfectly. He always gets angry about the right things and expresses His anger in just and righteous ways! So, there is such a thing as righteous anger, but what does that look like? And how do we do it? Why don’t we do it most of the time? What do we do about our unrighteous anger issues? Do we just need to take it easy? Do we just need to learn how to relax and calm down? Do we need some breathing exercises? No. Church, we need to see Christ, as He is, clothed in gospel promises!
So, of all the places we could go to address anger, let’s go to Matthew 5:21-26 to hear Jesus teach us on the topic of anger.
Let me set the context for you briefly.
In Matthew 5-7 we find the most famous sermon of history, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Near the beginning Jesus says something that sets the stage for much of what’s to come. In 5:17-20 He says this, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Here Jesus’ point is that He didn’t come to abolish anything in the OT, but came to fulfill it all. That’s why He came, not to begin something totally new from the ground up, but to bring all of what God revealed in the OT to it’s intended completion. So, not even the smallest letter of the Law will fade away until the end. Which means, the way we’re to interact with the OT Law and commandments isn’t to relax them, lower them, or interpret them as to make them easier to keep. No. We’re to embrace God’s Law as it truly is. After saying this, Jesus makes a curious statement in v20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What does this mean? At first thought, this alarms many because if the scribes and Pharisee’s were so righteous, and if entrance into the Kingdom requires a higher righteous, we simply have no hope at all. But that’s not what Jesus is teaching here. Remember, the scribes and Pharisees were all about external show and outward obedience to the Law. That was the substance of their righteousness. So in v20 Jesus isn’t holding up the scribes and Pharisees as the epitome of righteousness, He’s challenging them. We know this because of what follows. In v21 and on through the rest of chapter 5 Jesus gives six examples from the Law about how the Law has always been aiming deeper, aiming inward, and has not been about external obedience. All these statements begin with, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” This isn’t Jesus putting Himself against Moses, no, He’s contrasting what the scribes and Pharisees believe and teach about the Law against what the Law truly has truly taught all along. That’s what Jesus is bringing out here in the Sermon on the Mount. And where does He begin?
With Murder. What does murder have to do with us? Let’s examine Matthew 5:21-26 now. We begin with…
The Teaching (v21-22)
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”
So here is Jesus explaining the meaning and intent of the sixth commandment. He begins by quoting, not Ex. 20 or Deut. 5 where we find the OT Law, no, but what the scribes and Pharisees have taught about the sixth commandment. And on the surface, it seems straightforward doesn’t it? You shall not murder, if you do, you’ll be liable to judgment. Which means, at least in the eyes of the scribes and Pharisees, that as long as you don’t commit murder you’re not guilty of breaking this commandment and you’ll be safe from God’s judgment. But see what Jesus does next in v22? He brings out the true intent of the sixth commandment, saying it’s not just condemning physical murder but is also condemning anger in our hearts against others, whether it’s nursed and harbored inside us or expressed with the mouth as it comes out of us. Follow this all the way through. While the scribes and Pharisees believed if you’d not be guilty at judgment if you didn’t murder, Jesus says this kind of inward anger against another brings guilt and judgment on us.
It’s at this point where we begin seeing the spiritual nature of the Law. The scribes and Pharisees were eager to remain on the surface, to stay in externals, looking only at the letter of the Law…why? Because by interpreting the Law like this it was far easier to think you’re obeying it, and far easier to believe they were righteous. Yet, here is Jesus, exposing their error by giving us the spirit of the Law, silences all boasting and stops us from believing ourselves to be righteous. This was something of the tragedy of the Jews at Jesus’ time and the tragedy of Israel throughout the OT. They may have been very zealous to keep, uphold, teach, and defend the letter of the Law, but they were blind to the spirit of the Law, and thus blind to the heart of God who gave the Law, and blind to the way of life God calls us to in the Law.
Now, not only is this a reminder of what Jesus said back in v17, that He came to fulfill the Law, it’s a reminder of how vital the Law is for us today. For the Christian, the Law still applies, it still thunders from the heavens to us, laying us bear before God. And here, in the sixth commandment we hear it’s demands: anger towards another isn’t like murder to God, it is murder to God.
Church, how often have we murdered one another in thought and insult? How often have we nursed and fed thoughts of anger toward one another when we have felt offended, disrespected, or treated poorly? How high is the body count in your own life? How often have we clothed our anger in righteous or religious verbiage and felt justified before God thinking we’re the ones in the right while those we’re angry with are in the wrong? Church, this is self-righteousness and false religion in its raw form.
But what about righteous anger? That’s a real thing right? It is. When you see sin, whether far away, or very near, even when someone sins against you. It is very godly to get angry. That such a thing could ever occur, that such a world would exist where such a thing could occur, and that such a thing could come crashing down on someone else, or on ourselves. Sin ought to make us angry. But, righteous anger in us, I think, doesn’t last too long before our sinful hearts begin to bend that anger in sinful self-justifying directions. Righteous anger does exist, we see it in Jesus a lot, I just don’t think we see it very often in ourselves.
That’s Jesus’ teaching, and it’s clear. We’ve seen that. Now see…
The Illustrations (v23-26)
First, in v23-24 there is a religious example, worship is in view. Jesus says, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
What does this mean? It means that as important as the worship of God is, worship is done wrongly if we do it while harboring anger towards another. Jesus actually encourages us to ‘leave the altar’ and in a sense ‘keep God waiting’ while we go reconcile and then come back to worship. Now, that worship comes into this discussion at all is worth noting. Don’t you think? Why does Jesus go here? Well, when anger springs up in us and we let it fester and grow, we know deep down that our hearts aren’t right or well. So what do we do knowing our hearts aren’t in a good condition? We try to do religious things to make up for it. We come to church, we give a big tithe, we read our Bibles, we send out Bible verses via text to our friends, and all the while…though we’re doing lots of really good religious things, we’re really attempting to make up for our bad stuff by doing more good stuff. Is that the heart of what worship really is? Man making up for bad by doing good? Not at all.
What’s the lesson in this? Worship done while nursing anger and/or being unreconciled with someone is empty and displeasing to God. It might externally look right, but the heart isn’t anywhere near being right. Psalm 66 speaks to this as it is says, “I cried to God with my mouth and high praise was on my tongue, but if I cherish sin in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” So when we’re angry worship waits until, insofar as it depends on us, reconciliation has been attempted.
Second, Jesus’ next illustration in v25-26 is a legal example. “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison.Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”
What does this mean? Generally speaking, in a legal setting, when you don’t handle things quickly you face worse and worse penalties. Jesus is using this idea to tell us to make amends and to do it quickly. Anger is an issue that can be resolved fast, if…you humble yourself. But if you pridefully or fearfully avoid dealing with it you and many others around you will end up paying a greater price in the end.
Simply put, Jesus’ point in both of these illustrations is that the sixth commandment isn’t just about not murdering, and not having anger toward others, it does more. The sixth commandment doesn’t just push negatives, it commands positive action as well. Meaning, while it does command us to not murder and not nurse anger within, it also commands us to make real and active steps toward putting ourselves right with those we’re at odds with.
We’ve heard His teaching and His illustrations, now let’s bring it home with our application.
Where do we even begin? Maybe I can put it like this. During the pandemic I thought politics would be an issue, and it was. I thought the vaccines would be an issue, and it was. I thought church attendance would be one of the biggest issues we would face, and we did. You know what I never thought we would face, anger. I never imagined pastoral ministry would look like spending time trying to convince people to stop being so angry with others. No one is allowed to disagree or debate, let alone discuss anything these days. The posture of the heart today is that if someone holds a different opinion than me on anything they must be deceived and are showing it by giving way to idiotic agendas. And if the people I disagree with don’t change their mind after I yell at them about it, I will block them on social media, delete their contact in my phone, and never talk to them again. No one reacts today, everyone overreacts!
We’re an angry people, and we’ve been angry for some time haven’t we? So, what about this, and what about this passage before us? “We’re all guilty of nursing and harboring unjustified anger to varying degrees. And we’re all guilty of hating our neighbor rather than seeking to do good to them.” Church, anger is too often treated as one of the respectable sins, that we give a free pass on. We shouldn’t. Anger isn’t something Christians can allow to exist and fester within us. It’s something that must be confessed, something that must be turned away from, something that must die if we’re to truly live.
How will the world hear the gospel of Christ crucified from us if we Christians keep spending all our time being so angry at the world for being…the world!? Can you imagine what it’s like to not a Christian in a time like this? Life seems to be going along normal, then you hear of covid. It seems bad but it’s still far away. Then March 2020 happened and the whole world shuts down. Some people are talking about conspiracy while others are talking about vaccines. Then we had a nasty election, with two horrible options, that further separated people. If an unbeliever’s hope and assurance and solace was ever found in health, that’s gone. If it was ever found in our nation, that’s gone. To them, all is truly hopeless.
Yet, at one of the most hopeless moments many have felt in a long time, a moment when the hope of Christ can be made much of, can be rejoiced in, and can be shared with delight and freedom, what has much of the world heard from Christians during this time? Have they heard the gospel from us? Or have they heard our irritated views of all that’s wrong with the world today?
What hope is there for angry sinners? Only Christ! He embraced the Father’s fury…for us! While we so often get angry about the wrong things and express our anger in the wrong ways, Christ always gets angry about the right things and expresses His anger in the right ways!
 David Powlison, Good and Angry (Greensboro, North Carolina: New Growth Press, 2016) 1-3.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon On the Mount (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) vol. 1, 221.
 Lloyd-Jones, 224.
 Lloyd-Jones, 228.
 Lloyd-Jones, 228.
 R. Kent Hughes, The Sermon on the Mount: The Message of the Kingdom -Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001) 108.
 Lloyd-Jones, 227.
 R. C. Sproul, Matthew – Saint Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013), 110.