I wonder if you'd call yourself an angry person. Andy Gawn leads our children's work. He and his wife Fiona have five children. And he once memorably said to me, 'I think God gives you marriage to show you how selfish you are, and kids to show you how angry you are.'
And in our next section of the sermon on the mount, Jesus says: that's spot on. Because when we get angry with children, or spouse, or whoever, they're just bringing out what's there deep down inside us all the time. And this is a seriously important topic, because anger damages our relationships. But it's even more seriously important than that, because Jesus says if our lives are characterised by anger, that may be evidence that we've not yet come into relationship with him at all. So please turn in the Bibles to Matthew 5, and this block of Jesus' teaching which people call 'the sermon on the mount'. And look down to verse 20, where we left off last week, where Jesus says:
"For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
Now 'righteousness' means 'living rightly in relationship with God' – doing his will, pleasing him. And verse 20 is disturbing because everyone thought the scribes and Pharisees were top of the class when it came to righteousness. So, how could you possibly be more righteous than them? But in this week's section, Jesus says the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees wasn't what it was cracked up to be. Because they often interpreted God's Word so that, in high jump terms, they lowered the bar of righteousness. So when Jesus said we need a righteousness that exceeds theirs, he didn't mean, 'You need even more of their kind of righteousness', he meant, 'You need a different, deeper kind of righteousness altogether – which only I can work in you.' So now look on to verse 21 and this week's section:
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.'"
So Jesus was quoting the sixth commandment of the Old Testament law. And after he'd said our righteousness needs to exceed the scribes and Pharisees', people must have breathed a sigh of relief and thought, 'Well, I'm OK on that one – I've never murdered anyone.' But that attitude is the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. Because it brings the bar of the sixth commandment right down, so that it only includes literal murder. But what Jesus says next is that the sixth commandment was really pointing to a different, deeper kind of righteousness altogether – which only he can work in us. So the first thing this passage says is:
1. Realise What Jesus Thinks of Your Anger
Look down to verses 21-22 again:
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council [which I think means the council of heaven]; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."
So Jesus puts the bar where it should be. And he says: the sixth commandment wasn't just pointing to a life without literal murder, but to a life without sinful anger at all. And he says that what goes on in our hearts when we're sinfully angry is exactly what goes on in the heart of a murderer. There's exactly the same desire to attack the other person and do them down and get them out of our way. And there's exactly the same disregard for their humanity.
So for example, I've recently had a company contact me twice to offer me insurance. And I've said, 'I'm not interested and don't want to hear from you again.' But then they phoned me again. So I said, 'I've told you I don't want to hear from you again.' And he said, 'What's the reason for that?' Which I think is intolerable behaviour. But it doesn't excuse the way I got angry with the guy at the other end. And once I'd hung up I said to myself, 'Ian that was inexcusable.' But Jesus says something much, much stronger, doesn't he? Jesus says, 'Ian, that's why you should go to hell.' Verse 22:
"But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother [the footnote says 'calls him 'Raca''] will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire."
So the insult 'Raca' meant 'empty-head', 'idiot'. Which is demeaning someone's intelligence. And we do that in anger, don't we – at least in thought, if not out loud. For example, the milk or orange juice is knocked over at an already fraught breakfast – and before we know it we've said, 'Oh, you stupid child.' And then 'fool' in the Bible means someone who's turned from God to an out-and-out godless lifestyle, which is demeaning someone's character. We also do that in anger, don't we? 'You're nothing but a…' 'He/she is such a… (fill in the blanks).'
And Jesus says: the way I talked to that insurance seller on the phone, and the angry criticisms of my children which pass as 'discipline' and my silent frustrations with my wife or colleagues (frustration being the dishonest word for anger) – all that is why I should go to hell. Because it shows not just that I get angry, but that I am angry, deep down. So that if God did let me into the kingdom of heaven as I am, I'd ruin it. Which is why I can't be let in unless God transforms me and I submit to that. Otherwise, hell is the place for me.
We naturally minimise our sin, don't we? We think we're basically OK but commit the odd slip from time to time. But that isn't true. The truth is that we sin because we are sinful, deep down, and we get angry because we are angry, deep down. And this, like everything else in the sermon on the mount, should drive us back to Matthew 5.3, which is like the gateway to the life which the sermon calls us to:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit [in other words, those who admit that they're spiritually bankrupt and sinful and unable to change] for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
That's where the bar of righteousness which Jesus sets should drive us – to admit our spiritual poverty. And that brings us to the second thing tonight – which is:
2. Look to Jesus to Save You from Your Anger – And All Your Sin
Some people read the sermon on the mount and conclude that the reason Jesus came was just to set the bar of righteousness higher than ever, and that the response he wants is that we should try harder. But that is totally and utterly and dangerously wrong – because, Matthew chapter 1 already told us why Jesus came. It says about Mary:
"She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (Matthew 1.21)
Which is why the sermon on the mount starts where it does. Look at Matthew 5.3 again:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit…"
… because they're the people who know they need a Saviour. So here is a picture of us by nature, according to Jesus – heading away from God and his kingdom, and towards hell:
But then that stickman hears about Jesus:
So he hears that Jesus died on the cross to take the judgment we're liable to – to face hell in our place. And he hears that Jesus then rose from the dead – to show that he really is the Son of God, and that his death really did pay for our forgiveness, and that there really is life beyond this life, where Jesus is now. (So the crown in the picture stands for the risen Jesus back with his Father in heaven.) And so our stickman realises he's been heading completely the wrong way, ignoring the God who made him, which brings him to the starting point of the Christian life – which is when you admit, like verse 3, that you're "poor in spirit".
In other words, when you say to the risen Jesus: 'I should have been living for you all along. But I've not been. And I deserve your judgment for that. And there's nothing I can do to make up for my sins looking back. And there's nothing I can do to change my sinfulness looking forward. So please will you have mercy on me and save me?'
And Jesus' answer to people who pray and mean that is always, 'Yes.' So if you pray and mean that, he saves you from the judgment your sins deserve – by forgiving you. But he also saves you from just carrying on unchanged in your sinfulness – by coming into your life by his Spirit. And God spoke about that through the Old Testament prophets. So he said this, through the prophet Ezekiel, about what he'd do when Jesus came:
"And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh [the heart that's ignored me] and give you a heart of flesh [a heart that wants to live for me]. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules." (Ezekiel 36.26-27)
Last week we saw how Jesus said he'd come to fulfil the law and the prophets. And Jesus fulfils that Ezekiel promise when – as in the picture below – he forgives you, and comes into your life by his Spirit, and sets you off on that top arrow of wanting and aiming to live for him – even though you fail to, every day.
So if that's you – if you're on that top arrow – you won't be the 'finished article' this side of heaven. But you are being deeply changed from the inside out.
That's how Jesus saves people. That's what he came to do and what we need him to do. So nothing could miss the point more than to read the sermon on the mount and say to yourself, 'I must try harder. I must get my anger under control.' The only people who've really understood the sermon on the mount are those who respond by saying, 'I need Jesus to save me – and to save me some more every day.' And when it comes to this particular area of anger, that means asking his forgiveness again and again when it erupts in our lives, and asking him to work in us more and more by his Spirit, to get the anger out of us, and to put love and patience and gentleness into us.
So our first response, as we see where Jesus sets the bar, has got to be to admit our spiritual poverty and pray for his work in us. But then we do need to set ourselves to aim for nothing less than the bar he sets – which brings us to the last point:
3. Take The Initiative Quickly to Reconcile Relationships Damaged by Anger
Look on to verses 23-24:
"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."
Jesus said that while the Jerusalem temple was still operating. So Jewish people were still offering sacrifices, coming to God aware that he should hold their sin against them, but asking his forgiveness through sacrifice. And (verse 23 again) Jesus says: imagine…
"… you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you."
So, you're in the temple knowing that God has something against you, and wanting to be reconciled to him. And then you remember a friend who has something against you, where you've wronged them, you've made them angry, you've damaged your relationship. Well, verse 24:
"leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
Because if I say I want to be reconciled to God, but I don't want to be reconciled to my fellow human being, God sees that as insincerity, double-think, spiritual fraud. So he says, 'To show you are really sincere when you come and ask me to forgive the offence your sin has caused me, you need to go to your fellow human beings about the offence your sin has caused them.' In other words, if we have peace with God, that demands we take the initiative to make peace with others where we've broken it. Now they may not welcome our efforts to make peace – our apology, our making amends if we can – but that's not the point. As Romans 12.18 says,
"If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone."
But it's not always possible, because it doesn't just depend on me, because it takes two to be reconciled – one to seek forgiveness and one to give it.
Let me give an example of what verses 23 and 24 are saying. From time to time in our senior staff meetings, I say things that I quickly realise were not just said firmly (which is fine) but angrily (which isn't). You may think that sort of thing never happens on the church staff, but it does – we're no different from you. And sometimes that's clear enough that I apologise there and then. But other times, it's only afterwards that I'm convicted I need to. And I acknowledge that to the Lord in prayer. But something in me immediately says, 'You need to pick up the phone and apologise to Ken (or whoever) before you ask God for forgiveness.' Because at one level it's dead easy, isn't it, to ask God for forgiveness – even easier to do it lightly and insincerely. It's much harder to humble yourself and own your sin and apologise to another human being. But that's the sign of sincerity:
"First be reconciled to your brother"
And that's why, at communion services, we say we should examine ourselves and ask whether we really are in right relationship with God – and with one another. Because to take communion is to claim I have peace with God through Jesus' death. And the sign of that claim being sincere is that, if possible, as far as it depends on me, I'm living at peace with others – starting with you. Because, like I've said, peace with God demands that we take the initiative to make peace with others where we've broken it. And the last thing Jesus says is: do that quickly. Verses 25-26:
"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."
Now Jesus isn't giving advice there about when your neighbour threatens legal action about the garden boundary. This is a parable or story to illustrate the danger of not taking the initiative quickly to reconcile relationships.
So in the world of the story, you've wronged someone, and they're taking you to court. And if you act quickly, relationship may be restored and worst case scenario avoided. But if you don't, things will escalate, relationship will break down, and you will face worse case scenario.
And applying that to the world of real life, Jesus is saying: make peace quickly. Don't be too proud to apologise – especially to your spouse and children. Don't dig your heels in and justify your actions to yourself and your supporters. Don't leave resentment to be nursed and grow – because as someone once said, the one patient that never gets better with nursing is resentment.
So that's the last thing here. Jesus says: take the initiative to reconcile relationships damaged by anger. And do it quickly. Otherwise things escalate, relationships break down, and we do face worse case scenarios – like loveless marriages and alienated children and poisoned church fellowship.
But Jesus has also reminded us of the ultimate worse case scenario – of hell, of not entering the kingdom of heaven, because we've refused to submit to being forgiven and then transformed. And if there's no sign of that transformation in us, in the form of humility and a will to seek reconciliation when we've damaged relationships, then we may still actually be untransformed, and still heading for that eternal worse case scenario. That's Jesus' warning here.
Let me say three quick things to end with.
- One is that anger is not always or all wrong. It's a right response when we're genuinely wronged. The trouble is that only God and the Lord Jesus are capable of perfectly righteous anger, whereas ours – however right our cause – is always mixed with our sinful reponse to those who've wronged us. So that's why we need to be so careful even when we're rightly angry.
- Another thing is that this passage touches on hugely painful things in our lives, and very hard questions like, 'What does it mean to forgive someone who's divorced you against your will, or abused you?' And it would take a sermon series to tackle those questions without being glib, so I haven't tried. So let me just acknowledge that I haven't. But let me add that if Jesus is our Lord, we can't say that because of the hard thing – maybe the horrible thing – that's happened to us, that makes us an exception to these verses. And we do need to work out how they apply in the hard – and horribly hard – situations, where for example forgiveness may definitely not mean reconciliation – that may not be possible or desirable; but where forgiveness is the discipline, in the face of ongoing feelings of anger, of not trying to hurt the other person and not wishing harm on the other person, and not demonising the other person – either in our own minds, or to others.
- The last thing to say is that Jesus doesn't expect us to be sinless this side of heaven. So, yes, he puts the bar of righteousness where it should be. But he knows it's way beyond our jump. And that's why he gave this teaching on anger in the first place – it's because he knows that even born again people, who are being transformed, will blow it in this and every area. So he knows the bar is way beyond our jump. But he still calls us to jump towards nothing less. Because as by his grace we do, we're transformed a bit more. This side of heaven, it's only partial transformation – and we'll always be painfully conscious of falling short. And that's why, every time we read the sermon on the mount, we need to go back to the opening words and hear Jesus' reassurance:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit [those who know how sinful they are, and want that to change] for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5.3)