Many of you spent a good chunk of the summer watching some kind of baseball games. I watched a lot of younger kids playing ball and I think it’s fun to see the progression of their understanding of the game. At the youngest ages kids learn that they should field a ball and throw it to first base to get an out. Soon they learn they can get someone out at other bases as well. As they get older, they learn that ideally you’d like to get the lead runner out and sometimes you can get more than one out on the same play. And as they begin to fully understand the intricacies of the game, they learn that the right decision is based on the situation, and isn’t always so simple.
In this regard baseball is a lot like life, you can play the game with an elementary understanding, but in order to play well, it’s really important to move beyond the elementary to a deeper understanding.
Today we begin a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus starts taking us deeper in the Christian life. He starts with the elementary teachings we all know, but then challenges us to look at things more deeply. If we will listen carefully to what Jesus teaches us, we will be much better able to become the kind of people God wants us to be.
This morning we are going to turn our attention to a command that basically everyone knows—the command not to murder. It is tempting for us to look at a command like this and conclude that we don’t need to listen, because we have never (and would never) murdered someone. But Jesus takes us deeper and helps us to see that there is more to this command than just external actions—it really has much more to do with our hearts than we might realize.
Over the next several weeks, Jesus will address several issues using this same format. He begins each section by saying, “You have heard that our ancestors were told…But I say…” Some people have gotten the wrong idea about these passages. They think that Jesus was reinventing the Old Testament law. But remember what Jesus said earlier—He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. So, Jesus was not instituting a new law, He was helping us understand the old laws more fully.
Listen to what Jesus said about murder,
21 “You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ 22 But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (Matthew 5:21-22, NLT)
He points the people first to the Old Testament teaching on murder—specifically, what the religious leaders had taught the people about murder. This teaching was a combination of two Old Testament commands. The first was the command, “do not murder” given in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13), and the second was Numbers 35:50, which commanded that anyone convicted of murder be put to death. The Jewish leaders combined these two verses into one teaching, which said that you should not murder, and anyone who commits murder is subject to punishment.
Because these two teachings were combined together, the people understandably thought of murder only as a physical act. We have the same mentality today. Listen to the dictionary definition of murder,
The crime of unlawfully killing a person especially with malice aforethought (Merriam-Webster online dictionary)
We would certainly agree with that definition of murder, but Jesus seems to argue that the true definition of murder goes much deeper. Listen to how James Montgomery Boice imagines Jesus’ argument for a broader definition of murder.
Is murder nothing more than the act? Or if it is, is there no guilt to the man who almost kills another but is prevented from doing so by some unexpected circumstance? Or to the man who would like to kill his enemy but does not do so from cowardice or from fear of getting caught?” This is the way men reason, of course; and they excuse themselves. But the reasoning does not support the intent of God’s injunction. “Instead, God is concerned with the heart,” says Jesus. “And God is as concerned with anger as with the actual shedding of blood.”
Boice says that Jesus’ argument is that God is not only concerned with our outward actions—he is equally as concerned with the heart that leads to those actions. Jesus says we can have a murderous heart even if we never engage in the physical act of murder. And he says that murderous attitude is sin, whether it results in the physical killing of another person, or if it only happens in our hearts.
Let me clarify an important point. Jesus says that both the physical act of murder and the murder that takes place only in our hearts are sin, but some people have misinterpreted this to mean that both are equally as bad. That’s not what Jesus is saying. Obviously it is much worse to actually kill someone than it is to commit the sin in our heart—it would be wrong to say that if we have a murderous heart, we might as well go ahead and kill the person physically. What Jesus is saying is that any form of murder is worthy of condemnation. It is all sin.
So how do we commit murder in our hearts? What is it that we need to be on guard against? In a word, anger. Jesus says our anger is akin to engaging in murder in our hearts. Listen again to what Jesus said,
But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. (Matthew 5:22, NLT)
Jesus’ statement is that our anger itself is a form of murder! You might find yourself saying, but wait a second, didn’t Jesus get angry? Jesus did get angry, but notice that His anger was very different from the anger that we often show. We never once see Jesus get angry about a personal offense; the only times Jesus got angry were at injustice, wrong teaching, or those who were abusing the things of God. He did not get angry at people who wrongly accused Him, He did not get angry at those who marginalized Him and slandered Him, He did not even get angry at those who killed Him—instead He prayed for them and continued to show respect to them, even when they showed no respect to Him. There are situations where anger is appropriate, but the vast majority of the time our anger is inappropriate because it has selfish motivations.
Jesus’ argument, I believe, is this: our anger treats people in a way that demeans them. Our anger is akin to murder because we are taking from people the life God has given them—a life of dignity and value. When we treat people as less than they are worth, we are engaging in murder. Look at how we do this,
- We get angry at the person who makes a careless move on the road, and we conclude that they are not as smart, attentive, or skilled as we are. We think less of them as a person (even though we don’t even know them!)
- We get angry at the person who says something to us that seems critical, and we conclude they are mean-spirited, judgmental, and ignorant.
- We get angry when others don’t give us the respect or consideration we feel we deserve, and we conclude on that basis that they are unworthy of our respect.
- We get angry when someone else gets something we would like (a job, a car, a family, etc.) because we believe they are less deserving than we are.
- We get angry when someone holds a different political, ideological, or even religious belief than us. This is an insidious one, because we might think we are showing righteous anger but often we are angry because we see those people as obstacles in our way, rather than as people who deserve Christ’s love.
This is the major problem with our anger—we fail to see people as God sees them. Have you ever said you wanted to “put someone in their place?” What place is that? Don’t we say that because we view others as less valuable or important than us? God sees every person as His creation, made in His image, worthy of dignity, respect, and love. When our anger causes us to think of or treat others as less than God views them, it is sinful—in fact, Jesus says it is murder.
Here’s the good news: Jesus doesn’t say that our murderous anger is unforgivable. As a matter of fact, He recognizes that as human beings, we all struggle with this emotion. So He gives us a couple of different examples of how to deal with anger once we recognize it in our hearts.
23 “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, 24 leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God.
25 “When you are on the way to court with your adversary, settle your differences quickly. Otherwise, your accuser may hand you over to the judge, who will hand you over to an officer, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 And if that happens, you surely won’t be free again until you have paid the last penny. (Matthew 5:23-26, NLT)
These two examples basically teach the same thing. He uses an example from the religious world and an example of from the secular world. The same principles apply in each situation. He tells us that to deal with our anger we need to do three things.
First, we must admit and understand our sinful anger. Honestly, this may be the hardest step for most of us, because most of the time we feel like we are justified in being angry. As a matter of fact, we often feel as though we had no choice in the matter! Think about how we talk about these kinds of situations—we say, “they made me angry!” That just isn’t true! No one can make you be angry. You have a choice in how you respond to the actions of others. It may have become so natural for us to get angry that it seems like instinct, but the truth is, it is a choice. If we are angry, it is because that is the response we have chosen. So we must admit that our anger is sinful and then choose to deal with it.
So when we recognize anger in ourselves (even if it is only in our hearts at this point), we need to stop, and ask ourselves why we are angry. What is it that we are responding to in another person? If we can understand what the root problem is, then we can deal with it in a way other than anger. We usually get angry for one of three reasons:
- We feel scared. We feel fearful when we think something bad or unpleasant will happen to us. I experienced this when we were in Disney World two years ago. The first night we were there we looked back and Gracie was no longer with Sarah, Gabe, and I. We began a frantic search, and asked the Disney staff for help. Fortunately, after a very long couple minutes, I got a text from my sister saying that Gracie had found them and was safe. I was relieved, but also angry. I believe my exact words were, I’m so glad she’s safe…I’m going to kill her! (this is a great example of sinful anger!) I was responding to all sorts of different fears: the fear of losing my daughter, the fear of what people would think about me, the fear of what she was facing at that moment, the fear of how I would carry on if I couldn’t find her, and a million other things. That’s one example, but we fear all sorts of things: we fear people seeing us for who we really are, we fear failure, we fear dangers (real or imagined) that might cause us or our family harm. In each of these cases, our tendency is to deal with that fear by striking out in anger. But once we recognize we are responding to fear, we can choose to deal with it in a way other than anger.
- We feel frustrated. Frustration is when we feel something is keeping us from getting what we want. We feel frustrated when someone drives too slow because we can’t drive at the speed we want. We get frustrated when someone springs something on us at the last second because we have to change the plans we had (which may have only existed in our own head). We get frustrated when we want something but are kept from getting it. Think about the times you’ve thrown a tool or yelled at your computer—you are frustrated, and you lash out in anger. Sometimes we lash out at our tools, and other times we lash out at people. Once we recognize our frustration, we can choose how to respond to it.
- We feel hurt. We can feel hurt for a number of different reasons. We feel hurt when someone doesn’t show us the respect we think we deserve. We feel hurt when we feel rejected by others. We feel hurt when others seem to disapprove of something we have worked hard on. We can even lash out in anger because of physical pain. When we feel hurt, we need to be on guard against choosing to lash out in anger.
The first step to dealing with our anger is to recognize it, admit that we are sinning because of it, and try to understand what is at the core of our anger. Once we have done that we can move on to the second step.
The second step is to seek reconciliation. Jesus tells us that we need to seek to be reconciled to the person with whom we are angry. We get into trouble many times because we feel like the other person should make the first move. But that is not what Jesus says. His statement is simple—go and be reconciled to the other person.
Reconciliation means that we must first get our hearts in the right place—we need to start by dealing with our own anger, and then going to the other person. Our goal when we go to them is to mend the relationship, not to get even or to get our way. We need to work hard to see the person as God sees them—not as an obstacle to be overcome, but a fellow human being who is valuable and worthy of our love. When we are in the right frame of mind, we can talk to the person and seek to understand them, love them, and move past whatever it was that we chose to get angry about.
The third step is to do it now. This is not really a step, but more of a guiding principle for dealing with anger in general. Jesus tells us that whenever we realize we have injured someone by our anger (even if that injury may not be outwardly visible), we need to immediately get to work at dealing with it. He gives two examples of this. The first was a religious example. He said that if you were getting ready to offer your gift at the temple and suddenly remembered you had done something to harm another person, you should leave your gift there and go be reconciled, and then come back and make your offering. The principle is this—worship takes place not only in participating in the activities of a church (though it certainly includes that); but we also worship by immediately dealing with the sin God shows us in our lives. Jesus is saying that if we are simply going through the motions of worship without actually dealing with our sin, God is not pleased. We need to participate in worship with God’s people, but we also need to deal with the sin God has shown us in our lives. Both are equally important.
Mark my words! Satan will try to use this to keep you from being with God’s people. Sunday mornings are often the time when everything seems to go wrong—frequently it is as you’re trying to get out the door. Don’t fall into Satan’s trap to keep you out of worship—deal with your anger right away, and come and worship together with God’s people.
The second example is a more worldly example, but it is true as well. He uses the analogy of going to court with another person. He says it is better to work things out on your own than to allow your fate to be decided by a judge. I think Jesus’ point is this—there are consequences to waiting to be reconciled with another person. You’ve heard of the snowball effect before. The idea is that you can start with a small snowball, but as it rolls down the hill, it will keep getting bigger. That is the case with our anger. If we deal with it quickly it is much easier. The longer we wait the more time it has to fester, to spread, and to deepen. The longer we wait to deal with our murderous anger, the bigger the problem becomes, and the greater the consequences will be. So Jesus says we need to address our anger now, before it becomes a much bigger problem.
This is a difficult teaching, because most of us do not think of ourselves as murderers. We tend to think that’s the one sin we don’t struggle with; but we do! Jesus challenges us to gain a deeper understanding of how God views murder. It is not just about the physical act of taking another person’s life. Murder in God’s eyes starts with treating another person as less than they are. It is about robbing a person of the dignity they have as someone made in the image of God. Jesus tells us that a murderous attitude starts in our hearts, so we need to deal with it where it starts, because murder in any form is a serious offense.
So what can we do? First, we need to be on guard against anger. When we recognize angry feelings rising up within us, we need to stop and deal with them before they cause damage. Second, we need to identify why we are angry (hurt, fear, frustration). Third, deal with your anger by choosing to respond differently, talking to the person with whom you are angry, and asking the Lord for help. Fourth, we can head off anger by trying to see things from the other person’s perspective—look for what might be causing them to respond in anger (hurt, fear, frustration?
The temptation is to shrug off our anger and assume that it’s no big deal, because everyone gets angry. Jesus tells us our anger is a huge deal—it is murder. And He tells us that we need to deal with our murderous anger now, because the longer we wait, the more destructive it becomes.
 Boice, James Montgomery. The Sermon on the Mount: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002.