In Matthew 5:22, Jesus seems to say that if you get angry with someone, you’re guilty of murder. Can that really be what he means? Maybe you get angry at people all the time. Does that really mean that, in some sense, you’ve murdered them?
Yes. This is what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “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” (Matt. 5:21–22).
Now, first, we have to distinguish between good anger and sinful anger. Throughout the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus himself, the eternal Son of God, the Word made flesh who was sinless, was angry at times. He got angry especially when the worship of God was being corrupted. He got angry about religious hypocrisy. He drove the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:13–17). He called to the Pharisees and religious leaders fools (Matt. 23:17). Why? Because of their religious hypocrisy.
But Jesus didn’t sin.
There are times when we should be angry about injustice. We should be angry about idolatry and the corruption of God’s worship in the church. At times, it’s right to be angry.
But at other times it’s wrong. And it’s those other times that Jesus refers to here. Some ancient biblical manuscripts add the phrase “without cause” to Matthew 5:22: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother without cause.” So this is unjustified anger. This is that cruel, contentious contempt that we can feel for others. That’s what Jesus highlights here.
He’s doing a couple of things. One, consider the opening phrase in verse 21, “You have heard that it was said.” Jesus repeats that phrase six times in the Sermon on the Mount. It’s followed by, “But I say to you.” In other words, he’s putting himself on the level of the law. This text shows that Jesus claimed to be God. He assert his authority as the one who declares the truth of God’s law and gives us its true, inspired interpretation.
And he tells us that murder isn’t just when you kill someone. The seeds of murder are in our hearts when we feel sinful anger.
So we need to repent. We need God’s grace and mercy. Jesus larger point here is that nobody keeps the law of God perfectly.
We all get angry. At times, we feel righteous anger. Often, though, it’s sinful anger that we need to repent of.
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