All religions or systems of belief have lists of things to do and things to avoid. The Jews had been given the Ten Commandments and other directives regarding how to live – what to do and not to do and how and when and where. They counted 613 main rules a good Jew would live by. They came up with a grading system too, a way to know, were you obeying the rules or not?
For example, they knew you weren’t supposed to do any work on the Sabbath. And they knew the Sabbath began on Friday night before sundown. But, how did you know exactly when sundown occurred?
Ah, well Rabbi so and so said what you do is take two pieces of thread, a white thread and a green thread and you hang them outside your door and when the sun goes down to the point that there’s not enough light for you to tell the white from the green, it’s sundown. And then you know whether you’ve really kept the law or not. And that’s the life of the scribes and Pharisees, the religious fundamentalists of Jesus’ day. They had all these rules to follow to make sure they were “good.”
But now, as we’re about to see, Jesus comes along and blows all of that to pieces. Because, it turns out God’s not concerned about green and white threads, He wants to know what’s going on in your heart. So when you read the rest of Chapter 5 you find Jesus giving six examples of ways these super-religious people were actually missing what God was trying to communicate. We find the first example here in
Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother [or sister] without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother [or sister], ‘Raca!’
a way of insulting someone’s intelligence, “you senseless empty-head”
shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.
Now, you see right away how different this is from what we all expect. A simple command like “don’t murder” makes sense. We get that. Most civilizations throughout time would agree with that. Don’t murder. It’s actually one of the Ten Commandments, number six (Ex 20:13). But Jesus wants us to know that murder is actually just one symptom, one expression, of a deeper and wider disease. Murder is just the ugly offspring of anger. No one ever said, I’m so grateful and thankful and appreciative for you, I just can’t wait to hurt you. So what you really need to do is go after the anger that produces murder and that anger lives in each of us.
This is one of the most shocking things about Jesus: He consistently made a big deal out of things we would say are little. He says things like if you’re simply angry with someone, you’re in danger of judgment and if you call them names, you could end up in hell.
And you need to know – that’s not hyperbole. That’s not exaggeration. He means it. Do you understand that? Do you understand that Jesus means what He’s saying, that anger and insults are punishable offenses in His book?
When I was a child we had these little schoolyard rhymes
Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me
I’m rubber and you’re glue
What you say bounces off of me and sticks to you
Now, I think that was supposed to be some kind of armor of moral superiority for the young child’s soul invented by teachers and parents. The idea was it didn’t matter what names you were called, they could never have any real affect on you. But let me ask: was that really true?
Consider those playground rhymes with another observation: the pen is mightier than the sword. Why would we say that? Simply, because we recognize that words are powerful. And sometimes, we use them just like swords, or sticks, or stones, or knives or guns for that matter – we use them to hurt people. And we mean it. We want them to hurt. And now, Jesus is calling us out on it. He’s holding us accountable to what we’re doing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous German theologian and martyr of World War II once noted:
The angry word is a blow struck at our brother, a stab at his heart: it’s seeks to hit, to hurt and to destroy. A deliberate insult is even worse, for we are then openly disgracing our brother in the eyes of the world, and causing others to despise him.
Isn’t that true? Don’t we have to agree, that’s what we want? We want our words to hurt, to lacerate, to tear, to sting, to rip open and shock. Jesus is just holding a mirror up to your soul and saying, “do you see this? You used a word instead of an actual weapon, but was your desire any different? You wanted to harm someone, you wanted to lash out, you just chose your tongue instead of your hands.” What’s going to happen next time?
But maybe you resist and you say, well, I didn’t mean to. They shouldn’t have taken it that way. That’s not what I meant to say. Well, accidents happen with firearms too. If you’re not paying attention when you have a firearm in your hand, you can hurt people. You’re still at fault. Your actions, or in this case, your words have an impact on people.
Now, let’s add a little caveat to this, a little footnote. If you were here when we were going through Ephesians, you might remember we read
Eph 4:26 “Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, 27 nor give place to the devil.
Or you might say, well, what about Jesus Himself? Didn’t He get angry, didn’t He flip over tables in the Temple? And the answer, of course, is yes. So you need to know: there is such a thing as righteous anger. Anger for a cause, for a reason. And the key to identifying it is to ask: why are you upset? It’s OK to be angry about the affects of sin. When something horrible happens to someone you love, it’s OK to be angry. When people defy the living God, it’s OK to be angry.
But that’s not the case most of the time. Most of the time when we’re angry, it’s just because we’re not getting our way. We’re frustrated. We’re tired. We’re at the end of our rope. We’ve just been cut off. We don’t feel like we’re in control, and so we lash out because we’re not getting our way. You’re not giving me the recognition, the respect, or the rest I want.
Tantrums aren’t just for toddlers, are they? Of course not. Adults are just a little more sophisticated in the ways we throw them.
So since we’ve got this wound open, let’s really stare at it for a while and ask: who are we likely to be angry with and to say things about or to?
Well, it seems it’s easy to let our anger and animosity flow when we’re talking about a person we aren’t connected to, when he or she is a nameless, faceless, “they.” So this would include that stupid politician, that idiot driver, that dumb referee, and any one in authority over me: those jerks in corporate headquarters, or my boss, my teacher, my coach, even my parents – people that I think of according to their role more than their real identity.
But it’s also really easy to get angry with the people we know best, the people we’re closest to. Because, “There you go again.” Or, “you know how much it irritates me when you do that.” Or, “I’ve told you time and time again.” Or, “I’ve had a long day and I’m sick of putting up with other people’s junk and now I come home to this!?!”
There’s one thing all our victims have in common: we think we can get away with treating them poorly.
Sometimes that’s because we aren’t close with them so we don’t see them as a real human beings. We don’t know the referee, we don’t know her name is Lisa and her daughter is battling leukemia and she’s actually been referring for 15 years as a side job to help pay for the kid’s activities. We don’t know the driver’s name is Ali and he just made an honest mistake – the same kind we make all the time. He actually didn’t know we were there and didn’t mean to cut us off.
Sometimes it’s because we think we have more power than they do. I want to talk directly to parents for a minute here, and older siblings, and brothers – you often have more power, because of your status, or because of your age, or because of your physical strength, you often have more power than the younger kids. And sometimes you use that power in sinful ways. You get angry and you yell, or you even push, pull, and throw because you can. You let yourself go. And it’s wrong. It doesn’t matter what you ‘feel.’ I’m telling you, if Jesus was standing right there watching it all unfold, He wouldn’t be encouraging your behavior in that moment.
Those of us who have been entrusted with power, positional power, physical power, or emotional power, any advantage that you have in a relationship, should NEVER use it to harm. But we do. And it is sin. It’s from the pit of hell and it represents the worst of our flesh, our fallen nature, our godless ‘self’ and we need to see it. We need to recognize it, admit it, and repent. It doesn’t matter what ‘they’ did, we have no excuses for lashing out physically or verbally when we stand before a holy God. After all, ask yourself: what have you done to irritate and annoy God? And how do you want Him to treat you?
Parents, we should never discipline in anger. But we do. Brothers and sisters, we should never push or pull or shove or punch or pinch to get what we want. But we do. And it is wrong. It is sin, it comes from the same anger that leads to murder. And if we do not ask God for forgiveness, Jesus says we are in danger of judgment and hellfire. It’s that serious.
So, let’s go a little deeper and ask: what makes me angry, what makes me want to spout off?
Well, there can be all sorts of triggers, but at the center of them all, is me.
I get angry because I can’t have what I want. Or I’ve been interrupted. Or because you’re distracting me. Parents, or grandparents, have you ever gotten angry at the noise being made by healthy children playing? Running, squealing, shouting, having fun? They weren’t outside plotting, “Dad’s really trying to focus over there, trying really hard to concentrate, let’s go ruin his whole day!” But we make it that personal, don’t we? We think it’s all about us when we might be surprised at how little people think of us.
Or, how often are you angry right now, because what just happened isn’t a big deal by itself, but it happened on top of all the other junk you’re dealing with and you have no margin, no elasticity left, you have no buffer left to absorb the bumps. Friends, that’s a very real part of living in this carnivorous city. It’s not one big thing that sets you off; it’s the cumulative power of a thousand little things that you’re trying to care about all at once.
But do you understand God’s judgment of our anger, of our tirades, when we berate and belittle or lash out?
Friends I cannot soften what Jesus has said, He really means it: He wants us to know that no matter what our ‘excuse’ might be, everything from murder to simply calling someone a fool merits judgment before a Holy God. We want to think it’s not that big of deal, we want to blow it off, explain it away, but He comes at it from three different angles: being angry, calling someone Raca, or saying you fool – the repetition is intentional to make sure we don’t miss it, can’t avoid it.
And then, He goes even farther:
23 Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.
Here’s the point: a godly heart moves beyond what I think about others – how I speak about them and treat them and actually asks: what do they think about me? Have I offended them, do they have anything against me? This is NOT a call to let others know how they have offended you; it’s what you have done to them. That’s an important distinction. If they have something against you, then you take the initiative, you seek them out, you take responsibility for reconciliation – you received it from God, now reflect it to them.
Do you see how radical this is? Do you feel the intensity of this?
Jesus is saying it’s more important to seek peace with other people than to come and worship. That shows how big of a deal this is for God – how much He values our horizontal relationships, and not just our relationship with Him. God wants you to live at peace with your neighbor, to have clean hands and a pure heart when you come to worship.
Now, that leads me to make a very important note here: this instruction is for those already in relationship with Him, this is not a call to make things right before you can come to God for salvation. You don’t have to make everything right before you come to God the first time, in fact, that’s why you come, you come because you know your life is messed up. You know you’ve done wrong. You don’t have to get everything right before you come, in fact, you can’t. This is for those who come to worship God after they have been saved, born-again, for those who are already in relationship with Him. He’s telling those people, if you remember someone has something against you, then go deal with that first.
This is harder than just forgiving them. It’s easier to forgive than to seek forgiveness, isn’t it? But that’s what Jesus is calling us to do: He’s sending us to take action that’s going to be humiliating and awkward at times, it’s going to be inconvenient and it’s going to require effort.
The ultimate goal is to live at peace with others. The Bible is very clear that our relationships with other human beings have an impact on our spiritual lives. Anger and conflict hinder worship. Friction with your wife can hinder your prayers men (1 Peter 3:7), the way you speak to people and what they think of you impacts your ability to serve in ministry leadership (1Tim 3). We’re going to celebrate communion this morning and Paul warns about not partaking in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11). In other words, there are consequences in heaven for our relationships on earth.
So, in light of all this, what must I do?
Well, it would be easy to say, “Bite your tongue.” But the answer isn’t just more self-control, it’s self-renewal, don’t just take your thoughts captive, execute those prisoners and seek new life.
One of the verses we look to often is:
Matt 12:34 “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks”
Which shows us there’s more involved here than just not speaking your mind – you have to go farther upstream and cleanse your heart.
See your sin for what it is. Don’t make excuses for it. Fire your inner lawyer: that little voice in your head that tries to explain why things are really OK. Don’t listen to that voice, listen to God’s Word as it speaks clearly to you and says, “You’re angry, and it’s sin.” Hear that voice and agree with it. Dig into it. Think about and explore, why do I get angry? What’s really going on? Not just with the symptoms, but what’s the deeper disease, what’s behind it all? And spend time working on that with God and with other Christians.
When you’re angry, it might help you to think about things this way: if what they have done is actually wrong, they’re in danger of hell-fire. So, are you concerned about that? For example, if a child disobeys their parents, it’s not just an affront to the parent; it’s a sin against God. Does that make you have sympathy and compassion for them?
Jesus is giving us a central principle for life here. Our whole attitude toward others needs to be one that is righteous and loving.
So, seek reconciliation with others wherever necessary. Humble yourself and initiate whenever you can.
The whole point of what we have seen this morning is this: it takes much less than you think to be guilty. God has insanely high standards. This is what perfection looks like; this is what holiness looks like. So, it shows us how great God is, how high His expectations are, how vast the difference is between Him and us.
But, it also shows us how much He loves us. When you look into the mirror that Jesus is holding up and realize that you are actually much worse off than you thought, you might be tempted to despair. Don’t. Because not only does this mirror magnify your sin, it magnifies your God. Yes, that wretched, despicable, verbal murderer and abuser is you, but God still loves You. What you’re seeing this morning is what God has always seen.
You worship a God that says name calling is the same as murder, but He’s also a God who finds murderers, tracks them down, forgives them, and then uses them in ministry – real killers as well as word and thought slingers. Think of Moses, David, and Paul just to name a few. So agree with Him, receive Him, and praise Him.
If you’re here with us and you’re not a Christian this morning, then I want to say you’re welcome, we love having you here. But you also need to know that God is not your buddy. He is your adversary. You have sinned against Him whether you know it or not, it’s like speeding on the freeway, you didn’t know the speed limit was only 55 and the cop pulled you over for going 70. Ignorance is no excuse. You’re still guilty in the trooper’s eyes. The same is true with you and God.
He is not your friend, He is your adversary, and you are on your way to judgment. So let me encourage you: agree with Him quickly, while you are still on the way to the final judgment. If He is speaking to you, listen, and agree. Admit your guilt and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. He promises to forgive you, right here and right now, of all your sins, to give you a fresh start a new beginning, and eternal life to your dead soul. You can do that right there where you sit, right now – just between you and God.
The ushers are going to come forward and distribute the elements for communion. I want to encourage us all to take a moment to reflect on the issue and anger, and the way we speak, the things we think, and do business with God. What do we need to confess, where do we need to agree with God, and where do we need to repent – who do we need to reconcile with? And then, remember, God has always known what you’re just starting to see, and He has loved you anyway – so praise Him. As you understand more of your sin, may it lead you to appreciate more of your Savior. Let’s pray.