Matthew 5:21-24 (ESV)
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 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. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
As fellow believers in Christ, we have become brothers and sisters in the family God and fellow members of the body of Christ. We are individual members, yet we are one in Christ.
1 Co. 12:27 (ESV) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Romans 12:5 (ESV) so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Ephesians 4:25 (ESV) Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.
When change occurs, whether in a church setting, at work, or at home, stress levels can rise and emotions can be affected.
Sometimes, even though we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we can become offended by, hurt by, or angry with, one another. Most of the time these offenses are totally unintended, and often the person who causes an offense is not even aware that it has taken place, but when they do happen we should know what the Scriptures tell us to do.
The two passages we will study for the next two weeks, I believe, tell us two things about interpersonal relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ who share fellowship with one another on a regular basis in a local church setting.
First, that right relationships demand serious, radical action.
Second, that right relationships demand sensitive, individual action.
But before we look at the first let’s look at a few things two these passages have in common that I believe tie them together even though they appear 13 chapters apart in the Gospel of Matthew.
-Both passages are recorded as the very words of Jesus himself and in both cases he addresses the people as adelphos, meaning brothers, and by implication, sisters, so the intended audience is fellow believers in Christ
-Both passages command us to go to another person, in one case we are to go to someone we have offended, in the other, to go to someone who has offended us, so in either case, our responsibility is to go. If we know an offense has occurred we should seek reconciliation.
-The imperative sections of both passages are in the second person singular – that is, both tell us to speak individually to another person if at all possible. “You (singular) go,” not “you (plural) go.” This is not primarily about group reconciliation. Rather, it is about individual reconciliation.
As you know, there are two extremes to avoid in dealing with interpersonal issues between fellow believers. The first extreme is avoidance. Some Christians are more tempted to avoid dealing with such issues at all costs.
The second extreme is insensitivity. Other Christians, when dealing with such issues, are more tempted to come on too strongly and blow the other person out of the water, so to speak. These passages, I believe help us to avoid both extremes.
Let’s look today at Matthew five which tells us that
- Right relationships demand SERIOUS, RADICAL action
The first two verses tell us that
Ordinary insults are serious to God
“21You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’
When Jesus says in relation to murder (Exo 20:13 and Deut 5:7), “You have heard it was said to those of old,” indicates that what will follow is not merely the teaching of the law itself, but the teaching as interpreted by the scribes and Pharisees, and that he intends to restore an understanding of the true nature of God’s law as demanding total, practical holiness, not simply outward observance.” (quote and paraphrase from Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, note on p. 1551)
He would later denounce the scribes and Pharisees for their overemphasis on external conformity to the law, while ignoring or neglecting the internal aspects of it. Matt. 23:25-28 (ESV) “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
In our passage today Jesus is interpreting for us the true intent of the law. He is saying it is not about outward appearance, but rather, the inner quality of the heart. He uses the techniques of contrast and exaggeration to do this. In the three phrases of verse 22 the intensity of the attitudes of the heart remain on the same level, while the intensity of the judgment rendered for each successive attitude rises to an exaggeratedly extreme level.
22 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.”
Most of us consider anger, the occasional insult, or name calling to be wrong, but perhaps not totally unacceptable when we’re under stress. We fall into it from time to time, and perhaps therefore, almost consider it normal, or at least excusable under certain circumstances. We sometimes excuse ourselves with the adage, “After all, we’re only human.”
However, Jesus wishes to awaken his hearers and us from our self-deception and lethargy. See how he escalates judgment’s intensity for each successive offense? “Anger” merely results in judgment or loss of fellowship with one individual, “insults” result in examination by the council and possibly excommunication from the community, and “calling someone a fool” results in condemnation to hell.
Jesus wants us to wake up and say, “So you mean if I call someone a fool, I’ll go to hell?” His answer would likely be, “If you are truly a believer, you will not go to hell, but I want you to know that holding anger against someone and even everyday insults and name calling betrays your true angry feelings, which are very serious to God, as serious as murder, because they stab your fellow believer like a knife.”
To be called a fool, or an idiot, or an imbecile, can cut a person deeply. It is not intended to correct. It is intended to wound and to hurt, to get back at the person who offended you in the first place.
We do this, oftentimes, before we can catch ourselves. It just jumps out of our mouths because anger or hurt is in our hearts. Lk. 6:45 (ESV) tells us, The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.
And when we speak out of an angry heart, it causes a breach in our relationship with a fellow brother or sister. Unless forgiveness follows, that breach remains between two believers who were once one because of their mutual relationship with Christ and membership in the body of Christ.
Anger tells us something needs to be changed, either in us or in someone or something else. Eph. 4:26-27 (ESV) tells us, Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil.
It is possible to be angry without sinning. Anger should motivate us to discover what needs to change whether in us or in something else.
In seminary I became painfully aware of some significant anger in myself that was a result of fear. I feared confronting people whom I considered powerful, because I was afraid of confronting my own parents. I had developed an irrational fear in my early years that confrontation might cause my mother to become unstable, even suicidal, that I unknowingly carried into adult life. Not only that, I was afraid that in confrontation I would lose their love and support. Because I was afraid of confronting powerful people, when I felt angry toward them I often did not express it, but instead took it out inappropriately on my family and others who were less powerful. And I found myself seething inside much of the time. Anger told me something needed to change so I spent the last year of seminary working through those issues with a trusted counselor.
Returning to our passage, what we do with our anger is at issue here. If we let the sun go down on our anger, if it remains unresolved, we will direct it at one another giving the devil an opportunity to cause a breach between us.
The next two verses tell us that when such a breach occurs
Radical action is required
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
It’s easy to miss the radical nature of these verses. At first glance, it appears to a modern believer that it is saying if I remember someone has something against me, for example while we’re receiving the offering at church, I should hold onto my offering, go to my brother and ask forgiveness, then place my offering in the plate after the service. That’s true, I should, but it goes beyond that.
Jesus gives us a mini-parable here to make the point that radical action is required to maintain the unity of our individual relationships in Christ.
Here’s the story in the context in which Jesus told it. If you – John, Matthew, Peter, having travelled nearly 70 miles on foot from Galilee to Jerusalem once a year to offer an animal sacrifice in the temple – remember there that someone has something against you back in Galilee; you are to leave the animal there at the temple, travel several days back to Galilee to make amends with your brother and several more days to return to Jerusalem, then and only then should you present your offering in the temple. Reconciliation with brothers and sisters in Christ is that important.
For us, it would be equivalent to travelling across the country by car to attend a very special Bible conference, and while there, remembering that someone back home has something against you, so you drive several days to get home, make amends with your brother, then drive back across the country to attend the remainder of the conference. Maintaining right relationships requires radical action. It’s that important to maintain the unity of the body of Christ.
Practically speaking, how do you know when a brother or sister has something against you? How do you know when you have offended someone?
There are at least two ways. If you remember the offending words that came out of your mouth or the offending actions, as was the case in Jesus’ parable, you should go and confess your fault and seek the person’s forgiveness.
Sometimes – oftentimes – we aren’t aware initially that we have offended someone, but over time, we come to suspect we have. Pastor Jim Glasgow used to say you can tell you have hurt a person, “When their countenance falls.” They used to look you in the eye, but now they look away from you. They used to speak to you in passing, but now they don’t speak at all, or it appears that when the see you coming they pass on the other side of the room. Or perhaps they’ve stopped returning your phone calls or emails. Those are some of the possible signs.
If you suspect you have hurt a person, when you meet with them, you might say something like, “Lately, I’ve noticed when we pass one another in the hall, you don’t look me in the eye and you don’t speak when I say hello to you. Is it just my imagination or is there something that’s causing you to feel uncomfortable around me? Have I done something to offend you?
We should not say anything that sounds accusative. Simply report what we have observed as objectively as possible and ask for their interpretation of what we have observed. It’s also best to do this as soon as possible after the incident has taken place so the person will remember what you are talking about.
They may say, “No, it has nothing to do with you.” Or they may say, “Yes, here’s what happened and why I’m feeling this way toward you.” We should then “get wrong” and take responsibility for our part of the offense and seek their forgiveness.
The offended person may be able to forgive you immediately and let it go, or he may need to talk about it to express and release some of his anger or hurt toward you. Try not to become defensive as the offended person enumerates the damage you he feels you have done. Your responsibility is to confess your fault, their responsibility is to forgive. Be patient with them and let God’s grace work in them as it did in you to bring you to confession. Our goal is to seek reconciliation between fellow believers in order to restore our unity in Christ.
After studying this passage we should ask ourselves:
- Am I willing to acknowledge that seemingly ordinary inner attitudes like anger and seemingly ordinary insults and name calling that result from my anger can cause serious damage to my relationship with God and with fellow believers and, and am I willing to seek God’s help in overcoming them and avoiding them in the future?
- Am I willing to go to radical lengths to be reconciled with a brother or sister I have offended in order to restore the unity of the body of Christ between us?
How is Christ exalted in this passage? In two ways:
- He interprets the true meaning of the law for us. By his teaching he restores us to an understanding of the true nature of God’s law as demanding total, practical holiness, not simply outward observance.
- He embodies the true meaning of the law in us. By his example He himself is the embodiment of total practical holiness, and because we are in a vital relationship with him, and by His Spirit in us he enables us to live in the same manner as he lived.
Next week, we’ll look at Matthew 18 and how right relationships with one another demand sensitive, individual action on our part.