Matthew 5:21-22

Setting and Overview
Verse 21 of Matthew 5 begins the second half of the chapter, which is built around six antitheses. In many ways, these antitheses are a natural application and exposition of Jesus’s teaching in verses 17-20. Each of the six contrasts the common understanding of the time versus the true direction and fulfillment of the law. Jesus isn’t contradicting the law here, but He is challenging how people have understand its meaning and purpose. In the first antithesis, Jesus will look at the sixth commandment and show how in focusing only on the act of murder itself, the Jewish people have excused the danger of the attitude at its core.
Jesus begins each of the antitheses with “you have heard it said.” This saying not only alludes to literal hearing but focuses instead on understanding. He isn’t going to deny what the law says, but he will contrast it with how it should be understood as fulfilled in Him, as indicated by the repeated phrase “but I say to you.” Those who commit murder were subject to judicial punishment under the Old Testament law (Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:14, Deuteronomy 16:18.) Jesus doesn’t mitigate that punishment but instead expands the acts that would cause it. The three examples given: being angry, insulting someone, and calling someone a fool aren’t necessarily different degrees of anger, but rather different examples. Insulting someone was especially bad in Jewish culture because a person’s name reflected their character and heritage, and to insult someone was to strip the name away. The word “fool” appears repeatedly in Proverbs and indicates both intellectual and moral emptiness. This kind of attitude is dangerous toward anyone, but especially other Christians (I Timothy 2:8, I John 3:13.) The three examples of punishment all point back ultimately to God’s judgment. While man may only be able to judge the outward action, God knows and judges the heart. The sinful attitudes which the pious kept covered up would one day be laid bare, and that attitude would reveal them in heart to be no different from murderers, and subject to the same punishment.

Examination and Application
Not all anger is sinful (Ephesians 4:26) but sinful anger is far more common than righteous anger, so Jesus doesn’t need to specify what kind of anger He has in mind in verses 21-22. This sinful anger will be distinguished from righteous anger in many ways, but among them are selfishness (when we are responding only because we are attacked), hypocrisy (when we are angry at someone else for the types of things that we do ourselves), pride (when we demonstrate a lustful zeal for vengeance – Matthew 7:1-5, James 4:11-12, Romans 14:3-4, I Corinthians 4:5), and emotion (when we are responding according to what feels good, instead of what we carefully discern to be right.) If our thoughts were laid bare, would we be ashamed of them? Would we struggle to defend them? If we take Jesus’s teaching here seriously, then we must be serious about examining our attitude toward others, especially other Christians, and seeking the reconciliation and healing that is possible only in Him.
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