We continue our walk through the Sermon on the Mount today, examining Jesus’ words about the sins of passion: anger and lust.
“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. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
Last week, we examined Jesus’ relationship with the law, and the relationship His followers now have with the law after receiving salvation. The last few verses of that passage call for a different kind of relationship: one of internal, God-wrought, Spirit-driven, heartfelt obedience, rather than an external obedience that is only concerned with one’s self-image.
In this passage, Jesus begins showing the different kind of obedience He expects from His followers. In the Ten Commandments, God commands the people of Israel to not murder others. So why here does Jesus go a step further and say that it is just as wrong to harbor hatred in the heart as it is to act on it? Why didn’t God give that command back in Exodus?
The Ten Commandments were given as a way to govern the people of Israel while showing them a general picture of what it means to be faithful to God. They were never deemed exhaustive, by God or anyone else. And God made it clear that He cares about the heart more than external rituals. Psalm 50 makes it clear that God desires obedience that comes from the heart, and the Ten Commandments, along with the rest of His law, reveals His heart, His character. So the Ten Commandments were meant to point to who God is, and the heart should be affected with a desire not only to keep the letter of the law, but the heart of the law, as well.
The New Testament also speaks of a new work of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. Rather than the law being something external that God’s people sought to obey, the law would now be written on people’s hearts (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). Where the Ten Commandments serve as an example for a nation to follow, much as the US has laws that govern society, the work of the Spirit changes the heart.
So, in regards to anger: God has established the pretty universal fact that murder is wrong. People from all kinds of religious belief systems hold that murdering others is a bad thing. Simple enough, right? But then Jesus shows up and says, “You hate your brother…that’s just as bad. You might as well have murdered him.” According to Jesus, what you do with what’s in your heart isn’t what matters: it’s what’s in your heart. When deciding your guilt, it matters not, according to Jesus, whether or not you acted on those impulses, whether anger or lust. God cares about your heart.
I can confidently say that, according to the Ten Commandments and to the law of my country, I have never murdered someone, nor have I committed adultery. But when I look, when we all look, at Christ’s words in this passage, we’re all leveled: We have all been angry, maybe not to the point of wanting to kill someone, but we have all wished ill on someone, we have all been angry and harbored anger in our hearts. We have all struggled with lust. It takes less than a second. We have all, as Paul says in Romans 3:23, “sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
So far from lowering the bar of the law, Jesus tells us that we’re actually worse than we think we are. That although we may keep the Ten Commandments externally, we are dead inside, because our hearts are disgusting. But praise God that when we come to Jesus, we get new hearts. We get the Spirit. And God changes our hearts, just like He promises in Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31.
So, being made new in Christ, how do we fight this sin? What can we do to put it off?
First and foremost, we trust in the same grace that saves us to sanctify us. The same grace that led us to trust Christ to come be our Lord and forgive us of our sins, and give us His righteousness, is the same grace that will lead us to walk out that righteousness. Those whom God justifies, He also sanctifies. Being holy is not something we can do on our own. We are always in need of God’s grace. So in this, praying for God’s work of grace in our lives must be a daily task. We must daily depend on the work of God to change us, and any pursuit of holiness must begin with faith that God has gone before us and will go with us to make us the men and women we’re called to be.
We also need to use the gospel to fight our sin. We fight because Jesus is Lord, and He has given us His righteousness, and we want to be who we are in Christ. But how does who we are in Christ help us fight anger and lust?
You are dearly loved by God in Christ. The God of the universe has promised to provide all that you need. You have an inheritance with Christ, provided you continue to walk with Him. God has promised that when others leave you, when others betray you, He will be faithful. God has designed sex to be good and holy in the covenant of marriage. Use these promises of God to fight back against the lies of lust and anger. Don’t settle for junk! Don’t “set before (your) eyes anything that is worthless!” as Psalm 101:3 says. We fight back against the lies of sin with the true and awesome promises of God.
In regards to anger, we also need to redirect our anger. God expects us to hate in some capacity, for He gets angry. It’s what we get angry at that determines whether or not it’s sinful. If the injustices committed by ISIS and Boko Haram don’t make us angry, we need to ask God to make us angry. If the sin in your life doesn’t make us angry, we need to repent of being apathetic toward Christ. Anger toward what makes God angry is a holy, godly attribute, that should lead us to do what we can to advance the kingdom of God. As I’ve said before, stealing from author Joe Thorn, we need to “hate well.”
Trust in Jesus. Be made new. We won’t be changed overnight, but by God’s grace, we will be changed, if we have put our faith in Christ.
Lord, may we fight our sin by trusting you. May our faith not make us lazy, but may we pursue you with a holy passion, to know you and be like you. May you finish what you started in our lives, for your glory and our good.