A Commentary by John Stott
A Christian’s Righteousness: Avoiding anger
The first two illustrations which Jesus gave of his theme (namely that he was deepening, not destroying the demands of the law) relate to the sixth and seventh of the ten commandments, the prohibitions against murder and adultery.
The commandment *You shall not kill* would be better expressed ‘Do not commit murder’ (NEB), for it is not a prohibition against taking all human life in any and every circumstance, but in particular against homicide or murder. This is clear from the fact that the same Mosaic law, which forbids killing in the decalogue, elsewhere enjoins it both in the form of capital punishment and in the wars designed to exterminate the corrupt pagan tribes which inhabited the promised land. Both war and the death penalty are vexed questions which have always perplexed sensitive Christian consciences. And there have always been Christians on both sides of both fences. What needs always to be asserted by Christians in these debates is that, if the concept of the ‘just war’ is tenable and if the retention of the death penalty is justifiable, the reason is not because human life is ever cheap and readily disposable but the very opposite, namely that it is precious as the life of creatures made in God’s image. Those who campaign for the abolition of the death penalty on the ground that human life (the murderer’s) should not be taken tend to forget the value of the life of the murderer’s victim: ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; *for God made man in his own image.* (Gn.9:6) And those who campaign for unconditional pacifism tend to forget that, though the indiscriminate maiming and killing of civilians is utterly indefensible, God has given to society (whether the state or – by extension – some international body) the right and the responsibility to punish evildoers. (Rom.13:1ff.) I mention these things now, not because the complex issues involved in war and the death penalty can be treated here, but to argue that they cannot be solved by a simplistic appeal to the commandment *You shall not kill*,
The scribes and the Pharisees were evidently seeking to restrict the application of the sixth commandment to the deed of murder alone, to the act of spilling human blood in homicide. If they refrained from this, they considered that they had kept the commandment. And this apparently is what the rabbis taught the people. But Jesus disagreed with them. The true application of the prohibition is much wider, he maintained. It included thoughts and words as well as deeds, anger and insult as well as murder.
Anger is mentioned at the beginning of verse 22: *every one who is angry with his brother*. The additional words *without a cause* (AV) occur in most Greek MSS but not in the best. They are probably a later gloss and are therefore limited in modern revisions and translations. Nevertheless, there is every reason to believe that the gloss correctly interprets what Jesus must have meant. Not all anger is evil, as is evident from the wrath of God, which is always holy and pure. And even fallen human beings may sometimes feel righteous anger, although, being fallen, we should ensure that even this is slow to rise and quick to die down (Cf. Jas.1:19 and Eph.4:26, 27). Luther certainly knew in his own experience the meaning of righteous anger. He called it ‘an anger of love, one that wishes no one any evil, one that is friendly to the person but hostile to the sin. The reference of Jesus, then, is to unrighteous anger, the anger of pride, vanity, hatred, malice and revenge.
Tomorrow: Matthew 5:21-26. A Christian’s righteousness: avoiding anger (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.