The Heart of the Matter
Matthew 5:17 – 26
I have a confession to make. About a month ago I had to go to the airport to pick up my daughter from her trip to California. Her trip had encountered several problems with planes which resulted in her arriving in Philly airport at around 2:00am. It was a miserable, cold and foggy night and I was tired and frustrated. So I was in a hurry to get home. The roads were absolutely deserted that night. I drove for miles without seeing another car. So I was cruising. We were driving north on 202 headed towards West Chester at around 3:15am when I saw the familiar flashing lights in my rear-view mirror. I was ticked.
I stayed calm on the outside. I wanted to show respect to the police officer and I wanted to set a good example of what to do when you are pulled over for my daughter. I explained to the officer what had happened, hoping for little sympathy. But he returned a few minutes later with my first ticket in about 12 years.
As we pulled away from the police officer, my daughter commented that I had handled myself calmly and she was impressed. But inside I was stewing and angry. You see I thought I was justified in breaking the law. I thought that my extenuating circumstances gave me a reason to break the written law of the land and do my own thing. I was mad, because someone else held me accountable.
We don’t like to be told what to do. There is a rebellious and self-centered streak in all of us that says: I want things my way. And so we try to squirm and wiggle around the rules and regulations of our families, our church, our country, and most importantly, our Lord. When reading the Bible we may be tempted to say things like: “Well that was for a different time and place, and that doesn’t apply to me anymore. Things are different now.”
The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most beautiful passages ever written. In it, Jesus helps us to see that God is concerned for character, for holiness, and for the heart of a person. It’s the heart of the matter that really matters to God. Jesus was saying some pretty radical things in this sermon, and the natural conclusion of the disciples may have been that Jesus was opposed to the laws of Israel, that He was in some way anti- Moses, or anti-law. And so he responds to this criticism that He believes is rising in the minds of His disciples. Let’s begin reading at Matthew 5:17
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
1. Jesus looks beyond external obedience to include matters of the heart.
What is Jesus saying? Let’s break it apart.
First, he says that dropping the law of God is not His mission on earth. He is not anti-law. He is not some revolutionary seeking to put away with the writings of the Old Testament, and establish something completely new and disconnected to the story and purpose of God with the nation of Israel.
The word for abolish can also be translated as ‘to tear down’ or to ‘destroy’ or ‘to make null in void.” Jesus emphatically is stating that he has no interest in the removal of the law (which was direct revelation of God’s will for the people in regard to their daily life) and the prophets (which was the indirect revelation of God’s will and plan for the people both present and future).
He didn’t come to end it, but to fulfill it! This word for fulfill carries the idea of absolute fulfillment.
And then he gets real serious. He says in effect: “Listen up! You have my word on this. Truly the law will remain until heaven and earth pass away and all is accomplished by God. And He gets real specific. He says there isn’t one iota (which was the smallest Greek letter or in the Hebrews ‘yod” or jot) or one dot which in the Hebrews is ‘tittle’ (which was just a little hook on the end of a letter) that will pass away until everything of God’s will and plan is accomplished.
Every Word in the Old Testament has a purpose and is there for us to be instructed in the ways of the Lord.
Now we must understand something here. Jesus has fulfilled completely the requirements of the ceremonial Law of Moses. He lived a completely righteous, holy, and sinless life and He offered Himself as the atoning sacrifice for our sins completely removing the need for the ceremonial parts of the law. We no longer sacrifice animals, because the blood of Jesus has cleansed us and made us whole.
But we still can learn from reading those portions of the Old Testament. We can grow to understand the incredible standard of holiness that God called His people to, and the seriousness of sin.
Jesus did not destroy the law, he fulfilled it. And he reinterpreted the moral part of the law of God to help us see that God cares about the heart of man. Jeremiah prophesied that one day God would write His law on the hearts of all men. The 10 commandments are still valid for today, and Jesus has brought new life and depth to their meaning.
One theologian put it this way:
“How can Jesus say that not a ‘title’ shall pass from the law, since the development of the Church shows us that the ceremonial law, that the whole Mosaic dispensation, has been annihilated by the influences proceeding from Christ? We answer: He has fulfilled the Law, while He has released it from the temporary forms in which its eternal validity was confined; He has unfolded its spiritual essence, its inward perfection. Not even a ‘tittle’ of the ceremonial Law has passed away, if we regard the Mosaic Law as a whole; for the ideas which form its basis; as the distinction between clean and unclean, are confirmed by Christ, and contained in the Law of holiness which He teaches men.”
So Jesus came to fulfill God’s Law. He then continues with this admonition to us:
If you annul or break the least commandment and teach others to do the same, then you are going to be least in the coming kingdom. But if you give attention to even the smallest of commands, and teach others to do the same then you are going to be great in God’s kingdom.
What He is saying is this: If you have a low opinion of law and relax the spirit of the law which is holiness, will result in a low standing in God’s kingdom. But a careful attention to the law and a personal pursuit of holiness will lead to greatness in God’s kingdom.
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.”
And then He gives the example of the current teachers of the law in Israel, the scribes and Pharisees. They were famous for taking the word of God and complicating it with a series of rules and regulations that were very specific and impossible to fulfill completely. The Pharisees had literally hundreds of laws and spent all their time making sure that they fulfilled these laws, and then they would use them as a sort of religious club over the people dooming them to failure and hopelessness.
The Pharisees were religious men, not spiritual men, and the people believed they could never be like the Pharisees. But now Jesus challenges them to see that their righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. These men were great at outward obedience, but their hearts were full of pride and arrogance. They saw themselves as better than others. They believed they were the only ones who pleased God because they kept the rule book. But inside their hearts were bitter towards people, they had no mercy and compassion, and they were quick to set themselves up as judge and jury over others.
It is in this context that Jesus begins to talk about the heart of the matter.
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your heart.”
Where is your heart today? Is it soft and tender to the Lord? Do you have a hunger to know His Word and to hide it in your heart? Do you seek to please the Lord, not just outwardly like I did when I got that speeding ticket, but in your heart as well?
Are you pursuing a walk with the Lord that is close and intimate and teachable? Let Jesus write his laws upon your heart. Let His Word fill your mind and renew it. Let pleasing Him become your first priority.
2. Jesus illustrates this principle with the 6th commandment.
“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.”
Woe! Talk about hitting us hard. In this teaching of Jesus we see degrees of anger increasing and the degree of judgment increasing with them. In the Jewish justice system they would have local courts that would handle a simple case and render the judgment that was appropriate.
If it was a more serious breach of the law, the case would be turned over to the Sanhedrin and they would render their judgment. And then the most serious breaches of the law resulted in death. The picture of Gehenna or Hell refers to the dump outside Jerusalem where fires were continually burning.
Here Jesus re-confirms the 6th commandment “Thou shall not murder” and amplifies it to look at matters of the heart. He in effect is saying, you may not actually strike another person dead, but your anger, if left unchecked can murder the heart, spirit and character of another person and is in God’s eyes ‘murder’.
Using Jesus standard of holiness, it is safe to say that most if not all of us in this room fail the test and have been guilty of murdering another person with our attitudes or our words.
Notice the intensity Jesus has here. He begins with “You have heard it said” and then contrasts it with a very emphatic and strong ‘But I say!’ I am God, I have authority, and my holiness is offended when you are angry with your brother.
Now we must remember that anger in itself is not wrong. Jesus was angry that His father’s house had become a den or thieves and He overturned the tables in the Temple. His anger was a righteous kind of anger. He was protecting the holiness of God and giving honor to God.
Paul quoting the Psalms wrote: ‘In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27)
Anger is an emotion. It happens. But anger that remains unresolved, and that is left to stew and ferment over time, and that evolves into bitterness and malice and hatred is not only an offense to God, but it also gives opportunity for Satan to get a foothold in your heart.
So what are the degrees of anger, Jesus is describing here?
The first is just a general nagging attitude of anger towards a brother (a fellow believer). The grammar of this sentence goes beyond the flash of anger that may come up naturally. Jesus is referring to the kind of anger that is left to stew for awhile. We don’t say anything, we haven’t acted upon this anger, but inside we are mad.
That person, if they don’t move towards resolving their anger, is going to be judged by God.
So what should you do?
- Commit to not let the sun go down with that kind of attitude towards another brother
- Don’t sweep it under the carpet. If you do the next time you have an argument or something happens, you are going to pull up that carpet and all the dust of the past is going to spread. It’s better to deal with things right away.
- What if it’s just a general feeling, not based upon anything the other person has done, you just struggle with liking them. They tend to irritate and annoy you and the other person is unaware of how you feel? You may want to confess this to God alone, or it may be appropriate to talk with the person about it.
- Consider praying for blessing in the other person’s life. I had a relationship like this with another person. There really wasn’t anything to confront the person with. I just generally didn’t like this person and every time I was around them, I would feel this nasty attitude start to rise up in my heart. So I determined that I would pray for that person every day. And I started to look for ways to be a blessing. I looked for ways to serve them. Proverbs 25:21-22 says:
“If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
- Check your own attitude. Often the log in our eye is so much bigger than the speck in another person’s eye. Maybe your anger is really about something else, and you are just projecting it on this person. Maybe you’ve slipped into self-centered living and your pride in on the throne of your heart, and you need to step down and let Christ take he rightful place in your heart.
- The point is, don’t let the anger grow.
The second level of anger is when these general feelings and attitudes slip into attacks with the tongue. Now you start to put the other person down. You start insulting the other person either to their face, or behind their back. You call them ‘raca’ which was an Aramaic word which meant ‘empty headed”. We might say ‘stupid’ or ‘idiot’ or ‘nitwit’ or a ‘taco short of a combination plate’.
When your anger has moved from here (heart) to here (mouth) then you are on a slippery slope to trouble. That is murder of another person’s character. You are insulting someone made in the image of God and loved by Him. You are attacking one of God’s kids. And as a parent let me tell you, nothing raises my wrath like when someone comes after one of my kids. Like a big polar bear I spring into action to protect one of my bear cubs.
Jesus says this kind of action will bring you before the council. It’s serious business. When James was writing about the tongue, he described it as a small spark of flame that can set a whole forest of fire. We sing the song: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going” and when we sing that we are talking about one person taking the step to speak the gospel to another. But the opposite is true as well. It only takes one unkind word, one hurtful comment to send a relationship down the tubes. We must learn to deal with our anger, and guard our tongues.
We have all been there. We wish we wouldn’t have said such and such. What do you do if you fall? You immediately ask for forgiveness. You acknowledge that your words were sinful and hurtful and you repent.
The third level is when these feelings of anger have been allowed to ferment, resentment has grown, and now the person begins to attack the heart. The vicious words move from ‘stupid’ to ‘You fool!”. And what this word literally means is to call someone ‘a waste’. The word is ‘moros’ from which we get our English Word “moron’ but it doesn’t exactly mean what we think of when we hear that English Word. It really means that you see nothing good in another person, and you have passed judgment upon them. “It’s like when you say to someone: “Go to hell!” The anger has become so intense, and the bitterness so great that you decide this person is not longer worthy of any effort of reconciliation. You completely cut them off.
And Jesus warns when you get that far, it’s not the other person who is in danger of hell’s fire, it’s you. Anger can eat away at your heart, and destroy the work of God in you. Maybe you’ve known that kind of angry person.
They are like a cup of coffee filled to the brim. Any slight bump and all that scalding liquid spills out on to you.
Leonardo DaVinci had such a bitter and long lasting argument with another painter, that while he was working on his masterpiece, “The Last Supper”, he decided to paint his enemies face as the face of Judas. Everyone immediately recognized Judas’ face as the face of this other painter, and that brought DaVinci great delight. He finally was getting even.
But as DaVinci continued to work on his painting, he discovered that he was having a very difficult time painting the face of Christ. Something was holding him back. Over a period of time he realized that it was his own anger and bitterness towards this other painter that was preventing him from finishing Christ’s face. So he went back to the portrait of Judas and removed his friends face and replaced with an anonymous face. Only then was He able to complete the face of Jesus.
3. The heart of Jesus is a heart of reconciliation.
“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.”
Notice that Jesus is concerned with immediate action. This is of the utmost priority to Him, even above and beyond the priority of worship. If you aren’t at peace with your brother, stop what you are doing, even if it is worshipping, and go get it right.
How many times have Christians failed to follow this advice? People can sit across from one another in church and never speak to one another. Families can sit down at dinner and not even look at one another.
The Bible warns: “If anyone says ‘I love God’, yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.”
I John 4:20
Jesus said in Matthew 6:15
“If you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Paul wrote in Romans 12:18
“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”
This is important to God! Be reconciled.
- Some things are simple as can be settled quickly and simply
- Other disputes may involve a whole series of misunderstandings and hurts that need to be talked over and worked out
- The point is start today. Begin today to make the effort to be reconciled. As much as it depends on you. You may make no headway at first, but keep trying. You might be ignored, or ridiculed, or perhaps even taken to court, but keep trying. Try to settle with the other person.
- Of course Jesus understands and recognizes that it takes two to reconcile. And so it may not always be possible. But in your heart of hearts you need to forgive, and release the anger and bitterness you feel towards your brother.
Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:3
‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
Someone once wrote that ‘resentment is me setting myself on fire in the hope that the smoke will somehow bother you.’
Jesus’ final illustration involves the courts. No believer should ever take another believer to court. You should seek to settle your differences outside of court or with a Christian arbitrator who can help settle any dispute. Peacemaking Ministries which have offices in this area can help you with those kinds of problems.
So let’s summarize what Jesus has said to us this morning:
- He calls us to holiness of heart. The moral laws of God still stand and we must pursue them with our feet and with our hearts!
- In the example of anger, we must work quickly to resolve any issues and not allow anger to descend into bitterness or resentment. Anger that is unresolved is like murder, and there are consequences that come with unresolved anger. Our goal must always be to reconcile with another.
There is a rock band called Korn. I don’t expect many of you to have ever heard of them. They are pretty godless and vulgar. I’ve never listened to their music, but I do know a story about one of their band members named Brian Welch.
Brian Welch left the band not too long ago while they were on tour in Israel. Brian was sick and tired of all the drugs, depression, and depravity. The anger of the music began to eat away at his soul.
And so one night in Israel the following occurred as reported by the Associated Press.
“Former Korn guitarist Brian “head” Welch was baptized Saturday in the Jordan River, just weeks after quitting his band, drug habits and rock and roll lifestyle for religion. Welch, a founding member of the multi-platinum band, and about 20 other white-robed Christian pilgrims from a Bakersfield, California church were immersed by their Pastor, Ron Vietti.
Welch said the ritual baptism had washed away his anger. “You know when you get angry and it builds up? I felt like hurting someone before, now I feel like hugging people.”
God can take even the hardest heart filled with anger, and make it a heart filled with His Love if we will simply surrender control of our lives back, over to Him.
May God add His grace to help us fulfill His calling of reconciliation!