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12. Maintaining Peaceful Relationships (Matthew 5:21-26)

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“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift. Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!

Matthew 5:21-26 (NET)

How can we maintain peaceful relationships with others?

After the fall in Genesis 3, God prophesied the discord that would occur in human relationships. The wife would desire to control her husband and the husband would try to dominate her (Gen 3:16). This fracture in marriage would spill over into all relationships. In fact, in Genesis 4, we see the first murder, as Cain killed his brother Abel. Paul taught that hatred, discord, fits of rage, dissensions, and factions are part of the sinful nature (Gal 5:20-21). Therefore, we are all prone to discord. Sadly, this discord is often greatest within families, including our church families.

In Matthew 5:21-26, Christ teaches the importance of maintaining peaceful relationships. God is watching and will judge those who live in discord. Christ begins by considering the ultimate fracture of a relationship—murder; then moves to the motive and acts which precede it. As we study Matthew 5:21-26, we’ll learn principles about how to maintain peaceful relationships.

Big Question: What does Matthew 5:21-26 teach about maintaining peaceful relationships?

To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Guard Our Hearts from Evil Thoughts—Including Anger

“You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment…

Matthew 5:21-22

Interpretation Question: What does Christ mean by the phrase, “You have heard that it was said”?

When Christ says, “You have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not murder,’” he is not referring specifically to the sixth commandment. He is referring to the common misinterpretation by the Jews of the sixth commandment. This is the first of six misinterpretations that Christ will consider in the Sermon on the Mount. By explaining these, Christ teaches the Jews how their righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:20).

When interpreting the sixth commandment, the Pharisees and scribes taught that if one had simply not murdered, he had obeyed the law and therefore was right with God. This made people feel holy and prideful, since they had “perfectly” kept God’s law. However, the OT law, properly interpreted, did not only focus on outward observances. All the OT laws can be summarized in two commands—love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). They did not just prohibit or command certain actions, they also prohibited and commanded certain heart motives. Essentially, we could ask the question, “If a person plans to murder someone, but at the last moment doesn’t because of fear of consequences or cowardice, is that person still just before God?” The answer is, “No!” God wants righteousness on the inside and not just the outside.

Christ taught that the absence of committing physical murder did not by itself protect a person from God’s judgment. He said, if a person was angry, he would be subject to judgment (v. 21). Though the same word for “judgment” is used in verses 21 and 22, it is not referring to the same judgment. In ancient Israel, if a person committed murder, he would be tried by a human court. The judgment for manslaughter was capital punishment. However, the second “judgment” Christ referred to was God’s. This is clear since no human court can condemn a person for evil motives without the corresponding act. God sees our heart, and he will judge us for anger. Though anger does not have the same consequence as murder, God sees it as murder since it’s the seed of murder. First John 3:15 says, “Everyone who hates his fellow Christian is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.”

Therefore, we have our first principle about how to maintain peaceful relationships. We must guard our hearts from poisonous thoughts and attitudes. In Genesis 4, God counseled Cain to master the sin in his heart, so that he wouldn’t murder his brother, and we must master our sinful hearts as well. Pastor Campbell Morgan rightly said, “The supervision of the Kingdom does not begin by arresting a criminal with blood-red hands; it arrests the man in whom the murder spirit is just born.”1 To maintain right relationships, we must battle our sin on the heart-level.

Application Question: How can we keep ourselves from anger and other evil attitudes?

1. To keep ourselves from anger, we must test if it is a righteous anger.

When Christ says, “anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment,” some versions add, “anyone who is angry ‘without cause.’” Many ancient manuscripts include this phrase; however, the best and oldest manuscripts do not.2 This means some scribe thought to himself, “Christ can’t be excluding all anger since some anger is just.” Though the addition was wrong, the interpretation of the scribe was correct. Scripture does teach that there is a righteous anger. Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a just judge; he is angry throughout the day.” Christ flipped tables and used a whip in the temple when people were being cheated and God dishonored (John 2). He called the Pharisees serpents, hypocrites, and whitewashed tombs because of their false teaching and evil hearts (Matt 23).

Interpretation Question: What is the difference between righteous anger and selfish anger?

Righteous anger is concerned with injustice done towards others and dishonor towards God. Unrighteous anger is concerned only with personal injustice—when people hurt or offend us. When sin came into the world, the natural tendency towards anger in man’s heart, which is part of being made in the image of God, became corrupt. It became consumed with defending self instead of God and others.

Only Christ perfectly demonstrated God’s righteous anger. When others were mistreated, Christ was angry like a lion. When he was mistreated, he was gentle like a lamb. Peter said this about how Christ responded to personal offense: “When he was maligned, he did not answer back; when he suffered, he threatened no retaliation, but committed himself to God who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23). We must do the same.

Therefore, in order to maintain peaceful relationships, we must test our anger. “Am I angry because others are being hurt and God is being dishonored? Or is this anger just about me being personally offended?” On the cross, Christ prayed for his enemies—asking for God to forgive them—and he died for them. We must bless those who hurt us as well.

2. To keep ourselves from anger, we must recognize that unrighteous anger and thoughts will be judged by God.

Christ taught that judgment would not just happen because of murder, but also because of being angry. God hates the sin in our hearts so much that he will discipline us because of it. Therefore, we must recognize it as a grievous sin. Sadly, we are often just like the Pharisees and scribes. We think as long as we haven’t cursed or slapped somebody then we are OK. No, God hates anger, jealousy, pride, and all wrong attitudes that lead up to discord and ultimately murder. Therefore, we must recognize these wrong attitudes as murderous sins before God.

Are we angry with a friend, relative, or co-worker? We must recognize it as a grievous sin against God—their Creator.

3. To keep ourselves from anger, we must view things from God’s perspective.

When Joseph was approached by his brothers, who originally sold him into slavery, he said, “As for you, you meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose, so he could preserve the lives of many people, as you can see this day” (Gen 50:20). He viewed God as in control of evil and using it for good. It was the same with Job, as he declared, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. May the name of the Lord be blessed!” (Job 1:21). They both saw God in control of all circumstances including the evil of men and demons. In addition, Christ, when he prayed for those who murdered him, said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” He realized that sin and Satan had blinded them. It didn’t make them less responsible, but it did negatively affect them. Similarly, we must see our circumstances from God’s perspective to keep ourselves free from anger. We must recognize God’s sovereignty and the bondage of Satan and sin on this world.

Do you see God as in control of all events, even bad things that happen to you? You can be sure he is using it for your good (Rom 8:28).

4. To keep ourselves from anger, we must constantly repent of it.

Heart sins are more difficult to stop than outward sins. We forgive somebody, but when we see them, all those bad emotions come back. When they talk, sometimes judgmental thoughts flood our hearts: “They are so hypocritical—so insincere! I can’t believe them!” First Corinthians 13:5 (NIV) says love holds “no record of wrongs” or it can be translated love does “not entertain evil thoughts” (Aramaic Bible in Plain English). Therefore, we must constantly repent of sins, and as we do that, God changes our hearts. At times, our ungodly heart motives may be so ingrained in us that we need to confess them to others and seek accountability and prayer, so that we can be free of them (James 5:16).

5. To keep ourselves from anger, we must resist the devil and his accusations.

The title “devil” means “accuser” or “slanderer,” and that is often what Satan does to our hearts. He shoots arrows of suspicion, bitterness, jealousy, and anger at us. In response, we repeat the bad experiences and evil words over and over again in our minds. Therefore, we must not only repent, but we must also resist the devil through prayer and God’s Word (James 4:7). When Satan accuses, we must quote Scripture’s command to “entertain no evil thoughts,” “to hold no record of wrongs,” and “to bless and not curse.” When he tries to stir us to commit evil acts towards them, we must quote Scripture’s command to feed our enemy when they are hungry and give them drink when they are thirsty (Rom 12:20). We must resist the devil by God’s Word and through submitting to God in prayer.

6. To keep ourselves from anger, we must overcome it with acts of love.

Romans 12:21 says: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Not only do we overcome the evil in others by doing good, but also the evil in us. As we act in love, often our emotions follow. Most people simply follow their emotions instead of leading their emotions. As we pray for people and serve them, our hard hearts often become soft hearts.

If we are going to maintain peaceful relationships, we must fight anger and sinful thoughts on the heart-level.

Application Question: Why is it so difficult to guard our hearts from anger and other wrong attitudes? How do you overcome anger? In what ways have you experienced the spiritual warfare of demonic accusations seeking to foster suspicion and bitterness in your heart?

To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Guard Our Tongues from Evil Speech—Including Slander

But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council, and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell.

Matthew 5:22b

Christ says that not only will wrong heart motives be judged by God, but also wrong speech. Anger is not only the seed of murder, but also the seed of slander and cursing. Typically, slander and cursing come before a murderous act. Two people are angry at one another—leading to verbal accusations and slander, and then physical abuse. Christ says even this second stage will be judged by God.

“Insult” can literally be translated “raca,” which is an Aramaic word meaning “empty.”3 It was like calling somebody a dummy, block-head, or a nobody. “Fool” means “stupid” or “dull.” We get the word “moron” from this Greek word.4 To the ancients, this word had moral and religious overtones. Psalm 14:1 says, “Fools say to themselves, ‘There is no God.’ They sin and commit evil deeds; none of them does what is right.” Because these people reject God, they live ungodly lives. They were vile people. “Raca” was primarily an attack on a person’s intellect and “fool” was an attack on a person’s character.

Christ said that to call somebody “Raca” would lead to their being taken before the “council.” “Council” can be translated “Sanhedrin” or “supreme court.” It referred to the highest court in the land that dealt with only the most serious offenses. To call somebody “fool” would lead to “hell.” Christ wants us to understand God takes cursing and slandering others seriously. James 4:11 says, “Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters…” We are not to murder people with our hands, hearts, or our words. The name “devil” actually means “slanderer.” When we curse others and gossip about them, we are doing Satan’s work, and God will judge us for it. God hates murder including the heart attitude and actions leading up to it. All animosity will lead to judgment and ultimately hell.5

Therefore, to maintain peaceful relationships, we must not only guard our hearts but our tongue. Our tongue commonly destroys relationships. James describes how the tongue is like a destructive fire. Though a match is little, it can destroy a whole forest (James 3:5-6). Many friendships, marriages, and other family relationships have been destroyed by unwise words. Wars have been started. Therefore, we must learn how to guard our tongue.

Application Question: How can we guard our tongues?

1. To guard our tongues, we must be slow to speak.

Proverbs 17:27 says, “The truly wise person restrains his words.” Wise people restrain their words. They realize how dangerous they are. Proverbs 18:21 says the power of life and death is in the tongue. Unrestrained words can destroy a person, a relationship, and a community. Therefore, wise people always consider their words. “If I say this, what will be the effect?” Many times, they simply choose to say nothing at all.

Are you controlling your tongue or simply speaking whatever is on your heart? Proverbs 29:11 says, “A fool expresses all his emotions but a wise person controls them” (God’s Word Translation).

2. To guard our tongues, we must only speak gracious and edifying words.

Colossians 4:6 says: “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer everyone.” It promises that if our conversations are full of grace—meaning that we bless people with our words even when they don’t deserve it—and also, if they are seasoned with salt—meaning that we turn conversations from perverse or ungodly talk to something edifying—then we will know how to answer everyone. It seems that when we choose to only speak for God, he will give us the words to say in various situations. On the reverse, if we don’t practice godly talk—we’re prone to sexual jokes, criticism, and complaining—then we won’t know how to answer people in a godly way. Essentially, whatever we practice, we’ll become good at in our lives.

Are you only speaking words that edify others?

3. To guard our tongues, we must remember that God will judge our words.

Again, Christ says that ungodly language will be judged by God—even landing some in hell. They don’t go to hell because of their words. Their words prove that they have never been saved. They give insight into what’s truly in their hearts. Good fruit comes from a good heart and bad fruit from a bad heart (Matt 12:33-35).

Jesus taught that not only will God judge our ungodly words but also idle ones (Matt 12:36). We are made in the image of God and there is the power of life and death in our tongues. We must use them properly; if not, God will judge us.

4. To guard our tongues, we must submit them to God.

James 3:7-8 says, “For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” No human can tame the tongue, only God can. Therefore, we must submit it to God. We must confess our sins and ask for God’s grace to control our tongues and use them for his glory. In Psalm 141:3, David said, “O Lord, place a guard on my mouth! Protect the opening of my lips!” We must also walk in the Spirit through spiritual disciplines, so we will produce the fruit of the Spirit which includes self-control (Gal 5:16, 22-23).

Are you guarding your tongue, or are you tearing people down with your words—slandering their intelligence and character? If so, you must remember God will judge such improprieties. To slander the creature is to slander his Creator. If we’re going to maintain peaceful relationships, we must guard our speech.

Application Question: Why is the tongue so hard to control? In what ways do you struggle with your tongue? In what ways have you experienced destruction in a family, friendship, or community because of unrestrained tongues?

To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Recognize that Discord Hinders Our Relationship with God

So then, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother and then come and present your gift.

Matthew 5:23-24

Next, Christ focuses on the effect of wrong relationships on worship. For the Pharisees and scribes, everything was centered around worship. “They spent much time in the synagogues and in the Temple. They made sacrifices, offered prayers, gave tithes, and carried on religious activities of every sort. But it was all heartless external ceremony.”6 In the illustration of one offering a gift at the altar, Christ demonstrated that right relationships with others are necessary to have a right relationship with God. To come to worship and offer sacrifices without practicing love in our relationships is simply an outward act with an evil heart. Paul said it this way, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Worship without love for God and others is just noise to God—a clanging cymbal. There is nothing redeeming about our worship if we’re allowing our relationships to stay in discord and unresolved tension. Sadly, this happens often. Pastors fight with their wives and children before coming to worship. Because of a fight, members won’t even look at one another at church or in a small group. This is not true worship; it is just pretense. We cannot have a right relationship with God without right relationships with others. Christ taught that if others were upset with us, we should leave worship, fix that relationship, and then return.

Scripture teaches that one’s horizontal relationships always reflect his or her vertical relationship. Christ said that if we don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive us (Matt 6:15). First John 4:20 says: “If anyone says ‘I love God’ and yet hates his fellow Christian, he is a liar, because the one who does not love his fellow Christian whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”

If we claim to love and worship God and yet are in discord with others, our worship is fake—we’re just liars. If we really love God, we will go and seek reconciliation with others, so we can truly worship God and receive his blessing.

Peter said something similar to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7. “Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners and show them honor as fellow heirs of the grace of life. In this way nothing will hinder your prayers.” Essentially, Peter taught that discord hinders the prayers of a husband and wife. They may pray but their prayers hit the ceiling—they are ineffective. We must recognize that it’s the same with us.

If we’re going to maintain peaceful relationships, we must realize that discord negatively affects our relationship with God and therefore our ministry to others. Holding on to unforgiveness means that he will not forgive our sins. It makes our prayers ineffective and our offerings as well. If we really want a right relationship with God and his blessing, we will seek to maintain peaceful relationships.

Application Question: In what ways have you experienced how discord hinders your relationship with God—whether in prayer, worship, meditation, or serving? Why are our relationships with others so important to God?

To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Seek to Resolve Conflicts Quickly

Reach agreement quickly with your accuser while on the way to court, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the warden, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny!

Matthew 5:25-26

Christ leaves the illustration of worship, and then uses a legal illustration. It was common in those days that if a person owed a debt but didn’t pay it, a plaintiff would take him to court. On the way to court, the accused could make amends with the plaintiff; but once the case had started it was out of their hands and in the hands of the judge. If the accused was found guilty, he was put into prison until the debt was paid.7 Typically, relatives would have to help pay bail or the bill while the person was incarcerated.

Christ’s point is unmistakable: We are to make every effort, with no delay, to reconcile our relationship with a brother or sister so we can avoid God’s discipline. Sadly, discord between friends, relatives, and associates often lasts for years. When this happens, there are great consequences to the unforgiving party. These consequences include hurt, the deepening of strongholds, and the loss of joy and relationships, but there is much more. In Matthew 18:21-35, Christ gave a similar illustration in the Parable of the Merciless Servant. A master had forgiven a servant a great debt; however, this same servant chose not to forgive a fellow servant of a lesser debt. Therefore, the master handed the merciless servant over to jailors to be tortured until he paid the debt. Christ spoke to his disciples saying that God would do the same to them if they didn’t forgive from the heart (v. 35).

These torturers probably picture demons. We see God discipline his people through Satan or demons several times in Scripture: Saul was handed over to a tormenting spirit for his sins (1 Sam 16:14). The man committing sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:5 was handed over to Satan. The two false teachers in 1 Timothy 1:20 were handed over to Satan as well. When we choose sin over God, we open the door for demonic torment. It may manifest in many ways—sickness, depression, discord, and other difficulties (see Job).

Again, in order to avoid God’s discipline, we must seek to reconcile as fast as possible. The longer we delay, the more opportunities we allow for Satan to attack us. Ephesians 4:26-27 says, “‘Be angry and do not sin’; do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. Do not give the devil an opportunity.” Ephesians 4:3 says, “making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Don’t delay! Don’t give Satan a foot-hold in your life, your friendship, your marriage, or your church! Work hard to reconcile! Sadly, many don’t give zealous effort to reconcile—allowing Satan to afflict both themselves and others.

If we are going to maintain peaceful relationships, we must make every effort to reconcile quickly. Romans 12:18 says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.”

Application Question: What steps should people take to seek reconciliation?

  1. Believers should humble themselves by asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness. This includes providing restitution for any wrongs we might have done. If we gossiped to others, we should confess our wrongs to them. If we stole, we should restore what was stolen or equivalent.
  2. Believers should return good for evil. This means serving them, speaking well of them, and loving them, even when evil is returned. Romans 12:21 says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” By sowing good seeds, we will often reap a good harvest. However, returning wrong for wrong only leads to further destruction.
  3. Believers should be patient. Galatians 6:9 says, “So we must not grow weary in doing good, for in due time we will reap, if we do not give up.” Though we should quickly seek reconciliation, God is the one who changes hearts. We must patiently wait on him. We’ll reap if we don’t faint.

Application Question: Why is it important to seek reconciliation quickly? Share a story about some discord that God resolved. Are there any current relationships God is calling you to reconcile?

Conclusion

How can we maintain peaceful relationships with others?

  1. To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Guard Our Hearts from Evil Thoughts—Including Anger
  2. To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Guard Our Tongues from Evil Speech—Including Slander
  3. To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Recognize that Discord Hinders Our Relationship with God
  4. To Maintain Peaceful Relationships, We Must Seek to Resolve Conflicts Quickly

Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown

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Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

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1 Guzik, D. (2013). Matthew (Mt 5:21–22). Santa Barbara, CA: David Guzik.

2 Stott, J. R. W., & Stott, J. R. W. (1985). The message of the Sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian counter-culture (pp. 83–84). Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

3 Carson, D. A. (1999). Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and His Confrontation with the World: An Exposition of Matthew 5–10 (p. 43). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 295). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 101). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 296). Chicago: Moody Press.

7 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 298). Chicago: Moody Press.

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