When we think of Jesus, we think of someone who was meek and mild. Drawings of Jesus almost always show him with a tranquil, calm, almost placid expression. We see him as being infinitely patient, perpetually kind, always speaking graciously.
We don’t spend much time talking about the angry Jesus. The Jesus who didn’t speak kindly. The Jesus who demanded much more than many in his audience were willing or able to give.
The same Jesus who turned the other cheek—who did not return evil for evil—still had reason to be angry.
“Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. And they watched Jesus, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand,” Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, ” Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. Mar 3:1-6
There are very few passages that specifically say Jesus was angry, but there are plenty in which the word usage and context would indicate that he was. Whether we want to consider it anger, agitation, irritation or some milder version, we would most likely have witnessed the scene and come up away with the impression that the person was angry.
When Peter tried to correct Jesus concerning his impending death (Matthew 16:22), telling him “This shall never happen to you,” Jesus responded by saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.” That sounds a lot like anger to me.
What made Jesus angry?
Jesus seemed to become angry resulting from four different scenarios. We’ll talk about all of these in greater detail as we get deeper into the series, but for now it’s worth pointing them out in a more general sense.
Hypocrisy from religious leaders
This is the one I suspect most of us think of first, and with good reason. Jesus spent a lot of time arguing with the religious leaders of the day, leading to his most heated exchanges. Invariably, Jesus’ anger led him to condemn the Pharisees and scribes because of their insincere devotion to piety and the law.
In Matthew 23, Jesus rips the leaders who had been constantly criticizing and undermining him throughout his ministry. Here he pointed out the various inconsistencies between their teachings and actions, calling them “children of Hell” (v. 15), blind guides (v. 16), comparing them to tombs filled with uncleanness and dead men’s bones (v. 27). But the worst rebuke is reserved for their claims to be upright children of Abraham, who loved and revered the prophets sent in past centuries by God:
You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. — Matthew 23:33-35
As we’ll see, hypocrisy was involved in almost all the instances in which Jesus was moved to anger.
Lack of compassion for sinners
Jesus clearly saw this a lot in dealing with men and women who were marginalized from Hebrew society for their sins. There is a difficult balance for a child of God in rejecting sinful activities and lifestyles while continuing to reach out to call the sinner back to the fold. Jesus found that balance, and it greatly bothered much of the religious community.
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, ” Simon, I have something to say to you.” — Luke 7:36-40
We’re not told that Jesus is angry here, but clearly he wasn’t happy with Simon’s attitude. I suspect if someone responded to any one of us by turning around and saying, “I have something to say to you,” we would have already felt the sting of rebuke before the thought was complete.
Jesus went on to elaborate, pointing out that this sinful woman was genuine in her sorrow and desire for forgiveness, while the host hadn’t even bothered with the common courtesies typically afforded a guest in that culture (v. 44-46).
Unwillingness to listen
As already mentioned, Peter received a strong rebuke because he was so invested in his own ideas on how Jesus’ reign would work that he simply was not listening to what Jesus was trying to explain to him. It must have been difficult for Jesus to talk about his own death, and there’s nothing more irritating than trying to explain a gravely serious subject to someone who simply dismisses your concerns as invalid.
As seen in the passage from Mark 3, Jesus was angered “because of their hardness of heart”; they were so concerned with holding onto their own traditions that they had lost sight of what Jesus had been trying to teach them: that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The Law of Moses taught that the Israelites should do no work on that day (Exodus 20:10, 31:14), but it said nothing about not helping someone in need or caring for someone’s injury or illness, or otherwise refusing to show compassion. Jesus pointed out that they gave more consideration for an animal in a ditch (Matthew 12:10) than they did for someone who wished for Jesus to heal him.
There was likely very little dispute about offering aid on the Sabbath in general, but there was a great deal of dispute about whether Jesus could do so.
Displays of irreverence toward God the Father and His word
The most vivid description of an angry Jesus is found when the gospel writers depict him chasing the money changers out of the temple (Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17). John specifically notes that Jesus is enraged as a result of zeal for the house of God—witnessing it turned into a house of merchandise (and in some cases a dishonest one, at that).
Whatever you believe is meant by the “unpardonable sin” of Matthew 12, it’s clear that it relates to an irreverence toward the Holy Spirit. Jesus was accused by the Pharisees of casting out demons by Beelzebub, the prince of demons. Jesus refutes them with simple logic, pointing out that the Spirit of God is the true source of his authority and power. He then adds:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. — Matthew 12:31-37
Jesus loved God the Father, and was completely devoted to doing God’s will and bringing glory to Him. He would not tolerate refusals to revere God or His law.
Isn’t anger sinful?
As we discussed last week, Jesus lived a life without sin. We never see Jesus becoming indignant because of his own pride or sense of self-worth. He did not return insults when insulted, he did not slander or speak evil of someone out of malice. The implication of Matthew 5:22 would seem to be that we are not to be angry “without a cause”, which is how the New King James renders the verse.
But some things are worth being angry about! Paul, under the inspiration of the same Spirit which came from Christ, wrote to “be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Ephesians 4:26-27). James wrote that we ought to be slow to anger, because “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).
What is the difference between a justified anger and the anger condemned by scripture? I believe there is a clue found in one last example from Jesus’ life.
Jesus’ controlled anger
When Jesus came to Bethany to raise Lazarus, he has an interesting reaction to the scene that awaited him:
Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, ” Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, ” Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. — John 11:32-38
The word translated by the ESV as “deeply moved” is much disputed, because the word itself literally means “to snort like a horse” and is used as its primary meaning to describe a reaction of sternness, outrage or anger. Some translators have softened the meaning because they don’t see how Jesus would be angry in this situation and find the primary meaning inconsistent with the context. Others have noted (and I believe rightly so) the hypocrisy of a group of people gathering to weep and mourn a man whom they will shortly seek to kill in order to disprove the miracle Jesus is about to perform (John 12:9-10). It’s also possible (although less likely to me) that Jesus was angry at mourning that discounted a hope of the resurrection (which Martha confessed to anticipating in verse 24).*
Regardless, the word is only used in scripture three times and carries a connotation of sternness. But there’s something else in the grammar that comes out: in verse 33, we read that Jesus was “deeply troubled.” The term here describes a visible, physical reaction, and based on what I have read, the verb is active; in other words, it could be translated that Jesus “agitated himself.”* Whatever the emotion, Jesus was not surrendering to it, but rather controlling it completely and expressing it exactly how he chose to express it.
When we’re angry, are we in control? Are we angry for reasons that are in line with glorifying God, or are they based on our own injured pride and need for vindication?
Jesus was angry, and did not sin.
*NOTE: I’m not a Greek scholar, so please don’t take my word for anything I say on the subject of translations and grammar. I found the resources below to be of great help, and I’d encourage you to research for yourself to draw your own conclusions.