Righteous Anger

After Jesus’ compassionate miracle of turning water into wine (discussed in my post last week), the very next incident recorded in John’s Gospel portrays a completely different side to Jesus’ character. We find Jesus becoming extremely angry with people, to the point where he becomes physically violent. It is the incident where Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple, in John 2:13-25.

God get’s very angry sometimes. Actually, he gets very angry very often. The Bible contains 181 references to God’s “wrath”, 17 references to his “fury” and over 250 references to his “anger”.

One of our problems in understanding the wrath of God is our experience of human anger. When we hear the word “wrath” we immediately interpret it in terms of human capricious anger and self-serving temper. Many people have had experiences of that kind of anger, and associate anger with abuse and injustice. We are uneasy with the idea of God being wrathful, thinking that it is somehow unworthy of his character. For this reason, God’s wrath is not readily spoken of by most Christians or commonly addressed from the pulpit. But the writers of the Bible had no such reluctance. J. I. Packer states: “One of the most striking things about the Bible is the vigour with which both Testaments emphasise the reality and terror of God’s wrath.”[i] Arthur W. Pink noted, “A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God than there are to His love and tenderness”[ii].

In fact, God’s wrath is portrayed in the Bible as one of His perfect virtues.

One of our problems in understanding the wrath of God is that our concept of wrath is sullied by our experience of unjust, human anger. Unfortunately, human anger is often less than noble, because it can be characterised by at least one of the following:

  • Loss of control
  • Self-centred bias – a sense that I have not been treated as I deserve to be
  • Vindictiveness
  • Injustice
  • Disproportionate punishment

This kind of anger is rightly condemned in the Bible as sinful:

2 Cor. 12:20 “For I am afraid that when I come I may not find you as I want you to be, and you may not find me as you want me to be. I fear that there may be quarrelling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.”

Eph. 4:31 “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.”

Col. 3:8 “But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”

However, not all human anger is sinful. Human anger can be noble and completely justified. The Biblical exhortation, “In your anger, do not sin” (Eph 4:26), assumes that it is possible to be angry without it being necessarily sinful; it assumes that anger may sometimes be justified. Righteous anger is most obvious when we become indignant on behalf of others, as we respond to perceived injustice perpetrated against those who are innocent or oppressed. Human anger is most problematic when it arises from my own hurt, but is potentially noble when we become angry on behalf of others. For example, in 1 Samuel 11:6, we read, “When Saul heard their words, the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he burned with anger.” In this instance, Saul had learned of a plan by a pagan nation to inflict shameful injuries upon the occupants of an Israelite town and thereby bring the name of God into disrepute. Saul displayed righteous anger on behalf of God and the people of that town, and this occurred when “the Spirit of God came upon him in power”. There are similar accounts of righteous anger throughout the Bible: David (2 Sam 12:7); the Psalmist (Psalm 199:53); Jeremiah (Jer 15:17); the Corinthian Christians (2 Cor 7:8-11).

The clearest example of righteous anger in the Bible is when Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple in Jerusalem (John 2:13-22). The extent of Jesus’ anger is evident in the way He overturned the tables of the money lenders and drove them out of the temple with a whip. It was a violent expression of fury! Yet it was also considered and measured. John 2:15 states that Jesus “made a whip of cords”. This is extraordinary! Upon witnessing how the outer courts of the Temple had been turned into a market place, Jesus did not immediately react. Instead He went away and made a whip, constructing it from cords that He carefully braided together. Only when it was complete did He return to the temple and unleash His righteous anger upon the money changers. This was no knee-jerk loss of temper, but a deliberate, controlled expression of indignation.

The extreme anger of Jesus on this occasion had a twofold cause:

Firstly, Jesus was incensed that the money changers had completely taken over the outer courts which were meant to be reserved for the Gentiles to worship God. Thus, the missional aspect of the temple had been compromised – there was no place left for the Gentiles to come and worship.

Secondly, turning the Temple into a common market place was an insult to God, who had decreed that the Temple was to be a holy place, solely dedicated to worshipping Him alone. This is why John described Jesus’ anger in this incident by quoting from Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for Your house will consume me”. Jesus was angry on behalf of God and the misplaced worshippers, not on behalf of Himself. It is significant that the only occasions when we see Jesus angry in the Bible are those where He is angry on behalf of God or others. In contrast, Jesus never once expressed anger or rage when He was being ridiculed, insulted or tortured. In this way, Jesus exemplifies the truth that anger is most likely to be righteous and justified when it arises on behalf of others, rather than in response to our own perceived ill-treatment.

Righteous anger does exist. In fact, there are times and circumstances that demand from us nothing less than righteous anger.

Kevin Simington

[i] J.I Packer, “Knowing God”, Downers Grove, ILL.: IVP, 1973, pp.134-35

[ii] A.W. Pink, “The Attributes of God”, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1975, p. 82