WORTHY OF THE KINGDOM

by Thomas W. Finley


Chapter 8-2 (contd.)

NEW TESTAMENT REFERENCES TO GEHENNA

The first Gehenna verse to consider is Matthew 5:22: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say ‘Raca,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court [literally, the Sanhedrin]; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’; shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell [literally, Gehenna].” This warning word is addressed to disciples (Matt. 5:1) in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was dealing with the sin of anger within us.

As a picture of governmental judgment upon such sin, Jesus used the Jewish justice system of that day. The first judgment is at the gate and is a local jurisdiction. The second judgment concerns a more serious offense, and is one handled by the Sanhedrin, the highest tribunal among the Jews. The third and gravest offense was calling someone “stupid” or a “fool”, which is a more serious term of contempt than “Raca”. According to the verse, this offense deserves a sentence of Gehenna, which could be passed upon a dead person’s body by the Sanhedrin.

After the threats of judgment in verse 22, Jesus immediately gave the lesson of application for the disciples in verses 23 through 26. That these verses constitute the lesson is seen by the use of the word “therefore” in verse 23.

23 If therefore you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. 25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, in order that your opponent may not deliver you to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent. (Matt. 5:23-26)

For His Jewish audience, Jesus used the picture of presenting the offering at the altar in verse 23. This picture has its realization in the New Testament believer’s experience when he comes forward to God in prayer at the throne of grace. If there the believer realizes his brother is offended with him (due to him calling him “Raca”, or a “fool”), he needs to immediately leave his prayer closet and seek out his brother in order to be reconciled. Then he can return to his prayer time with God.

The lesson continues in verse 25. The “opponent” is the offended brother. The figure of being with your opponent on the way to the judge is explained by Pember:

What follows is, apparently, taken from the usual mode of procedure in Roman Law, which was, of course, supreme in Palestine in the days of our Lord. According to its provisions, a creditor might, at any time, summon his debtor to accompany him to the Magistrate’s Court. While they were on their way thither, they were at liberty to come to an amicable agreement, if they could, and so to settle the business between themselves without the interference of the Law. But, as soon as they had appeared before the Judge, the matter passed out of their hands, and thenceforth both of them were subject to the decision of the Court.[1]

The application is simply this: We need to be reconciled with our offended brothers while we are still in this life. After death, the judgment comes (Heb. 9:27), and Christ our judge can then order us thrown “into prison” (v. 25). This casting “into prison” in verse 25 in the lesson refers back to the judgment of Gehenna in verse 22. Christ then solemnly confirms the warning: “truly I say to you, you shall not come out of there, until you have paid up the last cent” (v. 26). This verse implies that the penalty is only temporary, and the temporality of it will be confirmed by other related passages.

Brothers and sisters, this is an exceedingly serious word to us from the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. It shows that we must be very careful to clear up all offenses we have wrongly caused toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. According to this passage in Matthew Five, certain offenses will place us in danger of the Gehenna judgment, a picture of a very severe dealing by God.

Besides the sins related to anger and its ugly vented words, Christ also dealt with other sins that could cause us to be cast into Gehenna. Continuing on in Matthew Chapter Five, Jesus mentioned the sin of adultery in verse 27 and then taught that lust in the heart is its equivalent (v. 28). This sin is committed by looking upon a woman with the intention to lust for her (“looking at” differs from just “seeing”). Then Jesus declares that if this action of the eye is not severely dealt with, the penalty of Gehenna will ensue. “And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [lit., Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:29, NKJV).

Jesus then continued: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell [lit. Gehenna]” (Matt. 5:30, NKJV). So, the lesson is the same for the sinning hand.

The portions on the sinning eye and the hand have a parallel in Matthew 18:8-9, which deals with the eye, the hand and the foot. The other parallel passage is in Mark 9:43-49. Both of these portions of Christ’s teaching are addressed to disciples. Therefore, these warnings are meant for disciples of Christ (“if your hand”). As indicated in the last chapter, these warnings could not be to unbelieving sinners. They would have no capacity to deal with their sin. Further, a sinner is not kept out of “hell” by the work of putting away sin. He needs the Savior with His redeeming blood to be kept out of “hell” (meaning eternal torment).

Although the Gehenna fire cannot be quenched (Mk. 9:43), this does not mean that the sinning disciple will remain in this fiery place forever. This verse signifies that while one is in Gehenna the fire will be unrelenting. Our destiny in eternity is a matter of grace by faith, not our dealing with sin in our lives.

The Gehenna judgment upon believers takes place during the coming millennium. This is shown by the casting into Gehenna (marginal reading, Mk. 9:43,47) being contrasted with the terms “to enter life” (Mk. 9:43) and “to enter the kingdom of God” (Mk. 9:47). We have already seen that these two latter terms speak specifically of the coming 1,000 year Kingdom of Christ (see Mk. 10:30; Lk. 18:25,29-30).

You may now be worried about how we “pluck out the eye” and “cut off” the hand. These terms signify getting rid of sin. We can deal with the root of sin before it bears fruit (an act of sin) if we, by the Spirit, are putting to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). We believe it is this experience that the Lord is primarily dealing with here. He wants us to grow in this experience. However, as long as we are in this body, we will end up sinning sometime. If we do sin, we can erase its record against us through confession and the cleansing of Jesus’ blood (1 Jn. 1:9). To repent from sinful activity and confess it is also a dealing with sin (Prov. 28:13).

The other primary Gehenna passages for believers are Matthew 10:28 and its parallel in Luke 12:5. These portions were discussed in Chapter Seven, but a few comments are made here. (If you wish to refresh your memory, read Matthew 10:16-33 and Luke 12:1-12.) Both of these passages are addressed to disciples. They involve disciples being hated by men and delivered up before courts. The Lord warns us that in such cases “a disciple is not above his teacher . . . if they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household” (Matt. 10:24-25). In other words, false accusations will be brought against the disciples at these tribunals. Although we realize these opposers will desire to put us to death (Matt. 10:21), the Lord Jesus tells us not to fear them. Rather, He explicitly warns us to fear God instead:

“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [literally, Gehenna]” (Matt. 10:28).

“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who after He has killed has authority to cast into hell [literally, Gehenna]; yes, I tell you fear Him!” (Lk. 12:4-5).

What amazing portions of the Bible these passages are. Jesus is clearly warning His followers, even His friends, that when they stand before the courts they should not fear those who can inflict the penalty of physical death upon them. Rather, they should have a greater fear of God, because He can “destroy” (cause to suffer ruin or loss of well-being) both the soul and body in Gehenna. In context, it is the specific disobedience of the disciple in denying Jesus before the men of the tribunal that apparently leads to such a judgment. How costly it will be to refuse to confess Christ before such a court! I believe the time is rapidly approaching when disciples of Christ will be so tested. May we take His grace to be faithful to Him even unto death (Rev. 2:10).

The only other verses in the New Testament using the term Gehenna are James 3:6 and Matthew 23:15,33. James 3:6 talks about the tongue set on fire by Gehenna. This verse uses Gehenna to illustrate God’s view of the damaging potential of the tongue. It is not speaking here of a judgment for the use of the tongue, but simply using the known fiery filth of Gehenna for the purpose of an illustration.

The verses in Matthew 23 call for a more detailed explanation in order to be properly understood. These verses open a door of insight into God’s judgment upon His people that probably only a few have fully understood. Therefore, it is worthwhile for us to spend some time on this matter in order to put Gehenna into complete Biblical perspective.

The primary content of Matthew 23 is Christ’s strong condemnation of the Jewish leaders of His day for their personal lives and for their faulty leadership of God’s people. In this context, the two verses on Gehenna appear. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make a proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell [Gehenna, marginal reading] as yourselves.” (v. 23) (In other words, those who follow the practices of these leaders will also merit a Gehenna judgment.) “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell [Gehenna]?” (v. 33)

Here, the judgment of Gehenna is not addressed to believers in Christ, but to unbelieving Jews. In considering this matter, we should keep in mind that God views all persons upon this earth as belonging to one of three groups, either to the Jews, the gentiles, or the church of God (1 Cor. 10:32). Once a Jew is saved in the New Testament sense (through faith in Christ and the new birth), that person becomes part of the church of God and no longer carries the status of a Jew (Col. 3:10-11).

JUDGMENT UPON THE JEWS CONSIDERED

Just as Christ deals with Christians at His Judgment Seat in order to determine which believers will enter His 1,000 year Kingdom, so He must also deal with the Jews. After all, it was to the Jews first that the promises of the Messianic Kingdom were made, and it was the Jews who were looking for this hope (Lk. 17:20; Acts 1:6). Recall from the discussion of the rich young ruler in Chapter Two that his hope was to have “eternal life” in the “world to come”, which the exegesis in that chapter identified as the 1,000 year Kingdom of Christ. It is only logical, therefore, that Christ must render a judgment concerning which Jews will qualify to possess this Kingdom. In searching the Scriptures we will see that a number of passages bear out that such a judgment is made upon the Jews prior to the millennium.

Revelation 11:18 tells us that during the season when God’s wrath falls upon the earth at the end of this age, that “. . . the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to give their reward to Thy bond-servants the prophets and to the saints . . .” This judgment includes the Jews, as well as the New Testament saints, as we shall soon see. This verse in Revelation 11 is placed in the time frame when Christ possesses His Kingdom at the close of the age (Rev. 11:15-17).

The parallel passage in Daniel also reveals the Son of Man taking His dominion (Dan. 7:13-14). It is in the judgment scene of Daniel 7 (vs. 9-10; 13-14) that the following declaration is made: “until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was passed in favor of the saints of the Highest One, and the time arrived when the saints took possession of the kingdom.” (v.22) Also note other verses later in Daniel 7: “But the court will sit for judgment, and his [the Antichrist’s] dominion will be taken away, annihilated and destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, the dominion, and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One.” (vs. 26-27) The references to saints here must, at a minimum, include the Jews, since Daniel’s visions concern his people (Dan. 9:24; 10:14).

One of the clearest Old Testament verses concerning God’s judgment upon the Jews occurs in Daniel 12:2. Immediately before this verse, in Daniel 12:1, we are told of the end time tribulation of the Jews and the marvelous deliverance of some of them alive out of this trial. Then, the angelic messenger to Daniel foretold the judgment upon all of the dead Jews: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting [olam] life, some to shame and everlasting [olam] contempt.” (Dan. 12:2, NKJV)

According to Daniel 12:2, then, this judgment upon the dead Jews shows a positive possibility and a negative possibility. On the positive side, this judgment upon resurrection will result in a sharing of life in the 1,000 year Kingdom age (just as New Testament believers, in possessing the Kingdom, share in eternal life in that age - Lk. 18:29,30). The word misleadingly translated “everlasting” is olam (which was defined somewhat in Chapter Two). The Hebrew word olam has a range of meanings in relation to time. The Theological Word Book of the Old Testament points out that olam is usually translated by the Greek word aion (age) in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), and that “neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word in itself contains the idea of endlessness . . . “[2] This work further states that, “Both words came to be used to refer to a long age or period . . . “ [3]

The New Testament also shows that only some Jews will be approved for participation in the coming Messianic Kingdom. After the Roman centurion acknowledged Christ’s divine authority, Jesus commented, “Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. And I say to you, that many shall come from east and west [indicating Gentiles], and recline at the table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 8:10-12) Taking into consideration that Jesus was contrasting the faith of the Gentile centurion with that of the Israelites, we must consider that the “sons of the kingdom” in this passage would refer to the Jews.

It was to the Jews that the Kingdom should belong, as promised by the prophets. However, even though certain Jews of the Old Testament era (such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who are mentioned in the verse above) would be in the Kingdom according to Jesus, there will be some Jews that will be cast out into the outer darkness (outside the glory of the Kingdom). So just as we see a parallel to the New Testament saints in Daniel, which shows that approved Jews possess the Kingdom, so we also see a parallel of disapproved Jews being cast into the “outer darkness”, as are some disapproved Christians (Matt. 22:12-13; 25:26-30).

With the groundwork laid above, we can now explain the matter of the Gehenna judgment upon certain Jews in Matthew 23:33. This judgment is a further Jewish parallel to a Gehenna judgment upon believers. You will recall that believers can be cast into Gehenna for certain sins, and this judgment should be viewed as a more severe judgment than “outer darkness.” The sins of the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23 were so offensive to Jesus that He indicated that they were worthy of the severe judgment of Gehenna. In Matthew 23:14 the Lord Jesus warned that these scribes and Pharisees would receive "greater condemnation."

Let us summarize these thoughts on the Gehenna judgment. The Old Testament mention of the valley of Hinnom shows that it was a place of judgment upon God’s people, not the nations, who rebelled against Him (Jer. 7:30-34). Also, the Sanhedrin used this valley in Jesus’ day to carry out a punishment upon the worst criminals of Jewish society. Jesus used this very term to point to a future judgment upon Jewish leaders who lived hypocritical lives and misled others (Matt. 23:13-36). For such condemnable actions, Jesus declared to them: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell [literally, Gehenna]?” (Matt. 23:33) This judgment will be given when the Lord Jesus judges His people in order to decide which ones are worthy of possessing His future earthly Kingdom (Dan. 7:18, 22) and inheriting age-lasting life therein (Dan. 12:2).

Similarly, Jesus used this term to warn His New Testament believers concerning dealing with certain flagrant sins in their lives, and contrasted this judgment with “entering life” (Mk. 9:43) and entering “the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 9:47) It seems, therefore, that this judgment is a most serious judgment of Christ upon His disobedient people and involves a chastisement during the millennial age. This may be the most negative judgment Scripture reveals for believers under the principle of reward according to works. However, another judgment, “the blackness of darkness” [literal translation for 2 Pet. 2:17 and Jude 13], appears to be a very severe judgment for apostate Christian teachers. This “blackness of darkness” judgment may be even worse than the Gehenna judgment. This severe judgment is discussed by Gary Whipple in his book, Shock and Surprise Beyond the Rapture.

God wants us to have pure lives, which requires dealing with all sin. If we refuse to repent, confess and deal with sin, we may face Gehenna in the next age. If we deny Christ before men, particularly at the public tribunals where we may be summoned to suffer death for His Name, we may also be denied by Him and judged with Gehenna.

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)

[1] Pember, pp. 97-98.

[2] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980), Vol. 2, p.672. Used by permission.

[3] Ibid., p.673. Used by permission.