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Matthew 5:21,22: Fire of Gehenna

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Matthew 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to them of old time, ‘You shall not murder;’ and ‘Whoever shall murder shall be in danger of the judgment.’
Matthew 5:22 But I tell you, that everyone who is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment; and whoever shall say to his brother, ‘Raca,’ [Empty-headed, Worthless] shall be in danger of the council; and whoever shall say, ‘You fool,’ shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna. — World English.

Gehenna” in this verse is often rendered “hell” in many translations, and by this many are misled to think that Jesus was speaking of the hell of human tradition.

In the above words, Jesus is speaking, not to the Jews in general, but to his disciples. — Matthew 5:1,2.

To understand these references to council and judges and Gehenna, all should know something of Jewish regulations. The “Court of Judges” consisted of seven men (or twenty-three,–the number is in dispute), and had power to judge some classes of crimes. The High Council, or Sanhedrin, consisted of seventy-one men of recognized learning and ability. This constituted the highest court of the Jews, and its supervision was over the gravest offenses. The most serious sentence was death; but certain very obnoxious criminals were subjected to an indignity after death, being refused burial and cast with the carcasses of dogs, the city refuse, etc., into Gehenna — the Valley of Hinnom, there to be consumed. The object of this burning in Gehenna was to make the crime and the criminal detestable in the eyes of the people, and signified that the culprit was a hopeless case. It must be remembered that Israel hoped for a resurrection from the tomb, and hence they were particular in caring for the corpses of their dead, as it appears that they could not imagine a resurrection without the former body being raised. Not realizing fully God’s power, they apparently thought he needed their assistance to that extent. (Exodus 13:19; Hebrews 11:22; Acts 7:15,16.) Hence the destruction of the body in fires of Gehenna after death (figuratively) implied the loss of hope of future life by a resurrection. Against the background, Jesus therefore showed the danger as supplied by the Jewish customs related to various degrees of the seriousness of sin for the new creature. While many translations make it appear here that Jesus was pronouncing a final judgment upon any who would call his brother “You fool,” in reality, Jesus was pointing out the “danger” and possible results that could result from the sin. While Jesus was not speaking here to or of the world, in a general way it would also apply to the world. Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world, and he includes the unbelieving Jew as part of that world. But the salvation of the world brings salvation from the judgment, the condemnation in Adam, and provides a new judgment day in the “last day” — the age to come. (John 12:47,48; Romans 12:15-19; 2 Corinthians 15:21,22; 2 Timothy 2:5,6) Jesus usually used “Gehenna” as a symbol, not of the first condemnation in Adam, but of the second condemnation that may come individually. Thus Gehenna, as Jesus used it, represented the Second Death in the same figurative way that the Jews as a people represented or illustrated a future order of things under the New Covenant in the age to come.

Elsewhere Jesus spoke of how what one does in this age can endanger their condition in the day of judgment, and that is what he is speaking of in these verses. Jesus spoke to some who heard his preaching in Capernaum and surrounding cities: “It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 10:15) No, Jesus did not judge them. “For God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him.” (John 3:17, World English) “If anyone listens to my sayings, and doesn’t believe, I don’t judge him. For I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47, World English) Nor was Jesus denying them the benefit of his ransom sacrifice, for he speaks of both the people of Capernaum and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as being raised in the day of judgment; there would be no resurrection at all, and thereby no judgment day in the “last day,” if there had not been the ransom sacrifice of Jesus. Thus the salvation of the world, and its day of judgment, is effected by the ransom for all. Jesus, while not judging the people of Capenaum, did point out how their actions would have an effect in the day of judgment, that day provided by their salvation from the condemnation in Adam. Thus, there is a danger in responsibility that one holds regarding sin in this day, and in some cases such sin may put one in danger of receiving the condemnation of the second death in the day of judgment.

Notice that our Lord, in the above words, pointed out to them that the construction of the Law, severe though it was, was far below the real import of that Law, as it shall be interpreted under the real Kingdom and Judges, which theirs only typified. He shows that the command of the Law, “You must not murder,” reached much farther than they supposed; that malicious anger and vituperation may harden some hearts so that in the coming day of judgment, rather than coming in harmony with God through obedience at that time, they will find the righteous and favorable conditions of that age to be hard to tolerate, which could end up with their receiving the condemnation of the second death. — Isaiah 26:9,10; Revelation 20:12-15.

For the new creature in this age, however, he has already reckonedly received the justification provided by the ransom of sacrifice of Jesus, and has relinquished rights for the “last day” judgment, and is placed on trial to prove faith in this age. (1 Peter 1:7) For the new creature in this age, therefore, if he sins, such a sin would be fully willful, and there remains no more a sacrifice for him. (Hebrews 10:26) The Bible never speaks of being saved from the second death. The salvation through Jesus’ blood releases one from the condemnation in Adam; Jesus does not die again so as to also pay the wages of the second death, for he “dies no more.” (Romans 6:9) However, when one is begotten again as new creature, as before mentioned, the new creature, although sinless, needs to perfect his faith, that he may not be in danger of the second death. (Revelation 2:11) As long he may have the possibility of turning away from his faith, it is possible that the new creature could count the blood of the new covenant with which he was sanctified as as unholy thing, and insult the spirit of grace. (Hebrews 10:29) Such a sin be would be willful; if the new creature should so sin, the new creature cannot return to the former condemnation — he would come under the new condemnation — the second death, and for such no sacrifice is provided. Thus, the new creature has the possibility of being condemned to Gehenna, the second death, until he has overcome any possibility of developing a lack of faith, which brings us back to what Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:22. While the sins of the flesh of the new creature do not constitute the penalty of the second death, such sin, depending on the degree of the sin, as Jesus spoke of in Matthew 5:21,22, could place the new creature in “danger” of the fires of Gehenna.

Many point to Matthew 5:21,22 as proof that (1) the human soul is inherently immortal and (2) that the wicked will suffer in a hell of conscious suffering for eternity. In reality, there is nothing in Jesus’ words that would indicate that he was speaking of such ideas.


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