Open Matthew 10:26-31.
We all have filters that shape what we hear. That’s true of how we understand our closest friends. It’s even more significant when we want to understand what Jesus said 2000 years ago in a very different setting.
For example, we in the western church tend to think of souls as immortal. After your body dies, your soul lives on, either in heaven or hell. It would make no sense to us to talk about bodies going to hell. Yet that’s precisely what Jesus did to: he said it’s better to lose an eye than to lose your whole body in hell (Matthew 5:29-30, 22). Something that doesn’t make sense is a hint that we’re not hearing it right, that we need to reframe the way we think.
The second time the NT mentions Gehenna is Matthew 10:28. This one gives us a much better chance to hear what Jesus meant.
In sending out twelve emissaries of his kingdom, Jesus warned them that this commission placed them in danger. The people who held power would see them as a threat. Like sheep among wolves (10:16), they would be mistreated by Jewish and gentile authorities (10:22), running for their lives (10:23), facing the same abuse as their Master (10:24-25). Just as Jesus would face betrayal and crucifixion, they should expect betrayal (10:34-37), crucifixion (10:38), to give their lives as martyrs (10:39).
God’s people have always faced evil. Long ago, Israel’s king lamented:
Psalm 69:4 (ESV)
More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies.
Is there no justice? Hidden are the motives of those who would do away with Jesus and his followers to keep their power. Hidden in their graves will be the message of Jesus if these rulers can suppress it. It would be the ultimate tragedy if Jesus’ message of reconciliation was buried with his messengers.
But Jesus believes there is a greater hand overseeing history, a heavenly sovereign who would not allow such injustice to stand. Jesus believes he is the anointed agent of this heavenly sovereign. When Jesus appoints his agents, heaven’s authority stands behind them. The twelve must look beyond the rulers who can kill their bodies, seeing the ultimate ruler who has the capacity to raise them from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus and his followers is how God plans to bring justice to history. The worst that human rulers can do is to kill their bodies, but God has their lives in his hands.
When Jerusalem was invaded in 586 BC, many people died and their bodies were burned in Gehenna (the valley just south of the temple mount). Was that the end of their life? That question is up to God. The nations could kill their bodies, but resurrection to life is in God’s hands.
Jesus wagered his life on that belief. People could kill his body, but his life would be in God’s hands. For Jesus, that meant resurrection, and he wanted the twelve to live with the same hope. At worst, people could kill their bodies, but the question of their resurrection to life was in God’s hands.
Consequently, they should fear God alone. Their trust in God’s kingship would embolden them to proclaim Jesus’ kingship, even when threatened by the rulers of this world. They should fear the king of heaven along, knowing that he would not only resurrect them but restore his whole creation into his care. For not even the least significant bird falls to the ground without the heavenly sovereign observing what needs to be restored to bring justice to his earthly realm.
See if that approach makes sense of what Jesus said:
26 So don’t fear them. Nothing has been concealed that won’t be revealed, nothing hidden that won’t be known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, repeat in broad daylight. What you learn privately, broadcast openly.
28 Don’t be fearful of those who kill your body but cannot destroy your life. Be more fearful of the one who has the power to terminate both your life and your body in Gehenna.
29 Isn’t a pair of sparrows sold for a pittance? Not a single one of them falls to the ground without your father noticing. 30 But you: every hair of your head counts! 31 So don’t be fearful: you are more precious than many sparrows.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans , 2009), 326–327:
Mortals can destroy only one’s body, but God can resurrect the body for damnation and destroy the whole person (for God’s destroying “soul and flesh” in judgment on Assyria, cf. Is 10:18; see Gundry 1976). The choice is not between courage and fear but between whom one will fear more.
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 403:
The possibility of martyrdom in the cause of Jesus, already raised in v. 21, is now squarely faced. … The real “self” is untouched by the death of the body alone. And that is all that human opponents can touch, whereas both body and “soul” are subject to God’s power, and therefore also to his judgment. Under that judgment it is not only the body but the true life of the person which is liable to destruction in hell. See on 5:22 for geënna, “hell,” in Jewish thought. In this passage it is spoken of as a place of destruction, not of continuing punishment, a sense which fits the origin of the term in the rubbish dumps of the Hinnom valley, where Jerusalem’s garbage was destroyed by incineration. On the basis of this text alone it would therefore be better to speak of true life (the “soul”) not as eternal but as “potentially eternal,” since it can be “destroyed” in hell; further comment on the contentious issue of “conditional immortality” must be postponed until 25:46.
[previous: A disarmed kingdom]