In the last blog we saw how the Old Testament shows the progression of the Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom – Gehenna) how it became a polluted city dump and eventually a symbol of national destruction; the effectual consequence of lawlessness and idolatry; particularly as it relates to a stubborn refusal to heed God’s words.
Dr. Stephen Jones, the greatest Biblical historian in the world puts it this way,
“After Jeremiah linked Gehenna to the destruction of Jerusalem through his prophecy of the broken jar, the term itself began to take on a prophetic meaning beyond the mere geographical location. It became a symbol of divine judgment upon those who rejected the word of the Lord through the prophets (and Jesus Himself).” (The Judgments of the Divine Law, pg. 10.)
As we saw in the last blog, Jerusalem was destroyed and most of its inhabitants were slaughtered and cast unburied into Gehenna. Those who heeded God’s warnings had their lives spared by being taken away to Babylon as captives (Jeremiah 21:8-10). But though Jerusalem was destroyed, it was again rebuilt a hundred years later (see the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Haggai). Eventually (between the Old Testament and the New Testament) it again became defiled with idolatry, but this time it was not an outward worship of idols, it was an idolatry of the heart. The nation was again in danger of judgment, and just as before with Jeremiah, the image that God gave to warn them was the image of Gehenna.
The prophet Jeremiah more than any other prophet spoke at length and in various ways concerning Jerusalem’s eventual destruction and overthrow. And so we see that when Christ comes on the scene, preaching and teaching, He also begins to warn of an upcoming judgment on Jerusalem. And like Jeremiah before Him, He employs the imagery and warning of Gehenna. It is most likely this very aspect of His teaching and preaching that caused people to think He was the prophet Jeremiah come back from the dead! (Matthew 16:13,14).
The real issue was not that Jesus was taking on the persona of Jeremiah, but that Jerusalem was again in trouble of an impending judgment for her heart idolatry and unwillingness to heed God’s Word. So Christ’s message was similar to Jeremiah’s.
The Impending Destruction of Jerusalem
In Matthew 23:15, 27-38 Jesus addresses the leaders of the Jerusalem Temple saying,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Gehenna as yourselves…Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of Gehenna? Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth… Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold, your house is being left to you desolate!”
Luke 19:41-44 records this same prophesy in different words,
“When [Jesus] approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.’”
Sure enough, because of their rejection of the Messiah and His Word, Jerusalem was destroyed 40 years later in 70 A.D. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus records that over 600,000 Jews were slaughtered in that destruction! (Wars of the Jews, book 5, chapter 13, section 7) So it is no wonder that Jesus warns His hearers so emphatically concerning Gehenna!
The Jewish people were given 40 years to turn from their wicked ways; having had not only the apostles and prophets but the very Son of God calling for their repentance! Jesus warned of this destruction many times and in various ways; and though He did not always use the word “Gehenna” when speaking about it, the people would have easily understood the implication. Gehenna was the symbol of this destruction. (To see more instances where Christ preached about the destruction of Jerusalem see Matthew 21:33-46, 22:1-7, 24:1-28 Luke 19:11-27, 20:9-16, 21:5-38; Mark 12:1-12, 13:1-23, etc….)
We now have a solid background for understanding Jesus’ references to Gehenna. It is within this context that His references in the Gospels are framed. So lets look at them.
“If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than, having your two feet, to be cast into Gehenna, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:45,46)
Here Jesus is clearly referring to Jerusalem’s city dump by not only naming it (Gehenna) but describing it (where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched). Jesus is also quoting Isaiah’s reference to this place (66:24), connecting it to national destruction. Christ was not teaching people to cut off whatever appendage happens to be involved in sin nor was He teaching an endless fate of torment in Hell. He is employing what is called a hyperbole to discourage the people of Judah from stumbling over His word, a.k.a refusing to heed God and obey Him. Jesus knows that the majority of the nation will once again reject God’s message and refuse to believe He is the Messiah, and that will culminate with their destruction at the hands of the Romans and their being cast unburied into Gehenna the city dump. Jesus employs this word 6 times using this same phrase; see Matthew 5:29,30, 18:9; and Mark 9:43-47.
A Higher Standard of Judgment
It was also common to dump the bodies of the worst criminals in Gehenna with all the other garbage. It was a very nasty form of dishonor and it was a punishment reserved only for the bodies of the worst criminals. Such a criminal knew that his name would not be preserved with honor for his posterity’s sake, which is what a grave would offer. But rather, his name would be lost forever. In a culture that considered the preservation and memory of their name to be of utmost importance, this would be devastating. This is what Jesus is referring to in the following verse,
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You Shall Not Commit Murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery Gehenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
Here Jesus is using Gehenna as an example of the worst form of punishment in this life that His hearers would have known. He is raising the standard for morality, saying that previously one would receive a death penalty for murder, but now such a person will receive not just a death penalty but the dishonor of being cast unburied into Gehenna for merely calling someone an idiot! The reason is that in times past God addressed our outward actions, but now God is addressing the heart. Calling people idiots is dishonoring, even as being cast unburied into Gehenna would be, and God will always judge you by your own standard of judgment (Matthew 7:2).
It would be absurd to believe that Jesus is teaching us that if we call someone a fool that we will be damned to endless hell. Rather it was a figure of speech that emphasized the polluting aspect of slander. Not to mention that such an attitude pollutes the heart. And so Gehenna was a fitting punishment b/c it was also a public disgrace, your name and memory being defiled.
Therefore Jesus makes the remark,
“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 Gehenna; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:5)
Interestingly, the only other time that Gehenna is used outside of the Gospels is by the apostle James, the brother of Jesus. James uses it to say much the same thing as Jesus said here. Speaking of how we will be judged by what comes out of our mouth. James says,
“And the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by Gehenna.”
Notice how his description fits perfectly with that of Gehenna as a defiled, polluted place that is also on fire? He is basically saying that our tongue or mouth is akin to a garbage dump, full of rottenness and destruction.
That must be why Christ said,
“There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man.” “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” and “the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man.” Therefore, “every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” (Mark 7:15; Matthew 12:34, 15:18, 12:36)
Christ and James both use Gehenna in this sense, as an image of our hearts, and the filth that comes out of it. And if we are not careful, then our life will conform to our hearts. We will be judged and defiled in life even as we are defiled in our hearts. All b/c of the very filth that we defile others with. Gehenna was in this way applied to the filth of the hearts of the people as a nation, and was also personalized to apply individually.
This leaves us with only 1 more reference to Gehenna to examine. It is found in Matthew 10:28, but because of the nature of it’s context, we cannot finish it here. So I will leave it for the next blog where we will examine it in more detail.