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Matthew 5:22 by Robert Dean
What did Jesus mean when He talked about hell fire in the Sermon on the Mount? Listen to this lesson to learn that Jesus was talking to His disciples and referring to a place in Jerusalem, the Valley of Hinnom, which is Gehenna in Greek. Learn the vile and degrading history of the valley. See how it is not a symbol for fiery destruction but of a nation's spiritual failure. Allow this lesson to infiltrate your thinking so you can see the seriousness of the Christian life and avoid loss of rewards and shame at the Judgment Seat of Christ.
Series:Matthew (2013)
Duration:46 mins 10 secs

Are You in Danger of Hell?
Matthew 5:22
Matthew Lesson #029
April 6, 2014

Question: How many of you think that you are in danger of hell fire? How many think that you are in danger in your spiritual life of not going to heaven but maybe having a destiny in hell? If we read through several passages in the New Testament we run into a problem because we see Jesus addressing His disciples and teaching them about various principles of behavior in the spiritual life with the clear threat that failure to do what He ways to do puts them in danger of hell. At least that is how it is translated in the English translations in most all of our English Bibles. So the question we need to answer this morning before we go forward in our study in Matthew is: are we in danger of hell? Because at first glance that seems to be what Jesus is teaching.  

What we see at this point in our study of Matthew chapter five is that Jesus is contrasting His view (or God's view) of the Mosaic Law with the teaching of the Pharisees. As He began we saw that He focused on character attributes that should characterize those who respond to the message regarding the coming of the kingdom. This is not a message for going to heaven, as we have seen, this is related to preparation for the establishment on the earth of the kingdom that was promised to Israel in the Old Testament where the Messiah would rule and reign on the throne of David from Jerusalem, and this was a literal, physical geopolitical kingdom that would eventually be established by God on the earth. For those who would populate—not just in terms of being there but in terms of ruling and reigning responsibilities—whether Jews under the dispensation of Israel or by application, even though the church age has not been announced yet, it still applies to church age believers who will also rule and reign with Christ in the coming kingdom—this is a character quality of those who will fully participate in all of the blessings and privileges in that coming kingdom. That section focusing on those character attributes we refer to as the beatitudes.

Following the end of His discussion of the beatitudes, which serves as a sort of introduction, He talked about the role of the believer in terms of salt and light. We looked at those metaphors and understood that being the salt of the earth is not a term for preservation of culture, as many people want to define it. Why would God want to preserve the nasty culture of the world around us? That is not the purpose of salt in this metaphor. We saw that salt as it was used in agriculture was part of the process of being a weed-killer so that a field would be more productive. So the focus of the metaphor being the salt of the earth should be translated "salt for the land" and its purpose being related to fertilizer. Even modern fertilizer has a small amount of salts present in order to function as a weed-killer. We are also light of the world, which means that part of our function as believers is to bring illumination of God's Word to the world around us.

Having concluded with that Jesus then set up the next part of His message by talking about His purpose, which was not to destroy the Law and the prophets but to fulfill. We saw that He came to fulfill the prophets in contrast to the Pharisees who were teaching something less than what the Law teaches, and they had a view of righteousness that was less than that which God requires. And He is going to give six examples, starting in verse 21, and He sets this up in a manner where He begins by saying that what the Pharisees are teaching, what people have heard, what they have believed, is not true; and contrasting that with the true interpretation.

In verse 21, for example, He begins, "You have heard that it was said." Then in verse 22 He positively teaches the meaning of the passage: "But I say to you." Again in verse 27: "You have heard that it was said", and then in verse 28 He teaches the truth and says, "But I say to you." Six times He does this.

In the first two passages of correction, which focus on murder (vv. 21-26), and adultery (vv. 27-30), He has a warning in those passages. That warning concludes that if you fail to be obedient "you shall be in danger of hell fire" (v. 22). Jesus is talking to disciples who are already believers. How can they be in danger of hell? In verse 29 the warning is that "you might be thrown into hell". So this sets up a point of confusion for a lot of people who read through this passage and have a hard time understanding just what Jesus is getting at. The problem is that the original language of Greek (and even when we go back and look at the history in Hebrew) it is not talking about hell. But this is the traditional interpretation. The original Greek says Gehenna, which originally meant the valley of Hinnom. For some reason scholars have almost exclusively wanted to translate this as hell. But if this is really hell then we have a problem.

We have to do some digging, because what I am going to teach is contrary to what you will read in your Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries where there is this monolithic view that Gehenna is hell. One of the problems we have is that hell is not really a technical term in the original language. Gehenna is the term; hell isn't even related to the lake of fire. There are some who teach that hell is actually Hades, which for now is the place of torments, a place of fiery torment for unbelievers prior to the great white throne judgment. And that is true about Hades, but the English concept of hell is somewhat muddled. In popular imagination usually it relates to the eternal condemnation of the lake of fire. The problem that we have as we look at these passages is that most of the time when Jesus is speaking and warning about the danger of being thrown into the valley of Hinnom He is talking to believers. So how in the world can this relate to believers?

What we see is that the valley of Hinnom is one of the most well known topographical features around the old city of Jerusalem. It was here that the Israelites sacrificed their children to the god Molech, according to 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6. The good king Josiah who restored obedience to the Law abolished this practice, and then he desecrated this valley, according to 2 Kings 23:10. After that the valley became associated with the judgment of sinners. This is seen in Jeremiah 7:32; 19:6. Later on during the period of the second temple this became a garbage dump. It was a place where refuge was thrown, where sewage was dumped, and where the garbage was burned. And the story is that it was the continual burning of the fires in the Valley of Hinnom that became an imagery for the lake of fire. It is on the basis of that identification of the metaphor that people today often understand the valley of Hinnom as being related to the lake of fire. However, as we will see, that is not biblically grounded. We have to challenge this because of the many implications of that for Scriptural interpretation.         

When most modern translations render the New Testament word as hell that is not a translation; that is an interpretation. Literally the Greek word is GEENNA, which is the Greek form of the Hebrew ge' hinnomge=valley; hinnom is the name of a person, it goes back to antiquity, the Valley of Hinnom. This is how we should probably translate it in order to catch the thrust of what this means. We have to see how the Valley of Hinnom was referenced in the Old Testament in order to understand the significance of the figure of speech that Jesus is using.

This word was used literally in Joshua to describe the border between the land that God was giving to the tribe of Judah and the land that God was giving to the tribe of Benjamin. This is seen in Joshua 15:8; 18:16.

Joshua 15:8 NASB "Then the border went up the valley of Ben-hinnom to the slope of the Jebusite on the south (that is, Jerusalem); and the border went up to the top of the mountain which is before the valley of Hinnom to the west, which is at the end of the valley of Rephaim toward the north."

Joshua 18:16 NASB "The border went down to the edge of the hill which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, which is in the valley of Rephaim northward; and it went down to the valley of Hinnom, to the slope of the Jebusite southward, and went down to En-rogel."

These are talking about the same location, which is that valley which is to the south of the city of Jerusalem. The location is identified in Jeremiah 19:2 at the potsherd gate. That is the only reference in the Old Testament to the potsherd gate. Most scholars identify the potsherd gate with the dung gate at the southern end of the old city of David, near the pool of Siloam.  

Jeremiah 19:2 NASB "Then go out to the valley of Ben-hinnom, which is by the entrance of the potsherd gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you"

This is where the southern kingdom of Judah sinned by committing child sacrifice when they burned their sons and daughters in the fires of Molech. Molech (sometimes called Chemosh) was a Moabite god, an idol that they worshipped. This was one of the most horrible and egregious forms of idolatry of paganism in the ancient world where people in order to somehow gain the god's blessing would take their children alive and burn them alive in the arms of Molech. This was condemned in numerous places in the Old Testament.

2 Chronicles 28:3 NASB "Moreover, he [King Ahaz] burned incense in the valley of Ben-hinnom and burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel."

Jeremiah 7:31 NASB "They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind."

This represents one of the worst failures spiritually on the part of the Israelites in the southern kingdom. This was one of the reasons God brought such a harsh judgment on them by destroying the southern kingdom through the military conquest and defeat by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. Jeremiah is writing at that time. He began his ministry just before 605 BC, the first invasion by the Babylonians, warning about the coming judgment. There were three invasions by Nebuchadnezzar. The third was when he conquered the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In that process there were tens of thousands of Jews slaughtered and they were buried in the valley of Hinnom. This was the judgment that Jeremiah predicted would take place. For their sins of idolatry Judah was to be punished there in the valley of Hinnom in 586 BC. So this was a historic judgment. It was God's discipline on the nation Israel for their spiritual failure and rebellion. It was not a historical event tied to eternal condemnation at all in the Old Testament. It was not used to depict their future eternal state in the lake of fire, it was a prediction of a judgment in time: divine discipline in history on the nation Israel for their spiritual failures.

In Jeremiah 19:6 Jeremiah predicted that as punishment for their sin the valley would be used as a mass burial site for those slaughtered when the Babylonians destroyed the city in 586 BC. NASB "therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when this place will no longer be called Topheth or the valley of Ben-hinnom, but rather the valley of Slaughter."

Jeremiah chapter seven speaks of this:

Jeremiah 7:31 NASB "They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind. [32] Therefore, behold, days are coming," declares the LORD, "when it will no longer be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of the Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth because there is no {other} place."  

So what is our conclusion? In evaluating the use of this phrase, the valley of Hinnom, we have seen that it was not used as a reference for future eternal condemnation but as a place of divine discipline on the nation Israel for their spiritual failure. It became a symbol of a fiery destruction but it is a symbol of the nation's spiritual failure, their condemnation by God for that failure, the shame that came upon the nation because they had reached such a low level of disobedience to God, and a picture of divine discipline in time upon the nation Israel.

There is no place in any of the references in the Old Testament where the valley of Hinnom is a picture of an eternal fiery punishment at all. So we skip about four-hundred years, known as the silent years, between the close of the Old Testament canon and the opening of the New Testament. In the New Testament Jesus comes along and in the Sermon on the Mount He warns believing disciples about the dangers of Gehenna, of being thrown or cast into the valley of Gehenna. What does that mean?

In the interim period the major development related to the valley of Hinnom was that it was turned into a garbage dump. It was a place of desecration, of uncleanness, a place where garbage was dumped and also burned. Just because fire occurred there does not mean that this is necessarily a picture of the lake of fire. We have seen a similar picture when we have talked about baptism. As you come from certain traditions, usually Baptist traditions, and read the word "baptism" in the Bible you usually associated it with water. But as we have seen, there are a number of baptisms in the Scripture that didn't involve water. There was the baptism of Noah, but it wasn't Noah that was wet. Baptism ultimately indicates identification with something. In the baptism of Moses the Israelites didn't get wet when they crossed the Read Sea. In the church age we have the baptism by the Holy Spirit where we are identified with Christ. So we have a problem when we think of baptism. We think it is involved with water but that is not always correct.

The same thing happens when we look at fire. When we see something that is burned in the Scripture we immediately think this must be a reference to the eternal lake of fire. But often the burning has other implications. It emphasizes cleansing and purification in many places in the Old Testament. In John 15 we have the extended metaphor of the vine and the vineyard. When Jesus talks about the branches that are pruned off, removed and burned, this is not a picture of the loss of salvation where the believer is going to the lake of fire. It is not a picture of the lake of fire at all, it is simply an aspect that occurred in the agricultural pruning process that the branches that did not bear fruit were removed and burned. That literally would take place during the pruning time.

So we have to understand how this imagery of the valley of Hinnom is applied and used in the language of the Jews at the time of Christ. One important observation. The only person who speaks about the valley of Gehenna is Jesus. The only recorded passages where He speaks about the valley of Gehenna or the valley of Hinnom are in Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no mention in the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was written after the judgment of AD 70. The burning in the valley of Hinnom is also used as a picture of the judgment in 70 AD, just as it was used of the judgment on the southern kingdom, the fifth cycle of discipline, in 586 BC. No one else in the New Testament uses the term. The only time it is used is in the context of Jesus teaching in and around Jerusalem to people who would understand that local idiom.   

The verbiage is used twelve times in twelve verses. It is used in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) which give parallel versions of mostly the same events. When we take out for redundancy there are really only two or three instances where Jesus uses this idiom. He uses it one time in reference to the Pharisees. He uses it three times when He is speaking to the disciples who were already believers. And then there is one odd use that shows up by James in James chapter four as an idiom to the sin nature.

He is using this when addressing disciples who were already believers. The first two examples occur in His clarification on murder and clarification on adultery in Matthew 5:22, 29-30. So He is talking to believers about certain dangers related to disobedience, and if they are disobedient there is the real threat of being thrown into the valley of Hinnom—whatever that means.   

Matthew 5:22 NASB "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court [Sanhedrin]; 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 hell [valley of Hinnom]." If you read "hell" it immediately shapes your thinking in the wrong direction. When we just translate it "the valley of Hinnom" then all of a sudden we realize it may have another meaning.

Matthew 5:28, 29 NASB "but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell"—thrown into the valley of Hinnom.

We basically have two options in interpreting this. The first is that Gehenna describes the eternal lake of fire. Option two: Gehenna describes a form of temporal punishment or divine discipline in time. The second option fits with what we have seen in the Old Testament. However, there is a certain reason why people tend to translate it "hell". People read it translated hell and think that is what it means. After all, these are scholars; they know Greek and Hebrew, and they wouldn't be doing this out of maliciousness so when they translate it hell that must be correct. Second, if you do further study you see that most Bible dictionaries or encyclopedias understand the idiom to be a reference to the eternal fire, the lake of fire. Well there ought to be some reason for that, too. If all the encyclopedias and Bible dictionaries take it that way and some translations take it that way, why are you going to stand in the pulpit and say it means something else? Well, because it has a few problems.  

The third reason people think of it as the eternal lake of fire is because when we look at some passages, such as Matthew 18:8, Gehenna is used in a synonymous parallelism with eternal fire, which indicates the lake of fire.

Matthew 18:8 NASB "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire."

Mark 9:45 NASB "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 hell [Gehenna]"

So eternal fire and Gehenna are parallel, that seems to settle it (most people think it does): Gehenna must be a reference to the lake of fire. The problem with this is, if Gehenna refers to the lake of fire then this would indicate either a) Jesus is indicating that His hearers can lose their salvation for committing these sins—He is talking to believing disciples; b) The lordship salvation option is that what Jesus is giving is a test: if you are truly a believer then you won't hate your brother, you won't have adulterous thoughts in your heart, and of you do you are not really saved.

Both of those are problems. The Bible makes it clear that we are not saved by works; we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. So since that interpretive option contradicts numerous passages of Scripture we ought to at least ask the question as to whether or not this is talking about something else. Since the major problem is this parallelism in Mark 9 with eternal fire we need to ask the question: is this really eternal, i.e., talking about endless fire. Does eternal always means eternal? Does everlasting always mean forever and ever? Let me tell you, it does not. There are many passages where the words that are used in Hebrew and Greek for eternity just mean a long time. And there are times when they mean forever and ever.

The lake of fire in Matthew 25:41 clearly speaks of an eternal, forever and ever lake of fire. That is very clear from the context and from that passage. When we look at passages related to the valley of Hinnom there are reasons to think that this is a temporal judgment, where the language indicates intensity rather than length of time.

For example, Matthew 18:8 NASB "If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire." That seems to be everlasting, the lake of fire. [9] "If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell." But if we translate it rather than interpret it, what Jesus says in parallel is that it is better to pluck out one of your eyes rather than having two eyes to be thrown into the fiery garbage dump in the valley of Hinnom.

What does it means to be thrown into the valley of Hinnom? We have to answer the "eternal" question first.

Mark 9:43 NASB "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell [Gehenna], into the unquenchable fire". What does it means when it says that something goes on and on and never quenched? What we see in the Old Testament is that there are predictions of judgment in unquenchable fire. For example, in Jeremiah 17:27 NASB "But if you do not listen to Me to keep the sabbath day holy by not carrying a load and coming in through the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates and it will devour the palaces of Jerusalem and not be quenched." A fire that will also burn forever, Jeremiah 17:4 NASB "And you will, even of yourself, let go of your inheritance That I gave you; And I will make you serve your enemies In the land which you do not know; For you have kindled a fire in My anger Which will burn forever."

But these terms don't describe eternal judgment on the southern kingdom of Israel, they are describing the temporal judgment of their defeat and conquest by the Babylonians. That temporal judgment where the people were cast into the valley of Hinnom did not go on forever and ever and ever. It was a temporal judgment, and in the Hebrew idiom the emphasis is not so much on the length of time but on the intensity of the judgment.

So we see that the fire of Hinnom is described both eternal and unquenchable. But these words are used to describe intensity of judgment rather than the length of judgment. The judgment described as unquenchable, as used in Isaiah 34: 8, is describing the punishment of the day of the Lord. That occurs at the end of the Tribulation period but it is not an eternal judgment. Those judgments begin and end at the second coming. So eternal and unquenchable there doesn't refer to something that never ends but is describing the intensity of the judgment.

Jeremiah 7:20 NASB "Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, "Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched." Obviously it is not going on today. That is a description of the historical judgment in 586. So this phraseology of something not being quenched emphasizes something that is an intense temporal judgment.

In Isaiah 66:12 it is used to describe a judgment that is eternal and unquenchable but the description is of people in the millennial kingdom looking out upon the bodies, the corpses of those who are being judged during the day of the Lord. This is parallel to looking at the burial of the dead from the Gog and Magog invasion that is described in Ezekiel 39:11-16 where it took seven months to clean up all of the corpses. 

So in conclusion what we see is that the valley of Hinnom is a Jewish metaphor building upon the events of the Old Testament that invoked the memory of Israel's spiritual failure and God's judgment upon them And the metaphor is designed to warn believers of the very real dangers of the divine discipline in time, and the loss of rewards and shame at the judgment seat of Christ. It emphasizes the seriousness of sin in the life of the believer: that even though we are saved by grace we need to be forgiven of our sins through the use of 1 John 1:9, but we are not to live a lifestyle of licentious sinfulness. Because when we do that we are in danger of shame at the judgment seat of Christ, we are in danger of losing rewards at the judgment seat of Christ, and we are in danger of divine discipline in time when God will bring judgment into our lives in order to gain our attention and bring us back to Him.

So the message of Jesus is not one of judgment but one to remind His disciples that the Christian life is serious and that we are to live in obedience to Him. And that we are to walk by means of the Spirit as will be developed for church age believers in order to have works that have value for eternity, that we might be rewarded for them at the judgment seat of Christ and fully enter into all of the blessings and privileges that are ours in the coming kingdom.