Dismemberment

“And if thy right eye causeth thee to stumble, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body be cast into hell. And if thy right hand causeth thee to stumble, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not thy whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

If anyone were not yet stunned and shocked by Jesus’ words they certainly would have been by now.

Jesus makes this startling declaration in Matthew 5:29-30 in the midst of what is popularly called the Sermon on the Mount. Since Matthew 5:21 He has been making a comparison and contrast between what the Israelites “had heard” in the Law of Moses and its bare minimum standard of righteousness and what “I say to you,” expressing God’s higher standard of righteousness, the one beyond that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:17-20). He first compared and contrasted the command to not kill with the higher standard of not only not hating but even seeking reconciliation and terms of peace (Matthew 5:20-26). Most recently Jesus began contrasting what the Law said about adultery with the higher standard of not even looking upon a woman with lustful intent (Matthew 5:27-28). Then He starts talking about personal dismemberment: if the right eye or hand causes a person to stumble, they should remove them, for it is better for one part of the body to perish rather than the whole to be cast into the Gehenna of fire (Matthew 5:29-30)!

Jesus’ illustration here in Matthew 5:29-30 has been one of the most abused and distorted of all the things He said and did. Some people have gone to the extreme of actually blinding themselves or chopping off their hands. Others use this passage to mock Christians in their devotion to God, declaring that if they really took Jesus literally and seriously, they should be dismembering themselves! Is Jesus serious here? Should people really dismember themselves in order to avoid hellfire?

Let none be deceived: Jesus is not actually suggesting that His followers should dismember themselves. While there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust, and the unjust will be cast into the lake of fire, actually tearing out the eye or cutting off the hand will not effectively help a believer avoid stumbling and temptation (cf. John 5:28-29, Revelation 20:11-15). Paul puts the challenge well in Colossians 2:20-23: asceticism does not intrinsically help us avoid the indulgences of the flesh. Furthermore, neither our right eye nor our right hand cause us to stumble; they are but servants of the mind, and the stumbling into sin which would occur is on account of the mind and its decisions (James 1:13-15). A blind man or armless man can still stumble into lust.

So if Jesus does not actually intend for anyone to dismember themselves, why does He speak as He does in Matthew 5:29-30? He speaks so as to shock people. He speaks so as to make clear the severity of stumbling and the temptations of sin. Does the right eye, on its own volition, compel us to lust and covet and thus sin? No, but it is easy to give into the temptation to look upon a woman to lust and to do so frequently. Does the right hand, on its own volition, lead us to take what is not ours? No, but once we have seen with our eyes and have lusted in our hearts it is much easier to reach out and grab what is not for us to have.

These are easy sins to have. Lust has become no less of a problem 2,000 years later; modern man has no lack of opportunity to commit adultery in his or her heart. We are becoming too easily sexually desensitized; what once was recognized as sexual deviance is far too often becoming acceptable or even the norm, and many forms of sexual behavior once generally deemed sinful is being accepted and normalized as well. Pornography and romance novels abound as channels of escape. “Hookup culture” provides easier access to opportunities for sexual behavior. To stand firm for sexual purity and holiness requires profound effort from both men and women, husbands and wives; it is always far easier to give into lusts and desires just like everyone else.

Yet sexual sin has always been easy to pursue; such is why Paul must speak of it constantly (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6:9-20, Galatians 5:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8). And in His own way Jesus is also trying to make this clear in Matthew 5:29-30 by setting forth the severity of the consequences of giving in and following the prevalent sexual currents of society. Lusting might be easy; it might seem fun; yet it condemns the whole body to Gehenna, a vivid illustration of hell based upon the burning trash heap outside the walls of Jerusalem. If it would be better for us to dismember ourselves than to find ourselves cast into Gehenna, then we really need to take these challenges, temptations, and causes of stumbling very seriously!

One thing is for certain: few if any have forgotten Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:29-30. It is a very memorable illustration! We should not miss the point: no, Jesus does not want us to dismember ourselves, but Jesus says what He does as He does for very good reasons, and we should not so downplay a literal application that we diminish the force of the illustration. Sin comes with serious consequences, and lust and other sexual sins are certainly no exception. If it is better to pluck out our eye than to give into looking at a woman with lustful intent, then we should recognize how important it is to make the decision to keep our thoughts pure. If it would be better to chop off our hand than to reach out to take what is not ours, then we should certainly understand how important it is to make the decision to be blameless in our interaction with our fellow men and women. Let us strive to serve the Lord Jesus and avoid Gehenna!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Outer Darkness

“And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

Darkness is not what it used to be. For thousands of years, once the sun set, most light was gone. The moon might provide some light; perhaps one could use a few candles, oil lamps, a fire, or some such thing to provide some light and heat. Otherwise there would be all-encompassing darkness, the absence of light. These days it is hard to find places where such darkness can be experienced: we have light everywhere and seemingly at all times. This makes it more difficult to imagine just how truly “dark” darkness is.

There is a reason that “darkness,” throughout time and in different cultures, represents something painful, distressing, unknown, fearful, or something that causes apprehension. Light is almost never associated with evil or anything negative; darkness seems synonymous with such things. We have a built-in understanding that there is not much good in “dark,” and plenty of which to be afraid and which we do well to avoid.

Jesus understands these things; He knows how God is light, source of all that is good and holy (John 1:4-5). In God there is light and no darkness at all: nothing evil, carnal, leading to misery and despair (1 John 1:5). If God is light, then those who follow after God should be in the light (1 John 1:7); this means that darkness, as the absence of light, is an image for all of that which is apart from and hostile to God (John 1:5, 1 John 1:6). To be in darkness, therefore, is not good; how much worse, then, would it be to find oneself in the “outer” darkness?

Jesus speaks of this “outer darkness” three times in Matthew’s Gospel: Matthew 8:12, Matthew 22:13, and Matthew 25:30. Each instance involves a person or a group of people who have incurred God’s displeasure; each time Jesus says that there “weeping and gnashing of teeth” takes place. What is this “outer darkness”?

Jesus never comes out and explicitly identifies what or where this “outer darkness” is. We gain a clue from the description of weeping and gnashing of teeth: in Matthew 13:42, 50, Jesus says that those who cause stumbling, those that do iniquity, and the wicked will be cast into the furnace of fire after the Judgment, and “there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth.”

On a literal level, this makes no sense: fire provides light, and we would expect no light in the “outer darkness.” Then again, the very idea of “outer darkness” seems strange on a literal level! All of this is for good reason; Jesus is not speaking literally. He is using different images to express the same terrible fate: the place we call hell!

When we think of “hell,” we normally associate it with a fiery furnace or some such thing where the disobedient and condemned suffer. These images in Matthew 13:42, 50 certainly suggest such a thing, but we must be careful about literalizing the idea. After all, Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as well as the “fiery furnace.” They are both illustrations!

Jesus does well to describe hell in terms of the “outer darkness” for the reasons we’ve already described: darkness is the absence of light, and if God is light, then darkness is the absence of God. We find far too many people presently living in darkness (cf. John 1:4-5, 9-10, 12:46), already in a sense separated from God. At death that separation becomes more acute: they will find themselves, by their own choice, in the “outer darkness,” a representation of full and complete separation from God the Creator, the Source of Light and Life.

It will not be pleasant there, for it is a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Such are the responses to suffering and pain! We must be careful to not allow our imaginations to get the better of us; what the condemned experience and why it leads to weeping and gnashing of teeth is not specified, and much damage has been done by believers who seemingly gleefully describe the sorts of tortures and miseries they imagine await the condemned. No one should feel any joy on account of the existence of the outer darkness or that anyone will dwell there.

Perhaps the greatest surprise about the “outer darkness” are those whom Jesus says are going there. In Matthew 8:10-12, He says that it will be the “sons of the kingdom” who will be cast there, and by that He means those participants in the covenant between God and Israel who were not truly faithful to God. In Matthew 22:9-13, the one cast into the outer darkness was a man invited to the wedding feast without wearing the appropriate garment, understood as one supplied by the one providing the feast. Finally, in Matthew 25:24-30, it is the servant of the Master who was given the one talent and who buried it who is cast into the “outer darkness.”

In all of these examples, it is not pagan unbelievers or loose sinners who are cast into the “outer darkness”; they are people who believe in God, even many who will believe in Jesus as the Christ! Jesus speaks of the “outer darkness” as a way to warn believers against complacency and self-satisfaction. Whoever thinks that merely because they mentally accept the idea that Jesus is the Christ means they will automatically be saved will be sorely disappointed. Whoever feels that since they were raised in a Christian environment and by virtue of their lineage and cultural identity they will enter the resurrection of life will find themselves far from God. Whoever believes that others should work in the vineyard of the Lord but feel they are exempt will receive the censure of Jesus and eternity in the outer darkness!

Such does not mean that pagan unbelievers or loose sinners are off the hook; as we have seen in Matthew 13:42, 50, other passages address the condemnation awaiting others who are disobedient to God. Nevertheless, Jesus’ warning is appropriate. Yes, God is the light; God is the source of good things. We all want to identify with the light and to receive those blessings. But if we want to be in the light, we must walk in the light (1 John 1:7): we need to follow after Jesus, conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions to His. If we are not conforming our thoughts, attitudes, and actions (all three; not just one or two) to those of Jesus, the truth is not in us; we’re deceiving ourselves, confident of our presence in the light even though we walk in darkness. If we are found in the darkness on the day of Judgment, we will find ourselves permanently in the outer darkness!

What a terrible fate to go into the outer darkness! It is not something we should wish on ourselves, our loved ones, or even our worst enemies. Thankfully, no one is forced to go to the outer darkness; we all have the opportunity to leave the darkness and share in the light of God in Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:8). Let us heed the Savior’s warning and seek to walk in the light as He is the light!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Judgment No One Wants to Hear

“Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not; sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.’
Then shall they also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when saw we thee hungry, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?’
Then shall he answer them, saying, ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me.’
And these shall go away into eternal punishment: but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:41-46).

For modern readers this passage might come as a bit of a shock. People are not accustomed to a presentation of Jesus in which He consigns people to eternal punishment; they expect Him, as an embodiment of love, to find some way to let most people or perhaps even everyone into eternal life. Yet that is not the case, and Jesus provides reason for it. This is the judgment that no one wants to hear, but sadly, many will hear it (Matthew 7:13-14).

Jesus has already warned about the fate of the wicked servant who abuses others and lives for him or herself (Matthew 24:48-51), the foolish virgins who were not ready for the Bridegroom’s arrival (Matthew 25:1-13), and the “one talent servant,” the one who did not advance the cause of His Master (Matthew 25:14-30). And yet now, in this presentation of the judgment scene, a different aspect of the situation emerges.

Everything said in Matthew 25:41-46 contrasts with what was said in Matthew 25:34-40. There were those who fed Jesus when hungry, clothed Him when naked, and so on; these people did not do so. The first group wanted to know when they did such things; this group wants to know when they saw Jesus and did not do such things. Ultimately, they either did them, or did not do them, for Jesus when they did or did not do them for “one of these least” (Matthew 25:31-46).

As before, so now: the big picture of this judgment scene involves whether or not we helped people in their time of need. The negative portrayal of Matthew 25:41-46 illuminates and highlights the positive portrayal of Matthew 25:34-40.

We should first note that the people who hear this judgment are cursed and to be cast into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Notice that Jesus does not say that the fire was prepared for them– it was prepared for the spiritual powers of darkness, and there was no need for those hearing this sentence to join them in that fire. And yet they are going there because of the decisions they made in life (cf. Romans 1:18-32). They went down the path of the devil and his angels; they thus reap the same consequences as the devil and his angels!

A very surprising detail about this judgment scene is found in Matthew 25:44: those hearing this sentence ask when it was that they saw Jesus hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, etc., and did not help Him. It seems to be presented as an honest question– we get the impression that at least some of these people, had they known that it was Jesus who was hungry, thirsty, sick, etc., that they would have provided what was necessary. This is doubtless not true for many of those who will be condemned on the final day, but it will be true for many who will be!

This is consistent with Jesus’ description of “sinners” in Matthew 5:46-47 and Luke 6:32-34. It is not as if Jesus thinks that sinners have no natural affections at all. No, He declares– even sinners love those who love them. Sinners do good to those who do good to them. Sinners will lend to sinners. Sinners greet and are friendly toward those who are friendly to them.

Therefore, there will be on that final day people who were benevolent toward some other people who will yet be condemned. Sure, those people did good things to those who were just like them, who liked them and appreciated them, and who gave back to them. These things are assumed to be true of almost everyone. Jesus raises the bar higher for those who seek eternal life.

These people are condemned in this presentation because they did not help the least of those amongst them– the outcasts, the dispossessed, the widow, the orphan, the homeless, those with a radically different view of things, those whom society or culture or (sadly enough) religious authorities taught them to despise. They, like the priest and the Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), just walked on by. They may not have actively contributed to the destitution of the least among them, but they certainly did not do anything to make it any better. And for that they are condemned.

We imagine that many “heathens,” unbelievers, and others will be in this crowd, and they most likely will be (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). But what might be shocking is just how many “religious” people will comprise this crowd. Sure, they might have seemed pious enough. They probably did all they could to avoid certain sins, and might even have done some charitable work. Yet, like the Pharisees and scribes, they harbored a sense of superiority; in their pursuit of holiness, they forgot about love, mercy, justice, and faithfulness (Matthew 7:20-23, 23:23-24). They were more than ready to help their coreligionists and their middle- to upper-class neighbors; the cry of the truly needy amongst them, however, went unheeded. They heard the cries of those with whom Jesus associated, and did nothing.

Yes, there is more that will go into the sentence of condemnation than just one’s lack of charity– sin, disobedience, rebellion, lack of knowledge of God, and so forth (Romans 2:5-10, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). And yet, just as true charity exemplifies that one has been truly conformed to the image of Jesus the Son in thought, attitude, and deed (Matthew 25:34-40, Romans 8:29), the lack of true charity demonstrates a parallel lack of conformity to the image of Jesus the Son. As long as anyone does not show true charity toward the outcast and dispossessed, there remains conformity to the world and not to Christ.

No one wants to hear the judgment of Matthew 25:41, but it will be the eternal condemnation of far too many souls. It will come to all those who reject the reality that the image of God can be found in even the least among us, and for those who prove willing to harden their hearts toward their fellow man and carry on as they always have. It is a sentence for people in self-absorbed lives, content with avoiding the big sins without proper concern for practicing righteousness (cf. James 4:17). And it will be distressing declaration to many religious people who worried so much about so many religious things that they forgot about their fellow man, or who were too enamored with the view of religiosity to be bothered to get their hands dirty in the difficult and challenging work of true religiosity. Ultimately, it is a sentence representing the great humbling of many people who were too high on themselves and too dismissive of others. Dear friend, do not let this be the sentence you hear. Change your ways, follow after Jesus of Nazareth, humble yourself, and prove willing to serve the least among you, conforming to the image of Christ in holiness, faithfulness, love, and mercy, and obtain eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

God’s Trash Pit

“Ye serpents, ye offspring of vipers, how shall ye escape the judgment of hell?” (Matthew 23:33).

Imagine, if you will, a trash dump. It is full of all kinds of garbage, including dead animals and human bodies, all of which in various levels of decomposition. Then imagine that this trash dump is on fire.

Is this a place that will be high on your vacation itinerary? Does this sound like a place where you want to be?

Such was the Valley of Hinnom in the first century CE. The Valley of Hinnom lay immediately to the south of Jerusalem; it represents part of the border between Benjamin and Judah (Joshua 15:8). In the days of the kings, the Israelites would burn their children alive there at the Valley of Hinnom to the god Molech (2 Kings 23:10, 2 Chronicles 28:3). Even though Josiah defiled the place, it maintained its reputation as polluted land. What better place, then, for Jews to place their garbage and burn it? And thus it was. Every Israelite knew exactly what the Valley of Hinnom was like. No one really wanted to go there or be there!

Jesus recognizes these things, and twelve times in the New Testament, He calls hell by the Greek word gehenna: the Valley of Hinnom. Such would be the destination of the Pharisees if they would not change their ways, as seen above in Matthew 23:33; their disciples would go there too (Matthew 23:15). In Matthew 5:29-30, among other places, Jesus establishes that it is better to lose an eye or a hand than to have the whole body cast into Gehenna. In Matthew 5:22, those who revile their brother will experience Gehenna. We are to fear God because, unlike mankind, He is able to cast both body and soul into Gehenna (Matthew 10:28).

While talking about hell may not be popular or politically correct these days, Jesus speaks about it more than anyone else in the Scriptures, and the Valley of Hinnom represents one of His consistent descriptions of the place. He uses that description not because He relishes the thought of burning souls like trash, but because He does not want anyone to go there! Who wants to be part of a trash pit that is perpetually burning? Who would sign up for such a thing? Who would want their loved ones to go there? Who would even wish that upon their worst enemy?

And that is precisely the point: hell is not a fun place. It is not a place anyone should want to go or should want anyone else to experience. God certainly does not want anyone to have to go there (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:7-8)!

If this message has thoroughly disgusted you, I pray that you are not offended, but will instead use that disgust to provide greater motivation to serve the Lord Jesus and encourage everyone you know and love (and, for that matter, those you don’t like) to serve the Lord Jesus also, lest anyone end up in that terrible trash pit!

Ethan R. Longhenry