He Shall Save His People
JOHN had announced the nearness of the kingdom (Matt.3:2), and the spirit of God and His voice out of the heavens had identified Jesus as God’s Son, the Beloved in Whom He delights (3:16,17). The way seemed to be opened up for the manifestation of Jesus as Saviour and King.
But the kingdom with its deliverance from the many evils of present life did not immediately appear. In fact, the next event recorded in Matthew was the trial of Jesus by the Adversary, in the midst of great weakness and travail (Matt.4:1-11). And here the very blessings of food and safety and rule that characterize the kingdom were set before Jesus, and He refused them. This refusal under the most difficult of situations shows clearly that the kingdom must come in accord with God’s ways and will. The death of Christ as a basis for all the blessings of the kingdom must occur first. When our Lord receives the rule it will be as the Saviour Who does not only save and bless, but Who does so on a firm basis established by God.
There would be no blessing in having food and protection and divine rule where there is no power given over sin. For Jesus to have accepted earthly rule from the Adversary would not only mean that the worship is deflected from God, which is horrible beyond thought, but that Israel and all mankind would continue under the effects of sin and weakness of flesh. There was something far more vital than having all physical needs supplied and safety from all harm under perfect and wise rule. And this was salvation from sin.
A GREAT LIGHT
After this Jesus retired into Galilee, far distant from Jerusalem where the kingdom would be centered. Here the people sitting in darkness perceived a great light (Matt.4:16), as Jesus heralded the very message spoken by John, saying, “Repent! for near is the kingdom of the heavens!” (4:17). The radiant hope of the kingdom drawing near did not seem to have been dimmed by the call for repentance. Loyal and capable followers were called, including Peter, the “Rock,” and “immediately” leaving their work and family ties they followed Jesus (4:18-22).
The signs of the approaching kingdom continued in a positive way. Jesus led His disciples throughout Galilee, “heralding the evangel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every debility among the people” (Matt.4:23). The type of thing the Adversary recognized Jesus could do as God’s Son (4:3), but which He refused to do for Himself under those conditions, He now was actually doing among the sinners of Galilee. And the tidings spread, with vast throngs streaming to Him from Galilee and the Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and the other side of the Jordan (Matt.4:24,25). The kingdom had drawn very near indeed.
But the problem of sin had not yet been dealt with.
THE TEACHING ON THE MOUNT
The mountain was the symbol of rule. Hence, in directing attention to the kingdom, Jesus ascended to a mountain and taught concerning the kingdom that had come so very near. As recorded in Matthew, His words take up the bulk of three chapters, 5:3-7:27. “And it came when Jesus finishes these sayings, that the throngs were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as One having authority and not as their scribes” (Matt.7:28,29).
What astonished the Galileans was that Jesus, Who had lived among them as one of them, could speak with such authority. But there seems to have been no more astonishment concerning the instruction itself than was felt at Sinai when Moses first delivered the message of Exodus 20-23. At that earlier time “Moses came and related to the people all the words of Yahweh and all the judgments. Then all the people responded with one voice and said: All the words which Yahweh has spoken we shall do” (Exodus 24:3). In neither case was there any sign of genuine inner enlightenment concerning human infirmity and need of a Saviour from sins.
Yet whether they noted it or not, there is for us even more of astonishment in what Jesus said than in the authoritative manner in which He spoke. Not even the least of the precepts given in the law could be annulled (Matt.5:19). The required standard of righteousness exceeded that maintained by the most diligent and disciplined of Israelites (5:20). Every precept had to be obeyed inwardly as well as outwardly, so that “You shall not murder” required also that “You shall not be angry with your brother” (5:21,22); and “You shall not be committing adultery” demanded also that “You shall not have any lust in your heart” (5:27,28) as well as severest restrictions on divorce and remarriage (5:31,32). The laws concerning sacrifices, though still in effect, involved important prerequisites such as removing offenses and settling debts (5:23-26). The law against perjury was shown to include a law against making oaths or saying anything that might bring dishonor to God or even Jerusalem or even oneself as an Israelite (Matt.5:33-37).
Not only were the laws given at Sinai intensified in this message, but some were even replaced by higher demands, in light of the approaching times of Jacob’s troubles. What was commanded by Jesus could never be obeyed apart from God’s spirit. This was especially so of laws concerned with just judgments. The people were to suffer unjust treatment from outsiders and leave all the settling of accounts to God (Matt.5:43-47). And this astonishing requirement was followed by perhaps the most astonishing statement in the entire message: “You, then, shall be perfect (or: mature) as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48).
The promises connected with these intensified demands were equally astonishing. Good deeds were required, but they must be done secretly and not at all motivated by rewards and praises from fellow humans (Matt.6:1-4), but rather in view of wages from God (6:8-13). “For if you should be forgiving men their offenses, your heavenly Father also will be forgiving you” (6:14). “Now you, when fasting, rub your head with oil and wash your face, so that you may not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father Who is in hiding, and your Father, Who is observing in hiding, will be paying you” (6:17,18). The heavenly Father was aware of their every need, so that they needed to seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, and all these provisions of clothing and food would be added to them (6:31-34).
It was in the following of all these laws, which in fact lay behind the laws as given at Sinai, that these Israelites would enter the kingdom and enjoy its blessings. When all hypocrisy and pride would be removed through the spiritual invigoration of the new covenant, and full reliance and confidence was placed in God, then they would request, and it would be given to them (7:7).
THE NARROWED WAY
The level of righteousness demanded was astonishing. The blessings promised on the basis of achieving this high level of righteousness were also astonishing. But the most astonishing thing about this entire message is the fact that Jesus spoke of these requirements and these blessings, and the people received them, as though they were certain to come about! Yet how can the promises be fulfilled if the level of righteousness demanded for their fulfillment be impossible of attainment?
How is it possible that anyone would find “the cramped gate and narrowed way” which led away into life (Matt.7:13,14)? How is it possible that anyone would produce the “ideal fruit” required (7:16-20)? Would anyone be able to avoid anger toward a brother that makes him liable to the Gehenna of fire (Matt.5:22)? Would anyone be so free of lust and wrong thoughts that there is no possibility of loss in Gehenna (5:30)? Who of all those listening to Jesus on the mount that day could claim that they were perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect (5:48)?
Long before Jesus had finished this message, there surely arose in the hearts of many who listened the question the disciples later asked of the Lord, “Who, consequently, can be saved?” The answer would have to be the same as Jesus gave then: “With men this is impossible, yet with God all is possible” (Matt.19:25,26).
YOU SHALL BE PERFECT
The throngs listening to Jesus speak were sinners. They were not perfect even by the humanly manipulated levels of perfection set by the Pharisees. And yet Jesus said they shall be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect!
Here is a statement for the highest astonishment! The Authorized Version renders the future tense as a command: “Be ye, therefore, perfect, even as your Father Which is in heaven is perfect,” which is not entirely incorrect. The parallel word in the law given to Moses at Sinai is also expressed by an indicative verb: “Holy shall you become, for I am holy, Yahweh your Elohim” (Lev.19:2). But in Luke 6:36, where the Lord’s sermon on “an even place” is recorded, the Lord uses the imperative: “Become, then, pitiful, according as your Father also is pitiful.” What is commanded is also promised! It is commanded as a test to display human inability, but it is promised as a revelation of divine ability.
As a command, the astonishment in Matthew 5:48 lies in the fact that it speaks of an impossibility for Israel and indeed for us all! As a promise, the astonishment lies in the marvel of God’s achievement. Israel must be brought to the point where they realize they cannot be perfect as God is perfect so that they shall be made perfect and holy and pitiful as their Father is perfect, holy and pitiful.
Ultimately Israel will be saved from their imperfection and immaturity, and so they will reflect the perfection of the heavenly Father. They will be saved from their sins, by their Saviour, Jesus.
IMPOSSIBILITY OF ETERNAL LOSS
It is surely ironic that portions of Matthew 5-7 should be understood and taught in defense of the doctrine of everlasting hell for the wicked. Entirely apart from the fact that the Greek word aiõnios (read into this context from Matthew 25:46) does not mean endlessness,
1 and the fact that Gehenna does not refer to a place of fiery, conscious torment,
2 imposing such a perverse idea on our Lord’s sermon makes a complete mockery and confusion of His message.
It can only be claimed hypocritically that Jesus is speaking of an everlasting destiny of misery, from which there is no possibility of escape, for certain individuals (not, of course, including ourselves). The demands placed on our Lord’s listeners are demands that no one could keep apart from God’s gift of a Saviour from sins. God must make His people perfect as He is perfect, or else none of them will enter into the kingdom. Solely on the basis of the standards of righteousness laid down in these chapters, and apart from the Saviour’s salvation from sins, no one, whether they are God’s people Israel or not, can hope to receive the promises.
If the promise of maturity and perfection is to be fulfilled, God must open the eyes of the blind and give spiritual strength, which in fact He has promised to do in the giving of His Son as the Saviour of His people.
This is not to say that Gehenna and destruction as spoken of here are not serious realities. But we who believe that Christ died for our sins, and that this is the sole basis of our salvation and expectation of life, must surely be prepared in heart to treat our Lord’s words concerning future judgments with the greatest care and caution, lest we bring dishonor to His Name. It is well to ask how much anger lies behind the traditional interpretation of these passages. Where is the sense of humility and the turning of the other cheek, demanded by our Lord here, in the scenes of hell so often still presented in sermons of many Bible teachers? Why should we put limits to God’s grace and restrict the effectiveness of the cross of Christ by stubborn adherence to such concepts as double predestination
3 or the idea that God has given up a measure of His sovereign will in favor of the free will of man? Why should we confine God’s justice to His work of judgment, and His love to His work of salvation, in order to defend the idea of everlasting loss?
It is not the sin of hypocrisy alone that is involved here. There is the sin of disbelief in the attempts to explain a passage like Romans 5:18 in terms of not all mankind being justified, or 1 Corinthians 15:22 in terms of not all being vivified in Christ, or Colossians 1:20 in terms of a reconciliation through the blood of Christ’s cross that does not reach every enemy in the universe. There is the failure (to our great present loss) of not relying on God as the living God Who is the Saviour of all mankind (1 Tim.4:10), and not glorifying Him for His goal of becoming All in all (1 Cor.15:28).
As for our Lord’s ministry as recorded in the book of Matthew, we should eagerly view all His words of warning and dire predictions of judgment in the light of such promises as Matthew 1:21 (“He shall be saving His people from their sins”), and Matthew 2:6 (“For out of [Judah] shall come forth the Ruler Who shall shepherd My people Israel”) and Matthew 5:48 (“You, then, shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”). We should take to heart as literal truth the words of Ezekiel 36:25,26 and connect them unreservedly to the promise of Matthew 5:8 concerning the clean of heart: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idol clods I shall cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I bestow within you, and I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”
In every way we should avoid a conclusion that sees God as dooming to an eternal hell those whom He does not yet give a clean heart and does not yet make perfect and mature as He is perfect. Here in Matthew God is setting forth astonishing demands, demands which are impossible for anyone to fulfill in their own strength, but He is also preparing Israel for the Saviour from sin and the granting of His spirit for power of righteousness that exceeds that ever shown by their most diligent law-keeper. And what is said about Gehenna and fire and the great fall of the sinner’s (the “stupid” man’s) house must be taken in relation to the overall goals announced. God can and does use warnings as motivations for repentance, and He can and does use the carrying out of His judgments for enlightening the eyes of the blinded sinners involved, as well as for purposes of discipline, but these are steps along the way and are not ends in themselves. In the consummation it will be seen and appreciated that Jesus is the Saviour from sins so that God may be known and relied on by all as the Saviour of all mankind.
JUDGMENT IN GEHENNA
THE FUTURE JUDGMENT SCENE described in Isaiah 66:23,24 is much easier to understand when we become aware of what has already taken place at this very same spot, just outside Jerusalem. Here lay the gorge called the vale of the sons of Hinnom. The Israelites once built their high places here for the purpose of sacrificing their own children to the god Molech (Jer.7:31; 19:5; 2 Kings 23:10). Later this same spot was termed “Tophet,” that is “Vomit” or “Abomination.” This gloomy valley, the setting for Israel’s most awful and offensive crimes, had already been turned by Yahweh into a place of judgment, when Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem. This was the spot that Yahweh picked to give His sinful people over to the sword so that it became known as the “Valley of Slaughter” because so many were slain on its slopes.
Because of the presence of so many unburied dead, this gorge became especially repulsive to the Jews, so was only inhabited by the birds and beasts of prey.
When these concluding lines from Isaiah’s prophecy were read to the Jews in their synagogue, they knew full well that such words could only refer to the cursed vale of the sons of Hinnom, outside the city, which later became known as the Gehenna. It was obvious to them that this would be the logical spot, in that future day, for God to deal out judgment. For many, many years this same valley had served as the “city dump” for the refuse of the townsfolk. Even the corpses of executed criminals were cast into it, to be devoured by the worms and the fires, which burned incessantly in order to destroy the filth and the stench.
Our Lord’s predictions about the coming kingdom closely paralleled those of the prophets, for He not only foresaw bountiful blessings but also fearful judgments. He elaborated upon what had been said about this period in previous predictions, explaining it more fully and shedding further light on many hazy points. He warned His hearers powerfully of the judgment which would one day envelop the vale of Hinnom. Unfortunately, faulty translation has hidden this fact from the eyes of most and severed the connection between our Lord’s threats and the warnings of Isaiah 66:24, because in every passage where our Lord referred to Gehenna, these versions mistranslate it “hell.” Perhaps this is done to lend support to the sagging doctrine of “everlasting torment,” yet it mars and mutilates the important link between those predictions in prior prophecies which deal with the same subject.
Like a diamond in its setting, this judgment scene in Gehenna fits into the framework of our Lord’s sermon. He first spoke about entering the kingdom, which at the same time He was still heralding as “near.” But, in contrast to this, He also warned them of the possibility that one might forfeit all its blessings by being caught in different snares, which can only mean becoming bound to certain sins . . . . Such will be thrown into Gehenna at the kingdom’s inauguration. The severity of this judgment is seen from His dictum that merely calling a brother “Stupid” would make one liable to the Gehenna of fire (Matt.5:22).
On the other hand He offers comfort to those who will endure affliction in that day because of their faith, with these words: “Now I am saying to you, My friends, be not afraid of those who are killing the body and after this do not have anything more excessive that they can do. Now I shall be intimating to you of Whom you may be afraid. Be afraid of Him, Who, after killing, has authority to be casting into Gehenna. Yea, I am saying to you, of this One be afraid” (Luke 12:4,5).
Here we may see the proper order of the process of this judgment of Gehenna. First the body is killed, and only after that is the corpse thrown into the valley with its smoldering fires and voracious worms. Therefore this is not a judgment in which the sinner suffers, for he is already dead. Likewise, it becomes very evident that this terrestrial tribunal cannot last forever.
Even though the Lord called it “eonian fire,” this only indicates that it will burn throughout one whole eon. That it must have an end is not difficult to prove. Scripture says definitely that at the end of the millennium the entire earth will be dissolved by combustion (2 Peter 3:12). Thus this place of judgment located in the vale of Hinnom will also melt and be decomposed like everything else on the earth’s surface.
THE CRAMPED GATE AND NARROW WAY
HOW earnestly did we once exhort sinners to leave the broad way which leads to destruction, for the narrow path that leads to life! (Matt.7:13,14). But, thank God, we learned the great truth that we are in Christ and share His life. How then could we be on a road that leads to life? I learned, moreover, that the entrance into life was wide, not cramped. It was entered by grace, not by striving (Luke 13:24). The narrow way was not the evangel but the law. That leads to life, for those who keep it, but, alas of the few who find it, none observe it. The precept given for life is for death (Rom.7:10).
The word “strait” is no longer understood, hence it is translated cramped in the Concordant Version. In its other forms it means groan, distress. We westerners do not know what a narrow road is. I lived on a narrow street. It was just wide enough so three automobiles could drive abreast. In the East a street is not narrow if a single auto mobile can squeeze through. It is wide, extra wide. It is narrow if pedestrians must go in single file. The word cramped means still more. It is so narrow that it makes one groan to squeeze through. That is the normal experience of one under the law of Moses. But the freedom we have in Christ is like the flight of a bird in the air. Not cramped, but spacious. Full of life, not leading to life. Not groaning, but singing!
The figure of the two ways was used by our Lord in proclaiming the evangel of the kingdom, before His rejection by Israel, with the cross out of sight, long before Paul was given his evangel for the nations, which is in force today. Yet even in that economy the gospel was not cramped. In the tabernacle the entrance was very wide indeed. Our Lord’s words were immediately preceded by the basic law of the kingdom. “All, then, whatever you may be wanting that men should be doing to you, thus you, also, be doing to them, for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt.7:12). This law is the cramped gate and narrow way. Who can fulfill it?
A. E. Knoch
1. cf A. E. Knoch: ALL IN ALL, pp.192-206; James Coram: “The Living God and the Eons,” Unsearchable Riches, vol.79, p.171.
2. cf James Coram: “The Gehenna of Fire,” Unsearchable Riches, vol. 83, p.279.
3. Double predestination is the idea that God predetermined that some people would be saved, and the rest damned to everlasting hell.
The above writing, “Judgment in Gehenna,” by M. Jaegle, is from Unsearchable Riches, vol.52, pp.74,75; the meditation, “The Cramped Gate and Narrow Way,” by A. E. Knoch, is from Unsearchable Riches, vol.24, p.150.
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