Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna].Matthew 10:28
I was listening to Brian Zahnd’s most recent sermon during the first hour of office hours this morning, when a few dots connected for me that I haven’t seen before. This post may be a bit scattered because I’m working out my own thoughts as I go. You are getting court-side seats to me working through this passage.
Brian’s Main Point
Brian’s point in his sermon, which he shares with N. T. Wright, is that the one who kills body and soul is not God; instead, it is Satan. Specifically, destruction is what happens when one follows the way of Satan instead of the Way of Jesus. What is the way of Satan? Well, in a word, it is lawlessness, but to use Brian’s explanation, it is related to following the expected path of waging a holy war to bring about the time of the end instead of engaging in spiritual warfare through the message of the nonviolent gospel of Jesus.
And so, one isn’t to fear the naysayers who question the legitimacy of the miracles of the disciples; instead, one is to fear actually becoming what they are being charged with: an emissary of Satan.
So, let’s test this idea. First, we’ll look at the context of Matthew 10:28. Then, we’ll ask a few questions about the text in question.
The Context of Matthew 10:28
Matthew 10 is sometimes called the limited commission, as opposed to the great commission of Matthew 28, but I don’t really think this commission is as limited as one might think. While it starts off with instructions to not go to the Gentiles, the conversation shifts to themes of persecution, arrest, scouring, and being witnesses to the Gentiles by verse 16. If we accept that Stephen was the first martyr, then this chapter, from Matthew’s perspective, obviously applies to the disciples’ work after the cross under the commission given later in Matthew 28.
Casting Out Demons by the Ruler of the Demons?
In the course of their ministry, as they healed the sick and cast out demons, there would be some who would claim that they cast out demons by the ruler of the demons, Beelzebul. The religious rulers had accused Jesus of the same thing earlier in Matthew and would make this same claim later:
But the Pharisees were saying, “He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.”Matthew 9:34
But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”Matthew 12:24
Jesus’s response appears to equate the name Beelzebul, a reference to a Canaanite god, to Satan:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? “If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.Matthew 12:25–29
Jesus’s response gives us a lot of information, but the two main points that stand out to me are the apparent equation of Beelzebul with Satan and the fact that the casting out of demons is a sure sign that the kingdom had arrived.
Don’t Fear Those Guys
With this information, let’s read our passage again:
“It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household! “Therefore do not fear them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops. “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.Matthew 10:25–28
So, who are the disciples not to fear? They are not to fear their persecutors, the ones who slander them. They can persecute. They can slander. They can do all manner of evil against he saints. But they cannot destroy the soul.
Speaking of slander, Peter picks up on this theme in his letters.
Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation.1 Peter 2:12
But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.1 Peter 3:14–17
These first two passages warn them to keep their conscience clean and live in such a gentle and reverent way that no one could claim they were living disorderly as evildoers. This is important because some thought that Jesus and his followers were just another band of revolutionaries trying to wage a holy war against Rome, so Peter gives this warning:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name.1 Peter 4:12–16
So, they aren’t to fear those who slander them and even those who might take their lives. Instead, they are to fear for something or someone else.
Instead, Fear Him?
So if they are not to fear their persecutors, then who are they to fear? Well, one obvious option is God. I say it is obvious because some versions, like the NLT, translate the passage that way, replacing the pronoun with the proper noun. There are also other passages that talk about the fear of God:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.Proverbs 9:10
It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.Hebrews 10:31
Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king.1 Peter 2:17
But the question is whether or not we are supposed to fear God; the question is whether or not Matthew 10:28 teaches this and if it is God who destroys both body and soul in Gehenna.
The other option, as offered by Brian, is Satan, but before we weigh the options, lets read the next few verses:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. “So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.Matthew 10:29–31
The idea of this passages seems to be to not be afraid of God. God’s care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field should remove anxiety and fear (Matthew 6:25-35). In God’s eyes, we are valuable, and if one confesses Jesus before men, in the face of persecution, then Jesus will confess their name before God in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).
The argument could also be made, though, that God’s love and care for us is so overwhelming that it does instill within us a healthy reverence for God’s power, not a haunted house or scary movie kind of fear. And this reverence leads one to confess them name of Christ when being persecuted instead of bowing down to the persecutors.
In other words, healthy respect, or fear, of God gives one confidence when being persecuted.
Reading Matthew 10:28 this has its difficulties.
“Don’t be afraid of these guys, who can only kill the body; instead, you better behave or the one who can punish you forever and ever will get you!”
If Jesus is using the fear of punishment as a motivating factor to get his disciples to follow him, then what does one do with passages like the one in John’s first epistle:
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.1 John 4:18
Is Jesus teaching an imperfect love? Or, perhaps, is Jesus teaching that one may come to Christ because of fear of punishment but then learn better later on when they become confident in the love of God?
I’m not totally satisfied with either of these options, so let’s talk more about the authority of the Accuser, Slanderer, and Adversary: the Satan.
Gehenna, Death, and the Devil
One objection to the interpretation that the one who “destroys body and soul” is the Satan was voiced by my friend in a recent e-mail.
If Hell was a place created for the Devil and his angels to punish them for rebelling, then how could he have any power over it?
This question is a good one, and it comes from 2 Peter:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment;2 Peter 2:4
There is one problem here though, and it’s with the word hell.
This is a different word than the one found in Matthew 10. This is the word Tartarus while the word in Matthew 10 is Gehenna. Gehenna is only ever used in the gospel accounts and once more in James, speaking of the tongue being set on fire by Gehenna.
While Tartarus referred to an intermediate place where fallen angels were held, possibly the “sons of God” in Genesis 6 (but I”m not sold on that idea), Gehenna was am actual valley close to Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children to false gods in the Hebrew Scriptures by making them pass through the fire (2 Chronicles 28:3). Jeremiah 7 envisioned a time when the land of Jerusalem would become like Gehenna, a place of death and ruin. Jeremiah 7 also says that making sons and daughters pass through the fire in Gehenna is something that did not come into the mind of God (Jeremiah 7:31).
But what about the second part of my friends question? Does Satan have power over death in some way? Let’s look and see:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.Hebrews 2:14–15
While Satan’s power was taken away, the Scripture does speak of another time when Satan would be loosed for a little while to deceive the nations once more and wage war against he saints (Revelation 20:7-8).
In light of this, Peter warns his readers,
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
1 Peter 5:8
Peter wanted his audience to be sober and be alert because the Devil was looking to destroy some of them. How would they be destroyed? By being swept up into the false gospel, the way of false peace, the way of lawlessness. That’s why Peter warned them over and over to submit to the authorities and not to be confused with an evildoer, thief, or murderer. That is, they were not to join the rebellion against Rome.
When He 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.”Luke 19:41–44
It’s interesting to me that the only other time this word “visitation” is used in this way is in Peter’s warning to avoid giving credit to the persecutors’ slander (1 Peter 2:12). Or to put it in another way, Peter was wanting them to embrace the way of peace and honor the authorities, choosing to suffer with Jesus instead of suffering as a nationalist zealot in the rebellion against Rome (1 Peter 2:13-25).
Why? Because if they embraced the way of the Satan, then they would suffer the fate of the zealots: perishing in the fires of Jerusalem when Jerusalem became like Gehenna in A.D. 70 at the hands of the Romans. The wide way of hating one’s enemies instead of loving one’s neighbors leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). Those who pick up the sword perish with the sword.
So, how might one read Matthew 10? Here is a summary of the last half of the chapter:
“They are going to persecute you just like they persecute me. They are going to slander you just like they slander me. But when they say that you cast out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons, do not fear. Instead, take care that you don’t follow the way of Satan because it only leads to destruction. God, however, cares for you. And while embracing the false way of peace may look like a way to preserve your life, losing your life by choosing to confess me before men is how your life will be saved because God cares for the sparrows, even though they might fall into the hands of the hunter.”