What are you afraid of? The dark? Scary movies? Bills? Public speaking? I’m afraid of baseball. I didn’t used to be. When I was a kid, I loved to play wiffle ball in the side yard with my dad and the neighborhood kids. But then when I was on Shorthorn Little League, that all changed when a wild pitched fastball hit me square in the back and knocked the wind out of me. I never could quite get over my uncontrollable urge to flinch when I stood in the batter’s box after that. To this day, if I go to the the batting cages, I head right for the slow pitch softball lane where hopefully nobody will see me squirm when that high-arced lunker comes bubbling toward me.
Fear is normal and natural, and some fear is even healthy. We should be afraid of angry dogs and crossing busy roads. It helps us stay alive. So when Jesus says “do not be afraid” today, I think it is safe to say that he doesn’t mean have no fear at all. In fact, he even seems to contradict himself, saying don’t be afraid, but be afraid, but don’t be afraid.
He isn’t saying that all fear is bad, but misplaced fear is bad.
Do Not Fear Them, But Fear Him
Let’s talk about fear as a motivating concern. That is, fear sometimes makes you do things. It is an input that leads to an output. Some of us see a spider (input) and we scream like a girl and jump onto the nearest chair (output). Or, on a more personal level, we might remember that our teacher will take away our lunchtime freedom if we don’t do our homework (that’s the potential input), which causes us to do our homework the night before. Fear is a motivating concern. It motivates us to change our thinking and our actions. Fear makes you do things. Fear augments your behavior. Whether it is a real threat (like seeing an actual spider), or a potential threat (like believing your teacher will take away freedom if you don’t do your homework), fear alters your behavior.
And nowhere is this more profoundly played out in our lives than in the people we fear. I asked earlier, “what are you afraid of?”, but the question on Jesus’ mind today is “Who are you afraid of?” Who is it, whose potential threats and real threats motivates you to think and act differently? This is where the river runs very deep for some of us. We all have someone who, or many someones, who the thought of their potential threat will change our behavior. The extreme example is an abusive father. But even a kind and loving father, and the fear of living up to their expectations, can work a number on us. Both are, in their own way, the same kind of fear that is a motivating concern. As long as there is one person that alters our thinking and behavior this way, whether they are as kind as a kitten or as cruel as a tyrant (or both at the same time), they are the central object of our fear, our primary motivating concern, and therefore, they are in the place that should be reserved for God alone.
The scriptures say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9.10)
And this is where Jesus is telling us to place our fear. Not in mom or dad or bills or the government, or danger, or nakedness or sword. All of those are misplaced fears, like a bet placed on the wrong number. Place your bet on God, not on the temporary and temporal concerns and characters of this shadow world.
I hope you will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, come to realize that there is no one to fear in this life but God. I am always reminded of our missionary Carlos Montoya in Tijuana, who says that when his life is threatened for pulling drug addicts off the streets in the name of Jesus Christ, he simply tells his accusers, “You can’t kill me. I am already dead. I was crucified with Christ, and now I no longer live, but He lives in me.” That is the fear without fear Jesus wants each of us to have.
Now we could talk about that a lot more, and I hope you consider who you fear and come to the same conclusion I have: there is no one in this world to fear above God alone.
But Jesus uses some foul language here, and I think it is worth looking into at this time. I want to set the record straight, because there seems to be some confusion in the church today about a subject that is very plainly spelled out in the scriptures: the subject of h e double hockey sticks, “hell”. Most people don’t know this, but Jesus himself taught about it more than anyone else in all the Bible. And there is a move afoot to erase hell from our vocabulary. But I can tell you as long as I am honored to carry the call to preach the whole counsel of God – and not just the easy parts – “hell” will remain firmly fixed in my vocabulary and in this pulpit. Not because I like the idea, but because to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, hell is always presented as a very true, very serious reality.
So, if we take Jesus seriously, we need to take hell seriously. It’s that simple. If you want him to be lovey dovey with you, you also need to allow him to get a little fiery and brimstone-y with you too. It’s who he is and what he said. Don’t gag him by ignoring the things that don’t sit well with you. Hell is the kale of our faith. Nobody likes it, but we all need it.
So here we go.
A Short History of Gehenna
Jesus uses a specific word here for hell, translators have nearly all translated it to the modern word hell. But the word Jesus uses here is “Gehenna” – and it refers to an actual, real place just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It is a steep ravine that currently hosts an amphitheater and a park of all things, but in Jesus’ day was a smoldering heap of trash, dead animal carcasses, and burning refuse. If your dog or goat died, you would toss it’s carcass in Gehenna where fires burned constantly to consume th rotting, diseased flesh. It was a horrid, disgusting place that nobody would want to see close up. And therefore it was a perfect picture of God’s judgment and wrath.
But how did “Gehenna” come to be? There are clues in the Old Testament.
"Gehenna" is a Greek contraction of the Hebrew words “Ben Hinnom” (Son of Hinnom) - aka “Topheth”.
Evil King Ahaz (2 Chron 28.1-3)
“Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem; and he did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done. 2 For he walked in the ways of the kings of Israel, and made molded images for the Baals. 3 He burned incense in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and burned his children in the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel.”
Evil King Manasseh (2 Chron 33.1-6)
“Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. 2 But he did evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel. 3 For he rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had broken down; he raised up altars for the Baals, and made wooden images; and he worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. 4 He also built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem shall My name be forever.” 5 And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. 6 Also he caused his sons to pass through the fire in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom; he practiced soothsaying, used witchcraft and sorcery, and consulted mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, to provoke Him to anger.”
“For Tophet was established of old,
Yes, for the king it is prepared.
He has made it deep and large;
Its pyre is fire with much wood;
The breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, Kindles it.”
“And they shall go forth and look
Upon the corpses of the men
Who have transgressed against Me.
For their worm does not die,
And their fire is not quenched.
They shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
“So you shall say to them, ‘This is a nation that does not obey the voice of the Lord their God nor receive correction. Truth has perished and has been cut off from their mouth. 29 Cut off your hair and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on the desolate heights; for the Lord has rejected and forsaken the generation of His wrath.’ 30 For the children of Judah have done evil in My sight,” says the Lord. “They have set their abominations in the house which is called by My name, to pollute it. 31 And they have built the high places of Tophet, 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, nor did it come into My heart.”
32 “Therefore behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when it will no more be called Tophet, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Tophet until there is no room. 33 The corpses of this people will be food for the birds of the heaven and for the beasts of the earth. And no one will frighten them away. 34 Then I will cause to cease from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride. For the land shall be desolate.
Finally, the Apocryphal Apocalyptic book of Enoch (~100 BC) even refers to the valley where God’s ultimate wrath will be poured out at the end of the ages, and it is almost certain the reference is to “Ben Hinnom” also known as “Topheth”, also known as “Gehenna”.
Understanding the history, however, the picture of Gehenna is plain: a place of terror and suffering – but designed by our own sin.
God didn’t start the fire – we did. The kings who sacrificed their children in the fire to the pagan God Molech began the tradition of burning pain and suffering in that place, not the Lord. The author of pain is humanity. The author of hell is you and it is me – we stoke the fire with every careless word and every rebellious deed.
Jesus has no qualms about the unjust (us) deserving a taste of our own medicine. I remember one of my childhood friends got caught smoking one of his father’s cigarettes. His mother punished him by putting him in a closet and making him smoke an entire pack of cigarettes. It was her way of showing him the natural consequences of his own choices. And so it is with Gehenna – God didn’t build Gehenna. Sin did. Our sin. Yours and mine.
And the picture Jesus portrays of hell is a state and a place where all the consequences of our bad choices, where the natural results of all of our bad deeds, fanned by the amplifying effects of time and compounded by their rippling effects they have on the lives of others, if left unforgiven, will consume our very souls in bitterness. It is only logical. It is only fair.
Ladies and gentlemen, if you believe in Jesus, you must not gag him on this point – hell is real.
Fear Him, But Do Not Be Afraid
Now, if that were the end of the story, we should all be inconsolably miserable. There would be no hope for any of us, because we all sin, and we all, by rights, ought to pay for our sins. This is true. But it is not the whole truth.
Thank God himself, the story doesn’t end with Gehenna; it ends with the cross, and our rescue from the flames of suffering through the atoning death of Christ. He descended to the grave – to Gehenna – so we did not have to. He set the captives free. That’s you and me! He delivered us from the wrath that we rightfully deserve and provided a permanent escape from Gehenna’s teeth gnashing and worms that won’t die.
Jesus completes his teaching on hell by reminding us once again of the tender mercies of God that do not desire for us to burn in the flames of our sins and passions, but to be rescued from them by grace.
He finishes his teaching here by reminding us that if we fear only God, we need not to be afraid of anything else in life, because our Father loves us. He numbers the hairs on our heads. His eye is on each sparrow that falls, and therefore we know He cares for each of us.
And that gets to the last point in the outline today: Fear as debilitating worry.
Jesus does not want you to go through life afraid of every little thing that comes up. He wants us to rely on our Father in Heaven, in Christ alone to put our trust, so that we can face each day, fearful and reverent of God, but afraid of nothing and no one else. Through the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, through the power of the resurrection, we can do this.
Allow me to finish by reciting one of my favorite passages in all of scripture, Matthew 6.25-27. These words from Jesus have been like medicine to me throughout my adult life. When I am faced with uncertainty and fear about the things of this world, I call this passage to mind. I say it to myself over and over. The anxiety soon melts away, and I am placed in the arms of my loving father, my redeemer, and my friend:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” (Matthew 6.25-27)