Jesus, Jeremiah, and Gehenna

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 5.22)

This week I want to address a question I received recently in response to something I shared in one of my weekend presentations. I had shared that nowhere did the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ever teach the modern, western, evangelical construct of postmortem, eternal torture of immortal souls in literal fire, today referred to by many (not all) as “hell.” The question was how I interpreted the passages we are about to look at.

What Jesus actually warned about was not the modern Christian version of hell, but rather the deeply Jewish concept of Gehenna, which has a rich Jewish history.

Here is every passage where Jesus speaks of Gehenna (except for the two that we will look at in just a moment). Keep in mind that most modern translations translate these passages using the English word hell, which I feel, given the history of the term Gehenna, is deeply misleading. I have taken the time to “untranslate” each occurrence of the Greek word to read simply Gehenna once again rather than the modern hell.

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into Gehenna. (Matthew 5.29-30)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the Gehenna of fire. (Matthew 18.9)

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of Gehenna as yourselves. (Matthew 23.15)

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to Gehenna? (Matthew 23.33)

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, (Mark 9.43¬–47)
In order to understand exactly what Jesus is referring to in each of these passages, we must look at three things.

1) The Jewish history surrounding Gehenna
2) The political climate of Jesus’ own day
3) How Jesus uses Gehenna in the context of both

Let’s dive in!

First, Gehenna was a literal place in the history of the Jews.

“Then the boundary goes up by THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM (Gehenna) at the southern slope of the Jebusites (that is, Jerusalem); and the boundary goes up to the top of the mountain that lies over against THE VALLEY OF HINNOM, on the west, at the northern end of the valley of Rephaim.” (Joshua 15.8)

This place became home to Judah’s terrible history of participating in child sacrifice.

“And [Ahaz, King of Judah] made offerings in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.” (2 Chronicles 28.3)

“He made his son pass through fire in THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.” (2 Chronicles 33.6)

Gehenna (the valley of the son of Hinnom) was the cultic location where children were offered to the god Molech. At some point it came to be referred to as Topheth. Topheth is thought to signify the hearth where the child was placed. The Hebrew term has parallel terms in both Ugaritic and Aramaic with the meaning “furnace, fireplace.” Scholars have thought that Topheth was at the edgeof the valley of the son of Hinnom before connecting with the Kidron Valley. The valley of the son of Hinnom has been identified as likely being located southwest of Jerusalem. An eighth-century BC Phoenician inscription speaks of sacrifices made to Molech before battle by the Cilicians and their enemies.

But its history does not end here.

Next we see it resurface in the message of the prophet Jeremiah:

“And they go on building the high place 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, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER: for they will bury in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7.31–32)

What Jeremiah is saying is that Babylon is coming, and the result will be such devastation on Jerusalem that the valley of the son of Hinnom (Gehenna) will be used as a burying place that will become full and overflowing with corpses, not of children this time, but of those who followed after gods which would require such nightmare atrocities. What I want you to notice at this stage is that Jeremiah is warning, not about a postmortem experience, but a distinctly this-life, this-world experience that could rightly be termed “hell” but which points to the literal destruction of Jerusalem by a Gentile kingdom—Babylon.

What is also very interesting to note is that this passage in Jeremiah 7 is the identical passage Jesus quoted in his demonstration in the temple:

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: Stand in the gate of the LORD’S house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7.1–11)

The same things (oppressing the alien, the orphan, and the widow) were taking place around Jesus in his day as well. Jesus, standing in the prophetic lineage of Jeremiah, not only used Jeremiah’s imagery of Gehenna but also quoted Jeremiah directly.

“And he said, ‘It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer”; but you have made it a den of robbers.’” (Luke 19.46)

Now back to Jeremiah’s use of Gehenna:

“And go out to the VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM(Gehenna) at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind. Therefore the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, OR THE VALLEY OF THE SON OF HINNOM, but THE VALLEY OF SLAUGHTER.” (Jeremiah 19.2–6)

It must be noted that for Jeremiah even Gehenna had a terminus. This was not the equivalent of being eternally forsaken by God. Even Gehenna, in Jeremiah’s thinking, was temporary. It possessed a restorative hope rather than a retributive one.

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah. The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes (Gehenna), and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.” (Jeremiah 31.38–40)

“See, I am going to gather them from all the lands to which I drove them in my anger and my wrath and in great indignation; I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety. They shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me for all time, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them, never to draw back from doing good to them; and I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn from me.” (Jeremiah 32.37)

“For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” (Jeremiah 29.10–14)

Now let’s address Number 2 (the political climate of Jesus’ own day) very briefly. The religious leaders of Jesus day were looking, remember, for a militaristic messiah, who would lead Israel to a victorious defeat of the Roman Empire, liberating Jerusalem from pagan oppression and enabling the Jews to exact eye-for-an-eye retribution on their enemies. Jesus came offering the way of enemy-love, enemy-embracing, enemy-forgiveness through the methods of nonviolent noncooperation, not as way of destroying Rome but of winning Rome and all the nations to the worship of Israel’s Messiah (Psalm 2.8; Daniel 7.13–14; Isaiah 11.6–9; 60.3; 66.18; Zechariah 2.11; 8.20–23; 9:9–10; 14.9). This offer of healing for the world through nonviolent enemy-love was rejected by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day in favor of a militaristic messiah who looked more like Judah Maccabeus (the hammer), hoping that Judah’s history in defeating the Greeks would be repeated in their day but now against the Romans. Jesus repeatedly warned that this would not go the way they were hoping but would instead end in Rome obliterating Jerusalem. We actually see this taking place in history, beginning in AD 66 and climaxing in Jerusalem’s violent destruction by Rome in AD 70. (For more on this, see the eSight series The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus.)

What we see is that Jesus picked up Jeremiah’s warning about Jerusalem being overthrown by a foreign oppressor. Jesus quoted from Jeremiah after overthrowing the tables that day in the Temple, symbolizing what would be done by Rome just forty years later. (Jeremiah shattered a vessel on the Temple floor, symbolizing how Babylon would shatter Jerusalem and saying they had turned the Temple into a “den of robbers”; Jesus overturned tables and scattered livestock in the Temple, symbolizing what Rome would do to Jerusalem and saying they had turned the temple also into a “den of robbers.”) Yet the point of all this is the fact that Jesus adopted Jeremiah’s Gehenna language as well. Jesus was not warning about some postmortem experience described by Dante or Jonathan Edwards. He, like Jeremiah before Him, was speaking of Gehenna referring to a horrific devastation that would be wrought on Jerusalem by a foreign power, not Babylon this time but Rome.

In wrapping this up, Jesus quoted a battle cry of the militaristic efforts of the Maccabean revolt, which the religious leaders of Jesus’ day romanticized, but Jesus subversively turned it on its head. Here is the original passage Jesus used as recorded in the Apocyrpha, which—though disputed between Catholics and Protestants—was one of those documents included in this historical library of the Jews:

“Each of them and all of them together looking at one another, cheerful and undaunted, said, ‘Let us with all our hearts consecrate ourselves to God, who gave us our lives, and let us use our bodies as a bulwark for the law. Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God.’” (4 Maccabees 13.14–15)

Two things we must note. The Hellenistic idea of postmortem, eternal torment had already crept into Jewish thinking at this stage. Scholars agree this was a product of the diaspora and not a part of the pre-diaspora Jewish worldview. And secondly, the point is not to fear those who might kill us in our militaristic, violent revolt, but to fear a God who threatens us with eternal torment if we are not faithful to the law of our ancestors.

Jesus, in a rhetorical play on words, quoted the passage from 4 Maccabees, but then threw in a twist, transitioning into the words of Jeremiah instead:

“But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into Gehenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12.5)

The him here is a militaristic messiah rather than Jesus, the nonviolent, enemy-embracing Messiah. If the religious leaders of Jesus’ day endeavored to follow the course of the Maccabean revolt, the militaristic messiah would not lead them to victoriously defeat Rome, but rather would hurl them into a Jeremiah “like” Gehenna.

Matthew’s version is even more telling:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [Jesus began with the words of 4 Maccabees, which were very familiar to the Jewish leaders of his day, and then transitioned into Jeremiah]; rather fear him [a militaristic messiah] who can [through an attempt to overthrow Rome through violence] destroy both soul and body [not eternal torment, but eternal annihilation of Jerusalem] in Gehenna [Jeremiah’s term referring to Jerusalem’s destruction by a foreign power].” (Matthew 10.28)

What Jesus was actually warning about is really an even worse fate than what Jeremiah warned about. For Jeremiah, the destruction by Babylon would be temporary. For Jesus, the destruction that would come from Rome would be permanent.

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I’d like you to contemplate what all of this might mean to us today. Are we, the human family, on a trajectory toward our own Gehenna? Violence always escalates. The path of “eye for an eye” (Matthew 5.38–39) is a broad path that ends in destruction (Matthew 7.12–14). In America, today is a day that will be spent memorializing the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This same Dr. King warned shortly before his assassination that we were no longer faced with the options of violence versus nonviolence. The options, based on the technological advancements by which death was being so massively and efficiently exercised, were between nonviolence and nonexistence.

2. Prayerfully consider the options that lie before us today. Are we, too, faced with the choice between nonviolence or a “Gehenna?” Are our options the same today as they were in the days of Jesus—enemy-love and learning the way of enemy-forgiveness versus total annihilation?

3. Be prepared to share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

In the shadow of the cross, following in the footsteps of Jesus, may we learn the way of enemy-love. Grace for our enemies, rather than retribution, is our only hope of healing. God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be healed (John 3.17). Jesus also said to the Father, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 20.21). This means that Jesus has not sent us into the world to condemn this world, but that through us, the world might be healed. May we fulfill this calling through learning to live like Christ, think like Christ, feel like Christ, and love like Christ. Till the only world that remains is a world where Love once again reigns.

Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.

I love you guys.

I’ll see you next week.

Saved by Grace?

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies . . .” (Matthew 5.43, 44).

This week I want to share with you what I consider to be one of the core elements of Jesus’ Kingdom teachings—enemy love. Enemy love was central to the hope that lay before Israel and the events that led up to A.D. 70, (See The Final Eight Prophecies of Jesus begging at https://renewedheartministries.com/Esights/09-09-2013) and it is just as central to Jesus’ followers and the world around us today.

As we have also covered elsewhere, everything within the Jesus movement began to change when the Christian church embraced Constantine. A new theology that enabled the church to embrace the ethics of the Roman Empire (which in turn was a rejection of the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount) entered the scene through Augustine. It’s perfectly acceptable, Augustine taught, to kill your enemy, as long as you love him while you are doing it. Augustine presented the dualistic possibility of our bodily actions being radically separate from our “inward disposition” (see Augustine ch.75, The Ante-Nicene Fathers).

Enemy love, the power of enemy blessing, of enemy forgiveness, is the root out of which Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is but the natural growth. They do not end in greater violence only justified for a redemptive purpose. Nonviolence is the outward expression (bodily action) of the enemy love (the inward disposition). It’s difficult to imagine how one can have the inward disposition of love, while expressing that disposition in killing the object of such affection.

Enemy love, enemy blessing, may seem counter-intuitive to many people, but remember, we are called on to display what this world changed by the reign of Christ (earth’s new King) looks like and to invite others to embrace Christ as their new King and step into this beautiful new way of life in the here and now. Enemy love is most likely the greatest, most significantly radical, element of what it means to submit to Jesus as earth’s new King.

It means to love those threatened just as equally as those who are doing the threatening. Think of the story found in John 8. Jesus loved the Pharisees and teachers of the law just as much as the woman caught in adultery. As a matter of fact, the Pharisees and teachers of the law were committing the sin of accusation (see Revelation 12.10). Jesus loved all present equally and sought not to simply save the woman’s life, but also to save the Pharisees and teachers of the law, seeing them as victims as well, victims of a systemic evil. He did not see the woman as needing to being saved from the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. He looked at the situation and saw the woman, the Pharisees, and the teachers of the law—all three of them—as victims being used by, and in need of being saved from, the real enemy (see Ephesians 6.12).

Notice, Jesus did not differentiate between the woman and the men accusing her. Jesus saved the woman from them, yes, but he also saved the accusers by reminding them of their own shortcomings and moral failures. We are in this together, so to speak.

What does this mean for us today? It means that even when threatened, whether it is our loved ones or ourselves, we are to see those who threaten as victims too. They are not the enemy. They are simply victims of the real enemy. And as Jesus’ followers, we are to endeavor to save them too through the power of enemy love, enemy forgiveness, and enemy blessing, in non-violent, yet non-cooperative ways (see Matthew 5.39–42).

Today the phrase “saved by grace” is thrown around so loosely. I want to ask you what you really mean by those words. Do you mean that we are saved from some punitive retribution from God by grace on God’s part as a result of his punishing his son in our place? Or could it be that we are saved/healed through grace on our part for our own enemies, rather than demanding punitive retribution in retaliation. Let me explain.

Jesus taught, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not respond to an evil person in retaliation” (Matthew 5.38, 39, personal translation from the Greek). Jesus also said that he was sent by a loving God so that the world might be “healed” (see John 3.17, the word “saved” is also translated as “healed” in the New Testament). We were on the path of retributive justice. Of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Jesus clearly tells us that this is the path that ends in death (see Matthew 7.12–14). An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Retribution only escalates. Jesus came to teach us the way of grace, the way of enemy love, and the way of God. He came to turn us from retribution to grace, from punitive justice to the restorative justice of His Kingdom.

So are we saved by grace? Absolutely! But not in the sense that implies we are saved from violence on God’s part by grace on God’s part because he has got his pound of flesh somewhere else. No, no. We are saved, we are healed, from a path of violence and retaliation by embracing the new way of love, of grace, toward our enemies, of enemy forgiveness and blessing. We are saved from the intrinsic, ever escalating, and ultimately self-inflicted annihilation, the end of our violent path, through learning to practice grace on our part for our own enemies through faith in the ability of love to heal the world. Are we saved by grace? Absolutely we are. The path of grace is our only hope. As I’ve said before, the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal son was not excluded because he could not embrace the Father’s grace for himself, he was left in utter darkness that night because he could not embrace grace for someone else he believed should be excluded. We are not saved by grace from imposed penalties, we are saved by grace from the intrinsic end of the path of retaliation rather than grace. Learning to embrace and practice grace, even for those who have hurt us the most, is the way home. It’s not just a means of salvation. It could be salvation itself.
HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to ask yourself, who is your brother or sister? Is it only those who share beliefs, ethics, lifestyles, or behaviors with you? Or could it even include your enemies? Prayerfully contemplate the following two statements from the early church:

“We used to hate and destroy one another, and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people, and pray for our enemies” (Justin’s first apology, ch. 11).

“If we all derive our origin from one man, whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life by the same God then what else are we but brothers? … Because we are all brothers God teaches us never to do evil to one another but only good—giving aid to those who are oppressed, and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry”—Lactantius (Divine Institutes, book 6, ch. 10).

2. Go back and reread Matthew 5.38–48 and ask yourself, in as much honesty and humility as you can muster, what God is saying to you in these passages. Write down what Jesus is saying to you in both #1 and #2.

3. Share whatever insights Jesus gives you with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.
Do you want to learn how to love your enemies more fully, more deeply? Here is a word of wisdom that I’ve found invaluable since it was shared with me. Don’t focus on loving or forgiving your enemies this week, focus on how much God loves and has forgiven you. The more you dwell on this, the more loving and forgiving you will become, for by love is love awakened and by forgiveness is forgiveness set in motion.

Keep living in love, loving like Christ, and putting on display what the world changed by the reign of Jesus looks like. It’s radically beautiful, even if only we can see it, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys; see you next week.

The Egalitarian World of the Kingdom

But you are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.  And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23.8-12)

Well, the New Year is upon us, and we here at RHM have hit the ground running. For the next few weeks, we’re going to be cycling through some different aspects of the Reign of Christ—which, as I look around at the societal landscape now present, I feel we are especially called to put on display. Remember, we are not called to force the Reign of Christ (Earth’s new King) on anyone: the Kingdom of God is without coercion. What we are called to do is to put on display what the world changed by the Reign of Christ looks like and invite others to embrace Him too as their new King.

This week, I want to take a look at Jesus’ words in Matthew 23.8-12. The phrase I want to zero in on is, “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” Jesus had just said, “You are not to be called Rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.” What Jesus is commissioning us to put on display is a community characterized by humble egalitarian relationships rather than hierarchical ones. In all actuality, Jesus was death to any person using hierarchical authority over another: “But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.’” (Matthew 20.25-26)

According to the Hebrew creation narrative, hierarchical relationships are a fruit of the relational schisms that took place in the garden; they are not reflective of original creation (Genesis 1.26 mentions authority over creation, but not authority over others.) Even in a perfect state, the narrative seems to hint at humanity’s inability to exercise authority over one other. Nor are they reflective of the new creation that has come through Jesus. (See 2 Corinthians 5.17, NIV.)

The early followers of Jesus understood this vision. Notice Paul’s description of how the church that met in Corinth functioned: “When you come together, each of youhas a hymn or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14.26, emphasis added) The gatherings of the early church, historical scholars agree, were not ones where the majority sat passively silent while the same person taught every week. These were communities that embraced the priesthood of all believers, each one possessing a gift to share that would contribute to and build up the body. They saw themselves as having only one teacher (the Messiah), and they were are all humble students, together, showing each other what Jesus was teaching them. They met to encourage each another to continue following Jesus and to build each other up. These were communities where following the “one-anothers” of the New Testament could be practiced as well as put on display for the world around them to see.

This is a far cry from how church gatherings function today. And although a more thorough treatment of the differences must wait for a later time, today gatherings are characterized much more by passive spectatorship at a service or program by the majority of attendees, rather than being small open, mutually participatory gatherings where each person is exercising his or her God-given gift. To be sure, some are gifted teachers; yet any arrangement where the same teacher is heard from week after week robs the church of others whom the spirit has gifted as well.

The early followers of Jesus believed that together, they equally became a dwelling place for God. (See Ephesians 2.22, where the “you” is plural, not singular, and 1 Peter 2.4-8.) They believed that together, they were functioning here on Earth as the visible “body of Christ,” with only Christ as their “head” (Ephesians 4.15)—not “lording” authority over each other, but humbly and lovingly serving one another. In this way, they, as a community, believed that together, they were partaking of the “divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1.4) and that “all of them” were “one,” just as the Father was in Christ and as Christ was in the Father. “They” saw themselves in Them. (See John 17.20-21.)

The body metaphor used by Paul is especially telling when taken with Jesus’ words in Matthew 23. When our head signals to our hands, it doesn’t first signal the arm to tell the hands to move; neither must the hand submit to the arm in order for it to obey the head. Anyone who has a working knowledge of human anatomy knows that this isn’t even remotely how the physical body works. The brain sends direct signals to those body parts it seeks to influence; consequently, the head controls all of the body’s parts immediately and directly. It doesn’t pass its impulses through a chain-of-command scheme invoking other body parts along the way.

It must be noted here that each body part must be connected to the head for the head to communicate with each part directly, as well as being a part of the actual body itself. (There are no rogue parts: to be severed is to die.) But it is exactly for this reason that this metaphor works! The proper application of the body metaphor preserves the unvarnished truth that in the world changed by Jesus, there is no hierarchical authority practiced by Jesus’ followers over other of His followers. There is only one source of authority in the church: Jesus Christ. All members are connected to each other equally by His life, and together they are directly under His control. Jesus Christ is the head of the body, and He is the only mediator providing a direct line from God to each body part as a part of the overall body. (1 Timothy 2.5) Members of Christ’s body, although they serve one another, do not need any mediator other than Jesus Himself to tell them how to know God and follow Him.

Note these words written by the author of the letter to the Hebrews: “But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one…. ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and with the House of Judah. IT WILL NOT BE LIKE THE COVENANT I made with their ancestor when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt…. This is the covenant I will establish with the House of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I WILL PUT my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I WILL BE their God, and they will be my people. NO LONGER WILL THEY TEACH THEIR NEIGHBORS, or say to one another, “Know the Lord,” because THEY WILL ALL KNOW ME, FROM THE LEAST OF THEM TO THE GREATEST’.” (Hebrews 8.6-11, emphasis added.)

It is mutual submission (i.e., being submitted to one another and then together to Christ), not hierarchical submission (i.e., being submitted to someone else as they are submitted to someone else who has submitted themselves to Christ), that engenders the proper coordination of the body of Christ. (For more on the topic of Hierarchical Authority in the New Testament, please see https://renewedheartministries.com/Sermons/jesusdialogue2/outlines/16hierarchy.pdf)

All of the foregoing brings us to our point, the aspect of Christ’s reign that we are looking at this week. We are not called to put on display simply a religious version of the corporate structures of this world. On the contrary, Jesus is inviting us to experience (and then to put on display) a world where, rather than exercising power over others, we—together, as a community—come under His authority , each of us together learning how to listen to Him. And instead of “lording” power or position over each other, we learn what it means and what it looks like to serve each other with humble servant love.

In short, this is a community that is learning how to practice the “one-anothers” themselves and then extending the invitation to the world to practice this beautiful way of doing life here on Planet Earth as well.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13.34, cf. John 15.15)
HeartGroup Application

Today it is no secret that the non-hierarchical, open, mutually participatory nature of the early church is rarely seen, much less experienced, by those who attend what is labeled incorrectly in our Western society as “church.” To be honest, it’s just easier to show up, sit up, and shut up, and let someone else do all teaching and sharing while I simply sit there and allow myself to be fed. If that’s what someone prefers, that’s okay: let’s just be honest about it. There will always be those who prefer passive spectatorship over mutual participation. But let’s also be honest that whatever it is we want to label gatherings of that nature, they’re not even remotely similar to the gatherings of the early church. And too much passive spectatorship leads to spiritual atrophy and, ultimately, death, both individually and collectively.

1. If you have not yet joined a HeartGroup, I want to strongly encourage you to do so. If there isn’t one in your area, then start one. The groups are simply environments where we learn how to practice the “one-anothers” of the New Testament. It doesn’t have to replace your present worship service. Pick a night of the week where you and some fellow Jesus followers can meet together to mutually share what Jesus is teaching each of you. Make some time to encourage each other, to bear each other’s burdens, to pray with and for one-another, and to spur each other on toward love. If you’d like more information on how you can start a HeartGroup or how you might find one in your area, go to: http://www.rhmheartgroups.com/

2. This week I want you to pick something from the life of Jesus: either a story, a parable, or a teaching (like those found in the Sermon on the Mount). I want you to prayerfully contemplate whatever you choose each day, writing down what Jesus shares with you from other parts of the scriptures, from life experiences, from your prayer time—anything in which Jesus is helping you directly understand what in the Jesus story He wants you to see.

3. I want you to share with your HeartGroup this upcoming week what you discover.
Think of it like a Fellowship Dinner. If the same person did all the cooking each week, they’d get pretty burnt out, and you’d miss out on all the other fine foods of the other cooks that you could be experiencing as well. (Not to mention how some would even be learning how to cook if that were the case.) But when each person brings something small, they each get to enjoy that which is prepared, brought, and lovingly shared with each other. What the early church did was practice this feeding of “one-another” spiritually, as well.

“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17) Let’s go put on display what the “one-anothers” of the Reign of Christ look like!

Keep living in love, loving like Christ, till a world where love reigns is the only world that remains. Let’s go enlarge the Kingdom!

I love you guys, and I’ll see you next week. Oh, and Happy New Year!