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The tongue as a fire of gehenna

Mar 26, 2012

James 3:6 says that the tongue is a fire which can set the whole body on fire by "hell" (gehenna). How was this concept revealed to James?

This is undoubtedly a reference to Jesus' words in Matthew 5:29 and 30, where He says, "it is better for one of the body parts of your body perish than for your whole body to be thrown into gehenna."

While many equate this to a burning torture pit, gehenna is actually applied in Scripture to the coming destruction of Jerusalem along with those who fight God's army that He has raised up against the city (Isaiah 29:1-6; Jer. 19). Gehenna is the Greek word for the valley of Ben-hinnom(Jer. 19:2). It was the city dump, which was constantly burning just outside Jerusalem, and hence also known by the word Tophet, or "burning" (Jer. 19:6).

The divine judgment pronounced upon Jerusalem by the prophets carries into the New Testament, for Jesus Himself prophesied of its destruction (Matt. 24:2). Most of this prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D., but because the city was rebuilt, there awaits yet another fulfillment, for Jer. 19:11 says "Just so shall I break this people and this city, even as one breaks a potter's vessel, which cannot again be repaired."

This was illustrated when the prophet smashed an earthen vessel in the valley of Ben-hinnom. Thus, the day will come when the city will be destroyed in such a manner that it will never again be rebuilt. This will mark the final casting out of "the bondwoman" (Gal. 4:30), which Paul says is the earthly city of Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25).

Jerusalem, the center of Judaism, claimed to teach the law of God, but in fact, they had replaced the law with their own carnal "traditions of men," as Jesus told them in Matt. 15:6, "you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition." The traditions of men were men's misunderstandings of the law, interpreted by the carnal mind apart from a genuine knowledge of its Author. The Sermon on the Mount was designed to make those corrections, and in this context Jesus taught about gehenna in Matt. 5:29, 30.

Hence, He said that if your right eye or your right hand makes you stumble, "cut if off." Better to lose a body part than your whole body in gehenna when God destroys the city. It was a veiled reference to the fact that men were so attached to the city and its temple that they might continue to support the traditions of men being taught in the temple and thereby end up being destroyed with the city.

All of the specific laws on which Jesus provides commentary in this Sermon are just examples of the general problem found in Jerusalem as a city and as a religious center. To many, Jerusalem was as important as their right eye or right hand, but if it causes men to stumble at the truth, then they should forsake the city itself.

The Jerusalem church itself did not want to leave the city for many years. They believed that they were to provide a witness to the people and to the temple itself. James himself prayed daily not only on the temple grounds but in the Holy Place itself, because he was a Nazarite, and Nazarites were considered to be like the priests themselves. We learn this from Hegesippus who wrote about 200 A.D. and is quoted by Eusebius a century later:

"Control of the Church passed to the apostles, together with the Lord's brother James, whom everyone from the Lord's time till our own has called the Righteous [or "The Just"], for there were many Jameses, but this one was holy from his birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths [in the public baths]. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place, for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people...." [Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., II, xxiii]

James was the last great intercessor for Jerusalem during the 40-year grace period that the city enjoyed prior to its destruction. When he was finally martyred on the temple grounds for his witness of Jesus in 62 A.D., his removal paved the way for the start of the war at Passover of 66. When the Roman Emperor Nero died in 68, the army ceased fighting until they should receive orders from a new emperor. During this time, the Jerusalem church moved to Pella, town in Perea near the Jordan River, and so escaped the gehenna of that time. See Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., III, 5.

For a more complete study of gehenna, see chapter 2 of my book, The Judgments of the Divine Law.

It is important to understand the difference between gehenna and hades, both of which are often translated "hell." The words are not interchangeable, for they have different meanings and applications. Yet because many people do not realize this, they misunderstand James 3:6. James was telling us that "the tongue is a fire" that can set the whole body on fire. The tongue is not a literal fire, of course. James was using the term metaphorically, much like Moses when he spoke of the "fiery law" in Deut. 33:2 or like Jeremiah when he likened the word of God to a fire and a hammer in Jer. 23:29.

Hence, the word of God is a fire, but so also is our own tongue, says James. He makes this statement in his chapter on teachers (3:1), so specifically, the tongue of a teacher can be a destructive fire if they teach the traditions of men, rather than the word of God. Both the Word and the traditions of men are fires, each burning in a different way. The word of God burns the flesh, but is ultimately constructive. The traditions of men burn the whole body in gehenna, James says.

Teachers are held more accountable before God than other people. If they teach the traditions of men, as did the Scribes and Pharisees, God will judge them more severely than those who believe their teachings. Once again, James might be referring to Jesus' words in Matt. 5:19,

(19) Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

It is evident to all that James had not put away the divine law, for this very fact has cast suspicion on the inspiration of his letter. Those who think James and Paul taught contradictory things have caused some to pick sides, rather than to see the unity of the two viewpoints. Some have thought that James was a legalist, and so they side with Paul and reject James. Others think that Paul was lawless, so they reject Paul in favor of James. Neither is correct, as I have shown.


This is the second part of a series titled "The Tongue." To view all parts, click the link below.

The Tongue


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Category: Teachings

Dr. Stephen Jones


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