CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 10:28

Oct 5, 2019

Does Matthew 10:28 refer to Satan or to God?

In this passage we find Jesus saying the following: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” We also find a version of this in Luke 12:4-5: “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!”

Here I will mainly concentrate on the text as found in Matthew’s gospel. The main difficulty with this passage is this: who is the ‘him’ that Jesus is referring to? The main two options have been God or Satan, with the majority of scholars and commentators running with the former.

I go along with the mainstream view, but it is worth teasing this passage out a bit further. The immediate context (Matt. 10:26-33) has to do with fearing man. In verse 26 Jesus says, “have no fear of them”. In verse 17 we see who is being referred to: “Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.”

So we have prohibitions against fear, but the context seems to be the fear of man. Verse 28 talks about not fearing those (plural), but fearing him (singular). So men seemed to be ruled out here, but we still must determine who the ‘him’ is that we should fear.

As mentioned, most take this as referring to God. Let me offer a few representative quotes from the commentators on this. And it is not just New Testament scholars and commentators that must decide which way to go here. Bible translators (usually teams of scholars) also have to decide to some extent how to proceed with this.

Thus Craig Blomberg in his commentary says this about the ‘him’ (sometimes translated as ‘the one’): “The NIV rightly capitalizes ‘One’ as referring to God and not the devil (cf. Jas 4:12).” That verse is worth looking at here briefly.

It says, “There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy.” Certainly, Satan is not being referred to here, but God. As we shall see, God is clearly the one who has power over life and death – he both gives life and he takes it away.

D. A. Carson says this of the passage in Matthew:

The second reason for learning not to fear men emerges from the fact that the worst they can do does not match the worst God can do. Though Satan may have great power (6:13; 24:22), only God can destroy soul and body in hell. “The fear of the LORD is” therefore “the beginning of wisdom” (Prov 9:10); for if God be truly feared, none other need be. Fear of men proves to be a snare (Prov 29:25). The same thought is found in extracanonical Jewish literature…

Others concur. R. T. France for example puts it this way:

The “one” who has the power to destroy in hell is of course God himself; there is no suggestion in biblical literature that the devil has the power of judgment, nor that God’s people should fear him, nor is the devil referred to at all in this context. But a healthy ‘fear’ of God is a recurrent feature of OT spirituality which the NT in no way mitigates. The theme will be taken up again in vv. 32-33 where the fear of human opposition rather than of God renders the disciple liable to eventual repudiation before God.

He goes on to comment on verse 29 and quite helpfully says this: “Fear of God is balanced by trust in God as the disciple’s heavenly Father; the God who can destroy in hell is also the God who cares for the smallest bird. Within his fatherly care, there is nothing to fear from human hostility.”

Or as Donald Hagner remarks:

If the mission is the will and work of God through the disciples, they need not fear. The worst that human persecution can bring, in any event, is the death of the body (soma). But a human being, made in the image of God, is more than a body, being a combination of both body and soul (psuche). . . . The persecutors may kill the body, but only God has power over the soul and thus the whole person. It is thus God, the final judge of all, and not human beings, who alone is to be feared. This emphasis on freedom from fear of one’s persecutors became very important to the early Church in the midst of much suffering (cf. 1 Peter 3:14; Rev 2:10).

But as I mentioned, there is a minority position on this which takes the view that the devil is the one being referred to in this passage. N. T. Wright is one such scholar who holds to this position. I recall reading him some years ago in one of his massive tomes seeking to make this case.

I could go back and try to unearth that particular discussion, but to save time, let me simply make use of his popular-level commentary on Matthew where he also runs with this point of view. He writes: “It’s important to be clear at this point. Some people think that when Jesus urges us to fear the one who can destroy body and soul in hell, he is referring to God himself. But the point here is the opposite. God is the one we do not have to fear. Indeed, he is the one we can trust with our lives, our souls, our bodies, everything.”

Hmm. Yes, we of course can trust our lives to God. But it is rather odd for this world-class scholar to make the claim that we need not fear God! Scripture throughout tells us that we SHOULD fear God. Let me offer just six (of many passages on this) – three from each Testament:

-Deuteronomy 6:24 The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God.
-Psalm 2:11 Serve the LORD with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. 
-Proverbs 1:7 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.
-2 Corinthians 7:1 Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.
-Hebrews 12:28 be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.
-Revelation 15:4 Who will not fear you, Lord, and bring glory to your name? For you alone are holy. 

And I have often written on the fear of God and how we are to understand it. See these two articles for example:

billmuehlenberg.com/2019/08/05/difficult-bible-passages-1-john-418/

billmuehlenberg.com/2016/12/17/23182/

As most commentators rightly note, we have no hint in Scripture that Satan is to be feared. As Leon Morris puts it: “The Bible never says that believers are to be afraid of Satan. If we are going to be afraid, let it not be of the minor danger that is all that evil people or even Satan himself can bring on us, but of the major danger of God’s holy wrath against evil.”

Grant Osborne writes: “God alone is sovereign over both the temporal body and the eternal soul. Thus he alone deserves to be feared, for he can destroy not only the body but cast the whole person into everlasting torment.” Or as R. C. Sproul puts it: “Was He speaking of the devil? No, the devil cannot touch a Christian’s soul. The only One who can throw a human being into hell, body and soul, is God. Clearly, we should have a fear, a healthy reverence for God’s power.”

Let me finish with two comments from the version found in Luke. Philip Graham Ryken says this about the text: “There is only one right and proper fear, and that is the fear of God. When Jesus speaks here about someone who ‘has authority to cast into hell’ (Luke 12:5), he is not talking about Satan; he is talking about almighty God! Hell is not Satan’s dominion, but only his prison. God is the one who has authority over heaven or hell.”

And James Edwards offers this comment:

The one who “has authority to throw you into hell” (v. 5) might seem at first to refer to Satan, but it almost certainly refers to God, for in scriptural tradition “the one who has power to cast into Gehenna is God.” Thus God is to be feared (23:40; Ps 119:120; Heb 10:31; Rev 14:7, 10), whereas Satan is not to be feared but resisted (Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:9).

In sum, it seems that Satan is not the one in view here. It should be pointed out that Wright is not the only one to take this alternative viewpoint; there have been others. But again, those who run with this position seem to be in the clear minority, at least amongst conservative evangelical scholars. On this particular matter I think it wise to stick with the majority position on the matter.

[1542 words]

7 Responses to Difficult Bible Passages: Matthew 10:28

  • Thanks Bill,

    I agree, and I while I have enjoyed much of what I have read of N. T. Wright there was always that niggle within me warning me to be careful with his work.
    With this topic we can see and appreciate some of what he is trying to say, and it is of some benefit, but to say that our fear should be of Satan and not God in this matter is problematic.

    We only have to unpack the Biblical role of fear in our lives to see this problem.
    Fear has two roles
    1. A warning, so that we may avoid a danger.
    2. Respect, so that we may be sure we do not miss out.

    If fear in the scripture only dealt with the first option then we could agree with N. T. Wright.

    The second option is both more pervasive in Scripture and this is what he misses.

  • This present discussion reminds me (as if I needed reminding!) that to find out what various Bible verses and passages meant to their original recipients and what they are intended to mean to us today is indeed to be the ongoing pursuit of all serious-minded Christians. With greater efforts of course expected of preachers, pastors and teachers who, if they are the ‘real deal’ are called to this and labor in that calling.
    Thankfully some basic and essential truths are relatively easy to comprehend and run with. Yet so much of what the Lord wants us to discover, learn and apply requires a bit (or a lot) of ‘digging’ and thinking.
    Thanks, Bill for helping us forward in this pursuit through your ministry.

  • Thanks Bruce and Charles.

  • I agree with you Bill on who has the power. But I looked into NT Wrights handy commentary on that part. He looks helpfully at the context of the section and points out what the disciples and many Christian’s today do. That is to fear men and to fear human authorities. I suggest you have looked only at part of his comments and see his view focused more on the nature and response of his disciples. I didn’t read that he would say fear Satan. Wrights view appears to be ‘fear not man, they are not the final judge of your life.’ Let me leave you with a quote from him on that passage:

    Which command is repeated most often in the Bible? You might imagine it’s something stern: Behave yourself! Smarten up! Say your prayers! Worship God more wholeheartedly! Give more money away! You’d be wrong. It’s the command we find in , and : Don’t be afraid. You can see easily enough why Jesus needed to tell his disciples not to be afraid, at this point in his instructions to them. After all, he’s warned them that the authorities will be after them; that they will suffer physical and emotional violence; and, now, that people will start calling them the sort of names they have already begun to call him. Plenty to be afraid of there! And yet he says, Don’t be afraid. Why not? What reason does he give? Not the one we expect. We might imagine that he would say ‘because God will look after you’. Well, he does say that, eventually. But the first reason he gives (verse26-27) is that a time will come when everything will be uncovered. Everything that is presently secret will be made known. Why should that mean they don’t need to be afraid? Lots of people would regard the imminent disclosure of their most private thoughts and words as a further reason to be afraid, not as a reason to throw fear to the winds. Jesus seems to be assuming that what will come to light on that day is the disciples’ loyalty and faith ; they will be seen to have followed Israel’s true Messiah , the world’s true Lord. Their patience and perseverance will emerge into the light. What may have looked like obstinacy or even arrogance will at last be seen as what it is, a resolute determination to follow the Lord of life wherever he leads. In other words, truth will out, justice will prevail, and those who have lived with integrity and innocence, despite what the world says about them, will be vindicated. That, rather than a quick God-will-look-after-you message, is what Jesus is ultimately offering. …

    In the present context the message is plain. You are worth more than a great many sparrows; so rest assured that God knows and cares about the details of your life, even as you face the temptations and dangers which so easily surround you. Followers of Jesus are bound to expect attacks at all levels. But they should also learn that the one they are serving is stronger than the strongest opponent they will ever meet.

  • Thanks Rob. But you seem as determined as Wright is to duck and weave here, trying to get around the clear implications of what Wright in fact actually said! It was not my intention to belabour all this, but since the issue is now being pressed, let me offer three lines of evidence to demonstrate that your case simply does not stand.

    First, the two texts in question (Matthew 10 and Luke 12) both clearly state that we should fear the one who can cast people into hell. Wright clearly says it is not God who casts people into hell, therefore that only leaves one other that does, and therefore must be feared. That is what the texts are saying, as well as the obvious implication of what Wright is saying.

    Second, I of course have his popular commentary on Matthew, and I already quoted from it, so I know what is there – and I have read it all thanks! But you conveniently left out more of his words there that make it quite clear what he actually believes. Between the two paragraphs which you offer, he says this:

    Jesus believed that Israel was faced in his day by enemies at two quite different levels. There were the obvious ones: Rome, Herod, and their underlings. They were the ones who had the power to kill the body. But there were other, darker enemies, who had the power to kill the soul as well: enemies who were battling for that soul even now, during Jesus’ ministry, and who were using the more obvious enemies as cover. Actually, it’s even worse than that. The demonic powers that are greedy for the soul of God’s people are using their very desire for justice and vengeance as the bait on the hook. The people of light are never more at risk than when they are lured into fighting the darkness with more darkness. That is the road straight to the smouldering rubbish-tip, to Gehenna, and Jesus wants his followers to be well aware of it. This is what you should be afraid of.

    Who to fear then? Demonic powers! That would include Satan! People can check this out for themselves. The entire discussion is on pp. 118-120 of his 2002 commentary on Matthew, volume one.

    Third, since push has now come to shove (!), I sniffed around and dug up the original source of where I first read Wright’s take on this. It comes from his 1996 volume, Christ and the Victory of God. You can read it for yourself – it is on pp. 454-455. The section in which he discusses this is even called “Who is to be feared?”!! He says this in reply to his question:

    Some have seen ‘the one who can cast into Gehenna’ as YHWH; but this is unrealistic. Jesus did not, to be sure, perceive Israel’s god as a kindly liberal grandfather who would never hurt a fly, let alone send anyone to Gehenna. But again and again – not least in the very next verse of this paragraph – Israel’s god is portrayed as the creator and sustainer, one who can be lovingly trusted in all circumstance, not the one who waits with a large stick to beat anyone who steps out of line. Rather, here we have a redefinition of the battle in terms of the identification of the real enemy. The one who can kill the body is the imagined enemy, Rome. Who then is the real enemy? Surely not Israel’s own god. The real enemy is the accuser, the satan.

    The “real enemy” who can cast people into hell is Satan, says Wright. And Jesus says (four times in the two passages) that it is this one that we are to fear. So all up it is perfectly clear: Wright repeatedly identifies the one with this power to cast into hell and therefore the one we should fear with Satan. There really is no wiggle room here to try to get him to say something else, sorry!

    And I still believe he is quite wrong as well to make such claims! But thanks for writing in.

  • Fair call

  • Rev_2:10 Do not at all fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the Devil will cast some of you into prison, so that you may be tried. And you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful to death, and I will give you the crown of life.
    (MKJV)

Leave a Reply