One of the themes we find in Christianity is that history is marching forward to a goal/ purpose. What often seems so random or chaotic, isn’t. Think of all the seemingly random events we see in biblical history and world history up to the time of Jesus’ birth. What were they all? They were all events that God was shaping and using so that, as the apostle writes [Gl. 4.4]: when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman.... Certainly He is doing the same now before Jesus’ return in judgment on the Last Day. All history is marching toward a goal--an end. The events are not random or merely cyclical; they are God’s unfolding His gracious plans and will for His Church, leading to the end of history and to a glorious eternity of His Christians, His Church.
Even the events in our life are not random or just dumb luck. They are God’s gracious working in our life to bring us to faith, to give us His heavenly gifts and treasures and to preserve us in the faith, bringing us safely to Himself in heaven. May we always see and recognize God’s gracious work in and on us and see our lives now in God’s grace are a prelude to a glorious heavenly eternity.
In that light today’s Gospel has several statements from Jesus that we do well to pause and reflect on. But the one we will spend a few moments on this morning is Jesus’ statement about hell and avoiding it. It is, probably, not the most pleasant one we think of when we hear Jesus’ statements. Certainly we’d all rather hear Jesus say something like [Jn 10.11] I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep, instead of our text with its description of hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. But it drives home an absolutely vital point that we all do well to consider--there is an end; either heaven is waiting for us or hell.
Remembering and reflecting on death, judgment, heaven, and hell: it’s not that these things are to make us morbid or fill us with dark thoughts. Instead, they drive home to us that there is an end, a goal to which we are ultimately headed. This gives form and focus to our lives; our lives, then, are not random events; we do not merely drift along aimlessly like on a current of a river. Instead, we have a goal that gives focus to our lives. Just think--like so many people do--that this life is all there is and everything is by chance. What is the point of it all? No wonder people are either despondent or live with the attitude that life is short so I better live to get all the pleasure, power, wealth out of it I can.
But dear Christian, because there is a heaven or hell awaiting us, we see our lives much differently. We see that eternity is much longer than just the here and now; we see our lives as a prelude to eternity. And that will affect what we regard as important and what our goals and priorities now are--first and foremost our faith in Christ and our friendship with God. Even if the people around us believe in some sort of life after this world, they usually imagine everybody going to some sort of heaven--except for maybe a few really wicked people. That’s why it’s good for us that in today’s Gospel Jesus again teaches us that there is a hell: where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. We are not the only age which doesn’t take hell seriously or that looks skeptically on hell as something invented by the Church to keep people in line. Already the Church Father, St. Basil, in the fourth century said: Do not think that I am threatening you with false goblins like some mother or nurse, as they are accustomed to do with small children. Whenever the children wail wildly and incessantly, they put the children to silence by means of bogus tails. But these things I am telling you are not a fiction. Rather, they are true reason publicly proclaimed with a straightforward voice. Hell is real and we do well to remember that.
If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than to have two hands and go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If your foot causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, than to have two feet and be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If your eye causes you to fall into sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ In our text three times Jesus warns against hell--that He says it three times shows it is a very solemn statement and it is of the highest importance. The vital thing to remember is that Jesus is not speaking these words to outsiders/ unbelievers. He is speaking them to His disciples/ Christians. Jesus isn’t trying to “scare” the unbelievers into becoming believers; He is warning His dear Christians--you and me. We, dear Christian are the ones who need to hear this warning and take it to heart because we have the devil and the world all trying to get us to think that there is no hell/ no eternal punishment for sin; that we need not think in eternal terms.
Hell is real and it is a place of torment. Notice how Jesus describes it-- the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ What an absolutely wretched place and punishment--and it is eternal, it doesn’t end. That fire is the fire of torment. And the phrase: where their worm does not die has been described as the worm, the torment of conscience, does not stop so that one feels the guilt and shame of each sin without end for all eternity. And that phrase has also been understood as “the worm of decomposition”--a person does not die but decomposes eternally/ death does not cease. In any case, it is something indescribably horrible that those in hell endure bodily eternally.
Hell is real because it is the inevitable consequence of sin. This shows how serious our sin is. Our sin earns us God’s wrath and condemnation. Sin is not a laughing matter or one to take lightly. Each sin is an affront to God’s holiness. As a holy God, He must punish sin. The devil wants nothing more than for us to minimize our sin. For example, he wants us to use a “sliding scale” when it comes to sin: “I’m not so bad. Look at what so and so does.” Or he gets us to think we had good cause to sin so that we can be excused. Or he gets us to so harden our conscience that we no longer see our sin or become numb to sin by all the moral decay around us. But the fact remains--sin is sin and a holy God must punish sin and sin is punished eternally in hell. Can a loving God really punish someone in hell? Absolutely! --Not only is He a loving God but He is a holy and just God who must punish sin. He is a loving God--He offers us the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life in Jesus; He sent Jesus to pay the price for our sin--but where Jesus and His word and work, forgiveness and heaven, are rejected, what is He, the holy God, to do? He has shown His great love to us in Jesus and has given people every possibility of salvation in Jesus, what more can He do? Sin is a serious matter:
If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than to have two hands and go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’
The purpose of this doctrine of damnation--why Jesus speaks these words of our text--is to warn us against unbelief and carnal security. Remember, He is speaking to Christians--you and me. We are always in the danger of falling into unbelief --perhaps slowly, but surely. For example, during the covid lockdowns didn’t many stay away from church out of concern for health? Where are a good portion of our people when things had opened up? Not here! How easily one falls away from the faith--even and especially those saying “My faith is strong. I will not fall away.” Notice their faith is in themselves/ their own faith. Daily we need to hear If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than to have two hands and go into hell and so let us examine our heart and life for sin. The purpose for the doctrine of damnation, the reason Jesus speaks to us the words of our text is precisely to save us from damnation--because hell is real.
Because hell is real, let us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, strive to avoid it! If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed, than to have two hands and go into hell, into the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Here we have the purpose of God’s holy law for us. Because we are still frail sinful human beings, with our sinful nature, it is vital that we examine ourselves daily according to God’s holy Law to keep our sinful self from doing what it wants/ to keep it in check. It’s not that the good things we do will save us--we’re not saved by our good deeds--but the willful, continued sin that we do commit will grieve and drive off the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who created faith in us and keeps us in the faith. Where there is no Holy Spirit, there is no faith and where there is no faith, there is no salvation. Where there is the fight against sin--where there is the cutting off the hand or foot or eye--there the Holy Spirit is at work. Don’t become discouraged in the fight against sin, but rejoice that there is a battle--the old sinful nature has not triumphed.
Notice that Jesus talks about the hand, the foot, and the eye causing us to sin. In and of themselves they are fine; they are just parts of the body. But what happens? --They are used by and become tools of our sinful nature in order to sin, in order for our old sinful nature to carry out its desires and sin. We have hands--we are to use them to reach out and receive the gifts and blessings of God and so give Him thanks and praise; but by sin we use our hands for satisfying our own pleasures and delights--we become the object/ focus, not God. Jesus mentions the foot--what we use to go on a path/ way--that should lead us in faith to Jesus and to life, but so often led by our sinful nature we go down other paths chasing wealth, power, honor, or pleasure. Jesus mentions the eyes, what we are to use to look for God and the things of God; but by sin we look at the enticements of the world that lead us into coveting and other sin.
Jesus uses this exaggerated language--not that we literally slice off a hand or foot but to teach us that our sin is a serious matter and to take decisive action against sin. Our struggle against sin, against our old sinful nature is not merely to improve and reform our old sinful nature but to crucify and put it to death. We have to mercilessly fight against and put to death our old sinful nature. That’s what Jesus is showing with His words: If your hand causes you to fall into sin, cut it off… If your foot causes you to fall into sin, cut it off... If your eye causes you to fall into sin, pluck it out…. Sin is only overcome by radical surgery. By the help of the Holy Spirit, through faith, we cut them off so that we do not do what sin wants us to do. Whatever is a block, hindrance to our salvation, let’s get rid of. You see, this is a real battle with real consequences because hell is real. If there were no hell, why bother to fight against sin? But there is hell: the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ If we put the parts of our body into the service of sin, we will burn body and soul eternally in hell; but if by the Holy Spirit we control and do not let sin have its way--if we cut off hand, leg, eye--we preserve body and soul to eternal life. And why? Because Jesus conquered hell for us.
Because of Jesus and His saving work we, dear Christian, are spared the torments of hell. Jesus endured them all for us on the cross. Now through faith in Him, His victory over hell is ours. By daily repenting of our sins, crucifying our old sinful self, and through faith clinging to Jesus and His saving work, heaven stands open to us. In and through Jesus we need not fear hell. Hell is real but in Jesus we avoid it. Let us praise Him and guard and treasure our faith in Him. INJ