Questions From Readers
● Matthew 5:22 states: “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.” What are the three dangers of which offenders are here warned?—T. C., Pennsylvania.
The New World Translation shows that “judgment” and “council” refer to courts and “hell fire” refers to the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna: “Everyone who continues angry with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; but whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.” The offenses increase in seriousness in the order named, and logically the ones to whom the offenders are accountable or the treatment to which they are liable increase proportionately in authority or severity.
The court of justice seems to be the same as the local courts spoken of at Matthew 10:17 and Mark 13:9, and the footnote in the New World Translation on “local courts” in these texts identifies them as “Lesser Sánhedrins”. Sánhedrin means an assembly or council. The Mosaic Law made provision for local courts where qualified men heard cases at the gates of the cities. Deuteronomy 16:18 (AS) ordered: “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which Jehovah thy God giveth thee, according to thy tribes; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.” These local courts had jurisdiction even in murder cases and could pass the death sentence. They were re-established by Ezra after the return from Babylonian captivity, and it appears that Levites were extensively used in filling the positions of service in these courts.—Deut. 19:12; 21:1, 2; 1 Chron. 23:4; 26:29; Ezra 7:25, 26.
During the time of Jesus and the apostles these local courts or Lesser Sanhedrins operated, but under definite restrictions due to Roman rule over Palestine. According to the Rabbins, these lower courts consisted of 23 judges in towns where there were 120 representative men for various court uses and services, but in small towns where that number was not available only 3 judges were used. Jerusalem was said to have two courts of 23 judges each, plus 390 courts of 3 judges each to hear minor charges. The figures given by Josephus vary, for he states these local courts were made up of 7 judges, each of whom had assigned to him 2 officers who were Levites. Matters too hard for these local courts to decide went to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.—Josephus’ Antiquities, Book 4, chap. 8, sec. 14.
It is the Great Sanhedrin referred to in Matthew 5:22 as the “council” or “Supreme Court”, as shown by the footnote of the New World Translation. It was generally designated merely as the Sanhedrin. It is usually understood that when the Bible links chief priests and scribes and elders it is referring to the Sanhedrin, as at Matthew 16:21 (NW): “From that time forward Jesus Christ commenced showing his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the older men of influence and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised up.” The claim is made that the 71 members of the Sanhedrin were made up as follows: 24 were chief priests, 24 were elders or older men of influence, 22 were scribes or lawyers, and the high priest completed the number 71. A president and vice-president were elected. This Jewish supreme court heard only cases the lower courts could not decide and referred to it, and cases involving the highest offenses that were brought to it directly. This was specially true of cases involving blasphemy or apostasy.—Matt. 26:57, 59-68; John 19:7; Acts 5:27-29; 6:11-15; 7:1, 54-60, NW.
The Jews like to believe that the Sanhedrin started with Moses and the 70 that he chose to help him judge matters for Israel in the wilderness. (Num. 11:16, 17) Some have even suggested that Jesus replaced this Jewish body when he sent out 70 disciples to preach, since Jesus as their head would make 71. (Luke 10:1) However, the facts indicate that the Sanhedrin originated during Greek rule over Judea. During Roman rule it passed judgment on matters of life and death, but it could not execute its sentences of death but had to submit its action for review by the Roman authorities.—John 18:28-40; 19:1-16, NW.
Lastly, Matthew 5:22 speaks of those liable to “hell fire” or “Gehenna”. To use “hell fire” gives a false idea, for in the original Greek it reads gehenna of fire; gehenna is the Greek for the Hebrew geʹi-Hinnom, meaning “valley of Hinnom”. This valley lay to the west and south of ancient Jerusalem. During the time of the later kings of Judah it was used in the idolatrous worship of Molech, human sacrifices being offered to this god by fire. (Josh. 15:8; 2 Chron. 28:3; 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 32; 32:35) To prevent its use again for such horrible religious purposes faithful King Josiah had it polluted and it came to be the dumping place and incinerator for the refuse of Jerusalem. (2 Ki. 23:10) The dead bodies of animals were thrown in, to be consumed by the fires kept burning there and to which sulphur or brimstone was added to assist the burning. Even bodies of executed criminals thought too vile to have a resurrection were disposed of there. If the bodies did not reach the fires but lodged on a ledge of the deep ravine worms consumed them. The final paragraph of the New World Translation’s appendix material on this valley reads, on page 767:
“No living animals or human creatures were pitched into Gehenna to be burned alive or tormented. Hence the place could never symbolize an invisible region where human souls are tormented in literal fire and attacked by undying immortal worms for ever and ever. (Isa. 66:24) Because the dead criminals cast here were denied a decent burial in a memorial tomb, which symbolizes the hope of a resurrection, Gehenna was used by Jesus and his disciples to symbolize everlasting destruction, annihilation from God’s universe, or ‘second death’, an eternal punishment. Hence to be sentenced to have one’s dead body cast into Gehenna was considered the worst kind of punishment. From the literal Gehenna and from its significance the symbol of the ‘lake burning with fire and sulphur’ was drawn, at Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8.”
In the preceding verse (Matt. 5:21) Jesus called attention to the well-known fact that whoever committed a murder would be accountable to the court of justice, and then to this common understanding he added the words of Mt 5 verse 22 to show how much more exacting were the new precepts he was pronouncing. One might become angry for a reason, but to continue in that provoked state would allow an opening for the Devil and might result in our sinning. (Eph. 4:26, 27, NW) So continued anger toward a brother would put one in need of correction, as symbolized by the court of justice. For that anger to manifest itself in “an unspeakable word of contempt” would be even more serious and call for stronger correction or punishment, as symbolized by the higher court or Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. But to start judging a brother as a “despicable fool”, which might Scripturally imply he blasphemes and denies Jehovah God (Ps. 14:1), is extremely serious and could make one liable to eternal destruction, or, in other words, “to the fiery Gehenna.” So Jesus used things familiar to the Jews—the court of justice and the Supreme Court and fiery Gehenna—to convey to them the increasing weight and severity of the punishments that would come for sins of increasing seriousness.
● Is it Scriptural to assume that the 144,000 body-members of Christ are used to fill up the places vacated by the angels that rebelled and became demons and were ousted from heaven by Christ, thereby keeping intact the numerical strength of the heavenly realm?—J. D., India.
There is no direct scripture to show that the 144,000 members of Christ’s body or congregation are used to replace a like number of angels who turned unfaithful, followed Satan and became demons and who will be destroyed. Certainly none of those unfaithful angels were on a spiritual level equal to that to which the 144,000 are glorified; so that even with the bringing of the 144,000 to the heavens there would still be 144,000 places on the level formerly occupied by those demons left vacant, if the number was the same. Moreover, who replaces Satan? Not Christ, for he was already a member of the heavenly organization before he came to earth, a member of it before the covering cherub that became Satan even existed. (Rev. 3:14) Jesus could never be viewed as taking the place in heaven formerly held by Satan, for Jesus is glorified to a station higher than he occupied originally, and that original one was above that held by the deflecting cherub. (Phil. 2:9-11) Since there is no one to fill the place Satan once held, it does not seem Scriptural to argue that the 144,000 are used to fill up the number in heaven left vacant by the ousted demons. The number of spirit creatures in heaven is not fixed, and Jehovah God can always create more.