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Who is Jesus telling the disciples to fear here in Matthew 10:28 (ESV):

"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."

I've always taken this to refer to God, but I was reading someone recently suggesting that it is Jesus cautioning his disciples against the satan (who is a destroyer). Who was Jesus likely referring to?

  • It's fallacious to conflate the instrument of God's wrath with His wrath itself. Job 2:1-2 etc. Satan is a person. – Sola Gratia Mar 26 '18 at 18:21
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The context of this passage, as shown in 10:32-33, is to confess God before men, indicating that fear of man should not stop one from acknowledging him before others. Notice the contrast between fearing those who kill the body (plural) versus the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna (singular). There are many who can kill the body, but only one can destroy the soul.

But who is the object of fear in v. 28? Who is the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in Gehenna? Christians have historically answered this question by stating that God himself is the object of fear in v. 28.

In the late 4th or early 5th century, St. Augustine wrote concerning this verse:

For he said, “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” See where He advised us not to fear. See now where He advised us to fear. “But,” saith he, “fear Him who hath power to destroy both body and soul in hell.” [Matthew 10:28]. Let us fear therefore, that we may not fear. Fear seems to be allied to cowardice: seems to be the character of the weak, not the strong. But see what saith the Scripture, “The fear of the Lord is the hope of strength.” [Proverbs 14:26 (Septuagint)]. Let us then fear, that we may not fear; that is, let us fear prudently, that we may not fear vainly. The holy Martyrs on the occasion of whose solemnity this lesson was read out of the Gospel, in fearing, feared not; because in fearing God, they did not regard men.1

John Calvin (along with the other Protestant Reformers) follows in the footsteps of Augustine, writing that:

We must understand Christ to say that, when we succumb to the fear of man, we show no respect for God; that when, on the contrary, we show proper reverence to God, victory is easy and in our hands, and no human power can pull us away from our duty.2

In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom also wrote about this passage, saying:

“Fear ye not therefore; ye are of more value than many sparrows.” [v. 31]. Seest thou that the fear had already prevailed over them? Yea, for He knew the secrets of the heart; therefore He added, “Fear them not therefore;” for even should they prevail, it will be over the inferior part, I mean, the body; which though they should not kill, nature will surely take with her and depart. So that not even this depends on them, but men have it from nature. And if thou fear this, much more shouldest thou fear what is greater, and dread “Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” And He saith not openly now, that it is Himself, “Who is able to destroy both soul and body,” but where He before declared Himself to be judge, He made it manifest.

But now the contrary takes place: Him, namely, who is able to destroy the soul, that is, to punish it, we fear not, but those who slay the body, we shudder at. Yet surely while He together with the soul punishes the body also, they cannot even chasten the body, much less the soul; and though they chasten it ever so severely, yet in that way they rather make it more glorious.3

As has been demonstrated, interpretations of this passage throughout history understand God as the object of fear in v. 28.


1 Augustine of Hippo, "Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament", trans. R. G. MacMullen in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume VI: Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 306.

2 Joseph Haroutunian and Louise Pettibone Smith, Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), 264.

3 John Chrysostom, "Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel According to St. Matthew", trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, Volume X: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 229.

  • Is it contrasting or amplifying. In other words, they were fearing those that kill the body exclusively - Jesus added/amplified fear the one who not only will destroy the body -he will - but also the soul. – JLB Feb 7 '14 at 4:55
  • Historical interpretation is second to exegesis. It would have been better to do the latter rather than the former. When I have time I will try to answer not competitively but for the sake of drawing out the true meaning of the text. – JLB Feb 7 '14 at 5:17
  • Absolutely, this question could use an alternate perspective. In this case the grammar is somewhat ambivalent, so I opted for sharing what commentators have historically thought. – Dan Feb 7 '14 at 13:17
  • I am sure you saw I created a similar question post but with a little nuance without knowing this question was posted. Soldarnel said I should post it anyway, I originally edited his post to include my nuance but he undid it I think and made the suggestion. What are your thoughts? – JLB Feb 7 '14 at 16:22
  • @JLB haven't seen it so can't really say, but if it's a distinct question, by all means ask it. – Dan Feb 7 '14 at 21:54
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Two points, if I may, concerning the identity of “him” in Matthew 10:28. When “fear God” is mentioned in the scriptures it always means a “reverential fear” as distinct from being “afraid” say of a human being. The second and perhaps more important point is that Yeshua the Jewish Messiah, like the Hebrew prophets before him, never used the words “fear him” (Matthew 10:28) when he was referring to “fear God” (Rev 14:7). I am fully persuaded that the “him” referred to in Matthew 10:28 is the prophesied “enemy” (Matthew 13:39) and “adversary of the Messiah” (1 John 2:18).

  • Welcome, from another fairly new user! Apart from a "terrifying expectation of judgement" by those who go on sinning after receiving the truth (Heb 10:26-27), I agree that the 'fear of God' speaks to reverence. However, consider an alternative to regarding the 'him' in Matt 10:28 as the enemy. Take a look at the parallel reading in Luke 12:4-6, which reads "after He has killed, has the authority to CAST INTO Hell." Unless you believe the enemy has the authority to do so, this refers to God, right? It works if Jesus here is contrasting the terror-fear of man, with the reverence-fear of God. – Papa Pat Dec 7 '19 at 21:11
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N T Wright and Peter Kreeft are notable exceptions. "Thus Christ tells us to fear the Devil: “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” (Mt 10:28)." - Kreeft in his book, Practical Theology.

  • Only God has the power to take life and all prospects of resurrection,Satan and man can only do us temporary damage, God is the giver of life and will resurrect his faithfull servants. So it is God we should fear. – Ozzie Nicolas Mar 26 '18 at 19:32
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Christians should grow in Spirit so, as to fear only God and not anything or anyone else. To interpret the passage as referring to fear of Devil, will be to infinitely lower a dignity of a Christian, for Devil is not worthy of being afraid of him for those for whom God is the Father and for whose love and salvation Christ has died, but rather Devil is afraid of them. So, of course the referent of fear is God. But the passage should not be understood that God casts soul and body to Gehenna as a strict judge, but even if we cast ourselves to the "Gehenna" of the pangs of our consciences (for exactly those pangs of conscience are metaphorized by the "fire of Gehenna") which reprimand us for our unrepentedness for sins and for our unforgiving disposition towards brethren (for this is that casts us in Gehenna and not God), He continues loving us and is in a way tormented by us (in the sense of infinitely caring for us), His images and likenesses, being tormented by self-inflicted pains. Thus, not God casts us to Gehenna, but our own disobedience, and this is to be feared - disobedience of eternally and infinitely loving God. Thus, this is the meaning of fearing God.

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Undoubtedly the disciples were to fear God and by extension all his agents.

The fact that the Satan had to get permission from God before he laid a proverbial finger on anyone says that he is not the one to be feared. God is the boss of everyone, even of rebels.

Job 1:12  And the LORD said unto Satan, Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand. So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD.

KJV unless otherwise noted

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The wages of sin is death. The thief comes but too kill steal and destroy. Whoever sins is a slave to sin. We should fear the one who through temptation can utterly destroy any hope we could have at redemption in this life and the life to come.

The One Jesus was referring to is undoubtedly the ruler and the god of this world Satan. The kingdom of heaven is not of this world, it is within. We are instructed to be in the world but not of it. And the world is passing away along with its desires (temptations), but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

The people who believe God is the only one who has the authority to cast people into hell should read Luke 22:31 when Jesus said, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat.” Satan is one of the angels who will be sifting through the harvest, separating the wheat from the tares. He is also the one planting the tares!

This should be a big eye opener to anyone who believes God is the one to be feared. God loves us. He wishes that no one should perish. Satan does have the authority to take us to hell through temptation and sin as he is the only one who could ever wish this fate upon us as the accuser. Whoever thinks a roaring lion seeking who he might devour isn’t something that should be feared, is greatly deceived.

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    Hi Ken, welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics site. There are some guidelines that you should be aware of. This site is an academic site interested in providing well researched and well reasoned answers to the questioners query. Therefore, our answers should not only cite scripture but also show from context and/or grammar why the reference supports your answer. It was great the you referenced Luke 22:31 however, without more detail, someone for example, could counter your belief by showing from Job that the Lord limits Satan's actions and is subject to Him. – alb Aug 1 '18 at 22:06
  • The only thing that stopped Satan from sifting Peter as wheat was Jesus’s prayer. Luke 22:31 implies Satan is responsible for carrying out the punishment. He is also responsible for tempting anyone who would go to hell. Job states God is responsible for allowing anything that Satan does but Luke places emphasis on satan being the reaper. So fearing the “one” who can burn the body and soul in hell is satan. God allows satan to do so but only if we are tempted and perish in sin. I think it makes a lot more sense to fear the one who could make it happen, not the one who could allow it. – Ken Aug 2 '18 at 23:23

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