In Matthew 27:52-53 it says that when Jesus died, “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
Why did this happen? And what happened to these “walking dead”: did they ascend into Heaven with Jesus, or did they die again at a later date? What was the meaning and significance of this?
I address this question in the latest episode of the Theology for the People Podcast – in which I tell a story of regret from my honeymoon and explain why this event can only be understood in light of Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine.
In Matthew 27:52-53 it says that when Jesus died, "The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many."
Why did this happen? And what happened to these "walking dead": did they ascend into Heaven with Jesus, or did they die again at a later date? What was the meaning and significance of this?
You can find more articles and content, as well as a place to submit questions or suggest topics at the Theology for the People blog site.
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In the Bible, Satan is referred to as “the ruler of this world,” (John 12:31, 14:30) and even “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). 1 John 5:19 says that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.
How then can Jesus say that “all authority in Heaven and on Earth” has been given to him (Matthew 28:18)?
In this week’s Sermon Extra, Pastor Mike and I discuss the authority of Satan, and what the Bible has to say about it: Did Adam and Eve hand over “regency” of the Earth to Satan in the Garden of Eden? And how does this relate to the scroll that only Jesus can open in Revelation 5?
Furthermore, we discuss the claim of Richard Dawkins and others, who say that Jesus’ death on the cross was “divine child abuse,” since the innocent Son of God was sacrificed by the Father – and how the deity of Christ changes everything when it comes to understanding the meaning of the cross.
Doubt is an inherent part of having faith. Faith, the Bible tells us, is having convictions about things which you cannot see (Hebrews 11:1). This extends to things which cannot be empirically proven through scientific method. If you can see something and prove it, there is no need for faith. Doubt therefore, is not how faith ends, but is the occasion where faith and trust begin.
But it is not only “believers” who have doubts. Studies have shown that professing atheists also have doubts about whether they are right.
CS Lewis, in his book Mere Christianitysaid, “When I was an atheist, I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable.”
A recent poll from Newman University and YouGov found that one in five British atheists and over a third of Canadian atheists agreed with the statement: “Evolutionary processes cannot explain the existence of human consciousness.” 
In his book The Reason for God, Timothy Keller challenges those who doubt to “doubt their doubts,” i.e. to consider to the faith and beliefs (the assumptions which cannot be empirically proven) that underly their doubts, and to honestly question whether they actually stand on firm ground. His conclusion is that faith is God is actually more plausible than the alternative.
This week in our Sermon Extra, Pastor Mike and I discussed the role of doubt in faith, the fact that atheists have doubts too, and what we should do with our doubts. Check it out here:
Hi, a question coming from your recent sermon on May 2 about belief and doubt. You were talking about how doubt is held in a sort of middle ground, not to be vilified or esteemed too highly. Today I came across these verses in Romans regarding eating by conscience:
The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22-23 ESV)
That last sentence feels very strong in that ANYTHING not from faith is sin. How does this relate to the topic on Sunday?
Additionally, where do we draw a line to keep from absurd conclusions about this? When I go on a bike ride for health, I’m not doing it in faith – I just want to keep fit. What about choosing the right date for traveling on vacation? This verse could easily cause a person to stop making decisions due to fear of sin.
The sermon mentioned in this question is from the series The Risen Life, in which we looked at the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels for the season of Eastertide. The sermon was from John 20:19-30 and was called “From Doubt to Belief.”
In John 20:24-29, in the story of "doubting Thomas," we see that moving from doubt to belief involves hearing testimony, seeing the evidence, and responding in faith.
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Doubt and Faith in Romans 14:23
In Romans 14:23, Paul is talking about “gray areas” or “disputable matters” in the Christian life. At that time, some people said that it was acceptable for Christians to eat meat which had been sacrificed to idols, whereas others said that it was not acceptable. Each side had their reasons.
Similar discussions exist today: Is it acceptable for Christians to drink alcohol? To participate in Halloween festivities? To do yoga or martial arts?
In some of these cases, it may be that something may not be categorically wrong, but it may be wrong for a particular person because of their particular propensities. Furthermore, that person may have a strong conviction that they ought not to do something, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be a sin for anyone to do that thing.
Paul is saying that if you have a sincere conviction before God that you should not do something, then you should act on that conviction in faith, and do so as unto the Lord. This, Paul says, honors God. However, if you do something in contradiction to your conviction that you should not do it; i.e. if you have doubts about whether that thing is acceptable or permissible for you to do – then for you to do it anyway would be sin.
Thus, the way doubt and faith is used here is different than in the sense in which we talked about doubt and faith in the above mentioned sermon, where our focus was rather on doubting versus believing in God’s existence, God’s goodness, the validity of God’s Word, or the reliability of God’s promises.
Is Everything that Does Not Proceed from Faith Really Sin?
I believe the answer is: Yes. Let me explain, and I’ll explain how this applies to situations such riding your bike and choosing dates for vacation:
In Hebrews 11:6 we are told that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In Romans 4:20, faith is correlated with giving glory to God. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we are told, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
The point therefore, is that acting in faith is all about giving glory to God in our actions. If you doubt whether a particular action brings glory to God, then for you to do it anyway would be a sin. It is in this way that anything that does not proceed from faith is sin.
The Question We Often Ask, & the Question We Ought to Ask
I find that too often, we tend to ask the question: “Is it permissible to _________” or “Am I allowed to _________.” What this passage (and others) teach us is that the question we ought to be asking instead is: “Will this action glorify God?” or “Will God be honored, pleased, and glorified through this action?”
If you can do that action in faith so that your motive is to glorify God, then good. If you have doubts about that, then to do it anyway would be sin – at least for you.
This is why Augustine argues that for those who act apart from faith in God, even their virtues can be sinful: because if you do something good – apart from faith in God – your motive in doing so is not to glorify God, but must be either to glorify yourself, or to justify yourself. Thus, even virtuous actions, apart from faith in God, can be sinful. Tim Keller often speaks, quoting the Puritans, of how it is important therefore that we repent not only of our evil actions, but of our good actions done for self-justifying or self-glorifying motives.
May we be those who endeavor to do everything for the glory of God!
Based on your knowledge of activity in Heaven what was going on in Heaven prior to the crucifixion and how did it change, if at all after Jesus resurrection? For example, was there joy in the presence of angels over sinners repenting before Jesus died and rose??
Interesting question! Here are my thoughts:
The Sons of God Shouted for Joy
In the Book of Job, when God speaks, God challenges Job by saying this:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
The “sons of God” mentioned here is a reference to the angels. What this is telling us is that at the creation, the angels were “the audience” who watched and cheered as God created the universe.
The Heavenly Audience
This theme of the angels being an audience, watching the things which happen on Earth, is carried through the Bible.
At the beginning of the Book of Job, we read about Satan asking for permission from God to afflict someone. The picture we get from that scene is that those in Heaven are aware and attentive to the happenings of people on Earth.
Not only are those in Heaven aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, they seem to be emotionally invested in what is happening on Earth. For example, in Revelation 5, we read that when no one was found who could open the seal, there was weeping in Heaven until it was revealed that the Lamb was worthy to do so.
The whole picture of Revelation is that John the Apostle gets a preview of Heaven. Starting in chapter 4, John is caught up to Heaven, and what he describes is how, from that vantage point, he joins the angels in watching the happenings down below on Earth. The picture, therefore, is of Heaven being aware of and attentive to, as well as emotionally invested in, the happenings here on Earth.
The Stadium and Those in the Stands
In Hebrews 12:1 we read:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
The picture the writer is painting here is that of a stadium, and Greco-Roman competitions, such as the Olympics. He describes life as being a race, a theme which Paul also discusses, using similar language drawing from Greco-Roman athletic competitions.
But here the writer highlights a particularly interesting aspect of those competitions: as we run this race, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. The “witnesses” are those who were mentioned in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11, where we are told about those who preceded us in the faith – the “Old Testament saints,” as they have been called.
The image the writer is invoking is that of a stadium, in which the stands all around us are full of those who have preceded us in the faith, and who are now “cheering us on” as we run the race that is set before us.
The Angels and the Saints
What we are left with, therefore, are two groups: the angels and the saints. Both groups are apparently aware and attentive to what is happening on Earth, and are rooting for us and eagerly awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises.
What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?
The word angel literally means “messenger” in Greek, and this aligns with what the Bible tells us about angels; that they are “ministering spirits.” It would seem that the angels have been and still are aware, attentive to, and emotionally engaged in what is happening on Earth.
Thus, to answer your question, I do think there was joy in the presence of the angels over sinners repenting – prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The one thing which changed when Jesus died and resurrected, is that those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemption of their souls were released from Sheol and taken to be in God’s presence.
What are they? How do we recognize them before it’s too late? And how do we avoid being carried away by them?
We give some examples of winds and waves in the recent past, as well as the desire to move beyond the basics of Christianity to the “deeper things.” We discuss what people often mean when they use that phrase, and how to discover and experience the deepest things in reality.
In this episode Nick and Mike discuss what it means in Ephesians 4:14 where the Apostle Paul talks about “winds and waves of doctrine.” What are they? How do we recognize them before it’s too late? And how do we avoid being carried away by them?
Along with some examples of winds and waves in the recent past, we discuss the “deeper things” of Christianity: what many people mean when they use that phrase and what the deepest things are in reality.
Also visit the Theology for the People blog.
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My friends and co-laborers, Ted Leavenworth and Rob Salvato, both pastors in Southern California, started a new podcast called Leadership Collective, in which they curate helpful conversations with church leaders about relevant topics.
I had the pleasure of being a guest on the podcast along with Dr. Mark Foreman. Our discussion was about the nuts and bolts of how we develop, cast, and implement “vision” in our churches. Mark pastors a mega-church in Southern California, and I pastor a medium sized church on the Front Range of Colorado, so there are some pretty big differences in how we go about this process, but many similarities as well.
Earlier in my ministry I used to hate the word “vision” because it seemed so nebulous and abstract. However, since then I have come to understand that “vision” can simply be defined as: “a desired outcome.” Putting it in those terms, the question of “vision” becomes much more manageable. Beginning with a desired outcome, you can then begin thinking about the way to achieve that outcome, and break it down into a process with steps, depending on the given time-frame.
Not only is it imperative that we have vision as leaders, it’s also important for us to communicate it. What I have learned is that most leaders unwittingly under-communicate vision, and it’s very rare for people to feel that leaders over-communicate vision. The point is, for most of us, we need to communicate vision more than we currently are, and more than we think we need to.
Why does God bring judgment upon some sinful people, yet others who do much worse things remain healthy, prosperous, and well? In some cases they even seem to be getting God’s approval or at least not His punishment for the same sins as those who receive judgment. Examples of this would be Michal (David’s wife) and Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, and the story of the two prophets in 1 Kings 13.
This is a good question, and is related to a question that David asked in the Psalms about why God allows wicked people to prosper and righteous people to suffer. This question, from David, was not an abstract query, but one that was deeply person to his lived experience.
We can see this dynamic at work in the world today as well, where some people do evil things and seem to suffer no consequences, and in some cases succeed as a result, whereas many who endeavor to lead a godly life don’t succeed or even suffer.
I responded to this question with a podcast episode which is embedded and linked below. In this episode, I give three important considerations which help us to understand this dynamic.
Loved your teaching about 2 Corinthians 12 and the context why Paul wrote this. Can you direct me to the verses that show the criticism he took for always having trouble and not having visions so he was not spiritual enough so Paul writes chapter 12. Thanks
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Here is a good summary of the issue with links to many of the relevant verses:
In addition to calling into question Paul’s motives in organizing a collection for believers in Judea (8:20–21; cf. 2:17; 12:14–18) and questioning his personal courage (10:10–11; 11:21), Paul’s opponents had argued that Paul suffered too much to be a Spirit-filled apostle of the risen Christ. Paul argues that his weakness as an apostle is the very means by which believers are comforted (1:3–11) and God in Christ is made known in the world (2:14–17; 4:7–12; 6:3–10; 11:23b–33). Paul’s sufferings embody the cross of Christ, while his endurance amid adversity, with thanksgiving and contentment, manifests the resurrection power of the Spirit (12:7–10). Paul’s suffering as an apostle is thus the very means God uses to reveal his glory (1:3–4, 11, 20; 4:15; 9:11–15; 10:17–18).
ESV Study Bible, Introduction to 2 Corinthians
What this summary doesn’t give is the verses which talk about the criticisms Paul was receiving. Those criticisms are addressed in 2 Corinthians chapters 10-12, in which Paul defends his ministry.
In these chapters it is very clear that Paul feels uncomfortable defending himself, but he does so because he feels that it is necessary to counter the narrative being spread by the “super apostles”: a term Paul uses sarcastically to describe certain people who had come around or rose up within the Corinthian church and were promoting themselves as spiritual authorities, which included trying to tear down Paul as an authority figure in the minds of the Corinthian Christians. This is particularly sad in light of the fact that Paul was the one who founded the church in Corinth.
Based on the ways in which Paul defends himself and his ministry, we become aware of what their criticisms must have been. It becomes clear that they taught some form of the “prosperity gospel” which states that the proof of spiritual maturity is triumphalism: i.e. that a person will not suffer physical, psychological, or financial difficulties. If someone does suffer such difficulties, it is assumed that there must be something wrong with them. This is the same accusation that was leveled against Job in the Book of Job.
Apparently the “super apostles”, whom Paul identifies as false apostles in Chapter 11, accused Paul of being weak, and said that his sufferings were proof that he was not as spiritual or did not have the authority or blessing of God upon his ministry, like they did. Paul instead chooses to boast in his weaknesses, because through them God receives glory through his life, rather than him. The triumphalist “super apostles” – in other words, sought to bring glory and attention to themselves rather than to God.
In chapter 12, Paul reluctantly shares about a vision he had of Heaven. The reason Paul shares this vision, which until now he had kept to himself, was to prove to the Corinthians that he did have spiritual visions and experiences. The only impetus for this must have been that the “super apostles” claimed that Paul didn’t have supernatural visions, which they apparently claimed was proof of their superior spirituality. Paul responds by saying, “No, what they’re saying about me is not true, and here’s an example – but I don’t go around boasting about these things, rather the only thing I want to boast in is Christ; I want to bring attention and glory to Him rather than to myself.”
Thanks for the question! 2 Corinthians is one of my favorite books of the Bible, and I look forward to teaching through it at some point in the future at White Fields.