Is the “Baptism in the Spirit” the Same as Being “Filled” With the Holy Spirit? Yes and No. Here’s Why.

A question I am frequently asked is if there is a difference between the “baptism” of the Holy Spirit, and being “filled” with the Holy Spirit. Are they two different words which describe the same thing? The answer is: in some cases ‘Yes,’ and in other cases ‘No.’

Let me explain:

Understanding the Three Relationships the Holy Spirit Has with People

Throughout the Bible, we can see three distinct relationships which the Holy Spirit has with people. I would say that there are no less than these three, and no more than these three.

However, there are various terms and phrases which are used by the biblical authors to describe these relationships, and here’s what leads to confusion: some of the biblical authors use the same words to describe different relationships!

And yet, by looking at the context and the meaning of what the authors are describing (by the inspiration of the Spirit), we can see that three distinct relationships with the Holy Spirit are described in the Bible.

These three relationships can be easily remembered by connecting them to three simple prepositions: With, Upon, and In.

With – Conviction. (All People)

The Holy Spirit is WITH all people, bringing conviction about 3 things: sin, righteousness, and judgment.

In the Gospel of John chapters 14 &16, Jesus tells his disciples (at the Last Supper) that he is going away, but he will send the Spirit. Then he tells them about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth… You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

John 14:16-17

Jesus then tells them that the work of the Spirit with people is that he brings conviction about sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Spirit speaks to people, to bring conviction that they have sinned, that God is righteous (and they have fallen short of his righteousness), and that a day is coming when God will judge the world, i.e. they will have to stand before him in judgment because they have fallen short.

In other words: the work of the Holy Spirit in the world with all people, is that he is bringing conviction of sin and the need for a Savior.

In Genesis 6, God says that his Spirit will not always strive with humankind. In other words, the Spirit is striving with people, to bring about conviction of sin which will lead to repentance in some cases, or a hardening of hearts in other cases.

What this means is that God’s Spirit is speaking to people’s hearts in the deepest jungles, in closed countries, as well as to the hearts of your loved ones. It is possible to harden your heart to the voice of the Spirit, as we are told in Hebrews 4:7, among other places.

The ultimate rejection of the work of the Spirit in this way is what constitutes the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: rejecting the work of the Spirit to bring conviction leading to repentance and embracing the Savior.

Upon – Empowerment. (Some People)

Throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament, we see a second relationship with the Holy Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit empowers people to fulfill particular callings that God has put on their lives.

Sometimes this empowerment manifests itself in supernatural gifts, such as with Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or with the charismatic gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 & 14.

This empowerment is often described by the term “upon” in the Old Testament, and in some places in the New Testament:

“And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon [Samson]” (Judges 14:9)

And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49)

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

This empowering relationship was described by the anointing with oil of priests, kings, and prophets in the Old Testament. The oil symbolized the empowering of God to fulfill a calling he has put upon our lives.

It seems that this empowering is sometimes given by God to people who are not believers, and who do not have saving faith. Example of this might be King Saul in 1 Samuel 10, or the high priest Caiaphas in John 11:49-52, who prophesied that Jesus would be killed in order to die for the nation. Furthermore, talking about the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, Paul seems to imply in 1 Corinthians 13 that it is possible to exercise spiritual gifts and not be a Christian! Jesus himself says that some people who cast out demons will not go to heaven (Matthew 7:22-23)

Furthermore, the word Messiah (anointed one) carries with it the connotation that the Spirit is upon this one, to empower him to carry out a unique mission from God: to atone for sin and bring salvation to the world. This is why Isaiah 61, which Jesus quoted in Luke 4 in Nazareth when he announced that he was Messiah, says:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound

Isaiah 61:1-2, quoted in Luke 4 by Jesus and applied to himself

This is an important distinction from the next relationship with the Holy Spirit, and I will explain why it is so important as we go on.

In – Indwelling. (Those who have been born again through faith in Jesus)

Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that the Holy Spirit had been with them, but would soon be in them (John 14:16-17).

This indwelling of the Holy Spirit was something which was prophesied and predicted, but which never happened until after Jesus had died and risen from the grave.

In Ezekiel 37, God spoke through the prophet Ezekiel, telling the people about a future day when he would place his Spirit inside of his people.

Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:13-144:30, and 2 Corinthians 1:225:5 that when we put our faith in Jesus, and believe the gospel, we are sealed with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee that we have been redeemed by God, and he see us through until our redemption is complete.

The Spirit within us sanctifies us, guides us, teaches us, reminds us of the words of Jesus (John 16:13-15).

It is incorrect to say, as some do, that “God is within all of us.” What the Bible teaches is that God’s Spirit is only within those who have placed their faith in Jesus and been redeemed by Him.

Where these distinctions bring clarity

These distinctions bring clarity to some things, for example: in Psalm 51, David, having sinned with Bathsheeba, prays: “Do not take your Holy Spirit from me.”

Without making these clear distinctions in relationship, we might draw the conclusion that if we sin, we are in danger of God removing his Holy Spirit from us who are believers. And since Romans 8:9 says:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Romans 8:9

We might then conclude that we are in danger of losing our salvation if we sin, since God might remove his Spirit from us. However, it is important to remember that David had the Spirit with him (bringing conviction), and he had the Spirit upon him (as King to fulfill his calling).

David was not, therefore, worried about losing the indwelling of God’s Spirit, but rather the convicting and comforting presence of the Spirit, and/or the empowering power of the Spirit in his life.

Furthermore, it helps us understand how people like Saul, in the Old Testament, were able to do things by the Spirit of God upon them, and yet it seems that they were not amongst those Old Testament saints who died in saving faith (cf. Hebrews 11).

Where it gets confusing: Luke and Paul use the same words to mean different things

Here’s where it gets interesting and here is the source of some of the confusion on this topic: Luke and Paul use the same terms to mean different things in their respective writings!

Luke, in his writings (Gospel of Luke & Acts of the Apostles), talks a lot about the Spirit, but he does so exclusively in regard to the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Seriously, look into it: there is no direct reference to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in Luke or Acts.

Paul, on the other hand, focuses mostly on the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

So, when Luke talks about the disciples being filled with the Spirit of God in Acts, he is talking about empowerment, not indwelling. This is clear from the context, but it is also clear from other clues. A great example of this is how it says in Luke 1 that John the Baptist would be “filled with the Spirit” from birth. This filling cannot be understood as the indwelling of the Spirit, since: 1) John could not have trusted in the gospel before hearing it and understanding it (see Ephesians 1:13), and 2) since Jesus had not yet accomplished his saving work through his life, death, and resurrection.

Furthermore, it is important to note that in John 20, after his resurrection but prior to his ascension, Jesus imparted the Holy Spirit to his disciples:

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

John 20:22

And yet (and this is important!), prior to his ascension, he told those same disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit had come upon them to cloth them with power from on high, to empower them to carry out the mission he had given them (Luke 24:49, Acts 1:8).

The Holy Spirit then came upon them on the day of Pentecost, 10 days after Jesus’ ascension.

So we see that the imparting of the Holy Spirit by Jesus in John 20 prior to his ascension was for them to receive the Spirit indwelling them, but the coming upon of the Spirit in Acts 2 was a separate event for the purpose of empowering them.

For these empowering events, Luke uses the terms “filled with the Holy Spirit” and “baptized with the Holy Spirit” interchangeably. Paul, on the other hand, uses the term “filled” with the Holy Spirit to speak of the indwelling work of the Spirit. The meanings of the two uses of the word “filled” are clear from their contexts and what they describe the Spirit doing in each case.

It is in this way, therefore, that Luke can describe believers being filled with, or baptized with, the Holy Spirit multiple times, such as in Acts 4, where people who are already believers receive a fresh filling of the Spirit, leading to even more boldness. The key here is that while they already have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, there is apparently need for fresh fillings of the Spirit for empowerment. Thus, to sing songs in which we ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us is acceptable and right, as long as we understand that we are asking for empowerment from God’s Spirit, not sealing by God’s Spirit.

Hopefully this explanation helps you as you read the Bible, seek the Lord, pray, worship, and serve!

Reader Questions: If Children are a Gift from God, Why Does God Sometimes Give Children to Bad People?

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently submitted:

A lot of people say children are a gift from God. If that’s true, then why would God give a pedophile children?

It isn’t just people who say that children are a gift from God; God himself says that children are a gift from Him.

Psalm 127:3 says, “Behold, children are a gift of the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.” (NASB)

In the 1989 movie Parenthood, Keanu Reeves’ character says something profound:

You know Mrs. Buckman, you need a license to buy a dog. You need a license to drive a car. Hell, you even need a license to catch a fish. But they’ll let any butt-reaming a**hole be a father.

Keanu Reeves as Tod Higgins in Parenthood
Keanu Reeves - best on-screen moments | Gallery | Wonderwall.com
Keanu Reeves in Parenthood

When we lived in Hungary, we adopted a child whom we had guardianship over for years. The process included a gauntlet of intrusive tasks: home inspections, psychological examinations, classes, fees. During a week-long class, one of the other prospective adoptive parents expressed his frustration that it seems unfair people who want to help children in need by adopting them are put through such a rigorous process, when someone who becomes a parent biologically doesn’t have to do anything.

At the same time, we also visited orphanages where children were abandoned because they were either unwanted, or the parents were unable to care for them.

Here in Colorado, our church is involved in helping children in kinship and foster care, who oftentimes end up in these situations because of abuse or neglect.

We’ve known people over the years who would have been great parents, but struggled with infertility, or were unable to have children because of other medical issues.

See: Infertility and the Will of God

It seems like an incredible injustice that many who want to have children cannot, while many who should not have children do. Is God somehow irresponsible in his distribution of children? And if it is merely a natural, biological occurrence, then why does the Bible insist that children are a gift from God?

The Principle

The reason for the principle, that children are a gift, is intended to shape the way we think about human life.

Life, the Bible says, is sacred. Human beings are created in the image of God, and though we are fallen, we continue to bear the image of the divine, even if it is marred within us. Alone out of all creation, this is unique to human beings. This is why it is allowed for human beings to ethically kill and eat animals, but human life is different.

Many ancient people considered children to be a nuisance. God wanted people to treat children as treasures.

This can be seen with Jesus; when his disciples tried to shoo away the children who wanted to come to Jesus, assuming that their master was too great a person to be bothered by annoying little children, Jesus corrected them and said, “Allow the little ones to come to me, for to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven.”

One reason why little children were not valued very highly in ancient society is because they were not able to contribute or produce anything. Furthermore, young children were particularly susceptible to disease and death. So the feeling of many was that once (and if) the child grew to the point where they could be a contributing member of society, then their life would have value. God said: No, children are not a drain, they are a gift.

The principle is that children are to be considered a gift, and human life is to be treasured.

The Curse

As human beings, we are fallen. We ourselves and the world we live in languish under a curse: the curse of sin and death. This curse has far-reaching implications: it means that the world does not work the way it was originally designed to, and neither do we.

The results of this curse include sickness, hatred, envy, strife, selfish and hurtful actions, as well as all kinds of deviant behavior, and ultimately death.

We were not designed to struggle with infertility, we were not designed to abuse others, nor to suffer abuse at the hands of others.

Every human being lives under the cloud of this curse their entire life, and we all suffer from its effects in all kinds of forms. This is tragic. So tragic, that God became one of us in Jesus Christ to put an end to it forever.

Human life is still a gift and is still precious, even though human beings suffer here on Earth.

Identity and Responsibility

To say that someone is a pedophile is to define them by their sin. Rather than saying that God gives children to pedophiles, it would be more accurate to say that God gives children to people, and tragically, some people choose to harm children.

Here is how the Bible explains this:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

James 1:13-15

To ask the question of why God allows people to be parents if he knows ahead of time that they will one day commit abusive acts against their children is akin to taking responsibility away from the sinner and placing it upon God, and this issue gets into the classic Trilemma of Theodicy:

trilemma is like a dilemma, only instead of two issues (di) that are at odds with each other, in a trilemma there are three (tri).

The trilemma of theodicy states that there are three things the Bible states are true about God, which cannot all be true at the same time:

  1. God is loving
  2. God is all-powerful
  3. Evil exists

The argument goes that since evil exists, either: God must not really be loving, or God must not really be all-powerful. Either God is incapable of stopping evil, even though he’d like to – in which case he is not all-powerful, or God is capable of stopping evil, but chooses not to, in which case he must not be truly loving.

The logical flaw in the trilemma

The big flaw in this thinking is that it takes into account only two of God’s attributes: his love and his power.

But does God have only two attributes? Certainly not! God has a myriad of attributes, including that he is: all-knowing, providential, eternal, etc. Simply adding another attribute of God to the equation changes it fundamentally, and removes the “lemma” out of the tri-lemma!

For example, if we say that God is not only loving and all-powerful, but also all-knowing and/or providential, it changes things completely. It means that it is possible for God to allow bad things and use them for good purposes, and even for our ultimate benefit. The fact that God is eternal reminds us that comfort in this life is not the pinnacle of existence, therefore it is also possible for an eternal God to allow temporal hardship in order to work an eternal good purpose. The Bible says this explicitly in 2 Corinthians 4:17 – For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.

Thankfully, even in the most horrific situations, there is hope:

The Hope

Why is human life still a gift, if a person suffers abuse?

While on the one hand, the human experience is irreconcilably tainted by suffering, human life is a gift because it carries with it the hope of redemption.

The promise of the gospel is that no matter what horrors a person might suffer here on Earth, in this broken world at the hands of broken and evil people, because of what Jesus did, redemption is possible.

And what redemption looks like is a new world, in which all that is wrong is made right: in which injustice and evil are judged, in which an end is put to suffering once and for all.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Revelation 22:1-4

Human life, despite its suffering, carries with it the hope of eternal life and redemption.

Speaking of this redemption, Paul the Apostle says:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For in this hope we were saved.

Romans 8:18,24a

The pages of Scripture are full of the story of the people who suffered greatly.

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated… But God has provided something better for us.

Hebrews 11:35-37,40a

May we take hold of this promise and hope by faith in Jesus and what He accomplished for us, so we can experience life and redemption!

If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Was John the Baptist the Reincarnation of Elijah?

Currently at White Fields Church we are studying through the books of 1-2 Kings in our series called Desiring the Kingdom. We recently looked at the taking up of the Prophet Elijah in a whirlwind (watch or listen to that message here: 2 Kings 1:1-2:12 “The Legacy of Your Life”

Check out: Did Elijah Really Go to Heaven?

One of the questions this brings up, is in regard to the identity of John the Baptist. Was John the Baptist actually the return, or the reincarnation of Elijah?

Here are the key issues:

Elijah Never Died…

Elijah is one of only a handful of people in the Bible who never tasted death. Another is Enoch, in Genesis 5.

Some people speculate that maybe Moses never actually died, but was also taken by God before tasting death. The reason for that has to do with something in Revelation 11, which I will address further down in this article, but Deuteronomy 34:5 clearly states that “Moses died in the land of Moab according to the word of the Lord.” The speculation here comes from the idea that this chapter of Deuteronomy was not written by Moses, and therefore the writer only assumed that Moses died. That conclusion seems to be clearly in contradiction of what the text clearly states, however, and as people who believe in the inspiration of the Bible, we should reject it.

The Prophecies

Malachi 3:1, speaking about the coming of the Messiah, says: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.”

Malachi 4:5, also speaking about the Day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah says: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

The Words of Jesus

Here’s what Jesus had to say about John the Baptist:

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’

For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 11:7-15

Two important things here:

  1. Jesus is claiming that John is the promised messenger from Isaiah 40:3 who would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
  2. Jesus is claiming that John is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy about the messenger in Malachi 3:1.

This statement of Jesus that “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” has led some people to believe that John was the return, or reincarnation of Elijah. However…

The Claim of John the Baptist Himself

John the Baptist explicitly denied being Elijah the Prophet:

And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

John 1:19-23

Rather, John identifies himself as the promised messenger from Isaiah 40:3, which Jesus also identified him as.

Are John and Jesus contradicting each other?

Some people believe that John was in denial about his identity as Elijah…

I don’t believe either of these options to be true, rather there is a simple explanation:

“The Spirit and Power of Elijah”

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1, when the angel Gabriel is telling Zechariah (John the Baptist’s Father) about who his son will be, he says that John “will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:15-17)

Here, Gabriel is quoting from Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. This tells us that those verses are speaking about the same person, and it tells us that that person is John.

In conclusion, John the Baptist was not literally Elijah, i.e. the reincarnation of Elijah, rather he is a prophet sent by God in the spirit and the power of Elijah.

This is why Jesus said John “was Elijah, if you are willing to accept it.” In other words, John is the fulfillment of the coming of the prophet Elijah in the sense that he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but he is also not literally Elijah reincarnated.

The Transfiguration

Further proof of this fact is that Elijah himself appeared at Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17:11-12), not John the Baptist.

Furthermore, both Herod and the people distinguished between Elijah and John the Baptist (see Mark 16:14-16 & 8:28)

Will Elijah Come Again During the Great Tribulation?

Revelation 11 describes two witnesses who will come on the scene during the Tribulation, a time of great trouble for the world before the return of Jesus.

And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.
And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.

Revelation 11:3-12

From the descriptions given of the two witnesses, it seems clear that allusions are being made to Elijah and Moses.

In 2 Kings 1, when Ahaziah sent soldiers to arrest and assumedly kill Elijah, Elijah called down fire from Heaven to consume them. This isn’t exactly “fire pouring from their mouths to consume their foes” but it is similar.

Elijah did shut the sky by his prayers so it did not rain (1 Kings 17 & James 5), and Moses struck the waters and they turned to blood.

Some people assume that it is because Elijah did not die that he is able to return, and that this might be a further fulfillment of Malachi 4:5, in this case Elijah returning in the flesh as opposed to John the Baptist coming in the spirit and power of Elijah. This is also the reason why some people assume that Moses never died, because they assume that the reason Elijah is able to come back is because he never tasted physical death. Others speculate that perhaps the second witness is Enoch, the other person in the Bible who never tasted death.

However, I am not convinced that having never died is a prerequisite for being one of these witnesses. Although they didn’t die physically, their Earthly lives did end.

Furthermore, it seems that if John the Baptist could fulfill Malachi 4:5 by coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, it is not necessary that these two witnesses be the literal reincarnations or reappearances of Elijah and Moses; they could be people who come in the spirit and power of those men.

Conclusion

In summary: John the Baptist was Elijah in that he came in fulfillment of Malachi 3:1 & 4:5, and he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, but he was not a reincarnation of Elijah himself.

Reader Questions: Was Jesus’ Promise in John 1:51 Ever Fulfilled?

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question recently came in:

In John 1:51, Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Was this ever fulfilled? If so, when?

That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer!

The passage you’re referring to is in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus called Philip, and then Philip went and told his friend Nathanael that “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could be from Nazareth, to which Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus to see for himself.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he greeted him in a way that implied that Jesus already knew him. When Nathanael asked how Jesus already knew him, Jesus replied: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Some scholars say that it was traditional for Jewish people to sit under a fig tree to read the Scriptures, but whatever happened with Nathanael under the fig tree must have been something so personal, and so private that Nathaniel was sure no one could have possibly seen or heard him. The fact that Jesus knew about it was enough to convince Nathaniel right there on the spot that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he immediately responded by saying: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This brings us to the text in question.

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:50-51

If you look for a story in the gospels in which this happened, you won’t find one. The closest events you will find to this are:

  • Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke from Heaven declaring that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glorified state, and he appeared with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from Heaven which told Peter: “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
  • Jesus’ ascension, when he was caught up to Heaven.

However, while these examples include the heavens being opened, none of them include angels, much less Nathanael or anyone else seeing the angels ascending and descending on Jesus.

So, does that mean that Jesus’ promise to Nathanael was not fulfilled?

No. Rather, to expect this to be the promise of a literal vision of angels is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying, which is actually more significant than promising a vision of angels.

Jacob’s Ladder

When Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus is making reference to a story from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was on the run from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him. One night while Jacob was sleeping in a field, with a rock for a pillow, God appeared to him in a vision as he slept.

In this vision, Jacob saw the heavens opened up and a ladder, or a bridge, spanning the gap between Heaven and Earth, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

You might remember that the people of Babel, in Genesis 11, had tried to “build a tower with its top reaching to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves. They had sought to span the gap between Heaven and Earth through their own strength, endeavors, and intellect – and they failed.

What Jacob saw in his vision, was that God alone can span the gap between Heaven and Earth. Whereas we are incapable of reaching Heaven by our own works, God has come down to us from Heaven, in order to lift us up into relationship with Him and eternal life.

If Jacob was in fact reading the Scriptures under the fig tree, could it be that this is the exact passage that Nathanael had been reading, and Jesus was interpreting it for him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a Person

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael in John 1:51 is that HE is Jacob’s ladder! He is the bridge that spans the gap between Heaven and Earth that God pictured to Jacob in that vision! It is in Him that God has come from Heaven to Earth in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to lift us up into relationship with Him and give us eternal life.

Jesus is saying that He has come not just to point the way to Heaven, but to be the way to Heaven.

Now, you might be tempted to think: If it’s a ladder, that means I must need to climb as high as I can, and if I’m strong enough, and if I’ve got enough stamina to make it all the way, then I can reach God. But that’s not the idea behind this ladder. Listen to what Paul the Apostle has to say in Romans ch 10:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Romans 10:6-9

In other words: the message of the Gospel is not that you have to climb your way up to God, but that God has come down to you! This ladder is not the ladder by which we ascend to God – but rather the ladder by which God has come down to us, to lift us up to Himself.

Jesus is telling Nathanael, and us, in John 1:51 that Jacob’s ladder is a person, and that person is Him! What good news!

If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Reader Questions: Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy & Responding to Christian Perfectionism

There is a feature here on the site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Here are some recent questions that came in:

Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy

Is there a book or message series you can recommend to help rebuild sexual intimacy in marriage?

I’m sure there are other resources out there, but the one I am familiar with and can recommend is Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage

Responding to Christian Perfectionism

I have a Christian forum at my place of employment. One employee regularly posts statements in line with a ‘sinless perfection’ doctrine and encourages others to listen to Jesse Peterson (which I know nothing about.)  

Essentially, this employee constantly insists that if we are still sinning we are hypocrites and is adamant we shouldn’t listen to others or read the Bible but should just ‘know’ God, we should ‘just be’ (insert confused emoji here), and sin is hate, the only way to receive eternal life is to forgive. I dismiss his theology – he makes no sense – and despite support from the Word of God, he continues his posts – because he doesn’t value the word of God.  

Do you have any thoughts on how I can redirect his skewed theology, while helping the other members of this group also dismiss this line of thinking?

One way to respond might be to point out how this kind of theology has been dismissed and rejected by Christians throughout history. John Wesley, for example, who taught a form of Christian perfectionism at one point (unsurprisingly, when he was younger), later changed his position on the topic.

My guess is that other people on the site probably see the wackiness of what he’s writing and aren’t swayed by it. A smart, simple response will be gladly received by most people in the group therefore, but don’t let the group get focused on responding to everything he says. Don’t let the squeaky wheel get all the grease, in other words. You’ve got bigger fish to fry. Sorry for piling on the idioms!

The most compelling Biblical arguments against Christian perfectionism I can think of are:

  • Romans 7
  • 1 John
  • 1 Timothy 1:15

Martin Luther famously stated that the Christian is Justus et pecator (both righteous and a sinner). We have been declared righteous in Jesus; his righteousness has been accounted to us by grace through faith – and yet, we still sin.

When the Bible talks about salvation, it is important to note that it speaks of it in comprehensive terms: it says that we have been saved (past tense), we are being saved (present continuous tense), and we will be saved (future tense).

We have been saved (think: “It is finished”) from the penalty of sin by what Jesus did for us in the past. We are being saved (sanctification) from the power of sin as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” and yet “it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). And we will be saved, in the future, from the very presence of sin, when Jesus comes and saves us from the very presence of sin.

Romans 7

In Romans 7 Paul speaks about his experience of struggling with sin. Some in the Christian perfectionist circles will claim that Paul is writing about his life before his conversion, but that argument doesn’t hold much water because Paul speaks about his sin in the present tense.

1 John

In 1 John, John says things like, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8). 1 John is a favorite book, by the way, of Christian perfectionism advocates, because of its black-and-white language about righteousness, obedience, and sin. However, it is important to note that John is talking about a pattern of life, not about individual sins.

It’s about what you practice. Think about things you practice, and why you practice them: you practice the guitar, you practice your golf swing. Why? So you can do them better. A person who practices sin habitually and willfully truly needs to ask the question of if they are actually in the faith at all.

In Christ, we have become “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A sheep and a pig are two different creations. They both might fall in the mud on occasion, but the pig lives for the mud. The mud is what the pig dreams about, and the goal of its life is to get in that mud! A sheep, on the other hand, might fall in the mud, but that’s not where it wants to be. This is the essence of John’s point about sin and righteous living in 1 John.

I wrote something recently related to 1 John and the topic of Christian perfectionism. Check it out here.

1 Timothy 1:15

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

If you read through Paul’s descriptions of himself as he progressed in life and in relationship with Jesus, you’ll notice this:

  1. In Philippians 3, he wrote that according to the law, he was blameless.
  2. Later on, in 1 Corinthians 15:9, he describes himself as “the least of all the Apostles”
  3. Even later on in life, in 1 Timothy 1:15, he describes himself as the chief of all sinners.

As Paul progressed through life, he did not become more and more enamored with himself, but he actually saw himself as more and more of a sinner – yet one who was loved by God and a recipient of His grace.

The reason for this is because, the closer you get to God, the more you become aware of your shortcomings, much like how: the more light there is in the bathroom, the more clearly you see your blemishes in the mirror – and like how, the older you get and the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

The point is not that Christian maturity means thinking less and less of yourself, but that as you become more aware of your flaws, you are more thrilled by the grace and love of God as you realize more and more how much you need it!

The Danger of Christian Perfectionism

The great danger of Christian perfectionism theology is that it places an unbearable burden on a person, and it leads to either pride or despair.

If you tell someone that if they are really in the faith that they won’t sin anymore, then when they are doing well, and not falling into temptation, they will be puffed up with pride and look down on those whom they observe sinning. Conversely, when they (inevitably) do commit some sin, they will immediately be forced to question their own salvation, and if they are even saved at all.

The good news of the gospel is that our salvation is the work of God! It is based on what He did for you, not on the things that you do or don’t do. Even if you slip, the good news of the gospel is that He is holding onto your hand, and He won’t let you go!

Submit a Question or Topic

Thanks for these questions. If you have a question or topic, fill out this form: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

What Happened on Holy Saturday?

Holy Saturday is the name given to the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

As I explain in this post: Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up, in reality Good Friday was a Thursday, and Jesus was in the grave on Friday and Saturday. But what happened during that time?

He Descended to the Dead

The Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds – in continual existence since at least the 4th Century A.D. – contains a line which many people have found intriguing: it declares that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

Older translations of the original text into English sometimes translate this phrase as saying that Jesus “descended into Hell.”

Looking at the creed in ancient languages is interesting as the Greek text says: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which means: “descended to the bottom” – and the Latin text says: descendit ad inferos, the word inferos being translated as “Hell.”

More recent translations into English have chosen to say “descended to the dead” rather than “descended into Hell” as “the dead” would be more accurate biblically and theologically than “Hell.” The reason for this is based on a particular understanding of “Sheol” in the Old Testament and the Jewish mind, which was the dwelling place of all souls, being divided (according to Luke 16:19-31) into two parts: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades, AKA: Hell.

Abraham’s Bosom, we are told in Luke 16, was a place of comfort for those who died in faith, i.e. the “Old Testament saints,” such as those described in Hebrews 11, who died prior to the redemptive actions of Jesus, but died in faith that they would be “raised up to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35)

He Proclaimed What He Had Done, and Led Captives in His Train

In 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Peter tells us that Jesus’ spirit went to Sheol after his death on the cross but prior to his resurrection, and declared to the souls of the deceased there what he had accomplished in his life and death. This message would have been:

  1. A message of redemption and release from Sheol for those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemptive work of the Messiah (“He led captives in his train” – Ephesians 4:8)
  2. A message of condemnation for those held in the Hades/Hell portion of Sheol.

God Often Does His Greatest Work in the Dark

For the disciples, that first “Holy Saturday” would have seemed much less than holy. It would have felt like defeat and been perhaps the lowest point in their lives. Many of them, having left everything to follow Jesus, would have been wondering, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” – not to mention the fact that they were afraid that they would be next: that the Romans and Jewish leaders would likely come be coming to arrest and execute them as well.

And yet, in the awful silence of that day, God was doing a great work of redemption!

Remember: with God, silence is not absence. Sometimes when God seems most distant to us, is when He is accomplishing his most profound work.

That is the reminder of Holy Saturday: we can’t always see what God is doing.

May God bless you and give you rest in your soul this Holy Saturday!

See also:

Are the Anakim the Same as the Nephilim?

This past Sunday I taught a message from Numbers 14 and Joshua 14, about how Joshua and Caleb understood something about obeying God by faith: that just as we need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy physically, we need challenges and steps of faith in our walk with God in order to stay healthy spiritually.

Here’s a link to that message if you’d like to watch it or listen to it.

One issue that comes up in the text, which I didn’t address in the sermon is the question of whether the Anakim (the sons of Anak), mentioned in Numbers and Joshua as the giants in Canaan, are the descendants of the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. In Numbers 13:32-33, the 10 faithless spies claim that there are giants in the land of Canaan who are “from the Nephilim.” What does that mean?

Who are the Nephilim?

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Genesis 6:1-4

There are two main theories on who these Nephilim were:

Theory #1: The offspring of demons and human women

This theory, while perhaps seeming quite foreign to modern Westerners, has the support of extra-biblical Jewish literature. It interprets the above passage along these lines: the “sons of God” is a phrase used in the Bible to refer to angels, therefore the “sons of God” who had relations with the “daughters of men” which resulted in children being born means that these were fallen angels who manifested in physical form and had sexual relations with human women resulting in a race of half-human, half-demons – and that this is what, at least in part, precipitated the flood of God’s judgment in the time of Noah.

The challenges to this view are the question of whether it is possible for demons to have sexual relations with humans, resulting in offspring.

In Matthew 22:30, Jesus states that, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” However, this merely tells us that angels do not marry, it does not tell us whether or not they are capable of sexual relations with human beings, resulting in offspring.

This view is also interesting in that it seems to correspond with some other ancient stories of the “Titans” – a race of half-human, half-“gods” – who lived on Earth.

Some people see a possible connection with this in 2 Peter 2, where Peter says:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly

2 Peter 2:4-5

What’s interesting about this passage is that the word Peter uses for “hell” is the word “Tartarus” which was considered the deepest part of hell, reserved for fallen angels – or in Greek mythology, that reserved for the Titans. It is also possible that Peter is only referring to the judgment of fallen angels (demons) and not to any kind of unique race of mixed demon-human offspring, but it is interesting that it is tied to a discussion about the flood in Noah’s time.

Theory #2: The intermarrying of the godly line of Seth with ungodly peoples

This theory also has historical precedent, and states that the “sons of God” is a term which refers to the godly and messianic (AKA “kingly”) family line of Seth, because Genesis 4 ends with the words:

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

It is from the line of Seth that the Messiah will come, and some people interpret this to mean that there was an intermarrying of the godly family line of Seth with the ungodly family lines of others like Cain’s descendents, who turned away from the Lord, not only as individuals but as clans and societies. Intermarriage between people who follow God and those who don’t is forbidden, and thus – according to this interpretation – this was a further sign of the depth of depravity at that time: that even the godly people were becoming unfaithful to the Lord, hence the fact that Noah was the only godly person to be found.

Those who argue with this position would say that it makes no sense that intermarriage would so upset God that it would precipitate the judgment of the flood, and that it does not explain the existence of the Nephilim, who must have been very tall people.

In response, those who hold this position would say that what precipitated the flood was that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) God then states in Genesis 6:7 that He will blot out man from the earth, with the exception of Noah. In other words: the judgment of the flood was intended to blot out human beings, not to destroy a race of half-human, half-demons. Furthermore, they would argue that the statement about the Nephilim is simply an aside; it is merely stated that the Nephilim were on the Earth at this time during which the godly family line of Seth was mixing with the ungodly line of Cain – and this is not necessarily an “origin story” of the Nephilim.

Does Nephilim simply mean “giants”?

Another important factor in this discussion is the etymology of the word “Nephilim”. Genesis 6:4 never actually calls the Nephilim “giants”, but the Nephilim are understood to be giants because in Numbers 13:32-33, the giants in the land of Canaan are described as coming from the Nephilim.

Also, the Septuagint (Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible {AKA: Old Testament}) translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים (Nephilim) and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים (gibborim, “mighty men” or “men of renown”) in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες (gigantes, “giants”).[1] (It may be that the Septuagint translated Nephilim as “giants” because of the account in Numbers 13, though some think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant.[2]) (Source: [3])

If the word Nephilim simply means giants, then the statement in Numbers 13:32-33 that the Anakim are related to the Nephilim is easily understood, as simply meaning that they are giants.

The Nephilim and the Flood

One of the problems with the idea that the Anakim in Canaan are descended from the Nephilim in Genesis 6, is that in between Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 there was a giant flood that wiped out the entire population except for Noah and his immediate family.

This means that either:

  1. The flood in the time of Noah was local rather than universal, and therefore some Nephilim survived the flood
  2. What happened in the time of Noah with fallen angels having sexual relations with humans, producing half-human, half-demon offspring happened again after the flood
  3. The word nephilim is simply a general term for giants

The problem with the first option is that even if the flood was local rather than universal (which I don’t believe it was, and I the text seems makes it clear that it was not merely local), the point of the text seems to be that the Nephilim on the Earth at that time were destroyed in the flood either way. There is one other view on this, which states that perhaps a demon-child was able to survive the flood in the womb of one of Noah’s daughters, but this seems a bit far-fetched and has the same problem as the second option:

The second option brings up the obvious question of: if it could happen again after the flood, who’s to say it couldn’t happen now as well? Yet we have no evidence of any half-demon, half-human giants in the world today.

On the third option, if the word nephilim simply refers to giants in general, then it explains why Genesis 6:4 says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward.

What is the connection between the Anakim the Nephilim?

Again, there are a few possibly explanations here, but since I don’t consider the view that some Nephilim survived the flood, these are the three remaining possibilities:

  1. The spies in Numbers 13 were exaggerating, and saying that the giants they saw in Canaan (the sons of Anak, AKA: Anakim) were the Nephilim of Genesis 6 in order to scare the people of Israel into agreeing with them that they should not enter into the land and fight the battles.
  2. These were indeed half-demon, half-human offspring who resulted from sexual relations between demons and humans after the flood.
  3. The spies were simply using a word which refers to giants in general. This is the way the (Jewish, pre-Christian) translators of the Septuagint interpreted it, and this is reflected in the Textus Receptus which is the basis of the King James and New King James translations in English, which don’t use the word Nephilim in Numbers 13, but rather the word “giants,”

I lean towards explanations 1 and 3, seeing in explanation 2 the same problems listed above in the previous section.

Certainly this is a tangential issue and not one related to the core of biblical faith, but I hope this helps bring some clarity and help for those who have wondered about it.

What is the “Sin Unto Death,” and Why Should We Not Pray for It?

1 John 5:16-17 is a passage that many people have a difficult time understanding, and recently someone reached out asking if I could help them understand this passage.

If you ever have a question or a topic you’d like me to cover on this blog, fill out this form: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

Here’s the passage:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

1 John 5:16-17

The question this person asked was: “If there is a sin leading to death, why are we told not to pray for it?”

Physical Death or Spiritual Death?

Different interpretations of this passage center on the issue of whether the “death” John speaks about is physical or spiritual in nature.

Interpretation #1: Physical Death

If John is speaking about physical death, then the interpretation goes like this: Not all sins lead to physical death. If you see someone doing something that will hurt them physically, then pray for them. But if someone sins, and as a result of their sin they die, then there is no need to continue praying for them after they are physically deceased.

However, I find this interpretation lacking, because it does not take into account the broader context of what John has been talking about throughout his letter.

Interpretation #2: Spiritual Death

This is the interpretation that I find most convincing, because it is a conclusion based on what John has been saying throughout this epistle.

In this way, the sin that does not lead to death (that is, eternal death or damnation) is any sin that we commit that we are, by grace, capable of truly confessing and repenting from.

John Piper, in his article: What Is the Sin Not Leading to Death? says that in Vs 16 there is no indefinite article in the original Greek text – in other wards, it is talking about “sin” in general, not “a” particular sin specifically.

He goes on to explain:

We need to make sure that we see these two verses as part of the larger balancing act that John is doing in this letter. On the one hand, there’s a strong emphasis in 1 John that those who are truly born of God don’t go on sinning. On the other hand, John warns against misunderstanding that in a perfectionistic way as though Christians don’t sin anymore.

On the one side, you don’t keep on sinning if you’re born again. On the other side, you don’t ever stop sinning in this world. In other words, John is trying to strike a balance between the absolute necessity of the new birth, which necessarily gives a significant measure of victory over sin. That’s the one side. On the other hand, there’s the reality that we do in fact as Christians commit sins and can find forgiveness as we confess them.

John is striking the note firmly that we should not take anything he has said in a perfectionistic way that implies Christians don’t sin or that all sin leads to damnation. It doesn’t.

Christians do sin, and not all sin leads to damnation. But right there in the middle, verse 16, near the end of the verse, he puts in a disclaimer. He says, “When I tell you to pray for sinners I recognize that Jesus taught about unforgivable sin, and I recognize that Hebrews taught about Esau, and I do acknowledge that there is sin that does lead to death and damnation. It puts you beyond repentance. And I’m not talking about that.” That’s the point of that verse. “I’m not talking about that when I tell you to pray for those who have sinned.” He doesn’t tell us not to pray for such sin, he simply says, “That’s not what I’m talking about when I tell you to pray for sinners that God will give them life.”

I hope this explanation helps! It’s the one that makes the most sense given the context of what John writes about throughout the letter.

Thanks for reading and suggesting topics!

Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

mountains with crepuscular ray

A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

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