Fasting and Eating Disorders

In a recent podcast episode, I spoke with Conor Berry on the topic of fasting. You can listen to that episode here: The Purpose and Power of Fasting

In response to that episode, we received a few follow-up questions. 

Conor and I sat down to discuss some of these more nuanced points on the topic of fasting. You can hear the recording of our conversation here (or in the embedded player below), but here is one of the questions we received:

If someone has an eating disorder, can they still fast?

First of all, if you suspect you may be struggling with an eating disorder and need someone to talk to, please contact the Eating Disorders Helpline, where you can chat, call, or text with someone who can help.

A Few Facts About Eating Disorders

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA),

Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights. National surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men in America will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Eating disorders are serious, potentially life threatening conditions that can affect every organ system in the body. They are not fads or phases, and can have serious consequences for health, productivity, and relationships.

Please seek help if you or someone you care about is struggling in this area.

Can someone who has struggled with eating disorders participate in fasting?

Nick: I think that’s a really good question. What if your church is doing an all-church fast? Should we tell those who have a history of eating disorders, “Sorry, you can’t participate in this spiritual exercise and in the graces that might come through it”?

Conor: This is a very serious topic and it would be honest to say that it’s probably happening more in our own churches than we realize – whether it’s anorexia nervosa, or bulimia, because it’s often shrouded in secrecy by the person dealing with it.

Eating disorders tend to be connected with a feeling of shame concerning body image, or identity. It is definitely a heavy subject that is applicable to the subject of fasting because we’re talking about food.

What I would suggest is that we should seek to always have a healthy relationship between congregation and pastor, and an understanding of the Imago Dei, which means that we are created in the image of God. It is important to understand that our bodies were created by God and he declared them to be good, and therefore God sees you as his beautiful creation, who has so much value.

Recommendations

Conor: If someone were to come into my office after I gave a call to corporate fasting, and said, “Hey, I’m dealing with this now,” or maybe “I’ve dealt with this in the past,” and “I have an apprehension about moving into an activity of fasting,” of course I would always suggest that they talk to a medical professional first.

If a medical professional gives the go ahead, then, because of the fact that anorexia and bulimia have their foundation in shame and secrecy, I would suggest that we follow the practical structure that we set up in our last episode, of taking 25 hours (I really wouldn’t want to prescribe a fast longer than that, at least for my congregation, of sundown to sundown). And, I would suggest this person try this, not on their own, but in participation with another person.

In this way, it’s not you fasting alone, but a 25 hour intimate participation with that other person in prayer and constant conversation about the Lord, which will be a real opportunity for growth for both parties, in which they both have a desperate hunger for God, and are willing to do this together.

Finally, I would insist on participation in the culmination, or breaking of the fast, by moving into a time of feasting and thankfulness for the grace of God and what he has provided, after sundown.

So, if all of that is acceptable to the person, and they say, “Yes, I want to do this,” then I believe the grace of God is going to come into the parties’ participation together, corporately.

I wouldn’t prescribe this to a person individually, on their own, if they had a history of an eating disorder.

Nick: Certainly there are diverse histories and varying degrees of eating disorders, so I like the fact that you mention speaking with a physician and encouraging communication. I like that we can talk about the nuances of fasting, and give pastoral answers.

In an upcoming episode, I’m going to be interviewing Mike Neglia on the topic of gluttony, which is the other side of the coin from fasting. So keep an eye out for that.

Listen to the Discussion Here

Fasting Q&A Podcast Episode

Fasting Q&A: Eating Disorders & Alternative Forms of Fasting Theology for the People

In this Bonus Episode, Conor Berry and I discuss some questions we received regarding our previous episode on fasting: Can you fast from things other than food? What about people who have present or past eating disorders? Can they, or should they fast? Conor also mentions another resource in this episode on the topic of feasting: The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon If you find this episode interesting or helpful, please share it with others and leave a rating and review on your podcast app, as that helps other people discover this podcast and its content. Make sure to visit the Theology for the People blog at nickcady.org 

Can You Fast From Things Other Than Food?

In a recent podcast episode, I spoke with Conor Berry on the topic of fasting. You can listen to that episode here: The Purpose and Power of Fasting

In response to that episode, we received a few follow-up questions.

Conor and I sat down to discuss some of these more nuanced points on the topic of fasting. You can hear the recording of our conversation here (or in the embedded player below), but here is one of the questions we received:

Can you fast from things beside food?

Nick: My initial assumption had been that the answer is, Yes – you can probably fast from things other than food. This came from my background growing up with the practice of Lent, where you often hear people say things like, “I’m fasting from chocolate, I’m fasting from Netflix, I’m fasting from, running,” (and then it turns out that they weren’t actually a runner to begin with!).

But now, having looked into it, I’ve actually come to the conclusion that abstaining from things other than food may be a good thing to do, but fasting itself is actually a practice which is specific to abstaining from food for a set period of time.

Conor: Yeah, it’s interesting: We categorize fasting as a spiritual discipline, and when we think of the word discipline, we think of how Paul talks about disciplining my body so that I wouldn’t be under the power or the authority of anything, except the sovereignty of God.

And so we can say, “For the 40 days of Lent, I’m not going to eat chocolate, or I’m going to stay off of social media or Netflix, etc.” Yet, if we say that we only have Scripture as our defining cause for the topic of fasting, Scripture only shows that fasting has to do with not eating food or water for a specific period of time.

Once again, bringing the definition from Scot McKnight, that fasting is the natural response to a grievous or sacred moment, we choose not to eat as a means of inducing hunger. And so, my perspective on this is that to say, “I don’t want to eat chocolate, or I want to put social media aside to focus on God,” while that’s a wonderful thing, I would consider that to be under the category of “abstinence,” but not true, scriptural fasting.

Nick: One verse that comes to mind is in 1 Corinthians 7:5, where it says that a husband and wife should not withhold sex from their spouse, except for a time, for the purpose of prayer and fasting. That’s interesting because it doesn’t say that abstaining from sex is a form of fasting, rather it’s distinct from fasting. It’s not called “fasting from sexual intercourse,” it’s called abstaining from it – so that you can fast and pray.

Conor: I agree with you, it’s distinct from the discipline or act of fasting, but it has great application for our desire for holiness and intimacy with God.

All throughout church history, there have been ascetics, people who have devoted their lives to asceticism in order to find transcendence with God, and the act itself sometimes becomes the identity of the person rather than Christ. People are in awe of their discipline and assume the holiness of the person based upon the act, but that sometimes becomes the person’s identity, and not Christ. So there’s a danger to this as well.

Nick: Do you think there’s something unique about food that makes it the focus of this spiritual discipline?

Conor: Absolutely. Because the experience of food and the enjoyment of feasting is something that we’ve enjoyed even before the fall. When we think of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the Lord said, “This whole place is for you and for your pleasure,” so it’s not just for nourishment, it’s also for taste. And food plays an essential role, not only in our vitality and nourishment, but in our pleasure with God. Even taking the two elements of Communion, we’re using effectually food given by God as a means of worship and thankfulness to him. So yeah, food holds a particular significance.

Nick: When it comes to the idea of abstinence, someone might say, “I have. Improper relationship with this thing I’m doing, so I need to abstain from it, maybe for the purpose of breaking the control this habit or this practice has over me.” But with food, although overeating can certainly go to that extent, and that’s what we call gluttony, it’s also possible to have a healthy relationship with food, and it’s the regularity of eating and its necessity for our existence which makes it unique.

Conclusion

So, in summary: there are times when it would be right and good and advisable to abstain from something if you feel like maybe it’s gotten its claws into your heart, and you want to dedicate more time to seeking the Lord – but don’t call it fasting. Call it abstinence or abstaining, and let fasting be fasting.

Conor: I completely agree. In our previous episode, we looked at church history and the different motives people have had for fasting, and one was to individually fight against temptation. Augustine said that it’s good to fast as a means of developing a hunger for God that would be sovereign over the hunger for some of the temptations in your life.

Should you abstain from social media if it becomes an addiction? Absolutely, but I would be so bold as to say that you can abstain from it along with a time of fasting to say, “I’m abstaining against the temptation, and I’m fasting for more of a hunger for God at the same time.”

Stay Tuned for the Next Question: Eating Disorders and Fasting

In my next post, I will share our discussion on the question of whether it is advisable for someone with past or present struggles with eating disorders to participate in the practice of fasting. Are they disqualified from participating in this practice? What advice can we give to people struggling with this question?

That post is up next, so stay tuned.

Listen to the Discussion Here

Fasting Q&A Podcast Episode

Fasting Q&A: Eating Disorders & Alternative Forms of Fasting Theology for the People

In this Bonus Episode, Conor Berry and I discuss some questions we received regarding our previous episode on fasting: Can you fast from things other than food? What about people who have present or past eating disorders? Can they, or should they fast? Conor also mentions another resource in this episode on the topic of feasting: The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Capon If you find this episode interesting or helpful, please share it with others and leave a rating and review on your podcast app, as that helps other people discover this podcast and its content. Make sure to visit the Theology for the People blog at nickcady.org 

What is the Role of the Holy Spirit in Eternity?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics

Recently someone submitted this question:

Both God the Father and the Son have distinct and obvious eternal roles that we see played out in the Bible, with Jesus being more obvious, but as I was thinking through the role of the Holy Spirit in eternity, I couldn’t come up with anything concrete.
Could you give a brief overview of the roles of the triune persons of God as it pertains to eternity? I’m mostly interested in the Holy Spirit, but would love a pastor’s perspective on the other two also.

The “Ontological Trinity” and the “Economic Trinity”

There are two fields of discussion when it comes to the Trinity. The “ontological” and the “economic.” “Ontological” refers to who God is, i.e. that which pertains to being, whereas “economic” refers to what God does.

Specifically applied to the Trinity, study of the “ontological Trinity” is focused on those parts of the Bible which communicate that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet these three, while distinct persons, are one God. Study of the “economic Trinity” is focused on the passages in the Bible which tell us what each of these three persons does as their role in “the Godhead.”

So, ontologically, it is important to point out that eternality is part of God’s nature. God is eternal, and each person of the godhead is eternal. So, the role of God in eternity is merely a continuation of who God has been until now, and who God will forever be.

However, the question above is about the economics of the Triune God after this present age is over, and we have transitioned into what the Bible calls “the new heavens and new Earth.” What will the functions of the three persons of the Triune God be in “the age to come”?

The Role of the Son in the Age to Come

The Son, we are told, is currently seated at the right hand of the Father, and for eternity he will reign and rule as king over all of redeemed creation. (See Revelation 22:3)

Currently, Jesus is making intercession for believers, advocating for us, and is seated on a throne, but for eternity, all we really know is that he will be an eternal sovereign, ruling over a kingdom of righteousness and peace which will never end.

The Role of the Father in the Age to Come

Along with ruling over the redeemed creation from a heavenly throne, revelation tells us that God (not necessarily just the Father) will be a source of light, which will preclude the need for the sun to illuminate, since God himself will be our light.

The Role of the Holy Spirit in the Age to Come

The one thing that sticks out about the Holy Spirit’s role in eternity, is that, whereas the Father and the Son have a throne in the New Heavens and New Earth, the Holy Spirit does not (Revelation 22:3).

Beyond this, I can’t think of any verses which speak specifically about a role of the Holy Spirit in the age to come – but that is not surprising, and here’s why:

What we read regarding the economic Trinity mostly has to do with the work of God to redeem human beings. Remember, the Bible is a book about Jesus: who he is, and how he saves us.

Since the Bible is focused on the story of the salvation and redemption of humankind, it does not tell us very much about what God did before creating the world, nor does it tell us much about what God will do after the redemption of the world is complete.

“The Great Story Which No One on Earth has Read”

This reminds me of the final paragraph of C.S. Lewis’ The Final Battle, which is the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia series, which is full of allegories about biblical passages and teachings.

C.S. Lewis poetically describes “the age to come” in this way:

“…but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about what the three persons of the Trinity will do in eternity, because that is not the story which the Bible exists to tell.

God Will Do What God Did Before

Prior to the creation of the world, it is important to remember that God existed from eternity past. Without human beings to rescue, sanctify, and redeem, what did God do?

What we can be sure of, is that God was neither bored nor lonely.

From eternity past, the one God, who exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed as a mutually edifying and glorifying community unto himself. Creation, was God inviting us to join in the “perichoresis,” the eternal relationship which exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sometimes referred to as “the dance of God.”

In other words, in eternity, we can expect that God will do what God did before: delighting in himself, with each person fueling this mutually edifying and glorifying relationship.

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What Does It Mean When It Says “You are gods” in Psalm 82 & John 10?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics.

Recently someone wrote in asking about the meaning of John 10:34-36, where Jesus, having been accused of blasphemy for claiming to be God, responds by saying:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken— do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?

John 10:34-36

There are two schools of thought on this, which are related and are not mutually exclusive.

Viewpoint #1: “gods” = judges

First of all, this passage is interesting because it shows that Jesus had a high view of the Old Testament scriptures. He says that it is written in the “Law,” but then proceeds to quote from Psalm 82:1 & 8, showing that He believed the Psalms to be the inspired Word of God in the same way as the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible). Some people at this time, e.g. the Sadducees, only accepted the Pentateuch as the inspired Word of God, but Jesus spoke of the Psalms as being part of the canon of Scripture, and just as much “the Bible” as the Pentateuch.

Jesus’ main argument is that he should not be accused of blasphemy for calling himself the “Son of God” (see: What Does It Mean that Jesus is the “Son of God”?) since God himself had used the word “gods” to refer to the Jewish people in His inerrant Word.

The word “gods” (Elohim in Hebrew) can also mean “judges.” An example of this is found in Exodus 21:6 & 22:8, where the word translated “master” in English (because it refers to a human master), is actually “Elohim” in the Hebrew text… but since it is referring to a human master, it is understood that though the word for “elohim” is used, it is not talking about Yahweh, but about human “masters.”

E.A. Blum explains, in his commentary on the Gospel of John:

“Psalm 82 speaks of God as the true Judge (Ps. 82:1, 8) and of men, appointed as judges, who were failing to provide true judgment for God (Ps. 82:2–7). “Gods” in Psalm 82:1, 6 refers to these human judges. In this sense, God said to the Jews, You are gods. In no way does this speak of a divine nature in man. Jesus was arguing that in certain situations (as in Ps. 82:1, 6) men were called “gods.” The Hebrew word for God or gods is ’ělōhîm. This word is used elsewhere (e.g., Exodus 21:6; 22:8) to mean human judges. Since the inerrant Bible called their judges “gods,” the Jews could not logically accuse Him of blasphemy for calling Himself God’s Son since He was under divine orders and sent into the world on God’s mission.”

Blum, E. A. (1985). John. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 2, p. 312). Victor Books.

Viewpoint #2: “Living like gods”

C.G. Kruse explains another viewpoint, based on the rabbinic exegesis of Psalm 82:6-7:

The full text of Psalm 82:6–7 reads: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”

The statement ‘You are gods’ was understood in later rabbinic exegesis to be God’s word to the Israelites at Sinai when they received the law. God said to them, ‘You are gods,’ because in receiving the law and living by it they would be holy and live like gods. But because they departed from the law and worshipped the golden calf while still at Sinai, he said to them, ‘you will die like mere men’. The opening words of Jesus’ argument, ‘If he called them “gods”, to whom the word of God came’, suggest that he interpreted the quotation from the psalm in relation to the Sinai events as did later rabbinic scholars.

Jesus used the exegetical methods of his opponents to show they had no grounds for accusing him of blasphemy. 

Kruse, C. G. (2003). John: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, pp. 240–241). InterVarsity Press.

What Jesus is Not Saying

Jesus is not saying here that all human beings are divine – we are not.

Jesus is not downplaying his own divinity – he affirms it multiple times and in various ways throughout the Gospel of John.

Jesus is not saying that Psalm 82 was incorrect – just the opposite: he references one of the most confusing passages for modern non-Hebrew literate Bible readers, in order to make us dig in to seek understanding of that passage!

What Jesus was Doing

Jesus was masterfully diffusing a situation by using the very Scriptures and exegetical methods of his attackers, to show them they they were being inconsistent in their theological method.

For more on theological method, see: Theological Method: Sources of Theology and Why People Arrive at Different Conclusions About Matters of Faith & the Bible

At the same time, Jesus consistently claimed to be divine, in his seven “I Am” statements, for example.

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If you have a question or would like to suggest a topic for me to address here on the blog, click here: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

Reader Questions: Does the Bible Encourage People Who are Poor to Ask for Help?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

Does the Bible encourage people who are poor to ask for help, or does it put the onus on the rich to provide for the poor?

The Bible gives a pretty nuanced view of provision for the poor, which includes both proactive provision for the poor, while still requiring action on the part of the recipient.

For example, in Leviticus 19:9-10, farmers were instructed to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the poor could come and glean. So while the rich were called to sacrifice some of their profits to provide for the poor, the poor were still required to go and harvest the food for themselves. Rather than giving them flour, for example, those in need were required to harvest grain and grind it into flour themselves. If someone was unwilling to work, in this case, they would not eat – but provision was made for them, via sacrifice on the part of those who had enough, to be able to get what they needed to survive.

A similar sentiment is found in the Epistle to the Galatians, where in Galatians 6:2 it says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” but a few verses later, it says, “Each person will have to bear his own load.” (Galatians 6:5). The difference is that the “burden” mentioned in 6:2 refers to a crushing burden, whereas “load” in 6:5 refers to an individual’s burden of responsibility. So, we are called to help those who are facing burdens they are unable to bear on their own, yet with the goal of helping those people to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for themselves and their lives.

In 2 Thessalonians 3, we read an interesting passage:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

2 Thessalonians 3:10-12

For some reason, there were people in the Thessalonian church were unwilling to work, and were living off the generosity of others. Some believe that the reason for this attitude is because they believed it was more spiritual not to work, since they expected the imminent return of Jesus. While Paul encouraged them that Jesus could return at any time, they were encouraged to work in order to provide for themselves if they were able. Here again, we see the importance of providing for those in need while at the same time encouraging people to take initiative and responsibility to work if they are able.

So, to answer the question: The onus is first on those who have to help provide for the poor, no matter how or why they became poor. But this generosity is not to be done in order to create dependence, but rather to relieve a burden and encourage responsibility and independence.

Local Resource: Table of Hope Food Pantry

Table of Hope Food Pantry is a ministry which was born out of White Fields Community Church in Longmont, Colorado and serves Southwest Weld County, Longmont, and the surrounding communities by providing residents in need with nutritious food, the ability to become more self-sufficient, and hope for their future.

Table of Hope is open to anyone, no questions asked, and no ID required. For more information about Table of Hope, check out Table-of-Hope.com

What Does It Mean That “Whatever Does Not Proceed From Faith Is Sin”?

This question was recently submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

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. — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/whitefieldschurch/support

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!

The Heavenly Audience: What Changed in Heaven When Jesus Died and Resurrected?

Recently this question was submitted via the page on this site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic:

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?”

Job 38:4-7

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,

Hebrews 12:1

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.

I have written a detailed explanation of this here: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death and Resurrection?

So, what changed is that from that point, not only the angels, but those who had died in faith were brought into Heaven.

Thanks for the great question, and God bless you!

Reader Questions: Paul and the “Super Apostles”

I recently received this question:

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

The Teaching

The teaching you’re referring to is from a series we did at White Fields called “I Could Never Believe in a God Who _______”, in which we addressed many of the common hurdles people face in believing in and following Jesus. That message was: “I Could Never Believe in a God Who Does Not Answer My Prayers”

The Radio Show Podcast

I’m guessing you probably heard this message on our radio program: Be Set Free. We recently started podcasting the radio program, which means that you can subscribe to the podcast and never miss a broadcast; each day’s message will be delivered directly to your phone. And as of just recently, that podcast is available on Apple Podcasts as well – check it out here: Be Set Free Radio on Apple Podcasts

The Answer

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.

Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

If you have a question or would like to suggest a topic for me to address here on the blog, click here: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

Why Did Jesus Say that “No One Has Ascended Into Heaven?” Did He Forget About Elijah?

Recently this question was submitted by a reader (click here to submit a question or suggest a topic):

I was reading in John, and during Jesus’s discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus makes a statement that gave me pause, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13)

Immediately I thought, “Wait, what about Elijah, or potentially Enoch?” They may not have descended in the same way as Jesus, or had a special nature as he did, but they ascended physically and yet seem to be ignored in this exclusive statement.

Great observation! Here are some important things to consider, which can bring clarity to this statement from Jesus:

Which Heaven is Jesus Referring To?

In ancient thinking, the word “heaven” was used in three ways (and it often used in these same three ways in our modern vernacular as well).

  1. The “first” heaven = the sky, or the atmosphere, i.e. the place where birds and planes fly.
  2. The “second” heaven = outer space, or the stratosphere: the place beyond Earth’s atmosphere, where stars and other planets are located.
  3. The “third” heaven = the abstract use of the word, which designates not a geographical location, but the spiritual plane in which God and other invisible spirits dwell.

Paul the Apostle speaks of being caught up to the third heaven, in what was either a vision or perhaps even a near-death experience, in 2 Corinthians 12:2. Paul also speaks of the “heavenly places” in Ephesians as the place where Jesus is seated with the Father.

And yet, we know can surmise from different passages in the Bible, such as Luke 16 and others, that those who died in faith prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus did not go to “heaven” in the sense of the immediate presence of God, rather they went to Sheol, the dwelling place of the dead, where they awaited either the completion of their redemption or the final judgment of God.

For a detailed explanation of this, see: Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

In this case, it would seem that when 2 Kings 2:11 says “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” it means that his body was caught up into the sky, not that his soul was taken to the immediate presence of God.

This would make sense in light of the rest of the text in 2 Kings, in which the “sons of the prophets” who witnessed this take place insist that they go and recover the body of Elijah that was picked up in this whirlwind. With Elijah and Enoch, though their souls were taken from this Earth, they would have gone to “Abraham’s bosom” (the part of Sheol reserved for those who died in faith – see article linked above).

Jesus’ point in John 3:13 is that Nicodemus should listen to what he has to say about Heaven since no human person has ever gone to heaven, yet he (Jesus) is the only person who has come from Heaven to Earth, and is therefore uniquely qualified to give accurate insight and explanation into Heavenly realities.

“Ascended” versus “Taken Up”

Another possible explanation is that when Jesus says that he is the first who will “ascend” into Heaven, he is correct in the sense that he will ascend by his own power and volition, whereas Enoch and Elijah were “taken up” by God, not by their own power or will.

Hopefully these explanations helped. If you see anything I missed, please leave a comment – and keep on studying God’s Word and asking questions as you go!

Was Jesus Racist? Why Did He Call a Gentile Woman a Dog?

There is a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I received the following question:

Recently [a friend and I] were talking about the event in Mark where Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman and the way he interacts with her – which can seem very cold or harsh. We did also read, but not focus our discussion, on Matthew’s account of it. My student leans toward Jesus’s behavior representing a racist shading to his approach.

I was wondering if you could speak into this, but also it may give an opportunity to speak into how this affects our modern lives.

Great question. I know many people have found this passage puzzling or even disturbing.

The passage in question is found in Mark 7:24-30 and the story is also told in Matthew 15:21-28. It involves a time when Jesus went to the region of Tyre and Sidon, which is in modern-day Lebanon. During his time there, unsurprisingly, he encounters a woman who is a Gentile (non-Jew), who appeals to him as the “Son of David” (a Messianic title), and asks that he heal her daughter. Jesus initially rebuffs her request, saying that it would not be right for him to give the bread which belongs to the children to dogs. She pushes back, saying that dogs are willing to eat the crumbs which fall from the children’s table. Jesus is impressed by her faith and persistence and heals her daughter.

Dogs and Puppies

If you’ve ever been to developing countries, you may have noticed that there are two kinds of dogs: street dogs and pet dogs. One of the biggest challenges for me when I visit places like Ukraine or Mexico is that I like to run for exercise, but there are sometimes street dogs who instinctively chase after people who are running!

Street dogs are often dangerous and diseased. They present a real threat to anyone walking down the street. Pet dogs, on the other hand, are companions who can become part of a family: “fur babies”!

This same distinction existed in Jesus’ time. In the Middle East at this time, especially because of the way that waste was disposed of in open dumps, there were packs of feral street dogs who roamed the streets and presented a very real danger to the people. On the other hand, people also kept dogs as pets, and part of the family.

The Jewish people were in the habit of referring to Gentiles (pagan, non-Jews) as “dogs” – essentially referring to them as “street dogs” who were diseased and dangerous, and therefore to be avoided. As you can imagine, this kind of thinking would have been entrenched in the minds of Jesus’ disciples, having grown up as Jews in Israel.

So when Jesus refers to this woman as a “dog” – part of what he is doing is playing into the Jewish culture of that day – which would have been held by many of his disciples – which considered the Gentiles to be “street dogs.” However, instead of using the common word for “dogs,” Jesus uses the word for “pet dogs” or “puppies.” By doing so, think about what he is saying: he is essentially saying, “Yes, many people where I’m from (including some of my disciples) might consider you a diseased and dangerous street dog, but I view you as a pet dog, i.e. one who can become a beloved part of the family.”

By saying this, Jesus was challenging the way that his disciples thought about Gentile people. They would have been looking around there in Tyre, wondering, “Why have we come here to these ‘dogs’ – these filthy, disease ridden people? And Jesus is saying, “No, these are people who can become a beloved part of the family.”

Was Jesus Ethnocentric?

In Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus states that he has come to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Does that mean that Jesus was ethnocentric, or perhaps a Jewish nationalist?

By calling this woman a “pet dog” he was insinuating that she could live in “the house” and be part of “the family.” These latter two metaphors are used throughout the Bible to describe the people of God. Following the metaphor, Jesus is describing that she, as a Gentile (not part of God’s covenant nation of Israel) could be brought into the house and become a member of the family. This is similar to what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 11, where he talks about how Gentiles have been “grafted in” to the “olive tree” of God’s people, which began with Israel.

God’s plan for salvation, throughout the Bible was for the whole world. In John 3:16, Jesus makes it clear that his mission is a global mission, for God so loved the world.

However, God’s plan for global evangelization was to work through Israel to the world. Israel was to be God’s missionary people, a light to the nations. In fact, in Deuteronomy, God tells them that the purpose of the Law of Moses, was so other nations would see who their God was by observing the goodness of those Laws. Israel was to be a lighthouse to the nations. This is why the Psalms and the Prophets talk about how the nations will rejoice, and the nations will come to the Lord. The word “nations” is synonymous with Gentiles.

However, many times Israel fell short of this, becoming ethnocentric and nationalistic, and taking their “chosen status” as a mark of superiority over others instead of what it was meant to be: the mark of them being chosen to carry out God’s work of bringing light to the Gentiles.

Jesus’ focus was to Israel, because it was through Israel that God wanted to reach the world. He had come as the Jewish Messiah and in fulfillment of the Jewish ceremonial system: as the ultimate prophet, priest and sacrifice, to fulfill all that was written in the Hebrew Scriptures. After his resurrection, Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel to every creature, all the nations, and to take the gospel from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria(!), and to the ends of the Earth.

In the ancient world, it was common for each nation, and sometimes for each town or tribe, to have their own God. However, the God of the Bible claimed to be the God of all the world, and Jesus claimed to be the Savior of all the world. He was not just one of many ways to come to God, he was the way, the truth, and the life – and no one can come to the Father besides through Him. (John 14:6)

This was considered scandalous in the Roman Empire, where their governing mentality was that anyone can believe anything they want as long as they don’t claim that their god or religion is right and somebody else’s is wrong. That is very much like today’s modern Western culture, actually! But the Christians could not comply with this: the God of the Bible is not just a local deity, but the creator of the entire universe, and Jesus was the savior of the entire world.

Jesus’ focus on Israel was a missional strategy and calling, not a qualitative judgment on either Israel or other nations. In fact, multiple times in the Gospels, Jesus points out how a Gentile showed more faith that those in Israel.

What Does this Mean for Us Today?

There is no place for racism or ethnocentrism with God. This is not to say that you cannot or should not be a patriot, or someone who loves your country. What it means is that we recognize that other nations are made up of people created in God’s image, who have the same intrinsic value and worth. Since they are loved by God, they should be loved by God’s people. There is no place for any sense of superiority or disdain, when we recognize that we were also “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind, but God…made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:3-4)

In Christ, we are now part of a new humanity, the “family of God,” in which there is no longer Jew nor Greek, and we will be part of that great multitude in Heaven made up of every tribe, tongue, and nation, which will worship before the Throne. To be chosen by God is to be chosen to be part of His mission to bring the truth of His love and grace to the world.