Tag Archives: resurrection

What Is the Christian’s True Hope in Death?

My father-in-law, Albert Mast, is nearing death. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us who are nearest to him. It sounds strange to say it, and stranger still to experience it, but we are waiting for him to die. I waited beside his bed for some four hours last night, then one of his brothers waited till morning. I think Albert’s been waiting longer than any of us.

While we wait, we think. My wife Zonya’s thoughts, along with the thoughts of many in her family, seem to be drawn mostly to the past, reflecting on memories of Albert from before his illness turned much worse about five years ago. Since I have fewer memories of Albert from before that time, and since I may have opportunity to speak publicly after his passing, my thoughts are wandering more to the future than to the past.

What will happen to Albert when he dies? What will he experience? What should he hope to experience? He’s lived in a crippled body for so long; what measure of relief will he experience immediately? What surprises might he experience? To what extent is his hope shaped according to the biblical revelation, and to what extent has it been shaped by gospel songs we sing and by that vast stock of traditional Christian phrases that reveal and drive our popular theologies?

Don’t worry. I’m not on a campaign to change my father-in-law’s theology at this point. I’ve read some Scriptures to him (1 Cor. 15) and prayed with him, but this is not the time for theological education. His hope is fixed on Jesus, and that’s more than sufficient for his journey ahead! But for those of us who will remain, I think a better understanding can lead to a fuller hope, a more expansive vision of what lies ahead. So here are a few thoughts while I wait.

A question: When Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2), what was the joy that he was anticipating? What anticipated joy gave him such great endurance? Was Jesus anticipating “dying and going to heaven”? Was he eager to “spend eternity in heaven with God”?

I’m certain Jesus was indeed eager to return to the presence of his Father, but I think such phrases miss a crucial element of the joy that fueled his endurance. Hebrews summarizes Jesus’ reward by saying that he “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” This phrase does not mean merely that Jesus is in the presence of God. Rather, it means that he is reigning with God. So, when did Jesus begin to reign? On Friday evening, immediately after he cried “It is finished” and gave up his spirit? Sometime on Saturday, while his body lay in the grave? Or on Sunday, after the stone was rolled from the tomb?

I think Paul summarizes the NT answer to this question well: “[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:20). In other words, Jesus was granted authority to reign not on Friday, not on Saturday, but on Sunday morning–or maybe at his ascension about 40 days later.

What is very clear is that “the joy that was set before Jesus,” the joy that fueled his endurance, was not something that he anticipated would happen on Friday night or on Saturday. The joy that fueled Jesus’ endurance was the joy of his upcoming resurrection and all that would flow from it. 

We can see this, too, in Jesus’ repeated prophecies of his own suffering. Each time he told his disciples of his impending death, it was all bad news until the final line: “and he will be raised on the third day” (Matt. 17:23; 20:19; etc.). Never do we read anything like, “and he will go to heaven to be with God.” As true as that was, Jesus didn’t mention it. It wasn’t on his radar. The focus of his hope was his upcoming resurrection. I simply cannot imagine Jesus being satisfied with “going to heaven to be with God” on Friday without also being “raised on the third day”! The very idea is so strange that, if you’re like me, you’ve never even thought of that possibility before today.

If all that is true, then what about our own hope in death? I’d like to suggest that it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so. I’ll say that again: I think it is just as strange for us to focus our hopes on “going to heaven to be with God” when we die as it would have been for Jesus to do so.

Here’s a challenge: Do a word search in the NT for “heaven,” and see if you can find any passages that are anything like “go to heaven when you die.” See if you can find any passages that invite the Christian to set his hopes on going to heaven after death. Then do another search, a search for “resurrection,” “raised,” and all the other related words you can think of. See how many pages of passages you can find describing the hope that awaits the Christian in the coming resurrection, at Christ’s return. I did such searches several years ago, while preparing for Easter sermons, and I’ve never recovered. (Here is where I must also thank N.T. Wright and Randy Alcorn for starting me down this path and surprising me with new hope–see here and here.)

Millions of saints who have believed in purgatory have faced a pleasant surprise after death: They have found themselves immediately with Jesus, with no need to suffer long years in purgatory! But some of us who have rightly rejected purgatory have set ourselves up for a less pleasant surprise: If we think we are going straight to our full eternal reward immediately after death, we will suddenly discover that we need to “wait a little longer” (Rev. 6:11) for Christ’s return, bringing our resurrection and the final judgment. This is a less significant error than purgatory—but also a less pleasant surprise. Yes, it is “far better” to leave our bodies and be with Jesus (Phil 1:23). But let’s “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13) and “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18).

Much should be said about why this clarification of our hope matters. Perhaps the most important thing to mention is that a hope fixed on “going to heaven when you die” tends to be more self-centered than a hope fixed on Christ’s return and the resurrection and the restoration of all things. The former focuses on personal salvation; the latter on cosmic salvation. The former focuses on us going to be with Jesus; the latter focuses on Jesus coming to be with us and with his entire creation. I’m sure many selfless saints have fixed their hopes on “crossing the river” to see Jesus face to face and meet their loved ones. But I think a hope fixed on Christ’s return helps us see much more of the glory of Christ!

A bigger vision of a bigger Christ, a greater hope that fuels a greater endurance. I’m sold. Where are you pinning your hopes?

I’ll end my polished thoughts here and invite you to respond in the comments below. But I’ll also post the Scriptures I was mediating on today, along with my observations about four things I think we can learn about from each passage: death, afterdeath, resurrection, and implications for us now. Many more passages could be cited, but these alone are enough, I think, to shift the focus of our hopes from after death to the resurrection to come.


Afterdeath and Resurrection – Scriptures Describing the Christian’s True Hope

 Note: I am using the term afterdeath rather than afterlife for the intermediate state (between our death and Christ’s return) because afterlife is potentially misleading. For the Christian, though death brings an end to the natural life of our bodies, our life continues and then blossoms into fullness after death. Eternal life is unending, so there is nothing that comes “after” life for the Christian.


2 Timothy 4:6-8

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Death: Death is the time of departure, the end of the fight, the end of the race, the end of the fight/race of preserving the true faith from attack and corruption. (It could also be called an offering, at least if it involves the suffering accompanying a martyr’s death, as with Paul’s suffering and impending death.)

Afterdeath: No more fight, race, or faith-keeping. Time of waiting for final rewards.

Resurrection: Christ’s appearing on that Day, the day of judgment, is when the crown of righteousness will be given.

Now: We love and long for Christ’s appearing, willingly suffering for Christ as we pin our hopes on that Day.


Philippians 1:21-24:

21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

Death: When we die we no longer remain in the flesh. We depart from fellow believers and our time of labor and serving others in gospel ministry ends.

Afterdeath: Christians are with Christ in a fuller way than we presently are. (Cf. Stephen in Acts 7:59: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and Jesus’ words to thief on cross in Luke 23:43: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”) They rest from their labors. Therefore, the afterdeath is far better than remaining in our corruptible flesh. Yet it is a time of separation from earthly saints.

Resurrection: Paul says nothing about the resurrection in this passage. Later in the same book he does (3:10-14, 20-21), and notice how he makes it the centerpiece of Christian hope:

“10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus… 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Now: For us to live is Christ—we live Christ-shaped lives, imitating him in suffering service for his sake, laboring for the good of others.


Revelation 6:9-11:

9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

Death: Can come through martyrdom, unjustly, because of our faithfulness to the word of God for the witness we have borne. Yet even this kind of death is “numbered” and overseen by God. Yes, death is our enemy. But every Christian dies under God’s watchful eye.

Afterdeath: At least for some (martyrs), a time of intense longing for God to bring final justice on the earth. Saints are crying, “How long?!” just as the ancient psalmists did. They are conscious. They can speak with God. They experience the passage of time. They remember their earthly lives and have a least some awareness of what is currently happening on earth (cf. 1 Sam. 28:16-19; Rev. 18:20; 19:1-5)—at least that suffering and wickedness is continuing. Tears are seemingly not all wiped away until the coming of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:4). Yet saints now in God’s presence also receive God’s comfort—purity (Rev. 3:4-5; 7:9-14; 19:8) and glory as symbolized by a white robe, and the assurance that it will be only “a little longer” until God judges evil and rescues his people. Note: these robes are clearly metaphorical in Revelation (“washed… and made white in the blood of the Lamb,” 7:14) and do not indicate that saints in the intermediate state possess bodies.

Resurrection: Not mentioned directly, but the joint-event of the final judgment is presented as the hope of the saints.

Now: Endure faithfully as witnesses for Christ.


2 Corinthians 5:1-10:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Death: Our tent (body) is destroyed; our time of being in the body and away from the Lord ends.

Afterdeath: We are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Sight begins to replace faith. Yet it is still a time of waiting for our final clothing. (Vs. 3-4 are difficult. Perhaps they suggest that during afterdeath, as now, we will still experience something of the shameful nakedness of Adam as we wait for our final glorious bodies and the full restoration of all that was lost at the Fall; see Scott Hoffman NIVAC. But Murray Harris NIGTC thinks the “nakedness” comments are rather designed to refute the Corinthian doubts about bodily resurrection during the eternal state, as in 1 Cor. 15.)

Resurrection: We will put on our heavenly dwelling, our eternal bodies, our final and full clothing. This will happen at the judgment seat of Christ (which happens at Christ’s return) we each receive what is due for what we have done while in our bodies. All that is mortal will be swallowed up by life!

Now: We are only partially clothed, and we groan for our “overgarments”—our eternal bodies; we don’t yet see all we long for, but we are of good courage as we walk by faith, because we already have the Spirit as a guarantee of our eternal bodies to come.


1 Corinthians 15:20-26:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

Death: Experienced by all descendants of Adam; a result of the Fall, an enemy that has not yet been fully destroyed.

Afterdeath: A sleep. This was a common way of referring to death, used by pagans, Jews, and Christians alike, whether or not anyone believed in a coming resurrection (Green, Thessalonians, 217). Perhaps this term was used as a way of expressing the fact that we can’t communicate with the dead, just like we can’t communicate with people who are sleeping. Or maybe it was just a pleasant term to soften the ugliness of death. Most important: It does not indicate that those who are dead are unconscious (which would contradict other texts like Luke 16:19-31 or Rev. 6:9-11). Although it was used by all kinds of people, it is sometimes used in Scripture to insinuate that death isn’t the final end (Dan. 12:2; Mark 5:39). Therefore, even though the term in its original usage doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the afterlife, it is a doubly-fitting term for Christians: death, like sleep, is a temporary time of waiting that will be followed by an awakening on the resurrection morning.

Resurrection: All who are belong to Christ will be made alive at his coming—they will receive incorruptible, spirit-powered bodies. Then, at the end, death itself will be destroyed.


In Conclusion: Being with Christ is “Far Better,” But Sharing in Christ’s Resurrection is Our True Comfort and Hope

The message we use to comfort each other:

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The place where our hope is fixed:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ… 13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3-7, 13)


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Resurrection Now! Seated with Christ in Heavenly Places

(Old Facebook Post – Slightly edited and shared April 3, 2015)

Since I expect to take a blogging holiday this weekend, I thought I’d share a resurrection post now before I leave. If you are troubled by a resurrection post that comes on Good Friday, well, I guess you can stop reading now!

Or, better yet, receive this as a parable: Just as this resurrection blog post has broken unexpectedly into your present from the future, so the blessings of Christ’s resurrection break into our lives now, long before our bodies die. Resurrection now! Or, to use theologian-speak: inaugurated eschatology! In the book I reviewed Wednesday, the chapter on Ephesians and Colossians is entitled “Heaven Can’t Wait.” Well, I can’t either, so here’s a post from Ephesians on how Jesus’ resurrection carries us to heaven, right here and right now.

This post is actually a re-post from something I shared on Facebook over a year ago, but good news like this never gets stale. God bless you as you meditate on Christ’s death and resurrection this weekend!


“Heavenly places” is a strange term that is found repeatedly throughout Ephesians. Contrary to what is sometimes suggested, this term does not refer to the cozy feeling we experience when we gather in a holy huddle as believers within our holy sanctuaries in our sacred church buildings (my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I write such phrases). Nor does it refer primarily to some after-death experience of “going to heaven when we die.” Let’s examine Paul’s use of the term to seek a more accurate understanding.

Here’s my plan: First, I’ll post all the passages in Ephesians where this term is found. Second, I’ll make a (very incomplete) list of observations about these passages. Third, I’ll summarize from Acts why this was relevant to the church at Ephesus. And fourth, I’ll quote a couple commentators conclusions about the term “heavenly places.” Let’s begin!

“Heavenly Places” and “Heaven(s)” in Ephesians

Here, for your meditation, are the five times where Paul uses the term “heavenly places” (actually a single Greek word) in Ephesians. I will also include the four times where Paul uses the related term, “heaven(s).” (All quotations are from the ESV.)

 Ephesians 1:3-10:

“3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

Ephesians 1:16-23:

“16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, …that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Ephesians 2:1-10:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Ephesians 3:8-12:

“8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”

Ephesians 3:14-15:

“14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family [or ‘fatherhood’] in heaven and on earth is named…”

Ephesians 4:7-14:

“7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,

‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.’

9 (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Ephesians 6:9:

“9 Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

Ephesians 6:10-20:

“10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”

Observations about Heavenly Places in Ephesians

This is what I think the previous passages suggest about the terms “heavenly places” and “heaven(s)”:

1. A variety of persons are said to be, right now, in these heavenly places: rulers, authorities, powers, dominions, and spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; I take this to refer, at minimum, to demonic forces); Jesus (Eph. 1:20; 2:6; 4:10; 6:9; perhaps Eph. 1:3); and all believers who are “in” Christ (Eph. 2:6; perhaps Eph. 1:3; 6:12).

2. Warfare is waged in these heavenly places between God/believers and the forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).

3. There are “higher” and “lower” positions within these heavenly places, so that Christ is said to be “far above” the other inhabitants of the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20-21; 4:10).

4. Christ is “seated” in heavenly places—language that suggests ruling from a throne (Eph. 1:20; 2:6).

5. By virtue of our being “in Christ,” believers are also said to be “seated” in the heavenly places and thus “above” the forces of evil (Eph. 2:6), so that we can fight these forces “in the strength of [the Lord’s] might” (Eph. 6:10).

6. Christ’s exalted place within the heavenly places was secured through the power God exercised in his resurrection and ascension (Eph. 1:20; 2:5-6; 4:10), and now that power is now available on behalf of believers (Eph. 1:19; 6:10-13).

7. The battle that the forces of evil wage against believers involves things like “the passions of the flesh” (Eph. 2:1-3), “craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14), and all kinds of things that oppose the gospel and its advance (Eph. 6:10-20).

8. God’s purposes for the believer in this warfare involves things like being “holy and blameless” and being united with Christ (Eph. 1:4, 10), experiencing resurrection power (Eph. 1:19), walking in good works rather than after the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2, 10), demonstrating God’s manifold wisdom to the forces of evil (Eph. 3:10), receiving church leaders as gifts designed to shape the body into the image of Christ (Eph. 4:10-12), exercising leadership as one subservient to our “Master… in heaven” (Eph. 6:9), and waging warfare in the Lord’s might, the armor of God, all kinds of prayer, and the proclamation of the gospel (Eph. 6:10-20).

More could be observed, but this suffices to show that the concept of “heavenly places” is somewhat similar to how we today speak of “the spiritual world.” Paul is saying that believers, by virtue of their being united with Christ and participating in his resurrection power and authority, can successfully wage warfare right now against the forces of evil and live holy and blameless lives as children of God.

It is also important to notice that this successful warfare is only possible as believers work together as one body composed of many diverse gifts. The promise of resurrection power against the forces of evil is given to the unified church, not primarily to isolated individuals. This is evident from Paul’s use of plural pronouns, which are hidden in most English translations (for example, see Eph. 2:16-20; 6:10-20). Thus Paul covets the prayers of the Ephesians to help him experience supernatural boldness as he engages in the spiritual warfare of proclaiming the gospel.

Spiritual Warfare in Ephesus: Data from Acts

It is instructive to consider Paul’s emphasis on spiritual warfare in light of what Acts records about his ministry in the city of Ephesus. (Acts 19 is well worth reading now!) At Ephesus:

1. Paul emphasized the importance of not merely repenting of sins, but of being baptized “into” Christ. (Remember the “in Christ” emphases of Ephesians.)

2. Paul waged spiritual warfare by “reasoning and persuading… about the kingdom of God” and by healing the sick and casting out evil spirits.

3. The seven sons of Sceva attempted to imitate Paul’s exorcisms, with disastrous results.

4. Many books of magic were burned by new believers.

5. Demetrius and other idol-makers stirred up a riot against Paul.

Clearly, the Ephesians were used to spiritual warfare! Paul’s reminders about the authority they possessed in Christ and the identity of their true opponents (demonic, not human) were timely.

“Heavenly Places” in Commentaries

Here are some summaries by commentators on the topic of “heavenly places” in Ephesians. First, from Harold W. Hoehner (Ephesians, Baker Academic, 168-70.)

Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) Buy on Amazon “The word [“heavenly places”] in classical Greek [before NT Greek] can refer to the place where the gods dwell and from which they come or… it can be used synonymously with God… [One author, Caragounis, suggests that the term ‘heaven(s)’] begins with the air space where birds fly and continues all the way up to God’s throne, while [the term ‘the heavenly realms’] refers to the higher layers of space, from God’s throne down to the sphere where cosmic powers reside and operate… Believers operate simultaneously in two realms: they live in their bodies on earth (Eph 3:1; 6:10-20) but their spiritual enrichment is from the heavenlies (1:3) and their struggle is not with flesh and blood but with spiritual foes in the heavenlies (6:12; cf. 3:10)… In receiving the spiritual benefit from the heavenly places it is in the midst of satanic attack and interference. The spiritual benefits for the believers are from the heavenlies and the unbelievers’ opposition to the believers find their source in wicked spiritual leaders who also reside in the heavenlies (6:12). In other words, the struggles in the heavenlies are also played out on earth.” (emphasis added)

And from Clint E. Arnold (Ephesians, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, 78.)

Ephesians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on New Testament) Buy on Amazon “’In the heavenly places’… should probably be… interpreted metaphorically as ‘the spiritual dimension’ or ‘the unseen world of spiritual reality’… Paul seems to be using the term… in the sense of ‘the heavenlies’ as a sphere of spiritual blessings to which believers now have access as well as the realm populated by evil spiritual powers. Thus, the term might be best understood as ‘the spiritual realm.’” (emphasis added)

And some more commentary by Arnold (496-98):

“What happened in Ephesus [as described in Acts 19] could have taken place in virtually any city of the Roman empire (and beyond)… What made Ephesus unique is that this city had a distinct reputation in antiquity as a place where magical arts flourished. This suggests that believers in the young Christian congregations in and around Ephesus had experience with these sorts of practices. The many new believers who have streamed into the churches since Paul was last there probably also struggled with renouncing these practices and embracing Christ fully…

“All of the means that they had formerly used to protect themselves, their households, their livestock, and their crops from hostile spiritual powers have now been unmasked as evil and contrary to the kingdom of Christ. What could they do to protect themselves against spiritual forces of evil?

“Paul eloquently addresses this question in Ephesians… There are four [misprint?] essential aspects of Paul’s teaching about the powers:

“(1) The superiority of the power of God and the supremacy of Christ

“(2) Believers have access to divine power and authority over this realm by virtue of their union with Christ

“(3) A new perspective on the powers. The Gentile readers had been accustomed to making distinctions between good and evil spirits… But Paul commends them to only one Spirit (4:4)…

“(4) A new perspective on the purpose of spiritual power… [believers possess spiritual power not for self-exaltation or merely self-protection, but for holy living, building up the church in love, and spreading the gospel]

“(5) God will ultimately subdue all of the rebellious powers through Christ… (1:10)”

Amen! That’s “Resurrection Now” for the Christian. Now, may we live “in Christ” in such a manner “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”!

Share your insights in the comments below.


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Which New Testament Church Practices Are Normative for Today?

(Old Facebook post, lightly revised 7/23/2016.)

Facebook reminded me that I wrote this post three years ago. I wish I had more time for such study and writing today. But I am thankful that I am now living what I wrote then more fully than ever before. Prayers are welcome as I prepare to teach tomorrow (the Lord’s Day) at our little church (in a friend’s house).


How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? That is, how do we know, when reading of what the New Testament church did, whether the church today should imitate them? (To be clear, I am not asking about NT commands; that is another valid question for another time.)

Test Cases: When and Where the Church Gathers

For example, when and where should the church today gather to worship? Let’s talk about when first. The NT church commonly met on the Lord’s Day. Yes, early in the book of Acts we read of the church gathering “day by day.” But the history of the early church shows that gathering on the Lord’s Day rapidly became the standard practice of the early church. This practice has remained the norm for most of the world-wide church to this day. Is this simply a matter of tradition or preference? Or does this example carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

Before we answer, let’s consider the second part of our question: Where should the church gather to worship? Again, while early in Acts we read of the church gathering in the temple, the pattern of the rest of the NT becomes clear: the early church normally gathered for worship in private homes (and sometimes also in public spaces). The history of the early church clearly shows that this practice became the near-universal norm for the first several hundred years of the church. In fact, church historians regularly report that Christians built no buildings specifically for worship gatherings during the first several hundred years of the church. Since the time of Constantine, however, the regular practice of most of the church has been to build special “church buildings” for worship. So again we ask, is the NT example simply a matter of tradition or preference, or does it carry a stronger force, obliging us to follow the practice of the early church?

We imitate the NT practice for when the church meets, but not for where it meets. Why? The contrast between these examples gives us an opportunity to evaluate our theological understandings. It should cause us to scratch our heads and sift our assumptions. But first, let’s examine the historical and theological evidence for both NT church practices a little more closely.

Examining Historical Data

Again, let’s address the when question first. By my count, there are two places in the NT where we read of the church gathering on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Besides this, we also read of John being “in the Spirit” (though presumably alone in exile) on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10). Judging by later historical evidence, this was likely a reference to the first day of the week. In addition, the disciples were gathered on the first day of the week when Jesus appeared to them. This happened twice, judging by John’s idiomatic expression “eight days later.” But it could be argued that this hardly counts, because during these post-resurrection weeks the disciples were gathered most every day! If I missed one or two references in my summary here, the point remains the same: we have only a handful of NT references to the church meeting on the Lord’s Day.

In contrast, the host of references and allusions to the church gathering in private homes is too long to summarize properly in a paragraph. For a list of only the clearest evidence, see Acts 2:46; 12:12; 20:8; Romans 16:5; 1Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15 and Philemon 1:2. For example, four of these references speak of “the church in so-and-so’s house.” In addition, given the clarity of this evidence, a range of other references also appear to fit the house church pattern: Acts 8:3; 20:20; Philippians 4:22; 1Timothy 5:13; 2Timothy 3:6 and 2 John 1:10 (more could be added). For example, Acts 8:3 speaks of Paul “entering house after house” as he searched for Christians. 2 John 1:10 warns not to “receive [a false teacher] into your house.” The internal and external evidence is beyond dispute: the normal practice of the NT church was to gather for worship in private homes. In fact, if we look at the NT historical data alone, the evidence for house churches is much stronger than the evidence for Lord’s Day worship.

So, what should we do? Today the typical American church gathers on the Lord’s Day, but not in homes. In fact, the average American Christian (including the average Mennonite) would be quite uncomfortable if “church” was switched to any day besides Sunday. But many of the same people are rather suspicious of those who gather in homes for worship. Are we inconsistent here? Or is there a theological distinction between the two examples that I am missing?

Examining Theological Purposes

Here is one factor that I have delayed mentioning: the Lord’s Day is called the Lord’s Day because it was on this day that our Lord rose from dead. Church history clearly shows that the reason the church met on the first day of the week was because they wanted to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. In addition, it appears that the Holy Spirit was first poured out on a Sunday (the Pentecost of Acts 2). Indeed, the first day of the week (sometimes called the eighth day) was the beginning of the new creation. No other day of the week has been graced with such a high honor! It can be argued from this theological symbolism that there is great value in meeting on the Lord’s Day. Every time we gather on the Lord’s Day we are (or should be) reaffirming our faith in our risen Lord and celebrating the outpouring of the Spirit.

No such rich theological meaning is tied up with meeting for worship in houses. Right? Not so fast.

First, we should note in passing that the NT nowhere mentions the above theological motivation for gathering on the Lord’s Day; this connection is only found in later historical writings. It is almost certain, however, that the NT church shared this theological understanding. (This is an example of how historical study can help us understand the Bible better.)

Second, neither persecution nor poverty can explain the practice of house churches. Persecution, though severe at times, was sporadic and localized during most of the first three centuries. And while many Christians were poor, others (such as Erastus the city treasurer and members of Caesar’s household) would have possessed the funds to build church buildings, much as the Roman officer who built a synagogue in Jesus’ day (Luke 7:1-5). Yet, for nearly three hundred years Christians were “one of the few religious groups at the time that did not make use of some sort of sacred buildings or structures” (Rad Zdero, author of the helpful brief book The Global House Church Movement).

Third, we should not overlook the ubiquitous NT references to imagery of the church as a household, a family. Here, again, the evidence is too overwhelming to properly demonstrate in a paragraph. As Paul S. Minear writes in his classic work Images of the Church in the New Testament, “the salutation ‘brothers’ was in the New Testament the most natural (and therefore most quickly conventionalized) way to address fellow Christians or a congregation as a whole.” The word “brothers” is found 183 times in the ESV NT, many times used to refer to fellow Christians. In addition, we find a host of other familial terms, such as the family of God, little children, God’s household, children of God, God as our heavenly father, Jesus as our brother, adoption, heirs, fellow heirs, and inheritance. Consider a few typical examples:

  • Jesus to his disciples (Matt 12:50): “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.”
  • Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 3:15): “…The household of God, which is the church of the living God…”
  • Paul to the Ephesian church (Eph 2:19): “…You are… members of the household of God…”
  • Peter to some scattered saints (1 Pet 4:17): “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God…”

See also John 1:12-13; Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5, 30; 6:10; Ephesians 1:5, 11; 1Timothy 3:4-5; Hebrews 1:4; 2:11; 12:7; 1 Peter 1:4; 1John 2:1, 12-14; 3:1; 2John 1:1—varied references that demonstrate that the household imagery was shared widely by many NT authors. In addition, given the nature of the first-century household, which included more than the just the “nuclear family” of parents and children, we should also probably consider the use of terms such as servant/slave, master, manager, and elder.

Thus, both the time and the place that the NT church met are filled with rich theological significance. In both cases, the link between NT church practices and theology is never made explicit in the NT itself. Nowhere do we read that “we meet on the first day of the week because that is the day Christ arose.” No text says “we meet in houses because we are a family, the household of God.” Yet in both cases, the practice was both a natural outflow of their theological understandings and a natural result of imitating the practices of the apostles.

Must We Gather Today on the Lord’s Day and in Homes?

So, are we obliged to meet on the Lord’s Day? Are we obliged to gather in private homes to worship? Here’s the best answer I can give: No, and no; but we should not overlook the possible blessings of doing so.

Regarding the time of meeting: Since this was a major point of conflict in the first century, it is addressed clearly in Scripture. Christians are no longer compelled to observe a weekly sabbath: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16; for a longer answer to this question, see here). Romans 14:5 broadens this freedom to all days, implicitly including the Lord’s Day: “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Therefore, Christians are free. I bless my brothers and sisters in Muslim lands who gather on Friday, the one day of their week when they are not expected to be at work. On the other hand, let us never forget our Lord’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit! I bless all who gather on the Lord’s Day with these gifts in mind. I enjoy this practice myself.

Regarding the place of meeting: This also was of major significance in the first century, but in a different manner. The temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, was eclipsed by Christ who freed us to worship anywhere as long as it is in S/spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24). However, the Jews already also worshiped in synagogues, so NT Christians did not argue over the place of meeting as they did over the time of meeting. They were already used to the idea that there was not only one place where worship could happen. Therefore, the NT does not speak prescriptively about where Christians should meet. This, too, is a matter of freedom in Christ. I bless Christians who meet in barns, offices, and caves. I even bless those who meet in “church buildings.” However, let us never forget that the church is a family, a household!

I will add this: Perhaps we need to consider afresh how the architecture of our meeting places sometimes inhibits NT church family life. For example: we often add a concept of “sacred space” that is very foreign to NT Christianity, calling the building “the church” or “God’s house.” On the other hand, we lose the interactive familial exchange of participatory worship when we sit in rows like spectators, staring at the backs of each others’ heads. Our love feasts have shriveled into mere symbols of a symbol. When did we forget that eating a full meal together in communion with Christ can be a central element of our worship services? Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthians suggests that such love feasts may not be essential (1 Cor 11:22, 34). But they are certainly possible and even desirable, if they be true “love feasts” (Jude 1:12). (Paul does not argue against love feasts in 1 Corinthians 11, only against their abuse.)

Too often our church buildings become sterile, safe places where our Sunday best becomes armor that shields us from each other. If you really want someone to get to know you deeply, where do you invite him to meet? In a coffee shop, an office, or a warehouse? At a concert hall—which is the secular venue that our modern church sanctuaries are perhaps most closely patterned after? Or do you invite him into the intimacy of your own home, where he can see your economic status, your hobbies, your family, and all your worst and best up close? And what about when you are someone else’s guest? Which location makes you most feel like you are being included as part of the family?

In sum, just as I have a slight preference to meet on the Lord’s Day, so I also hunger for the kind of NT church family life that often comes most naturally as we gather to worship, eat, and pray within our own homes.

Summary: Guidelines for Imitating NT Church Practices

To return to our initial question: How do we determine which NT church practices are normative for us today? Our dual case studies suggest a few guidelines:

  1. We should not automatically assume that we are obligated to woodenly imitate every physical practice of the NT church. Historical precedent is not necessarily prescriptive.
  2. We should remember that one repeated NT command was to imitate the actions of the apostles and other faithful leaders (1 Cor 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 4:9; 2Thess 3:7-9; Heb 13:7)—even though no specific list of mandatory actions is ever given.
  3. We should try to be consistent, not turning historical precedent into prescription in one area while feeling smugly superior to those who imitate NT church practices literally in another area.
  4. We should examine closely the possible benefits of freely imitating NT church practices and not simply react against others who have abused them.
  5. We should aim to chose practices that naturally express the rich theological truths of our Christian faith.
  6. We should remember that the same theological truths may be expressed through a variety of practices. Where Scripture does not speak clearly, we should allow much diversity and bless our brothers and sisters who serve their Master in ways different from us.

Each of these, I think, are worth further reflection.

What do you think? Is it helpful to imitate the NT church in their practices of meeting on the Lord’s Day and in houses (and public spaces)? Do you have other biblical observations, or other guidelines for weighing NT church practices? Share your insights in the comments below, and thanks for reading.


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