The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Bible Study (Page 1 of 25)

Scripture Is Like The Ocean

Scripture is like the ocean.

People appreciate the ocean at all different levels of depth:

  • For some, simply seeing the beautiful array of blue colors in the water and being near the waves is enough. Some take vacations to the beach to be near the water, but never actually get into it.
  • Others get into the water and play in the shallow surf. As a non-swimmer, this is what I like to do when traveling to the beach: I spend hours on a bodyboard, riding the waves and making sure that I don’t get too deep.[1]
  • Some enjoy getting in deeper water, where they can swim in the ocean. They may use goggles and a snorkel to see all kinds of fish that aren’t visible from the surface of the water. Safely navigating deeper water requires skill, and hours of practice are necessary to develop that skill.
  • For those who have put in a lot of hours of training and receive certification and have access to the right equipment, scuba diving allows you to go even deeper, and make all sorts of discoveries that most of us will never get to see in person.
  • And for the very, very few who have incredibly specialized training or, perhaps, VIP access to those who do, a trip in a deep-sea submarine allows glimpses of all sorts of amazing things near the ocean floor. Even so, the reality is that the vast majority of the ocean remains unexplored.[2]



The doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture basically holds that you don’t have to be a theologian or scholar to understand the Bible’s teaching on salvation: in His Grace, God has made the revelation of His will clear enough for us to understand. I believe that this is true, but at different times in my life, I have heard a more simplistic version of this doctrine that I do not believe to be true: that Scripture is easy to understand.

I have basically spent my adult life studying Scripture and seeking to understand it better. I have learned so much doing so, and I understand it so much better than I did twenty, ten, or even five years ago. But the better I come to understand the Bible’s teachings, the more clearly I realize that I will never fully understand it.

In one sense, that is incredibly frustrating; you are pursuing a goal that you know you will never obtain. Furthermore, as you learn more, you uncover more and more things that you don’t know; paradoxically, the learning process seems to reveal your own ignorance in exponential ways.

Yesterday, though, it struck me: Scripture is like the ocean.

Yes, it is vast and mysterious, and in our human limitations, there are areas that we will never explore, indeed, huge territories of which we are totally ignorant. But also like the ocean, you don’t have to be in a deep-sea submarine to appreciate it:

  • We can admire its beauty—the powerful stories it shares, the moral vision it puts forth, and the revelation of the nature of God through Jesus—even from a distance.
  • We can also wade into the shallow waters of Scripture, and clearly and safely enough, learn how God calls us to respond to His work in the world, how we can receive His grace, and how we can live as His children.
  • It takes more work, but we can go deeper. We can dive in and swim, learning about biblical history and biblical genres. Tools like concordances, Bible dictionaries, and commentaries are like snorkels that help us to see things that weren’t visible on the surface.
  • Like scuba diving, a relative few are able to put in a lot of hours of training. That training involves all sorts of elements—learning biblical languages, studying ancient culture and history to learn about the contexts in which Scripture came to be, reading about Christian interpretation of Scripture and doctrine throughout the centuries, etc.—and with the new skills it provides and with access to the right equipment, new frontiers for personal learning and discovery are opened up.[3]
  • And for the very, very few, who have been gifted with brilliant minds and have devoted themselves to decades of study, occasionally new discoveries (or, more accurately, the discovery of things that were once known, but had been forgotten or lost over the years) are made, and our collective understanding is expanded. Like with those who plumb the ocean depths in a submarine, these sorts of discoveries may be inaccessible to us in a first-hand way, but we can still receive benefits from what is learned.

I do not believe that every Christian is called to learn Hebrew and Greek, to understand how the creation story of Genesis compares to those of Israel’s neighbors in the Ancient Near East, or to be able to explain textual criticism. In fact, Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12 about how Christians are all part of the Body of Christ and how we have different roles and perform different functions would seem to speak directly against the notion that all of us are supposed to be biblical scholars. God has gifted us in different ways and expects us to use our gifts to His glory, but not everyone has the gift of learning Hebrew and Greek (especially after the first few years of life!).

However, that reality is not an excuse for a lack of study or a sense of complacency. We have different aptitudes and different opportunities, so of course, we won’t all interact with the biblical ocean in the same way. But the call of Christian discipleship prompts each of us to stretch ourselves and gradually go deeper so that we can better understand what God has revealed to us, rather than to remain all of our lives where we are comfortable. Put differently, not all Christians are called to be scholars, but all are called to be students.

That is a challenging process. It takes a lot of work and it can be disconcerting, but it is also valuable and wonderful.

Scripture is like the ocean.

It is beautiful and comforting, but also vast and mysterious. We will never fully explore or understand it, but we will find unsettling and thrilling adventure in our lifelong exploration of it, and untold blessings at each new level of depth.


[1]  Did you know that I can’t swim? I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it on The Doc File. This is a great source of shame for me, and I am determined to remedy this.

[2]  Andrea Mustain, “Mysteries of the Oceans Remain Vast and Deep,” Live Science, June 8, 2011.

[3]  For what it‘s worth, in this extended metaphor I would consider myself to be a novice scuba diver.

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 12: Why Does This Even Matter?

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Throughout this series, we have been examining the idea of renewed eschatology from a variety of perspectives, and in this final post, we are going to consider different reasons why all of this matters.[1] This is the discussion that many people want from the very beginning. When they hear the arguments for a renewed creation, they may be intrigued or skeptical, but often, regardless they somewhat dismissively state, “Why does this even matter? I know that I want to be with God for eternity; I don’t care where that is!” 

I understand that sentiment—I shared it myself for several years—but I wanted to wait until the end to address it, because I really do not think the implications of renewed creation make sense until you really understand the position. So, stated more precisely: if Scripture teaches that God is going to redeem and restore His good creation and the hope for believers is to live eternally in glorious, resurrected bodies with God in a New Heaven and New Earth, why does that matter? How does that affect my life?

I will warn you in advance: in this post we will respond to that question in multiple ways, and at the end, some readers are not going to get it. At the end of this whole series and all of the digital ink that has been spilt in its production, it still won’t seem like a big deal. And I will not judge you for that response, because it’s exactly where I was for years. Even as I gradually became more convinced of the NHNE perspective, I just didn’t think it mattered that much. For me, it was a long process.

Others will get it immediately. Some of you already do; I have heard responses as I have taught and blogged through this from people who have found this illuminating, and for whom this has helped to connect dots throughout Scripture and enhance their hope and anticipation of eternity. 

From my own perspective, although it has taken a while for me to get to this point, I can say that understanding my future (and really, the future of the universe) differently has greatly changed my present as well. It changes the way I live day to day, and the way I anticipate the future.

In this post, as we look at the implications of a redeemed creation, we’re going to look at four different implications of this, and we’re going to look at all of them through the lens of Story.



The Story Itself—What does the Bible say?

As many of my readers know, I work and worship within the fellowship of churches of Christ. One of the

things I love about our heritage is that we value Scripture highly and think it is really important to know what the Bible says and teach it and live accordingly. From this perspective, what we have been talking about in this series matters, because either it is what the Bible teaches, or it’s not. 

At this point, we have spent a lot of time going over what the Bible teaches, and from my perspective, it is clear that the “traditional” view is off—the idea of God destroying the world and us flying away to an ethereal heaven for eternity is simply not what the Story is about.

Now, I am not claiming that you have to believe what I do about the New Heavens and New Earth to be saved (and, ultimately, to experience the New Heavens and New Earth someday!), but we don’t have to think that a certain belief is necessary for salvation in order to think that it is important. 

So, in the first place, what we have been talking about matters because it is a central teaching of Scripture. It’s what the Story is all about.

The Author of the Story—What is God like?

We have talked about this already, but just as a way of reminder, the way we interpret the Story will also influence the way we view and understand the Author of the Story—what is God like?

If we believe that the Story is about God destroying creation because it is broken, then it’s no wonder that so many people question if God really loves them, or doubt that they will ever be able to be “good enough” to be saved. But that’s not what the Story is about! God is the Fixer of the Broken. He loves His creation and wants to redeem it! It’s not about you being good enough to be saved, it’s about God being loving enough to save you even though you’re not good enough!

If we believe that the Story is about us going up to be with God on His level, then it’s no wonder that so many people tie their salvation to getting everything exactly right—we obsessively try to meet God on His level by perfectly interpreting and intuiting every single thing. This becomes the basis for our assurance and confidence. But that’s not what the Story is about! God is the One Who Comes Down. He reveals to us who He is and what He is like, so that we can faithfully live in covenant relationship with Him. God is not asking for our perfection but for our commitment.

The way we understand the Story influences the way we understand the Author of the Story.

Living Out the Story—Agents of New Creation

Our actions are influenced by the story that we believe ourselves to be a part of. Let me try to illustrate that principle with two imperfect and wildly different examples:

  • Let’s say that you are a young woman who goes to college and earns a degree, but your real desire in life is to be a stay at home mom—that is your story. This is who you are; it is the narrative around which you have constructed your identity. So, at the end of college you get married and start a career for a couple of years, but then you decide that you are ready to start your family. You get married, and have a child. A couple of years later, you get a very lucrative job offer to go back to work—what do you do? Well, if your story is that you are a stay at home mom, it’s not even a question: you stay at home! Your actions are influenced by the story that you believe you are a part of!
  • Let’s say that you are a young man growing up in Germany in the 1930s. You are a member of the Nazi party, and you firmly believe that you are part of a master race—that is your story. This is who you are; it is the narrative around which you have constructed your identity. A few years later, you find yourself in a position where you are ordered to execute a Jewish person simply because of his race—what do you do? Well, if your story is that you are a Nazi who firmly believes you are a member of a master race, it’s not even a question. You execute the person you consider to be inferior! Your actions are influenced by the story that you believe you are a part of!

In regards to what we have been talking about—renewed eschatology—how does this Story influence our actions?

As we have seen, the Story of the Bible is that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and called it good. But God’s space (heaven) and humanity’s space (earth) were driven apart by sin. God’s good creation was tainted. That’s the bad news, but the good news is that through Jesus, God is reconciling all things (including creation) to Himself. This happens through the death of Jesus on the cross, and His subsequent victory over death through His resurrection. 

At His resurrection, Jesus becomes the firstfruits of a new kind of creation, and likewise, when we are placed into Christ at baptism, we too are raised to walk a new kind of life, as agents of new creation:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

(2 Corinthians 5.17-20)

So Jesus, through His resurrection, brings about New Creation and reconciliation, and we become agents of that New Creation and ambassadors of His reconciliation. This means that we currently live in the shadow of the impending return of Jesus, and the redemption of all things that will accompany that return. Knowing that we are a part of a future reality, we live as if that reality were already present now. 

This is reflected in passages in Philippians and Colossians that speak of us having citizenship in heaven or setting our minds on things above. In a sense, as Christians, we bring heaven to earth—anticipating what will happen when Jesus returns, the dwelling place of God is with man, and all things will be made new—by living now as we will live then. This is what the Sermon on the Mount is about too. Jesus tells His disciples how to live in ways that seemingly make no sense in our world as it is. But that’s the point: as Christians, we are agents of New Creation, living according to God’s Kingdom, which continues to grow and expand and will one day cover all that is.

The first stage of this new creation process happened at the resurrection of Jesus, and the second stage will occur at His return. We live in-between, but we live as agents of New Creation, living according to our heavenly citizenship, and according to the principles of God’s Kingdom. As we do that, we seek to counteract the effects of sin in our world:

  • In a world of theological brokenness, we tell people about Jesus and how to have a relationship with God. That means it is important that we have people who serve as ministers, missionaries, and Bible class teachers. People who devote their lives to studying the Bible, biblical languages, and history, and share that knowledge with other people. People who help us to process current events and trends from a heavenly perspective in an effort to live as God would have us to.
  • In a world of social brokenness, we act as peacemakers, seeking to reconcile people who are at odds with one another and to rectify the injustices caused by our mistreatment of one another. That means it is important that we have people who serve as social workers, lawyers, judges, teachers, civil rights activists, and elected officials. People who work to limit the abuse that happens to the weak at the hands of the powerful, to take care of those who have been cast aside, and to provide resources that people need to survive.
  • In a world of personal brokenness, we help people see that they are valuable, created in the image of God. That means it is important that we have people who serve as counselors, therapists, coaches, trainers, and educators. People who help others deal with the feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that we all feel and helping them to become productive members of society.
  • In a world of ecological brokenness, we live out our intended function as stewards who tend and tame God’s creation. That means it is important that we have people who serve as conservationists, environmental scientists, and farmers. People who encourage us to take care of God’s good creation and prod us to reconsider and change some of our behaviors that have been damaging to it. People who study the way our world works and help us to predict when tornadoes will hit and how to prevent the introduction of invasive species that damage natural habitats. People who cultivate the earth so that its bounty can provide nourishment for humanity.
  • In a world of physical brokenness, we seek to alleviate the physical suffering of people while pointing forward to the day when mourning, crying, and pain will be no more. That means it is important that we have people who serve as doctors, pharmacists, researchers, physical therapists, and hospice nurses. People who seek to treat and alleviate the effects of disease, who help people deal with their decaying bodies, and who bring dignity to people as they take final steps toward the sad reality of death.

Living as an agent of new creation is much bigger than having a Bible study with someone (as important as that is!). It is living right now as part of a future reality. In a dark and broken world, we create pockets of God’s kingdom everywhere we go by living according to the principles of that kingdom now, wherever we are.

We bring light into a dark world and sprinkle principles of the kingdom into everything we do, and since the biblical picture of eternity has points of continuity with our current existence, it suggests that what we do now matters moving forward![2]

Anticipating the Story’s “Ending”—Looking Forward to Eternity

Let me share a fairly common experience that perhaps you can identify with. Maybe you have heard discussions of heaven in the past and about how great it will be (better than we can imagine!), but then when an effort is made to describe what it will be like, it basically sounds like a never-ending worship service.

Does that fill you with excitement?

Don’t get me wrong—worship is extremely important. I love to sing praises to God, and I believe we will worship in eternity. But is a never-ending worship service something we really look forward to?

I work with teenagers a lot; let me tell you, it does not sound super exciting to them. It certainly seems like a better alternative than hell, but still, not amazing. I can’t help but think…if this is our view of all that we will be doing for eternity, is it any wonder that we have a lot of people who get more excited about summer vacations to Florida than an eternity with God?

But the ending of the Story that we have been talking about is much more than this. Certainly, there is worship: we will be in the presence of our Creator! We’ll be so overwhelmed with the desire to worship that we won’t be able to help it. But there will be much more than that!

  • From the beginning, humanity was created in God’s image to function as God’s representatives on earth. Scripture teaches that in the eschaton, we will live in a new creation, and there are plenty of verses that reference our reigning with God. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but doesn’t it sound exciting?
  • From the beginning, humanity was also given a job to do, caring for and cultivating God’s creation. This work was not a part of the curse, but a fundamental part of our identity as humans. When we are placed in an environment that is pictured as a marvelous city and a beautiful garden, it strikes me that there will still be work to be done—but work that is free of pain and sorrow, where nothing is wasted. I don’t know exactly what that looks like, but doesn’t it sound exciting?
  • And touching on something that I mentioned earlier, given the continuity between our current existence and eternity, what you do for the Lord right now is not in vain. As one author writes:

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”[3]

How does that work? I don’t really know, but doesn’t it sound exciting? Somehow, just as the Father, through Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, will gather up the molecules of our wasted-into-dust bodies and recreate them into glorious, incorruptible resurrection bodies, so He will also take the work we have done, building for His kingdom, and incorporate that into His new creation. 

This is an “ending” to the Story that I can get excited about and eagerly anticipate.

Renewed Eschatology is not some esoteric theory best left to the debates of ivory tower theologians; it is a powerful and practical teaching of Scripture. It helps us to better understand the Story itself, the Author of the Story, and the way we live in response to the Story, and in conjunction with those other aspects, it heightens our eager anticipation of the day when Jesus will return and bring the Story to a never-ending conclusion.


This concludes our series. For some readers, this has been a collection of new and challenging ideas that have been exciting, alarming, or a mixture of both. For others, these posts have strengthened and affirmed views that you already held or at least were leaning toward. 

If this series has led you toward appreciating or even accepting the renewed creation perspective, that is great, but ultimately, that wasn’t my goal for this series. Echoing back to the introductory post, it was my hope that we would be able to study Scripture with an open mind, challenge ourselves, and, at the end, respect one another regardless of whether or not we agree. If we have been able to meet these goals, then I believe our Father is well pleased. 

May we yearn for the day when Jesus returns and rights all wrongs. 


[1] Although this is the last post in the series, I do not mean to imply that I have exhausted all of the arguments for and elements of the NHNE perspective; I certainly have not. In particular, this series would ideally include a discussion of Old Testament prophecy. When I originally taught through this material, I did have such a lesson, but it was so context specific to some other studies we had engaged at that congregation that I didn’t think it worked well removed from that context and placed into a blog series. 

Additionally, the study could be further fleshed out and enhanced with discussions of what it means to be created in the Image of God, the biblical teaching of our eschatological reign with God, the continuing motif of God’s promise of land to His people, the biblical motif of Jubilee, and more. 

[2] This is the point that Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 15.58 at the conclusion of his discourse on resurrection. Because of resurrection and the continuity it represents between the present and the future, what we do now matters: our labor is not in vain!

[3] N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 208.

Return From Exile

My friend Smith Hopkins preaches for the Oliver Creek Church of Christ in Bartlett, Tennessee, and there are so many things I appreciate about him as a thinker, a minister, and a leader. During this season of pandemic and quarantine, he has been producing a series on YouTube called Light In The Darkness, and recently, he invited me on to have a conversation about the transition out of quarantine and back into some semblance of normalcy.

From my perspective, the biblical notion of Exile is instructive for us as we think about living during a pandemic and the interruptions and struggles that come with that. But in Scripture, following the period of the Exile, we have the Return from Exile, seen especially in the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. I think there are some lessons from that biblical period that are helpful for us as we begin to think what our own “return” looks like. Here is a hint: don’t place your hope in the wrong things.

I hope this discussion is helpful for you!

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 10: The Nature of God

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Over the last several posts, we have spent a good deal of time looking directly at specific biblical texts. First, we looked at texts that have traditionally been used to teach that creation will be destroyed or that we will go away to heaven with Jesus when He returns (and I have argued that those texts have been poorly interpreted). Then we looked at texts that point to cosmic redemption, that the salvation that God brings about through Jesus will be both wholistic and restorative. We followed that up by looking closely at portions of Genesis and Revelation and seeing what they tell us about the broken reality of our world and the Story that Scripture is telling. Most recently, we examined passages related to the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection. All of that to say, this study has been significantly based upon looking closely at biblical texts.

This post will be different from all of those in the sense that today I am not going to look at specific texts, but I am still going to be making biblical arguments. But, rather than pointing to a variety of specific texts, I want to draw on our general knowledge of Scripture and use this information to help us get a picture of the nature of God.

Here are the basic questions we want to consider in this post:

  1. According to the Bible, what is God’s character? What is He like? Obviously, these are massive questions and we are not going to try to answer them exhaustively (it would not even be possible to do so). Rather, we will seek to answer them in ways that relate specifically to this study.
  2. Related to the first question, which perspective better fits God’s character as revealed in Scripture: the idea that God will destroy His tainted creation and we will “go up” to live with Him eternally, or that God will fix His tainted creation and “come down” so we can live with Him eternally?

In other words, the Bible gives us pictures of what God is like. Which of the views that we have been discussing fit better with the biblical pictures of God?



The Fixer of the Broken

In the Genesis account, God looks at what He has created and repeatedly calls it “good”. He says this of humans as well. Over and over again, the refrain is repeated. Clearly, God values what He has created. Tragically, though, God’s good creation becomes tainted by human sin. We have spoken about that at length.

So, what is God like? Is He someone who throws things away when they become tainted, or does He work to fix them?

In the story of the people of Israel, do we see a God who throws His people away when they sin against Him, or who lovingly, painfully walks alongside them for hundreds of years despite their rebellion? Even in the Exile, do we see God abandoning His people and the covenant promises He made to them, or do we see God with His people, even in Exile, working for their good and remaining faithful to the promises He has made, ultimately restoring them to their homeland and sending His Son to them, through Whom all peoples of the earth would be blessed?

Through His sinless life, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead, that Son makes possible for us to be reconciled to God, despite the fact that we are sinful, tainted creatures. This is at the center of our faith, isn’t it? The idea that God doesn’t just throw us away when we are tainted by sin but rather that He has done everything possible to fix us and redeem us for His own?

I believe that; don’t you? 

And yet…

If God is going to annihilate His creation—creation that He called “good”—because it was tainted by sin, why should we be confident that He won’t do the same thing to us? After all, we are part of creation, and He called us “good” too.[1]

In other words, which view—annihilation of creation or redemption of creation—is more consistent with how we generally view God? 

Constantly in our language—in almost every sermon we hear—we speak of a God who wants to fix what is broken within us and make us right and whole. Which of these eschatological views fits better with that picture of God?

The One Who Comes Down

There’s another picture of God that I want to consider which is prevalent in Scripture from the beginning to the end.

When God creates everything in the first chapters of Genesis, He also forms the Garden of Eden, and this is where Adam and Eve dwell. God has interactions with Adam and Eve, and where do those take place? Do Adam and Eve go away somewhere to be with God? No, God comes down and walks in the Garden in the cool of the day. He interacts with Adam and Eve where they are.

Later, God calls a man named Abraham to leave his country and family and go to a distant land, where God will bless him greatly. At one point, God tells Abraham about the child of promise that will be born to Abraham and Sarah, and also to inform him of the judgment that will come upon Sodom and Gomorrah. How does this communication occur? Is Abraham whisked off to heaven for a conversation with his Creator? No, God comes down and conveys the information to Abraham.[2]

Fast forward many generations and Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel are enslaved in Egypt. Their slavery is bitter and hard and they cry out for rescue, and God hears their cry. How does He respond? He comes down and appears to Moses in a burning bush, and through Moses, rescues the people.

Once the people are rescued, God establishes a covenant with them and gives them Torah—teaching, instruction, law—to guide their living. How is this given to them? God comes down to Mt. Sinai to meet with Moses and deliver the Law to Him. 

What about Jesus? In the fullest revelation of who God is, did God transport someone up into heaven so we could get a report of what He is like? No, God comes down. In the incarnation, the Word became flesh and Jesus walked among us. 

After Jesus departs, does God leave us on our own? Does He then transport someone up into heaven to give us further instructions? No, the Spirit of God comes down and indwells His people. 

And what do we see in the end? Again, God comes down. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Jesus comes down and we meet Him in the air to return with Him. In Revelation 21, the Holy City comes down so that the dwelling of God can be with humanity.

So, according to what we see in Scripture, what is God like? Is the Scriptural pattern that we go up to Him, or that God comes down to us?[3] Both literally and theologically, over and over again we see the latter. God comes down to us. He rescues us from our mess. He comes to give us guidance. He comes to reveal what He is like. He comes to live with us eternally.

Which view—annihilation of creation where this world is destroyed and we “go up” to be with God somewhere else, or redemption of creation where God “comes down” to a redeemed world to be with us—is more consistent with the picture of God from Scripture as One who Comes Down?

We can now return to our original questions and seek to answer them:

  1. According to the Bible, what is God’s character? What is He like? There are a lot of answers to those questions, but two we see from Scripture is that God is the Fixer of the Broken and the One Who Comes Down to us. 
  2. These pictures of God make no sense if creation is going to be destroyed and we are going to go off to be with God somewhere else. On the other hand, they fit seamlessly into a vision of the end times where God redeems His creation and comes down to live among us forever, and as we have already seen in multiple texts throughout this series, this is exactly the picture that Scripture paints.

[1]You might object: “The Bible clearly teaches that God is going to redeem His people!” I certainly agree with that, but as this study has shown, there are multiple passages in Scripture that indicate the same reality about creation as a whole. Thus, we would expect Scripture to be consistent in its portrayal of God as desiring to fix what is broken, and it is.

[2]I am referring to Genesis 18. This passage talks about “three men” talking to Abraham, but the text begins by clearly stating that it is the LORD who appears to him. The consensus of biblical scholarship considers this to be a theophany, or appearance of God. 

[3]I am not denying that there are examples that may not seem to fit the pattern, such as Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room, or Paul’s vision of the third heaven. But if these are visions (and they seem to be), then they actually represent God coming down to impart information to His people through visionary experiences. 

There is also the example of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, but this is obviously exceptional in human experience and does not negate the general pattern established here. In an earlier post, I discussed the intermediate state and the possibility that those in Christ go to heaven upon death, but this is not clearly established in Scripture, and, regardless, this precedes the resurrection, and is not the final state of the faithful dead.

A New Heaven & A New Earth Part 9: Bodily Resurrection

This post is part of an ongoing series. You can find links to all the posts here.

Several weeks ago, I discussed how the Christian hope as revealed in Scripture is not “going to heaven when we die” (and then talked about it more in the last post). In fact, that language is never used in the Bible. Really, the Christian hope is not based on what happens when we die, but what happens when Jesus returns, and that is what we have been talking about in this series.

Generally, though, people do talk about “going to heaven when we die” as being the source of Christian hope, and when they do that, very frequently, they have in mind some sort of “spiritual” existence, where “spiritual” means something other than existing in bodily form. In this post, I want to emphasize that the Bible clearly teaches that the Christian hope is not about living eternally as some sort of disembodied spirit; rather, the Christian hope is the resurrection from the dead, and the idea that we will live eternally as embodied people.

As we examine the idea of resurrection, I am going to emphasize two major ideas:

  1. Jesus is the firstfruits of our own resurrection, so we can learn about our own resurrection by looking at Jesus.
  2. Our resurrection bodies will be both similar to and dissimilar from our current bodies. There will be continuity and discontinuity.

To support and flesh out these two ideas, we will be looking at three New Testament passages: two narratives involving the resurrection of Jesus, and some detailed teaching by Paul on the nature of our own resurrection.



Luke 24.13-49

This passage recounts Jesus walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus following His resurrection, and then His appearance to the disciples as a group. From this passage, we get multiple indications that Jesus’ resurrection body seems to have both continuity and discontinuity with His earthly body.

Continuity: Though unable to do so initially, the disciples do eventually recognize Jesus (24.31). He also describes Himself as “flesh and bones” in contrast to a spirit (24.39), and eats with them (24.43). Summing up this element from the Lukan passage, Hicks, Valentine, and Wilson state:

“Luke describes the resurrected Jesus so there is no misunderstanding what resurrection means. The skepticism of the disciples provides the opportunity to dismiss any thought of resurrection as the continued life of a disembodied soul. The resurrect Lord commanded the disciples to “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”[1]

Discontinuity: But, there are other ways in which Jesus seems different from the way He was prior to resurrection. At first, His disciples fail to recognize him (24.16), and He also seems able to suddenly vanish (24.31) and appear (24.36)

John 20.11-21.14

This section of John’s Gospel provides several different post-resurrection appearances by Jesus: to Mary Magdalene, to the apostles without Thomas, to the apostles with Thomas, and to a group of disciples by the Sea of Tiberias. Again, we get multiple indications that Jesus’ post-resurrection body is both similar to and different from His earthly body.

Continuity: Jesus’ wounds from His crucifixion are still visible (20.27). In fact, this is a key point of His interaction with Thomas, and helps to answer his doubts: this Jesus was, in fact, one and the same as the man who had been crucified a few days before.[2] Also, as in the passage in Luke, here Jesus eats with His disciples, sharing a breakfast of fish over a charcoal fire (21.10-13).

Discontinuity: As in the account in Luke, Jesus is not immediately recognizable (20.14; 21.4), and He suddenly appears in their presence, despite the doors being locked (20.19).

Looking at these accounts from Luke and John, we can see that after the resurrection, Jesus’ body was similar to what it was like before…but also different. He had a tangible, touchable, visible, material body, but it was different from what it was like before.[3]

1 Corinthians 15.35-58

The Christians at Corinth were mixed up on a variety of issues related to doctrine and morality, and one of their points of doctrinal confusion was related to the idea of resurrection. In the Greco-Roman world, people were not like modern secular humanists; they believed in life after death, but for them, it was the soul that was immortal.[4] Resurrection, on the other hand, was a scandal to the Greek mind, worthy of mockery and derision (Acts 17.32), because it referred to what would happen to the body—physical bodies that are buried in the earth (or cremated, or whatever) are, in some way, reanimated or reconstituted. As N.T. Wright explains:

“In content, resurrection referred specifically to something that happened to the body; hence the later debates about how God would do this—whether he would start with the existing bones or make new ones or whatever. One wug have debates like that only if it was quite clear that what you ended up with was something tangible and physical. Everybody knew about ghosts, spirits, visions, hallucinations and so on. Most people in the ancient world believed in some such things. They were quite clear that that wasn’t what they mean by resurrection. While Herod reportedly thought Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the dead, he didn’t think he was a ghost. Resurrection meant bodies.”[5]

In Corinth, the believers didn’t seem to deny the reality of Jesus’ resurrection; they just didn’t see how it mattered for them. Paul insists, though, that resurrection is a two-stage event: Jesus’ resurrection is the firstfruits of our own (15.20, 23), so what happened to Him will also happen to believers (see also Philippians 3.21).[6]

After establishing the connection, Paul goes on to offer direct teaching[7] on the nature of our resurrection (so I will include the whole passage):

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

(1 Corinthians 15.35–58)

In this passage, Paul compares our physical bodies to a seed that is sown perishable and raised imperishable. This highlights a continuity between our current bodies and our resurrection bodies, but also a change. Seeds are not the same as the wheat they produce, but they are closely related: they are made of the same “stuff”, and one has the necessary DNA for the production of the other. So again, like with the accounts of the post-resurrection Jesus, we have the idea of similarity and dissimilarity; continuity and discontinuity.

Paul says that those who are in Christ will be raised with “spiritual bodies.”[8] We need to think about both of these words. The Christian hope is not to be disembodied spirits floating around in a non-material existence. But neither is the Christian hope to have the same old bodies that we have right now, which are “natural” or “fleshly”. We must keep both of these ideas in mind.

The idea of dissimilarity, or discontinuity, that we have already seen in the stories about Jesus’ resurrection body is repeated here. Paul is clear in these verses that there are some major differences between our current bodies, and our future, resurrection bodies (15.42-44):

  • Our current bodies are perishable, while our future bodies will be imperishable
  • Our current bodies are dishonorable, while our future bodies will be glorious
  • Our current bodies are weak, while our future bodies will be powerful
  • Our current bodies are natural, while our future bodies will be spiritual

As significant as these differences are, in other ways, our bodies will be the “same” as our current ones (which shouldn’t surprise us, considering the texts we read about Jesus after the resurrection). Like the resurrection body of Jesus, they will retain points of continuity with our previous bodies.

When talking about “spiritual bodies”, we need to spend some time defining what “spiritual” means here. Because for many people, when we read about a “spiritual” body, we assume that Paul is referring to a resurrection body that is “spiritual” in the sense that it is “non-material”; something that can’t be touched. When “spiritual” body is contrasted with “natural” body, many people assume that Paul is drawing a distinction between our current “material” bodies and a future “non-material” existence.[9]

It is important, though, that we not insert our own understanding of the word “spiritual” into the text and, instead, allow Paul to define his own terms. Earlier in 1 Corinthians, Paul has already told his readers what he means when he uses the words “natural” and “spiritual”:

14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself judged by no one. 16 For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 2.14-16)

In this passage Paul speaks of tangible, material, physical-bodied Christians as being “spiritual” because they were living in harmony with the Holy Spirit. This is repeatedly what the word “spiritual” means in 1 Corinthians (3.1; 6.19; 14.37). He does not use the word “spiritual” to mean “non-material”; rather, it refers to men and women whose character and lifestyle is consistent with the Holy Spirit. So for Paul, the words “natural” and “spiritual” are not talking about a contrast between the material and the non-material; they describe a contrast between ordinary human life and life given by the Spirit.[10]

When Paul says “spiritual body,” the emphasis is on what provides the driving force for the body—it is animated by God’s Spirit.[11] Just as the Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, it will be God’s Spirit (elsewhere described as a down payment on our salvation) that raises us up from the dead and gives power and life to our resurrection bodies. Paul says this elsewhere, in Romans 8:

9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

(Romans 8.9-11)

But what about 1 Corinthians 15.50? There Paul says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Doesn’t this mean that we won’t have bodies in the resurrection?

Well, no. It cannot mean that. After all, this whole section is answering the question of “what kind of bodies” we will have (1 Corinthians 15.35). Again, we need to let Paul define his own terms. Earlier, Paul has already described what he means by “fleshly” people:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you re not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and having only in a human way?

(1 Corinthians 3.1-3)

Here, Paul uses the term “of the flesh” to describe the same people that he earlier described as “natural” in 2.14-16. The “natural” people who are “of the flesh” are those who walk “only in a human way”, as opposed to the “spiritual” people who live in harmony with the Spirit. For Paul, “flesh” does not mean “made out of matter” or “material” or “tangible” but refers to people who live in sinful rebellion, and for our current bodies that are destined for decay and death.[12]

So, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he is not claiming that material “bodies” cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Rather, he is saying that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable—unless the nature of our bodies is changed from “corruptible” to “incorruptible” and “merely human” to “spiritual”, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God.[13]

But this is exactly what this passage is talking about: our bodies will be changed. They will be sown perishable, but raised imperishable; sown dishonorable, but raised glorious; sown in weakness, but raised in power; sown natural, but raised spiritual. Our resurrection bodies will be suited for an eternal existence with God.

Conclusion

The resurrection is not about us being freed from our bodies to live as spirits; it is about our bodies being transformed into something glorious that is both similar to and different from our current bodies.

Will we be raised with physical bodies? If by “physical,” we simply mean “bodily”, then yes, we will be raised with material, “physical” bodies. If by “physical” we mean “corruptible” or “mortal”, no our bodies will not be physical.

Again, we will close with how we began: continuity and discontinuity. In some sense, our bodies will be the same, but they will also be transformed into something new and different. Our bodies will be spiritual, incorruptible bodies, but we will not be bodiless spirits. We will have a tangible, material existence. Our dead bodies will actually be raised and will be made new.

And all of this fits quite seamlessly with the larger picture of cosmic redemption that we have been discussing in this series. Just as creation itself will be transformed and changed into something new, so, too, our bodies (as part of creation) will also be transformed and changed into something new. Creation isn’t thrown away; it is redeemed by God.

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

Excursus: Did Jesus’ Resurrection Body Change After His Ascension?

Sometimes, when discussing resurrection, people will basically acknowledge what I have said above about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body and its tangible nature, but will then make the argument that this radically changed after His ascension, and that He now lives a “spiritual” existence.

The first and most important response to this notion: Scripture never actually teaches this anywhere. It is an assumption we make based on the assumption that you can’t have a “tangible” body in heaven. It seems to be an effort to reconcile what appears to be a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 15.50 and what we know about Jesus’ resurrection body. But if we accept Paul’s definition of “flesh and blood” as described above, there is no contradiction.

Furthermore, other places in Scripture continue to assert the continuity between Jesus’ post-ascension existence, and his human, bodily existence:

  • Acts 1.9 teaches that Jesus will return in the same form as He was in when He ascended (His resurrection body)
  • In Acts 7, Stephen saw the “Son of Man” standing at the right hand of God. “Son of Man” means “Human One”; it has messianic connotations that make it mean more than a simple reference to humanity, but it doesn’t mean less than that. Jesus still still an embodied human (though, with a glorified, imperishable, resurrection body).[14]
  • 1 Timothy 2.5 refers to “the man Jesus” in the present tense—Jesus didn’t lose his embodied humanity after the ascension.

[1]John Mark Hicks, Bobby Valentine, and Mark Wilson, Embracing Creation: God’s Forgotten Mission, (Abilene, TX: Leafwood: 2016): 112.

[2]That is clear enough, but for awhile, this passage troubled me: if Jesus’ resurrection body possessed scars, will I have scars in my resurrection body? Will one of my thumbs still be weaker than the other, atrophied by a long-ago injury? Will those who suffered paralysis in this life still be paralyzed? Will my own daughter still possess her significant disabilities? Some of these maladies seem to contradict an eternity where there will be no crying, mourning, or pain.

The answer, I believe, can be found In Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Q.54, Art. 4: “It was fitting for Christ’s soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars. In the first place, for Christ’s own glory. For Bede says on Luke 24:40 that He kept His scars not from inability to heal them, “but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.” Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxii): “Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them, in the body, though not of the body.” (emphasis mine)

As one commentator states: “These wounds are a dignity not a deformity, a sign of love not of loss, an indication of obedience not of onerousness.”

[3]Sometimes people will try to take Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene in John 20.17—“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father…”—to indicate that Jesus was immaterial and Mary was not able to grab or touch Him. This doesn’t seem to be the case, however. Jesus’ point seems to be, “It’s okay, Mary, you can let go. I’m not going anywhere yet; I’m not immediately ascending to the Father.”

[4]Embracing Creation, 112.

[5]N.T. Wright, Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, (New York: HarperOne, 2008): 36.

[6]Embracing Creation, 113.

[7]I initially said “clear teaching,” but based on how often this passage is misconstrued to mean something other than what Paul means, it is clearly not “clear.” Our distance from Paul’s time (and our significant influence by neoplatonic thought) does make this a challenging passage, but I think it is understandable.

[8]The following section is greatly influenced by a series of excellent articles by Tyler Boyd. For more, see “Resurrection: The Redemption of Our Bodies”, “We Will Have ‘Spiritual Bodies’”, “Will We Have ‘Physical’ Bodies?”.

[9]Much of this next section relies specifically on Boyd, “Spiritual Bodies.”

[10]Ibid.

[11]Embracing Creation, 114, “The adjective spiritual does not refer to the composition of the body, but what makes it “tick.” While sin and death are like leaven bring corruption and decay, the Spirit of God animates resurrected bodies.”

Wright, Surprised By Hope, 155, echoes the same idea. Discussing the Greek words for physical and spiritual says that adjectives of this type “describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the difference between asking, on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?” (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, “Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?” (the energy that powers it).

[12]Boyd, “Will We Have “Physical” Bodies?”

Wright, 156, speaking of the “flesh and blood” reference: “he doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. “Flesh and blood” is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call nonphysical, but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.” (Emphasis in the original)

[13]Boyd, “Will We Have “Physical” Bodies?”

[14]I am indebted to Ethan Longhenry, evangelist at the Venice church of Christ, for this insight.

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