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Questions from You: Heaven, Mental Health, Thorns, Sheeps and Goats

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We wrapped up our “Questions from Jesus” series, in which we have looked at questions Jesus asked people but also encouraged Faith Church attendees to submit questions they may have to Jesus and/or to Faith Church through texting the number (219) 440-2463. We’ve been answering some of these questions on the blog here and will do so for a couple of more weeks.

In this post, we will look at some questions about Paul’s thorn in the flesh, mental illness, and heaven.

Two related questions on heaven in relation to recognizing people:

How will my father, who passed away in 1976 when I was 13, know me when I die? I don’t look anything like I did then.

I had a question about heaven. In this week’s message (weekend of April 29, 30), we were told that we will recognize people in heaven. I’ve wondered if we will also be aware of who isn’t there? You don’t think of mourning when you think about heaven, but will you mourn when you realize a friend/family member isn’t in heaven?

When we talk about heaven, we must remember that we are ultimately talking about the new earth and the resurrected bodies, a hope that we have that is confessed in the Apostles’ Creed (“I believe in the resurrection of the body”) because Jesus rose from the dead. We must remember that we will not be disembodied souls but resurrected bodies, just like Jesus – whom the apostles could recognize as we see in the resurrection accounts. Of course, there were times when people did not immediately recognize Jesus (see Mary in John 20:15 or the disciples in Luke 24:15-16), but at least in the Emmaus Road account (Luke 24), we know that they were kept from knowing it was Jesus. Further indication that we can recognize each other is that Peter, James, and John recognized Moses and Elijah when Jesus was transfigured in Matthew 17 – people they had never met!

Of course, this raises the question of at what age we look like when we raised. Some say around 33 since that was Jesus’s age (some would say that this is the age that God made Adam). We don’t know for sure; that is only speculation. Regardless of the exact age, how would someone recognize you if they only knew you when you were young or when you looked different? One thing that we should remember is that our senses will be perfected as well; we can often see someone we grew up with and know it is them (or think, “I know this person.”) If that happens now, how much more will it happen on the new earth. Again, if the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah, we should be able to know it is people that we know. While the focus on the new earth will be on seeing Jesus and being with God, there is hope of reunion with those who have died before us (see 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18), which would seem to imply that we will recognize them.

In recognizing people, will we be sad about those who are not there? We do know that there will be no more tears or sadness in the new earth, as we read in Revelation 21:3-4: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” While this refers primarily to the fact that we will not have pain and sorrow, it would seem to imply that we will not have the mourning that we might expect for those who are not there. For one thing, we will be overjoyed at being in God’s presence and also being made like God. There might also be a sense in which we have a greater understanding of God’s grace and also of the heinous of sin, so that we see God’s justice in a better way than we do now. In some ways, we might even be made like God in this area, as God obviously knows that hell exists and cares for people more than we do but yet is not mourning or grieving at this time. At times, in Scripture we see what is true but do not fully understand how or why it is true until we experience it. Which brings us back to the main point — we will have resurrected bodies and be with God, what great hope!

Do You have mercy on the mentally ill who do not know You?

In some ways, this question is related to the common question about those who die before they are of an age in which they are able to understand the gospel or those who seem to have cognitive disabilities that prevent them from being able to understand or at least explicitly respond to the gospel. I say that because we see mental illness as a real ailment in which people suffer that can affect their ability to think clearly and thus respond to the God. We know that God is gracious and just and that he will do what is right and good in every situation, so we can trust that whatever he does is right. We also know that David, when he is mourning the loss of his son, believes he will see him again in 2 Samuel 12:23. Therefore, it seems that believers can have hope that their loved ones who were not of age or ability to understand the gospel will experience God’s mercy.

Paul says in Romans, “what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” In 2 Corinthians, he speaks of a thorn in his flesh, a messenger from Satan and that he pleased with You to take it away. You [Jesus] say ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’. Was Paul’s thorn a sin? Is the weakness since and the power Your ability to forgive sin completely? Is this why You say Your grace is sufficient? And if a thorn represents sin, did You carry our sin to the cross in a crown of thorns?

We are not directly told what the “thorn in the flesh” that Paul speaks about in 2 Corinthians 12:7 is. We do know that it is something that God allowed as a way to make sure that Paul did not become conceited and that God did not deliver Paul from it even though he asked, as it was a way to show him that God’s grace was perfect in weakness. The use of the term “thorn” seems to imply that it is something painful. Some have said that it was the opponents that Paul faced in opposition his message (we often refer to people as a thorn in our side). Some think that it might be some sinful desires that Paul has (perhaps lust or something like that). I suspect that it is more likely some physical condition (many scholars think it involves Paul’s eyesight because of Galatians 4:13-15; perhaps the visions that Paul had of Jesus when he was converted affected his eyesight?) rather than an issue of sin; Paul struggles with sin, as we all do, but it would seem odd for God to say that he is leaving some sinful struggle in Paul just to humble him. In addition, the language of “thorn” makes me think it is likely to be physical pain. However, Paul does not explicitly name it, so I always want to be careful to be too precise. I do not think there is a connection to the crown of thorns that Jesus wore, except that the crown of thorns inflicted pain.

In some ways, I think it is great that Paul did not name the thorn, as if he did, we might limit this truth to some certain category. While we might not be sure what it was, we can know that it shows us that we might have struggles and difficulties even after we accept Christ and choose to follow him, but that these are not always tied to disobedience but can be God’s way of making us more like Christ and more reliant on him. When we have pain and see our weaknesses, do we turn to Jesus?

Who are the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46?

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus speaks about sheep and goats and a separation between them when the Son of Man (Jesus) sits on the throne, the sheep are the “saved” (those who will be in God’s presence, see v. 34) while the goats are those who will face eternal punishment (see verses 41 and 46). What is interesting in this passage is that the sheep are identified as those who cared for the “least of these my brothers” (v. 40) while the goats ignore them (v. 45). Does this mean that people are saved by works rather than faith in Christ? In light of the rest of Scripture, no, but it should be pointed out that the description of these individuals in need as brothers points to them being Christians (as we are the family of God), with this passage pointing to the need to care for and identify with Christians who are suffering. This was particularly important in the early church, as people might try to hide their connections to other Christians so they would not face persecution. This is a call for us to make sure that we go public with our faith, that we identify with Christians and seek to care for others; if we follow Christ, we need to do so in word and in deed. This will lead us to care for those, but we are not saved by acts of mercy but rather through faith in Christ, who changes us to be the sort of people who have these acts of mercy.

Questions about Bible or theology? E-mail them to Pastor Brian at Theology@wearefaith.org. You can also subscribe to this blog by filling out the info on the right side.

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