The World-Rulers of this Darkness (Powers and Principalities, Pt. 2)

This series of articles contends that the Bible is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth are constantly interacting and alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Law and the Great Accuser
  4. Enslaving Creation
  5. The Secret Wisdom of God in Christ
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University).


What’s wrong with the world?

The biblical answer: it’s complicated.

Humans have certainly lost their way. The overt story of the Bible is about divine image-bearers refusing to fully step into their fundamental vocation. Humans, made to reflect God’s purposes for the world, have instead become agents of creation’s undoing. This is central.

But there’s more. Alongside the storyline of people behaving badly there is one about another group of powerful creatures who’ve gone wrong. These two storylines are deeply intertwined and overlapping, each one influencing the other.

Two passages from the Psalms help us get our bearings on these other creatures, the powers:

The heavens will acclaim Your wonder, O Lord,
   Your faithfulness, too, in the assembly of the holy ones.
For who in the skies can compare to the Lord,
   who can be like the Lord among the the sons of the gods?
A God held in awe in the council of the holy,
   mighty and fearsome above all his surroundings.
Lord, God of Armies, who is like You,
   powerful Yah, with your faithfulness round You?
-from Psalm 89 (The Hebrew Bible, Robert Alter)

These “sons of the gods,” these “armies” and “holy ones,” constitute the heavenly council or assembly. They are clearly powerful spiritual beings, yet they are not equal to the Lord who is mighty and wonderful above them.

The collection of psalms about God’s enthronement as High King (Psalms 95-99) regularly reference the one true God’s place above all other gods. The gods of the nations are but idols, falsely claiming that they are due worship. Yahweh alone is truly Lord Sabaoth, the Lord over the Hosts.

But then we learn another crucial piece of information:

God takes His stand in the divine assembly,
   in the midst of the gods He renders judgment.
“How long will you judge dishonestly,
   and show favor to the wicked?
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
   Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
Free the poor and the needy,
   from the hand of the wicked save them.
. . . As for Me, I had thought you were gods,
   and the sons of the Most High were you all.
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
   and like one of the princes, fall.”
-from Psalm 82 (The Hebrew Bible, Alter)

Wait a minute. Aren’t humans the ones who judge dishonestly and neglect the poor? Isn’t it wicked human rulers who fail to care for the needy and in fact oppress them?

Again and again the prophets enter charges against people failing to do justice. Yet here we see God directly assigning blame to the world’s spiritual powers for the injustices that takes place on earth. He renders judgment against them, even saying these gods will die.

Fallen humans are responsible for the world’s evil.

Fallen spiritual powers are responsible for the world’s evil.

The Bible says “Yes” to both of these statements.

The Deep Connection Between Humans and Powers

It helps to put the biblical pieces together to understand how this works. In Daniel 10–12 we see an angel responding to Daniel’s fasting and mourning with a crucial message. “The prince of the kingdom of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” are in active warfare against this angel and also against “Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” Angelic powers and nations go together – indeed, they seem bound together in some essential way.

We know from the regular prophetic denunciations against injustice that human institutions and systems are implicated, including such things as the way the law courts work and how economic structures function to favor the rich and harm the poor. So the entire realm of human cultural power is now tied to dark spiritual powers.

This, in turn, leads the Lord of the heavenly council to combine his judgments against both parties. So in Isaiah we see Yahweh showing up with punishment on his mind:

On that day the Lord will punish
   the host of heaven, in heaven,
   and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
They will be gathered together
   as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
   and after many days they will be punished.
-from Isaiah 24 (RSV)

Notice the strong emphasis on one party working in heaven, while the other operates on the earth. They are operating in different, but connected, realms. Destructive evil is their joint accomplishment.

The running of the world—the world in rebellion to God—is not merely in the hands of presidents, prime ministers, and kings. It is equally governed by the angelic rulers of the heavenly assembly, the world-rulers of this darkness.

The biblical evidence points toward created angelic beings who were given their authority by the Creator. They were meant to serve under God and facilitate his purposes for a well-ordered world. Their delegated rule was misdirected, however, particularly when they began to accept the idolatrous worship of humans. They became powerful forces for evil, for ruining God’s good creation.

Daniel has visions of wicked kings on earth who appear as terrible beasts coming up out of the sea (the regular home of chaos monsters in the Bible). These human kingdoms, working in concert with the powers, are represented as beasts precisely because they act in subhuman ways. This is another piece of biblical wisdom: when humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

When humans or angels seek to be more than they were created to be, they always end up being less.

It is perfectly appropriate, then, that the one who defeats these proud but false rulers is “one like a son of man.” A truly human one will appear, and as the representative of his now-restored people, he will be given “dominion and glory and kingdom” (Daniel 7).

Humans were made to rule as God’s deputies in the world. So God is determined that the powers be overcome and his people receive the gift of their own rule back again.

The First Testament testifies to spiritual powers which have turned false and enslaved of the world. They disrupt God’s intentions for the functioning and flourishing of the world according to true justice. They interfere with the intended role of God’s image-bearers. The names and titles of these powers move straight from the First into the New Testament via the Greek translation of the ancient Scriptures, showing that these are exactly the same powers as before.

So the story awaits a new announcement, some major turning point within this narrative of God and his world. Those under the reign of the dark lords surely need some good news for a change. Something like the arrival of “one like a son of man.”

Powers and Principalities: The Bible’s Most Overlooked Storyline

Maurice Sendak’s parents were poor Jewish immigrants to the United States from Poland. Their family that stayed behind were all killed in the Holocaust. The weekly Sunday afternoon gatherings of his extended family in Brooklyn brought in aunts and uncles that Maurice would later describe as “all crazy—crazy faces and wild eyes.”

These visits inspired Sendak to write the famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are—the story of Max and his adventures in a faraway and fantastical land. In the story, Max’s mother calls him “WILD THING!”—a phrase derived from the Yiddish “vilde chaya” (or “wild animals”) to describe rambunctious children. Max is drawn to the wild side of life, but in the end he rediscovers the appeal of home, calmness, and a still-warm supper.

My contention in this series of articles is that the Bible itself is set in the land of wild things. That is, the Bible is more fantastical—beautiful, dangerous, and strange—than we give it credit for. What we incorrectly call the natural and the supernatural, as if they are distinct and isolated realms, are actually part of a single, fascinating, and intertwined world. In the Bible, heaven and earth constantly interact and are alive with all kinds of creatures, forces, and powers—both seen and unseen.

What are these powers? What do they do in the world? How do they operate? How do they relate to God, to humans, and to the story of rescue and redemption the Bible tells? It’s past time we re-engage the Bible’s overlooked story of the powers. The six articles cover the following major biblical topics:

  1. Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers
  2. The World-Rulers of this Darkness
  3. The Law and the Great Accuser
  4. Enslaving Creation
  5. The Secret Wisdom of God in Christ
  6. The Powers and the People of Jesus Today

Ladies and Gentlemen, Meet the Powers

The Bible is enchanted. That is, the Bible is literally words with power. It tells us how we’ve come to be enslaved. It tells us of the coming of the Word that can break the spell that lies over the human race, indeed, over the entire creation.

Unfortunately, many of our interactions with the Bible end up treating it as a very tame book. We’ve worked pretty hard to make the Bible into a nice, tidy, even rationalistic collection of true, but very calm religious propositions.

We’ve missed the enchanted part and mostly just embraced the tame part. In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists—we believe there is a God, but we often end up acting like he’s essentially abandoned things and left us to run the world ourselves. We may believe, vaguely, that there are other spiritual beings around, but again, we act like they don’t really matter much. When we do this, we practice a naturalistic worldview. Christians often identify the 18th-century Enlightenment as the cause of much of the anti-religious bias in the world, but then we ourselves too often live our lives as if the Enlightenment view of the world is the operative one.

In a world like ours, it’s very easy to live as functional deists

There are, of course, some expressions of the Christian faith that are very much alive to the existence of the spiritual realm. These communities will talk about demons and spirits and their devastating and destructive role. But even here the way these spirits function within this worldview doesn’t always seem to line up with the story of the powers we encounter in the Bible.

We need to take another, closer look at the biblical story, and particularly the story about the powers and principalities. For they play a decisive role in the Bible’s life-or-death drama.

As always here at the Institute for Bible Reading, I begin by advocating that we read the Bible as a collection, not of verses, but of unique and quite literary books. Once books are taken seriously as the basic building blocks of the Bible, then we can look for the narrative thread that ties them together into a coherent whole.

Our job in this series is to understand and incorporate into our own biblical worldview the kind of story the Bible actually weaves. That story is not what we normally take it to be. For the Bible is not only the story of God and humanity. It is the story of God, humanity, and the powers.


In the Bible, the powers are seemingly sometimes personal, sometimes impersonal, but they are always big. They are most often forces of evil on a grand scale, typically interacting with human beings in rebellion to God. There is no systematic theology of the powers in the Bible, and it’s probably not a good use of time to try and create one. The topic is complex, and as it moves along with the storyline of the Bible, things change (as they tend to do in stories).

We begin at the very beginning, which I have on reliable authority is a very good place to start. Are the powers there at the creation of the world?

Speaking of the beloved Son of God, Paul writes to the Colossians:

For in him all things were created,
In the heavens and here on earth.
Things we can see and things we cannot—
Thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—
All things were created both through him and for him.

He is ahead, prior to all else,
And in him all things hold together . . .
– the song of the Son from The Kingdom New Testament

So the first thing to be said of the powers is that they were meant to be, and meant to have a positive function within God’s world. Whatever wrong turn they have taken, Paul goes out of his way to mention them as part of the creation intended to serve the Messiah and his purposes in the world.

How their role was meant to relate to that of God’s image-bearers—the humans—is not entirely clear. As I said, there’s no systematic theology here. We have to coherently piece together the parts of the story as best as we can. But as we follow the narrative trail, we will learn more about how the rule of the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve connects with that of the spiritual principalities and powers.

Paul goes on in his Colossian song concerning the Son to include the powers in the wide scope of Christ’s redemption:

He is the start of it all
. . . So in all things he might be the chief.
For in him all the Fullness was glad to dwell
And through him to reconcile all to himself,
Making peace through the blood of his cross,
Through him—yes, things on the earth,
And also the things in the heavens.

The positive, saving work of Christ is as big and wide as the destructive havoc wreaked in the cosmos from top to bottom. All earthly things and all heavenly things are brought back to God through the Messiah.

By the time we start encountering these hard-to-define beings in the flow of the story, they seem to have already taken up a negative role, and it only gets worse as the story progresses. We will look at how this plays out in more detail for different parties in the narrative: the nations, God’s own people, and even the rest of creation, what is often called nature.


So the major parameters of the story of the powers are set. These powers were created by and for Jesus the Messiah. They have fallen and have been actively working against God’s good intentions for his creation, including humanity. They are included in God’s redemptive plan through Christ to restore all things. This is the basic framework we’ll be working with throughout the series.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that what we are calling the powers are referred to in a wide variety of ways in the Scriptures. It seems that the authors of the Bible didn’t always have the full backstory and weren’t always entirely sure how to go about naming these . . . things.

Here are some of the names we will encounter (treated differently in various translations, of course): the gods, or the sons of God, the heavenly council or the hosts of heaven, the princes of the nations, the unclean spirits, demons, the beasts that rise out of the sea, principalities, thrones, dominions, authorities, the basic elements of the world, the god of this age, the prince of this world, the ruler of the air, the world-rulers of this darkness, and ha satan—the great Accuser.

There they are, right in the middle of the story, and from its beginning to its end. And yet they’ve been neglected. It’s a shortcoming we must start to correct lest we misconstrue the story God is telling us.

If you think the overall story of the Bible has anything at all to do with life in our world today, you have to give the story of the powers its due. We must all pay attention to where the wild things are.

* I am especially indebted to G. B. Caird’s small book Principalities and Powers for the main outline of this series (based on his Chancellor’s Lectures in 1954 at Queen’s University). Most studies on the powers seem to jump straight to Paul’s theology, but Caird helpfully takes the time to look at the powers in the larger biblical story.

Continue to Part 2: The World-Rulers of this Darkness >>>

Unpacking the Work and Mission of N.T. Wright

N. T. Wright is one of the most prolific and well-known Bible scholars in the world. His enormous body of work around the New Testament has shifted the conversation around topics like justification, kingdom, heaven, and even the gospel itself.

A few years ago, before IFBR was founded, our Senior Director of Content Glenn Paauw taught a 6-part class on Wright at Living Way Fellowship, a Foursquare church in Highlands Ranch, CO. We recently unearthed the audio recordings from the class, and the folks at Living Way have graciously given us permission to post them here.

If you’ve ever been curious about Wright’s work but haven’t had the time or energy to pick up his 700-page scholarly books, Glenn’s explanations and summaries will be immensely helpful.

Week 1:  Introduction to N. T. Wright—Christian Origins & the Question of God

Wright’s goal is to tell the story of the New Testament, doing justice to its original history and meaning, then inviting us to take our own places in its drama.

Week 2:  The New Testament & the People of God

Wright’s key question is:  How should we read the Bible? We begin with an awareness that the Bible is a collection of different kinds of writing that come together to tell God’s great narrative. Then we immerse ourselves in the context of the New Testament—the world of Second Temple Judaism. In short, we learn to read the Scriptures on their own terms.

Week 3:  Jesus & the Victory of God

What did the life of Jesus mean in its own own time and in its own world? The announcement of the kingdom, the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer, the parables, the healings, the Lord’s Supper, and the cross—how would all of this have been seen, heard, and understood in first-century Israel?

Week 4:  The Resurrection of the Son of God

The ancient pagan world had its own understanding of what happened after death. Indeed, it had its own Old Testament (Homer) and New Testament (Plato).  How did the Jewish hope for resurrection and a renewed world challenge this? And what did the surprising resurrection of Jesus mean within this Jewish world?

Week 5:  Paul & the Faithfulness of God, Part 1

Paul brought the gospel about Jesus to a world of Jewish synagogues, pagan religion, Greek philosophy, and Roman empire. Paul’s message was a Jewish story reshaped around Jesus. But how did Paul put all the pieces together? How did he connect the stories of creation, humanity, Israel, and Jesus?

Week 6:  Paul & the Faithfulness of God, Part 2

The core Jewish beliefs in the first century were that the one, true creator God (monotheism) had chosen Israel (election) and therefore sooner or later God would have to act in history (eschatology) for them. So how did Paul re-envision all this around the new revelation of Jesus and the Spirit?

An Ezra Moment: Returning to Our Story During COVID-19

Around 538 B.C., the nation of Israel limped home. After seventy years of Babylonian captivity, they returned to Judah to find Jerusalem in ruins. The wall was torn down, the gates destroyed. The Temple was little more than a pile of rubble. Nehemiah weeps when he learns of the condition of the city.

The people are disoriented. The glory days of David and Solomon are long gone and their once world-class city is a shell of its former self. They rebuild the temple, and those old enough to remember the glory of the first temple weep tears of mourning. Nehemiah rebuilds the walls and gates surrounding the city, but reality bites. The once-proud superpower has been reduced to a third-rate nation with no king, no army, and no treasury.

Then something amazing happens. Once the basic infrastructure is set up, the people come to Ezra, their chief priest, with a request.

 “In October, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.”

Although the walls and the temple were standing again, the people sensed that something was still broken: themselves. They believed that healing would come through re-immersion in their Story. Ezra responded immediately by organizing corporate day of Scripture reading.

“He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.”

Church in the Age of Coronavirus

The COVID-19 virus hardly needs an introduction. Over the last few weeks our lives and habits have been upended. Words like “crisis” and “pandemic” flood our thoughts and our imaginations. We’re isolated, cut off from our friends and loved ones, unable to even gather on Sundays to worship.

Our pastors are scrambling to create infrastructure with which to “do church” during these strange and unsettling times. We can be grateful for their leadership and creativity, and for online platforms like Zoom that allow us to see the faces of our church family, if only in pixels and bytes.

Even with technology helping us piece together a vague sense of community, we are still entering a difficult season. Infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm has said that while many are viewing the crisis as a “blizzard” that must be waited out with extreme measures for a short period of time, the more appropriate response is to view it as the “beginning of winter.” While the ultimate severity and longevity are unknown, many indicators point toward a likely scenario: things are going to be different for a while.

In their moment of uncertainty and disorientation, the nation of Israel turned to their Scriptures to remember their identity, to recount God’s promises and his rescue, and to be reminded of the kind of people they were called to be. During the winter of coronavirus, could the Body of Christ do something similar?

Returning to our Story

Shaken from our usual routines and frenetic pace, the virus has given the church an opportunity to evaluate. What can “church” look like during this time? Like Israel we’re faced with a bit of a blank slate. Like Israel we can choose to return and re-focus on our founding story told in the Scriptures. A modern-day Ezra Moment, if you will.

To help, we’ve created Immerse From Home, a completely free downloadable resource that includes everything you need to (virtually) gather in community for a two-week book club reading of Luke-Acts.

  • The full digital text of Luke-Acts in the Immerse reader-friendly format
  • A two-week reading plan
  • Four open-ended conversation starters for your group
  • Accompanying resources including audio, video, and Family Guide
  • A step-by-step guide on setting up and running video meetings through Zoom

Originally intended as Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the same combined story, Luke-Acts comprises a quarter of the New Testament. In a period of uncertainty and anxiety, what could be more orienting and grounding than the story of Jesus and the story of the early church?

If you and your group enjoy the Luke-Acts experience, you can continue reading the New Testament together using Tyndale House Publishers’ 20% discount off of Immerse: Messiah.

The Beginning of Something New

In his wisdom, Ezra understood that an emotional one-off event wasn’t sufficient and that he needed to create a comprehensive plan for sustainable rhythms of immersion in the sacred texts. The Scripture Reading Marathon became a turning point for the nation, but only because it was a starting point.

Nehemiah goes on to tell us:

“On October 9, the family leaders of all the people, together with the priests and Levites, met with Ezra the scribe to go over the law in greater detail.”

In the same month, during the Festival of Trumpets, “Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God on each of the seven days of the festival.”

“On October 31, the people assembled again…They remained in place for three hours while the Book of the Law of the Lord was read to them.”

For the first time in their history, the Scriptures became central to Israel’s way of life. Synagogues, created expressly for the public reading of Scripture, started throughout Israel. Scattered song lyrics from David, Moses, Asaph, and others were compiled for the first time into the Psalms. By the first century AD, young boys between the ages of 6 and 10 were expected to memorize the Torah.

So we ask again: could the COVID-19 virus instigate an Ezra Moment? Could we take this opportunity to re-immerse ourselves in our Story?

We invite you to take action. To try something new – and ancient – during this strange time. Pastors, call your congregations into this experience. Small group and Bible study leaders, challenge your groups to a two-week commitment. Regular “Joes” and “Janes,” try this with your spouse or your kids (use the Family Guide for younger kids) or invite some family and friends to weekly Zoom calls. Invite that one co-worker or neighbor whom you’ve never felt comfortable inviting to a Bible Study.

As the Scriptures washed over the nation on that first day of reading, the people began to weep. It’s unclear why – perhaps because they hadn’t heard the Word in so long, or perhaps because they’d never heard it at all. Perhaps because they were overwhelmed by guilt as they realized just how far they had strayed from their calling. Regardless, guilt and shame would not have the final say. Nehemiah jumps up and addresses the people:

“Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God…go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

“So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.”

Immerse From Home >>>

Fasting and Feasting: The Bible’s Story Told by Food

The stuff of earth is the stuff of life—and also the stuff of the biblical story. Trees, mountains, water, and food all figure prominently in the slowly unfolding drama of the Holy Scriptures. Now the fact is, there are lots of prisms for viewing the storyline of the Bible, many built from big theological concepts like covenant and kingdom. But it’s also possible to over-theorize the Bible, turning it into a collection of abstractions. But the Bible itself doesn’t do this. The Bible keeps its story close to the ground, making sure we remember it’s fundamentally a down-to-earth saga.

So, following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, we’ve given you some takes on the big story from the perspective of four earthly elements of redemption. These windows into the Bible’s narrative of renewal are all the stuff of life. We’ve already looked at the story of trees, mountains, and water. And just as with those earlier elements, today we’ll see how food threads the whole story of the Bible. From beginning to end God is talking to us about what we’re eating.


Eating Our Way to Eternal Life

The Bible opens with a poem-like presentation (maybe even a song?) of the creation of the world, complete with refrains of goodness and day counting. Right here at the beginning the Lord is already accounting for food. “Here, see all these plants and produce-laden trees? Those are meals for you, and for all the birds and animals too.” He built food-producing machines right into the fabric of our home.

God didn’t just want us to be. He wanted us to eat to be.

“He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.”

Then, in the very next entry in the Bible, food is right there at the center of the story again. This time it’s the trees specifically, but the description is enticing. “Look at them! Overflowing with fresh fruit. Luscious, right? Yes, they’re good for food, so help yourself.”

Adam and Eve, in God’s garden, and the eatin’s good in their new neighborhood.

But there’s also this: “That tree over there, I insist you stay away from it. Don’t eat that, it’s not for you.”

Sadly they ate, and so do we. We seek wisdom apart from God. We try so hard to go our own way. What, exactly, did God really say anyway? It’s unclear, so we’d better decide for ourselves. We have an awful lot of faith in our own perspective, our independent take on things. We’ve assumed a stance of superiority. Aspiring to be God-like, you might say.

And we’ve paid.

The good earth that was meant to be a place that was easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to harvest—this place became dry, hard, sun-baked ground. The gift turned into back-breaking, painful work, all for a little food which was there for the taking at first. So blessing became curse, fruit turned foul, and when we reach for it now, so often it’s only thorns and thistles we come up with.

In the biblical tale this is the ongoing struggle of the present evil age. We need food—real bodily sustenance and solid spiritual nourishment. We’re not necessarily good at getting either on our own, and the creation itself sometimes seems to be working against us.

It’s no accident that eating is at the heart of the biblical story of both creation and fall. Food is so central to life you might even say it is life. In all kinds of ways, we really are what we eat. We are hungry beings—both our hearts and our bodies are longing for everything they need to thrive.

God knows this, of course, so his great, long term restoration project comes with a food plan.

Within the heart of Israel’s sacrificial system is the invitation to feast with God. Bring a food offering to God’s home, light the fire on his altar, and he says repeatedly that the aroma pleases him. At Israel’s birth he invites Moses, Aaron, and the elders to climb the mountain and, believe it or not, to see God and eat and drink. It is a vision, a foretaste, a promise of all that God is working for in this story.

“Come on, let’s eat together,” he says. It’s a way of saying, “Let’s do life together.”

This is why God is so adamant in his Torah instructions that it’s crucial to make sure the poor are fed. Don’t you dare try to sell them food at a profit, or have you forgotten that I’m the one who helped you when you were scraping the bottom of the barrel for leftovers in Egypt? I brought you into this land and gifted you life, so you in turn give your fields a year off and let whoever wants to, grow whatever they want to. Being holy as he is holy includes being generous as he is generous. God himself is the Defender of the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner—so welcome them to share all the gifts of life he’s shared with you.

In the Bible, celebrations of life and God’s good gifts are always times of feasting. God’s gifts are always about building more and better life into his creation. Deep gratitude and joy are the right responses to these gifts, and God tells us the way to express this is in feasting well and good. Scrooginess at feast times is definitely disobedience.

But the flip side of this is equally true. And this is why when things go terribly wrong, the response of God’s people is fasting. To fast is to deny oneself the food of life. It is a way of heightening our own awareness of what’s gone wrong—both in us and around us—and identifying it with dying. The mini-death of fasting is a kind of prayer meant to demonstrate strongly to God the seriousness of both our confession and our supplication. We want the world to change and we want ourselves to change.

Therefore feasting and fasting are both essential to our life in this in-between time the Bible describes. Again and again as the narrative moves on we look to see if a table has been set. Is it time to eat? Or time to refrain?

God joins us in this dual approach to eating. At more than one point he says, “Enough with these sacrifices!” The way we’re acting makes him doubt we really want to share a meal with him. Then again, he always eventually comes back to the dining room, and he’s always rewriting those invitations. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” He is downright determined to eat with us, and he’ll even dress us up when we need it. He tells us straight up that the only attire for a proper meal with God is the robe of righteousness, the garment of justice. He’ll provide them, but it’s still up to us to credibly wear them.

There’s no question his desire to eat with us runs strong, and we get the feeling as we read along that the banquet is going to win out over the deprivation. Even if we’re unfit for the meal, if we’re found to be less-than-worthy guests, he will overcome even that obstacle.

Whatever it takes, whenever there’s a decent reason, someone’s calling for food.

The ark of God brought to Jerusalem? David shares loaves of bread, and cakes of dates and raisins with the entire assembly. Torah read out loud to the people for the first time in a generation or more? Nehemiah exclaims, “Don’t weep, celebrate! Go enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and be sure to share with those who don’t have any.”

But even as we read of all these festivities and giant spreads, we know that they are at best temporary reprieves from the daily grind of life in the ancient world, the frequent misery, the devastating destitution. Is this story going to be an ever-revolving tale of feast and famine?

No.

It turns out these earlier refreshments are mere appetizers, foretastes of the real deal meal that’s coming. That greater fare is introduced by a wild man wearing leather and camel hair, surviving on locusts and a little bit o’ honey.

The main course is a Messiah. He says “Yes, you’ve had some manna from heaven before, but I have food you know nothing about, have never experienced. I am here to give you myself, for I am the true bread from heaven. I am the author of life, and I’ve come to be both host and meal for you. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and not have to worry about famine and fasting ever again.”

The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they called him a glutton and a winebibber, not to mention a friend of all the wrong kind of people. The kind of people who know they are starving, and will welcome a square meal, some fellowship, and a fruit dessert from the tree of life anytime.

This is the wedding supper of the Lamb himself. A feast not just for his people Israel, but for everyone from east and west, north and south, taking their places in the kingdom of God. Those who are last will be first, and the first will be last, and the fast will become feast, forever. Meanwhile, all those who’ve been stuffing their own faces while ignoring the poor will be thrown out.

Wealthy, self-serving Babylon will fall, its prosperous merchants now weeping. But there’s another city, a new city, the Jerusalem of God. It will come down out of heaven to an earth renewed. It’s a city on a hill, with the river of the water of life running right through it. And there, right on this new world beach, someone is cooking for his friends, saying, “Come, have some breakfast with me.” When he takes the bread, gives thanks, and breaks it for us, we’ll know exactly who he is.