Think about your reflex responses to these statements: “Missionary work is more important to God than plumbing.” “Listening to a sermon mp3 is always a better use of time than watching your children ride their bikes.” “Elders are responsible for the spiritual needs of the church and deacons for the physical.” “Making a meal for a hurting brother or sister is more valuable than praying for them.” If you reflexively answered “yes” to any of those statements, it is possible that you have been subtly influenced by the error of Gnosticism.
It’s been a privilege to spend time in Numbers, Ecclesiastes, and 1 John over the past few months. I am often amazed at how the things that God recorded in Numbers for the Israelites so many thousands of years ago still teach us profoundly relevant truths today. I have benefitted beyond words from the frank, earthy wisdom in the book of Ecclesiastes, and I have been blessed by the encouraging truths about God’s love from the book of 1 John. I am also amazed at how often God causes the truths we are learning in one service to overlap with those of the next service. One teacher reinforces the truth of another, apparently unrelated, lesson.
Something else that has struck me from 1 John has been how an ancient heresy like Gnosticism still shows its ugly head today, albeit a bit more camouflaged and unrecognised. One of the distinctives of Gnosticism was an over-emphasis on the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. Another way of putting it, was there was too sharp a line drawn between physical acts and spiritual realities.
Putting some major themes from Numbers, Ecclesiastes, and 1 John together, the student of the word should notice that God clearly cares about far more than we commonly expect. Quite clearly, God cares keenly about physical things done in our physical bodies. Think of all the instructions and order around the camp arrangements and movement of the Israelites as well as the tabernacle. We have seen from Ecclesiastes that, although this life is fleeting, there is much that we can enjoy to the full if we will fear God and keep his commandments.
And yet we know that, in a profound sense, many of these physical things were pictures of spiritual realities. Think about how Jesus elaborated on some of cleanliness laws, showing that it was not what went into a person, but what came out, that defiled him and revealed his heart (Mark 7:14–20).
We have seen this interplay in 1 John between spiritual realities of the heart and physical behaviour. Those who say they have been saved by God do not make a practice of disobeying Him. Those who love their God love those whom God loves. And their love works itself out in physical acts of kindness and care.
One of the most valuable family heirlooms passed down from the Puritans and Reformers is the Christian work ethic. This is the understanding that, since every believer is a priest to God, there should be no sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular, between worship and work. Every believer is privileged to serve and love God, not only in overtly religious acts, but in all things, religious or otherwise. The Christian work ethic gets back to the creation mandate, where we are told to exercise dominion over all creation and bring it into subjection. Thus, the hard-working plumber can worship God by exerting dominion over the flow of water within a house as he expertly solders copper joints on a pipe. The busy father can glorify God as he spends valuable hours watching his kids or listening to their stories. The faithful pastor can shepherd the flock as he oversees the church budget. And the church maintenance man can share a helpful lesson in self-control to his Grace Group as he recalls banging his thumb with the hammer while working on the church roof.
The physical is just as important in God’s sight as the spiritual. But that’s not to suggest that the spiritual is any less important. The point is that they are inseparably bound together. We are both physical and spiritual beings. Spiritual realities bear fruit in physical behaviours. Physical behaviours profoundly influence spiritual appetites.
We need to be done with simplistic distinctions and dichotomies. All of life is sacred and all things sacred are worked out in the physical world. Jesus, himself came to earth, not as a spirit, force, or philosophy, but as a man. As a man, he expressed his love and devotion to the Father in physical acts of obedience. He taught profound spiritual truths through physical acts of kindness, service, and even aggression (Matthew 21:12).
By separating the physical and the spiritual, not only do we risk minimising the importance of the fact that we will be judged for our deeds done in the body, but we also miss out on the tremendous blessing that spiritual truths can be to us in our physical bodies: helping us to trust God when we get the dreaded diagnosis, or as we battle depression, fatigue, or addiction.
As you read your Bible, pray, work, and attend to the needs of your family, and as you face the highs and lows of life in the week ahead, will you make the effort to remember that it all matters to God. Worship is work and work is worship. May God bless us as we live all of life coherently for him.