A paradigm shift happens when you change or correct an assumption on which other conclusions are based. Most Christians, for instance, assume spiritual things are more important than physical things. Do you hold that assumption? If so, there are probably many other conclusions about the Bible, salvation, Chrisitan living, and more that are all based on that assumption. But what if that assumption is false? Maybe it’s time for a paradigm shift.

“Spiritual” in the New Testament

When we use the word “spiritual” we typically mean one of the following:

  1. something nonmaterial, without physical attributes
  2. something religious or sacred
  3. something that affects or influences our spirit, something that moves us deep inside

We have to understand that the way we use the word “spiritual” is not typically the way New Testament authors used the word. In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “spiritual” is, pneumatikos. Nearly every time this word is used, it means animated, influenced, or empowered by God’s Spirit.

A spirit is the invisible personal presence of a person, which animates their actions and behaviors. There are, of course, evil spirits operating in the unseen (heavenly) realms that empower wickedness and evil in the world; these forces are described as “spiritual” in Ephesians 6:12. But most of the time Paul or Peter use the adjective “spiritual,” they do not mean it in a generic way. They are typically describing a person or thing that is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Paul almost always uses the word pneumatikos (spiritual) in contrast with sarkikos (fleshly or carnal). Sarkikos (carnal) does not mean something has physical attributes. When Paul used the adjective sarkikos (carnal), he meant things or people that are weak, wasting away, or even sinful. So, in Paul’s mind, things are either empowered by God’s Spirit or they are empowered by the weakness of human effort and power.

Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul contrasts pneumatikos (spiritual) with psuchikos (natural). Paul says our current bodies are “natural” and our resurrection bodies will be “spiritual.” Again, Paul does NOT mean one is material and the other is not. He means our current body is natural in the sense that it is mortal and subject to decay. By contrast, our resurrection body will be spiritual because it will be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit to be immortal and imperishable.

Gnostic Influence

The way we tend to contrast spiritual and physical sounds less like the biblical authors and more like pagan Greek philosophers or even Gnostics. Gnostics believed there was a stark difference between spiritual and material things in the world. According to historian Bruce L. Shelley, in his outstanding book Church History in Plain Language, “There were spiritual things that were regarded as inherently pure, while they regarded material things as intrinsically evil.” Also, he continues, “Gnostics believed…the spiritual element is the true identity of persons who are aliens in the material world and body (which the Gnostics regarded as inherently evil).”

Consider these points closely; the Gnostics believed (among other things):

  1. Material things are inherently evil.
  2. Spiritual things are inherently pure.
  3. The spiritual element of a person is their true identity.

Early Christians fought tenaciously against Gnostic ideas because they were in direct contradiction to the worldview of Scripture and the Gospel itself. After all, how can spiritual things be good and material things be evil when the fullness of God dwelt in Jesus’ material body? The Gnostics theorized that perhaps Jesus just seemed to have a material body, but he didn’t actually come “in the flesh.”

The apostle John strongly refuted early versions of Gnostic heresies. In 1 John 4:2-3, he wrote,

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.”

I’m afraid that many, if not most, modern Christians have accepted at least some of the dualism of Gnosticism.

Both Spiritual AND Physical

We have to understand that Paul believed something could be described as “spiritual,” while still having physical attributes. In other words, something can be both spiritual and physical. For instance, Paul uses the adjective “spiritual” to describe certain kinds of people (see 1 Corinthians 2:15 or Galatians 6:1). All people are, of course, physical, but some people are also spiritual because they are empowered by God’s Spirit. A mature Christian, who walks in the Spirit, is both physical and spiritual.

A person is NOT spiritual if he is NOT animated, influenced, or empowered by God’s Spirit. In other words, if his wisdom and behavior come from the world, rather than from God, he is not spiritual. But in the same way, when someone is transformed and becomes a spiritual person, he does not cease to be physical.

On top of all of this, the biblical story is one that is tied to the redemption of God’s creation. The Bible begins with a good God creating a material world, which he says is “good” (Genesis 1). It is more in line with Gnosticism, not Christianity, to think the material creation is bad or unimportant. There are “carnal” things in the world, things that will pass away, but just because something has physical attributes does not make it carnal.

We will better understand the biblical worldview when we embrace the three truths:

  1. God still believes the material world he created is “good.”
  2. Spiritual should not be contrasted with physical, but with carnal (weak or sinful) or natural (subject to death).
  3. Something or someone is “spiritual” when influenced, empowered, or animated by a spirit (especially God’s Spirit) operating in the unseen (heavenly) realms.

I hope we will embrace God’s good creation. I hope we will love and do good to others, recognizing that a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand, and a table of food are all things that are both physical and spiritual when shared in the name of Jesus.

I love you and God loves you,

Wes McAdams

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