"Those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away" (1Corinthians 7:31, NASB).
As believers we are living in this world but not of it, for we no longer belong to it, but are strangers who belong to another world, to Heaven. When God called Abram, who was to become the father of the believers (Romans 4:11), He told him to leave country, kindred, and close family (Genesis 12:1). When the Patriarch arrived in the Promised Land, he understood that he should live there as a sojourner, a stranger, a pilgrim on his way to another destination (Hebrews 11:8). Abram-"exalted father"-became Abraham-"father of a multitude"-(Genesis 17:5). As the father of all believers (Jewish and non-Jewish), Abraham is our example, model, and guide. Even though he had arrived in the land that God had promised him as a possession, and was living there, Abraham understood that for the time being he could not yet make full use of it. This is the point in regards to our use of this world, namely to use it as good stewards who have been entrusted with the things of this world, for a time, realizing that all belongs to God and that the present form of this world is passing away (1 Corinthians 7:31).
In the world to come, everything will be put under the control of our Lord Jesus, when His rights will be fully honored (Hebrews 2:5-8).
Then it will be possible to make full use of it, in submission to Him, in fellowship with Him.
Earthly Things-1 Timothy 4:1-5
The highest revelation is the mystery of godliness, spelled out in 1 Timothy 3:16. Taken in its context, this passage gives us the right view of things in this world, still under the enemy’s control since the Fall (Genesis 3), and it teaches us how to live here according to God’s will, despite the enemy’s influence. This passage also provides insight on how to use the earthly blessings of this present creation-food, married life, family life-for the glory of God and our own benefit. The Apostle explains that all is to be used in fellowship with God (the Creator, our Father), according to His Word, together with prayer and thanksgiving. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul further taught us to be patient with weaker brethren, who abstain from certain things which are good in themselves. In 1 Timothy 4 it is not a matter of weakness and patience, but there Paul condemns a wrong form of abstinence, when certain leaders forbid themselves or others to get married, to be "closer to God," or forbid the use of certain foods, or impose certain days as more holy, etc. Where such things are taught and imposed, Paul unmasks them as being the doctrine of demons, for such forms of abstinence completely set aside what God has given in creation and in nature (food, marriage, family-life, work). All that which God has created is good in itself and is therefore also good for us, Christians, to use these earthly blessings as coming from His hands…as long as we use them according to God’s will and in fellowship with Him. Paul shows how to enjoy these earthly things, with the right (spiritual) attitude, as briefly summarized next.
In the context of God’s revealed truth, and of faith on our side, the knowledge of God and Christ, according to 1 Timothy 3:16, lifts us above the mere earthly level. Yet this does not mean that we should reject earthly things in and by themselves, or abstain from them (or force others to do so). What is condemned is worldliness, the attitude or desire of participating in things of this world that is under Satan’s control. Here are two extremes: abstinence or indulgence, and they are both wrong.
With thankful hearts, we realize that all earthly blessings come to us from God’s hand, giving thanks for them; they are to be received and enjoyed in fellowship with Him, for His glory and for our benefit.
These earthly gifts are sanctified by the Word of God, set apart for Him and for us. This gives us the authority to use them according to God’s direction, with prayer, as we express our thankfulness.
We are not talking here about the spiritual blessings God has blessed us with (Ephesians 1:3), or eternal life He has given us. We have received these eternal and heavenly blessings through faith and through a work of the Holy Spirit, and these are our true possessions. We are talking now about things of this earth, earthly blessings, we have received from God, to be enjoyed during the time we are living here. All these belong to God and He has given them to us for a time: food, jobs, family, sex in marriage, children, holidays, "free time," our house, car, etc. We are to use them as His stewards, honoring God in our using them and in the way we are using them.
Further Instructions on Earthly Things-1 Timothy 6:6-19
God gives us all things to enjoy (1 Timothy 4:4; see also Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:13; 5:18). We may use our earthly blessings and possessions for our enjoyment, in communion with God, as we saw above. However, there is a higher way we can use them, namely in sharing them with others, especially in learning to not put our confidence in earthly possessions. Having food and raiment, let us therewith be content (1 Timothy 6:6-10). Paul shows us that the value of eternal life surpasses that of our earthly blessings (vv. 12, 19), even when used in a spiritual manner. We may enjoy these earthly things, in their own context and with the right attitude, but use them also to do good to others, even though this use is temporary, as with all earthly blessings, of less value than eternal life.
Administrators or Stewards
Let us repeat that we, Christians, are stewards of earthly things which God has entrusted to us for a time. All these things, as mentioned above, belong to Him. Realizing this we use them for His glory, in a world where His rights as the Creator-Redeemer-God are not honored, but rejected. Luke 16:9-12 describes the following contrasts between what is temporary (left column) and what is heavenly and eternal (right column):
|mammon of unrighteousness||everlasting habitations (used for the Master)|
|that which is of some value||that which has much value|
|the unrighteous Mammon||true riches in Christ; heavenly blessings, eternal life|
|that which belongs to Another||that which is our own, and remains with us.|
We are stewards of earthly things, and as administrators must be faithful (1 Corinthians 4:2), for the blessings that God has entrusted to us belong to Him (left column). This is in contrast to the things which we truly possess, eternal and spiritual things, true life, eternal life (right column). In this last context, we now understand Colossians 3:1-2 and Philippians 3:17-19 (please read these verses). These verses do not condemn earthly things. However, they do condemn those Christians who live only for the things of the earth, earthly blessings, totally preoccupied by them. Such Christians do not think at all of their life hidden with Christ in God. The use of earthly things is not wrong, as we saw above, but what is wrong is to be entirely "taken up" by these things. In a Christian’s life, things of the earth and earthly blessings, of necessity, occupy an important place, but they are always subject to and controlled by this true life, "Christ in you, the Hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27).
Worldly Things, Earthly Things, Heavenly Things
There is a distinction between the things of the world-as a system that belongs to the enemy (since Genesis 3; see also 1 John 2:15-17)-and the things of the earth, which are good in and of themselves, but it is difficult to give a precise definition, since this depends on many different factors. However, it is clear that as Christians we can use the things of the earth in a worldly way, and this is wrong; also, earthly things can set aside the influence of eternal and heavenly things, which is not right either. When one thinks only of earthly and worldly things, or does not give time to his wife and children, but is entirely taken up with his job, he is not a spiritual brother. The brother who only lives for and because of his wife is worldly. Another example: one who does not do his work as he should, or who uses his employer’s time to read the Bible is not spiritual and is in a sense even worldly, because he acts in the same way as those of the world. He who is so entirely taken up by his work that he no longer has time for his wife and family and even less time for the Lord, is worldly, since he only thinks of things of the earth. One more example: music is a marvelous gift of God in creation-which we can enjoy even in the context of our meetings and in the hymns we sing-but he who lives only for music, even if it is "spiritual music," is thinking only of the things of the earth and therefore is worldly.
It may be helpful to refer to 1 John 2:15-17 and 3:16-17. In the second passage the things of the world are seen as earthly things with which we may do well towards our brother. But in the first passage, we learn how the same things are viewed as being a great danger to the believer. The danger is that we would begin to love certain things of the world, good in themselves, as the earthly blessings are. But when these start to occupy our heart and thus turn us aside in our affections from the Lord, then they become the cause of fleshly lusts and even pride. This is the starting point of idolatry (1 John 5:21), when things God has given become a goal in themselves, apart from the great Giver, negatively impacting our communion with God. Scripture distinguishes between worldly and earthly things: if we are not watchful we could easily fall from (1) a spiritual use of earthly things into (2) one that is carnal or even worldly. In the first case we serve the Lord, in the second we serve ourselves (so as not to say Satan). May the Lord give us the grace to examine our hearts and judge what needs to be judged!
Having said this we can summarize the above comments as follows:
- A Christian who finds his joy in things that are worldly, that belong to this world system, is carnal by definition. He certainly is not spiritual, because worldly things-that belong to this world as a wicked system-are always related to sin, to the flesh, and to Satan.
- A Christian who enjoys earthly things is not necessarily carnal.
- A Christian who enjoys heavenly things is not necessarily spiritual or heavenly minded.
It is essential that we really understand points 2 and 3, since point 1 will be clear to all. The Christian who enjoys earthly things is not necessarily carnal, provided that (1) he/she receives the earthly blessings from God’s hand with a good conscience, in thankfulness and in communion with God; and (2) he/she uses these earthly things faithfully in obedience to the Word, for instance with regard to living as a Christian couple and as a Christian family; and (3) that he/she maintains the right balance between earthly and heavenly things.
The other side of the coin: when is a Christian carnal even though he/she enjoys heavenly things? This is the case when:
- He/she does not find real spiritual joy in these blessings, not in true communion with God, which would lead to praise and worship, but only seeks intellectual satisfaction;
- He/she enjoys a carnal pleasure in the knowledge of heavenly things, for example boasting in all he/she knows or even finds therein reasons or principles justifying legalism or other carnal things;
- Neglects his/her earthly obligations, for example either with regard to spouse or children, or despises the daily tasks.
We can either be spiritual in earthly things or carnal! How the heart of man is deceitful and incurable (Jeremiah 17:9). May the Lord give us the grace to put into practice His thoughts, so that in our lives of faith we do as follows:
- Keep ourselves far from worldly things;
- Be spiritual in earthly things;
- Be spiritual in heavenly things.
"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth" (Colossians 3:1-2, NKJ).
To understand this phrase, it is helpful to compare it with the same term in chapter 9: "What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel" (v. 18, NASB). Paul limited the use of his rights and that is the point also, but in a different context, in 1 Corinthians 7:31, namely to limit our liberty with respect to the use of earthly things.