Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. —1 Timothy 4:1-5
This past week we celebrated Thanksgiving, and the word “thanksgiving” appears twice in this passage – in verses 3 and 4. This text answers a question we need an answer to. Here’s the question. Can we be both spiritual and physical at the same time? If we’re reaching for the supernatural, do we also have to be superhuman? Or can true spirituality be located right in the middle of a normal human life? If we want God, do we have to escape daily life in this world? God made us with bodies. But what do our bodies have to do with God now?
There are basically three responses to the overwhelming fact that we are physical beings living in a material world. One response is to see this present experience as our only chance at happiness. We absolutize this present life. We make it an idol to worship. But that puts enormous pressure on us. It intensifies our desperation and makes us selfish and fighting to be first in line. A second response is the opposite – to treat this present life as basically an embarrassment to a serious person and its only worth is as a steppingstone into eternity. We deny the world God made and stigmatize it as dirty. A third response is the gospel way. The gospel teaches us that this world we live in and our physicality in it are both good and non-ultimate. This life is to be neither worshiped nor despised but received and consecrated to God. Worshiping the creation is rejecting God. Denying the creation is rejecting God. Receiving the creation with thanksgiving to God is honoring to him and humane and sustainable for us.
We rarely have the luxury of fighting on one front only. We often face two opposite dangers at once. So we see one monster in front of us, the monster of hedonism and materialism and the worship of sex, and we back away. But if we’re not careful, we’ll walk right into the jaws of another, opposite monster behind us, the monster of pious negativity and asceticism and false holiness. In a way, the first monster is easy to see. But in standing against an obvious wrong, let’s not give up ground that is rightfully ours, according to the gospel.
Christ is so generous, he has given us two precious gifts – the gift of spirituality, and the gift of physicality. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. And he wraps his gift of spirituality in a package of normal, ordinary, common, daily human existence in this physical world, which he will redeem. He comes first. And when we put him first, everything else gets better. C. S. Lewis wisely wrote:
When I have learned to love God better than my earthly dearest, I shall love my earthly dearest better than I do now. In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.
Our physicality is not the ultimate human experience. If we try to make it perform at that level, we ruin it. Look at the destruction of human sexuality in our modern world. But neither is our physicality evil. It is good. God made it. And when we receive his gifts with thanksgiving, moment by moment referring every experience back to God with gratitude, our physical experience is not suppressed but increased. In fact, verse 5 says it is “made holy.” That’s where true holiness is found – not by negatively denying God’s creation but by positively loving God. Let’s think it through.
Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.
The Holy Spirit could not have been more explicit in his warning. “In later times,” that is, in the times after the apostles, teachers will come into the church with a heresy inspired by demonic influence. That is bizarre. But it’s exactly what happened.
What is heresy? Heresy is more than bad theology. None of us has perfect theology. We can even believe some silly things and still connect with God. But there are some beliefs so bad, so misguided, that they would cut us off from God. A heresy is theology so bad it destroys our capacity to know God. And that’s is what the Holy Spirit warned us about here. The Holy Spirit said, “Keep your eyes peeled for this. It’s coming.”
There are two kinds of heresies to be alert to. One kind is easy to spot. If the gospel is like a bottle of fine, old wine, one heresy will come along and smash the bottle to bits – for example, denying that Jesus died for our sins. That’s destructive. It would cut us off from God. But it’s easy to identify. Another kind of heresy is subtle. It provides its own wine, of inferior vintage, even poisonous, but it can taste good, it can feel right somehow, and it comes to us with the familiar old label on the bottle. This kind of heresy says to us, “Let me help you be a better person.” That’s the kind of heresy the Spirit warned us about in this passage.
What is this heresy? It isn’t the kind of moral influence we’d expect from Satan: “. . . who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods.” Wouldn’t we expect to be subverted by moral laxity rather than by moral severity? But this is what happened in the post-apostolic period. The church drifted into asceticism. Christians began idealizing personal austerity as a higher spirituality. Serious Christianity retreated from the city, from the home, from the dinner table, from the offices of civil authority, from the marriage bed, from the workaday world – serious Christianity retreated from daily human life into the deserts and caves of Syria. “Good Christians” were elevated above average Christians by renouncing normal human life – not by renouncing sin but by denying the creation as a matter of principle.
These super-spiritual people located our problem not in our sinfulness but in our humanness, in the very materiality of the way we’re created. As early as the second century, religious celibacy became an order or class in the church. In the fifth century Simon Stylites lived for 37 years on top of a pillar, to avoid contamination from the world. John of Damascus, writing in the eighth century, quotes an earlier Christian teacher who said, “A beautiful woman is a whited sepulcher.” A mentality entered the church that exalted no-meat-on-Fridays and the virtue of poverty and monasticism and self-flagellation, and so forth. Goodness was measured in terms of misery. To this day we have the stereotyped image of “the saint” – pale, weak, fragile, distant, useless.
Think of it this way. If eating strawberries in a bowl of cream is too delicious for truly godly people to allow themselves to enjoy, then wouldn’t we be more virtuous if we omitted the strawberries? And rather than cream, shouldn’t we use plain milk? And rather than milk, wouldn’t serious people take it further by drinking only water? And if we were really devout, wouldn’t we drink the water only at room temperature, rather than add in ice? You see the point. Once we set out in this direction, we can never go far enough. The logical conclusion is self-annihilation. But what does the gospel say? “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are corrupted, nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15). Nothing is ever good enough, holy enough, to a corrupted conscience that cannot get free of its self-revulsion by trusting in the atonement God provided at the cross. But we are not the masters of our own consciences. God has the right to tell us what’s right and wrong. And we have no right to be better than God or above God or in the position of correcting God.
How then does God want us to think? What is that Christian orthodoxy that, by believing it, we can stay close to God right in the midst of everyday life? Here is the gospel perspective on our human physicality and indeed on the entire creation:
. . . who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,
God created all things to be received, not rejected. God is so good to us. He is so generous and kind. Paul mentions marriage and food, in particular. God could have arranged reality such that a husband and wife would consummate their marriage with a handshake, and nothing more. Or God could have arranged reality such that a husband and wife would consummate their marriage sexually one time, on their wedding night, and never again. God could have created reality that way. But he didn’t. He is so kind. And God could have arranged reality such that we eat just once a year, and from a toothpaste tube, squeezing out some odorless, colorless, tasteless goo with all the nutrients we would need for a year. He could have. But he didn’t. He spread out before us on Thursday afternoon a feast to delight our eyes and our taste buds. Now, you don’t have to want to get married. And you don’t have to like Thanksgiving dinner. That’s a matter of personal preference, and you are free in that way. But you may not call marriage dirty or Thanksgiving dinner unworthy of a morally serious person. That would be heresy.
“Everything created by God is good.” How could it be otherwise? Look at the previous context. At the end of chapter 3 Paul quotes an early Christian poem which starts out, “[Christ] was manifested in the flesh.” That’s Christmas. That’s the Son of God coming down and taking to himself our human nature, including a mortal body like every one of ours. If mere physicality is wrong, then Christ is wrong and the gospel is wrong. But the idea that having a body is somehow low and gross and yucky and defiling – that idea came from Greek thought, not from the Bible. At the center of the gospel is God incarnate, God becoming man in Jesus, without being compromised but being perfectly qualified to serve us as our Savior. In the gospel, grace does not destroy nature; grace redeems nature. To deny the goodness of God’s creation is to deny God’s own goodness. It’s a personal insult to him and destructive of our own souls.
Why did God create this world with so many delights? Why did he make the sky blue? Why not institutional green, like the hallways in my junior high? That’s the way we do things, not the way God does things. He is not entirely pragmatic. He likes enjoyment and beauty. Why did God create raspberries? Would the order of the universe be thrown off-course if we didn’t have raspberries? Doesn’t it stand to reason that God looked down from heaven and thought, “Raspberries? Well, why not? They’ll love them!” Why did God create gardenias? Have you ever smelled a gardenia in full bloom? It’s intoxicating. Why did God create jewels and gold? Why did God create our sexuality? Why did God give us the gift of laughter? True gospel believers receive laughter as a good creation of God, and thank him for it. For example, there was no one more orthodox than the nineteenth century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Theodore L. Cuyler, the American preacher, was visiting Spurgeon in England. After a hard day of work and serious discussion, they went out into the country together for a break. An article written in 1915 says, “They roamed the fields in high spirits like boys let loose from school, chatting and laughing and free from care. Dr. Cuyler had just told a story at which Mr. Spurgeon laughed uproariously. Then suddenly he turned to Dr. Cuyler and exclaimed, ‘Theodore, let’s kneel down and thank God for laughter!’ And there, on the green carpet of grass, under the trees, two of the world’s greatest men knelt and thanked the dear Lord for the bright and joyous gift of laughter.” That is holiness. That is spirituality. That is the impact of the biblical gospel.
The Bible says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2). The Bible says, “The things we can see are passing away, but the things we cannot see are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). If this life is all we have, we have nothing. We were created for God himself, and through Christ we are traveling home to God. That’s what this mortal life is all about. But as C. S. Lewis put it, while this world is not our home, it is a merry inn along the way. How then does the gospel teach us to live our daily lives right now?
. . . for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
What Paul means by “the word of God” is probably God’s pronouncement in Genesis 1:31, that God saw everything he had made, and behold, it was very good. And the “prayer” here is probably our own prayer of thanksgiving, which Paul has already mentioned twice in the passage. So, how then can we experience the goodness of God’s creation? By doing two things. One, we accept God’s verdict that it is very good. Two, we thank him for it personally. And the Bible says here that, when we receive God’s gifts this way, they aren’t just okay, they are holy: “. . . for it is made holy.” A meal becomes a sacred event. A married couple’s intimacy becomes a sacred event. A hilarious joke, a cup of coffee, a morning sunrise, a game of Monopoly with the kids, doing an honest day’s work, reading a novel – we discover that spirituality and holiness are not out in a monastic retreat but right here in our daily lives, where God is in all his grace and mercy and goodness. May we thank him and love our Giver above every gift.
Two closing thoughts. One, I can’t make you feel grateful. I can’t make myself feel grateful. But I can say this. At your noon meal today, remember that every morsel of delicious food on that table came from Someone. It came from the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. Left to ourselves, we would have nothing. With him, we are loved. Don’t focus on the negative, on what you don’t have. Focus on the positive, on what God has given you. What you have is directly and personally from the hand of God himself.
Two, we all have guilty consciences. And for good reason. We can see from this passage how wrong it would be to release the tension of our guilt by our own self-punishment. There is a better way, and again, provided by God himself. He came down and entered into our humanness and went to the cross and took upon himself our real moral guilt, and it sank him down into utter misery and death. But he rose up from it all, and he will come again to redeem the entire creation. We get in on his love not by our own false holiness but by admitting our unholiness and receiving his merit for our guilt. The Lord Jesus Christ is all the cleansing we will ever need. Will you receive him today?
Thanks be to God!