In the beginning God created the universe and it was excellent in every way. But Adam and Eve’s disobedience affected God’s creation. Today all creation groans with pain, and longs to be released from its slavery to decay and death, and to live in a world free from sin. In the future, God will judge the ungodly, as He did in Noah’s day, but this time by destroying His creation with fire not a flood. Then He has promised to replace it with a new creation that is perfect and free from sin (Gen. 9:15; 2 Pet. 3:7-13).
That’s the big picture of the material world made up of atoms and molecules that we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. It is essential for living, providing such things as air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and materials to use from farms, mines, forests and factories.
We can have three possible attitudes toward the material or physical world: we can idolize it, despise it, or use it to honor God. Let’s look at each view and its consequences.
Idolizing The Material World
Ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun and the Nile River as gods. There were also sacred animals such as the cow and the crocodile. Remember Aaron’s golden calf (Ex. 32:4)? There have also been sacred mountains and trees, and some people have even worshiped images and shrines.
Most of us do not idolize such things today, but materialism dominates the thinking of many. For example, many believe that the physical world made itself; so there was no separate Creator. Also, many consider possessions and pleasure to be their goals in life.
What does the Bible say about this? According to the Epistle to the Romans, people who worship idols have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” It also says that “although they claim to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:25,22 NIV). This means that rejecting the Creator-God is a lie, and living for possessions and pleasure is a lie. Such people are “worshiping” creation instead of the Creator, and adoring what is made instead of the Maker. They are foolish, living for something they cannot keep (Mt. 6:19).
We should not “run after” material things nor live for money and possessions; instead we should be content with what we have (Mt. 6:31-32; 1 Tim. 6:8, 17; Heb. 13:5). God knows our needs. As our time on earth is short, we should not be taken up with the things in our lives (1 Cor. 7:31).
What is the consequence of this way of life? Living for possessions makes it difficult to follow Christ (Mt. 19:23-24). Such people use excuses to reject the gospel (Lk. 14:16-19). It also crowds out the Christian’s chance of maturing (Lk. 8:14). Unfortunately this is evident around the world today. As in life we reap what we sow, these behaviors are often a result of being devoted to the material world (2 Cor. 9:6).
Warnings about our attitude toward money can also be applied to the material world: “The love of money (or the material world) is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). So idolizing the material world is a great source of evil. Christians should always remember that Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money (or material things)” (Mt. 6:24).
Despising The Material World
The opposite view, that of despising the material world and looking down upon it, can be traced back to Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived about 400 b.c. He valued the soul and mind much more than the body and nature. Then in the first few centuries a.d. the Gnostics thought that all matter was evil. They only valued the unseen spirit and believed that the body was worthless. They minimized contact with the physical world.
Christianity in the Middle Ages also concentrated on the heavenly realm, so nature was absent from their art. This view of the world has crept into some forms of Christianity today, where the only interest is in heavenly things, in saving the soul and getting to heaven. Little emphasis is placed on the proper pleasures of the body or the proper use of the intellect. Bodily senses and pleasures are despised and regarded as being evil.
What does the Bible say about this? Colossians 2:20-23 describes such people as living under many rules and regulations. They have long lists of don’ts: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (v. 21). These are merely the wisdom of sinful people (v. 22), not God’s intention for us today, as the New Testament gives us general principles, not detailed rules. Remember, the Jews had the best set of rules in the world, but they couldn’t follow them! These rules may seem good. They may appear to make you love God more and to be very humble and to have control over your body. But they don’t really have any power over our desires (v. 23). They only result in pride.
The consequence of this way of life is a list of useless rules. We are driven internally, not externally. It is the attitude of the mind that is evil, not the material world (Mt. 15:10-20; 1 Tim. 6:10). Remember, everything that God created is good (1 Tim. 4:4). “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (the material world) but against … the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Eph. 6:12). So the material world is neither evil nor against us; it is with us, sharing both our suffering and our longing to be released from the influence of sin (Rom. 8:18-23).
Using The Material World To Honor God
If the material world is not an idol to be devoted to nor an evil to be despised, then how should we view our material world? As created by God, it was very good; and although now spoiled by sin, it still belongs to Him. So it shows God’s unique power (Rom. 1:20). Also, it is sustained by God: “In Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).
Adam was to work the material world, take care of it and receive food from it (Gen. 2:15-16). As a consequence of the fall into sin, this work is difficult and many struggle to survive (Gen. 3:17-19). The thought of needing to work for our food is repeated in the New Testament (2 Th. 3:10). Paul thanked God for food before he ate; likewise we should be thankful for the physical resources that God provides for us (Acts 27:35).
People still have some of God’s image, which gives them extra value (Gen. 9:6). God loves all people (Jn. 3:16), body, soul and spirit. In fact, God loves people more than anything else in the material world, and to demonstrate this Jesus healed their diseases (Mt. 4:23) and died for their sins.
Jesus had a body and lived in the material world (Heb. 2:14). Our bodies and the physical world will be transformed one day, like Jesus was after His resurrection (Rom. 8:18-23; Phil. 3:21). The believer’s body is like a temple where the Spirit lives, and which God bought with the blood of Jesus. So we should use our bodies to honor God (1 Cor. 6:20). The same principle can apply to the physical world of which our bodies are a part.
We are urged to give our bodies to God (Rom. 12:1), and are told, “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God … and offer the parts of your body to Him as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Here we see that the body can be viewed as an instrument or a tool which can be used for good or bad purposes. Again, the same principle can apply to the physical world.
This means we should honor God in our way of living in the material world. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we need to work out what this means in the various areas of our lives such as: work, housing, transport, care of our bodies, recreation, sport, how we use our money and possessions, nature and the environment, art, music, literature, movies and TV. What are our dreams and goals?
“Nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). When God replays the video entitled “This is your life,” our lives will be shown for what they are (1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:10). Will we be assets or liabilities for Him? Will there be much evidence that we honored Him in our material world? Will His life be obvious in ours? (2 Cor. 4:11).
How Christ Used The Material World
It is instructive to be reminded of how Jesus Christ used the physical world in what He said and did, teaching spiritual principles and helping others. Parables, metaphors, similes, and illustrations from the material world were used liberally in His teaching of the disciples and the people. In this way, people had a visual impression of the truth being taught and they would have been reminded of it whenever they came across the object or situation in everyday life.
Christ healed diseases, calmed the storm and fed the hungry – for the benefit of people. He taught that God knows all about our circumstances and will provide our material needs (Mt. 6:33; 10:30). Likewise, we should remember to use the material world and life’s circumstances to teach spiritual principles. Helping to meet others’ physical needs is part of being Christ’s ambassadors on earth (2 Cor. 5:20).
The Material World Is Not The Sinful World
Sometimes the Bible uses the words “earthly” and “world” to describe the sinful nature. For example, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2,5). “Do not love the world or anything in the world” is explained as referring to sinful craving, lust and boasting (1 Jn. 2:15-16). Also, “earthly” wisdom is described as “unspiritual, of the devil” (Jas. 3:15) and “jealousy and quarreling” as “worldly” (1 Cor. 3:3).
This is an example of metonymy – the rhetorical technique of using one thing to represent another thing to which it is related in some way, such as “crown” instead of “king.” It is a figure of speech, like a metaphor, where words do not take their literal meaning. Here the words are linked because sin entered the world via Adam and Eve who were created from the physical world (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:47). So when “earthly” and “world” are used in this manner they mean “sinful,” not “material.” They are contrasted with “heavenly” which is used metonymically to mean “divine,” as Christ came from heaven to bring divine life (Phil. 3:19-20; 1 Cor. 15:45-49). Confusion regarding this distinction can lead to falsely despising the material world and considering it evil.
Although the Bible says believers are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), we presently live on planet Earth. Our time here is relatively brief and our planet has a finite future (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 1:10-12). Considering our destiny, we can be pictured as strangers visiting Earth (1 Pet. 2:11).
The physical world is not an idol to be devoted to; this is a lie that results in evil behavior. Also, it is not an evil to be despised; this attitude results in a list of useless rules. The Bible shows us that the material world should be valued and used to honor God.