Was Jesus’ work on earth spiritual or physical? It was certainly spiritual, but nothing in God’s kingdom is ever purely spirit. Even God, who is Spirit, takes on flesh. The demons of pride and domination were cast out, so to speak, of the first century religious institutions, but so too were literal demons cast out of individual people. Christ preaches against greed, particularly amongst the religious, but he also makes a whip to drive out the money changers from the Temple. Jesus conquered spiritual sin on the cross, but did that in parallel with His conquest of physical death in the Resurrection. We are spirits indeed, but we are spirits clothed in flesh. The church is the spiritual body of Christ, but it is ones whose purpose is to effect physical change in this world. After all, the arguments the body parts have is over which is more effective in the physical world.
Why did Christ come? As it turns out, He had a lot to do. He came to “bear witness unto the truth,” (Jhn 18:37) so that “they might have life, and that they might have [it] more abundantly,” (Jhn 10:10) so they “might have my joy fulfilled in themselves,” (Jhn 17:13) to “seek and save that which was lost,” (Luk 19:10) to call “sinners to repentance,” (Luke 5:32, 1Ti 1:15) to the “lost sheep of Israel,” (Mat 15:24) to “save that which was lost” (Mat 18:11) to be the “Saviour of the world” (1Jo 4:14), that “we might live through him” (1Jo 4:9).
But His mission was not just preaching. Though salvation was certainly a theme and major part of his commission, it was not all of it. The longest passage discussing His purpose for coming to earth was read by Him in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry. He reads, “The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Certainly there is a lot of preaching involved. But there is also liberation, deliverance, and healing. His commission was not simply to preach and convert by means of healings; they were independent parts of his commission. Of course, this could be spiritualized if isolated from Christ’s work. But interpreted by the life Christ then set out to live, and considering the sorts of things He spent most of His time doing, it would strain the text beyond its breaking point to think of this as being exclusively spiritual.
Jesus taught about the living bread, but he also fed 5000 people because they were hungry. He cleansed lepers for compassion sake. When he healed ten lepers, and He knew that only one of them would return. I do not think Christ would have withheld healing on the ten even if he knew that none would return. Truly, none did return. On the night of his arrest, His ministry collapsed as, “all forsook him, and fled” (Mark 14:50). The 5000 he fed. The 10 lepers he cleansed. Every single person for whom He did a miracle and to whom He preached left Him. At the time of his crucifixion, Jesus ministry was an utter failure in terms of evangelism. He had zero remaining converts. But had Jesus’ work up to that point been completely destroyed? Would the only value of His ministry come from His Resurrection?
The Prophets’ Mission
Such is the story of many of the prophets. Most ended their ministries killed in Jerusalem by those to whom they preached and demonstrated the Kingdom. The most pious tended to be the most rejected (compare the success of Jonah to Jeremiah). Does their only value, and that of Christ, lie in their ability to win souls?
I would answer emphatically, “No.” Christ showed the Kingdom of God while on earth. Every demon that was cast out was a picture of the coming Kingdom. Every cleansed leper, every full belly, every kind word and beautiful act Jesus did was a picture of that which was about to dawn. The feeding of the 5000 was a physical prophecy of the coming Kingdom; it taught about how hunger was a fleeting thing, something which would have no place in the Kingdom of Heaven. During His ministry, Christ sends out His disciples and tells them, “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” (Mat 10:8). Their commission was not
But how could any of these physical works have any real value? Would not any earthly deed be far out-shadowed by even the smallest eternal deed? Certainly helping the poor is good; but the poor, along with their slums and villages, hunger and disease; will rot and decay, or else be consumed along with all other things in the end times. Wouldn’t even a single salvation, a single person going from mortal to eternal, outweigh any amount of conversion-less charity?
The answer depends entirely on your view of eternity. If you see heaven as a place containing only souls, then evangelism is really the only important thing. All charity must become a means to that end. But did Christ heal, cast out and feed purely for the purpose of conversion?
All Things New
But what if Christ was serious when He promised to, “Make all things new” (Rev 21:5)? What if “all things” meant more than human “souls”? What if there were more to God’s redemptive work than the human element?
Will David’s Psalms be forever consumed when the elements melt away? Or will they too have a Resurrection? Perhaps the echoes of God’s glory which we hear of in the Psalms will be given new life, unclothed of the cloak of human language, and we can hear in their full beauty the melodies which David’s soul so imperfectly expressed. Will the judgments of Moses pass away? Maybe these earthly shadows will become the pillars upon which the new Temple will stand. Will Nehemiah’s Jerusalem be destroyed by the New Jerusalem? Or will the New be built upon the eternal part of the old?
When we see the glorious appearing of the New Heavens and the New Earth, will see what God has prepared for us, using our hands to achieve his purpose? Will the Holy Place contain living paintings of the ending of the Slave Trade, of the great Christian compassion on those with the Black Death, of the steadfastness of Martin Luther, of the sacrifice of missionaries? Will the courtyard of the Temple contain sculptures of the apostles and prophets and teachers? After all, are we not the clay and He the potter?
Art and Justice and Industry and Order are all real things, or at least they are as real as we are. And though canvases and courthouses and stones will pass away, the work of Man, or at least that part of Man’s work which was on God’s behalf, will be Resurrected like Man will be (or at least that part of Man which has gained eternity). For our God is not a destroyer of the Good; will He abolish just laws, burn beautiful paintings, smash efficient machines and tear down cathedrals? No, for this is the job of another. When He comes again, it will be to make all things new, not to obliterate all things. Humanity is His tool, His paintbrush, his violin. For whatever glorious reason, He has chosen to bring about His Kingdom in us and by us.
God never rebuked the tax collector for being a tax collector (3:13) nor the soldier for being a soldier (Luke 3:14). Paul never gave a universal command for believers to leave their jobs and become missionaries. Indeed, he talked of the variety of the gifts, about the beautiful diversity of the body. Moses judged. David sang. Nehemiah built. All by God’s power and at His command. Paul didn’t judge, or sing, or build; he evangelized. But whose work will survive into eternity? Certainly the souls that were saved by Paul’s word. But are we to believe that only some of the work commanded by God will endure? Will Paul’s work endure and that of Moses and David and Nehemiah pass away? Or will all of God’s work endure, even if we cannot conceive of how?
But isn’t this a much more consistent picture of the world? Doesn’t it help make the picture of Christianity more reasonable? If salvation is the only eternal thing, then anyone not actively engaged in evangelism is wasting his time. Everything becomes wholly consumed with that. Poetry, art, business and medicine all become means to an end. God would only delight in them insofar as they were able to bring about salvation, not as things in themselves. But this is not the God who inspired the Psalms, who gave light to the stars, who designed the Temple. God cares a great deal about many other things.
It seems to me that we have simply lacked the creativity to conceive of how this might be. But we must overcome the temptation of thinking that our vague conception of the Resurrection of humans is all that really matters. We need to look forward to the glorious dawn and take Peter’s advice: “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (2Pt 3:13-14).
We certainly need to seek moral perfection of ourselves and others in Christ, but we must also do a different thing. We must “look for such things.” What things? We must “…look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.” God is commanding us to see the bits of His Kingdom which are now visible. We should bits of this righteousness dwelling in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Notre Dame, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Newton’s Theory of Gravitation or Algebra. The righteousness, the dikaiosynē, the part of a thing which conforms to and glorifies the Father, ought to be sought after by us.
Then comes the really exciting part. In whatever capacity God grants us, we should be his agents in bring His Kingdom to earth. This includes evangelism, but also art and poetry and social work and government. We need to first pray to God, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as [it is] in heaven” (Mat 6:10). Then we must do the harder thing; we must take the advice God gave to Joshua when Joshua knew what he should do, “Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?” (Jos 7:10). We must get up off our knees and bring God’s Kingdom to earth, by word and deed, by pen and hammer, by paintbrush and guitar, by law and contract.