When the topic of evolution and the Bible is brought up, one of the many concerns people have is how that fits with humans being “in the image of God.” But before we can go there, we have to address the underlying question: What does it mean to be “in the image of God” anyway?
For years and years and in different movements and corners of the body of Christ, I have heard this question asked and answered in many different ways. Let’s look at some of the ideas I have heard, and then I’ll share what I believe Genesis implies about the topic.
Theory A: God is three parts, and so are we
In the charismatic church, many leaders and teachers put emphasis on teaching about the Tripartite (three-fold) nature of humans. This comes from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 where people are refered to as being “Spirit, Soul, and Body” – as well as other scriptures alluding to this metaphysical anatomy. I also believe humans are tripartite, and I did a whole investigation of the topic here.
So, in many areas of the charismatic church, I have heard it taught that humans being composed of three parts is what it means for us to be “made in the image of God.”
While this three-ness is indeed a similarity between humanity and God, I don’t think it actually is a good identification of what Genesis is implying when it first mentions humans are made in God’s image. There’s nothing in the immediate context of the passage to suggest three-in-one is the main point of being made in God’s image, nor is there anything about being three-in-one in any other verse about being in the likeness of God in the rest of the Bible. So to make this the main point of “being made in the image of God” is maybe as a conjecture and musing based on disconnected scriptural ideas, but I’m not sure it’s really the best case in the context of the passages where the actual ideas of “the likeness of God” are presented. If there were nothing else to go on, I’d say its workable and there’s nothing specifically wrong with it – other than that it tends to overshadow the obvious and immediate meanings which I’ll get to later.
But the other problem with it as the dominant theory on Imago Dei (the image of God) being specifically about being in “three parts” is that this setup is not exclusive to humans. Animals are also repeatedly referred to in the Bible as being “souls” (although English translations tend to obscure this badly; do a study on the Hebrew word nephesh for more clarity) and obviously they have bodies, and less often (sparsely, but it is there) they are referred to as having spirits. So if animals are three-part beings too, it might bode well for discussing the implications and validity of evolution in theological circles, but it still doesn’t help arrive at what this unique, “being in the image of God” thing is that is supposed to be a specifically human thing.
Leaving my charismatic brethren, we’ll go to a theory I hear often from mainline and non-charismatic evangelical Christians:
Theory B: God is a moral agent, and So Are We
I don’t know what the hangup is …or love affair…that the church has with God and morality, as if the be-all of God and man is morality, but here it shows up again in this theory. (I’ve written before of how I think it’s an unfortunately bad apologetic to try to “prove” God with the “morality exists, therefore a moral God must exist” line – see here, but this seems another symptom of the same obsession.) While the entire gospel is about how we fail so desperately in terms of moral righteousness and that grace is the answer to it all, we still hang on to thinking morality is the highest aspect of humanity. Our obsession with morality is right up there with why we as the church often seem to think the Ten Commandments needs to be displayed on secular government property, but I digress. From here we tend to go to arguments and discussions about whether or not animals can display true empathy, or morality, with some presenting arguments that actually seem to be “yes” to some degree or another, while others hold out saying those animals don’t quite meet the human standard (obviously, as they are not human.) But this is probably all very unnecessary.
Surely God is really into fairness and justice, truth, law-giving, and most specifically keeping His own oaths, but you’d be hard pressed to define Him as specifically “moral” by any usual definition of the word (that might be a topic for another day.) But if you want to use the word “moral” to describe God, you’d have to note that the God of the Old Testament assumes all rights to transcend human morality and stand somewhat over and above it. At any rate, we’ll save all those moral questions and debates about God for another day but….
Let’s just note that in Genesis, the promise of “knowing good from evil” is not something that Adam and Eve were endowed with as part of being “made in God’s image.” Instead, the ability to become moral agents was something that another being, other than God, first offered Adam and Eve AFTER they were designed and created. (Until then, humanity’s only morality was to do as God says and not do as God forbids, rather than figuring out good and evil for themselves.)
Why then, “being able to make moral decisions” would therefore be considered as what it means to be made in the image of God is beyond me, as the very concept seems uncannily like a repetition of the very lie that satan offered to Eve, “You shall be like God, knowing good from evil.” While perhaps this is a type of “being like God” – it does not seem to have been the specific likeness of Himself that God was aiming for during the creation of humans in Genesis, but rather a similarity to God perhaps that came later as an add-on via the forbidden fruit, after the fact. At any rate, to view humans as “moral like God” seems almost like a Deist perspective to me, or perhaps a hangover from the enlightenment period’s humanist view of humankind.
Theory C: God has arms and legs and stuff, so, so do we
I’m not sure this theory is worth covering but since I’ve heard and read people arguing for it, it doesn’t hurt I guess to mention it. Most folks read the Bible and when it speaks of God having hands or nostrils or whatever normally “human” body parts may be ascribed to Him, they see this as anthropomorphism. But that wouldn’t be everyone’s viewpoint. Instead, some folks see physical attributes of humans being a reflection of some sort of metaphysical anatomy that God has. Ok, sure, why not? I can’t say for sure what “shape” God’s spiritual form takes. But still, I don’t think this is what Genesis is aiming at when it talks about male and female being made in God’s image. Why not?
(Because in my opinion,)
Genesis actually makes it fairly clear what it means to be “made in God’s image” right in the context of the first mention of the notion.
So here’s theory D: Being made in God’s image means taking dominion over the Earth.
Ok, I can see why this theory isn’t particularly attractive. After all, the word “dominion” generally isn’t a very nice sounding word unless you’re playing a first person shooter video game or something. And that’s just it: the dominion mandate in Genesis has to be one of the most abused concepts in all of Christianity. Sinful humanity, and particularly religiously sinful humanity, has a way of really messing up anytime it has rights to power.
But that’s what’s there in Genesis:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26-28 RSV
God is the ruler of the universe, the head honcho, the one who is greater than all of creation, and he makes humans – to be His representatives on the Earth. They are the top of the food chain…errr…wait, that’s not what I meant – but they are the leaders of all the animal kingdom and all the created realm, as an echo (or image) of God’s leadership.
Adam is made both high priest and high king in Eden, along with his bride Eve. Together they are going to rule the galaxy (or small patch of Earth…whatever people knew about at that point in time.) In short, Adam and Eve are proxies – God’s government on Earth. (At least pictured so before the “fall.”)
And there are extensions of this. Jonathan David and Melissa Helser come to mind as they have an entire ministry geared towards releasing the creativity of musicians and artists and basically everyone who will listen – and one of their main points of teaching is that God is Creative, and so humans walking in true creativity is our inheritance as the image-bearers of the Father. I see this as an extension of the dominion theme – because one of the reasons that God is the one who has dominion is that He created everything one way or another – and so humans being creative therefore the more beautiful form of “taking dominion” in the Earth than that previously mentioned first-person shooter game would conjure up. Of course, stewardship, kindness, meekness (for these inherit the Earth), these are all Biblical themes about what the responsibility of having “dominion” actually looks like…and of course as the Helsers would remind us, beauty and creativity.
When I told my friends on FB I was writing on this topic, several stepped up to bring forth this very theory, and to also introduce me to the writing of Mike Heiser. Here follows my friend Eric Weiss’s quote introducing me to Mike (thank you Eric and Mike):
Dr. Michael S. Heiser, Hebrew and ANE scholar for Logos Bible Software, says that the phrase means to be given authority to act as God’s representative. I.e., being made in God’s image meant that mankind was in charge of God’s earth and God’s creation:
“This last example directs us to what the Hebrew preposition translated in means in Genesis 1:26. Humankind was created as God’s image. If we think of imaging as a verb or function, that translation makes sense. We are created to image God, to be his imagers. It is what we are by definition. The image is not an ability we have, but a status. We are God’s representatives on earth. To be human is to image God.
“This is why Genesis 1:26–27 is followed by what theologians call the “dominion mandate” in verse 28. The verse informs us that God intends us to be him on this planet. We are to create more imagers (“be fruitful and multiply … fill”) in order to oversee the earth by stewarding its resources and harnessing them for the benefit of all human imagers (“subdue … rule over”).”
So why the heck does any of this matter?
Because there is theory E, which I’ll call the “theory of all the theories.”
Theory E: Jesus is the ultimate “image of God”.
For just as Adam (and Eve) were the image of God which became corrupted, Jesus (and those who ultimately rule with Him as His bride) is the image of God, uncorrupted – in a NEW CREATION. Just as Jesus said to the Pharisees that Abraham was not their father as they were claiming, because they didn’t ACT like Abraham would have acted, so also we have failed to really be God’s proxies and look and act like Him in this creation. But there is a new Adam (and Eve) and a new creation, and this one is not corrupted. This one will see a New Heaven and New Earth ruled over in all the beauty that God ever intended. And Jesus, as human and new Adam, laid down His life as the ultimate act of selflessness, dominion taking turned on its head in the truest way.
And this, this is ultimately what it means to be in the Image of God.
I wrote this a long time ago in response to a discussion that was going on in a community of Christians I was walking with. It’s a response to a view of “spirit and soul” that is widely taught, and comes largely from the teachings of Watchman Nee, but is found often in other writings from the “deeper life” movement (or somewhat in the teachings of Andrew Wommack.) While I appreciate Watchman Nee’s contribution to the body of Christ through his teachings to a very large degree, I do think after having lived under his understanding of things for several years of my life and finding some of those teachings bearing some not-so-great fruit in my own being, that I needed to look deeper into some of the things I had been taught. As a result, I came to some different understandings on the topic of soul and spirit than what Nee and others teach.
To begin with, I took a look at the verse that seems to be mentioned most often in conversations on this topic, which is this one:
“For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. ” (Hebrews 4:12 NAS)
This verse is often thought of, and quoted as saying, that the Word divides BETWEEN soul and spirit. Those who hold to this type of interpretation often suggest that a person can be moved either by their “soul” or their “spirit,” and that the Word of God somehow sets a believer free from being “in his soul” (referred to in shorthand as “being soulish”), to instead be “in his spirit.” In this line of teaching, that which occurs or originates from within the “soul,” is thought to be insubstantial and unspiritual; and that which originates from or occurs within the “spirit” of a believer, is believed to be righteous and pure, of God, in concert with His true nature and will, and inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I believe that if these ideas are taken as an entire package, that they amount to an erroneous and cumbersome teaching, because this teaching fails to recognize the essential and rightful role of the soul in our ability to experience and access what flows through our spirits, and it puts a yoke on believers’ necks to perform some imaginary feat of placing their soul on the back burner while their spirit takes dominion over it. In some cases too, this teaching also contributes to the belief among intellectual theological type people, that that which is emotional (again, “soulish”) is inconsequential and even dangerous to one’s spiritual walk with God. (I’m not saying anyone should base their spiritual life on emotions, either, but when you’re done reading about the spirit/soul topic and want to take it deeper, I’ve been writing about the role of emotions in our relationship with God over here.)
So how do I personally believe this verse (Hebrews 4:12) should be interpreted?
The first clue to me that perhaps the usual interpretation is not correct, is that in no other place in scripture do we find any apostle warning us that it is terribly important to “walk in the spirit, and not in the soul.” I mean, there’s just no emphasis on anything like this anywhere in any verse in all of the New Testament. Instead of drawing a dichotomy between being soulish and being spiritual, the epistles of Paul instead emphasize the difference between being “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit.”
The second clue for me is that in the line about the “division of soul and spirit,” there is usually no mention of the word “between.” This is important, because often the verse is quoted and interpreted as saying “piercing as far as the division BETWEEN soul and spirit,” but very few Bible translations actually use the word BETWEEN. For your perusal, here is a list of translations with the way they translate the phrase – and notice that while “between” and other synonyms are occasionally used, most translations don’t indicate such a word is in the verse.
First, versions that don’t say “between” –
New International Version even to dividing soul and spirit
English Standard Version to the division of soul and of spirit
Berean Study Bible
even to dividing soul and spirit
Berean Literal Bible
even as far as the division of soul and spirit
New American Standard Bible
as far as the division of soul and spirit
King James Bible
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
International Standard Version
until it divides soul and spirit
New American Standard 1977
and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit
Jubilee Bible 2000
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
King James 2000 Bible
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
American King James Version
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
Webster’s Bible Translation
even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit
World English Bible
even to the dividing of soul and spirit
Here are some Bible versions that do use “between” or some similar word.
New Living Translation cuttingbetween soul and spirit
even to the point of dividing soul from spirit
Holman Christian Standard Bible
as far as the separation of soul and spirit
Aramaic Bible in Plain English
it pierces to the separation ofsoul and spirit
GOD’S WORD® Translation
cuts as deep as the place where soul and spirit meet
Weymouth New Testament
even to the severance of soul from spirit, and penetrates between the joints and the marrow
Here are some versions that seem to subtly agree with what I’m going to argue in the next few paragraphs is more correctly indicated:
Young’s Literal Translation
piercing unto the dividing asunderboth ofsoul and spirit, of joints also and marrow
American Standard Version
piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow
reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow
Darby Bible Translation
penetrating to [the] division of soul and spirit, both of joints and marrow
English Revised Version
even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow
Now, in and of itself this absence of “between” certainly doesn’t prove what the verse does or doesn’t mean, especially since some versions actually do translate “between” or some similar sense into the verse, but being infrequently used it did seem worth a better look; especially since my premise is that I don’t think it actually belongs there anyway (more on why, as we continue.)
So, the next question to explore is – what sort of word is sitting there in the Greek text that indicates what type of “division” soul and spirit are subjected to by the Word? It turns out that the word “division” here in the Greek is the word *merismos* (μερισμός).
Merismos (μερισμός) is defined by Strongs as meaning, “a division, partition, or separation.” There is only one other scripture (quoted below) where this exact word is used, and in that particular verse, *merismos* or division, is demonstrated to be occuring WITHIN a spirit – within, in fact, the Holy Spirit – as opposed to division occuring between the Holy Spirit and some other thing:
Hebrews 2:4 reads: “…God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts [and the word “gifts” in this verse is the word we are researching which is “merismos”, aka, “partitions/divisions”] of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
So why not then approach our original verse in question, from two chapters later in Hebrews, the same book of the Bible, in the same way? Since it is clear that a “spirit” can be divided, then maybe it is reasonable to consider that Hebrews 4:12 is not suggesting that the Word of God divides BETWEEN soul and spirit, but rather that it beneficially creates a division within the soul of a person in some way, and similarly also divides and provides distinctions or divisions within the spirit of a person?
If this is indeed what the Word does, could it not be described or worded by saying that what would then be occurring here is the “DIVISION OF SOUL AND SPIRIT,” just as most Bible translations word it?
But traditionally, because “soul and spirit” are listed as a pair, we normally have the default assumption that the sword is dividing up the pair, and separating the soul from the spirit in some sense. Remember however, that the word “between” isn’t found in there at all. But furthermore, this interpretation of division BETWEEN the soul and the spirit really doesn’t make sense when applied to the remainder of the verse.
Take for instance the next phrase in question, which reads: “of both joints and marrow.” For years I read over this verse and thought it was saying “bone and marrow” but actually it doesn’t say that; it says “joints” and marrow.
They are both parts of the skeletal system to be sure, but marrow and joints aren’t really a logical intertwined pair that could be divided, like one might think of dividing marrow from a bone. In fact, it would be much like saying that the Word of God divides the tree sap from the acorns…. sure, tree sap and acorns are somewhat connected, but they are not really a complimentary pair that could or would require separation, whereas in contrast, tree sap and a tree trunk would be a suitable example of a logical pair that could be “divided.”.
But the real explanation of this verse seems to be found in the final phrase,which contains one more “pair” of things that are divided, in the idea that the sharp sword “judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Here is where the type of “division” that I (and others) am proposing as what this verse describes seems to be revealed as the most reasonable – for why would we suppose that the division would occur BETWEEN the thoughts and intentions of the heart, as if the thoughts need to be somehow separated from the intentions. Does it not seem much more harmonious with the rest of scripture and even your own spiritual walk, to understand that this verse is saying the Word of God divides – aka, judges – both the thoughts AND the intentions of your heart?
And isn’t this what the Word of God does? It helps us understand which of our thoughts are of God, and which of our thoughts are not of God? And doesn’t it similarly help us discern …or judge…. or divide…. which of our intentions align with God, and which of our intentions are not aligned with God?
But aside from all this, there is more contained here in this verse I think to help us truly understand what the soul and spirit of a person are, and how they form what and who we are. I believe that the actual literary style of this verse is meant to draw a parallel between the three pairs I just explored, and that they correspond to and help explain one another. The three pairs are:
1) soul and spirit 2) joints and marrow 3) thoughts and intentions.
If you line them up like this, it is at least highly conceivable that these three are all somewhat congruent, things which are either all the same thing or at least which correspond to one another pair by pair, and as I’ll continue to discuss, they seem to match up quite nicely. So, if these three are taken as corresponding pairs, then we could conceptualize that in this verse, going across you get that “soul = joints = thoughts”, AND that “spirit = marrow = intentions.”
Now, what on earth does the author of Hebrews mean by corresponding the “soul” with the idea of a “joint?” Here are my thoughts on that. Adam was created from the Earth. He was a lifeless sculpture, a mere body, until in Genesis 2:7 reads that God breathed His breath (hebrew: neshamah, spirit) into Adam. When this happened, the rest of Gen 2:7 says that “Adam became a living SOUL.” From this we see that a body, plus a spirit, equals a soul.
The soul is essentially what forms as your physical being (your brain and your nervous system and hormones, which all affect how you think and who you are) come together and intersect with your living spirit (which comes from God and returns to God.) This then is the mystery as to why Hebrews 4:12 parallels the word “soul” with the word “joints,” because a joint is the result of the coming together of two things.
(For my scientifically inclined friends: It is important to note that this is not a truly biological description of how life works, but it is a metaphysical description of our physiology as beings which have both a physical and spiritual existence. And I might write a blog post to delve into that more at some point!)
The word “soul” in Greek is the word “psuche,” from where we get the English words “psyche” and “psychology.” It pertains to your awareness, your consciousness – with all your thoughts and emotions and perceptions as a self-aware living being. In a word, your soul is basically “you.” The word soul in some verses can only legitimately be translated as your “life” – your existence.
As Descartes once famously described “the soul” when he said, “I think, therefore I am,” and similarly the writer of proverbs wrote, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” – the soul is Biblical term for the experience of being a person, of having thought, of having feelings, being aware of and participating in your own existence, of being a living being. The scripture in fact makes mention of God Himself having a “soul” – and since we know that nothing evil dwells in God, it therefore stands to reason that the soul is neither inherently unspiritual, (since God Himself IS Spirit) or even a merely fleshy thing.
It IS true that it is the faculty of a human’s spirit which is most directly in union with God’s Spirit; and it is true that it is the human spirit which most directly receives from and communes with the Holy Spirit. But it is the SOUL – your mind, your self awareness, your heart – where you and I become aware of what is occuring in our spirits. You cannot readily perceive anything of your own spirit without doing so through your soul, because your soul is your life, your self, your thoughts! And there is verse after verse which confirms this – take for example the verses in Romans which speak of the “mind” (which is an aspect of the soul) being either “on the spirit” or “on the flesh.”
The soul is the gatekeeper: this is why it is impossible to realistically speak about someone being “in their soul rather than in their spirit” – because the soul is simply the place where either the flesh or the spirit is being expressed. Either one takes place through the soul.
As long as we are alive in a body, our souls become a fulcrum, because they are able to focus on input coming from both the flesh (body), and from the spirit (which can also be joined to Christ’s spirit through believing in Him.) The more one focuses on what the flesh is experiencing and wants, the more the soul is flooded with feelings, thoughts, and emotions based on the flesh. And the more one focuses on what the spirit is experiencing and wants, the more the soul is flooded with feelings, thoughts, and emotions based on the spirit.
So then, if our soul is our mind and feelings and self-awareness, what then do we experience our spirit as? The Spirit, as the deepest God given life and breath within us, refers to the deepest part of our being, and this parallels marrow because marrow is the innermost part of the bone, and is then also corresponded to our intentions, which are the innermost part of the counsel of our hearts. Our intentions are the aspect of our hearts where, if we have received Christ into our innermost beings (hearts), God is at work to cause us then to “will and to do according to His good pleasure.”
In people who have not received Jesus into their spirits, input from the spirit is limited to earth-bound spiritual realities. Thus, people who are attuned to their spirits without Christ may still be acutely aware of their own life energy which God gave them in His breath, and they may use their spirits to connect to the general energy of life surrounding the creation, or in more spiritually developed individuals, they may be able to perceive other peoples’ souls and spirits, and encounter angels or in some cases demons. Everyone has some limited spiritual awareness even if they do not know what it is that they are perceiving.
In general, advanced spiritual abilities were not meant to be used apart from the safety and power of a vibrant spiritual connection to God afforded by imbibing Christ’s Spirit into our Spirits, and have been forbidden as witchcraft. When Christ is indwelling, spiritual abilities are meant to be developed almost exclusively as an outgrowth of intimacy with Him and His indwelling power within us.
One’s soul can be sensitized to spiritual input of the wrong type and care must be taken to cultivate sensitivity to God’s Spirit first and foremost – which tends to grow along with the soul growing in sensitivity to the love of God and the soul growing in its love for God. Love (and other emotions that are various shades of love) become a bond that connects our existential awareness to the Spirit of Christ and God in our own spirits, and which makes us more and more fixated on our spirits in the right way, thus subduing sinful inclinations coming from our flesh.
Intentions and emotions that originate in our spirit eventually make their way to our souls; and so our souls, if tuned to the Spirit, can be incredibly powerful instruments for the Lord’s use. On the flip side, our souls can be ensnared with input from the flesh, whether natural desires like hunger, or sinful desires like self-righteousness. The goal then is to see the spirit triumph over the flesh in the war for the soul’s attention – but once again, notice the issue isn’t soul vs. spirit, but rather flesh-oriented soul vs. spirit-oriented soul.
Now, it should be stated that the flesh in and of itself is not bad – we need to care for our flesh and “nourish and cherish it” as Paul says. But our flesh is not hooked up to God’s Spirit the way that our spirits are, so we need to make sure we learn to drink from His Spirit via our spirits so that our flesh’s needs and wants don’t dominate us more than His do. What’s best for our soul is best for our flesh as well – because as we learn to walk by and receive from the Spirit in our spirit, our flesh receives good things from the Spirit as well.
If God’s Spirit within our spirit is given dominion in the soul, then the soul will carry out the Spirit’s desires and enslave the flesh to its whims. But if you, or rather, your soul gives the flesh provision to dominate attention over the spirit, then the soul (you) will carry out the flesh’s desires and enslave the soul AND spirit to its whims, until the spirit is strengthened by the wooing of God’s Spirit within with grace, love, and power, to set the soul (you) free from the deception of sin to repent and choose agreement with the Spirit once again. When our hearts are single upon Christ, our flesh is “reckoned dead” by an attitude informed by the Word, we give no place to the enemy, and then all of our thoughts and emotions – whether in our souls or in our spirits – are in tune with and proceeding from cooperation with the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 4:12 then is basically saying that the Word of God goes deep within us and reveals everything, from the shallowest to even to the deepest parts of every faculty of our being. It divides up our soul, showing us whether the various aspects of our soul (our mind, our emotions) are loving our flesh or loving God. And it divides up our spirit, showing us at what points our spirit is moving in harmony with His spirit, or contrary to Him. This is why another verse talks about keeping our spirits blameless – our spirits have been joined to the Lord “as one spirit with Him,” sort of like a marriage. IF our souls – our minds and emotions – tune into the Lord’s spirit in our spirit, the fulcrum of our souls allows the presence and substance of Christ to flow across it as a bridge and flood even our flesh with His glory and love and power. But it works the other way – if we tune into the sinful inclinations of the flesh, those types of thoughts and desires flood across the fulcrom of our souls and quench, subdue, and inundate our spirits with opaque earthly input that blots out the light of Christ’s Spirit shining in our spirits, and taints our spirit with the dust of this realm.
So the point here is that it is not really all that important to know whether or not what you are “feeling” at any given time is occuring in your spirit or soul. We don’t need to go around doing some sort of internal gymnastics to figure out if we’re operating out of our soul or or spirit; but we do need to be pierced and divided by the Word of truth so that in every area of our being, whether spirit, soul, or body, that all three are blameless (aka, working in conjunction with God’s will and for His glory by functioning in cooperation with HIS Spirit. ) If you embrace and connect with an awareness of the Holy Spirit within you, your soul is latching onto the Spirit within your Spirit and things are heading in the right direction.
Via our souls, we can either walk with God’s Spirit (like a harmonious marriage) or start to turn our spirits away from Him (thus grieving Him – like a disharmonious marriage.) Our spirits are permanently joined with Him – but when we have allowed via our soul for our spirits to become tainted by our flesh, we may sense that defilement the more we then turn our attention to Christ in our Spirit. It is important to keep our spirit blameless before Him by receiving His Word into us which is able to separate, cleanse, and wash us from all unrighteousness as we receive and yield to it, and finding where to be agreeing with that Word as we confess our sins to Him.
So there you have it – my thoughts on this subject. It makes no sense to “stop being soulish” in our efforts to be spiritual, as everything spiritual about us only is accessible to us in our souls. But if we are truly spiritual, our souls will be places of His glory every bit as much as our spirits or our bodies, and there is no reason to disregard our souls as somehow unspiritual, for they work in complete cooperation with our spirits when we seek to walk in the Spirit.
Jesus never condemned the “soul” as being inferior to the Spirit, as many often teach. What He did teach is that if we seek to find our life (the Greek word is for life in this verse is also the word psuche / SOUL), we will lose it, but if we seek to lose our souls, we will find them. Somehow I think we get wrapped up in the part about losing our life (souls), but the reality is that as we give our life (souls) over to Christ, we FIND them. And this is a good thing! He WANTS us to find our life (souls) in Him! We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” Some of those areas are the domain of the Spirit; and some are the domain of the soul, and some pertain to your body: regardless, we are to LOVE the Lord with every facet of our being.
People thoroughout scripture are recorded as pouring out their “souls” before the Lord in prayer; they were not criticized for praying soulishly or emotionally. And many of us experience physical manifestations when we are praying; and many of us experience emotions and visions and ideas and all sorts of things that would normally be thought of as belonging to the body or the soul, rather than the Spirit. But the fact is that the Spirit of God tends to want ALL of us; His aim is to have every part of us for His use!
Many times people preach that the soul is the realm of emotions, and that the spirit is something else. The soul and the spirit both can have “feelings” of one sort or another. But the fact is, that scripture is FILLED with examples of people and even the Lord Himself having emotional type things in their spirit, although the emotions of the Spirit feel and are different than emotions that are the normal workings of the soul, even though they all flood into the soul in order to be perceived. Feelings are not inherently unspiritual or insignificant; neither are they necessarily spiritual or significant. A few verses about emotions in our spirit:
1 Sam 1:15:
And Hannah answered and said, “No, my lord, I am a woman of
sorrowful spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor intoxicating drink,
but have poured out my soul before the LORD.”
“Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish
of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”
And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has
It’s been over a year and a half since my mother died. I’ve definitely moved on to a different stage of grief than I was during the first few months after her death – but as two friends mine have just lost loved ones, and another friend at lunch asked me at point blank range, “Do you believe in an afterlife?” I think the topic is still very much on the table. So let’s talk about life after death.
First of all, there are a LOT of different viewpoints out there in Christendom about what the afterlife holds. Debates rage about whether or not there is a hell, for instance, and who would or wouldn’t go there. I’m not even going to talk about any of that in this post – sticking at least for this discussion to the side of the afterlife that would be termed Biblically, “Eternal Life.”
But even there, you don’t have to look far to see controversy. Some people hold firmly to the adage, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Others consider that a wrong concept and believe that people who have died are “asleep,” waiting for a physical, bodily resurrection where their Earthly body will get up from its actual gravesite and be changed into something more enduring. Others believe in hybrid scenarios, which involve immediately going to be with the Lord and also being resurrected at a later date, and there are other renditions in the hybrid category besides that, but I’m not going to field all of that, (even though it might make a great blog post sometime.)
Instead, I’m just going to talk about what helped me get through my mom’s death, and what helps me sleep at night knowing the horrifying reality that any person (including me) at any time, could die at any moment. Death is pretty dern scary to me, I’ll admit, probably more so because of the depths to which my analytical sciencey side has compelled me to consider it – and in the week after my mom’s cremains were handed to me for burial, I barely got any sleep without waking up shaking all over in abject terror. (I’m better now, but thanks for the concern.)
Of course, the existential fear of dying is a very self-centered thing, and on the other side of that is the mourning associated with losing someone you love. That’s an altogether difference side of the ugly death coin. My friend who inspired this post asked if I knew any really good books about people who have visited Heaven and came back to talk about it because she wanted to know what her loved one was experiencing. After my mom died, I watched the movie, “Heaven is For Real” and admit that I found it mildly comforting, even though I am always a bit skeptical about the reliability of such accounts. Nevertheless, I’m not going to go into why – in the first few months after losing a loved one, reach for whatever is helpful for your own grieving process.
Nevertheless, there are a few thoughts I want to share that I personally find helpful. My friend Rob just lost his brother and told me a couple days ago that he was walking through a park, looking at a beautiful sunset, and broke down crying as he considered that his brother can no longer see this beautiful sight. I reminded him that we know everything that is beautiful in this material realm is only a shadow, a hint, of what real beauty in the Heavenly places actually is like – and that his brother may be walking through whatever the heavenly fulfillment of the human concept of a “park” is in God’s realm, looking at a sight more beautiful than anything any of us have ever seen, and thinking, “Wow, I am so excited to get to share this view with Rob when his time on Earth is finished.”
But I have to admit – there’s so much I don’t understand about life after death. There are a few things that hold me together. At my mom’s funeral, some friends asked if they could sing some worship songs and so I thought about what I would want sung – the song I ended up having them sing was Jason Upton’s “In Your Presence.” That’s because there’s one thing I know about God – nothing and no one is out of the reach of His Presence.
Psalm 139:8 says,
“If I ascend to heaven, You [God] are there! If I make my bed in Sheol
[translated sometimes as “the grave,” sometimes as “hell”], You are there!”
I knew that while I had no way to really be with my mom anymore, that God’s presence was wherever she was – and that His presence was with me as well. And thus, His Presence was the one ‘thing’ still tangible to me in this world that was connecting her and I together.
Other verses that really helped me were this one:
“And Jesus said to them, ‘….they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”
So, along these lines, my thoughts tend to go in one of two directions, that sort of lead back to the same place. The one stream of thought is all about how these verses all are about relationship – and how it’s not some abstract, “afterlife” where it’s just about a soul departing a body in some sense and going…somewhere. Rather, almost every verse I can think of about life after death involves some sort of relationship to God Himself. And ultimately, that’s where my fearful hopes tend to come to rest.
When the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross said, “Lord, remember me, when you come into Your Kingdom” and Jesus promised to meet him in paradise that very day – the hope is in relationship.
When Jesus showed up at Lazarus’s tomb and cried because his friends were crying – and then raised his friend up from the dead – his tears and his voice ringing in Lazarus’s dead /then/ no longer dead ears – his tears and voice speak of relationship.
And when I think of the Christian picture of joining with Christ in His death and resurrection: going with Christ down into the waters of baptism, and being risen up again with Him out of the water – I think of the intimacy accorded of that shared and unifying experience with Him – and thus, relationship.
My science mind asks the other of the two directions of thought, “How can the dead be conscious and alive when their brains are irrevocably and completely damaged and dead? How could brainless consciousness work?” After all, if someone gets in a car accident and part of their brain is damaged, they will be severely hampered in their ability to think and function as they had before. And death is unfortunately, essentially, “total brain damage.”
A friend once wisely reminded me that God thinks without having a physical brain- and speaks to me without a physical mouth – and having experienced hearing His voice and known a few of His thoughts I think my friend is on to something. I can consider God’s nonphysical ability to exist in the whole “ergo cogito sum – I think, therefore I am” dimension of things. I can’t begin to say how, but I can admit that He is and does.
Unlike material organisms that need to take in chemical energy from physical food to have energy and processes happening in a nervous system, God is Spirit – and thus it is not a stretch to assume He functions as a being by some other means that physical matter and energy beings like us. Spirit is not matter nor energy – spirit is something not that does not seem to be included in this universe’s physics – in fact, if any of my atheist friends read this, they’ll probably call me out for making an unproven assertion and consider the very concept of “Spirit” to be mythical.
But if you’ve encountered the Lord’s Spirit via your spirit, then the concept that God is Spirit will not seem strange to you. So the most I can guess at with my tiny understanding of God’s hypothesized Spirit ‘biology’ is that we can roughly say that His self-existent nature would mean He exists of His own self-existent means. This has a huge bearing on what “eternal life” then might be.
The ‘energy’ that powers God’s life is generally considered to be God Himself – there’s a generally understood belief that He is self-sufficient for self-animated existence, eternally. This undying power or life force that consists of His own being powering His own being eternally, also goes by another more recognizable term in the Bible -life, or “eternal life.” (Gene Edwards in one of his better books talks about this.)
I would venture that “Spirit” is comparable to a pattern, an informatic – except in God’s case, His Spirit is comprised of a self-sustaining, living pattern. But what about you, me, or any of our loved ones? As I think about it – all it would take really for me or anyone else to go on existing and thinking without a physical body – is for God to remember me – just like the guy on the cross asked Jesus to do for Him. Our own Spirits may not contain the self-sustaining power that God’s does, but that is where Jesus comes into the picture as the bridge – the imparter – of God’s life force to us.
If my thought patterns are preserved in His memory somewhere – or if a my “spirit” contains that pattern and then just goes to Him – He can definitely work with that. He can reboot me. He can run that data in His already-living program of His own substance. In short, He can share His own life-force: the eternal, undying, sustaining Being that He is, with my pattern – my Spirit. IN fact, the promise for us who have believed in Him is that we have already been joined to His essence – His eternal life – within our own beings, and thus we cannot die. Him in us (the power of life) and we in Him (our pattern – our minds and beings) results in our existence being settled by being one – in relationship, with Him.
And so – I wonder – is life after death really a matter of living IN, and BY Him? If it is, we’re right back at the place of intimacy – connection – relationship – as the operative element in obtaining “resurrection” and life after death. In the book of Revelation at the end of the Bible – instead of the light of the sun we have the Lamb’s light – instead of energy derived from chemical reactions from food we have God as our energy source, our life – which is what Jesus said we could receive from participating in His own being. He called this partaking of His flesh and blood.
Animating and Energizing our own inner Spirit beings – both while we are here in physical bodies, and then once we no longer have a living physical body – is it really just all about connection with Him in the most profound, interconnected, integrated, Spirit to spirit and heart to heart sort of way? What does it mean for the faith to be made sight, anyway – unless everything we experience as beings becomes completely summed up in knowing Him in the most tangible, everything-is-part-of-Him, sort of way?
These are the ideas that keep this sciency charismatic gal in a place of hope despite the impending reality that my complete physical reality will one day be destroyed – and the hope is that when that occurs, death will be defeated in each of our lives by Jesus’s power. Even though I admit I still wrestle with fear at times, my hope is that in relationship with Jesus the Son of God, He who Is Immortal Himself will cloth Me with His own immortality. And also you. And anyone else who looks to Him as the way, the truth, and the Life.
After all, if you’ve entrusted yourself to Christ – you’re already dead in some sense, and the real living-forever part of you is already on deposit with Him.
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.…” (Colossians 3:2-3)
Long ago, when I first gave my heart to Jesus, I spent time sojourning in some churches that were rather restrained in outward or individual emotional displays during worship. It was a really big deal if someone lifted a hand up, or even two hands, during the worship time: enough to provoke entire late night conversations among the youth group (which I was part of at the time). Questions abounded: “Why would anyone do this? Was their hand like some sort of God antennae? Were they feeling something at that moment that the rest of us weren’t privy to, that resulted in the hand being raised? What was all that about?” But the biggest question that would eventually emerge in these conversations was this one: Was this person’s outward display of worship creating a distraction for the rest of the congregation?
Over the years, I moved on to other settings, other churches – churches where raising a hand to the Lord was not only understood as normal, but was also considered quite a mild and, even at times, “overly restrained” expression of worship (and/or praise.) In these churches, there was a much more full-bodied concept of how one expressed praise – instead of the tongue being the only part of one’s body that moved during singing, people were allowed to AND encouraged to use whatever bodily posture most expressed their heart in the moment. So, I’ve been to churches where people were on their faces, on their knees, or twirling about in wild expressive dance complete with streamers and flags in their hands. And in these churches, the concept of distraction is almost completely foreign. Instead, the overriding concern that the people in those congregations often have is a concern for freedom – is the worship “free enough?” The belief in these settings is that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” and in the most direct and momentary sense, this means that to them, freedom of congregational expression is paramount – in order that the Lord’s Spirit might be given room to “do what He wants to do.”
Additionally, there is also a concept in the “worship-freedom” loving churches, that the Lord’s worship and praise ought to be extravagant – that people lavishing expressions of unbridled emotion and awe and love and whatever else towards the Lord in a corporate setting, with no concern for how others might view those personal expressions of love and praise, is something honoring to the Lord, something of which He is worthy. Thus worshipping in this manner is not something done just for one’s own emotional satisfaction, but is regarded instead as a personal offering of eschewing one’s regard for their own appearance, dignity, etiquette and personal composure, to instead bring a gift of wholehearted, expressive, and whole-bodied praise towards God.
I have to admit that over the years I’ve definitely become more partial towards the latter paradigm of group worship than the former. From this vantage point, what in my early years was once considered a potential “distraction” -seeing someone else express individual worship and praise in a unique, creative, and less-conformist-to-everyone-else way, is no longer something that I see as a distraction. In the mindset of the “freedom” concept of worship, a brother or sister’s creative worship expression, which I once viewed as a distraction stealing my attention from focusing on God, is something I instead now consider to be mutual “edification” – something that helps me see God even better.
Seeing a fellow worshiper be demonstrative in how they worship or pray to me now is a chance to see their faith being expressed, which in turn is something which bolsters my own faith and experience of meeting with God. But it took a change in my mindset for me to be able to view someone else’s spiritual expression as something that I could receive as a beneficial aspect of Christ being made known to me through His people. I now see this as the living faith in one person’s heart being made known to mine; and then in turn, my own worship being made known to those worshiping with me as well, creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic. On a human, sociological, natural level this is psychologically supportive of one another’s faith expressions, but on a deeper, more supernatural level, also is an arena where the Spirit of God is able to express His own nature corporately, through the weak yet creative expressions of His people who are passing expressed faith back and forth to one another in their full-bodied signals to Him and to one another.
But it did take a shift in mindset – if worship is about me and God being alone, and undistracted, to have this inner exchange of prayer, worship, honor, love, repentance, etc., then the question becomes: “Why gather together with other believers for worship at all?” If worship is a private thing, where I shouldn’t notice your worship and you shouldn’t notice mine, then why do we bother coming TOGETHER to do it? God *can* be encountered out in the woods, or on the seashore, or on my bed or in my living room, or alone in my car – so why not just let that be sufficient?
I think the reality is, as I’ve written before: we need both. We need to experience God in our closets, alone, or at the seashore, alone. We each NEED to have a unique connection to our Creator that doesn’t depend on man. But we just can’t pass over the fact that if we believe the New Testament scriptures (and I’m writing mostly to Christians here as I write this) that the overwhelming testimony of that scripture is that God Himself is really into this concept, of believers in Jesus sharing a corporate experience of Christ – what is called being the “body of Christ” together. Being the body can be a simply static concept: we are the body of Christ whether we get together or not – but this concept can be realized as also an experience-able concept, something which if when we get together and have some idea what we’re doing to gather “in the name of Christ” together moves from being a mere doctrine into a functional reality.
The mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (the “you” in that verse being a plural you) is that there are new facets to knowing Christ, and to worshiping Him, or gathering with Him, that really can only be realized when we do this in conjunction with one another, functioning no longer just as individuals alone, but individuals in connection with one another, experiencing the dynamic that results from each person’s faith expressions feeding into the others’. This is why so many people will share that something unique occurs when they worship with corporately – that they have an experience with the Spirit of God that is unique and cherished apart from what they have with Him while they are by themselves. And it has something to do with each of us bringing something of our own heart with God to each other, where the whole of the corporate expression becomes greater than the sum of its own individual expressive parts.
It’s like what you see when a flock of birds fly overhead – a bird flying is just a bird, which is a marvelous thing. But when hundreds of birds come together and each of them does its own little flying part, suddenly a whole new structure of expression is seen in the sky, as the flock moves in a way that creates new shapes, new forms, and new expressions of movement that any individual bird could never demonstrate to an observer. When you’re *in* that flock of birds, you can undoubtedly see some angle on this unique thing that is happening even while you are in it – and, you get a chance to see where your own little part becomes an expression of something so much greater than yourself – it gives new dimensions to your own experience of being a bird, to fly along with the others.
This post is not meant, however, as some sort of “you need to go to church” sermon, as it may be tasting right now to some of my readers. Church can be valuable to the degree that it truly gives you a chance to experience being part of the body of Christ with others. Or, it can itself unfortunately at times be the single most distracting element that believers experience to truly being the body of Christ with one another – it depends on the church, its way of being, its beliefs, its leadership and its format of meeting. Church is simply a scaffold, a structure, for people to be in spiritual life with one another. And a structure can be something that living things thrive on – and build life on, like a coral reef growing on the structure of a sunken ship or stone outcrops, or a tomato plant being helped along with a stake for it to grow around. Or structure can be something averse to life, something which destroys it – like putting a Walmart building and parking lot into a former wetland area. Some of my readers would find their spiritual life greatly enhanced by leaving their church, and others need to find one. I’m not making any statement about your own situation in regards to that, because how could I even begin to know?
But my goal here in this post is simply to point out: that there has long been this tension in the body of Christ between knowing what constitutes a corporate “distraction” from Christ for one another, and what actually constitutes a valuable opportunity to edify one another’s faith by each member of the body bringing their own expression of knowing Him to the corporate table. And I think that we can meaningfully distract one another right into loving Him more, as we offer our own distracting expressions of knowing Him and loving Him to one another.
Years ago I had this friend, Stephen, who had this natural ability to turn any conversation into a real heartfelt conversation about God and Jesus, and I and another friend were hanging out with him one day as we all went to visit a friend who was undergoing some spiritual turmoil. Her family had invited us in and told us all to go wait for her in her room, that she would be home shortly. So while we waited, we prayed for her – and we asked the Lord to send His Spirit into her room to make Himself more real to her.
Not long thereafter, this gal came in and together we had a conversation about the Lord, where each person seemed to have something to share that flowed in perfect harmony with what the others shared. As we spoke with her, I noticed what seemed to look like a barely discernable “mist” that filled the air, and as I took notice of the mist, it became more and more visible to me. It seemed to sparkle, too, like this ambient light was filling the mist “particles” whatever they were, and as I paid more and more attention to this slightly glowing mist, I realized that the “light” seemed to glow not with some impersonal light, but with an extremely personable sense of affection and love, emanating from the mist. Describing this sounds somewhat insane to me, even as I write it: how could a glow emanate something personable and loving? These things just sound awful when one tries to put them into words, but this is the best I can describe what more or less is indescribable by normal terms, typical terms. I have to admit though, at the time, I did not voice this experience to anyone: I was accustomed to spiritual experiences being highly individualistic, and assumed I was the only one there that saw such a thing, that anyone else would have thought I was nuts or lost in my own imagination.
So I was shocked, when upon leaving this gal’s house, Stephen immediately turned to me and my other friend, and exclaimed, “Did you see the Shekinah glory of God filling her room?!?!” I was so surprised and gasped, “You saw it too?!?” We asked the third friend who said she also saw the mist, although I wasn’t ever sure if she was just going along with what Stephen and I were sharing, or if she had really seen it also – but I knew that day that as individualistic as spiritual experiences can be, that they’re not ALWAYS private, individual, non-confirmable occurrences.
This was years and years ago; since then I have had many, many opportunities to be confronted with the presence of God in a room – with rare exception this has always occurred when people were gathered together to declare Him and His love in song (aka, to worship and pray together.) There were many years of my life as a Christ-follower where I never saw or felt anything supernatural – during that time period, if you had told me then that you felt “the Spirit of God” during worship, I would have wondered firstly why I never could seem to share that experience, and secondly if you were just deluding yourself. But something happened in between the time of my life when I “felt nothing” and the time of my life when I grew in an awareness of God’s presence among His people: and that was encountering the Holy Spirit not in a room filled with other people, but within myself. It’s a long story for some other posting(s) to explain that journey, and how I came to know more what the indwelling Spirit of God was like in my own being; a journey that started with believing in the Messiah Himself and then asking, seeking, and crying out to know Him more – stumbling around in darkness wondering when and how He would turn the lights on for me, but still seeking, still reaching, still groping, knowing that there had to be something more than a “theory” of what it meant to have the Spirit come and live within me – that somehow this had to be something more than a belief or doctrine but an actual living experience. I would read verses like this one:
“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:38)
and wonder what this was describing, because even as a believer and follower of Jesus I knew that nothing which had happened to me thus far could be described in words like those. So I went looking, and found that the Father was looking for me at the same time, to reveal His Son in me, to me, in a way that I didn’t know up to that point (and am still learning about even to this day.)
But this brings me to the point of this blog posting: that I believe there are two distinct ways in which the Spirit of God is made manifest to a believer. And all too often, I hear and see my friends getting hung up on one of those two ways, while completely dismissing and misunderstanding the other of the two. So to speak more clearly, there are two distinct ways (and these are not the only two, but for the sake of this discussion I am focusing on two) that the Holy Spirit frequently makes His presence known to those who know Jesus:
a) within themselves, in their own individual innermost being (in many various ways)
b) within a gathered, corporate expression of believers honoring Christ together
If you think about it, we know that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, and that this is true on an individual level. You do not need to gather together with anyone else to alone be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said this about Himself on a solitary, individual level, when He refered to His own body as God’s temple, and we know that this is true for each individual believer who receives Him into themselves. We are each of us God’s temple. And thus within ourselves, God can be communed with, ministered to, petitioned, and each of us can be led by the light of His Spirit within, on an individual level. In the Old Testament, God sending His Spirit upon an individual is a recognized occurrence; sometimes New Testament believers will make a distinction about whether God wants to position Himself “upon” or “within” someone in the New Testament sense and whether or not there is a difference between the impartation of the Spirit to a person upon the initial commitment to Christ in one’s life, or sometime thereafter, but regardless of these discussions, most believers agree that the Holy Spirit is available to any individual believer in one sense or another.
I think one issue however with the Lord dwelling among us individually is that for some individuals, their only experience of the presence of God has occurred in corporate settings. Even their individual sense of His presence is only found when they meet with others to sing and pray. For a new believer, this isn’t immediately a problem as gathering with others can be like “training wheels” as they first recognize their ability to sense the Spirit in environments where others are setting the spiritual tone for them. Being in a corporate setting can help one to recognize not only the Spirit as He moves in the midst of music or sharing in a group, but also to become more sensitive to what He is like within the individual. But for some people, they remain dependent exclusively on the others in the group to manifest the presence of Spirit for them; and this is problematic; it is essential that each believer is uniquely aware of the Spirit of God in such a way that they are not depending on others to know Christ by the Spirit. People that are struggling with this dynamic are often very upset if something happens during a corporate meeting to distract from enjoying Christ together, and are not easily able to follow the leading of the Lord through disruptive situations to the corporate situation. For instance, if a nonbeliever is visiting in a small home meeting of Christians, and behaves in a way that is insensitive to an awareness of the Spirit of God – or if he or she has conversation with someone where the conversation does not focus on spiritual things, a believer who is not able to tap into Christ within themselves individually may not know how to extend grace and love to someone who has disrupted their corporate worship or sharing time, instead considering that person a trial or a tribulation. One who knows how to experience Christ within however is not dependent on an outward experience of Christ in a group to be edified or to have the wherewithal to give something of the Spirit to someone who doesn’t know how to see or touch Him yet; and there are many more reasons why it is essential that every believer be fluent in experiencing the Spirit of Christ for themselves without being dependent on gathering with others to tap into His presence among them, at least not most of the time. If one is dependent on the “corporate anointing” to experience the Spirit, one does not mature in their own ability to edify others, but remains a consumer of what others in the body bring forth to edify them. (Unfortunately, most churches are set up so that during the Sunday service particularly there is very little opportunity for anyone other than a few select people to exercise their giftings for the edification of others, and so people remain mostly consumers of the religious services offered to them, and the Lord still does make Himself manifest corporately from time to time in these settings; but I do believe that the more the church makes opportunities for people to go from being mere consumers to those who actively edify others that the corporate presence of God experienced in meetings of the body will increase in frequency and magnitude.)
This well known scripture, 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 demonstrates the difference between a group of people where believers are enjoying God’s presence corporately for themselves but unable to adjust to bringing forth a deeper measure of Christ individually, in contrast to a group of people that know how to listen to the Lord individually and make Him known corporately from their own individual reserves. When the latter is the case, out of a place of growing maturity individual believers can bring forth treasures from Christ in such a way that even a nonbeliever with undeveloped awareness of the spirit-realm can see that He is among them corporately: “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature….If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all;the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”
But aside from the drawback of being fixated on a corporate experience at the expense of the individual experience, one can see that is a great deal of validity to being able to relate to His presence as a gathered people as well. For instance, while it is completely scripturally valid to think of each individual Christian as a temple of Christ, we also know from scriptures such as 2 Corinthians 6:16, that we are a corporate, collective temple as well. Also, 1 Peter 2:5 talks about each believer being a living stone, built TOGETHER into one spiritual house. Thus there is a sense in which the Spirit of God can fill not just us as individuals, but also us as a gathered, corporate expression of faith in Christ. In the Old Testament, God coming “among” His people is a persistent motif – from Him coming among them (Leviticus 26:12-13) and walking in their camp (Deuteronomy 23:14), going ahead of them and leading them corporately (Exodus 13:21, Exodus 33:14, Deuteronomy 31:8) and His desire to dwell among them as a people, corporately, in the New Covenant (Ezekiel 27:37). There is also a motif of the glory of God coming in a rather demonstrative way and filling His temple (*1 Kings 8:11, *Ezekiel 10:4, *2 Chronicles 5:14, *2 Chronicles 7:1-2, Ezekiel 43:5 & 44:4) remembering that we are not just individually temples, but are corporately a temple, it should be no surprise that the presence of Christ can be experienced corporately when believers gather together to minister to Him and each other.
Now, I have heard many objections to this whole idea. One common objection is the idea that God being experienced corporately is an Old Testament thing, not a New Testament thing, because Christ has made it possible for the three-in-one God to dwell within each of us. While I agree, obviously, that the work of the cross and resurrection and ascension of Christ has huge ramifications for the accessibility of the Spirit, I think it is a misconception that a *corporate* experience of God’s presence is uniquely ‘Old Testament.’ For one thing, an *individual experience* of God’s presence is very much an Old Testament occurrence so why do we believe that the distinction made by the New Testament is a matter of individuality vs. corporate life? I think this is a mistake. Another objection I think also to be a mistake is to believe that because God comes to dwell inwardly within an individual under the New Covenant that this means all outward experiences of God’s presence (which a corporate experience is in some aspects) are no longer valid. The reality is that if God dwells in me, but He is also dwelling IN you, for me to experience any aspect of communion with you in that same Spirit requires me to experience something outside myself – to experience a communion shared BETWEEN us, not only within myself. This can happen on many levels; I do not in any way mean to suggest the normal and presumed means of us experiencing His presence together will be to see a sparkling mist of love filling the room (although that is certainly one way I have personally experienced His presence being made manifest corporately on less than a handful of occasions) but experiencing His presence IS something that in one way or another is not a rare occurrence by any means – and learning to be sensitive to the Spirit within oneself sharpens one’s spiritual senses for discerning Him, via the inner sensitivity to His love or voice or glory or light or wisdom or movements, etc., to that same Spirit when He does things in the midst of a group people as well.
No, I think the largest difference between what we see in God filling the temple in the Old Testament, versus what He does when He fills His temple now, is that the temple NOW is not a building made of stone, but is now a building of LIVING stones. If God comes and fills a room, He’s not filling it because He has a thing about “rooms” as much as because He is meeting in a with the people gathering there. The motifs of the Old Covenant have become realized in flesh and blood more than in stone and mortar; in a very real way we have become the stones, and this was what He was after all along anyway. Even in the Old Testament God was still hanging out with people; in the New Testament He does this even more so, in an even much more relatable way. Christ has come as the incarnation, the “God with us” of the Father, and we have been caught up in this in such a way that even we have been transformed into the very incarnation of Christ, brothers together with Him. (1 Cor 6:15, 1 John 4:17, Hebrews 2:11)
Unfortunately many New Testament scriptures that reference God’s Spirit being among us as a group are scriptures that refer to His presence among us specifically to deal with matters of sin, but nevertheless the testimony of Scripture is that He does meet with us corporately.
“Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV)
“When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus…” (1 Corinthians 5:4 ESV; Paul’s Spirit is present in the gathered assembly by extension, unity, and association with the Lord’s Spirit…)
The fact that these verses however refer to judgment and discipline is actually helpful; because to establish a matter in a court of law according to the law of Moses required 2 or 3 witnesses. Therefore there is something hidden in these verses that is wonderful – the concept that it is not just when people come together that they find Jesus present corporately, but when people come together for the sake of witnessing and testifying to something of the Lord that He is somehow “present” in a way beyond the general sense of God being present ubiquitously in the universe.
Another way in which believers testify of Christ’s reality is through their good works, their actions in the world. This testimony of Christ is compared in Scripture to a lamp, placed on a stand where others can see it.
“….nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:15-16 ESV)
This lampstand then comes to represent the testimony of believers about who God is, spread their good works, in a region or vicinity where a church is found. This testimony then results in praise, people “glorifying God” in response to what they see and hear. It is this combination of one group testifying to another group of people, which then results in praise, that makes up the lampstand motif – and this lampstand motif is then used for another image in Scripture which demonstrates the unique presence of Christ that is present among believers in a corporate sense, when believers are shining forth a testimony of who God and Christ are to their neighbors through their love and care for those around them, resulting in praise.
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands,and in the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. ” (Revelation 1:12-13)
Christ is present “among the lampstands.” This is different than an individual experiencing Christ within themselves, this is a unique way that the Lord is present, found “in the midst” of what a collective group of people say and do together regarding Christ.
When a group of people remembers the character and works of the Lord together – how they’ve seen Him in their lives, and in the lives of others, and how they have experienced His testimony in their own life and the life of their community, this is meant to result in “praise and glory to God.” Charismatics are fond of the verse, not without cause, that says, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.” (Psalm 22:3 – People often paraphrase this as “God is enthroned on the praises of His people.”) As overused as this verse can be, there is a validity to how the glory and presence of the Lord is made manifest among those who declare, honor, and remember His goodnesses together. The testimony of the Lord expressed corporately, whether in song, outcry (“Come Lord Jesus!” aka, Maranatha!) or sharing the life and truth of who He is (such as my friends in the opening story of this blog) provides an environment in which the Spirit of Christ can agree and make Himself manifest and known more fully to those who look to Him for His appearances. If you sow to the Spirit, you reap from the Spirit, and this is not only a personal truth but a corporate truth as well – filling the atmosphere of our shared time together with words expressed from open and hungry hearts turned towards Him is like lifting up the loaves and fishes towards Heaven and suddenly finding that there is more in the baskets than what one started with – more to eat of Who He is than what was brought to the meeting originally by the participants.
What is the whole point though? Criticisms of “worship times” where people seem to be worshipping to “get something from God” or “have an emotional experience” of some type are not entirely without merit, although they are often unduly critical of those who simply enjoy meeting with God. (Really – is it wrong to get one’s sense of fulfillment and pleasure from experiencing the actual presence and glory of the Living God? If so, what *is* the acceptable thing in life that a human may rightly derive a sense of joy, fulfillment and pleasure from? Some might say He is worthy to be honored and glorified for His own sake, regardless of what we might enjoy or not enjoy of that – and this is true – but if one finds themselves deeply enjoying honoring and glorifying Him, and also finds a taste of Heavenly realities such as the glory and presence of God Himself – and responsive feelings to tasting those realities here on Earth – is this really so unseemly?) We all have seen worship meetings though that seemed to be filled with emotional and musical hype, even manipulation. These are real issues for the body of Christ to reckon with as it seeks to meet authentically and in reality with God, and give Him praise, and honor, and hunger, and love, as a gathered group of people. But the hype driven, or manipulative seeming music or styles are not by any means the real crux of the story here. The reality of this story is that we pray for the Kingdom to come to Earth – and while there are many, many facets to what this means, two facets are not be easily dismissed or ignored:
Each one of us has a heart of flesh, taken from the dust of this Earth – and that is one place that the King, and the Kingdom, is meant to come. He does that via His Spirit, which is His presence.
And, not only that, we are a people, a nation, a temple here on the Earth. And if His presence doesn’t comeand dwell among us when we gather together, how do we hope for His presence and His Kingdom to be made manifest anywhere else on this planet? Are we not, as those called by His name, ground zero for His appearances? What is it we partake in together as one body – is it only “truth” and “ideas” and “ways of life” or is there a facet of God coming to us, like the morning dew, or sometimes as a mist, or sometimes as a sense of His personhood, or sometimes as a Song, or as fresh revelation of His word to us, or in many other ways, is He welcome among us as a group? I hope we can say yes. Yes to Him, in however He makes Himself known to us – individually, or corporately, or any other way known to man.