Why the word “spiritual” doesn’t appear in the OT

Then I [Nehemiah] said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. (Nehemiah 2:17-18)

As we saw last week, Nehemiah was a Jew in exile, working for King Artaxerxes of Persia (see Nehemiah 1:11 – 2:1) when he heard that his ancestral home of Jerusalem had been destroyed (Nehemiah 2:3). 

Decades before Nehemiah heard this news, another Jew, Ezra, led God’s people to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (see Ezra 6:14-15). But today’s passage shows us that when Nehemiah made it to Jerusalem, the rest of the city remained “in ruins.” So Nehemiah led the people in the “good work” of restoring and renewing the city that surrounded the temple.

This passage reminds us of an important truth we see throughout Scripture: God calls his people to both “sacred” and seemingly “secular” work—to work with both the spiritual and the material world. 

In fact, the word “spiritual” doesn’t even show up in the Old Testament. Why? “Because in a Hebrew worldview, all of life is spiritual,” says John Mark Comer. “I think if you had asked Jesus about his spiritual life…he would have asked…You mean my life? All of my life is spiritual.” Which is likely why Jesus showed no qualms about working with both the so-called “sacred” and “secular” realms, spending some years making tables and others making disciples.

Jesus, Ezra, and Nehemiah remind us that the distinction between the spiritual and the material—viewing work inside the church as more important than work outside the church—is a human invention. It is not from God. The Lord calls people to build temples and cities. Both types of work can honor him. In the words of C.S. Lewis, work becomes “spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’”

Believer, the temple has been rebuilt through Christ in you (see 1 Corinthians 6:19), freeing you to go to work today and repair what else is broken in creation. So go and embrace your vocation—even one you may have previously deemed “secular”—as nothing less than God’s “good work” today!


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