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Earthly Things

By Charles H. Welch

The word epigeios occurs seven times in the New Testament as follows:

John 3:12. ‘If I have told you earthly things’.
1 Cor. 15:40. ‘There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial’.
1 Cor. 15:40. ‘The glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another’.
2 Cor. 5:1. ‘If our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved’.
Phil. 2:10. ‘Things in earth, and things under the earth’.
Phil. 3:19. ‘Who mind earthly things’.
Jas. 3:15. ‘Earthly, sensual, devilish’.

Let us take these references in order:

John 3:12. ‘If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?’

The ‘earthly things’ which had been spoken of by the Lord to Nicodemus included the necessity of the new birth, and consequently the use of the word ‘earthly’ here, cannot be this sense as opposed to that which is bad or unspiritual, it relates simply to the sphere of blessing.

Much of what the Lord taught him should have been known by Nicodemus. He was a teacher of Israel, if not ‘the teacher of Israel’, as the presence of the article may indicate, but the Lord says he was ignorant of ‘these things’, yet he might have gathered the necessity of the spiritual begetting from Ezekiel 11:19,20:

‘And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them an heart of flesh: that they may walk in My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be My people, and I will be their God’.

Without this new spirit, no man of Israel should ‘see’ or ‘enter’ the kingdom of God. The Lord follows this statement concerning the flesh and the spirit with these words:

‘Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again (begotten from above). The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, or wither it goeth: so is every one that is born (begotten) of the Spirit’ (John 3:7-8).

This is the only occasion in the New Testament where the words to pneuma are translated ‘the wind’. The word in John 6:18 is anemos and this is so translated thirty-one times. The word ‘listeth’ is thelo, ‘to will’, and is found in John 5:21, ‘quickeneth whom He will’. This word occurs twenty-three times in John’s gospel, and in twenty-two of the references personal will is intended. The word ‘sound’ is phone and is always translated ‘voice’ in John’s Gospel, except in 3:8 (see John 1:23; 3:29; 5:25,28,37; 10:3,4,5,16,27; 11:43; 12:28,30; 18:37). The verse therefore should be translated thus:

‘The Spirit breatheth where He willeth, and thou hearest His voice, but thou knowest not whence He cometh or whither He goeth; thus is everyone that hath been begotten of the Spirit’.

To one who, like Nicodemus, was familiar with the Old Testament prophecies, the connection between John 3:6 and 8, and Ezekiel 11:19 (quoted above) and Ezekiel 37:9, ‘Prophesy unto the wind ... breathe upon these slain that they may live’, and Ezekiel 37:12-14, ‘I will open your graves ... and ye shall live’, would be obvious, and to us who read John’s Gospel and remember the remote context of John 5:21-29 with the parallels, ‘quicken whom He will’, ‘all that are in the graves shall hear His voice’, further associations will be suggested.

Nicodemus, however, apparently still held by the tradition of his sect and still holding to the advantages of being a physical descendant of Abraham, could only reply, ‘How can these things be?’ The Lord, perhaps with sorrow at the thickness of the veil that still blinded his eyes, said: ‘Art thou the teacher of Israel, and knowest not these things?’ Dr. Lightfoot tells us that there were four sorts of teachers. The teacher of children, public teachers in the synagogues, those who had their ‘midrashoth’, or divinity schools, like the schools of Hillel and Shammai or Gamaliel, and the Sanhedrin, the great school of the nation. Of this company of the great doctors and teachers of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was one.

‘Their divinity, that they taught and learned, was generally to this tenor: - to build upon their birth privilege from Abraham, to rest in the law, to rely upon their own works, to care for no faith but historical, to patter over prayers as efficacious ... How was it imaginable, that ever the doctrine of the new birth should be dreamed of among them, who looked for salvation upon such principles and terms as these’ (Dr. Lightfoot, Vol. 5, page 44).

The doctrine of the new birth is not a new revelation, it belongs to the Old Testament, and the Lord implied as much when He said to Nicodemus: ‘If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you heavenly things?’ (John 3:12).

1 Corinthians 15:40.- Lifted out of their context, the words ‘celestial bodies’ might easily refer to the sun, moon and stars, but when placed against the contrast ‘terrestrial bodies’ this is seen to be impossible, for there is but one terrestrial body, namely the earth itself. The theme of 1 Corinthians 15 is ‘resurrection’, and as the structure of 1 Corinthians 15 must be given somewhere in this analysis, it might as well find its place here.

The structure of 1 Corinthians 15 as a whole A 15:1-11. The evidence and evangelistic importance of the Resurrection of Christ.
A 15:12-34. The fact of the Resurrection of Christ and of man.
A 15:35-58. The manner of the Resurrection.

After the opening witness of verses 1-11, the remainder of the chapter is concerned with two aspects of the Resurrection, the fact verses 12-34, and the manner verses 35-58.

1 Corinthians 15:12-58

A 15:12. The fact of Resurrection ‘How?’

B 15:13-33. Adam and Christ. Death destroyed. ‘When?’

C 15:34. Exhortation. ‘Awake’.

A 15:35. The manner of Resurrection. ‘How?’ ‘With what?’

B 15:36-57. The first and last Adam. Death swallowed up. ‘When?’

C 15:58. Exhortation. ‘Be steadfast’.

There is much food for thought here. Many Christians wonder how it is possible for the individual dead body to be raised, and ask many questions which need never arise. One might put them a question in this form. A certain man 3,000 years ago died, and was buried. Five hundred years later, the elements that composed the first man’s body became the body of another man. He also died, and each 500 years the same elements became the body of another man. At the resurrection whose body would it be, for all these men had it? The answer would be, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God’.

First of all, Scripture does not speak of the resurrection of the body, but of the resurrection of the dead. The body is given by God at the resurrection and will be in accord with the believer’s rank. ‘There are heavenly bodies, and earthly bodies’. These words do not refer to ‘heavenly bodies’ of astronomy, but to the resurrection bodies of believers. In resurrection, there will be some raised to sit at the right hand of God far above all; some will walk the streets of the New Jerusalem; some will inherit the earth, and for each sphere of blessing an appropriate body will be given. ‘How’ God preserves the identity and individuality of each soul is not emphasized, possibly the explanation would not have been intelligible to us even if it had been revealed. Then as to the differing ‘ranks’:

‘There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for (one) star differeth from (another) star in glory. SO ALSO IS THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD’ (15:41,42).

that is, it too is raised with a different body, and the glory of the one raised believer will differ from that of another, ‘every man in his own rank’. The contrasts between the body which we have ‘in Adam’ and that which God will give ‘in Christ’ are given:

Corruption .... contrasted with incorruption.
Dishonour .... contrasted with glory.
Weakness .... contrasted with power.
A natural body .... contrasted with a spiritual body.

The ‘sowing’ here in each of the four instances must not be translated as of the death and burial of a believer. When seed is sown it must be alive, or nothing will come of it. If living seed be sown, it dies, and lives again. That is the teaching here. The ‘sowing’ is our birth into the life of the Adamic race, ‘raising’ is our new birth into the life of Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:1.- The subject is still the resurrection, but the term ‘earthly’ is used of the present mortal body, which is likened to the booth in which Greek plays were enacted, and so emphasizes the transient character of this ‘earthly’ life.

Philippians 2:10.- Here we have three, and not two subdivisions of the universe ‘things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth’, the last term being an illustration of the saying, ‘revelation is not always explanation’ for we have no idea who ‘things under the earth’ comprise or involve. It is here added to indicate the Lord’s supremacy in the entire universe.

The use of the word epigeios in Philippians 3:19 needs a consideration of the context. The apostle has by his exhortation, thrown the believer back upon the example both of the Lord and of himself, he now proceeds to enforce the need for observing this example both positively, ‘be followers together of me’, and negatively, ‘and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an ensample’ (Phil. 3:17). The words of verses 18 and 19 are a parenthesis, the whole passage being constructed as follows:


A 17-. Positive. Be followers together of me ... us for an ensample.

B -17-. Negative. Mark them which walk.

B 18,19. Negative. Their end - destruction.

A 20,21. Positive. Our citizenship is in heaven ... we shall be changed.

Five things are enumerated by the apostle when speaking of those whose example was to be avoided.

They were the enemies of the cross of Christ.
Their end was destruction.
Their god was their belly.
Their glory was in their shame.
They minded earthly things.

It is impossible to believe that a church of so high a spiritual standard as that of Philippians could need a solemn warning not to follow a worldly crowd, yet at first sight such a list as that given above does not seem of possible application to a believer. Let us examine them a little more closely, and let us start with the last named ‘who mind earthly things’. It will be conceded after a moment’s thought, that the unsaved man of the world has no option, he can mind nothing else. Philippians 3 is a section complete in itself, and the word ‘mind’ phroneo occurs in it as follows:

A 3:15-. As many as would be perfect (one thing, to henverse 13) be thus minded.

B 3:-15. Otherwise (heteros) minded.

A 3:16. Whereto ... outstripped others ... mind the same thing (to auto).

B 3:19. Who mind earthly things (ta epigeia).

It will be seen that those who mind earthly things are in correspondence with those who think differently from the apostle in his single-eyed effort to attain the prize. ‘Earthly things’ therefore need not mean things positively sinful, but things that come in between the runner and his goal; ‘every weight’ as Hebrews 12 suggests.

‘Earthly things’, are in the original ta epigeia (Phil. 3:19). ‘Things on the earth’ are ta epi tes ges (Col. 3:2). ‘Earthly things’ are spoken of in John 3:12, James 3:15, 1 Corinthians 15:40, 2 Corinthians 5:1, and in Philippians 2:10 and 3:19. In each case, ‘earthly things’ are set over against ‘heavenly’, ‘from above’ and ‘celestial’. Those, therefore, who mind earthly things, are those who do not act in accordance with their heavenly citizenship (Phil. 3:20) and whose example must be shunned by all who seek the prize of the high calling. The example of Abraham, as set out in Hebrews 11:8-16, who desired a better country that is an ‘heavenly’ can be added to the example of the apostle here. The reference in James 3:15 is not very intimately related to Dispensational Truth and we must therefore recognize the limitations set in this analysis and conclude our study of the words ‘earth’ and ‘earthly’ here. Under the heading ‘world’ other aspects of this great subject will be considered, and a fuller presentation of the dispensational import of the Greek oikoumene and the Hebrew tebel will be offered.