In the beginning, humans were created in the image of God but soon sin disfigured that image. Since the Fall (Gen. 3), humankind has struggled to return to the image of God. Today, believers hold to the hope of John’s words that when Christ returns, “we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2).[1] Christians live in the long struggle between the two images. This brief article reviews the Biblical teaching that addresses how believers may strive toward returning to a proper spiritual formation through the practice of less-emphasized, spiritual disciplines.

Nature of the Human Body

The practice of these disciplines is both taught and practiced throughout the Old and New Testaments. However, many churches and religious institutions may not adequately emphasize the disciplines through sermons, lessons, practices, or policies, in spite of the fact that practitioners of these less-emphasized disciplines experience the benefits of them.

Before the less-emphasized disciplines are addressed, a discussion of the frailty and selfish nature of the human body (corrupted by the effects of sin) must be considered. All believers have in common a body that has physical limitations and a propensity towards selfishness, laziness, greed, and sin. Practice of the lesser emphasized disciplines of rest, diet and nutrition, and exercise can help believers to address their weak and corrupted bodies. Though these disciplines are enriching, even life-giving, they must still be practiced in a body that is weak and frail and will often rebel against the practice of them.

Holistic Spiritual Formation in Weak Vessels

Because of the Fall, the human body suffered both physical and spiritual weaknesses. The sinful nature of mankind has passions and desires that are in opposition to a Christ-centered lifestyle. The flesh is at war with the Spirit. Though the war is spiritual in nature, it tires the mortal body. The body must have exercise, rest, and proper diet and nutrition that will give it strength for the war.

Paul stressed to Titus that believers must practice self-control. In the second chapter of Titus, Paul stated that young women needed to be taught self-control (Titus 2:5) and that the younger men needed to be urged to be self-controlled (v.7). He reminded Titus that older men are to be self-controlled (v. 2). Paul repeated himself to Titus when he noted that all believers need to be self-controlled (v. 12). In the first twelve verses of the second chapter of Titus, Paul addressed the need for self-control four times. Paul’s repetition of the theme of self-control indicated the body’s natural inclination to yield to fleshly passions and desires.

Paul also gave a list of the fruits of the Spirit when he addressed the Galatians saying, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control (italics mine); against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). The self-control that a believer would need to be successful in the practice of rest, exercise, and diet and nutrition is a gift of the Spirit. 

Great opportunities exist to serve the Lord and His Kingdom, but the human body must be addressed, for it is in their mortal body that the disciples would conduct the business of God. Donald Hagner declares, “If Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane underlines the truth that, ‘the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,’ how much more will this be the experience of the disciples in the struggles that await them. This logion points to the tension between the inner person, the center of volition, and the outer person, the bodily flesh with its more obvious inherent weakness.”[2] If the body has the inherent weakness, it must not be made even weaker due to a lack of rest.

The human body is limited, fragile, and given to decay and fatigue, yet it carries the Good News of eternal life. The body gains strength, resilience, and vitality when it is given ample rest, exercise that makes it stronger, and a proper diet to help it function.

Rest

Rest is a principle seen throughout Scripture—from God resting after His creation work, to the commandment to cease from labor on the Sabbath and holy convocations, and to the New Testament where even Jesus needed rest. Jesus was concerned that his disciples rested whether from physical labor, long days of ministry, or from the artificial burdens produced from the legalism of the day. The concept of rest is throughout the Pauline writings as well; Paul recognized that others gave him a type of rest when they “refreshed” him. Rest awaits the believers in the new creation period, for they will “rest from their labors” (Rev. 14:13).

Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve lived in perfect rest. They worked and their bodies needed rest from work, but it was a good work and a good rest for it was God-given. Genesis records that Adam was put in the garden to work and keep it (Gen. 2:15). However, after the Fall, the results of work are described differently. God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you…Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground” (3:17-19). After the Fall, natural work (2:15) became toil and labor (3:19). From henceforth, the body needed rest from its labor.

The Sabbath is best known as a day of rest.  Many of the feasts or holy convocations of Leviticus 23 also included rest. Even in celebration, God commanded a day of “no ordinary work” (21) as does Unleavened Bread (v.7), Trumpets (v. 25), and Tabernacles (v.35). The celebration of the Day of Atonement included a day with no work that if work is done, the person will be destroyed (v. 30). God commands rest even in celebration. Modern Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations would do well to include rest.

In the Gospels, Jesus showed concern for His disciples receiving enough rest. In Mark 6:7 – 13, Jesus sent out His disciples, two by two, to minister to others and to share the message of repentance. Later in Mark 6:30-32, the disciples returned to Jesus. They were tired and elated. “The disciples had just returned from what was apparently an intensive mission.”[3] Mark tells of “His [Jesus’] habit of taking his disciples away from the crowd for periods of relief and instruction.”[4] Jesus cared for His disciples. He recognized their human frailty as He listened to their reports.

The story of Jesus calming the stormy seas is told in Mark 4:35-41. Easy to miss in the story is not the fact that He is sleeping but rather the fact that He needed sleep. Some might suggest that He did not need the rest but rather was feigning sleep to test the disciples. To do so would be deceptive in nature, which is inconsistent with the nature and ethic of Jesus. Jesus tired therefore disciples could tire and need rest also.

Many Bible scholars refer to the Old Testament as the “promise” and the New Testament as the “fulfillment of the promise.” Using this analogy, the “rest” of the OT, which was most often one day per week, is fulfilled in the NT as “continual rest” (Rev. 21-22). The perfect rest of the Garden of Eden (before the Fall) returns to the New Jerusalem, for John records, “No longer will there be anything accursed…” (Rev. 22:3). In order to avoid the culture shock of rest when believers enter heaven, they should begin resting now. The second less-emphasized discipline of exercise seems almost the opposite of rest yet they are quite complimentary. (See part 2 of this article for a continuation on the discussion of the less-emphasized, spiritual disciplines of exercise, diet, and nutrition and how they affect the new Temple of God.)

References

[1] All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the English Standard version.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, 33B. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 784.

[3] David E. Garland and Tremper Longman III, eds., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 9, Matthew-Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 789.

[4] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), 263.