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What is The Flesh?

Growing up in church, I often heard preachers talk about the flesh and the spirit.  As I understood it, the flesh was bad and the spirit was good.  I was not to live in the flesh, walk after the flesh, and enjoy fleshly things.  Yet, this confused me, because I looked at myself and understood that I was just a guy made out of flesh.  So, what is the Bible talking about when it uses that word, flesh?

I.      Flesh, as understood in the O.T.

Though flesh is used to identify life in general (Gen. 6:19), animal meat (Ex. 12:8), and mankind as a whole, (Gen. 6:3), its main use is to differentiate between God who is Spirit and man who is flesh.  In Daniel 2:11, we see that God is one “whose dwelling is not with flesh.”[1]

II.    Flesh, as understood by Paul

Paul used the word “flesh” to describe the physical body (II Cor. 12:7), kinship (Rom. 9:3) and mankind as a whole (Gal. 2:16).  However, Paul distinctively uses this word to connote human nature.[2]  In Romans 6:19, Romans 8:3, and II Corinthians 7:5, we see the incredible weakness of our own human nature.  After a person is caught in a scandal or falls to sin I will hear someone say, “Well, they’re only human.”  This is precisely what Paul is speaking of.  The flesh is weak.  In Colossians 1:22, we see Christ was made in the flesh stressing the humanity of Christ.  However, Paul makes the distinction between our sinful flesh and Christ’s sinless flesh in Romans 8:3.  Christ, like putting on a garment, took on human yet sinless flesh.  We call this the incarnation of Christ.

Most often when Christians speak of “The Flesh,” we are referring to Paul’s third distinctive use of the word.  The filthy, sinful, godless, selfish part of ourselves that we must still live with though we have been born again.  The great theologian Millard Erickson says of the flesh, “This is something that has become part of human nature–a tendency or bias toward sin and away from doing God’s will.”[3]  When living in the flesh, Christians will produce bad works (Gal. 5:19), evil desires (I John 2:16), and even enslave the believer (Rom. 7:25).  Ryrie mentions that the “flesh can only be controlled by actualizing our co-crucifixion with Christ.”[4]  Galatians 2:20 teaches this truth.  When we live our lives as if we are dead to sin, we can then walk in the Spirit and not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.

III.  Flesh, as understood by the Modern Man

The fact is, the laws of the flesh no longer bind me.  I am set free by the crucifixion of Jesus, His burial and resurrection.  I, being in Christ through faith, am crucified, buried, and resurrected with Him to live a new life (Rom. 6:1-7).  In this new life, I am to live under the laws of the spirit.

I used to live in Florida.  It’s said that in Florida, if an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would for a vehicle.  This is the law.  Though some may think this is a bad law I don’t have to obey it.  I live in Nevada were I can park my elephant anywhere I please.  I don’t live under Florida law.

Neither do I live any longer under the law of sin, death and the flesh.  When once I was compelled to sin, I have been freed!  Free to live for Christ.  Free to obey the Lord who loves me.  Free to forsake that old person I used to be.  I no longer live there.

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[1] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (U.K: The Paternoster Press Ltd., 1977), 203.

[2] F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (U.K: The Paternoster Press Ltd., 1977), 204.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 616.

[4] Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1999), 265-266.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Matthew
    March 4, 2014 at 7:20 am

    Nice article. What about those who say flesh refers to a spiritual principle that resides in the physical body? I can’t reconcile this with pAul saying that our physical bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, can god shack up with darkness?

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