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“Flesh” in Scripture

The Bible has a lot of negative things to say about the flesh.  Paul’s letter to the Galatian church illustrates this powerfully.  After passionately urging these believers to not return to a legalistic approach to God, Paul begins to wind down his letter with a warning about the flesh.  In Galatians 6:8 he contrasts the flesh with the spirit, and warns his readers to not sow to the flesh or they would reap corruption. Here the word flesh clearly refers to man’s sinful nature.

It would be easy for Christians to see the many warnings in scripture about our sinful nature and conclude that anything that appeals to our flesh should be avoided. However, such a worldview, if followed consistently, leads to asceticism.  If anything that appeals to our senses is bad, then I should only wear cheap clothes and never paint my house. And forget about fresh coffee and air conditioned churches; those appeal to my flesh as well! Fortunately, there are several good reasons to avoid such a conclusion.

First, assuming the word “flesh” only has one meaning in scripture is the result of poor hermeneutics.  It is dangerous to take one definition of a word and assume that meaning every time it is used.  D. A. Carson is right when he warns, “We sometimes fail to appreciate how wide the total semantic range of a word is; therefore when we come to perform the exegesis of a particular passage, we do not adequately consider the potential options and unwittingly exclude possibilities that might include the correct one.”  We must always remember that context cannot be separated from meaning.

Secondly, the Bible has some incredibly positive things to say about the flesh.  David said that his flesh cried out for the living God in Psalm 84:2.  The prophet Ezekiel promised that Israel’s physical return to their land would be accompanied by a spiritual revival. As a result of this spiritual revival, God was going to give them a “new spirit” and a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26). Furthermore, a more mundane use is seen when Paul said Onesimus was a beloved brother “in the flesh and in the Lord.”

Lastly, the incarnation would be an absurdity if flesh is entirely evil.  When Paul said that his flesh contained “no good thing” (Romans 7:18), he was not talking about his physical body. He was talking about his sinful nature.  One early heresy that threatened Christianity was Gnosticism, which devalued the physical.  Some people were already thinking that way in the first century, but John sternly stated that whoever does not confess “that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” is an antichrist (2 John 7).

In conclusion, Christians who ignore the warnings in scripture about their sinful nature do so at their own peril. But not everything that appeals to the senses is carnal.  Everything that God created can bring Him glory, including the physical world and our material bodies. 

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  2. I enjoyed your post. The other day I taught that the flesh, as is understood in a negative sense in the Bible, corresponds with a lower form of our consciousness. An animal primarily exists to eat, sleep, and procreate. They do not enjoy the privilege of a conscious existence that enables them to transcend their basic urges and enjoy a higher purpose. Unfortunately, many humans devolve into being led by the lusts of their flesh. They end up being no better than animals(Jude 10). However, a Christian is freed from the enslavement to these passions through a higher form of consciousness made possible by "considering" our union with Christ (Rom 6:10). This higher consciousness brings awareness to the presence of God at all times. This higher form of consciousness is what enables us to "pray at all times." I believe this is the very essence of "walking in the Spirit." It is walking in the awareness that transcends both primal passions and living as if that which is experienced by the senses is the extent of reality. As Christians, we can transcend this temporal focus and truly live as citizens of heaven. And a failure to live at this higher level subdues one to the lower form of consciousness: living life with affection confined to physical realities (the things of this world) and being led by the flesh (primal desires).

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