Sunday, September 28, 2014

What does the Bible mean by "Flesh"?

Prison Break Tatoos

This post has absolutely nothing to do with the TV Show "Prison Break" aside from the fact that the show's major plot-line is centered around a massive tattoo carved in... well... flesh!.

'Flesh' in the Old Testament

The word “flesh” occurs two hundred and sixty-nine times in the Old Testament. 

It is used literally to explain/describe the tissue just below the skin; the soft muscular tissue of the body both of men (Genesis 2:22) and of animals (Genesis 41:2).

It is also used metaphorically as a figure or term referring to the human body either partially or as a whole. “All flesh” could include the animal creation – Genesis 6:13 or human beings as in Job 19:26; Psalm 16:9. It could also be used here to denote 'a relationship' as in Genesis 2:23 when Adam referred to Eve as ‘flesh of my flesh’

But flesh is also used to indicate weakness and frailty as in Genesis 6:3 and Psalm 78:39. This is the usage where flesh (weakness) is often compared with the spirit (strength).

Read More: What is the flesh?

'Flesh' in the New Testament

In the New Testament – there are also three basic ways in which the word 'flesh' is used.

1. The Flesh as non-sinful

In one sense, it is used as non-sinful. Here it is used to refer to the meaty or fleshly part of the body as in Romans 2:28, Colossians 2:13. Paul, in this usage, distinguished between the human flesh and the animal flesh (First Corinthians 15:39).

In the same sense, flesh is used to describe the human race as in Mark 13:20; Luke 3:6; Acts 2:17 and Romans 3:20. This human existence terminates at death when we are no longer in the flesh.

Finally, in this same sense, flesh is used symbolically to mean the Word. Jesus said in John 6:51-56 – where eating His flesh means participating in the benefits of His death.

2. The Flesh as weak

The New Testament also talks of the flesh as weak. 
  • The flesh is weak – Matthew 26:41. 
  • The flesh is subject to physical infirmity – Galatians 4:13 and Romans 6:19. 
  • The flesh is mortal – Second Corinthians 4:11 and we are all born of the flesh John 3:6. 
Weakness is not sin but the weakness makes the flesh unable to fight temptations and lusts and therefore the flesh is the place where sin may make its entrance into human lives.

3. The Flesh as sinful

A third use of the term flesh in the New Testament talks of the flesh as sinful. It makes negative moral judgment. In the flesh – we are lost – Romans 7:5; 8:5-8. That is why Paul was careful to say that Christians are not in the flesh but in the Spirit – Romans 8:9. A lost man is in the flesh and dominated by sin. In this sense the flesh is the baser side of the man defining either the impulse of sin itself or at least the seat of it. – Romans 7:18; 8:5, 12-13; Galatians 5:17-19; First Peter 3:21; First John 2:16.

This is why Paul says that the Christian has crucified the flesh with its affections and desires – Galatians 5:24. In this connection it is significant that Paul nowhere says the flesh will be resurrected; for him it is the body that will be raised to newness of life – First Corinthians 15:44. The flesh connoted sin and failure and this will not rise again. It is through the flesh that sin makes its entrance into the body (lust); hence flesh and sin may become almost synonymous.

There is one joy – the Christian is freed from his bondage to the flesh, for although the flesh is contrary to the Spirit attempting to prevent the believer from doing what he would – Galatians 5:17; it is fighting a losing battle. To walk in the Spirit is not to do the desire of the crucified flesh – Galatians 5:16 because we are no longer debtors to the flesh – Romans 8:12; but alive through the Spirit and heir of God destined to be glorified together with Christ – Romans 8:16-17.

Next week we will consider the 'work of the flesh' –denoting the debased sinful nature. 

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