In the previous blog, I wrote about what is called The Fall. My idea is that the account found in Genesis 3 is a rebellion of the creation against the order of the Creator. I wrote, quoting CS Lewis, that the eating of the fruit was man tearing off a corner of the universe and saying to the creator “this is my business and none of yours”. The problem with that is the creation has no place that is not the business of the Creator. As I showed previously, even within the responsibility given to man (tending the garden) there is an unabated underlying dependence on the Creator (don’t eat from this tree in the garden. That is, it is the Creator who has business that is none of the creation’s).
Adam’s assertion of self as independent of the Creator results in what is called The Flesh, which has the same commitment. The three pictures I mentioned from the Old Testament showed that man in his flesh chooses what makes sense to his self-interests rather than look to the Creator (found in Isaiah 50:10,11); that he sees what God offers and turns away to work on a pathetically poor substitute of his own making (Jeremiah 2:13); and that when he has built that poor substitute, he whitewashes it so that it looks better (Ezekiel 13:10). What strikes me about these pictures, besides their clear incongruities, is how natural they all seem, quite in keeping with what I observe in humanity and, if I’m honest, in my own heart. I am selfish and self-serving and I frequently wish God would mind his own business.
I want to look now at the New Testament passages which use Flesh in its ethical meaning. As I mentioned before, The Bible does not teach the body=evil/spiritual=good dichotomy which was common in Greek thought and whose influence is still around today. Also, it is easy to think of “Flesh” in terms of our expression, “the sins of the flesh”. That is, we think of the physical manifestations of the commitment which the Bible calls “Flesh”. In reality, the Bible’s ethical use of “flesh” involves the whole person, mind as well as body; indeed it begins with the mind. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. (Matthew 15:19-20)
For we … worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh– (Philippians 3:3) The first passage uses the word “flesh” somewhat to mean “cred”. Paul lists out his credentials as a (perceived) man of God. The reason for this is because people had come into Philippi claiming to be teachers and apparently based their authority on their lineage and accomplishments. Paul – who had both lineage and accomplishments – says that no confidence should be placed in these things. Looking at Paul’s list, there is nothing wrong here. Paul was Jewish to the max, zealous, and very strict in keeping the Law. But placing confidence in those things was in the exact opposite direction from worshiping God and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, it is the flesh taking away from trusting God and Paul says that the cred is untrustworthy. Like the Isaiah passage I quoted previously, God asks for our trust and the flesh runs to what “makes sense”. But we cannot trust what “makes sense” to our flesh. It is rubbish.
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, (Galatians 5:17) In Galatians, Paul presents the flesh as antagonistic to the things of God. Like in the Jeremiah passage, a choice to one is an active choice against the other. A choice of the flesh is not a “falling into” opposition to God.
Significantly, in this passage, believers have a choice. Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5:13) This is a choice unbelievers do not have. Also notice that Paul does not threaten believers with loss of salvation. Believers have freedom to choose and they should not use that freedom to follow their anti-God nature. Following flesh leads to division while following the Spirit leads to in-love service of others. The flesh is the way of death now that you are out of that way, why live there?
The contrast of the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit is very stark. No one alive (okay, maybe a few) considers “Love, Joy, Peace, etc” to be bad things and yet, the flesh choosing to reject the living waters for its own muddy pit lives its life in the works of Galatians 5:19-21 and rejects the fruit of dependence on God found in Galatians 5:22,23.
I am of the flesh, sold under sin. (Romans 7:14) Romans 7&8 is the major section where the struggle with the flesh is (ahem) fleshed out and the antidote is presented. Since it is clear from the other sections that “flesh” includes mind, Paul’s statement that he desires what is good cannot mean that the mind per se is good, but rather he is pointing out the struggle which a spirit alive has with a person’s other components.
A key issue in Romans 7 is the pervasive nature of the flesh. It is always at work. What about using the Law to defeat the flesh? Paul shows that this is not possible. The flesh is such an enemy of God that even the Law which God gave is used by the Flesh to kill the person. Galatians says that there is no law that can make righteous (Galatians 2:21). Likewise, here it says that there is no Law that can kill the flesh. In fact, Law makes the flesh stronger. This is not a statement about the Law, but about the flesh. The rule that Paul observes is that whenever there is a pull towards God, there is the pull of the flesh away from God (Romans 7:21). This is not “angel on one shoulder, devil on the other”, this is flesh in relentless opposition to God. The antidote to the flesh is not law, not rules. The antidote to the flesh is the New Creation of God. Jesus came in the likeness of Flesh and by his sacrifice condemns the flesh as the ruling principle of the believers’ lives (Romans 8:3).
Now, there is a new law which doesn’t eliminate the flesh but overwhelms it. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. … You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:2, 9) Anybody who believes in Christ is given the Holy Spirit. He, God himself living in us, is the principle that overcomes the flesh. By the Spirit, we are children of God and heirs along with Christ (Romans 8:14-17). The only way the flesh is defeated is by The Spirit.
The flesh is a principle at work in all our lives. It is the rebellion of the creation against the Creator asserting self not just in preference to God but antagonistically against God. Despite daily confirmation that it is inadequate and detrimental for ruling the created order, the flesh remains in its anti-God commitments. The flesh cannot be straightened out or put in line. Even the holy, just and good Law of God is perverted by the flesh to serve sin. The only hope is that the He who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (Romans 8:11).