Traditionally, I believe, most Christians have taken Paul's yearning question near the end of Romans 7 to be indicative of Paul's supposed ( Gnostic? ) wish to be free of his physical body so that he could be 'present with the Lord' ( II Corinthians 5:8 ). Although Paul's question may be applied in some sense to the Christian life today; in no way should it be applied in the traditional sense that many, I fear, have applied it. 'Flesh', as a metaphor, was nothing new to the first-century believers ( Jews in particular ); even in the Hebrew Scriptures ( Ezekiel 36:26 ) we read statements like God's promise that 'I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh': obviously, when God 'turned' the hearts of His people, He didn't literally remove their physical heart ( of stone? ) from their physical body and replace it with a real, beating, 'flesh and blood' heart. This was an obvious reference to the 'tearing down' of the Mosaic covenant 'written in stone' ( II Corinthians 3:3 ).
In the first six chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul's usage of the term 'flesh' seems to very likely, even most probably, refer to just that, physical human flesh. Even throughout the Gospels, except for a few instances, which we'll get to later, and in the book of Acts, this seems to be the case. His statement in verse 5, for instance, 'when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death', is clarified by a previous one, where he writes 'you also have become dead to the law'. According to Paul here, being 'in the flesh' is equivalent to being 'under', or 'bound by the law' ( Galatians 5:3 ), although in verses 18 and 25, he seems to return to a referral to his own physical body. In the next chapter ( 8 ); Paul begins to clarify even further, writing that '[ There is ] therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,[a] who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.' ( Note that the latter half of the verse does not appear in some texts, although, I believe, it is a scriptural addition to Romans 8:1, appearing 3 verses later in our text. ) From both the covenantal and historical context of Paul's writings, we should be able to readily see that he is talking, not so much of the physical nature of our literal 'flesh' ( although some would argue that this is more than applicable in today's 'day and age' ), but of the sinful nature of Adam, portrayed nowhere more clearly than in the Pharisaical actions of apostate first-century Israel. As we continue to study Paul's usage of the term 'flesh' in the ensuing chapters of his letter to the Romans, we see that, although in some cases, Paul seems, again, to refer to the actual, biological body ( 9:3 & 5 ), he is really referring to the same 'fallen' nature of Adam, the nature of the 'natural man', as 'under' the old covenant ( Romans 9:8, Galatians 4:23 ). As we continue to study the writings of Paul; we may notice statements that seem to speak in a biological sense, like when he wrote in his 1st letter to the Corinthians that 'not many wise according to the flesh' were called, or chosen of God, 'that no flesh should glory in His presence' ( 26-29 ), and his instructions in the same letter ( chapter 5 ) to 'deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh'. Paul's references to 'the flesh', in the next couple chapters ( 6:16, 7:28 ), are fairly 'obviously' ( plainly? ) biological, but when he asks his readers to muse on 'Israel after the flesh' ( 10:18 ), he makes an obvious reference back to Romans 9, as well as to Galatians 4:23, where he wrote, speaking of the ( two ) covenants, 'But he [ who was ] of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise'. One might say that chapter 15, Paul's famous treatise on the resurrection, is a 'mixed pot', when it comes to 'the flesh', but as we saw earlier, when read in the covenantal and historical context, we can see that he was really referring to that same fallen, sinful, Adamic nature ( Romans 7:9 ) that he had 'complained' about before. Even the phrase 'flesh and blood' is seen to be metaphorical ( though in a somewhat physical sense ), as Paul explains, in Galatians 1:16, that when 'startled' by the Holy Spirit of Christ ( God ), he writes, 'I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood', relating that he did not seek the counsel of his brethren in the Sanhedrin, or to confirm what he had 'seen', or rather heard, with the religious leaders of his day.
To be fair; we can well say, even today, with Paul, things like 'put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to [ fulfill its ] lusts' ( Romans 13:14 ), and 'Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh' ( Galatians 5:16 ), or with Jesus, 'The spirit indeed [ is ] willing, but the flesh [ is ] weak' ( Matthew 26:41b ). There are many other references throughout the Scriptures that seem to indicate biology, and others which clearly indicate the wisdom of man ( 'fleshly' ), but often, even those which seem to indicate a biological body can be seen to be used metaphorically ( in a spiritual sense ), as in the case of marriage, where 'the two shall become one flesh' ( Mark 10:8 ( Genesis 2:24 ) Matthew 19:5 & 6, I Corinthians 6:16 ), or of a corporate 'body', as 'all flesh shall see the salvation of God' ( Luke 3:6 ( Isaiah 40:5 ) Romans 3:20 ), and 'it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh' ( Acts 2:17a ( Joel 2:28 ).
One of the biggest 'problems', pertaining to our study here, facing a strictly ( 'wooden' ) literal interpretation of the word 'flesh', is found in Romans 8:8, where Paul wrote that 'those who are in the flesh cannot please God'. If we are to take this at 'face value', and out of the covenantal context; one might think that Paul is saying that human beings, Christian or not, have no hope of pleasing God, until, as I quoted in a previous article, we 'shuffle off this mortal coil': I must say, though, I don't really think that any respectable theologian out would posit this idea, and the principle that Paul espouses here can be applied to a 'fleshly', or 'lustful' attitude, even in today's 'day and age'; it is clear that he is referring, in both the historical and covenantal contexts, to the religious practices of Paul's day, in which the Pharisees 'bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay [ them ] on men’s shoulders; but they [ themselves ] will not move them with one of their fingers' ( Matthew 23:4 ), which itself is a metaphor for a fact which occurs today, they preached, but did not practice. There is a sense in which we can posit, as some do, that such things as 'carnal Christians' exist, that live 'according to the flesh', in the selfish lusts of their own 'hearts', doing whatever they want, because 'once saved, always saved', or something like that, but there is a greater sense in which Christians can never be in the 'flesh', at least not the 'flesh' that Paul had in mind, the 'flesh' of Adam, and the 'death' which was proved under the old covenant.
The Greek Scriptures, and maybe to an even greater extent, the Hebrew Scriptures, contrast the Spiritual nature of the new covenant, as opposed to the fleshly ( some might say 'physical' ) nature of the old. Ezekiel recorded this promise of God; 'Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them,[a] and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh' ( Ezekiel 11:19- almost sounds like 'the two shall become one flesh' ), As we saw above; God promised, through the prophet Joel that 'I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh', speaking of the new covenant, which He planned to reveal 'in the latter days' ( Isaiah 2:2, Hosea 3:5, Micah 4:1 ). Back now, to Romans 8; Paul wrote that 'what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God [ did ] by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh'; the first covenant ( Hebrews 8:7 ) was made 'null and void', because those 'fleshly' beings with whom He covenanted could not keep it, so He made a covenant with Himself ( Hebrews 6:13 & 14 ( Ezekiel 36:25-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34, etc ).
Continuing to contrast 'the flesh' and 'the Spirit'; Paul writes, in II Corinthians 10:3: 'For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh'. In the same sense as above, we can apply this to our lives today, in that we most often, even as Christians, must fight our own inclinations, our selfish desires, in order to do what we know is right. Paul wrote this statement in a time though, when one of the biggest 'problems' facing the baby church was the Judaizers, who were not willing, because of the tradition, to let go of their fleshly ordinances 'written in stone', but 'warred' to preserve the way of life handed down to them by their fathers, for generations.
To the Galatians; Paul wrote, 'For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish' ( this seems akin to Paul's 'diatribe' in the midst of Romans 7 ). Now again; taken at 'face value', you can see how we today, might apply this to ourselves because we, in our natural selfishness, often wish to do ( in many cases do ) things that our Spirit tells us that we shouldn't, but I believe that, read in the context of Paul's writing, we can see that he was talking about the Mosaic law, for in the very next verse, even, he wrote 'But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law'. Going back to Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan 'woman at the well', in John 4; Jesus told her, 'Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father', in other words, as the writer to the Hebrews revealed, in Hebrews 12, that the true worship of God was not relegated to a physical ( fleshly ) 'place' anymore ( at least not to one made with humans hands ), but that 'true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth' ( 23 ). Speaking of Himself, 'the Living Word' ( as opposed to the fleshly ordinances 'written in stone ); Jesus told His disciples, in John 6:63, 'It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and [ they ] are life' ( John 5:39 ). As we read in the following verses, 'From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more', not being ready for the truth, but accustomed ( comfortable with ) to the traditions of their fathers, having a fleshly mindset, and focused on the physical ordinances which had been delivered to them.
'The Works of the Flesh.'
I believe that we are all to familiar with 'the works of the flesh', as Paul described them, in Galatians 5:19b-21a; 'adultery,[c] fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders,[d] drunkenness, revelries, and the like'. I daresay that we can all admit to bearing at least one of these 'fruits', at least once a day, if not in deed, at the very least, in thought. Paul wrote earlier, in Romans 7:7, 'I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”' ( Exodus 20:17 ) I believe that we may safely assume that this was the case with other 'works of the flesh'. The written ordinance brought with it, as in the 'day' that Adam & Eve partook of the wrong 'tree', a consciousness of sin.
Later, in his letter to the Galatians ( 6:8 ); Paul wrote 'he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life', a statement that most of us still try to apply to our lives today, but we must remember the situation that Paul was addressing here, particularly with the Galatian church. As we can tell from reading the earlier parts of his letter, where he asked them, in Galatians 3:3, 'Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?', Judaizers had infiltrated the church, and were trying to tell them that they must keep the law ( Mosaic ) with all of its 'elements', like circumcision, and blood sacrifice, etc., in order to be acceptable in God's presence; but, as Paul had told them earlier ( 2:16 ), 'by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified'. This was not to say that they should not obey, or keep God's law, but not in the letter, in principle, the spirit of the law, which was to 'love the LORD your God', and 'your neighbor as yourself' ( Luke 10:27 ( Deuteronomy 6:5, Leviticus 19:18 ), which was the whole point of the law.
'The Thorn in the Flesh'
'And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.' ( II Corinthians 12:7 ) Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that God had given him a challenge ( traditionally, poor eyesight ) to keep him humble. He also praised the church in Galatia, because, 'my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, [ even ] as Christ Jesus' ( 4:14 ). Most think that, because of the information in the following verses, that Paul's eyesight never quite recovered from the blinding light that 'startled' him on the road to Damascus, which may or may not be the case, but whatever the case may be ( and I wonder now, if it didn't have something to do with him being a Jew, and especially a former Pharisee ); it is clear that Paul did not have an actual thorn sticking out of his body ( although I'm sure he got a splinter in his finger, once or twice :), and this 'thorn in the flesh' was simply a 'hurdle' (there's another metaphor ) for Paul to overcome, and, like I said, 'to keep him humble'. You might say that we all have one ( at least ) of these metaphorical 'thorns in the flesh', something that God has given us, or placed in our path, not only to see if we'll overcome, but to use for His Kingdom and for His glory. This 'thorn in the flesh' could be a physical or mental disability, or sometimes God places a certain person, or group of people in our path to whom we grant the esteemed 'term of endearment' 'thorn in the flesh'.
The 'Flesh' of Christ
There is no doubt in my own mind, and I am not trying to create doubt or raise questions in anyone else's mind, of the fact that God did empty Himself of Glory, and sent His only begotten Son to this earth, to be super-naturally born of a woman, to suffer a normal ( more or less ) human existence, and to die for the sins of His people, delivering them from the 'death of death' by raising Him from the grave, thus conquering it for and through them. When Scripture speaks of the body, or 'flesh' of Jesus, it most often means just that, His actual, literal 'flesh and bones' ( Luke 24:39 ) body, the biological mass that He walked, talked, and lived in, while on this earth, this human 'plane' of existence, but even when His body, or 'flesh', is referenced, it is, as often meant in a metaphorical sense. Jesus, as recorded in John 6:51, said 'I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world'. Jesus did give His physical body over to the torturers, and then, to death ('He gave up His spirit'-John 19:30 ), but, before He did, He revealed in one of His 'hard sayings', that He was the fulfillment of the typical 'bread from heaven' ( Exodus 16 ( Revelation 2:17 ), that God had fed their 'fathers' with in the wilderness. The Pharisees ( and even some of His disciples ) made the same mistake that some still do today, in ascribing to Jesus' following words ( 'unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood' ) a fully physical meaning. While Jesus did refer to His actual, biological Body here; I believe that He referred to His corporate Body, His collective ( and collected ) people, as Paul did in I Corinthians 11. Pretty obviously; Jesus did not expect them, and does not expect us, to eat His actual literal 'flesh', but actually had two things in mind here, I believe; He reminded them not to neglect fellowship, most importantly, with Him, 'in spirit and in truth', and other members of His Body, the Church, but to 'feast' upon His law, His command to 'love one another, as I have loved you' ( John 15:12 ( 13:34 ). In Acts 2:25-28; Peter, quoting David, in Psalm 16:8-11, referred to the corporate Body of Christ, who wrote, 'For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption', first and foremost, alluding to the actual, biological 'flesh' of Jesus, which, from all accounts, did not suffer decay, during its three days in the tomb ( the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11 was a picture of this ), but also to the fact that, through Christ and the new covenant, His people would be set free from the 'corruption' ( I Corinthians 15:42 ) of the 'death of Adam', and the power of the grave.
'According to the Flesh'
Paul begins his letter to the Romans, by revealing to them that he was a minister of the Gospel which had been prophesied 'in ages past', 'concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh' ( John 1:14 ). By referring to Jesus as being born 'according to the flesh', he obviously means something different by the phrase than he does in other places, some of which we've already noted. Peter also refers to Jesus' birth as 'according to the flesh', in Acts 2:30. We know that, by using this phrase of the physical nativity of our Lord; they are saying just that; He was born as a human being ( though supernaturally ), of the physical line of David.
'What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh?' Paul goes on to explain, in this passage ( Romans 4 ), how Abraham was not justified by his works, or deeds done in 'the flesh', but by faith, in the Spirit. In chapter 8 of this book; Paul reminded his readers that Christ came 'that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit' ( note, that Paul made the statement previously ( verse 3 ), not that Christ came to condemn 'the flesh', but that He condemned 'sin in the flesh' ). Paul further said, regarding the works, or deeds of 'the flesh', that 'if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.' This message was given primarily to the Roman church, and should thus be understood in the historical and covenantal context, but also relays much the same admonition today: if we rest in our works ( 'works righteousness' ) to get us through, we have made the same mistake as the Pharisees of old. As Paul wrote, at the end of the previous passage; 'I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!' Because of Jesus and the new covenant in His blood, we no longer must suffer in our ignorance!
Jesus, in defending His witness, His authority, told the Pharisees, 'You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one' ( John 8:15 ( Romans 2:28 ). The Pharisees, like so many today, were quick to judge 'a book by it's cover'. As we know, the 'cover' does not make the 'book', but because they judged, as we so often do, by how things looked; they were condemned by the very Law they claimed as their own ( John 5:45 ). Not only were the Pharisees guilty of passing judgment according to their perception, they also made the fatal mistake ( II Corinthians 3:6 ) of following the letter, rather than the spirit, or principle of the law ( Matthew 23:23 ( I John 2:7 & 8 ).
'For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble'. When Paul wrote these words, he had in mind, I'm sure, the same wisdom of men that we have experience with today, and which James wrote about in his letter, contrasting 'the wisdom that is from above' from an 'earthly wisdom', which is 'sensual, demonic', but primarily, I believe, he referred to those Pharisees, the religious leaders of God's covenant people, who had become wise in their own eyes ( Luke 16:15, I Corinthians 3:18 & ( I Corinthians 1:18-25 ), forsaking the wisdom that is from above, from God, the Father of spirits.
As we have seen from this study of the usage of the word 'flesh' in the ( mostly ) Greek Scriptures; 'the flesh' while often denoting just that, physical, biological, flesh, the human body; it often is used metaphorically, even in the instances where it does reference an actual physical body. This being the case; in many of the cases where people may try to apply phrases such as 'flesh and blood' or 'according to the flesh', while the phrases may not have quite the same import today as they had to the original audience, is it fair today, to say that they do not apply at all? Are we making the same Pharisaical mistake, and following the 'letter', rather than the spirit?
Mulling it over,
Charles Haddon Shank