Introduction: The Greek word sarx (translated flesh in the New Testament) has occasioned no small amount of philosophy and speculative theology. Misunderstanding "flesh" has also been responsible for many false doctrines. Some of these fallacious teachings even go so far as to release man from any spiritual responsibility, claiming that man is not responsible for what his flesh does. A too often heard composite definition of flesh (sarx) is:
"The sinful Adamic nature that uncontrollably longs to sin; totally corrupt and evil; the inheritance of the sin of Adam; that part of man that is intrinsically sinful; the lower and base nature of man with which he is born that is inclined only to do evil and no good…."
A study of "flesh" opens the door to many explorations of truth on varying levels of profitability and profundity. For the most part, we shall endeavor to keep this study simple. This confusion over the flesh is nothing new. One doctrinal belief often associated with some of the ancient Gnostics was that of the inherently and intrinsically evil condition of the flesh. Both Docetic and Cerinthian Gnostics had trouble accepting that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. They rejected this essential truth because of their view of the flesh. "Christ, the Holy One, could not come in the flesh, because the flesh is sinful and the Holy One could not partake of sin," they reasoned. It is evident that I John had the immediate task of refuting this basic belief and teaching of Gnosticism. In fact, most who have an incorrect view of the flesh will have the same struggle as the Gnostic had in accepting the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, that is, if they will carry out their beliefs to their logical conclusions, as did the philosophizing Gnostics. John, though, makes it plain that the flesh is not intrinsically sinful to where Jesus Christ could not inhabit a human body. Hear John (read I Jn. 4: 1-3 and stress "in the flesh").
Based on John's teaching relative to Jesus coming in the flesh, we know that the belief and Calvinistic teaching that the flesh is inherently and intrinsically sinful is false, because Jesus was sinless (Heb. 4: 15). The teaching that Jesus did not actually possess a human body of flesh as all men do is also mistaken (see Heb. 2: 9, 14, cp. I Tim. 2: 5).
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who contend that the flesh contributes nothing concerning any urge or possible propensity. To them, the temptation of Jesus was meaningless because Jesus as God could not sin, they contend (cp. Jas. 1: 13). While Jesus was God, he was God in the flesh (Col. 2: 9). I submit that in the flesh introduces a different circumstance. For instance, the spirit in the flesh experiences sensations and desires unknown outside of the flesh (see Matt. 22: 30). Such desires as hunger and thirst are certainly peculiar to the flesh. The desire to procreate is in connection with the flesh. The desire to mate outside of marriage is sinful (cp. Heb. 13: 4). Hence, the flesh provides the occasion and stimulus for a number of sins.
I. The flesh, the physical, mortal part of man.
A. When you look at a man, you do not see the real man, the spirit, you only see the flesh or the habitat of the spirit (2 Cor. 4: 16, 18, 5: 6). Hence, the flesh serves as the means of the spirit existing in this physical world.
B. The flesh is in the process of decay, while the spirit of man is eternal (2 Cor. 4: 16, 17). It is sad that most people are only concerned with the physical dwelling of the inner man and not the "hidden man of the heart" (I Pet. 3: 3, 4).
II. The flesh is limited.
A. Flesh and blood has definite limitation. Peter knew that Jesus was the Son of God not by "flesh and blood" (Matt. 16: 17).
B. Many of the Corinthians were spiritually hampered because of the great emphasis they placed on the flesh. Their preoccupation with secular learning often prevented the reception of spiritual truths (I Cor. 1 - 4). Seeking to learn spiritual truths only by means of the natural is very limited.
III. The fight of the Christian is not flesh and blood.
A. "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood," wrote Paul, "but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places" (Eph. 6: 12).
B. It is a shame that some religious people through the years have waged carnal warfare in the name of Christianity. Carnal warfare is associated with the flesh and must not be confused with the spiritual warfare in which the Christian is to engage (Jude 3).
IV. Legitimate concern for the flesh.
A. There is a real sense in which the Christian is to pay attention to the flesh. Paul mentioned, "For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the lord the church" (Eph. 5 29). The Christian is to take care of his body, as it is to be offered unto God "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable" (Rom. 12: 1).
a. Ingesting harmful substances such as are found in tobacco and subjecting the body to all sorts of abuse is not proper.
V. The flesh compared to spirit.
A. Jesus said that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26: 41). Regarding the occasion of Matthew 26, the flesh wanted rest but the spirit (animated part of man) of the disciples was concerned about the nearing betrayal of their Lord.
B. The flesh is often associated with the natural as opposed to the Spirit and spirit. This is precisely the meaning of Jesus' language when he spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (Jn. 3: 6).
C. The scriptures make it plain that there is a distinction between the flesh and spirit. Hence, we read of the "desires of the flesh" and "the desires of the mind" (Eph. 2: 3). (See addendum.)
VI. The flesh and the spirit can be opposed.
A. Not only do the scriptures distinguish between the flesh and the spirit, but there is also seen in the scriptures the opposing struggle between the flesh and the spirit. Romans 8 presents a clear picture of conflict between the flesh and the spirit. Paul shows that in this battle, the mind (spirit) can yield to the flesh and become "carnal" (fleshly, Rom. 8: 6). Paul described this condition as, "in the flesh" and said, "So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (vs. 8). Paul enumerates the "works of the flesh" (Gal. 5: 19-21).
B. The works of the flesh and the "fruit of the Spirit" are diametrically opposed (vs. 22-24). It should be appreciated that some of these works of the flesh primarily involved the mind (envy); some involve both the mind and the flesh as to origin and expression (adultery).
VII. The lust of the flesh is powerful.
A. Some, alas, under estimate the influence of the flesh. The influences of the flesh are, the lust of the flesh, lust of eyes, and the vainglory of life (I Jn. 2: 15-17).
B. The lusts of the flesh have been used to "allure…through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error" (2 Pet. 2: 18).
VIII. What to do regarding the flesh.
A. While the flesh exerts powerful influences, the flesh can be overcome. The scriptures teach: do not fulfill the flesh; do not sow after; do not walk after; do not defile; and, from the positive, "crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts" (Gal. 5: 16; 6: 8; 2 Pet. 2: 10; Jude 8; Gal. 5: 24).
B. Paul wrote thus regarding his body: "But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway" (I Cor. 9: 27).
Conclusion: The flesh is vital for our existence on this earth (I Cor. 15: 40-50). The flesh also provides certain impulses and desires that in their basic state and often working in concert with the mind are essential to the survival and multiplication of man. However, these desires must be monitored, channeled, and controlled by the mind. It must also be known that man (the spirit) is responsible for the actions of his flesh and will give an account for the "things done in his body" (2 Cor. 5: 10).
Addendum: Ephesians 3: 2 reads thus in full: "Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others." "Nature" is from the Greek phusis and is defined as, "A mode of feeling and acting which by long habit has become nature" (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, pg. 660). These Gentiles in rejecting the knowledge of God's word had reached a morally debased state and had for generations continued therein to the point that they were "by nature the children of wrath." Notice that this "by nature" was the product of wanton living and not wanton living the product of an inherited Adamic sinful nature over which they had no control. I believe the translation of phusis in the New International Version (NIV) as "sinful nature" is unfortunate.