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The Flesh (1) Various Meanings

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In his various letters, Paul often uses the word flesh, but he does not really define what he means by it. He sees the flesh as an obstacle to the Christian life. Paul writes about the problems of the flesh, so people who have chosen to follow Jesus need to understand what it is.

We should avoid the Greek view that the soul is good and the body is bad. Paul was not going down that path. The reality is that most sin begins with a thought in our minds and happens when we make a choice with our will to do the thing that we are tempted to do. The spiritual powers of evil mostly work on our minds to persuade or deceive us into sinning.

Given that “the flesh” is not the body, we need a clear understanding of what Paul meant when he used that expression. The Greek word is “sarx”. A detailed analysis of some New Testament examples shows that Paul uses the word in a variety of different ways, but they are all related.

  • All humans/people on earth
    all flesh = all people 1 Cor 1:28, 15:39; Gal 2:16
    lords according to flesh = human masters Eph 6:3; Col 3:22
    according to flesh = human standards 1 Cor 1:26; 2 Cor 1:17.

  • Physical presence
    “in the flesh” = present in person Col 2:1; Col 2:5 Philemon 1:16.

  • Physical life
    flesh and blood 1 Cor 15:30; Eph 6:12; Gal 1:7
    our mortal flesh 2 Cor 4:11
    Jesus came in the flesh 2 Cor 5:16; Eph 2:15; Col 1:22,24; Heb 5:7; 10:20; 1 Tim 3:16
    staying in the flesh = continue living Phil 1:22, 24
    living in the flesh = alive Gal 2:20
    sickness of flesh = physically ill Gal 4:13,14
    flesh had no rest = physically tired 2 Cor 7:5
    flesh and spirit = whole person 1 Cor 7:1
    Flesh can refer to all aspects of physical life.

  • Physical body
    nurture his flesh = care for his body Eph 5:29
    flesh of animals, birds, fish 1 Cor 15:39
    thorn in the flesh – metaphor for harassment 2 Cor 12:7

  • Physical connection
    Two becomes one flesh Eph 5:31; 1 Cor 6:16
    lust of the flesh Rom 13:14: Eph 2:3
    lust of flesh = adultery, liaison with prostitutes Gal 5:17,19
    destruction of flesh for a man committing incest 1 Cor 5:5
    those not marrying will have affliction in the flesh (1 Cor 7:28)

  • Circumcision
    Cutting the flesh Col 2:11,13; Gal 6:12-13; Eph 2:11; Rom 2:28

  • Immature
    Fleshly 1 Cor 3:3-4; 9:11; 2 Cor 1:12

The various meaning of the expression “the flesh” outlined above are all linked. They are different expressions of the physical aspects of life. Some, like circumcision, are specifically physical. Others are more loosely linked. From these examples, we can see that the flesh is not a segment of the human soul. It is not another word for our physical bodies because although we can sin with our bodies. It is not our physical body that causes us to sin.


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