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The Flesh (2) Inherited Ethnic Status

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Paul increases his use of the word “flesh” in his letter to the Romans. He clarified an important aspect of his meaning at the beginning of the letter, where he writes about Jesus,

who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3).

The expression “according to the flesh (kata sarx) refers to Jesus’ family line. He was a descendant of David. Paul says something similar about himself in his letter to the Philippians when he has reasons for confidence in the flesh.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews (Phil 3:3-5).

When he said that he had confidence in the flesh (en sarx), he was referring to his family line and his ethnicity. He was born as a Hebrew in the tribe of Benjamin. His confidence in the flesh was confidence in the family situation into which he had been born.

Paul had believed that he was part of God’s chosen people because he was born as an Israelite into the tribe of Benjamin. He had believed that his birth gave him special privileges. The flesh that he was born into was what gave him special privilege. He saw his flesh, his birth into the right family and tribe, as the source of his privilege.

The word flesh is used in this sense in several places in the New Testament.

  • Ethnic origin/inheritance
    Jesus was David’s seed – according to flesh – descendent Rom 1:3
    Abraham was Paul’s forefather – according to flesh Rom 4:1
    Jews are Paul’s relatives – according told flesh Rom 9:3
    Jesus was Jewish – according to the flesh Rom 9:5
    Ishmael is Abraham’s child – of the flesh Rom 9:8
    my flesh = all of the Jews Rom 11:14
    Israel according to the flesh = ethnic Israel 1 Cor 10:18
    boasting according to flesh = ethnic pride 2 Cor 11:18; Gal 6:12
    confidence in the flesh ethnic/religious confidence Phil 3:3-4
    Ishmael was begotten with Hagar according to flesh Gal 4:23
    Brother in the flesh – relative Phmn 1:16

The flesh refers to physical relatives and ancestors. Paul realised after his conversion that he had misunderstood the value of his ethnic inheritance. It did not gain him as much as he had believed.


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