Paul tells us that none of us hates our own bodies but that we all nourish and cherish them (Eph. 5:29). Experience and media advertising, to go no further, bear out the truth of his assertion. Yet the Bible tells us that we are meant to glorify God with our bodies (Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 6:20). Can this consistently be done if we pander to the flesh? It is worthwhile painting in some of the background to this question.
Scripture distinguishes between the flesh and spirit, especially Spirit. This distinction is implicit in Genesis 1 and 2 where man is made both from the earth and in the image of God. In other words, the Bible teaches anthropological dualism (1). Since our fleshly bodies derive from the temporal earth, it is scarcely surprising that these bodies, which are intrinsic to our humanity, need to be changed to fit us to inhabit eternity and the presence of God (cf. 1 Pet. 3:18). We thus have in Scripture references to fleshly (Col. 1:22; 2:11) and spiritual (1 Cor. 15:44,46) or heavenly bodies (2 Cor. 5:1). So whatever else our natural bodies are, like the physical creation in general (Mt. 24:35; Heb. 1:10-12) they are inherently temporal and impermanent as Genesis 6:3, for those who are not dominated by the Augustinian dogma of sin, plainly implies (cf. Job 10:9; 34:14f.; Ps. 78:39; 104:29; 146:4). Paul underscores this point in 1 Corinthians 15:50 where he says that flesh and blood can no more inherit the kingdom of God than the impermanent (corruptible) can inherit the permanent. Jesus himself taught the same when he told Nicodemus that all those born of the flesh must be born again – an intrinsic necessity not an imperative! Only those spiritually regenerated could enter the kingdom of God. Though this passage (John 3:1-8) is traditionally used in Augustinian fashion to counter original sin (cf. Needham, pp.59,251, etc.), sin is no more mentioned in it than it is in 1 Corinthians 15:35ff.
Death and Corruptibility
If the fleshly body as a product of the corruptible material creation is by nature impermanent, it is naturally subject to death and corruption. Regrettably, this again under the influence of Augustine, who believed that man was created immortal, righteous and holy, yet nonetheless sinned (!), fell and brought a curse on the entire creation, has been denied. However, even before sin is mentioned in the Bible, Genesis 1 teaches us on the one hand that plants were created to reproduce (v.11) and on the other that they are to be used as food (v.29). We ought not to be surprised therefore that grass is used throughout Scripture as a symbol of death (Ps. 106:20; James 1:10; 1 Pet. 1:24, etc.). Isaiah goes a step further drawing the logical conclusion that all flesh is grass and in direct contrast to the word of God (Isa. 40:6-8). In other words, as Paul implies in Romans 1:23 (cf. 6:12; 8:11; 2 Cor. 4:11) and Peter in 1:1:23 (cf. 1 John 3:9) man as flesh is by nature mortal and corruptible. Sin is not on the horizon.
Sin and Death
Why then the traditional emphasis on sin as the cause of death? After all, it may be replied, Paul himself says that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23, cf. 5:12). Is he contradicting himself? Not at all! It was Augustine who got matters wrong. The Bible teaches that while man as flesh is, like all animal life, naturally mortal, yet as one made in God’s image in distinction from all other creatures, he was promised life and escape from the corruption of creation if he kept the commandment (Gen. 2:17, cf. Lev. 18:5; James 1:12, etc.). He failed and lapsed inexorably into the dust from which he was taken (Gen. 3:19).
In contrast, Jesus, the second Adam who uniquely kept the commandment, indeed, the entire law, did not see corruption after death. While, as one born of woman he was naturally mortal and died on our behalf, he did not personally reap the wages of sin. Thus, having physically risen again from the dead (cf. Acts 2:23f.), he overcame the natural corruption of the flesh by ascending into heaven transformed (Acts 1:2,9, cf. 1 Cor. 15:51; 1 Tim. 3:16, cf. John 20:17). And, as the forerunner of all those who believe in him, he was endowed with a body of glory (Phil. 3:21; Heb. 2:9-18, cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-57).
It needs to be stressed that even Jesus in the flesh grew older (John 8:57) and would have died had he remained long enough on the earth. However, intent on doing his Father’s will (John 4:34, etc.), he kept the law and inherited its promise of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.) by being acknowledged as the Son of God and being born from above (Mt. 3:13-17). In the words of Paul, he abolished death and brought life and immortality (incorruption) to light (2 Tim. 1:10) in a creation expressly subjected by God to futility (Rom. 8:18-25, cf. Gen. 1). He and he alone transcended earthly corruption by remaining sinless in the flesh (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:9). Having himself conquered, he paved the way to life and glory for his brethren (Rev. 5:11f.; John 14:6; Heb. 2:10).
Jesus, like Moses before him, taught that man cannot live on bread alone implying that for eternal life he needs the word of God (Mt. 4:4). Even when the Israelites were fed with bread from heaven in the wilderness, they still died (John 6:49). They too needed the word of God in order to live forever (6:50f.). Paul virtually says the same thing when he implies that sowing to one’s own flesh even regardless of sin leads inevitably to corruption as it does in the sinless animal world which God himself feeds (Ps. 104:21,27f.). It can only be overcome by sowing to the Spirit (Gal. 6:8; Rom. 8:13). Given the impermanent nature of this age and our need of rescue from it (Gal. 1:4, cf. Mark 13:8), this is scarcely surprising.
Tents and Temples
Scripture points up the difference between the movable tent or tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that the body of flesh is described as a tent. For example, we are told in John 1:14 that Jesus “tabernacled” among us, implying that he came in the flesh only “for a little while” (Heb. 2:7). Paul also describes our fleshly bodies as being tents, which are destroyed by God on account of sin (2 Cor. 5:1, cf. 1 Cor. 6:13; Rom. 8:10), but underlines the fact that they are “redeemed” (Rom. 8:23) as houses “not made with hands eternal in the heavens” (ESV). 2 Corinthians 5:1, which is verbally similar to Mark 14:58 (2), reminds us that the body of Jesus was also likened to a temple. True though it is that an earthly temple was more permanent than the tabernacle, it too was subject to corruption. And while the fleshly body of Jesus was raised, as he said it would be (John 2:19), he himself ultimately became a permanent or spiritual temple for his people (Rev. 21:22).
Peter, aware of his impending martyrdom, writes to fellow believers that the putting off of his body or “tent” is fast approaching. The word he uses for putting off is ‘apothesis’ (2 Pet. 1:14, cf. 1 Pet. 3:21). It reminds us of the word ‘metathesis’ in Hebrews 12:27 which refers to the removal of all created things. Again we are led to infer that the physical body and the earth from which it derives, like all things “made by hand” (Job 10:8; Ps. 119:73; Isa. 45:12, etc.) in contrast with those that are “not made by hand” (2 Cor. 5:1; Heb. 9:11,24, etc.) are, like the “hand-written” law (Col. 2:14), temporal and provisional (Heb. 8:13). It should be noted that the law in contrast with the word of God lasts only until the end of the world (Mt. 5:18; 24:35) (3).
Historically, the flesh has been regarded as sinful (see e.g. Art. 9 of the C of E), despite its being part of God’s still ‘good’ (i.e. useful) creation (1 Tim. 4:4). More recently, because of its close association with sin, the Greek word sarx has been translated “sinful nature” especially in the NIV. While it must be conceded that on occasion Paul virtually attributes that meaning to it (4), it is in fact seriously misleading and frequently hides what Paul is implying (e.g. in Gal. 6:8). While John refers to the flesh without Paul’s more obvious ethical overtones (John 1:13; 6:63, etc.), Paul is conscious not only of fleshly man’s inherent inability to do good (Rom. 7:18; 8:8) but also of his inexorable tendency when confronted by the law to produce sin (Rom. 7:14,19, etc.). All human beings sin not because they are in covenant with or “in Adam” but because they fail like Adam and Eve, under the influence of the devil, to control their fleshly bodies (Gen. 3:6, cf. Eph. 2:1-3, etc.). In other words, far from exercising dominion over the earth including their own bodies as they should, they allow earthly things to rule them. The flesh, which as part of creation (Gen. 1:26,28) was intended to be the slave of the spirit (Gen. 4:7; Rom. 6:16,19; 1 Cor. 9:27), in the event becomes its master, and a major reversal takes place (cf. Gen. 3:6; John 8:34; Rom. 7:14; 2 Pet. 2:19). Thus it is made plain that those who indulge the flesh and quench the spirit will not inherit God’s (spiritual) kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9, etc.).
Since the flesh is a law to itself, it has its own passions and desires which are not subject to the law of the mind (Rom. 7:23; 8:13). It thus becomes an enemy in a war with the mind that is instructed by the written law (Rom. 7:14-25), and again with the spirit that is subject to the promptings of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16ff.; 1 Pet. 2:11, cf. James 4:1f.). Thus Paul completely scouts the idea that the fleshly passions are intrinsically sinful (cf. e.g. Fung, p.274). They are a law to themselves (cf. Rom. 7:23,25; Gal. 5:17). Even Jesus, as a true son of Adam who suffered temptation (Mt. 4:1-11, etc.) like the rest of his brethren (cf. James 1:14; 5:17), had to wrestle with them. But since he successfully subjected himself first to the law (Mark 1:11) in contrast with Paul (Rom. 7), for example, and then to the leading of the Spirit (Mt. 3:13-17, cf. Rom. 8.) until he achieved perfection (Mt. 3:15; 19:21), he completely overcame them (Heb. 4:15; Rom. 8:3, etc.). In fact, led by the Spirit, the normal desires of his fleshly body (Heb. 2:17; James 1:14; 5:17) did not come to maturity or completion in sin (Gal. 5:16, Gk. teleo; James 1:15, Gk. apoteleo). In his case, the lusting of the Spirit completely overcame the lusting of the flesh (Gal. 5:17, cf. John 4:34; 8:29). (It is of vital importance here to recognize that only the fleshly desires which are condemned by the law are sinful, cf. Gal. 5:19-24. There is no law against sex, eating, drinking, fatigue, urinating, defecating, etc., as such. If there were, the plan of salvation could not be put into effect!) Thus, though he himself was in the likeness of sinful flesh, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that we who believe in him might walk according to the Spirit and fulfil the just requirement of the law in our turn (Rom. 8:3f.).
Glorifying God with our Bodies
According to Genesis 1:26,28 man, who was made in the image of God, was intended to exercise dominion over the earth. In the words of the Psalmist, he was given dominion over the works of God’s hands in hope of being crowned with glory and honour (Ps. 8:5f.). Since his fleshly body derived from the earth, he was required to master it too (Gen. 4:7; cf. 1 Cor. 9:27). To do this and to inherit (eternal) life he had to keep the commandment (2:17) and at a later stage in his history the whole law (Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-30, cf. Rom. 2:7). As we have already seen, it is clear from this that to glorify God man was to make his fleshly body his slave. Needless to say, he failed in this. Flesh triumphed over spirit, and to some degree this is the story of man’s earthly life. Paul, however, well aware of Jesus’ triumph in the flesh (Rom. 8:3, cf. Heb. 2:9), urges his readers to glorify God in their bodies even to the extent of laying down their lives either in service or witness in death (Mark 8:35; John 12:24). After all, they, along with their passions and desires (Gal. 5:24), have in principle already been crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6). So now they must refuse to give way to the flesh (Rom. 6:13,19; 13:14) and offer their bodies as a spiritual sacrifice as their minds are transformed and renewed (Rom. 12:1f.).
We have seen how the flesh is considered an enemy that wars against the soul. In Galatians 4:29f. Paul personifies both flesh and spirit by reference to Ishmael whose birth was entirely fleshly and to Isaac who was the fruit or fulfillment of God’s promise. Here he points out that Ishmael who, though circumcised, nonetheless epitomized the flesh and was explicitly excluded from the covenant people (Gen. 17:19-21). Furthermore, he persecuted Isaac who represented the Spirit. Since in Scripture it is made apparent that ultimately all God’s enemies will be put beneath the feet of Christ (1 Cor. 15:24-28, cf. Col. 1:20), it follows that the fleshly persecuting slave will finally be cast out. In the Father’s house there is room only for spiritual sons (John 8:35, cf. 14:2f.). Neither the flesh itself (1 Cor. 15:50) nor its devotees can inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9f.; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5; 2 Pet. 2; Jude; Rev. 21:8; 22:15). Investment in all created things, including our fleshly bodies which are doomed to pass away, brings at best minimal returns (1 Tim. 4:8; Heb. 11:25) and at worst total loss (Mt. 6:19f.; Lu. 12:15-40; 1 Cor. 7:31; Heb. 12:16f.; 1 John 2:15-17, etc.).
Difficult though it is, our universal call as human beings is to exercise dominion over and make our earthly (fleshly) bodies our slaves (Gen. 1:26,28; 4:7; Ps. 8:5f.; 1 Cor. 9:27; Rom. 2:7; Heb. 2:6ff.). Since we all fail, recognition that Jesus succeeded and was made perfect (Mt. 4:4; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:9f.,17; 4:15) is welcome news indeed. And if, even as Christians, we continue to fall short, we can be assured that on confession we shall be forgiven (1 John 1:9, cf. Heb. 2:18; 4:16).
See Guthrie, New Testament Theology, Leicester, 1981, p.176.
See P.E.Hughes, 2 Corinthians, London, 1961, p.164 n.22.
See R.T.France, Matthew, Leicester, 1985, p.115.
Cf. Fung’s “near-equation”, Galatians, Grand Rapids, 1988, pp.168 n.3,118,244.