Defining the Flesh
One of the most dangerous heresies that confronted the Early Church in the second century was Gnosticism. The Gnostics taught that the spirit is good and that matter is evil. Therefore, our natural bodies are evil, but God is good because He is a Spirit. Salvation comes by special knowledge (gnosis is Greek for “knowledge”) that enables us to escape from the body. The Gnostics denied the fact that Christ came in the flesh. Anyone who did not acknowledge Jesus as coming in the flesh was a deceiver (see 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7).
Some people influenced by Gnosticism taught that Jesus only seemed to have a body – a heretical view called Docetism. Others held that the “divine Jesus” joined the “man Jesus” at His baptism and left before the “man Jesus” died – a heresy called Cerinthianism. Because the body was evil, it was to be treated harshly.
The term “flesh” has many meanings in Scripture. In some instances it refers to the physical body. At times it refers to the whole person. John said of Jesus, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In such uses there is no concept of sinfulness or evil. Jesus never sinned, and His body was never evil.
The common thread for all the uses of the word “flesh” is the idea of weakness or a transitory nature. Compared to the spirit, which denotes life and power, the flesh is weak. It is this concept of weakness that has contributed to the use of the term “flesh” for that which is sinful or contrary to God. Humans, as flesh, are not only frail as creatures but also frail morally. Apart from God, humans are no match for the power of sin and consequently come under its bondage.
The use of the word “flesh” in reference to humankind’s propensity to sin is prominent in the New Testament (translated in the NIV as “old nature” or “sin nature” in such cases). It may be defined as existence apart from God. It represents our “old nature” before coming to Christ when we were “in Adam” or “in the flesh.” Paul wrote, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him” (Romans 8:8,9 NASB emphasis added). In that one verse, Paul described the Trinity, interchanging “Spirit of God” with “Spirit of Christ” and since all believers are “in Christ,” they are also “in the Spirit.”
In Galatians Paul wrote, “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for they are in opposition to one another” (5:17). They are in opposition because the Holy Spirit and God the Father are One. The flesh is self-centered and functions independently of God. The flesh seeks life on human terms and standards, rather than on God’s.
Our bodies are not sinful, but our minds retain certain flesh patterns that we learned before we came to Christ. In addition, we still have certain physical cravings that we have to subdue. Satan will work through those mental flesh patterns and cravings enticing us to live independently of God.
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