What’s up with Paul’s language of “the flesh”?

Last night our church held a prayer service in which I invited the congregation to listen for God’s voice to us as I read Scripture. We then responded to this “word of the Lord” through silence, prayer, and song. It was a wonderfully simple service.

One of the extended Bible readings we did was Galatians 5:13–6:10. This is a “how should we then live” passage, the kind found in many New Testament letters sketching out what it looks like for followers of Jesus to live in community with one another in light of the great theological truths just expounded.

As I read this passage, I stumbled over Paul’s use of the word “flesh.” This happens sometimes when I read Paul’s letters publicly. The reason? I fear that people will get the wrong idea.

“The flesh” is a common expression, especially in Paul’s letters, and especially in Romans and Galatians. Just a few examples:

  • “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom 8:5).
  • “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom 13:14).
  • “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
  • “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Gal 6:8).

Many Christians have taken “the flesh” in these and similar verses to mean quite literally “the physical body”: our eyes and ears, our feet and hands, even (or even especially) our genitalia. All the language about “not living according to the flesh” or “making no provision for the flesh” or “not sowing to the flesh,” is about denying our physical body in some way in favour of some inner spirituality (“bodies are bad, the spiritual is good”). Often this is expressed as downplaying or even rejecting our bodily desires, our desires for food, drink, sex, intimacy, and more.

But this doesn’t quite work. It’s true that the Greek word sarx in common usage meant “flesh” or even “the fleshy parts of a body.” But it could also take on a variety of figurative uses. “All flesh,” for example, means “all living creatures.” “Flesh and blood” can mean “human beings,” or even “one’s own kin.” “One flesh” refers to “shared kinship.”

Paul can use the word “flesh” in these sorts of ways, none of which is inherently negative toward our bodies. Paul can even say, positively, that “the life I now live in the flesh (sarx) I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).

Paul also uses the word “body” (sōma) quite a bit, and many of these uses are positive. Paul describes the believer’s “body” as “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19). He calls on Christians to offer our “bodies” to God as an act of worship (Rom 12:1). He insists that our future resurrection state—imperishable, immortal, untouched by sin and death—will still involve a sōma, a “body” (1 Cor 15:35-44).

In other words, it’s complicated.

I think we can get at what Paul means in verses like those I quoted above if we dig into the contrast Paul makes between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” (stick with me here, it’s worth it).

Paul likes these kinds of binary contrasts: “flesh” in contrast to “Spirit”; “Law” in contrast to “Christ” or “faith”; “this present age” in contrast to “the coming age.” It’s this last one—“this present age” in contrast to “the coming age”—that helps make sense of the rest of them.

You see, Paul held to a common Jewish notion that human history was divided into two “ages.”

The “present age” is the one we’re in, and it is characterized by “powers” that have influence over us, even control over us. Human kingdoms and rulers and authorities. The internal forces that animate these groups and leaders. The structures and systems they create. These “powers” are not necessarily bad, but they can become “evil powers,” perpetuating injustice and oppression, committing violence and bringing destruction. Behind these “evil powers” is the worst of them all, evident in each and every human life: “sin” and the wide-ranging “death” that accompanies it.

The “coming age,” by contrast, is the promised “kingdom of God,” the “new creation,” in which the powers of sin and death are eradicated and all things are brought under God’s liberating, loving reign. The end result? Life: abundant, eternal, harmonious, flourishing life. Shalom, you could also say.

Here’s the thing: because the Messiah has come, the “coming age” is already here, though it is not yet fully here. The kingdom of God, God’s new creation, has entered this present age in anticipation of its future fulfillment. As followers of Jesus the Christ we are called to live out God’s reign, to live out God’s new creation, resisting the evil powers of this age which are over us, among us, and within us.

This is what the contrast between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” is all about. These are, effectively, contrasting ways of being human in the world.

“Living according to the flesh” means “living according to a self-centered, selfish way of being human,” which is at the root of our sin and all its deathly consequences. Indeed, this “self-centered, selfish way of being human” is what lies behind all the evil powers of this present age: corrupt governments and corporations and presidents and CEOs and more, animated by a spirit of greed or vanity or domination, creating oppressive structures and unjust systems within society.

“Living according to the Spirit,” by contrast, means “living according to a God-centered, other-oriented way of being human” which Jesus taught and lived out among us. The “Spirit,” after all, is “the Spirit of Christ,” shaping us into the image of Jesus. When we “live according to the Spirit,” or we “walk in the Spirit,” we are choosing to walk in the way of Jesus, Jesus’ way of love: a deep devotion to God expressed through humble compassion and care for others.

When Paul talks about “the flesh” in these passages, then, he is not talking about our natural, bodily desires for food, drink, sex, and more. He’s talking about those desires turned inward, distorted through our self-centered selfishness.

The antidote is not to deny our bodily desires. These are part and parcel of what it means to be human. They are God-given, a part of God’s “very good” creation.

Rather, the antidote is to rightly order those natural desires around love for God and others, seeking the common good. It is to strive to fulfill those desires through this God-centred, other-oriented way of love, empowered by the very presence of the resurrected Jesus in us and among us.

It is, in other words, to “live by the Spirit.”

Jesus Fulfills the Law—in Love

You don’t have to read far into Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount to hear this astounding claim by Jesus:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. (Matt 5:17-18)

Jesus’ warning that follows is just as astounding:

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:19)

It’s no wonder many Christians have insisted that we must obey the Old Testament Law. These are strong words!

But what did Jesus mean when he says, “I did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it?”

We get an answer by following the most basic principle of good interpretation: Keep reading.

When we keep reading, for instance, we discover that Jesus can’t mean we’re supposed to literally obey every commandment in the Law. How do we know this? Because immediately after this Jesus reinterprets some Old Testament laws, and even outright overturns some of them.

I’m talking about all the “You’ve heard it said…but I say to you” teachings that follow in Matthew 5. The “you’ve heard it said” each time is a reference to an Old Testament command; the “but I say to you” is Jesus’ new interpretation of that command.

So, for example, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not murder.” But Jesus says: “Do not even harbor anger in your heart against another person.”

Or, the Law of Moses says: “You shall not commit adultery.” But Jesus says: “Do not even nurture lust for another woman in your heart.”

And on it goes, until we get to the last two. The Law of Moses commanded a form of retributive justice, a principle of “proportional retaliation,” for any violent act committed: whatever the offender did to someone, they were to have that very thing done to them. The full commandment in Deuteronomy 19 is this: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (19:21).

And, while the Law of Moses in fact commands kindness for one’s everyday enemies, it does direct the Israelites more than once to annihilate their enemies in battle. The promise of Leviticus 26:7 sums this up: “You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword.”

These commands of the Law, Jesus doesn’t just reinterpret. Jesus outright overturns them. No retribution of any kind is allowed. No violence of any kind is permitted. “Do not retaliate against an evil person,” Jesus says. “Love your enemies.”

If we keep reading some more, all the way through Matthew’s Gospel, we also find that this isn’t the only place that Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” That’s a clue, by the way. Jesus doesn’t just fulfill the Law, but the Law and the Prophets. All the Jewish Scriptures find their completion in Jesus. All the biblical threads of God’s ways in the world and God’s will for us, all these are woven together in Jesus.

The next reference to “the Law and the Prophets” is also in the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, the Sermon is framed by these two uses of “the Law and the Prophets”: our passage near the beginning, introducing the main part of the Sermon, and the next one near the end, as the Sermon is wrapping up.

And what is this summing-up reference to “the Law and the Prophets”? It’s something we all know, the famous Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).

Doing for others what you would like done for you is the Law and the Prophets—it’s what the Bible is all about. Turning outside of ourselves and looking to others, treating others with the same respect, compassion, kindness, and care that we would like to receive—this fulfills all our obligations under God.

If we keep reading through Matthew’s Gospel, we come to another significant time Jesus talks about “the Law and the Prophets.” It’s in Matthew 22, Jesus’ response to the question, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”

We all know Jesus’ answer—it’s the Great Commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 22:36-40)

Love—devoted love for God and others—is what the Law and the Prophets are all about. Everything—all God’s ways in the world, all God’s will for us—hangs on these two commandments: love God and love others.

Or, in other words, love is the fulfillment of the Law.

Other early Christians got the message. The Apostle Paul sums this up as neatly as any of them, in Romans 13:8-10:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law.

Jesus oriented his life around love—not holiness, not purity, not strength or power, not truth or even wisdom, not even justice or peace. He oriented his life around love: devoted love for God and devoted love for others. And in doing so, Jesus demonstrated true holiness and purity, he showed true strength and power, he revealed true wisdom, he carved out the path toward true justice and peace.

In other words, all the things the Law pointed to—holiness, purity, wisdom, truth, mercy, justice, peace—Jesus fulfilled them all in love.

And likewise, when we orient our life around love, we too fulfill the Law. If we orient our life around striving for holiness or spotless purity, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around some pure search for truth, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us. If we orient our life around a relentless quest for justice, or even peace, we will miss the fullness of God’s will for us.

But when we orient our life around love in the way of Jesus—devoted love for God expressed in devoted love for others—then we discover true holiness and purity, true strength and wisdom, true justice and peace along the way.

I know, I know. Love can seem like a pretty flimsy foundation for a life of holiness, or for the pursuit of truth, or for producing peaceful and just societies. But this is what Jesus teaches, and the rest of the New Testament confirms it for us.

The question is, do we really believe it? Are we willing to put it into practice? Relentlessly, persistently, above all else, seeking to love God and others?

Adapted from a sermon given at Morden Mennonite Church on January 7, 2018.

You Are Loved

This post in an adapted excerpt from my sermon in the series “Four Things,” preached at Morden Mennonite on January 10, 2016. See others in the series: “Forgiven,” “Needed,” “Not Alone.” Here is the full audio of this sermon:

There is something beautiful about falling in love, but there is something sacred about choosing to love.

There is something sacred about seeing people as they really are, a unique bundle of interests and passions and hurts and wounds and skills and experiences and sorrows and joys and hopes and dreams and pet peeves and quirks and more—seeing them for all this, and choosing to love them, choosing to commit yourself to them, choosing to shower them with your affection, your attention, your time, your energy, your very life.

There is something sacred about choosing to love—because this is how you are loved by God. God sees you as you truly are, every bright spot and dark corner of your life, and chooses to commit himself to you, to shower you with his affection, time, and energy, God’s very life.

You are loved by God.

Being loved by God, though, doesn’t mean that everything will come up roses. In fact, the New Testament promises that following Jesus means you’ll get an extra special share of hardship, and opposition, and suffering.

I often think our view of God hasn’t changed all that much from ancient times.

In ancient times, people tended to believe one of two things about the gods. Either the gods don’t really care at all about humans: the gods only seek to use humans or be amused by them. Or if there is any “love” from the gods it’s about reciprocity: you do X for God, and God will do Y for you. It’s love as payback for services rendered.

But Jesus breaks the pattern. In Jesus God acts first: God so loved the world God sent Jesus into the world, God first loved us. And there is no condition for God’s love: God loves us, period. We don’t need to do the right rituals with the right words. We don’t need to clean ourselves up first, make ourselves presentable. God looks at us, warts and all, and loves us.

This also means that Jesus has severed the connection we make between our circumstances and God’s love. In the ancient view, a view that is still prevalent among many people, including many Christians, if life is good it means God is pleased with me; if life is bad, it means God is not pleased with me.

Again, Jesus breaks the pattern. Think about Jesus himself: he perfectly did God’s will, did exactly everything that God wanted him to do. And yet where did that lead him? Suffering in agony and dying on a cross, crying out in anguish to God.

Here’s the point: our circumstances don’t tell us anything about whether or not God is pleased with us, whether or not God loves us. God’s love has nothing to do with whether or not we are beautiful or rich or smart. Nor does God’s love have anything to do with whether or not we are poor or sick or sorrowing.

But then what does it mean to say, “You are loved by God”? It means this: you have God’s unconditional acceptance, and you have God’s constant, abiding, strengthening, compassionate presence.

Think about it: when push comes to shove, this is how we hope other people will love us. At the end of the day we don’t measure their love by how many gifts they give us, whether they give us stuff to make us happy. Sure, a parent who loves her children loves to give them good gifts, just like God enjoys giving good gifts to us. But those gifts are not a measure of her love; those gifts are not a measure of God’s love.

No, when push comes to shove, when we’re at the end of our rope, we know people love us because they accept us just as we are, and they are there for us when we need them most.

So stop measuring God’s love by whether or not God gives you stuff to make you happy! Stop measuring God’s love by how healthy or comfortable or “blessed” you are!

Instead, know that this is what it means to say “You are loved by God”: God accepts you even when you’re at your worst, and God is right there with you even when you’re at your lowest.

I love how Paul in Romans 8 describes God’s love, and I love how Eugene Peterson has rendered this in his paraphrase, The Message:

Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

You are loved.

You are loved by others, whether you see it or not.

And you are loved by God—unconditionally, without reservation, and always.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.