Over ninety times, the apostle Paul speaks of the “flesh.” So what does this key word mean for him? It’s a shrewd and important question for any Bible reader to get clear on. The question comes from a listener named Cheryl. “Pastor John, I’m trying to come up with a clear definition of what Paul means by ‘flesh,’ sarx. Sometimes Paul seems to be talking about the external physical body (2 Corinthians 7:5; 1 Timothy 3:16). At other times, he seems to be talking about some internal nature causing sinful actions and thoughts (Romans 8:5–8; Galatians 5:17). I’m confused! What does Paul mean by ‘flesh’? And do you have a clean definition to encompass it all?”
Well, we’ll see. This really is a crucial question. It is utterly crucial for understanding the apostle Paul, who uses this concept so often. Let’s tackle it. We have just a few minutes and you can write books on this. So let me limit this to something I saw recently in getting ready for a Look at the Book on Philippians. Two passages in Philippians are going to shed amazing light on this. They did for me anyway.
Let’s start with chapter 1, specifically Philippians 1:21–24:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart [that is, to die and leave behind the body] and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
“Paul transforms the meaning of a fairly neutral term for physical body into something negative and spiritually bankrupt.”
Now, I think all of us would agree that what flesh means in Philippians 1:21–24 is simple earthly, bodily life. Nothing negative is implied about it here except that we can’t be with Jesus in the same intimate way if we’re here than if we’re in heaven. Over against departing and leaving the body and going to heaven, you have Paul saying, “I am going to remain in the flesh.” That just simply means, “I’m going to still be in my body.” Flesh refers to the body as we ordinarily experience it in this world.
Now, there are a lot of places in Paul where he uses it like that, and we shouldn’t jump to unduly negative spiritual connotations every time we see that word. However, let’s go to chapter 3 now because what we watch happen in chapter 3 is just amazing, I think. Paul transforms the meaning of a fairly neutral term for physical body or some body part into something negative and spiritually bankrupt. Let’s watch him do it, because we can actually see how he does it, how he defines for us this negative side.
Here’s what he says at the beginning of Philippians 3: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Philippians 3:1–2).
Now, right here we can see that Paul is using the term in an ordinary physical way to refer to skin or some part of the body. In fact, the next phrase is going to show us that he’s talking about mutilating the flesh in circumcision (viewed in a certain way). That’s why he’s using the word mutilate. He’s viewing this cutting of the flesh in a certain way. But the initial, straightforward meaning of flesh is simply skin or some body part.
Here’s how he continues: “Look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision” (Philippians 3:2–3). We Christians are the circumcision. In other words, Paul says, “What I just referred to as mutilating the flesh is not true circumcision. We are the true circumcision. We Christians are the true children of Abraham, the true heirs of the promise, the true followers of the Messiah.”
Then, to distinguish precisely what it is that turned circumcision from a holy sign of the covenant into an act of mutilation, he says this: “We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3).
Here’s what I think Paul is doing. He is saying that worshiping or living by the Holy Spirit and worshiping or living for the glory of Jesus Christ is what makes Christians the true circumcision. In the absence of those two things — dependence on the Spirit and glorying in Christ — holy acts like circumcision are turned into mere mutilation. That is mere flesh in a new spiritually negative meaning. Flesh is moving from being a mere reference to the body to being a reference to the kind of thing one does — any kind of thing one does — when the Holy Spirit and Jesus are not central.
Transforming a Word
Now, let’s test this because if you just keep reading, you’ll see how he’s thinking now: “Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also” (Philippians 3:4). What’s he going to refer to? He says, “I don’t put any confidence in the flesh, but I could if I wanted to.” Well, what are you talking about, Paul?
“Flesh is any human action or achievement without dependence upon the Holy Spirit and without glorying in Christ Jesus.”
Here’s what he says in Philippians 3:4–6: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” And now he mentions things like this:
“Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel.” In other words, “I was circumcised at the perfect moment in obedience. I’m of the greatest people on the planet.”
“Of the tribe of Benjamin.” Benjamin had the first king and is a great tribe.
“Hebrew of Hebrews.” This is a physical pedigree.
Now, all of that is physical human pedigree. This is the physical, ethnic identity and pedigree of Paul. He calls it flesh, mere flesh, which he will not boast in though he once did and though he could. He’s going to say in just a moment that it is rubbish — it’s all rubbish. If there’s no dependence on the Holy Spirit and no glorying in Christ Jesus over it all, it is rubbish.
Then, to make it even clearer how broad this new negative meaning of flesh can be, he adds these three things to his physical identity and ethnicity in Philippians 3:5–6:
- “As to the law, a Pharisee.” This guy is maxed out in focus on God’s word.
- “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” He’s not only focusing on the highest standard — he’s doing it with the greatest zeal.
- “As to righteousness under the law, blameless.” In other words, he was successful. He did it.
Now, those three characteristics, which he calls flesh, are not physical, none of them. Law keeping, zeal, success in morality — none of those is physical. And here is his conclusion: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
Watching Paul’s Mind Work
Here’s the upshot. Flesh in Paul’s vocabulary now has become something that includes zeal, an emotional virtue; law keeping; and blamelessness, a moral virtue. Only they’re not virtues because they are missing dependence on the Spirit and glorying in Christ Jesus.
“Self-reliant commandment keeping and child abuse are both ‘flesh’ because they’re not flowing from dependence on God.”
This is just so thrilling to me to see, to actually watch Paul’s mind work. What we are watching in Philippians 3:1–7 is the process by which a positive term like flesh, referring to skin as just part of the body, becomes a negative term for Paul, referring to bodily reality, like physical descent from Abraham; moral reality, like law keeping; and emotional reality, like zeal.
All of it is called flesh, and all of it is rejected as rubbish, if we don’t have any reliance on the Holy Spirit in those things. If we don’t have any glorying in Christ in those things, in that case he says, “I’m going to put zero confidence in the flesh understood that way. Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss.”
What Is ‘the Flesh’?
We should ask, When and why are those things worthless? Because they’re good! I mean, it’s not bad to love the law of God. It’s not bad to be zealous. It’s not bad to be blameless, for goodness’ sake. Paul, do you really want to call that trash?
We have to ask this question because there’s nothing wrong in and of themselves. So what turns it into flesh? I think the answer would go like this, and this is my definition. This is my last answer to the question. Flesh is any human action or achievement without dependence upon the Holy Spirit and without glorying, exalting in, trusting, treasuring, and valuing Jesus Christ.
It might be as gross as rape and child abuse, or as moral as trying to keep the Ten Commandments. Self-reliant commandment keeping and child abuse would both be flesh because they’re not flowing from dependence on the Holy Spirit, and they’re not glorying in Christ Jesus.