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071  Flesh

Thus says YHWH:
"Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from YHWH.

  "He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

  "Blessed is the man who trusts in YHWH,
whose trust is YHWH.

  "He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit."
Jeremiah 17:5-8

For 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. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Romans 8:5-8

All Protestant Christians know about the flesh. Flesh is when you sin, right?

Pretty close, but no cigar.

I have a running disagreement with the New International Version of the Bible. The translators of that version took the Greek word, "sarx", and translated it "sinful nature" wherever it appears. It doesn't mean "sinful nature," though, or any sort of nature. It means "flesh," and by "flesh" it indicates the part of an animal that isn't bone or internal organs. Reach over with your right hand and pinch the loose skin on your left forearm; what you've got between your fingers is "sarx." Skin. Muscle. "Flesh."

Paul the Apostle does use phrases like "sinful flesh" and "He condemns sin in the flesh" (see Romans 8:3) and even, in Romans 7:14, "I am of the flesh, sold under sin." So there is some sort of connection between flesh and sin. But it's not a one-to-one connection, and it pays to understand what the relationship really is.

"Flesh" is the animal part of us that naturally takes care of itself. "I'm hungry." "I'm thirsty." "This chair is uncomfortable." "I want coffee." "I want sex." "I want entertainment." Flesh. It's how we take care of our animal selves.

Now, is it sin to be hungry or thirsty? Of course not. It's normal, and it happens to all of us. Same with all those other "I wants". They're normal.

The point, though, is that that sort of thing is not supposed to control us. We're higher than that. Instead, the love of God and His ways is supposed to control us. If we're controlled by our flesh, we'll always do things to make ourselves comfortable and safe, to make ourselves feel important, or to give ourselves advantage. We'll be selfish. And lots of times that's not what God has in mind.

That's actually what Paul says about it. Look at the passage I quoted at the beginning, Romans 8:5-8. Those who focus on the flesh can't pay attention to God's law, and in fact can't even recognize that such a law exists. They're too stuck on what they want or need. They can't please God in that state, or even recognize that they might want to please God. The result is, they'll die--not just physical death, but death of the soul, because their whole life is the life of an animal.

While I was writing my book, "The Rabbi on the Mount," I got into the habit of asking about whatever New Testament passage I was reading, "Where in the Tanakh (Old Testament) did Jesus or the Apostles find this to teach it?" They didn't just make them up, and as appealing as it might be to think that God flashed words into their heads directly, He probably didn't do that, either. In some cases they took their cues from nature (inspired by the Spirit, of course), but most of the time they were actually quoting some portion of the Law of Moses or some teaching of the Rabbis that reflects the higher Law of God.

In the case of understanding "flesh," Paul seems to have taken his cue from the passage in Jeremiah 17 that I quoted at the beginning, and other, similar passages. The Old Testament understanding of flesh was usually military. In any battle, one either trusted in human weapons, which the prophet called "flesh"--chariots, cavalry, large numbers of infantry, or the strength of one's own arm--or one trusted in YHWH. The issue was trust: to whom was one looking for victory or deliverance?

Paul brought that idea forward into personal devotion in the new age of the Church, and it's the same idea: who or what do you trust? If your trust is in YHWH, you set your mind on things about Him (Colossians 3:1-2). If your trust is in material things or your own strength, you set your mind on your own needs and how to meet them. The mind set on the Spirit leads you into life; the mind set on the flesh produces death (see Romans 8:5-6).

That idea, clear as it is, conforms neatly to the things I was talking about in the last RfMemo, about loving God with all your "very much." Those who love God care about the things of God: what is God saying now? What does the scripture say about this? What's His will? The focus is on God and what He wants, and those who let that focus determine their course end up doing what God has wanted from us all along (see Romans 8:4).

Meanwhile, those who love God "kinda" or not at all, simply live naturally as anybody else might, doing what's practical. They might wind up doing the will of God by accident now and then, but generally they'll just do what serves themselves without any thought to God. Sometimes it will work; sometimes it will produce wealth or success. But it will never please God, because we're supposed to be higher than that. Each of us was born for a purpose, and that purpose can only be found in God.

The point I'm getting to here is that "in the flesh" does not necessarily mean "sinning." One can live a reasonably decent life entirely in the flesh, never really doing anything particularly bad aside from some excessive self-focus. There's little opportunity for sin in maintaining your boat or your favorite car. There's little opportunity for sin in watching football or soap operas, or in reading Harlequin romances. But if the mind is set on the flesh, God's purposes never get served and a life gets wasted. Those who are in the flesh, whether they're sinning outright or just wasting their time and ability, cannot fulfill God's purpose for them.

Take a look at the list of behaviors that Paul says to be "the deeds of the flesh" in Galatians 5:19-21. Most of those involve sin of some sort, but not all; not necessarily. For instance, anger and strife can be godly. Numbers 25:6-13 recounts an incident in which the anger of Aaron's son Phinehas stopped a plague and earned him great praise from God. But the person with his mind set on the flesh will exhibit anger and strife without regard for the will of God, and that produces nothing of value (see James 1:19-20).

By contrast, a mind set on knowing and loving God seeks out those things that please God, and that results in the proper use of one's gifts and words for the building up of others. This is what God wants from us, and it comes from keeping one's gaze on the One from Whom all good things flow. Mankind was made to function in the presence of God.

This is why so much of Paul's instruction amounts to fixing our minds on things of God in order to walk in the Spirit. This is likely what he meant by "Be transformed by the renewal of your mind" (Romans 12:2b), the point of which was to discern the will of God. Colossians 3:1-2, Romans 8:3-8, Romans 12:1-2, and Galatians 5:16-26 all discuss this.

In the next RfMemo, I'll be talking about an event in the ministry of Jesus that illustrates in an interesting way the difference between spiritual and fleshly minds. It's in the story of the Centurion's servant that gets healed in Luke 7:1-10, and what's interesting about it is that Jesus does not provide the illustration. A Gentile illustrates life in the Spirit, and some pretty serious Jews illustrate life in the flesh.

I'll see you then. Live with your heads pointed toward heaven until then.


Phil Weingart

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