The word flesh means different things depending on the context. The original word, sarx (G4561) literally means flesh as in our earthly bodies (Matt. 26:41, Acts 2:31, 2 Cor. 4:11, Col. 2:1,5, 1 Pet. 3:18, 4:1). By extension, the word flesh can also imply people (Matt. 24:22), humanity (Luke 3:6, Acts 2:17), a marriage union (Mark 10:8), our forebears (Rom. 4:1) and kinsmen (Rom. 9:3), our earthly lives (Php. 1:22, 24, 1 Pet. 4:2) and whole species (1 Cor. 15:39).
But there is a deeper meaning of the word flesh. In the Bible, the flesh refers to an earthly mindset (Rom. 8:6), a worldly manner (2 Cor. 1:17), a worldly point of view (2 Cor. 5:16), human standards (John 8:15, 1 Cor. 1:26, 2 Cor. 10:2), human effort (Gal. 3:3), human pedigree (Php. 3:4) and human accomplishments (Php. 3:4). In short, the flesh refers to things which are worldly instead of spiritual (1 Cor. 3:1, 3, 2 Cor. 10:4).
If we are referring to our physical bodies or earthly experience, the flesh is not inherently sinful. God made us and everything God made is good. (Some Bibles erroneously translate sarx as sinful nature, giving the impression that the flesh is flawed. Further reading: “Do NIV readers have sinful natures?”) But if we walk according the flesh or indulge the lusts of the flesh, the result is corruption and death (Rom. 8:13).
What does it mean to be in the flesh?
To be in the flesh has two meanings. The first meaning is to be “in the body” (2 Cor. 10:3, Gal. 2:20, Php. 1:24, 1 Pet. 4:2). When Paul said “if I am to live on in the flesh,” he meant, “if I am to go on living in the body” (Php. 1:22). The Son of God came in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16, 1 John 4:2, 3, 2 John 1:7), suffered in the flesh (1 Pet. 4:1), and condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3).
The second meaning of in the flesh is to be an unbeliever. When Paul says, “while we were in the flesh” in Roman 7:5, he is referring to our unspiritual past when we were disconnected from the life of Christ. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8). The one who rejects the Spirit of grace brings no pleasure to God. “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9).
What are the desires or lusts of flesh?
The temptations of the world are manifested in three basic desires or lusts of the flesh: Wanting your own way, wanting everything for yourself, and wanting to appear important (see entry for 1 John 2:16). In a word, the flesh craves control. Alone and disconnected from God, the flesh is governed by feelings. With its vision limited to only what it can see, the flesh is understandably insecure, anxious, and afraid. The fleshly life is thus a life of self-preservation.
How do we walk according the flesh?
Although Christians are in the flesh (we have natural bodies), we are not to walk after or live according to the flesh (Rom. 8:4–5, 12–13). Nor are we to be mindful of the flesh (Rom. 8:6–7, Gal. 5:16), indulge the lusts of the flesh (Eph. 2:3, 2 Pet. 2:10, 1 John 2:16) or wage war according the flesh (2 Cor. 10:3).
Walking after the flesh is when you attempt to get your needs met independently of God. It’s trusting in yourself (your abilities, your understanding) and living solely from the basis of your earthly experience (what you see, hear, touch, know, etc.).
We can walk after the flesh in the pursuit of both good things and bad things. A classic example would be trying to keep God’s law. On the face of it, this seems a good thing to do. Keeping the rules appeals to our sense of rightness. But to trust in our law–keeping is to distrust Jesus. “Jesus hasn’t saved or sanctified me, but I can finish what he started.” The law is good but it has no power to make you good. Imperfect flesh is incapable of walking in perfect righteousness (Rom. 8:3). Trying to keep the good law will do you no good. If you think you have succeeded it will foster pride, and if you fail you will reap condemnation. Worst of all, the law will enflame sin and minister death (Rom. 7:10).
Manmade religion appeals to the flesh by promoting self-denial and sin avoidance. But again this is the way of the flesh. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day said no to sin daily, yet they remained joyless and miserable. True happiness is not about saying no to sin, but saying yes to Jesus. When we live out of our union with the Author of Life, the result is life and joy (Rom. 8:6).
Further reading: “How to walk after the flesh in 20 easy lessons”
What happens when we walk after the flesh?
A mind set on the flesh is conscious of self. “What do I want, how will I get it, and how will it make me look?” This selfish life is a dead–end street because self–preservation leads to self–destruction (Rom. 8:6). “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Pro. 14:12).
Being obsessed with self is like building with sand. Any success will be fleeting and buried by the passage of time. Even if you make it to the top, you will find nothing there, because life is more than accomplishments and the accumulation of stuff (Luke 12:15). The pursuit of selfish goals will corrupt your soul and cause you to lose your humanity (Matt. 16:26, Gal. 6:8).
What are the deeds of the flesh?
The desires of the flesh manifest in countless deeds of the flesh including immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these (see Gal. 5:19–21).
If we indulge the desires of the flesh, we will become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another (Gal. 5:26). The end result is self-destruction (Rom. 8:13, Gal. 5:15). For this reason we are encouraged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (Rom. 13:14). Indeed, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
The things of the flesh are those temporal things valued in the world such as human effort, reputation and accomplishments. The things of the flesh can be contrasted with the things of the Spirit or the unseen and eternal things of God. See entry for Rom. 8:5.
A mind set on the flesh is focused on self and the things of the flesh (see entry for Rom. 8:6–7). An obsession with self leads inevitably to conflict, dissension and death (Rom. 8:6, Gal. 5:15, 26, Php. 3:18–19).
What are the two operating systems?
God offers us two ways to live: We can walk after the old way of the flesh or the new way of the spirit (Rom. 8:4–5, 7, 13, Gal. 3:3, 5:16, 6:8). We can walk by faith or by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We can be worldly or spiritual (1 Cor. 3:1, 3, Jude 1:19). We can trust in ourselves or we can trust in the Lord.
This is a mutually exclusive choice; we can either follow the flesh or the spirit (Gal. 5:17). It’s one or the other not both. “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). The way of the flesh leads us down a cursed path to destruction, but the way of the Spirit leads to a blessed and everlasting life (John 6:63, Rom. 8:13, Gal. 6:8).
Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord… Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and whose trust is the Lord. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream and will not fear when the heat comes; But its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit. (Jer. 17:5, 7–8)
The carnal or fleshly life is the independent life of Adam. In contrast, the spiritual life modeled by Jesus is one of dependence on the Father. Walking after the old ways of the flesh is abnormal for a believer. It’s like a butterfly who acts as though he was still a caterpillar.
How do we walk in the Spirit?
“If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). Walking in the spirit means being mindful of spiritual things – what God has said and is now saying, what God has done is now doing. We walk in the Spirit by fixing our eyes on what is unseen and eternal instead of what is seen and temporary (2 Cor. 4:18). We set our minds on things above instead of earthly things (Col. 3:2). We stay mindful of the things of God instead of the things of men (Matt. 16:23).
The person unacquainted with the Holy Spirit cannot walk in the spirit. The natural world is the only world he knows. But if you have been born of the Spirit you have a choice. You can interpret any situation with your natural senses or with faith (Rom. 8:5).
Further reading: “Life doesn’t have the last word (when you’re walking in the Spirit)“
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