What is the Flesh?
In a recent discussion with some fellow Christians the question came up, “What do the writers of the books of the Bible mean when they refer to the flesh?” Usually we think of the flesh to mean our sensual nature, our fleshy desires. However, there was some agreement among us that the flesh is at times intended to describe our covering like a cloak. In this definition, the flesh could refer who we think we are outwardly or the face we intentionally project to others. One person went as far as to conjecture that the Mosaic Law itself is a form of the flesh, because the Law covers over our sin.
Fascinated by this topic, I’ve spent the past few weeks pondering the details. To fully appreciate what is meant by the flesh, I believe we must go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, for it was there that we discovered our flesh for the first time. We began looking at ourselves in a new way. We began thinking about who we are in our flesh rather than who God made us to be. In our deepest neglect, we let our spirit wither as we worried about how we were perceived. Don't we find ourselves in a similar predicament today?
Notice what happened just after we disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
Our eyes were opened. We saw our flesh. Our concern was for ourselves. We looked back upon ourselves. And oddly enough, we thought we looked hideous, so shameful that our first impulse was to hide our person not only from each other but even from our Creator. If God made us and called us good (Genesis 1:31), why did we worry about ourselves?
For some reason, by eating of the forbidden fruit, the knowledge of Good and Evil, we became self-obsessed. We critically looked at what we are rather than who we were made to be. Were we humiliated by what we saw? Did we look at ourselves and see a poor humble being? Did we say, "I'm better than that!" We became an inward-dwelling people, rather than outward. And in our repulsion of ourselves, as we compared ourselves to what we thought we should see, we began covering ourselves for the first time, hiding our self-reciprocating dying personhood from others. Sadly, it was a cat-out-of-the-bag moment. From then on, we could no longer be unaware of our flesh, and we did everything we could to prevent ourselves from seeing ourselves through our Creator's eyes.
As an aside, a species evolves when it encounters a disruption of circumstances. It adapts to that new condition, but it cannot do so if stays set in a particular way. A species dies off when it is locked into a particular morphology—may I say a set way of thinking, a set way of looking at itself? This is the chief paradox of mankind: in our self-awareness and our knowledge of ourselves, we entered a spiral of death. There was seemingly no way out. The further we covered ourselves, the more self-pride became intoxicating. But God in his mercy and in his redemptive plan knew the only way out. Man's flesh must be made anew, so rather than seeming hideous, we would once again see the goodness of God in our own flesh—we would see Christ Jesus in us rather than ourselves. But would we recognize him, our Creator himself?
But before Jesus could come and be Emmanuel (God with us) and redeem our flesh, a long history unfolded. Of particular importance was the giving of the Law through Moses. Like the sewn fig leaves, this was just a temporary covering for our flesh. This was just a cloak, so we could recognize righteousness again, the goodness of God. It was only a temporary fix, one that many still take advantage of to this very day. The Pharisees explain in soothing words that it is through the following of God's rules that we are saved, that our sinful flesh is redeemed by sticking to the rules. But it can't be so.
Paul explains that the Law could not fix us and set us on a path back to God, because we are unable to fulfill the Law's purpose on our own. Our self-gaze is stronger than the Law. Paul differentiates between living according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. Before we ate from the fruit, we had lived according to the Spirit. We had bodies which were good. We took care of God's good creation and were told to be fruitful and multiply. We always did the will of God. But after we ate, we then lived according to the flesh and lived for the self. We reacted to ourselves based on what we saw. We ever-looked into our mirror.
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
"Nor can it do so," Paul writes. When we are looking at ourselves, we can't do God's will. We must fix our eye (the lamp of our body) on God in the flesh who is Jesus Christ. Jesus always looked to God as he explained in the Gospel of John.
“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed.
Jesus lived fully according to the Spirit. He always did what the Father showed him. But we, who live in the flesh, do what we see ourselves doing rather than what we see God doing. How do we change? How do we live according to the Spirit? How do we 'see' what the Father is doing? We look to Jesus. We pray to Jesus. We do what Jesus did. It is Jesus that changes us. We can't do it on our own. And the beauty of this is that when we live according to the Spirit, we end up following God's law. We love God and our neighbor as ourselves. Living in the Spirit is really as simple as learning how to love.
Now let’s draw from two verses from the Gospel of John to understand more about what the flesh is.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
These passages are mysterious, compelling and confusing, and have boggled Christians' minds for centuries. But in the light of what we're learning about the flesh we can gain a little insight and redirect our gaze toward God.
In John 1, we learn that God took on the flesh of humanity. By doing so, he began the process of redeeming our flesh. We have to learn that this frail, humble body is worthy of God, so he took on our flesh. By doing so, we can each know a simple fact about ourselves: I am worthy because Christ is clothed in me, and I in him.
Jesus draws us nearer in John 6 when he explains that his redemptive plan is not as simple as us being righteous through his Law and rules, which we now know is just a quick fix, a covering, a demonstration. No, it's beyond that, we can't redeem our flesh by wearing the Law. The flesh goes further than just skin deep. We must become fully of Christ's flesh. We must eat of his flesh. But when Jesus told his disciples this, many turned away and thought he was a lunatic.
Our feeding on Christ is critical in two important ways.
First, as the saying goes, you are what we eat. Our flesh transforms into the likeness of Christ when we eat him. But what did he mean by this? Was he being literal? To eat, it seems, has three components: to be hungry, to consume, to be satisfied. We must hunger for righteousness and for the kingdom of heaven. We must consume and partake in God's goodness by acting upon his will. And we must be satisfied through our faith and hope in God, knowing that God is building us up into his Kingdom. We eat his flesh when we long for God, when we pray in hope, when we love others joyfully, and when we are faithful to him in our lives.
But there is also a special mystery behind the commandment to eat Christ's flesh. God gave us the Holy Supper as a special way to physically reconcile our actual cellular structure to his body. Just like he makes us from the dust of the earth and just like he knitted his Son together in the womb of the humble Mary, he builds us up into his likeness through simple elements of Holy Communion. In this way, our flesh becomes his and his flesh becomes ours.
I also believe there is a second critical component to our feeding on Jesus. As high priest, Jesus, the God-man, was sacrificed once and for all for our sins. Sadly, through our self-obsessed gaze, we sacrifice the Lamb of God on the altar of the cross. As horrific as it sounds, it is true. Through our sin, we eat his flesh and drink his blood. And in his great mercy, by doing so, our sins are forgiven forever.
However, we must be reminded through the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14) that being clothed in Christ is not just a symbolic gesture. We learn through the man found at feast without the proper wedding clothes, that having our flesh remade in his likeness is essential. The man found without the proper clothes was bound hand and foot and thrown out of the banquet. We must not be so prideful to think that our flesh is good enough for God. His work must be completed in us. Entering the kingdom with our endless stare of self-love would benefit no one, because once again, as happened in the Garden, we would be the downfall of man.
We must wear his flesh. God must see Christ in us, to our very core, when we enter the Kingdom. This is really an easy task, so much easier than trying to cloak ourselves in the Law or some other form of whitewash 'goodness'. It's as easy as praying, "Jesus, come live with me in my house forever" and he will finish the work he begins in you.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.