The skin and/or meat of animals and humans used to represent human dedication to physical desires rather than to obedience to God. Flesh is primarily translated from two Hebrew words: basar and se'er and one Greek word sarx. Flesh is used in a number of ways in the Bible.
Literal use It often refers to the muscular part of the body, both of humans (Genesis 2:21;
Job 10:11) and animals (Deuteronomy 14:8;
1 Corinthians 15:39). Even dead, a person is still called flesh (1 Samuel 17:44) until the body returns as dust to the earth (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Food and Sacrifice The flesh of animals is used for food by humans (Genesis 9:3-4;
1 Samuel 2:13,1 Samuel 2:15), while human flesh may be eaten by animals (Genesis 40:19;
Revelation 19:17-18). The flesh of animals is used for sacrifice (Exodus 29:31).
Body The term “flesh” can denote the human body in its entirety—the part referring to the whole (Judges 8:7;
1 Kings 21:27;
Hebrews 9:13). It can also denote the opposite where the whole refers to the part, especially when referring to the sexual organs such as the circumcision of the flesh (Genesis 17:14;
Colossians 2:13; compare
Leviticus 15:19). It may signify a comprehensive sense whereby “all flesh” refers to all of humanity (Joel 2:28;
Matthew 24:22) or including both the human and animal creation (Genesis 6:13,
Relationship Adam said of Eve's creation that she is the “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23; compare
Genesis 29:14) denoting a kinship between the two, thus Adam and Eve were regarded as one flesh (Genesis 2:24;
1 Corinthians 6:16;
Ephesians 5:31). Jesus was related to David with reference to the flesh (Romans 1:3).
Whole Person The term may denote the entire person and not just the physical aspects. It can refer to the outward expression of a person paralleling the inward action of the person as seen in
Psalms 63:1 where the “soul thirsts” and the “flesh faints” NRSV and in
Psalms 84:2 where the “heart and flesh sing for joy” (NRSV). Peter, quoting from
Psalms 16:1, paralleled the flesh with the heart and soul (Acts 2:26-27). Paul spoke of his sufferings for Christ as his flesh suffering (Colossians 1:24).
Hence, the biblical view asserts a dualism of man but not in the Greek sense. Greek philosophers saw the soul, heart, or mind distinguished from and superior to the flesh. The biblical view sees the inward and outward aspects of man very closely tied together. Hence, the psalmist (Psalms 73:26) referring to his “flesh and heart” sees the person in its entirety. Paul's reference to the flesh denotes all of humanity when he stated that no flesh is justified by the works of the law (Romans 3:20;
Theological Significance Biblically, the flesh is viewed as the created and natural humanity. It is not automatically sinful, but it is weak, limited, and temporal. Such qualities make it vulnerable to sin. Adam and Eve were created as fleshly human beings. They succumbed to the temptations of Satan, who promised them that they would be like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Because of the limited perspective and the weakness of the flesh, Adam and Eve accepted Satan's lie. The weakness of the flesh is seen in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus found the disciples sleeping. He enjoined them to watch and pray lest they enter into temptation for “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41;
Mark 14:38). Here, the flesh was not sinful, but rather limited and weak due to fatigue, and easy to succumb to sleep.
In its weakness and limitation, the flesh tends to yield to the temptation of what seems good naturally. Since sin promises pleasure and fulfillment, the natural propensity is for the flesh to yield to sin's promises. Thus, doing what comes naturally is yielding to sin's will. This is contrary to God's will and commands. Those who follow the impulses of the flesh are governed by the flesh and are characterized as those who live “after the flesh” (Romans 8:5). They are those who yield to sinful passions and produce works contrary to God and His law (Galatians 5:16-17,
Galatians 5:19-21,Galatians 5:23-24; compare
1 John 2:16;
1 Peter 4:2;
2 Peter 2:10). Being enslaved to the desires of the flesh (Ephesians 2:3), they have the mindset of the flesh (Romans 8:5-7). Hence, the natural person controlled by the flesh does not and cannot submit to God's will or please God (Romans 8:7-8;
1 Corinthians 2:14; compare
Genesis 6:13). The limitation of the flesh appears clearly in the human inability to discern God's revelation of Himself (Matthew 16:17;
Galatians 1:13-24). Only death succeeds in convincing those who live according to the flesh of the fleeting, temporal nature of the flesh (Romans 6:23;
Romans 8:6,Romans 8:13). Flesh-driven people are the children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). They cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10;
Flesh is weak but not naturally sinful. Christ came in the “likeness” of sinful flesh (John 1:14;
Hebrews 4:15) to redeem those who are in sinful flesh. That is, Christ became a flesh and blood person but did not give in to the desires of the flesh. Instead, perfect in life and death, He died to provide salvation for all other persons, since they do give in to fleshly desires. Those who trust in God's provision in Christ remain physically “in” the flesh but do not live “according to” the flesh (Galatians 2:20;
Philippians 1:22-24). They are characterized as those who are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (Romans 8:9) because they are governed not by the flesh but by the Spirit (Romans 8:6,
Romans 8:11-17). They are those who are led by the Spirit to put to death the deeds of the flesh, not the flesh itself (Romans 8:13;
Galatians 5:24). Believers must be careful not to be tricked into thinking that they have any obligation to the flesh and its sinful, selfish desires (Romans 8:12-13;
Galatians 3:3). The flesh serves as a base of operation for sin (Romans 7:8,
Romans 7:11) and thus enslaves a person to sin (Romans 6:15-23;
Romans 7:25). This does not imply that flesh is automatically sinful, but its history in Adam shows the weakness of flesh and its strong tendency to yield to the commands of sin.
In conclusion, the term “flesh” can be a neutral term referring to created humans and animals who are limited and weak, or it can refer to humans controlled by sin and its passions. See Anthropology; Body.
Harold W. Hoehner