In the next two posts we want to clarify what the Bible means when it refers to the Flesh. We will start by looking at the definition the Bible itself provides for us in the book of Ephesians.
In Ephesians chapter 2, verses 1 and 2, we are told that all unbelievers are dead in sin, and follow the course of this World and the “Prince” of that system, namely Satan. People who are spiritually dead (i.e. alienated from God) are being led by Satan via the World system. Verse 3 goes on to say that these people live in the passions of their Flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind. Flesh, in its negative sense, is defined in this verse.
Flesh: The desires of the body and the mind
So are the body and its desires evil? Are the various desires of the mind evil? Jesus had a human body and a mind with all the natural desires that accompany them, so was he sinful? These and many other questions must be addressed, and we will seek to address them. But before we describe the Flesh in technical terms let’s first look at the picture painted for us in the book of Exodus.
An Ingrained Culture
After being led through the Red Sea, the Hebrews were a free people. They were no longer subject to the slavery of Pharaoh. They were brought out into the wilderness to become a new people that would be reorganized under the Law of Moses. This was a fulfillment of the promise given to Abraham that he would be made into a great nation (Gen. 12:2). The taskmasters were back in Egypt collecting the straw that the Hebrews would never collect again; and Pharaoh’s top henchmen lay dead at the bottom of the Red Sea. The Hebrews were a free people!
In the height of their freedom, the book of Numbers gives us this account:
“Some of the foreigners among the Israelites had a strong craving for other kinds of food. Even the Israelites started crying again and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! Remember all the free fish we ate in Egypt and the cucumbers, watermelons, leeks, onions, and garlic we had? But now we’ve lost our appetite! Everywhere we look there is nothing but manna!’” (Num. 11:4-5 God’s Word Translation)
Here we see the foreigners living among the Hebrews in the wilderness crying out for the food of Egypt. They don’t like the heavenly food, manna. It is not suitable to their taste buds. As one who has lived in foreign lands for the last 12 years I can identify with their problem. After living so long in Asia, I still rarely have a fully satisfying meal. My tongue has learned to speak Asian languages, but it still struggles with Asian food. It is easy to understand these outsiders living in the midst of Israel, but the Hebrews are a more curious case.
It wasn’t just the Gentiles crying out for the food of Egypt, but the Hebrews were complaining as well. They remembered the food of Egypt and craved after it. The heavenly food did not satisfy them. They wanted the food of bondage! How could this be?! Simple really, the food of Egypt was all they knew. Their tastes were formed and fashioned by the food they grew up eating. They were like my children who were born, and are growing up, in a foreign land. My children like American food well enough, but without some Indonesia rice or noodles they are not fully satisfied. They might have American blood flowing through their veins, but their taste buds are distinctly Indonesian! Indonesian food is foreign to me, but not to my children. I grew up eating American food so Asian food doesn’t quite suit me. But for my children American food is the “foreign food.” And for the Hebrews, who had been living in Egypt and eating the food of Egypt for hundreds of years, this bread from God was foreign as well.
The Hebrews had spent hundreds of years as slaves in the land of Egypt. They never had the chance to leave Egypt and experience any other way of life. Egyptian culture was the only thing they knew. After living in Pharaoh’s land for 400 years it is no wonder they became so completely adapted to Egyptian culture. The activities of Egypt became their activities. The food of Egypt became their food. And the habits of Egypt became their habits. In almost every way, the Hebrews had become children of Pharaoh.
The Ingrained Culture of the World
Turning again to Ephesians 2:1-3 we note that we believers were born alienated from God just like the rest of Adam’s descendents. We were “sons of disobedience” as we followed the “course of the World” and the “Prince of the power of the air.” We like the Israelites were raised in a land of bondage, the World.
Before we were called out of darkness by our heavenly Moses, namely Christ, we were molded and shaped into the image of the World’s value system. We were pliable clay in the hands of the “god of this world.” His lies became our truth, and his wishes became our commands.
We didn’t resist the defacing of the image of God in which we had originally been created. Instead we became Satan’s co-laborers in this process of deformation. We were not then foreigners in the World as we are now, but we were full-fledged citizens, children of the Devil! As Jesus said, we were slaves to sin and willingly fulfilled the desires of our demonic “father” (8:34 & 44). And in that way we were conformed to the image of the World, even the image of Satan himself (Rom. 12:2). We were slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness (Rom. 6:19). We were lost!
But thank God, our spiritual Moses did come! Jesus came and delivered us out of bondage and set us free! He reconciled us to God and started the process of renewing us in the spirit of our minds by teaching us to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:23-24). He teaches us to put off the old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires (Eph. 4:22).
We lived our lives following the “culture” of the World. This culture became ingrained within us even as the culture of Egypt became ingrained in the character of the ancient Hebrews. This culture does not disappear the moment we receive the Spirit of God, but we are transformed through a process. Just as I have spent years adapting to the cultures of Asia, the believer will take years adapting to the values of the Kingdom of God. We no longer need to walk in obedience to the desires of the Flesh, but the desires of the Flesh are not immediately removed at our conversion.
The people of Israel received an appetite for the food of Egypt during their years of bondage. After they were delivered from Egypt, that craving remained. In the same way, during our life before Christ we created an unhealthy appetite for the things of the World. And though God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, we still have a lingering hunger for the corrupt values and pleasures Satan offers those who will follow the course of this World (Col. 1:13, Eph. 2:2). This corrupt appetite for things God has forbidden is what we refer to when we talk about the Flesh.
Natural Desire vs. Corrupted Desire
If the Flesh is defined in Ephesians 2:3 as “the desires of the body and the mind,” does that mean the desires of the body and mind are evil? Let’s look at some examples of such desires.
The desire for food (a desire of the body) is not evil, and yet it becomes evil if it is done outside the boundaries of self-control. Eating and desiring food is by no means sin, but over indulgence through gluttony most certainly is.
Sexual desire (a desire of both the body and the mind) was created by God, and He proclaimed that all of His creation was “good.” So sexual desire is not a result of sinfulness, but is the plan and creation of God. But unbridled sexual desire is called lust, and fulfilling it is what we call immorality. The sexual desire that longs to be fulfilled in ways contrary to the will of Creator is a corrupted desire.
The desire for acceptance from others (a desire of the mind) is not unnatural or perverted. But if it controls all of our actions and leads us to disobey God’s righteous commands it becomes idolatrous. To obey our boss when he asks us to help him do a shady business deal is based on the natural desire of acceptance, but it goes outsides the bounds of righteousness, and is therefore a wayward desire of the Flesh.
The desires of the body and mind do not defile us unless they are obeyed above God or fulfilled in ways contrary to the will of God. The natural desires of the body and mind are not a corrupting influence, but the desires of the body and mind that are exalted above the lordship of God are!
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had desires of both the body and the mind. They desired wisdom because God created them with that desire. He wanted to raise them as His children. This desire would ensure their continual hunger for growth in God-likeness.
God did not just give Adam and Eve a desire for things like wisdom, but He also gave them the very practical desire for food. This desire would ensure they maintain a healthy physical body. Without it they would be likely to starve their bodies through forgetfulness and neglect. And to fulfill this desire God provided them with a variety of tasty and attractive fruits. The desire for food and the desire for wisdom were God given, and therefore, godly desires.
These desires were good and holy, but they were corruptible; it was possible to pervert them. They were good as long as they remained in submission to the will of God, and were fulfilled in the way He had ordained.
When Satan came on the scene he sought to distort Adam and Eve’s godly desires for food and wisdom. He corrupted them by putting “their bellies” (i.e. their appetite and desire) in the place reserved for God alone (Phil. 3:19). He told them that they should not follow the will of God, but their own will. “What God desires,” he said to them, “is not as important as what you desire.” Satan is a corrupter of God’s good creation. He caused Adam and Eve to rebel against God by teaching them to follow their earthly desires instead of their heavenly God. He taught them to follow the same path he had taken by setting themselves up as lords over their own lives.
When they followed Satan’s path the immediate consequence was spiritual death. Spiritual death is not the death of the human spirit as some imagine, but it is a relational separation between God and Man. The spirits of the first couple had been created for uninterrupted fellowship with the Holy Spirit, but when they rebelled against God, that connection was severed. They were left without the clear guidance and fellowship of God’s Spirit. Their relationship with God had died! They no longer had the option of following God through the light of the Spirit, but were left to follow the desires of their bodies and their minds. Their spirit was no longer captivated by the desires of God, but became focused on their earthly desires.
Satan then went about the work of leading them wherever he wished by inflaming and perverting every good and natural desire. He began to lead mankind into every form of excess. Natural desire for food led to gluttonous desire. Human sexuality was led into all kinds of immoral perversion. What was once a holy desire given for the pleasure and benefit of mankind led to humiliating acts of depravity. The desire for acceptance from others led Man to commit all kinds of acts of deception and manipulation. The godly desire to protect those under one’s authority led to the invention of war and oppression. The affection a woman felt for her child led to gossip, jealousy and injustice when dealing with other people’s children. Satan set about his despicable work as the destroyer of what God had created.
For part 2 of this series press here. (Will be available July 3, 2012)