Word Study #85 — The Flesh — Incarnation

The Word became flesh, and lived [camped out] among us!” (Jn.1:14)

How can anyone who is aware of what else John has just said about “the Word”, and to whom it refers, possibly accept the NIV translators’ obsessive use of “sinful nature” as their preferred translation of sarx, “flesh”? No, they do not use it in this reference, of course: this is a classic case of the blatant manipulation of the message by “selective translation”, which is not truly translation at all! How can an academically honest “translator” justify arbitrarily adjusting the text, to support a preconceived “doctrinal” conclusion?

Homer, Hippocrates, and many others classically used sarx as a synonym for soma, “body” (see previous post). Bauer succinctly defines it as “the material that covers the bones of a human or animal”, and L/S adds “the pulp of a fruit”! Classical, LXX, and New Testament writers all refer to “flesh and blood” as evidence of genuine humanity. Jesus himself used it as proof of the reality of his resurrection (Lk.24:39)! A person’s provenance “according to the flesh” is simply his genealogy. Bauer, L/S, and Trench all note that the reference is to the physical, natural order of things or people, including their physical abilities, limitations, or illnesses, as well as the seat of their affections. This sometimes includes procreation (Jn.1:13), but not with any “sinful” connotations. It is for these reasons that I have deemed “human” or “human nature” to be more accurate translations of sarx. Bauer also notes that the LXX attaches no negative aspect to sarx, although Epicurus (3rd.century BC) does, considering it inferior to the pneuma (spirit) or psuche / nous (mind).
The characterization of God-ordained marriage as “becoming one flesh” is a gracious gift, not an accusation. This is even more obvious in Paul’s admonition that such a relationship be carefully and responsibly guarded, both in I Cor.6:16-17 where “body” and “flesh” are used interchangeably, and in Eph.5:29-31.

Genealogical references are common in the New Testament – Jn.3:6, Rom.1:3, 4:1, 9:3,5,8; 11:14; I Cor.10:18, Gal.4:23, Eph.2:11, Phil.3:4, Heb.2:14, 12:9 – as are references to simple human experience or frailty – Mt.26:41 (where Jesus calls “the flesh” “weak”, not “evil”!), Lk.3:6, Jn.8:15, Ac.2:31, Rom.6:19, I Cor.1:26, 29; 7:28; II Cor.4:11, 5:16, 7:5, 12:7; Gal.1:16, 4:13; Phil.1:22, Col.2:1,5; Heb.5:7. None of these carry overtly moral connotations.

There are occasions, of course, where the faithful are warned to be careful where they focus their attention. It is one thing to be aware of one’s “human nature”, and even to accept or acknowledge its limitations or weaknesses, and quite another to allow one’s thoughts and behavior to be ruled by it.
We are instructed to “put off” (Col.2:11) – and here, the majority text does not include either of the “sin” words, but uses both sarx and soma in the genitive case, which is the reason for my rendering the phrase “putting away the body’s human nature” rather than the traditional rendering, “the body of sin”. We are  warned against (Col.2:23) “the gratifying of the human nature [flesh] and (Eph.2:3) its passions”; but we are also encouraged to see that Jesus’ own life be “revealed in our mortal flesh” (II Cor.4:11), and to govern “the life I now live in the flesh” by Jesus’ own faithfulness (Gal.2:20)!

It is no secret that “flesh” and “spirit” are in competition – sometimes severely – for our attention and our loyalty (Gal.5:13-19), but we are not helpless pawns in this game. “The one who is cultivating his human nature [flesh], from that human nature will reap decay; but the one who is cultivating the spirit, will reap eternal life from the Spirit” (Gal.6:8). Or, as one student paraphrased it, “you don’t plant corn and expect to pick beans!”

For a broader perspective on the concept of “human nature”, both its positive and negative potential, please refer to chapter 3 of Citizens of the Kingdom. The human – nature and all – was a part of the creation that its holy Creator deliberately pronounced “very good”! But, also like the rest of creation, it has not always been put to its intended use. Hence the need for a new creation (II Cor.5:17), which has been richly provided in the Lord Jesus, who not only embodies it, but enables his people to do likewise!

The New Testament writers take great pains to establish the true humanity of the Lord Jesus. The confession that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (I Jn.4:2,3, and II Jn.7) is held to be the acid test of faithfulness! The writer to the Hebrews repeatedly asserts that this was absolutely necessary in order for Jesus to accomplish our redemption (Heb.2:14, 5:7, 9:14, 10:20). Peter (I Pet.3:18, 4:1,2) echoes that thought, and Paul (Eph.2:15, Col.1:22) adds that this was the only way the Lord could unite Jewish and Gentile believers. John’s whole prologue (Jn.1:1-18), as well as the first paragraph of his first letter, targets the amazing, almost too-good-to-be-true reality of what has come to be called “the Incarnation” – a word derived from the Latin equivalent, carnis, of the Greek sarx, and related to the English “carnal”, which has suffered the same distortions as “flesh”. Lexically, there is nothing inherently evil in any of these words, which simply refer to ordinary natural things or situations. “Carnally minded” (Rom.8:6), does not mean “evil-minded,” but simply having one’s attention focused on the wrong part of human life. It is applied to ordinary [unredeemed] people (I Cor.1:3-4), weapons (II Cor.10:4), commands (Heb.7:16), ceremonies (Heb.9:10), and “things” (Rom.15:27, I Cor.9:11), as opposed to others that are transformed by being deliberately focused on the Lord.

It is that very “ordinariness” that makes Jesus’ willing identification with our human condition so overwhelming. Paul marvels at Jesus’ willingness to “empty himself” of all his divine prerogatives (Phil.2:6-8) for our benefit, and holds that attitude up as an example for the faithful (2:5). Hebrews 2:9 and 2:14-18 elaborate on the same theme. Jesus is able to come to our rescue and serve as our example precisely because he himself has “been there, done that” (Heb.2:10-16), and emerged triumphant!

The word became flesh, and lived among us! – and continues to do so, as he promised, in his living Body! (W.S.#84)
Thanks be to God!

2 Responses to Word Study #85 — The Flesh — Incarnation

  1. terry welborn says:

    Thanks for your useful insights–expositions–of this very important matter. Too many so-called theologians have assigned an inherently evil nature to “flesh”–which, if I am correct, itself was God-created! So, how could “flesh” be other than good, if used for its intended purpose.

  2. ruthpmartin says:

    Exactly right. Missing the “intended purpose” is usually the problem when anything gets messed up. It is easy to blame anything but ourselves.
    Check the discussion in chapter 3 of Citizens. It is dealt with in more detail there.

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