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On the Use and Meaning Of the Word ‘Flesh’(sarx)
in the New Testament
Alexander Snyman

‘Flesh’ (gr. sarx) is a word vitally connected with the subject of the Incarnation. It appears in three forms: sarx, which is usually translated flesh; sarkikos, usually carnal, sometimes fleshly, and sarkinos, fleshy.

Sarkinos appears only once in the New Testament, in 2 Corinthians 3:3.

Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

Sarkikos appears eleven times; nine times translated carnal, and twice fleshly.

Examples of the former translation are:

Romans 7:14 … I am carnal, sold under sin.
1 Corinthians 3:3 For ye are yet carnal

And the latter translation appears, for instance, in:

1 Peter 2:11: Abstain from fleshly lusts

Sarx is found in no less than one hundred and fifty texts, usually translated flesh, but on three occasions it is translated carnal, or carnally. Examples of the latter are:

Romans 8:6

to be carnally minded (is) death (lit. ‘the minding of the flesh’)

Romans 8:7

the carnal mind (is) (lit. ‘the minding of the flesh’) enmity against God.

Hebrews 9:10

… and carnal ordinances

Practically every other instance where sarx is used indicates that reference is to man in his fallen state. Examples are:

Galatians 5:16

… lust of the flesh.

Galatians 5:17

… the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.

Galatians 5:19

… works of the flesh are manifest (there then follows a long list of gross sins, such as adultery, fornication, uncleanness, etc.)

1 Peter 1:21

… filth of the flesh . . .

2 Peter 2:10

… them that walk after the flesh in the lust of uncleanness . . .

Ephesians 2:3

… in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh, and of the mind . . .

There are six references in the New Testament to the words of Genesis 2:24, “they shall be one flesh.” Four of these are by the Lord Jesus and two by the apostle Paul. Those by Jesus are found in Matthew 19:5 and 6, and Mark 10:8, while those of Paul are in 1 Corinthians 6:16 and Ephesians 5:31. It might conceivably be argued that these references are clearly to man in his unfallen state, but it must be remembered that these are all quoted from the Genesis record., and that they do not reflect the New Testament usage of the word sarx, or flesh. Frequently Jesus used the word flesh to refer to Himself, an important fact which will be considered shortly. In all other uses of the word He clearly referred to man in his fallen state. In all other uses of sarx the apostle Paul makes clear references to the sinful nature of man, except, of course, such a text as 1 Corinthians 15:39:

All flesh (is) not the same flesh: but (there is) one (kind of) flesh of men, another flesh of beasts.

Here Paul is dealing with a totally different kind of situation, contrasting the flesh of human beings with that of animals, and is not dealing with the question of whether sarx could apply to the unfallen state.

There are, too, the texts which refer to “those of the flesh” as members of the human race, such as:

Romans 9:3

… my kinsmen according to the flesh . . .

Romans 11:14

… (them which are) my flesh . . .

These, though not referring to the actual sinful or fallen aspects of the human race, nevertheless do refer to that human race which has inherited from Adam a fallen or sinful human nature. certainly there is nothing in these texts to connect them with man in his unfallen state.

Sometimes an objection is raised to this position based upon the words of Jesus in Luke 24:39: ‘Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for the spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have’. It is contended that the ‘flesh’ mentioned here is a superior kind such as Adam was given originally. However, it must be remembered that in this text we are seeing a post-resurrection appearance of our Lord, a time when He no longer had the body of His pre-resurrection life. His body was now a glorified body. It was not always so. John 7:39 clearly tells us: ‘Jesus was not yet glorified’. And later, in John 12:16, we read further: ‘These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things unto him’. A little later, in verse 23, Jesus said: ‘The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified’.

When was Jesus glorified? Clearly, at the cross, where was revealed God’s ultimate love, agape, in the giving of His Son for a lost world. And when did Christ come to possess a glorified body? Clearly at His resurrection shortly after. We are told in Philippians 3:21 that our Lord Jesus Christ ‘Shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself’.

Therefore, to argue that Christ, during His life on earth, was given some kind of superior ‘flesh’, or ‘nature’, is to overlook what the above texts tell us of the time when He actually received His ‘glorified’ body.

Then there are the texts where Jesus tells His listeners that the ‘bread’ which He will give them is His ‘flesh.’ This appears several times in John 6 verses 51 to 56. Here, of course, it is obvious that Jesus is speaking of His ‘flesh’ symbolically, and it would be pointless to try to make a case for sarx as being either fallen or unfallen ‘flesh’ from these passages. In the event of a contention that the reference here is to the unfallen ‘flesh’ of Adam, the same logic would apply as given above in Luke 24:39.

Finally, we have the texts which use ‘flesh’ (sarx) as referring to the actual substance of which human beings are composed. Examples are:

Revelation 17:16

… shall eat her flesh . . .

Revelation 19:18

flesh of kings, and the flesh of captains, and the flesh of mighty men … and the flesh of all men . . .

Revelation 19:21

… fowls were filled with their flesh . . .

In conclusion it can be stated that the overwhelming use of sarx, or flesh, in the New Testament, especially in the Pauline epistles, is to indicate the fallen, sinful, deteriorated human nature, which all human beings have inherited from Adam.

  1. Wigram, George V. The Englishmans’s Greek Concordance of the New Testament. 9th ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970. [top of page]
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