In this paper we shall investigate what the Bible says about FLESH and SPIRIT, the great contrast of Scripture, the Old Man and the New Man, Babylon and Jerusalem, the Great City and the Holy City. It could well be said that the Bible is the “Tale of two cities”. Once this important truth is understood, then the art of hermeneutics, or interpretation, becomes ten times clearer.
The word FLESH is a doctrinal word. It is used to define the Old Man, the Adamic Man, the Old Nature that we inherit from Adam, with which we are born, and which is the ‘inheritance’ of the world-pool of humanity.
Furthermore, we learn that at birth we are IN THE FLESH. This expression is important, and should be used definitively.“When we were IN THE FLESH sinful passions which were by the law worked in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (Rom.7:5)
The Holy Spirit of God brings us to the point where we seek a new life, a life of faith in the Son of God, and when this occurs we are said to be IN THE SPIRIT. Again, this is definitive. “But you are not IN THE FLESH but IN THE SPIRIT, if so be that the Spirit of God dwells in you.” (Rem. 8:9)
We are told that “those who are IN THE FLESH cannot please God”. (Rom.8:8) But those who are IN THE SPIRIT may begin to please God, because “without faith it is impossible to please God”(Heb11:6) and those who are IN THE SPIRIT have set their feet upon a roadway of faith.
The Evangelical Churches labour the point of being “born again”.. Of course, this is factual and Scriptural. But the understanding they have of this new birth is often faulty. The NEW BIRTH experience begins when we kneel at the foot of the cross for the first time, and ends when we have our new bodies. It is not a single act made during a commitment prayer. Jesus taught that men should sit down and ‘count the cost’ of their commitment, lest having started on this road they should find that they do not possess sufficient funds to finish their ‘tower’. To ‘take up one’s cross’ is a very costly process, not to be lightly entered upon. “Easy believism” has become a way of life in the churches, and has therefore greatly expanded the ranks of the modern charismatic movement in particular. There is much teaching today, erroneous teaching, which offers ‘new converts’ a way of life that is based on riches, authority, triumphalism, and ‘kingdom now’ theology. If they were to read the Bible a little more, they would find that such characteristics are an integral part of Babylon, not Jerusalem. In this connection, we refer our readers to PT 2 “The New Bus”.
Churches may have many aims. They have many teachings. Such teachings are greatly diversified. But there is oneteaching, and one only, which undergirds all others in the Bible. It is this. We are born in the flesh. We begin in the spirit, and for the rest of our Christian lives have the duty to “put to death” the flesh in us. This is our purpose, our battle, our agonising prayer, our mission. It is not a self-centred purpose, because it is God’s work in us, but if we miss the point of it, all our theology, all our work for the Lord will ultimately be found wanting.
In terms of doctrine, the point is this. Although we are no longer IN THE FLESH yet the flesh is still in us! Now Jesus was also born in the flesh. But He was sinless, and his flesh was at all times under complete control. His earthly life was totally subject to His Father’s will. This is why He said (in John 6) that we need to “eat His flesh”. We need to follow His example “in the flesh”, and that example led Him to Calvary. That is the end for us as well. Our flesh needs to end at Calvary, in total crucifixion. Our Lord needed not to die for His own sins, for He had none, but He died for ours. But we need to “die”, to crucify the Old Man.
In real practical terms this may be interpreted as follows. When we start the life of faith, we make a step of faith, which is equivalent to obedience. Then through our Christian walk we need to learn obedience at every point. As we proceed to do this, we find that there is a negative principle at work in us which objects to these steps of obedience. This is the “flesh” still working in us. At each stage then, we need to break down this resistance to obedience, and therefore “crucify” yet another aspect of the workings of the flesh. Through years of experience under the good hands of God, we are brought to these “cross roads” many many times. The effect is cumulative and strengthening. Each time we “overcome” we add strength to the New Nature, the “spirit”, and our obedience becomes the more complete. Jesus said, “Be ye perfect, even as yourheavenly Father is perfect.” At all times we should allow God’s hand upon us to bring us nearer and nearer to this state of spiritual perfection. We do not have any way of knowing how much progress has been made, and this is a good thing. It cannot lead to complacency or pride.
Many believers look upon the act of “breaking bread together” as the central act of true Christian fellowship. We do not doubt this. We have a very special place for such fellowship in our own group. But there’s a two-fold importance in this act of fellowship. In the first place we honour our Lord’s death on our behalf. But in the second place we should be emphasising this “eating of His flesh” in our own lives. What is the use, if in the end, we ONLY partake to honour our Lord? We give glory to Jesus, but preclude ourselves from spiritual progress. Our Lord has a deep desire to bring “many sons to glory”, but how can He if we do not allow Him to have the Lordship in our lives? How can we be glorified, if we retain the “flesh”? What right do we have to His word, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant”, if we have not pursued the pathway to total obedience? How can the Lord use us in His kingdom, if we have not reached the point where He only has to say the word, and we can wholly respond with “Yes, Lord, it shall be done according to your word”? Total obedience is equal to the total crucifixion of the flesh. This is the “end of the Lord” for all His children. And He exercises much patience with us until He reaches His goal.
Now, this process of “putting to death the flesh” is one which we all find most difficult. Paul tells us from his own experience that “the flesh and the spirit lust against one another”.(Gal.5:17) It is not just the flesh that refuses to obey. We also find that the spirit refuses to give in! It is total warfare! Our lives become a battleground! We sense within us this on-going struggle for supremacy, and many times we tire of it and cry out with Paul, “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom.7:24) We get sick and tired of the way in which we so often fail, and need to come to the Master for cleansing. But we have been warned of this, and told to be strong in His strength, and “overcome”. To each of the churches in Revelation 2-3, the Master promises great blessings to the “overcomers”, but how many Christians understand what they should overcome? Some think it means having great battles with the occult, and casting out demons. Others think it means the overcoming of the world, and establishing a little rule of law and order in our local community, to displace the tendencies to obscenity and crime. Yet others think that it means getting many converts at the local outreach meetings. But all these things, though good in themselves, do not constitute “overcoming” as the Master meant it.
Of what value is it if a believer gains the whole world for Christ, and yet disallows the Master’s hand of refining on his own life? Shall such an one come before the Lord in that day and say “Lord, I have done all this for you in your name!” And sadly the Lord will have to confess that He knows him not. Why doesn’t He know him? Because the Lord, on looking at him, cannot see His own likeness within him. .There is no mirror image of recognition. There has been no “changing from glory to glory according to the Christ-image” as Paul puts it in 2 Cor.3:18.
No, the real meaning of “overcoming” is the overcoming of one’s own flesh, one’s own rebellious nature, the stamping out of all rebellious ways, and the establishing of the New Man, which Paul tells us we need to “put on” like a new coat. All our labour for the Lord is but a stewardship bound upon us as servants, and if we are honest with ourselves we shall agree with Jesus that no matter how much we have “done”, we shall say “We are unprofitable servants. We have only done that which was our duty to do.” (Luke 17:10) Let us not look for rewards for our work, our ministry, our preaching, our management of marriage and family, or any such things. The Lord is looking for the growth of obedience. Each time He sees this, He is overjoyed, and snatches it away from us, to keep it safe in heavenly places. Jesus called it, “laying up treasure in heaven”. Paul knew that the “good deposit” would be kept for him against that day. (Matt.6:20, 2 Tim.1:12) As a result we are always kept in the state of being “poor in the spirit”, so that the sin of pride will not ruin what the Lord is achieving. (Matt.5:3, the first of the beatitudes.)
Let us see the Scriptural process by which God achieves His ends in us. It would seem that there seven steps in a continuous cycle, almost like an octave on the piano keyboard scale.
1. LAW. This is God’s starting point. Paul tells us that God’s Law is His schoolmaster. (Gal.3:24) The purpose of the Law is“to bring us to Christ”. How important then is the Law. If it “brings us to Christ” how we should value it! How important it must be! No wonder the Devil brings his right-hand man into world affairs, known as “the man of lawlessness”. At all costs, he must eliminate anything that will “bring us to Christ”. But Paul says that the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good. But then he has to declare, sadly, that in the flesh we are sold under sin, and find that this “holy and good thing” is both schoolmaster and executioner! Yes, in the flesh, the law can only bring death. But to the one who seeks Cod, it is the first instrument to life and sanctification. Let us see how it leads to the second step.
2. CONSCIENCE. Knowledge of the Law activates our “moral indicator” known as the conscience. Our past history of unbelief often has a tragic effect on this vital “organ”. Sometimes it is “evil” (Heb.10:22), otherwise “defiled” (Tit.1:15) or even in the worst of cases, “cauterised” (1 Tim.4:2) But even so, we cannot always “kick against the pricks” of our conscience, and it does wonders for us. It is like one of the many “gate mechanisms” in modern computers, which direct the signal according to the information received. After our first encounter with the Lord, our conscience should begin to develop, becoming “good” (1 Tim.1:5, 1 Pet.3:16), and “pure” (1 Tim.3:9) and “purged from dead works” (Heb.9:14) What then is the purpose of the conscience? It is to warn us of the moral nature of our thoughts and actions. It says to us, in effect, “That thought is contrary to God’s laws. It is sinful.” Or it says, “You have just broken one of God’s commandments. You have committed sin.” On the other hand, if the action is right in God’s sight, then the conscience will say nothing, but bring us a sense of peace with God.
3. KNOWLEDGE OF SIN. The result of the workings of conscience is mental awareness. The mind is alerted, and we are given the trigger to act on it. “By law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom.3:20) Once this knowledge is ours we are morally bound to act in accordance with it. There are two ways open to us. We may resist it, in which case the Old Man wins, and we plunge into a deeper mess than before. Or, which is far better, we acknowledge it, and seek the Saviour.
4. BROUGHT TO CHRIST. Here is the best place! The schoolmaster has brought us to Christ. The conscience has done its job. Our mind has been made fully aware of the implications, and a choice has been made for the better. We come to Christ as a sinner, one in need of cleansing. Godly sorrow is produced, and we kneel at the foot of the cross.
5. REPENTANCE. The godly sorrow has produced repentance. Now this word means literally to turn about and walk in the opposite direction. So that having obtained cleansing from the Lord, we now despise the act that grew into sin, and set our will like flint against any repetition of the act. And because of the spirit of the Lord, the new man, dwelling in us, we have the ability to stand fast. This is the meaning of repentance. It is not just being sorry for what we have done. It is not remorse. It is a resolve to “change course”. That which was beforehand an act of DISOBEDIENCE now becomes a desire to be OBEDIENT. And so what has happened is that –
6. PART OF THE FLESH IS PUT TO DEATH. Yes! We have been “through the cross” and crucifixion has taken place. We shall have to come this way again, many times. But never fear. It is God’s chosen pathway. Paul tells us to “put to death therefore your members which are upon earth, fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil desire, covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col.3:5) As a result of all this we find that –
7. THE SPIRIT IS STRENGTHENED. Indeed this is true. Every time a child of God goes through this process, there is a strengthening of the New Man, and because of this strengthening, there is a greater ability to overcome the next time round. And so this leads us right back to where we came in.
8. (and 1. again) THE LAW. In our daily walk we should have God’s laws ever before us as a guide. Without them, we can never become mature in the spirit. They are God’s great gift to His people. They represent His own character. They are like fences, moral fences, beyond which the Lord does not exist. On one side of the fence is written “Thou shalt“ or “Thoushalt not” as the case may be. On the other side of the fence is darkness. It is beyond the Lord’s character. However, if someone should leap over the fence and commit sin, and LOOK BACK, he will see writing on the reverse side of the fence! It says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jn.1:9) But if we jump the fence, and keep our eyes AWAY from the fence, then we are indeed in darkness. But even though God does not exist on the other side of that fence, He has ways of calling sinners, and that “still small voice” is constantly insisting that his creatures should turn round and see the way back home. How great is our God, and worthy to be praised. [This teaching was amplified in PT 15, “The Fence Breakers”.]
Here then is the cycle of events that is likely to continue through our lives, as the Lord brings us first to this situation and then that, in order to bring us to the place of total obedience to Him. It is His work. He started it off, and He will bring it to completion in the day of Christ. (Phil.1:6) We cannot actually perform this work ourselves, in our own strength, even if we should see the necessity of it. First we should YIELD to the voice of the Son of God, as He engineers our circumstances, to bring us to the cross-roads, and then STRIVE TO BE OBEDIENT, in the power of God’s renewed spirit within us. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil.4:13)
We have learned that “the flesh profits nothing.” (John 6:63) It is the spirit that gives us life. And God is pouring out His spirit upon all flesh. (Acts 2:17) His gracious provision enables man to make a journey that would otherwise be wholly impossible. And the end of that journey is the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, of which God’s children are said to be “living stones”. Although “no flesh shall glory in His sight” (1 Cor.1:29) yet the spirit is transformed from glory to glory in a rising pathway of obedience to the Master, until “the day dawns and the daystar arises in our hearts”, until we see Jesus face to face.
In the next paper, we shall look at these truths from another angle, that of the two cities mentioned in this paper, Babylon and Jerusalem.