The Flesh: A Spiritual Understanding


For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.  (Ephesisans 5:30)

St Paul’s description of how we are members of Christ’s Body become very corporeal in the above passage – we are not just “His body”, we are His flesh and bones!  The emphasis seems to be focusing on a real rather than merely spiritual image.  (Much like Christ’s comments on the necessity of our eating His flesh and blood in John 6:49-59, where he talks about chewing his flesh.) Yet, St Paul also often uses ‘flesh’ in a negative way being related to sin, passions and fallenness.  However, flesh is created by God and so has the potential for good.


The English translator of Theodoret of Cyrus notes about this 5th Century biblical commentator:

Theodoret goes out of his way to repeat the point that the flesh itself does not come under Paul’s strictures: the trouble lies in the phronema, in the gnome, in the capital vice of rhathumia. He is no dualist in this regard, as we have noted before; and he grasps well Paul’s usage of flesh and spirit. (Theodoret of Cyrus, COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF ST PAUL Vol 2, p 29)


The problem is not with the flesh as such but with the desires at work in the flesh which are related to our hearts and minds.  Neither St Paul nor Theodoret are dualists, pitting evil flesh against the good spirit. Rather, they understand that sin has corrupted the human and uses the flesh to draw us away from God – to live as if there is nothing more to life than our bodies and serving bodily desires. “The flesh” for St Paul is negative when it controls us rather than we controlling its desires. Theodoret comments about St Paul’s use of ‘flesh’ when he means a more negative connotation:

So it is clear that by flesh he referred to the fleshly attitude, that is, the soul’s inclination to the worse, and by spirit to the grace given. This is surely the reason he called love, joy and the rest fruit of the spirit: when the spirit works with the soul, each of these is put into practice.  (COMMENTARY ON THE LETTERS OF ST PAUL Vol 2, p 21)


We put the fruit of the spirit into practice only in and through our bodies.  Our bodies were created to be united to God, to be bearers of God. As Christians united to Christ, we become one with Him, not only spiritually, but in His resurrected flesh which is spiritual. In the incarnation, Christ assumed our flesh in order to save it. In ascending to heaven bodily, Christ shows our flesh to be spiritual, created for life in heaven. We work out our salvation in and through our bodies, not apart from them. Spirituality involves our bodies. To be spiritual, we humans have to use our bodies for spiritual purposes. We will not be spiritual by ignoring our bodies or trying to escape from them.  We become spiritual by transforming our bodies into temples of the Holy Spirit.