Dear Father Angelo
I would like to ask your help in order to explore the meaning of the word ‘flesh’ when used in the Pauline Epistles. In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul writes that “no one hates his own flesh” (cf. Ephesians 5, 21-33) and by flesh he means the flesh of the husband and the wife, which are one body. Nevertheless, he uses the word flesh also to refer to the sins of the flesh (Cf. Galatians 5, 16 ss).
The answer from father Angelo
In the Sacred Scripture, and more precisely in the writings of Saint Paul, the term flesh is used with different meanings.
1. First of all, it indicates the living body made of bones, flesh, muscles and blood, as opposed to all the vegetal and merely material entities. The flesh, when used to indicate the human body, is a good substance, created by God.
2. However, sometimes it means consanguinity, as in this example: “Rather, let us sell him to these Ishmaelites, instead of doing away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Genesis 37,27).
3. Other times the word ‘flesh’ can be used to symbolize all mankind, for example when it is used in the expression ‘every flesh’.
4. Often the term ‘flesh’, as well as the expression ‘flesh and blood’, are used to indicate the weakness, frailty, dependence and transience of men: “Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return.” (Psalm 78, 39). And also: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you” (Matthew 16,17).
5. Other times, it indicates man as a whole, soul and body. For example: “my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84,3).
6. In Saint Paul, the word flesh holds all the aforementioned meanings. However, there is one more meaning that is typical of his works: at times, the word flesh refers to man as a sinner.
In this particular aspect, the word flesh is used as a synonym of sin, of what is hostile to God.
This is what St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Galatians: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5, 19-21).
St. Paul applies the same meaning in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest.” (Ephesians 2,3.)
In this particular sense, there is an opposition between the work of the flesh and the work of the Spirit: “For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8, 7-8).
7. Even though this particular meaning is typical of St. Paul, we can find it also in Saint John, for example when Jesus says: “What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit.” (John 3, 6). However, when indicating the reality of sin, John generally uses the term ‘world’.
I wish you well, bless you and assure you of remembrance to the Lord.