This last week our MANT cohort began our second class on Romans with Dr. Scot McKnight. This class is focused on chapters nine through eleven, which heavily focus on the theological topic of election. Because of this, we are doing some major work on what election means to Paul and how he relates this Jewish theological concept to those who follow King Jesus.

At the beginning of chapter nine, Paul twice refers to fellow Jews with the phrase according to flesh.[1] The first use is about Paul’s relation to other Jews “according to flesh” and the second is how King Jesus is related to the Jews according to flesh. I found this interesting and pondering on it for a few seconds, I remembered that this same phrase according to flesh is also used by Paul to refer to King Jesus’ relationship to King David in Romans 1:3. I decided I should look into the uses of flesh throughout Romans to see if there is a pattern.

Sure enough, flesh is a term that Paul uses throughout Romans when engaging with the Jewish heritage of Christianity and the relationship of those who follow the law (more than likely Jewish Christians though this could include those who would have been considered God-fearing Gentiles). For Paul, flesh is related to the problem of Israel struggling to obey and fulfill the Law. There is too much to go into, and a lot more nuance that would need to be worked through, before I would want to make any more definitive statements about Paul’s use of flesh throughout Romans.

I am willing to say already that Paul does not use flesh as a moral term. The difference between flesh and Spirit is not a difference between good and bad. Rather, Paul uses flesh more like he is referring to an old way of existing without the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is not ever spoken of as being against flesh, in fact that would be wrong to say that since King Jesus is according to flesh in his human body, but Paul does say that the flesh without Spirit is Death. It is here that we begin to see how research on this Paul’s use of flesh could easily branch out to other Pauline texts, such as 2 Corinthians 5, and parallel texts throughout the NT, like John 3.

For me there seems like a number of interesting questions could arise out this line of thought. How might this impact the way that Romans 8 should be understood since that is the most densely packed usages of flesh in the letter? What would the impact be on preaching or teaching today if it turns out that the flesh and Spirit conversation is about how King Jesus fulfills the promise of God to pour out his Spirit on Israel? Would that seem like a major deflation of Romans for some people?

[1] Rom. 9: 3, 5.

Posted by Justin Gill

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