. Word of the Week
September 10, 2022
Sarx: The Enemy Within
Among them we too all previously lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the rest.
Ephesians 2:3 NASB
In an old comic strip, Pogo the possum makes an illuminating statement: “We have met the enemy, and he is us!”
His observation echoes the truth of Ephesians, which mentions the three great enemies of the Christian: the world, the flesh, and the devil. It is obvious that the devil is not on our side, and we clearly live in a world that tries to formulate a way of life that leaves no room for God. But even if you could sweep these two foes out of the picture, we would still get in trouble on our own.
Paul reminds us that our lives used to be dominated by the desires of “the flesh,” the bent toward sin that is embedded in each member of the human race.
“Know your enemy” – a good motto for anyone who wants to win a battle. In this article, we will deepen your understanding of the enemy within as we analyze the Greek word for “flesh.”
When you see “flesh” in English, you can be confident that the Greek word sarx is in use. It appears 91 times, and like most words in English or Greek, it appears with multiple meanings.
- Sarx can mean your muscles, the meat that covers your bones. When you grill a steak, you’re eating the sarx of a steer.
- When Jesus appeared to His disciples after the resurrection, he reassured them by inviting them to touch him. “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you plainly see that I have” (Luke 24:39). In this verse, “flesh” was one thing and “bones” was another.
- In the aftermath of Armageddon, an angel invited the buzzards to come and feast on the flesh of those killed in the battle (Revelation 19:18). “Flesh” was the soft tissue that the birds would devour.
- Sarx can mean the entire body including both muscles, bone and everything else.
- Paul told husbands to love their wives in the same way that they cared for their own bodies, because “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church” (Ephesians 5:29). We try to take care of all the parts of our body!
- Jesus quoted Genesis 2 when he proclaimed that marriage is a joining of two bodies that makes them “one flesh” (Matthew 19:5).
- Sarx can mean a person’s physical ancestry or family tree.
- Paul announced his deep loyalty to his fellow Jews, calling them “my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). He was talking about ancestry, not physical bodies.
- Sarx can mean human nature, another way to say “human being,” referring to more than just the body.
- John the Baptist quoted Isaiah when he said, “And all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). This statement includes not only physical sight but mental and spiritual awareness.
- In the most dramatic statement ever made about sarx, the Gospel of John declares, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Jesus took on a complete human nature, with body, soul, mind, and emotions.
Let’s pause here to notice a vital truth: None of these uses of sarx involves anything wrong. Human beings have limitations, but Jesus took on human flesh, so we can be confident that there is nothing inherently sinful about it. Through the years, groups like the ancient Gnostics, the old Christian Science cult, and the New Age movement have pushed the idea that the physical world is a problem, an obstacle, an illusion. For the Christian, however, the physical world is a good creation of God.
The flesh was OK in Eden, but now we live in a post-Fall world where human nature comes tarnished. As Paul says, we are by nature children of wrath, so being human means a sinful nature. This is the way that the apostle Paul uses sarx, as a description of sinful man operating on his or her own impulses.
Life is a constant choice between doing what our flesh wants or following the Spirit of God. Romans 8:4 sets up the contrast: “not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Paul adds, “I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh . . .” (Romans 7:18).
Flesh versus Spirit makes a difference. The flesh produces things like immorality, idolatry, strife, and a host of other evils; the Spirit of God, on the other hand, produces love, joy, and peace (Galatians 5:19-23).
Theologians have debated for centuries about the best way to describe the role of the flesh and to determine how to explain the reasons why Christians still struggle with temptation even after the Holy Spirit has taken up residence in their lives. The Greek word, however, reminds us that there are two sides to being people of “flesh.” On the one hand, we are human – and we can’t change that. On the other hand, we are sinful humans – and we can only overcome that tendency by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We recognize that the enemy is us, but we are grateful that we are not alone. The Holy Spirit provides the power to overcome our worst tendencies.
Sarx is a word that is almost always translated the same way: “flesh.” But it has widely varying meanings depending on the context. We have to be careful to observe the context every time we see the word. Is it described as something evil? Or is it simply the fact of our humanness, with no moral connotation? It is important to pay attention to the difference between Paul’s use of flesh and its use in other parts of the New Testament. The apostle John, for instance, uses it when he is discussing heresies that denied the true humanity of Christ. He even said that the test for heresy was whether or not someone taught that Jesus came in the flesh.
Q – I heard that Jesus not only wept but was angry just before He raised Lazarus from the dead. Is that right?
A – There are three Greek words in John 11 that give us a clue to Christ’s emotions as He prepared to deal with the death of Lazarus. The first word is embrimaomai, translated “deeply moved” in verses 33 and 35 (NASB). Although Matthew and Mark use it to describe Jesus giving strict instructions to someone, the normal meaning was “to be very angry, to be moved with indignation.” It even comes from a word that described the way a horse snorts! The second word is tarasso, translated “be troubled” in verse 33. It describes strong agitation of spirit, pictured by the “stirring of the water” in John 5:4. The third word was “wept” – literally “to shed tears.” It was not a wild, unrestrained kind of grief but a quieter expression of sorrow.
Why was Jesus so emotionally involved? Probably several reasons, but I’m impressed with his anger at the work of Satan that death represented. Death is the final enemy, one that only His death could defeat, and Jesus could not be casual in the face of the enemy.
Betrayal is one of the most deeply painful experiences a person can have. And it is the experience that Jesus endured for us. Next week we will consider the Greek word for betrayal to see what is really involved.
©Ezra Project 2022
I enjoy these so much, thank you!
Would you have time to comment on 1 Tim 3:3 and the character of a pastor being “not quarrelsome?”
Specifically, how a pastor finds the balance between not being a pushover (standing strong in the faith), and not being contentious (loving a fight)?
Does this Greek word have any ties to not being a “macho” man?