Wilderness Lessons: Definition of Flesh

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There is more than one use of the word “flesh” in Scripture. It is used for “men” as “All flesh [= all men] shall see the salvation of God;” also declaring the Lord's assumption of humanity “the Word became flesh.” Again, it expresses the fact that our knowledge of Christ is not after a human sort, “though we have known Christ after the flesh as a man here below], yet now henceforth know we Him no more.” Our peculiar knowledge of Him by faith, is as the risen Lord, the Son of God. The most frequent use in the New Testament is to predicate the fallen nature of man either as a condition in which the unregenerate are, or as a principle which believers are called to judge. Of those who are born again it is said “ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:99But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. (Romans 8:9).)
Whether we look at man as having natural instincts, or intellectual qualities his whole nature in a moral point of view is called “flesh.” “Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as others” (Eph. 2:33Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others. (Ephesians 2:3)). Here the desires of the flesh as distinguished from the mind refer to natural interests, and the desires of the mind to his mental, as distinguished from the brute creation. It takes in all the natural man craves for, his desires—tastes as well as lusts. Whatever the object, all are classed as “the lusts of the flesh;” that is, it is the nature of man to desire these things. For the mind is not independent of the flesh, but as the mind excites the flesh, so does the flesh give tone to the mind. That is, the higher and the lower qualities of nature influence each other, and both are “the flesh.”
“The flesh” can assume a religious aspect, but where there is profession without faith, every desire of the mind is of “the lusts of the flesh.” It may be decent and respectable, yea most commendable in the judgment of the world; but it is not of Christ and therefore sin. A believer may yield to his flesh, seeking pre-eminence in the church, and desiring the praise of men. This is a far more serious thing in him than in a man of the world. It is the “flesh” (which the believer has power to judge) intruding into the holy things of God, taking advantage of the position given through faith, to acquire a place for its own exaltation.
Simon Magus is an instance of a would-be professor in the grossest form. Diotrephes, who may have been a believer, is a far more common case. The former is repeated when a position in the church is obtained by money; the latter, where human systems as unscriptural are disallowed, and “flesh,” presuming on the absence of human arrangement, assumes a position and seeks prominence. It is an aspect of the flesh most offensive to God, and has its sphere in the assembly of God. Nothing in the world brings heavier and swifter judgment.
Is it not sometimes the case, that a brother with no power for edification occupies the time and attention of the assembly, his mind submerged in the idea of his own ability? We gladly receive the truth, “One is your Master, Christ; and all ye are brethren” (Matt. 23:88But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. (Matthew 23:8)). But to make our common brotherhood a reason for ignoring God's order is to lose its blessedness and to be disobedient to the Master. There are functes in the church and the Master appoints to them as He pleases. “He gave some, apostles, and some, prophets, and some, evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:1111And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; (Ephesians 4:11)). In the church of God there are special places of service. “Are all apostles” (1 Cor. 12:2929Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:29))? Any one supposing that, because he is a “brother,” he is at liberty to assume any function in the assembly, gravely errs. No “brother” nor yet the assembly has a right to assume the call to any place of teaching within the church or of evangelizing without. The assembly has to say to orthodoxy and godliness; but there it is a question of discipline and may result in the excluding of an unruly member. Teaching (or talking) in the assembly may be very unprofitable; but when the general purport is godly, it is a solemn thing to bid a brother be silent, lest we should be touching the prerogative of the Master of assemblies. The instant and real remedy is united prayer that the Lord would interpose and remove the cause of all such interruptions to peace and worship, and rebuke pretentious flesh in any. There is a cause for all such manifestations of “flesh,” which may not be in the one individual, but in the assembly as a whole; coldness of heart, worldliness creeping in, and the tone of the assembly low. In such a condition the complaint is heard, “No power in the meetings.” The lack of power in the whole, and the flesh active in one or two, are but the effects of evil permitted and unjudged. This confessed, the Spirit will enable each gathered saint to realize the Lord's presence. But the fault may be and often is in the complainers who are out of communion when healthy souls enjoy the Lord's presence. In any case complaining is not of faith; and it cannot remedy faults even where they may be real.
The “flesh” is always offensive to God, and is never so evil as when obtruding in the holy things of God; it turns the grace of God into lasciviousness, takes pride in the lessons of humility, and makes the favors of God an occasion of judgment. An instance is given in Num. 16. God had given an outward sign that they might remember, and do His commandments and be holy unto their God. But the intent for which the ribband was appointed was lost in the mere sign. God said, Be ye holy. Korah and his company appear as with the ribband, and at once say, We are holy. They include the congregation; but this is only to hide their presumption. The means grace gives for holiness are taken as being themselves holiness—the invariable mistake that flesh makes, which now constantly meets our eye. God has sent His word that sinners may be saved; sinners hear the word, (i.e. in the common language of the day, go to “a place of worship,") and forthwith profess and call themselves Christians. Alas! for the soul thus self-deceived. The flesh, which made Korah and his company call themselves holy, made also them aspire to the priesthood. If they were “holy,” they were as well fitted as Aaron for the office. “Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the Congregation are holy, every one of them; and Jehovah is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of Jehovah?” This charge against Moses and Aaron is really against God. For He had lifted Moses and Aaron to the places of leader and of high priest. Indeed, as to who should draw near as priest was no question of holiness, in the sense of piety, but of God's sovereign choice. Aaron was the holy (= the separated) one for the office. All beside were thus forbidden to draw near. Korah aimed at the priesthood, Moses rebukes him and his followers. It was Jehovah who had appointed Aaron; otherwise, “what is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” The sin of Korah is even greater than that of Aaron when he made the calf, and was bringing the Name of Jehovah down to the level of idolatry. He sanctioned the people's worship of the calf and would cover his guilty connivance by calling it a feast to Jehovah. Alas! his imitators have been found. Some of the earliest sins of Christendom are that the people were permitted to follow the heathenish rites of idolatry to which they had been accustomed, and Christian names given to them. The remains of their idolatrous practices may be seen even now, though the indecencies are gone.
Korah in calling the “flesh” holy, would seek to bring it into the sanctuary. It is not idolatry here, but “flesh” seeking to administer the things of Christ. For what is the service of the tabernacle, what the sacrifices, the incense, yea all within the consecrated place, if not types of the coming Christ? Korah's sin brings down a heavier judgment than the worship of the calf. God was more jealous for the honor of Christ—though it be but dealing with shadows and symbols—than for His own. Name of Jehovah when Aaron joined it with idolatry.
This rebellion originated with the Levites; at least a Levite was the leader, and the Levites more guilty than the others. They persuade two hundred and fifty princes, who do not appear to belong to the tribe of Levi, to join them in the priestly function. Why not, if all the congregation are “holy?” Moses rebukes their presumption and warns them. “Even to-morrow Jehovah will show who are His and who is holy.” And each man takes his censer and dares to meet the judgment of God. Aaron must be there also, that his position as given of God may be publicly confirmed. Solemn was the judgment: they were consumed in a moment by fire.
Korah had his own special aim in the rebellion, though the instigator of it in others. In Dathan and Abiram we see the secular, as in the rebellious Levite the religious, aspect. Accordingly the words of Korah are rather against Aaron, while Dathan and Abiram speak against Moses. Both together typify the uprising of the world against Christ as Priest and King. Even now the prominent sin of Christendom is opposition to the priesthood of Christ, as seen in man pretending to be the channel of communication between God and the soul. All believers are priests for offering sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, yea as intercessors by prayer for the conversion and restoration of any. But there are those who pretend to forgive sins, as it were offering the blood over again. Such are repeating the sin of Korah, a Levite or minister, arrogating to himself the power which belongs to the High Priest alone, i.e. to Christ Himself. And, Korah. like, these always seek the aid of the secular power. The hour is coming when the religious and the secular power will unite in bolder opposition to the rights of Christ, to be followed by unsparing judgment (as in the wilderness upon Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and all that appertained to them.)
The words of Dathan and Abiram are in keeping with their position. They say nothing about the congregation being holy, but that Moses had not fulfilled his promise. It was a charge against God.
Mark the perversity of men. All God's care to keep them in remembrance of Him is apparently lost. Their rebellion is a greater sin than any before; the ribband was to remind them that Egypt was a land of bondage and that God had brought them out. They call it a land flowing with milk and honey; Egypt was as good as Canaan. They accuse Moses of deceit in not bringing them into the promised land, ignoring the facts that God had brought them to it, and that their own unbelief had shut them out. But Moses wished to be a prince!—the man who said, “Blot me out!” rather than that Israel should be consumed! What a terrible advance in evil! This is no sin of ignorance, and the ribband precluded forgetfulness. Moses, they said, had been deceiving them; but now they were awake to his designs; “Wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? we will not come up.” They were willfully blind to the mercy that was leading them through the wilderness; and the mediator they hated.
Again, he whom they so falsely accused of self-seeking intercedes for the people. “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin [evidently alluding to Korah, the prime mover] and wilt Thou be wroth with all the congregation?” God hears his cry, and the congregation are warned to separate themselves from the “tabernacle of Korah, Dathan and Abiram.” What a scene now presents itself. There stand Korah and his company with their censers in proud presumption daring the judgment of God; in the door of their tents see Dathan and Abiram with their wives, their sons, and their little children. What a moment of expectation for the assembled thousands of Israel! One word more, not only a warning, a call to separate from the guilty leaders, but the sentence of death; nor common death, but a death unheard of before. “But if the Lord make a new thing, and the earth open her mouth and swallow them up with all that appertain unto them and they go down quick [alive] into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have provoked the Lord.” Immediately the earth opens, they go down alive into the pit, they perish from among the congregation. And at the same time “there came out a fire from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men that offered incense.” Wickedly they had spoken against the Lord's anointed, defiantly they stood; suddenly and without remedy came their judgment.
“A new thing” This then was not a mere earthquake. Whatever may be the causes of earthquakes now, there was no natural cause for this; it was the direct act of God in marked and special judgment. There is nothing so appalling as an earthquake; and this bears the mark that it came when men first openly in the person of Moses assailed the rights of Christ as King. It was repeated and more when the rebellions citizens said, “We will not have this man to reign over us,” and had crucified Him—with the same evidence of immediate divine power apart from physical causes. Only not then in judgment upon the guilty; it liberated the bodies of dead saints, and was God's testimony to the glory of the person of Christ, the true King (Matt. 27:51, 5251And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; 52And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, (Matthew 27:51‑52).) The Jew will yet lead the world in opposing the King.
If Dathan and Abiram typify the secular world, Korah no less presents the last phase of the religious world. And of all religious wickedness this is the worst. Balaam's, who wanted to curse Israel to obtain Balak's reward, is not so offensive. For though Balsam appeared long after Korah, yet in the three names by which Jude defines the religions history of the world, Korah comes last. In the Korah stage judgment overtakes: they “perished in the gainsaying of Core.” The world's religion begins with Cain—bad works, not faith. Then comes the error of Balaam for reward, the riches, honor, and pomp of the world. Lastly, denying Christ as the sole High Priest, as God's High Priest, yet boasting of their holiness, like Korah (see Laodicea, Rev. 3:1717Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: (Revelation 3:17)). This is the climax: religions evil can go no farther, till Christendom be spewed out of His mouth, and the corrupt whore be burnt with fire by the ten kings and the Beast. A brief interval follows in which is not the religions world commanding the power of the secular world as its slave, but the unity of idolatry, Judaism, and infidelity, as a whole embodied in the Antichrist, the arch-rebel against Christ. Then he with the Beast, the antitypes of the leaders of the rebellion in the wilderness, will suddenly be destroyed; not by the earth, or even the pit, opening its mouth and swallowing them up. They will go down alive into the lake of fire.