PUTTING OFF THE BODY OF FLESH – A Study of the Resurrection
Resurrection is normally understood as the putting off of the human body of flesh and taking on the immortal body. Yet the only Bible passage that explicitly speaks of putting off the body, specifically the body of flesh, speaks of being raised from “sin-death” to everlasting life in Christ. (Sin-death is the death resulting from sin. This is spiritual death and not physical. God told Adam and Eve that they would die “in the day you eat” “Genesis 2:15-17). They did not die physically. They died spiritually by being cast out of the presence and fellowship of God).
“In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Col 2:11-12, NKJ)
In the original language, the words “the sins of” are not present. The text literally reads, “putting off the body of the flesh.” Paul speaks of death, resurrection, the body of flesh. This has caused commentators no little consternation for it seems that Paul was proclaiming “realized eschatology.” He seems to be saying that the Colossians had already been resurrected! Yet the traditional view of the resurrection of the biological body is totally absent.
There is probably no element of Paul’s theology that is more misunderstood than his doctrine of the body, of flesh, and the resurrection. One of the reasons the apostle is so misunderstood is because most Bible students approach scripture with a Greek world view and not a Hebrew. Yet Paul was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5); he thought and wrote from the Jewish mind set.
Western civilization is dominated by the Greek world view. In regard to man that means that we think of man as possessing a body and an eternal soul. Yet as Robinson expresses it, the Hebrews believed, “Man does not have a body, he is a body.” (John A. T. Robinson, The Body, A Study in Pauline Theology, (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1952)14). Further, whereas the Greeks defined “flesh” as the soft tissue parts of the body, the Hebrew thought was that, “Flesh represents mere man, man in contrast to God–hence man in his weakness and mortality” (Robinson, 1952, 19). To summarize, the Greeks thought of flesh and body in crassly materialistic terms. The Hebrew thought of these in theological terms; they thought of man in relationship to God.
Paul fully concurred with Hebrew thought. In Romans 8:8f he said, “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” It is readily apparent that Paul was not saying that anyone biologically alive – in a body of flesh – cannot please God. He continued, “You are not in the flesh, but in the spirit” verse 9. The apostle was not speaking to disembodied spirits. He was speaking to Christians who had stopped living a kind of life that was antithetical to God. This relates directly to his concept of the body.
In Romans 7 the apostle recounted his (man’s) life under law. The struggle to obtain righteousness on personal merit was futile (Romans 7:15f). He thus lamented, “Oh, wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Dunn misunderstands Paul when he says that the deliverance Paul desired, “is not a deliverance which can be experienced within the fleshly constraints of this life, but for deliverance from the fleshly constraints of this life.” (James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 1-8, (Waco, Word Publishers, 1988) 397). This is untenable. Paul was not longing for deliverance from his physical body. If that were the case, he had a lot of Jewish antagonists that would have happily obliged him, and released hm from the human existence! He desired freedom from “the body of death” that was the result of sin. The “body of death” was Paul under the condemnation of sin. This was the death introduced by Adam and that was the curse of all mankind. This was “the body of flesh.”
In Genesis 2:15-17 God threatened Adam and Eve that if they ate of the forbidden fruit “in the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Normally this is interpreted to mean that they would begin to die physically. Yet God did not say they would begin to die; he said they would die the day they ate!
Death is separation and Adam and Eve were driven from the presence of God the day they ate the fruit, (Genesis 3:23-24). They died spiritually. It is this death that Paul has in mind in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because all sinned.”
The subject is not physical death. The subject is “the law of sin and death.” That law says, “You sin, you die” It was deliverance from this law that Paul longed for in Romans 7:24. He desired to put off the body of death created by sin and live in a body of life. Did Paul enlighten us as to how this could/would be achieved and when? Yes, indeed.
WHAT THE LAW COULD NOT DO – PUT OFF THE BODY OF FLESH
Before investigating what Paul had to say about deliverance from sin and death we must first see man’s inability to deliver himself.
From Adam to Moses “death reigned” (Romans 5:14).The Law of Moses entered “that sin might abound” (Romans 5:20-21); to make man exceedingly aware of sin. For this purpose the Law was perfect; yet, it could not deliver from sin and death: “if a Law could have been given that could give life verily righteousness would have been through the Law” (Galatians 3:20-21).
Instead of delivering man from sin and death the Law became the strength of sin. The Law became a “ministry of death written and engraven in stone” (2 Corinthians 3:6f) because of its ability only to make sin “exceedingly sinful.” The Law could not deliver from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-3). The body of death remained. There was no means by which man could put off the “body of flesh” and find life because “there is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). But Jesus appeared to change all of this.
THE LAW OF THE SPIRIT OF LIFE IN CHRIST
Jesus said “I am come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).The book of John repeatedly tells of Jesus’ purpose to give life–life from the dead (John 5:24f) and to save man from “perishing” (John 3:16). He promises that “if any man keeps my word, he shall never taste death” (John 8:51). It is clear from these texts that his mission was not to raise man from biological death but spiritual. Jesus’ mission was to deliver man from the law of sin and death.
Most Bible students today believe the law of sin and death will be destroyed at the “end of time.” This is supposedly when the body of flesh is removed. Yet this is not Paul’s doctrine. Paul believed that man in Christ has put off the body of flesh and is raised from the dead.
In Romans 6:3f the apostle reminded the brethren that when they were baptized into Christ they were baptized “into his death.” They were joined with Christ’s death “so that the body of sin might be destroyed” (verse 6). In participating with Christ they had “died with Christ” (verse 8). In dying with Christ and being raised “to walk in newness of life” the apostle told them to consider themselves to be raised from the dead, (Romans 6:11).
In Romans 8:1 the same man who spoke of his intense desire to be delivered from the body of death now says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Paul had found deliverance from the “body of flesh,” “this body of death,” and from death itself in Christ. It is important to these thoughts to Colossians 2.
In Colossians the apostle said the body of flesh was removed “in Christ” and that the brethren were alive from the dead (Colossians 2:13). As a consequence, the Colossians, Gentile Christians being pressured to keep the Old Covenant Law, were under no obligation to keep that Law. Jesus had nailed the “handwriting of debt” to the Cross for all those in him.
Paul taught that it was the obligation to keep the Law–not the Law itself– that had been nailed to the Cross for those “in him” (Romans 7, 10; Ephesians 2– See James D. G. Dunn, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996)164+ for a full discussion of this text).
TWO RESURRECTIONS?; TWO BODIES OF FLESH?
It may be rejoined that while Paul definitely taught the present reality of “resurrection” life in the first century, he also believed in a future resurrection when Christ would finally destroy death (1 Corinthians 15:24f). It cannot be denied that Paul taught both a present and future view of resurrection (compare 2 Timothy 1:9-10 with 1 Corinthians 15:24f). The question is: was the future resurrection to be the consummation of a process begun; or was it to be of a different nature than the one already being experienced? (The question of the resurrection is also clearly a question of time. The New Testament is clear in declaring that the resurrection was to occur in that generation (Matthew 23:29-36; Romans 8:18f; 1 Corinthians 15:50-51; Philippians 3:20-4:5; 2 Thessalonians 1; 1 Peter 4:5-7, etc. See my Seventy Weeks Are Determined… For the Resurrection, for a full discussion of this).
Traditionally it is believed that Jesus taught two resurrections: one spiritual, the other physical. Spiritual resurrection is said to be the focus of Romans 5-6 and Colossians 2, while physical resurrection (i.e. putting of the body of flesh) is said to be the subject of Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 15. Yet this view raises major questions.
Did God threaten Adam and Eve with two different kinds of death? Does the Bible teach that man has two different kinds of bodies? Does the Bible teach that man has two “bodies of flesh”? Does the Bible teach that man was created in the “images” (plural) of God, or the “image” of God? Does the Bible teach that man receives two different kinds of resurrection bodies? Does the Bible promise two different kinds of eternal life? With respect to God’s redemptive plan, the answer to all of these questions is emphatically “No!”
Man in sin is in the flesh (Galatians 5:19f).); man living for God is “in the spirit” (Romans 8:1-2). Man in sin is dead (Romans 6:23); man delivered from sin is raised from the dead, (Ephesians 2:1f). Man in sin is dead; man in Christ can never die (John 8:51). Man in sin is dead; man in Christ has eternal life (John 5:24f). Man in sin is in the image of Adam–fallen; man in Christ is in the image of God–restored (1 Corinthians 15:46-49; 2 Corinthians 3:16; Colossians 3:9f).
Those who are not “in the flesh, but in the spirit” are freed from “the law of sin and death.” Now if the believer in Christ is set free from the law of sin and death, can he die? If man in Christ is still subject to the law of sin and death it is irrefutably true that Jesus’ work is no better than the Old Covenant Law.
It should be clear that physical death – and a physical body of flesh – is not the focus of the redemptive work of Jesus. The Old Law could not solve the problem death introduced by Adam and reigning from Adam to Moses. The Old Law exacerbated the problem–the problem of the flesh. Christ solves the problem of “the flesh”; not by the destruction or transformation of biological or physiological substance, but by creation of the “new man who is created according to the image of him who created him” (Colossians 3:10).
These great truths gave rise to the conflict of realized eschatology within the early church prior to the perfection of what had begun. Some were teaching that the resurrection and Day of the Lord had already happened (2 Thessalonians 2:2; 2 Timothy 2:18) They could, at least ostensibly, appeal to Paul, for he surely taught the beginning of the resurrection, (Philippians 3:9-16).
It is abundantly clear however, that Paul did not teach that the resurrection of the biologically dead masses of all ages had begun. And significantly, when correcting those who insisted that the resurrection was “past already” Paul did not correct their concept of that event. (See my book How Is This Possible? for a fuller discussion of this extremely important issue). Paul did teach that resurrection was occurring for those coming into Christ. He did teach that those coming into Christ were putting off the body of flesh. He did teach that believer’s were putting on the image of Christ as they put off the Old Man. But Paul perceived of this as a process begun, not a process consummated.
In Romans 6:5 Paul said the brethren had died and been raised. Yet he also said, “If we have been buried with him in the likeness of his death we shall be like him in the likeness of his resurrection” Here is the anticipation of the consummation of a process begun. It is clear that the yet future aspect of resurrection was not revivication of physical bodies, however, because the future resurrection was to be of the same nature as “the likeness of his death!” The Romans–need we say–had not died physically in the likeness of Jesus’ death.
If the likeness of Jesus death was spiritual, the likeness of his resurrection was to be spiritual. If the body that they had put off was spiritual, the body they were to put on was spiritual. If “the body of death” that they were to be freed from was spiritual, the body of life they were to (fully) receive was spiritual. You cannot divorce the nature of the resurrection from the nature of the body of death.
The same is true in Colossians 2-3. Paul said that the Colossians had put off the body of flesh; they had been raised from the dead. Yet they were also anticipating life at the coming of the Lord, (Colossians 3:1-3). The nature of the resurrection they were anticipating must match the nature of the death that they were experiencing. Paul said “For you died”; is it not abundantly clear that the Colossians had not died physically?
Patently, the terms flesh, body, death and life are fundamental tenets of Paul’s eschatology. Yet to see these as referents to man’s biological substance and not man’s standing before God is erroneous. Paul’s concept of putting off the body of flesh was the removal of a life of sin and rebellion against God. To the Jew putting off the body of flesh meant to “worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Jesus Christ, and put no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3). It meant deliverance from “the ministration of death engraven in stones” (2 Corinthians 3:6f) to “the Law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1-3). To the Gentile it meant abandoning the life of sin and being quickened from the dead, (Ephesians 2:1-2).
The process of the passing of the Old Law was not completed at the Cross as is commonly believed. (See my written debate with Kurt Simmons for proof of this: The Passing of Torah: At the Cross or AD 70? Available from my websites.) The transformation from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant–and Life!–was the focus of Paul’s ministry, (2 Corinthians 3-4:1f).
The traditional amillennial view is that the Old Law passed at the Cross. This being true it should have meant that the transition from the Old Covenant to the New was completed well before Paul was called. Yet Paul emphatically declares that the transition from the Old Covenant Glory to the New was his personal and distinctive mission.
The process–from death to life, from flesh to spirit–had begun but would only be perfected at the parousia, when “the law” that was the strength of sin was abolished, (1 Corinthians 15:24-56).
(The term “the law” is a favorite of Paul’s being used 117 times. When no qualifier is used, as is the case in 1 Corinthians 15:54-56, it invariably refers to the Old Covenant Law of Moses. Thus, in 1 Corinthians 15:56 the resurrection would occur when the Old Law–the ministration of death–was abolished).
The modern expectation of a revivication of physical bodies is not consistent with the Biblical doctrine of resurrection. Paul, more than any writer speaks of the removal of the body of death and of flesh. He speaks of putting off the image of Adam and putting on the image of Christ. Yet Paul never has biological life and death in mind in his eschatological expectations. He never refers to putting of the body of flesh in relationship to the resurrection. He speaks of man as he stands in Covenant relationship to God. He anticipated the consummation of God’s Scheme of Redemption when Christ would finally put aside the Old Covenant of Death and perfect his New World of Life in Christ.
Christ has perfected his work by destroying the works of Satan, (1 John 3:8), and destroying him who had the power of death, (Hebrews 2:14f). Because of this, man, by faith can truly put off the body of flesh. Resurrection life is a reality for those “buried with him by baptism” because it is there that the believer is also “raised with him by faith in the operation of God” (Colossians 2:12).
Christ gives life. In him we put off the body of flesh and walk in the spirit. He has conquered death for us: “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).