From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:16-17
The keys words here are according to the flesh. What does it mean to regard someone according to the flesh? To regard someone according to the flesh is to form an impression from the most obvious or surface things about them.
The Bible says “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). It is natural for us to form impressions from the most obvious things about other people – man looks on the outward appearance. Now we also want to know the heart, but that takes time and you can only do that with a few people.
We need to grasp these in order to understand the radical transformation that comes from knowing Jesus Christ. All of them are sensitive. Most of our problems, and most of our conflicts arise from what we are ‘in the flesh.’
This is often the first way we identify people in ordinary conversation. My wife Karen will say, “I spoke to Mary Jones this morning.”
“Who is she?”
“The tall lady, with dark curly hair, walks with a stoop and always wears a green coat!”
That’s a description of how she appears. According to the flesh you are a certain height and a certain weight. You have your own style and your own level of fitness.
All of us have thoughts about our own appearance, what we like or don’t like about it, and how it compares with the appearance of others.
Here I am thinking about the gifts, talents, and abilities that each of us has. We are gifted in different ways and to different degrees – in sports, in the arts, and in music, etc. Our abilities in different areas are part of what we are according to the flesh.
I went to high school for 6 years. Just so you know, this was not because I did especially badly, but because there was no middle school! We had primary school (like grade school) for 7 years and then secondary school (like high school) for 6 years. So, for me, high school began at age 12.
In the school I attended, for which I will always be grateful, we were divided right from the beginning according to our ability. There were five classes or streams in every grade. If you are curious to know where I was, the answer is very boring – right in the middle.
I guess the school didn’t want to make it too obvious that the classes were streamed, so the classes had what seemed to be random names: X, G, T, H, K. Of course, all the kids knew who was at the top and who was at the bottom.
When we were 12 years old we tried to work out what these obscure letters might mean. ‘X’ we decided was for excellent, because these guys were really bright. And ‘G’ was for good. ‘T’ (since that was us) must be terrific, though other classes said it was for terrible. ‘H’ was for horrible. And ‘K’ by general consensus was assumed to be ‘chronic!’
How many of you have memories of two captains picking teams for some game: The ones who get picked first walk with a swagger. The last kids picked, the ones who had no hope of being good at that particular game, kind of slumped over to their team. We have different abilities and they distinguish us according to the flesh.
Paul says to Timothy, “Let no one despise… your youth” (1 Tim. 4:12). Age is something that distinguishes us according to the flesh. Some people, seeing that Timothy was young, would not take him seriously. They would need to be won over by his godly example. Similarly, many older people feel pushed to the margins in a culture that chases after the young.
When you are at school this can be a big factor in your life. Who are your friends? Which group are you in? It remains true throughout life. We talk about our “social circles.”
We are talking here about the things that distinguish us according to the flesh, and clearly race and ethnicity are among them.
It’s very striking how often you have reference in the Bible to Jews and Gentiles, the distinctions between them and how these sometimes bitter divisions might be overcome.
You can’t understand the history of America or the tensions in our country that continue today apart from this issue, and the many injustices that have gone with it.
God has made us male and female and this distinguishes us according to the flesh. As we think about race and gender it strikes me that the great cultural debates of our time all focus around what we are according to the flesh. How do we deal with these great things that make us different according to the flesh?
We are looking at factors that distinguish us according to the flesh. What is your work? Manual labor? Business? Education? Health? The Arts? Science? Or is your work with the home and family?
I am always interested to ask people “What is your work?” because knowing what a person’s work is gives you some insight into their experience of life according to the flesh.
I found it hard to name this one. A person’s lifestyle involves the home they live in, the car they drive, the vacations they enjoy, the restaurants they frequent, and the entertainments that they choose to enjoy. And all of this is driven by the means (or lack of it) that are available to them. I could have called it wealth or lifestyle, but I decided to call it home.
Where you live has associations. We sometimes use the phrase “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Communities are sometimes divided between a more prosperous area on one side of a railway line and a less prosperous area on the other side.
This can include family of origin, family by adoption, and family by marriage. There is the whole issue of the peculiar mix that got scooped up out of the gene pool and poured into you. Gifts, talents, and physical features were all passed to you from your parents. And along with them, the battles, desires, and struggles that were in your father and mother may also now be in you.
Most of us spend quite a lot of time, especially earlier in life, trying to figure out what is in us, and when we do this, we are trying to come to terms with who we are according to the flesh. For some there are more blessings than sorrows. For others there are more sorrows than blessings, but some do not know who their biological parents are and so you have many questions about what is in you according to the flesh. For all of us, it is a mixed bag.
Who we are according to the flesh is shaped both by nature and by nurture; not only by genes but also by environment. Our early experiences of love or of neglect have a huge influence on the shape of our lives. The opportunities that come as we develop – open doors and closed doors, make a big difference.
So here are ten factors that distinguish us according to the flesh – appearance, ability, age, friends, race, gender, work, home, family, and experience. I could go on because there are many more, but I won’t.
As I reflected on these issues, I found myself wondering, “Why are all these issues so sensitive?” The answer is that for the vast majority of people what we are ‘according to the flesh’ is all that there is. And if it’s all that there is, we are going to be constantly uptight about who we are according to the flesh.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer… If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:16-17)
A change in how you see Jesus will lead to a change in how you see others and a change in how you see yourself.
Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh,
we regard him thus no longer. (2 Cor. 5:16)
Here’s what Paul is saying, “The opinion I had of Jesus was formed entirely by what he was according to the flesh…” In other words, “I thought of Jesus as a Jewish man, born into a poor family, raised in an obscure village, a carpenter by trade, of unusual ability, who hung out with sometimes embarrassing friends, who died early in life, without owning more than the robe for which the soldiers gambled in the final hours of his life.
As you read the Gospels there are multiple examples of people who dismissed Jesus because they regarded him according to the flesh. Let me give you some examples:
Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” But the crowd doesn’t like this so they begin to grumble, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” They regard him according to the flesh. Their view of him is based on family – on his parents.
When Jesus came to his home town of Nazareth, “They said, ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’” (Mat. 13:55). They regard him according to the flesh and they dismissed him. Why? Because their view of him is based on his work. This was normal, at that time, for him to continue the work of Joseph, who they regarded as his father. “Why should we give weight to someone who has such an ordinary job?”
We are told about how Jesus spent time with people who were despised by others. The Pharisees said, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (Mk. 2:16). They regard him according to the flesh. Their view of him was based on the people to whom he showed friendship. “Look at the company he keeps. He couldn’t possibly be the Messiah.”
We are told about the sign written by Pilate and placed above the head of Jesus as he hung on the cross. It said: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). Pilate regards him according to the flesh. His view of Jesus is shaped by race – the king of the Jews. This is quite clearly a racial slur here, which is why the Jews objected to it, but Pilate would not change what he had written.
All through the Gospels you have examples of people who dismissed Jesus because they regarded him according to the flesh. And Paul says, “That’s where I was! We once regarded Christ according to the flesh.”
How did that change? Answer: Because of the resurrection! It changed on the road to Damascus when the risen Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him. After that, Paul could no longer write off Jesus as a misguided Jew who died on a cross. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). He is the risen Lord!
Either Jesus Christ is the risen, sovereign Lord, who by virtue of who he is and what he has done in his birth, life, death and resurrection lays claim to your life and to every other life. Either this is true, or Christianity should be rejected completely.
Paul had come to the second conclusion – Christianity should be rejected completely. That is why he persecuted the church, tried to stamp it out and destroy it. Because he regarded Jesus according to the flesh, and as long as he did that, the idea of one man laying claim to the loyalty, worship, and obedience of every person was preposterous and offensive. And, of course, that is still the conclusion of many today.
But Paul who was so angry with Jesus, when he was confronted by the risen Lord, he found himself offering his life in the service of the One he had previously despised, “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”
Notice the word ‘we’ here. Paul includes himself, but he is making a statement that is true of all Christians. A Christian is a person who has come to a new opinion about Jesus in the light of the resurrection, “We no longer regard him according to the flesh. We have come to worship him as the risen Lord, the sovereign King, the gracious redeemer. He is God with us, God for us.” If you believe Jesus rose from the dead, it would be madness to continue to resist his claim over your life.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. (2 Cor. 5:16)
Here is something that is unique and wonderful in the body of Christ. The things that make us different according to the flesh, are overwhelmed by the new life of Jesus that we share in the body of Christ.
In the flesh, we lived for ourselves and our death would mean passing into condemnation. But Jesus died to change all that. Who we are according to the flesh died with him, through his atoning death on the cross. Who we are in Christ is born from him, through his resurrection life.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free,
there is no male and female,
for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:27-28)
What makes us different according to the flesh falls away in the light of the new creation in Jesus Christ. This new creation includes men and women of every race, people of all kinds of appearance and age, people of every background and experience, people from every trade and profession and every level of ability – X, G, T, H, and K – all brought into peace with God through the same Savior, all submitting our very different lives to the same Lord.
This is Paul’s answer to the ‘super apostles’ who criticized him for what he was in the flesh. That he was not a good speaker and not an impressive personality (2 Cor. 10:10). He wants the Christians at Corinth to know how to answer “those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart” (2 Cor. 5:12).
A change in how you see Jesus brings a change in how you see others. That means we do not see each other through the lens of what we are by nature and the ten things that make us different, but of who we are by grace and the redeeming work of Christ that makes us one.
A change in how you see Jesus
leads to a change in how you see others
and a change in how you see yourself
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Cor. 5:17)
If you are in Christ you are a new creation. This is true of every Christian. Being a new creation means that there is more to you than what you are according to the flesh.
Your little life has been caught up into the eternal purpose of God! When you are tempted to lose heart because of what you are in the flesh, take heart from who you are in Christ:
iii. There is natural strength that comes from developing the body, but there is also a spiritual strength that God can give to you to help you through the hardest of trials.
“From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:16-17).
If you judge yourself according to the flesh, either you will always be looking down on others because you see yourself as having more going for you than they do, or you will always be losing heart, because others have more gifts and talents and advantages and opportunities than you. Here’s the good news: Christ does not regard you according to the flesh.
Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one” (John 8:15). We know from other Scriptures that Jesus will be the judge of every person, “The Father has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). Jesus is not denying that.
Jesus is saying, “You judge people according to the flesh. But I don’t do that!” Jesus does not form an opinion about you according to the flesh. He does not base a judgment about you on your appearance, ability, age, friends, race, gender, work, home, family, or experience.
What you are according to the flesh will not make Jesus more or less interested in you. He is not drawn to you because of these things, and these things will not keep him from you either.
Jesus offers himself with to every person, of every race, with every ability, and from every background. He offers himself, without partiality, as the living Savior and the reigning Lord. And whatever you are according to the flesh, he is able to make you a new creation.
“If anyone is in Christ…” That’s what matters, not what you are according to the flesh. What matters more than your appearance, ability, age, friends, race, gender, work, home, family, or experience is that you are in Christ!
When Jesus Christ is your sovereign Lord, what he thinks of you is the first (and ultimately the only) thing that really matters. A change in how you see Jesus will lead to a change in how you see others and a change in how you see yourself, so that you will not lose heart!
© Colin S. Smith
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