Revealed in the Flesh: Flesh and Spirit

Herman  Ridderbos

Excerpts from Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Chapter 2

If in the preceding sections Christ's resurrection has rightly been shown to be the beginning of the new creation for Paul, the question naturally arises as to what significance must be ascribed to Christ's life on earth before his death and resurrection. It has frequently been observed that Paul goes into very few details in his epistles as to Jesus' life on earth, his miracles and preaching, and the meaning of all this.

Now, one will have to take into full account the fact that Paul's epistles build on a foundational preaching in which he has made known the apostolic tradition to the church. This is evident from specific references to what he had already said and which the church may thus be considered to know (cf., e.g. I Cor. 15:1, 2; Gal. 1:11; 2 Thess. 2:5; 3:10). Only in certain connections in his epistles does he repeat fragments of this tradition because there was a particular occasion for it (I Cor. 11:23 ff.; 15:2 ff.). In the same sense he appeals only incidentally to specific pronouncements of Jesus (I Cor. 7:10; cf. v. 25; 9:14; I Thess. 4:15), from which it appears that in general the point of departure for his instruction lay in them. If one looks more closely, it becomes apparent that his epistles contain all kinds of conscious and unconscious reminiscences of and allusions to words of Jesus (cf., e.g., Rom. 12:14; 13:9; Gal. 5:14; I Cor. 13:2).

This does not alter the fact that in Paul's epistles the significance of Jesus' advent and life on earth before his resurrection is usually not drawn from specific words or works of the Lord, but is approached more from a general redemptive-historical point of view. It is typical of this approach that the apostle prefers to characterize Jesus' life on earth before his resurrection as his existence "after the flesh," or "in the flesh." One has only to think of the following pronouncements:

...who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh (Rom. 1:3).

...God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3).

...of whom is Christ as concerning the flesh (Rom. 9:5).

...even though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now we know him [so] no more (2 Cor. 5:16).

...who made both one, and...abolished in his flesh the enmity (Eph. 2:14 ff.).

...but now he has reconciled you in the body of his flesh through death (Col. 1:22).

...who was revealed in the flesh (I Tim. 3:16).

On the one hand, in several of these pronouncements the accents laid on the wholly unique, eschatological character of Christ's advent and his life on earth. He was even then the Son sent by God (Rom. 8:3), the evidence that the time was fulfilled (Gal. 4:4). His advent was revelation (I Tim. 3:16) of what till that moment had been hidden, fulfillment of God's counsel. He was the Christ out of Israel (Rom. 9:5), the long-expected Son of David (Rom. 1:3).

But his revelation took place "in the flesh," that is, he assumed the mode of existence of the present world. "Flesh" does not refer only to the physical, nor merely to the human as such, but to the human in its weakness, transitoriness, that which Paul elsewhere terms being "of the earth, earthy" (I Cor. 15:47), and what in Galatians 4 is called being "born of a woman." In Romans 8:3 he speaks of "the likeness of sinful flesh," in which God sent his Son. "Flesh" and "sinful flesh" need not coincide.

But sin in the nature of the case takes place in the flesh and stamps the human mode of existence as "the sinful flesh." It is in "the likeness" of this that God sent his Son, a phrase with which Paul elsewhere expresses the difference between correspondence and identity (cf. Rom. 6:5). Christ came, therefore, in the weak, transitory human state, without sharing in the sin of the human race.

It was in that way, in that mode of existence, that he was "known" before his resurrection (2 Cor. 5:16). In this "flesh" he lived and he died, or as it is also called: "in the body of his flesh" (Col. 1:22), which expression likewise refers not only to the physical as material organism, but to the whole of Christ's existence as a man subject to transitoriness, dishonor, frailty (cf. I Cor. 15:42 ff.). And it was also in this flesh, i.e., his human existence delivered up to the death of the cross, that the enmity was abolished, the church reconciled, and sin condemned (Eph. 2:14, 15; Col. 1:2; Rom. 8:3).

It is Christ's being revealed in the flesh (to be understood in this way) that is the specific significance of Christ's life before his resurrection, and which is to be adored (cf. I Tim. 3:16a). The revelation, the sending of the Son, the fullness of the time, already took effect with it.

But the new creation is that of Christ's resurrection. For this reason the death of Christ is a turning point in the mode of existence of the old aeon (cf. Rom. 6:7, 9 ff.). It is this turning point to which Paul orients himself and to which he wants believers to orient themselves (Rom. 6:11; 8:10; Col. 3:3). Not only does Christ's life in the flesh come to an end, but an all-important and all-embracing Transitiontakes place, namely, from the existence of the old to that of the new, from the old aeon to the new creation. By dying christ has thus snatched his people away from the present aeon (Gal. 1:4). From this moment on faith no longer "knows," that is to say, judges, "after the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16). It regards all things from another point of view, namely, that the aeon of the sole dominion of the flesh is done away with and the mode of existence of the Spirit has been entered upon.

For in Paul it is the Spirit who stands over against the "flesh" described in this way:

...of the seed of David according to the flesh, designated the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness in virtue of his resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:3,4).

...who was revealed in the flesh, justified by the Spirit (I Tim. 3:16).

...the body is dead,...the Spirit is life (Rom. 8:10).

Flesh (body) and Spirit do not stand over against one another here as two "parts" in the human existence or in the existence of Christ. There is no question here (nor in Rom. 8:10!) of a dichotomistic distinction in an anthropological sense. Nor is the contrast ethical, as is indeed the case in other contexts (Gal. 5:13, et. al.), even though there, too, on the foundation to be further indicated here.

Rather, "flesh" and "Spirit" represent two modes of existence, on the one hand that of the old aeon which is characterized and determined by the flesh, on the other that of the new creation which is of the Spirit of God. It is in this sense that the difference is also to be taken between the first Adam as "living soul," i.e., flesh, and the second as life-giving Spirit.

The contrast is therefore of a redemptive-historical nature: it qualifies the world and the mode of existence before Christ as flesh, that is, as the creaturely in its weakness; on the other hand, the dispensation that has taken effect with Christ as that of the Spirit, i.e., of power, imperishableness and glory (I Cor. 15:42, 43, 50; Phil. 3:21). It is within this redemptive-historical contrast of flesh and Spirit as the mode of existence of the old and new creation that Paul now views the life of Christ before and after his resurrection.

In virtue of his resurrection from the dead, Christ, "according to the Spirit of holiness," is declared to be the Son of God in power (Rom. 1:4); he is "justified" (i.e., vindicated, disclosed in his true significance) by the Spirit (I Tim. 3:16). It is in that new existence of the resurrection and of the Spirit that the church may now know Christ (2 Cor. 5:16), and may also judge itself as joined with him. The body, that is to say, life, insofar as it still belongs to the old aeon, is (subject to) death because of sin, but the Spirit, the Author of the new creation, gives life because of the righteousness accomplished in Christ (Rom. 8:10).

For this reason the church is no longer "in the flesh," i.e., subject to the regime of the first aeon and the evil powers reigning in it, but "in the Spirit," brought under the dominion of freedom in Christ (Rom. 8:2 ff., 9, 13; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 3:21). All the facets of the contrast of flesh and Spirit, which are to be treated still further in what follows, become transparent and luminous out of this basic eschatological structure of Paul's preaching and constitute a highly important element of it.

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