Relevance is a pretty big thing these days. Maybe it’s because the modern world is such a disconnected world, and the old patterns of life that used to ground people no longer exist. But whatever the reason, trending things, fashionable things, current things, are what form the fabric of meaning for much of life today. Abstractions like “being behind the times” genuinely trouble us.
I had this in mind a couple weeks back when I wrote a paper for my New Testament History of Revelation class. Paul uses the words “flesh” and “spirit” all over his letters, and he uses them to refer to a variety of things. But it’s the way he uses them in Galatians in particular that got my attention. I read about it in our textbook, Thomas Schreiner’s Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory, and decided to explore the idea a little bit more in my paper.
First, there’s a plain meaning to Paul’s use of flesh: to do the works of the flesh is to live according to your sinful desires. You don’t need any kind of theological education, or even to be a Christian, to understand these things: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, etc. . .” (Gal. 5:19).
There’s another meaning to the word “flesh,” too, and it’s directed rather pointedly, pun intended, at Paul’s Galatian audience. I’m referring, of course, to circumcision. In Genesis 17:13 God says to Abraham, “My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.” The whole meaning of God condescending to man, loving him, redeeming him, was bound up within the sign of circumcision. Friendship with God, the life of wisdom, the joys of worship – all were represented to the Jewish people through that sign. You can understand, then, why the question of circumcision so troubled the early Church. Many, if not most, of the early Christians were Jews, for whom outside of circumcision there was no covenant, no life, with God.
But Paul is having none of it. He argues, with some of the strongest language in the New Testament, that the circumcised life is a dead life. Those who insist on it may as well cut the whole thing off, he charges in chapter 5:12. By insisting on circumcision as a source of life with God, these teachers were drawing the Galatians away from the only source of life available: faith in Christ. Christ’s coming has changed everything, and it is by faith, not by flesh, that man now lives with God. In fact, the circumcision road is now the road clean out of God’s covenant, the express lane into yonder heathenry. Paul neatly equivocates, and says that if you insist on the flesh (circumcision), then what you’ll get is indeed the flesh (sinful living).
And this leads into the third meaning, which is the meaning that intrigued me. Not only does flesh refer to sinful actions and to circumcision, but it also refers to yesterday. It refers to the time before Christ’s coming. To the best of my knowledge, the phones at the circumcision clinics today aren’t ringing off the hook from Christians hoping to find life with God. We live in a very different world from that of the Jewish converts of the early Church. But we are just as prone to living in yesterday’s world as the Jewish Christians were. Circumcision belongs to a past time, it’s true, but everything in the flesh category, including our sinful works, is so redemptive-historically yesterday.
Apparently our world has missed that memo, and missed it spectacularly. We are told a great deal about progress – even moral progress. A hundred years ago the moral progressives believed that whites were the most evolved race around, and that poor people should be forcibly sterilized. Today the moral progressives believe that striking your children to teach them wisdom is wrong, but crushing their skulls for your own convenience is a basic human right. They believe that Christian microaggressions ought to face media scrutiny and the full extent of the law, while Islamic macroaggressions ought to be magically safe-spaced into obscurity. Sources of degeneracy and death, like the homosexual lifestyle, ought to be praised by contemporary storytellers, while sources of life, culture, and decency, like the traditional, ordered home, ought to be demonized. And behind all this is the very great pressure to be relevant. Which means, the pressure to cheer along with everyone else when a former Olympic athlete does to himself just what Paul commands in Galatians 5:12.
But far from being anything like progress, all those things are placed by Paul into the category of yesterday. They belong to a way of life that was declared forever irrelevant by the cross. For those who want to be truly relevant, adopting modern ways of thinking is about as fashionably current as sporting a tree bark loincloth.
The only today is the one that dawned when the darkness of the cross had passed. It is the today of the Spirit, which Paul sets dead against the yesterday of the flesh. Adorning the gospel by walking in step with the Spirit is how to be stylish today, and forever. People move to places like New York and L.A. to make it big, or maybe that’s not a thing anymore; but if you want to make it in holiness, you move to the mountain of the Lord. There, the humble soul, bowed in contrition and sincerity before God, is at the very center of everything that matters. The gospel, the fullness of all the sun-bright truth and virtue that broke into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, is forever now, forever trending.