"In the Flesh, but not According to the Flesh" (2 Cor. 10:3-4)
It had to have stung more than a little bit when Paul received word that people were accusing him of reliance on mere human tactics and a this-worldly power, while largely abandoning the resources of the Holy Spirit. Let's not forget that Jesus was the object of an even more scurrilous charge. The religious leaders of his day insisted that the power in his life that accounted for healing of the sick and casting out of demons was not that of the Spirit but of Satan himself (see Mt. 12:22-32).
There's no indication that Paul's enemies in Corinth were repeating this slanderous charge, but they did spread the rumor that his plans and decisions and the implementation of his "ministry" were the fruit of a sinister, self-serving motive and shaped by principles lacking in spirituality.
Of course, Paul was happy to acknowledge that he walked or lived "in the flesh," but he steadfastly opposed any suggestion that he waged spiritual war or ministered among the Corinthians "according to the flesh." And as we'll soon see, there's a world of difference between the two. Contrary to their baseless accusations, Paul insisted that "the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" (2 Cor. 10:3-4).
Let me make a couple of observations about his use of language in this text and then we'll turn our attention to its application in our own day.
They key to understanding Paul's response is found in his use of the word "flesh" in v. 3 to mean two different things. When he declares that "we walk in the flesh" (Gk. sarx; although the NIV renders it "world"), he is referring to life on earth in general. This is simply his way of describing our basic human condition that applies equally to both Christian and non-Christian. If you are a human being, you "walk in the flesh".
But when he denies waging spiritual war "according to the flesh" (again, sarx) he has in mind not merely the physical body or our common lot as men and women but human methods and means and resources as over against those that derive from God and are compatible with the values of the spiritual realm. "Paul concedes, of course, that the world is his sphere of activity; but that does not mean the world dictates the agenda, still less that it provides the tools for the job" (Carson, 41). More about what that entails in a moment.
Note also that after affirming he "walks" or lives in the flesh he then changes verbs and denies that he "wages war" according to the flesh. If nothing else, this adds an edge to his response to the accusation that he was a weak and timid man. Make no mistake about it, says Paul. I am in the midst of an on-going battle, a fight, a war, and because of God's powerful presence in me I'm more than up to the task (on the Christian life as war, see Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; Eph. 6:11-17; Phil. 2:25; 1 Thess. 5:8; 1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12; 2 Tim. 2:3-4; 4:7; Philemon 2).
What precisely would his enemies have had in mind in making the accusation that he pursued his ministry as an apostle "according to the flesh"? As strange as it may sound, from what we've already seen in 2 Corinthians and will later read in chapters eleven and twelve, they likely meant his lack of verbal eloquence, his alleged reliance on self-commendation, his bodily weakness, his choice not to accept money for his labors, as well as the absence from his resume of supernatural encounters and ecstatic revelatory experiences.
But let's turn for a moment to the present day. While acknowledging the obvious, namely, that all humans live "in the flesh", what might be the modern day equivalent to laboring "according to the flesh" in a way that is displeasing to the Lord?
As I look across the broad expanse of ministry styles and the values that govern them, ten "worldly" or "fleshly" things come to mind. I'll only briefly note them, and then turn to their opposites.
Much of so-called ministry today is driven by (1) pragmatism, the notion that if a method or strategy is effective in attaining what are thought to be legitimate goals, that in itself legitimizes the method even though it may be ethically questionable or even explicitly unbiblical.
Far too many in church life are motivated by (2) self promotion and make their decisions and formulate their theology based on what they believe will most greatly enhance their position. Others are driven by (3) good old fashioned (or should I say bad old fashioned) greed. The so-called prosperity gospel and the manipulative and deceitful tactics of many TV evangelists are illustrative of this.
Others fixate so completely on (4) quantity that any message or ministry that threatens numerical increase is cast aside, even though it may be profoundly biblical. For some, (5) comfort dictates how they proceed. They make their choices based on what most effectively preserves ease of life and reinforces their sense of control and the tranquility of their surroundings.
Far too many are personally ambitious and the specter of (6) power shapes what they do. Whatever enhances their grip on the church or elevates their influence in the congregation is most highly prized. Related to this is the allure of (7) fame and the often associated fear of having one's voice muted and being marginalized within the broader body of Christ.
When we turn to the standards or ideas that give shape to how we pursue life in the body of Christ, many are guided by (8) human ingenuity or the fanciful, even if unbiblical, ideas that pop into their heads (what D. A. Carson refers to as "glib how-to formulas for instant spiritual maturity and material prosperity" ). Then there is the influence of (9) secular values or the findings of the latest public opinion poll, or perhaps worse still the underlying philosophy of (10) naturalism that largely rules out the supernatural realm of God's activity among us.
As pessimistic or cynical as that may sound, we have to be realistic about how far ranging and widespread such factors are. They constitute a modern day equivalent to waging war "according to the flesh", the avoidance of which demands our constant vigilance.
On the flip side, if only briefly, we must be governed not by pragmatism but by biblical principle; not by self promotion but by a Christ-centered passion; not by greed but contentment with what we have; not by a concern for quantity but a commitment to quality and spiritual excellence; not by what enhances our comfort but by a willingness to suffer for Christ's sake; not by a hunger for power but a recognition that in our weakness the glory of God is most seen; not by a hankering after fame but a willingness to labor in anonymity if only Christ is known; not based on the best ideas that men can conjure up but in conformity with the wisdom that comes from above; not by the preferences of a world that denigrates revelatory truth but in accordance with the moral values of God's Word; and not as if physical reality is all there is but in recognition of the power of the unseen spiritual realm.
And why should we find comfort in the merely human and material weapons this world affords when, as Paul says in v. 4, our weapons are "not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds"?
This phrase translated "divine power" has been variously interpreted, all of which are both possible and carry significant meaning. Among the options are that our weapons are "made powerful by God," or perhaps are "divinely" or "supernaturally powerful", or are "powerful in God's perspective," or even are "powerful for God" or "in God's cause" or with a view to achieving God's purpose.
In any case, on any view, our weapons work! They are divinely effective. They get the job done because God works in and through them to accomplish his purposes. D. A. Carson has summed it up best in the following comment:
"The contrast Paul is drawing must not be overlooked. He is not comparing, say, tanks, rifles, and missiles with prayer, fasting, and preaching. The fleshly or worldly side of the contrast depends on the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 10:3-4a - worldly weapons in this context are the kinds of tools of the trade relished by the intruders: human ingenuity, rhetoric, showmanship, a certain splashiness and forwardness in spiritual pretensions, charm, powerful personal charisma. Such weapons they will not find in Paul's arsenal, so they think him inferior; but Paul responds by openly disavowing such weapons. He would not want to defend himself on that score, for his weapons are of an entirely different sort. They are spiritual weapons, and they are divinely powerful" (46).
What these weapons are and what they actually achieve remains to be seen as we proceed through this paragraph. But of greatest importance now is for us to recognize the futility and vanity of trusting in anything other than the spiritual resources and moral values and theological truths that God has made available and entrusted to us. Let us not be swept up in the shallow and man-centered ways and means of so much so-called "church" life today.
We can't escape living in the flesh any more than Paul could. But nothing compels us to wage war according to the flesh other than our own delusional, self-serving, and prideful ambitions.