What does it mean to regard someone according to the flesh? 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 says:
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.
The Bible says, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). It is natural for us to form impressions from the most obvious things about other people.
Here are ten factors that distinguish us “according to the flesh.” 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.”
Ten Factors that Distinguish Us “According to the Flesh”
This is often the first way we identify people in ordinary conversation. 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.
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 often talk about our “social circles.”
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?
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.
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. And all of this is driven by the means (or lack of it) that are available to them. 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. 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.
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.
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, and we will be quick to judge others in the same way. But…
Christ Changes How You See Others
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. (2 Corinthians 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. (Galatians 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, all brought into peace with God through the same Savior, all submitting our very different lives to the same Lord.
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.
How Christ Sees You
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.
Jesus offers himself 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.
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!