The Greek word SARX can be a complex word to define. Few Greek words are misunderstood more than this particular word. Countless scholars have attempted to define its theological meaning. (There are over fifty-five pages dedicated to doing just this in TDNT.) Many translators have resorted to less than literal translations for the word in an attempt to convey its significance.
How ought we to understand this word as it is used in the New Testament? In this study we will look at the basic meaning of the word and then in a following study examine Paul’s specialized usage of it in Romans and Galatians.
First of all there is the simple translation of the word, “flesh.” In the word’s most literal sense, it simply means tissue that surrounds bone. It can be used of either man or animal. Luke 24:39 records Jesus as saying, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” Hands, feet, SARX, and bones are what Jesus offered as proof of his resurrection. This is a straightforward literal usage of the word. By the way, this verse indicates that Jesus’ body was more than a phantasm or spirit, namely, that his physical body was raised with its hands, feet, SARX, and bones.
John 1:14 says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” Here is another passage in which we find a literal usage of the word SARX. It describes the fact that Jesus had a physical body while He walked on the earth. He was made SARX.
The word SARX can also refer to a physical relationship. This is a slight departure from the literal meaning of the word, but the significance in this sense ties back to the literal meaning in that nothing more is implied than the physical essence of an attribute. Hebrews 12:9 says, “Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?” Such a father is only one who has been entrusted with another’s SARX and most likely the biological progenitor of that SARX. The word is also used of the master/slave relationship. “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God” (Colossians 3:22).
Here, the physical relationship between master and slave is referenced in contrast to the spiritual relationship that all Christians have with their master, Christ.
In the same vein, a person can be a Gentile in the SARX (Ephesians 2:11), an Israelite in the SARX (1 Corinthians 10:18), or even a wise man in the SARX (1 Corinthians 1:26). In all such cases the word indicates a contrast to one who may also have said attribute or relationship in a spiritual sense. Hence, one need infer nothing more than the physical.
An additional sense in which the word is used is in regard to the relationship of husband and wife. Matthew 19:5,6, Mark 10:8, 1 Corinthians 6:16, and Ephesians 5:31 all refer to this relationship. It is a relationship of SARX. However, the meaning of the word in this context is not literal, but much more. The two don’t become one SARX in that they are spliced or morphed together. Rather, the word has reference to the sexual relationship. The two are partaking of one another’s SARX, that is, they are having fellowship or communion in SARX. Hence, they are one SARX in that their SARX is in union. This isn’t a literal usage of the word, but it isn’t a strictly metaphorical usage either because the SARX of the two persons must be present in order for this communion to occur.
There is also an extended sense of the word in which the SARX represents the whole of the human body. That is to say that by the figure of synecdoche in which a part of something is taken for the whole the SARX is taken to be the entirety of one’s body. Matthew 24:22 says, “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.” That is, no person would be saved. Luke 3:6 states, “And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All persons shall see such salvation. John 17:2 reads, “As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.” In other words, the Father has given the Son authority over all people. This is, again, an extended sense of the literal definition.
Up to this point we find that most would agree with our analysis of this word. It is when we get to the writings of Paul that we find a special theological usage of this word, which we’ll discuss more in the next article.