Unmasking the Flesh

Historical Background

The Flesh, the World and the Devil


The Failure of King Saul

The Christian has three enemies: they are, the flesh, the world, and the devil. (People are never our real enemies). The most subtle of these opponents is called "the flesh."

Saul was the first king of Israel, anointed into office by the prophet Samuel. Saul was tall of stature, a fine military leader and a good family man. (He apparently had only one wife, four sons and two daughters). For the 400-year period of the Judges after Joshua died, the tribes of Israel had been scattered and disorganized. Saul did a great job putting together a central government, and a united army. His natural gifts would lead one to believe he could have been a great king. But in a very short time, Saul was disqualified as king and young teenage shepherd, David of Bethlehem, was chosen to replace him. Chapter 15 of First Samuel gives us the clues as to why Saul failed God's tests as king--why he was DQ'd (disqualified).

The Old Testament presents truth in story form, teaching by stories and by examples, (Romans 15:4). The truth stated in the New Testament is the same truth because God is unchanging. Each of us has a kingdom--a sphere of influence. We will rule successfully--or unsuccessfully--over our own kingdom depending on our understanding of what God expects of His king or His queen. Properly understand, Saul's failure has great relevance to our individual lives today.

God tests King Saul

Samuel said to Saul, (First Samuel 15),

"The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore hearken to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, `I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'" So Saul summoned the people, and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand men on foot, and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to the city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley.

Saul's response--incomplete obedience:

"And Saul defeated the Amalekites, from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. But Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.

God's critique of Saul:

The word of the LORD came to Samuel: "I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments." And Samuel was angry; and he cried to the LORD all night. And Samuel rose early to meet Saul in the morning; and it was told Samuel, "Saul came to Carmel, and behold, he set up a monument for himself and turned, and passed on, and went down to Gilgal." And Samuel came to Saul, and Saul said to him, "Blessed be you to the LORD; I have performed the commandment of the LORD." And Samuel said, "What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?" Saul said, "They have brought them from the Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice to the LORD your God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed." Then Samuel said to Saul, "Stop! I will tell you what the LORD said to me this night." And he said to him, "Say on." And Samuel said, "Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And the LORD sent you on a mission, and said, `Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are consumed.' Why then did you not obey the voice of the LORD? Why did you swoop on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the LORD?"

Saul's rationalizations:

And Saul said to Samuel, "I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, I have gone on the mission on which the LORD sent me, I have brought Agag the king of Amalek, and I have utterly destroyed the Amalekites. But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the best of the things devoted to destruction, to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal."

Grave consequences:

And Samuel said, "Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king."

Saul's superficial repentance:

And Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned; for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD." And Samuel said to Saul, "I will not return with you; for you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel." As Samuel turned to go away, Saul laid hold upon the skirt of his robe, and it tore. And Samuel said to him, "The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or repent; for he is not a man, that he should repent." Then he said, "I have sinned; yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel, and return with me, that I may worship the LORD your God." So Samuel turned back after Saul; and Saul worshiped the LORD.

The end of Agag:

Then Samuel said, "Bring here to me Agag the king of the Amalekites." And Agag came to him cheerfully. Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is past." And Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so shall your mother be childless among women." And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the LORD in Gilgal. Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel. (1 Samuel 15)

Saul's kingship briefly summarized:

"Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the LORD. Therefore the LORD slew him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse." (1 Chronicles 10:13-14)

Who is Amalek: Amalek was the grandson of Esau. Esau was the twin brother of Jacob, the sons of Isaac, who was himself the son of Abraham. Jacob wrestled with God and became the man named Israel, the head of the nation Israel. Esau is a type (or symbol) of the flesh. The flesh is the natural life of Adam in each of us. All that we were in Adam is worthless in the eyes of God. (Skeptics, please read Romans Chapters 1-3). Saul "and the people" made a value judgment of their own--deciding what was good and what was bad in Amalek. God had in fact declared all of Amalek to be worthless in His eyes. Saul's incomplete obedience caused him to be disqualified from being king. (This meant loss of rewards for Saul, not loss of salvation).

The treachery of Amalek against Israel: When the people of Israel left Egypt under Moses, nearly 500 years earlier, they were attacked from the rear by the people of Amalek. One account of this battle is given in Exodus, the second summary is in Deuteronomy:

"Then came Amalek and fought with Israel at Rephidim. And Moses said to Joshua, "Choose for us men, and go out, fight with Amalek; tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand." So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek; and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat upon it, and Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua mowed down Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. And the LORD said to Moses, "Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven." And Moses built an altar and called the name of it, The LORD is my banner, saying, "A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." (Exodus 17:8-16)

"Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and cut off at your rear all who lagged behind you; and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies round about, in the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget." (Deuteronomy 24:17-19)

What is "the flesh?"

The New Testament shows us that the Spirit of God in us is always at war against the flesh--as long as we live in this world--and until our present bodies are redeemed. It is "the flesh" which makes us "self"-confident when we ought to be cautious, stubborn when we ought to be teachable. In our fallen condition we think and act (often) as if we were God! See King Ego and The "I am god" Problem. The flesh is not, however, synonymous with the body! Earlier generations of Christians usually got this wrong. We are no better than they in our grave Bible illiteracy. But though we have been redeemed if we have trusted in Christ, our bodies have not yet been made new.

So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors—not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.

For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. (Romans 8:8-17)

Our war against "the flesh" is equivalent to the statement "the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation." Paul writes,

"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would. But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another." (Galatians 5:16-26)

The "Good" and the "Bad" Aspects of the Flesh

ALL of the flesh (our natural life) is worthless as far as God is concerned. We usually deal with the "bad" side of the flesh when we become believers. That is we generally begin to live "socially acceptable" Christian lives by giving up our drug dealing, fornication, our lying, cheating, stealing and getting drunk on weekends. We deal with the obviously "bad" side of the flesh, but we inevitably ignore the "best of the flesh. " After all, we have all sorts of wonderful personality traits, talents and resources developed by experience in the world--these we are happy to devote to God's service. The flesh loves to sing in the choir, to preach--in fact the flesh can be very religious! This means we all tend to try to please God by our self-effort, by our religious performance-oriented living, by "trying harder." God needs our help doesn't He? How did He get along before we came on the scene? Living the "American dream"--"you can be anyone you want to be in life"--is a great example of the lure of the flesh calling us to fame, ego gratification, and personal glory.

The fact is God does not need our help out all! But He is glad to use us when we meet Him on His terms

In broad terms the flesh may be defined as "self-effort"--attempting to live the Christian life by our own efforts. The flesh is always self-seeking and self-serving. The flesh, like Agag, is rooted in pride. Our problem is that we fail to see that ALL we were in Adam must die. In actual fact when Christ died on the cross--we also died with Him. This is the clear teaching of the letter of Romans. (Like all Biblical truth this reality is something we experience by faith).

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self [the flesh] was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace." (Romans 6:3-14)

"Self-Effort" Always Leads to Failure

By nature we are self-made men and women and by nature we tend to worship our "creator" (self). This means that the deceitful nature of the flesh easily escapes our attention. We think we can handle some areas of our lives on our own. We think we need God only for the crises and rough spots in the road. But the harder we try to live Christian lives on our own, the more we fail. Paul writes of is his own struggles in this department in Romans 7:

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin." (Romans 7:15-25)

Eternal Loss or Eternal Gain

At the judgment seat of Christ, when we Christians die, all that we have done in the energy of the flesh will be lost, only those things the Spirit has done through us (by faith), will survive (http://www.ldolphin.org/Jseat.html). If we fail to agree with God about the flesh and our need to renounce it completely, we shall end up no better off than Saul.

The "Exchanged Life"

The missing secret becomes clear: the Christian life can only be lived by Jesus Christ Himself! That is why Jesus said,

"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28, 29)

Notice the subtle shifts in the pronoun "I" in Galatians 2:20 as Paul talks about his discovery that he is already dead to sin in Christ. The old life of Adam in him is null and void as far as God is concerned. Paul's new life is Christ living in and through him.

"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose." (Galatians 2:20-21)

Christ in you is the real new you

Jesus said to all,

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels." (Luke 9:23-26)


Authentic Christian living involves a constant set of paradoxes: submit yourself to death and you will live, cling to your life and you will lose it, lose your life and you will save it, become a slave to Jesus and you will be truly a free truly person, die to self and you will find yourself. The world produces conformity, stifling individuality. Christ living in us does exactly the opposites. He unfolds and fills out all the gifts, talents and abilities He created in us in the first place. We become the whole (holy) men and women we were intended to be by His original design and plan.

The cross is the symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of the human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was not going out to have his life redirected. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing. It slew all of the man completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. it struck swift and hard and when it had finished its work the man was no more. That evangelism which draws friendly parallels between the ways of God and the ways of man is false to the Bible and cruel to the soul of the hearers. The faith of Christ does not parallel the world. It intersects it. In coming to Christ we do not bring our life up on to a higher plane. We leave it at a cross. The grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die. That is the beginning of the gospel. (A.W. Tozer)

Strictly Speaking, only Jesus Christ can lead the Christian life.
(See The Ego Papers)


God is Love

God can not act selfishly. Love can only give itself away. Love can only seek the best interest of the beloved. Love can be offered to anyone but has no value until it is accepted. After we receive the love of God, we are to love as others as God has loved us. This is the key to our own wholeness and fulfillment as persons. God loves each of us deeply. He has already dealt with all our sins fully on the cross. But God can not fulfill us in life as long as we say "yes" to self and "no" to the cross.

Servant Power and Authority

The more we subject ourselves to Jesus Christ (King of kings) and His rule in our hearts, the greater will be our dominion (influence) in the kingdom of our own lives. If we yield dominion we will be given dominion. Kings in the lineage of Christ are to be servants not overlords. The disciples were slow to catch on to this!

Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God." Peter began to say to him, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first." And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise."

And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him, and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What do you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" And they said to him, "We are able." And Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." And when the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John. And Jesus called them to him and said to them, "You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:24-45)

Complete in Christ

Nothing remains to be added to a Christian's life. All we need is already resident within.

"As therefore you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so live in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you are complete in him, who is the head of all rule and authority." (Colossians 2:6-10)

Related Reading

The Flesh, the World and the Devil



Tithing, by Paul Winslow

The Key to Everything, by Norman Grubb

Authentic Christianity, by Ray C. Stedman

Studies in the Life of David, by Bob Roe

The Life of David: Psalm 18

Note from 2001: Recently I had the privilege of speaking to the Christian student group at San Jose State University. This Campus Crusade for Christ chapter has no staff person directing things, but I can't help but notice how well they do as a "leaderless" community with only Jesus Christ in charge. These men and women are not only very friendly, but it seems to me they all want to know the Bible better. Their casual conversations seem to be about spiritual matters more often than not. I admire these friends a lot and greatly value knowing them as my younger brothers and sisters in Jesus. I wish I could live in their dorm and spend lots of one-on-one time with all of them.

My speaking topic for the week was intended to help my friends learn to identify, and reject, what the Bible calls "the flesh." The flesh--our ever-present enemy--asserts itself in our lives in a dozen subtle ways every day we live. The topic of "the flesh" deserves more discussion than a half-hour talk, so I handed out the above set of notes.

Song of Solomon


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November 1, 2001. October 28, 2019. September 14, 2022. No vember28, 2023.