Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh, (vv. 20-23)
It is a great mistake and a fatal blunder into which the best of people readily fall to fail to distinguish the two very different senses in which the term “the flesh” is used in the Bible. Sometimes it refers solely to our bodies, “this mortal flesh,” but in the doctrinal parts of the New Testament it generally means the nature that fallen man has inherited from his first father. God created man, we are told, in His own image, “in the likeness of God made he him; male and female created he them;… and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created” (Gen. 5:1-2). Physically perfect, they were morally innocent and spiritually like unto God, who is a Spirit and the Father of spirits.
But in the very next verse we read, “Adam … begat a son in his own likeness, and after his image” (Gen. 5:3). This was after sin had defiled his nature and poisoned the springs of life, and all his children now bear this fallen image and likeness. Hence the need of regeneration, and so our Lord said to Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He is not merely saying that that which is born of the physical body is a physical body, but that personality which comes into the world through natural generation and birth is one with the fallen nature that Adam acquired when he fell. This is called distinctively, “the flesh,” “the body of the flesh,” “sin in the flesh,” “sin that dwelleth in us,” “the carnal mind which is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be”; and is the nature of the old man—the unregenerate natural man.
We are told that we all were by nature children of wrath, even as others. When converted, or regenerated, this carnal nature is not altered in the slightest degree. It is never improved nor sanctified, either in whole or in part. In the cross of Christ God has condemned it utterly as too vile for improvement. The believer has received a new nature which is spiritual, the nature of the new man. He is now responsible to walk in obedience to the Word of God, which appeals only to this new nature. The old and the new natures are in the believer and will be until the redemption of the body.
It is true that the flesh, or the old nature, acts through the members of the body, but the body itself is not evil. Every natural instinct or physical appetite, no matter how perfectly right and proper it may be, and used as God intended, may be perverted to selfish and dishonorable purposes. But we are called upon to mortify, or put to death, the deeds of the body and no longer to yield our members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, but to present the body with all its ransomed powers unto God to be used for His service under the controlling power of His Holy Spirit. Hence the Christian is called to a life of self-abnegation and so the apostle Paul could say, “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection.”
But by that he does not mean that he visits needless punishment upon his physical flesh in order to purify his spirit, but rather that he does not permit unlawful or inordinate physical appetites to dominate him, and so lead him into excesses which would bring dishonor upon the ministry committed to him and upon the name of the Lord whose servant he is. This subjection of the body will ever be necessary as long as we are in this scene of testing. So the apostle Peter tells us, “He that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.” It is not that we obtain deliverance from the power of sin by ascetic practices such as flagellation, fasting, or ignoring physical comfort, but rather by refusing obedience to carnal impulses, the gratification of which may give physical pleasure while they war against the soul.
And in this we may see the contrast between our Lord’s temptation and our own. Of Him we read that “he suffered being tempted.” Of us, that we cease from sin if we suffer in the flesh. In other words, to Him, the Holy One, temptation caused the keenest suffering. His holy nature shrank from the slightest contact with evil even in satanic suggestion. But with us, fallen as we are, the suggestion of evil may be seductively pleasing, and we must resolutely refuse the thought of sensual pleasure in order that we may walk in purity before God. “He was tempted in all things like as we are, apart from sin.” That is, He was never tempted by inward desire for sin. He could say, “The prince of this world cometh and hath nothing in me.” With us it is far otherwise. When temptation is presented from without we are sadly conscious of the fact that we have a traitor within who would open the door of the fortress to the enemy if he were not carefully watched. And right here is where purpose of heart is needed in order that we may cleave to the Lord and give no ground to the suggestions of the flesh or the promptings of the Adversary.
An Indian, in explaining the conflict of the two natures, said, “It seems to me as though two dogs are fighting within me: one is a black dog, and he is very savage and very bad. The other is a white dog, and he is very gentle and very good. But the black dog fights with him all the time.” “And which dog wins?” someone asked. Laconically the Indian replied, “Which ever one I say ‘sic him’ to.” And it was well put, for if the will is on the side of the evil, the flesh will triumph; but if the will is subdued by grace and subject to the Holy Spirit, the new nature will control.
It is for lack of understanding this important truth that many have supposed they could perfect themselves in holiness by imposing penances and suffering of various kinds upon the body. At a very early day such views came into the church. The Jewish Essenes and the Stoic philosophers had accustomed both Jews and Gentiles to the thought that the body in itself is evil and must be subdued if one would advance in holiness. These views were taken up by certain sects of Gnostics, while others went to the opposite extreme and taught that the spiritual alone was important, and that the body might be used in any way without polluting the soul.
But in these last four verses of our present chapter the apostle warns against the folly of seeking holiness through asceticism. He describes these practices as being part of that philosophy of which he has already spoken in verse 8, which he designated the rudiments or elements of the world. Challenging the believer, as a new man in Christ, who died with Him to his old place and condition in the world, he asks: “Wherefore if ye [died] with Christ from the [elements] of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances,…after the commandments and doctrines of men?” I have purposely left out certain parenthetical expressions which we will look at in a moment.
The great thing now to see is that all these rules and regulations for the subduing of the body are according to the principles of the world. They all take for granted that God is still trying in some way to improve the flesh, and this we know is not His purpose. Through John the Baptist He said, “The axe is laid to the root of the tree.” Not only in modern times, but in those early days of Christianity that we are considering, men have laid the axe, or the pruning-knife, if you will, to the fruit of the tree as though the tree might be improved if the bad fruit were cut off. Get men to reform, to sign pledges, to put themselves under rules and regulations, to starve the body, to inflict physical suffering upon it, and surely its vile propensities will be at least annulled if not eliminated, and little by little men will become spiritual and godlike. The formula which thousands have taken up within the last few years:
Every day, in every way,
I am getting better and better,
expresses the mind of many. But no amount of self-control, no physical suffering whatsoever can change the carnal mind, called emphatically, “the flesh.”
Saint Jerome tells how, having lived a lecherous life in his youth, after he became a Christian he fled from all contact with the gross and vulgar world in which he had once sought to gratify every fleshly desire. He left Rome and wandered to Palestine, and there lived in a cave near Bethlehem where he sought to subdue his carnal nature by fasting almost to starvation. And then he tells us how disappointed he was when, exhausted and weary, he fell asleep and dreamed he was still rioting among the dissolute companions of his godless days. The flesh cannot be starved into subjection. It cannot be improved by subjecting it to ordinances whether human or divine. But as we walk in the Spirit, and are occupied thus with the risen Christ, we are delivered from the power of fleshly lusts that war against the soul.
In the parenthetical portion of verses 21-22 the apostle gives us a sample, if we may so say, of the carnal ordinances or doctrines of men to which he refers, “Touch not; taste not; handle not.” He is not saying, Do not touch, taste, or handle these ascetic regulations—that would be nonsense—but these are the human rules, through obedience to which the ascetic hoped to attain to a higher degree of spirituality. How often we have heard verse 21 quoted as though for the guidance of Christians today, exactly the opposite of that which the apostle intended. All such regulations are to perish with the using.
These things have, indeed, an appearance of wisdom in will worship and humility and neglecting of the body, or punishing the body by making it suffer. It is natural to suppose that such things would have a tendency to free one from carnal desires, but untold thousands of monks, hermits, and ascetics of all descriptions, have proved that they are useless against the indulgence of the flesh. One may shut himself up in a monastery in order to escape the world, only to find he has taken the world in with him. One may dwell in a cave in the desert in order to subdue the flesh, only to find that the more the body is weakened and neglected, the more powerful the flesh becomes.
Dr. A. T. Robertson translates the last part of verse 20: “Why, as though living in the world, do you dogmatize; such as, Touch not; taste not; handle not?” These rules may be elevated to the importance of dogmas, but they will never enable one to achieve the object he has in view.
You have heard of the man who, anxious to fit himself for the presence of God and awakened to a sense of the emptiness of a life of worldly pleasure, fled from the city to the desert and made his home in a cave in the rocks, there practicing the greatest austerities, and hoping through prayer and penance to reach the place where he would be acceptable to God. Hearing of another hermit who was reputed to be a very holy and devout man, he made a long, wearisome journey across the desert, supported only by his staff, in order to interview him and learn from him how he might find peace with God. In answer to his agonized questions the aged anchorite said to him, “Take that staff, that dry rod which is in your hand, plant it in the desert soil, water it daily, offering fervent prayers as you do so, and when it bursts into leaf and bloom you may know that you have made your peace with God.”
Rejoicing that at last he had what seemed like authoritative instruction in regard to this greatest of all ventures, he hastened back to his cell and planted his rod as he had been told to do. For long, weary days, weeks, and months, he faithfully watered the dry stick and prayed for the hour when the token of his acceptance would be manifest. At last one day, in utter despair and brokenness of spirit, weakened by fasting and sick with longing for the apparently unattainable, he exclaimed bitterly, “It is all no use. I am no better today than I was when I first came to the desert. The fact is, I am just like this dry stick myself. It needs life before there can be leaves and fruit, and I need life, for I am dead in my sins and cannot produce fruit for God.” And then it seemed as though a voice within said, “At last you have learned the lesson that the old hermit meant to teach you. It is because you are dead and have no strength or power in yourself that you must turn to Christ alone and find life and peace in Him.” And leaving his desert cave he went back to the city to find the Word of God and in its sacred pages learn the way of peace.
And let us remember it is as impossible to obtain holiness by ascetic practices as it is to buy salvation by physical suffering. We are saved in the first place, not through anything we undergo, but through that which our blessed Lord Jesus Christ underwent for us on Calvary’s cross, and, blessed be God, He who died for us upon that cross now lives for us at God’s right hand, and He is the power for holiness as well as for justification. By the Holy Spirit He dwells within us, and as we yield ourselves unto God as those who are alive from the dead, He is enabled to live out His wondrous life in us. Does your heart sometimes cry:
Tell me what to do to be pure
In the sight of all-seeing eyes;
Tell me is there no thorough cure,
No escape from the sins I despise?
Will my Saviour only pass by,
Only show how faulty I’ve been?
Will He not attend to my cry?
May I not this moment be clean?
Oh, believe me, dear, anxious, seeking Christian, you will find holiness in the same Christ in whom you found salvation. As you cease from self-occupation and look up in faith to Him you will be transformed into His own glorious image. You will become like Him as you gaze on His wonderful face. There is no other way by which the flesh may be subdued and your life become one of triumph over the power of sin. Asceticism is but a vain will-o’-the-wisp that, while it promises you victory, will plunge you into the morass of disappointment and defeat. But occupation with Christ risen at God’s right hand is the sure way to overcome the lusts of the flesh and to become like Him who has said, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also may be sanctified through the truth.”
Of Him they said He was a glutton and a wine-bibber, because He came not as an ascetic but as a Man among men, entering with them into every sinless experience of human life. He has “left us an example that we should follow His steps.” He has come to sanctify every natural relationship, not to do violence to those affections and feelings which He Himself implanted in the hearts of mankind.