Language is a curious thing. It is the vehicle through which we convey our thoughts, wants, and meanings, but of itself it is just a lifeless set of repeating patterns. Neither words, nor the letters that form words, have any significance, unless there is an agreed interpretation of the meaning of those symbols.
Symbols become identified as language when two or more people accept a common meaning. Such agreement, however, is far from automatic. Language is dynamic: meaning that such agreement on meaning is constantly changing over time and through different cultures, making the process of interpretation more of a function of controlled-chaos than a simple connecting of dots.
When it comes to interpreting Scripture, this challenge is even more difficult, because the text is formed with human language over several thousands of years, passed down through many cultures and filtered through different languages, presented through many dozens of different writers with different audiences, and ultimately because it is an expression of divine truth which natural human language is incapable of fully expressing. Because of its immense significance and godly purpose, it is also subject to constant attack and distortion by evil spirits, who fully intend to undermine the ability for anyone to rightly hear what it says. Holy Scripture is unique and unequaled when compared to all other human expressions.
As such, students of Scripture ought to approach the study of the Bible with much greater caution and carefulness when searching for the meanings contained therein. With such carefulness in mind, we will take some time to consider specifically the differences between categories and substances in the meaning of the words used in various passages of Scripture. Errors of interpretation in this distinction have been so common over the centuries, that entire denominations have formed their beliefs around unsound doctrine and distorted theology, simply because their scholars were unable to separate the difference of meaning in words and phrases between those that were intended to present representative-groupings rather than material-meanings.
One of the most common distortions revolves around the word “flesh”. The common dictionary will present the meaning of the symbols that form that word as “human biology”, “physiology”, “epidermis” a.k.a. skin, and “body”. Often one or more of those meanings may well be intended by the author, but that is not always the case. As has been noted previously, dictionaries are not the final arbiter of meaning, especially when it comes to Scripture. Meaning must be sought from the author; or more precisely, The Author.
One of the enormous challenges to scriptural interpretation involves the revelation that God speaks in ways, like through parables, so that those who approach it through a natural study of languages will think they understand, but completely miss the actual and hidden meaning.
By way of reference, consider the following passages that reference the word flesh:
“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”. (Jn 6:53)
“For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” (Gal 5:17)
“every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God”. (1 Jn 4:2)
The original audience thought Jesus was commanding them to commit cannibalism by eating his actual flesh. They interpreted his words to mean flesh in terms of substance, when he was actually using it as a category to represent the idea of literally internalizing him and his words into our beliefs, lives, and practices, and to actually express the act of eating him through real and material representation of his body and blood through the bread and wine of Communion. Their interpretation slipped on the error between category and substance.
When Paul wrote that believers must live “by the spirit and not by the flesh”, as also referenced in the second passage above, many throughout history have again fallen on the sword of substance. The author presents the contrast between flesh and spirit numerous times and in multiple letters to different churches, but always with the same meaning. He uses this phrase to present categories, not substances. In other words, he is not talking about actual human flesh, whether in terms of the skin, the biology, the body, or material substance. In a similar way, when he says spirit, he is consistent in his reference to use that word, in the same way as the word flesh, to represent a category or focus, and not specifically the substance of either the human spirit or the Spirit of God.
The pagan belief that the flesh is evil and spirit is good, predated Christianity, and was found in such false religions as Gnosticism and Manicheanism, but it quickly found fertile ground in the naïve minds of many in the early church. Even to this day, many ministers teach that in this phrase flesh means the substance of the human body, and spirit means the spirit-breathed-from-God (both human spirit and Holy Spirit). As a result, they teach that the body will be destroyed, because it is flesh, material, physical, and thus evil, but the spirit is eternal, good, and can never die.
When viewed as a category, “flesh” is used by Paul to speak representatively of all that is based on worldly pursuits, dependent upon natural desires, temporary, and focused on human preferences, as compared to the opposite reasons for living that are represented with the heavenly-based word of “spirit”. In this way the word spirit is used in this phrase to contain all that is oriented toward and from God, rather than of this world. It should be recognized that the spirit-in-man, is where the sin and rebellious nature actually resides, and not in the cells of human substance, such that this human spirit is what is actually the container of evil and not the biology of human flesh. It is not the flesh or body that is evil in humanity, it is the sinful human—body, mind, soul, strength, and spirit! It is not the body that sinned against a holy God, it is the human, and thus it is the entire human that must die, not just the flesh. In fact, believers are promised to be raised in body at the return of Christ, because without a body, whether in this life or the next, humans are not alive. Those who suggest that only the body of believers can die, but they always stay alive, defy the biblical teaching on needing to be resurrected to eternal life at the return of Christ. Teachings that suggest that the flesh and body are bad distort this truth. This is why Jesus warned people to fear God who can destroy both the flesh-based body and spirit-based soul in Hell.
In order to live by the spirit and not by the flesh—meaning live with the orientation toward God and his will and away from the natural human desires—a believer must of course submit to living by the direction of the Holy Spirit. This truth means that in order to understand the category reference to both flesh and spirit, one must live by the substance of the Spirit of God as a born again follower of Jesus. However, the necessity of depending upon the actual Spirit of God does not change the way the phrase is presented in Scripture. The substance of God is how we are intended to rightly apply the command of living by the category-focus of the spirit and not by the worldly-category represented in the phrase by the word flesh. In this way, living by the spirit-orientation of godly desires will require the substance of the Spirit of God, who called all that he created, including the flesh of mankind as very good.
The third referenced passage above, also uses the word flesh, but the context shows that John uses the same symbol of letters to mean actual material substance. It likely is the result of the same distorted beliefs—that supposedly the substance of flesh is evil and spirit good—by which many within the church get tricked into thinking that Jesus, being holy and completely righteous, must not have ever taken on the substance of flesh, because that would mean he dwelt in evil skin. John tells us that this false belief was common even in his day, and it is evidence of a false believer, a false minister, and a false church.
The Apostle John wants Christians to accept that Jesus was not only the complete and accurate presence of God in his incarnation, but that he was also completely human in every respect—body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit. He was flesh as well as Spirit—both as a reference to his substance, his actual measurable existence with real blood and water flowing in him, while at the very same time formed by the divine substance of the Holy Spirit when impregnated into Mary.
This concept of recognizing the difference in intended use of the words, like flesh versus spirit, which at times are presented as categories, and in other passages may be used individually as statements about substance, can be seen also in how the Bible writer’s used similar terms.
“God is light; in him there is no darkness at all”. (1 Jn 1:5)
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, who great is that darkness!” (Mt 5:22-23)
Although it may well be true, and can likely be supported in other passages, this verse is not speaking about the radiation that emanates from God, nor differences in visibility. It is not a statement about substance. Rather, the writer is telling us something through the categories of light and dark, that speak about inherent righteousness and the complete absence of sin. It is a statement about character and nature, not material, or some kind of meta-material.
So, as it should apply then to believers who claim to have this “light” within them through their expression of faith in Jesus, if in practice, their eyes (both figuratively and literally) focus on the desires represented in darkness, in pursuits that swirl and churn with sin…”how great is that darkness”.
“You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb 5:12)
“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet 2:2-3)
“Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience”. (1 Cor 10:25)
Through the words milk and meat, the first writer above is using them as categories to represent spiritual maturity; namely, that many Christians who have been long-time members of the church are still so immature in their growth into Christ-likeness, that like babies who need milk and would choke on meat, they need to start all over again in being taught the truth about what it means to be a follower of Christ.
In a similar use of categories, the second writer is using the same words, but with the opposite meaning. The first writer is not suggesting that milk is good if someone remains stuck on it, whereas Peter’s use of the term is a praise regarding those who have ingested the words and life of Jesus, and who have come to that joyous understanding that the nourishing milk enjoyed by infants is much like believers who have matured, from initially accepting Jesus, to recognizing how good and right it is to follow him.
In the third passage, the writer is not using the term in a categorical way, but in a literal and substance manner. It is actually talking about the meat of animals—what a person actually can eat in a material way. Although literal and material, he is also using it as an example of living in and enjoying our freedoms to make all sorts of choices without religious restraint, while imposing upon ourselves the restrictions of putting the concerns and immaturity of others around us at the front of our expressions, so that we won’t indulge our desires while offending those around us. In other words, he is using this same word as a substance reference, rather than a category reference, but it also is presented as an example that should be extended to many further applications that might have a similar circumstance of comparing freedom with love-for-others.
There are many similar patterns in Scripture that show this distinction in how the language and words recorded are meant to be interpreted in different ways than is often assumed by worldly scholars.
To rightly divide the word of truth and show ourselves approved by God as faithful students of Christ and his word, we must carefully approach Scripture as God intended. Truth cannot be discovered simply by linguistic study, nor by educated review or scholarly interpretation or by comparisons to cultural norms of language. Meaning, especially when it comes to what God has breathed into Scripture, must be sought from the writer, and submit to his intended purposes—it must be revealed by God.