The meaning of the body-soma or the flesh-sarx in the New Testament is similar to the corresponding Old Testament words (body-geviyyah and flesh-bashar), examined in the previous chapter. In its literal use, the term "body" describes the concrete reality of human life consisting of flesh and blood. In the New Testament, however, "body-soma" is used mostly in a figurative way to denote the person as a whole (Rom 6:12; Heb 10:5), the corrupt human nature (Rom 6:12; 8:11; 2 Cor 4:11), the Church as the body of Christ (Eph 1:23; Col 1:24), the resurrected body of the redeemed (1 Cor 15:44), and the spiritual presence of Christ symbolized by the bread and wine (1 Cor 11:27). For the purpose of our investigation, we focus primarily on the New Testament view of the human body in relation to the total person.
Christ and the Human Body. To appreciate the New Testament positive estimate of the human body, we need to reflect on its central doctrine of the incarnation. For example, the Gospel of John announces at the outset that the eternal Son of God "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The very idea that the eternal Son of God entered human time and space and assumed a full human nature, including a body, was incomprehensible to the Greek mind. In fact, Gnosticim, an influential sectarian Christian movement largely influenced by Greek dualism, openly rejected the incarnation of Christ. This forcefully illustrates the difference between the Biblical wholistic view of human nature, which places value on the body, and the Greek dualistic view, which regards the body as the prison house of the soul to be discarded at death.
Anyone who fully accepts the New Testament doctrine of the incarnation can never accuse New Testament writers of denigrating the human body or the physical order. The fact that the divine Son of God took on a human body in order to live on this earth gives dignity and importance to the body and to the whole physical realm.
It is significant also to note that the same eternal Word through whom "all things were made" (John 1:3) at creation came into this world to redeem and restore, not just "the soul," but the whole man and the whole world. "This is the significance of the strange doctrine of the resurrection of the body which more than anything else horrified and repelled the Greek world. This doctrine served to emphasize, in the strongest possible way, the New Testament view that it is not some part of man (his rational 'soul') that is destined for fulfillment in eternity; it is the whole person that has his place in God's purpose."39
The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which is examined in chapter 7, teaches that our physical nature and the material world which play a vital part in shaping our earthly existence have eternal significance in the divine scheme of things. This teaches us, as Ronald Hall aptly puts it, that "even in the afterlife, the body is no mere adornment of the spirit but an essential element in the being of the person. It is difficult to understand why Paul would have hinged faith on the belief in the resurrection if he thought otherwise. If he thought, for example, that salvation had to do only with a disembodied soul liberated from the body, he would certainly not have pressed so hard for the resurrection of the body; he would have been content with the Greek notion of an immortal soul."40
The belief in the resurrection of the body is grounded in the bodily resurrection of Christ. "If Christ has not been raised," Paul exclaims, "then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (1 Cor 15:17-18). Christ's incarnation in a human body and resurrection in a glorified body (John 20:27) tells us that the body has eternal significance in God's purpose for this world. It tells us that the body is not a temporary prison house or proving ground for "souls" destined for ultimate annihilation. Rather, it tells us that the body is our total personality that God is committed to preserve and bring back to life on the day of the resurrection.
The resurrection of the body is necessary for the life in the world to come because the New Testament never accepted the belief in the immortality of the soul. Life without the body is inconceivable. Since the body is our the concrete human existence, its resurrection is indispensable to ensure a full personality and life in the new earth.
Christian Faith Is "Materialistic." At this point it is worth remembering that the Old Testament hope for the world to come is extremely "materialistic." While the Greeks were looking forward to the eventual escape of the soul from this earth to an ethereal region, Old Testament believers were awaiting the establishment of God's kingdom on this earth (Dan 2:44; 7:27). The Messianic kingdom will bring to consummation human history on this planet in accordance to God's creative purpose.
The same belief is prominent in the New Testament. Christ came down to this earth to redeem both the human and subhuman creation (Rom 8:22-23) and He will return to this earth to establish a new physical order. "I saw a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev 21:1). The whole earth, including the human body, is not annihilated but perfected. "He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Rev 21:4). "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Rev 21:2).
The ultimate renovation of this earth is the cosmological counterpart of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Just as the individual believer at the end will not escape from the body but receive an imperishable body (1 Cor 15:53), so the redeemed will not be raptured away for ever from this earth to heaven, but will be established on this earth, restored to its original perfection as the place of God's glorious and everlasting kingdom.
"There is no suggestion here," writes D. R. G. Owen, "of disembodied 'souls' painfully making their way up to heaven, there to exist for all eternity as pure 'spirit.' Just the opposite: God comes down to man; the Word became flesh; heaven comes down to earth; the holy city comes down from God out of heaven. . . . Thus at the end of the Bible, in its doctrine of the last things, as at the beginning, in its doctrine of the first things, the eternal significance of the whole realm of the physical is unmistakably asserted."41
Owen concludes by noting that "the implications of this Biblical materialism for Biblical anthropology-implications that are underlined by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body as opposed to the doctrine of the immortality of the separated soul-are as follows: first, the 'body' is an essential aspect of human personality and not a detachable part eventually to be cast aside; and secondly, the whole person, and not a disembodied 'soul,' is destined for eternal life."42
The Body as the Whole Person. In the New Testament, the body-soma is not something outward that clings to the real self of a person (the soul), but denotes the whole person. This leads Rudolf Bultmann to affirm: "Man does not have a soma [body]; he is a soma [body]."43 While there are few passages where the body or the flesh are contrasted with the soul or the spirit, such contrasts are not intended to partition human nature into different entitities. Rather, they describe different aspects of the whole person.
The body-soma can denote the whole person. For example, when Paul says: "If I deliver my body to be burned" (1 Cor 13:3), he is obviously referring to his whole person. Similarly, when he says, "I pommel my body and subdue it" (1 Cor 9:27), he means that he is bringing himself under control. The offering of the body as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1) means the surrender of one's self to God. Paul's desire that "Christ will be honored in my body" (Phil 1:20) means the honoring of Christ in his whole person. In references such as these, the body stands for the whole person as responsible for certain actions.
Bodily existence is the normal and proper mode of existence. Thus, the body is an essential element of human existence. The life of the body is not contrasted with the life of the soul or the spirit, as though body was an obstacle to the full realization of the higher life of the soul or spirit. The body can become an obstacle when it is used as an instrument of sin, but it is not a hindrance of itself. The body is not necessarily evil, because it is part of God's good creation. This is also indicated by the fact that no evil was present in Christ, though he was a partaker of our human body.
The Body as an Instrument of Sin. Being corruptible and mortal (Rom 6:12; 8:11; 2 Cor 4:11), the body can become an instrument of sin. This explains why Paul speaks of "the body of death." "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom 7:24). Here the picture in the mind of the Apostle is not physical but ethical. Death is the dominion of sin revealed in the physical life from which a person is delivered through regeneration, by faith in Christ. Since sin can reign in our mortal body (Rom 6:12), the body viewed as the instrument of sin can be called the "sinful body" (Rom 6:6) and the "body of death" (Rom 7:24). Thus it is necessary for a believer to "put to death the deeds of the body" (Rom 8:13) by living according to the Spirit. This is not the mortification of the body itself, but the renunciation of sinful acts.
Since the body can become an instrument of sin, the aim of the Christian life is to exercise self-control over it to prevent it from dominating one's spiritual life. Paul sets forth this truth clearly in 1 Corinthians 9 where he compares himself to an athlete in training who exercises rigorous self-control to prevent his body from gaining the upper hand over his spiritual life. "I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27).
Self-control over the body is attained especially by consecrating it to God as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1). This is accomplished, not by ascetic practices and the mortification of the body itself, but rather by making it sensitive to the dictates of the Word of God. The Christian recognizes that his body is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). To cultivate the presence of the Spirit in one's body means to make all our physical enjoyments and activities subservient to spiritual ends.
Conclusion. The body in the New Testament denotes the whole person, both literally, in the concrete reality of human existence, and figuratively, in one's submission to the influence of sin or to the power of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament sees the body as an essential aspect of the whole person which is not detachable from the soul nor can be cast aside.
The meaning of the body in the New Testament is enhanced by the incarnation of Christ who took a human body in order to accomplish His redemptive mission on this earth. Christ's incarnation in a human body and resurrection in a glorified body (John 20:27) tells us that the body has eternal significance in God's creative and redemptive purpose. This is confirmed by the resurrection of the body, which tells us that even in the new earth, the body will be an essential part of human existence.
Figuratively, the body is used in the New Testament in an ambivalent way. On the one hand, it can become a "sinful body" (Rom 6:6) and the "body of death" (Rom 7:24), when it becomes an instrument of sin. On the other hand, it can become the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19) and the means of glorifying God (1 Cor 6:20), when it becomes an instrument in the service of Christ. Redemption means not the removal of the soul from the body, but the renewal of the body (whole person) in this present life and the resurrection of the body (whole person) in the world to come.