Preaching Date: May 6, 2018
Key Sentence: Real freedom is to be led by the Spirit into love for others.
I. In freedom, brothers and sisters are served, not eaten (Galatians 5:13-15)
II. In freedom the Spirit leads us away from the flesh (Galatians 5:16-18)
Let’s begin by sketching two communities. I’m not necessarily talking about large groups. It could be a church or neighborhood, a civic or charitable group, but these communities could also be a family, or even a marriage. The first community is hell-on-earth. People are controlled by intimidation and fear. Any mistake, misspoken word, or inconvenience is met with condemnation. For example: “They said they forgot to call me, but really they just hate me. They always neglect me.” In this hellish place relationships are characterized by frequent name-calling, threats, eye-rolling, belittling, mockery, hostile teasing, and hate messages of all kinds. Along with this comes denial of responsibility in every dispute. “This is all your fault. Everything is always your fault.” Sometimes the active hatred settles into the sullen silent treatment, tuning out, ignoring, disengaging, while whining and gossiping to a wide hidden network. Far too many people live and die in this kind of community.
The ideal community is a mirror opposite. Where a hellish community rules by fear and intimidation, this community is controlled by love and mutual concern. Mistakes are overlooked or gently corrected, and the corrections are taken with an open spirit. When something doesn’t seem right, people are given the benefit of the doubt, and when wrong, people take responsibility for their own mistakes. Relationships are characterized by affirmation and building up, with words of encouragement, cheerfulness and service. Facial expressions and tones of voice are open and honest. People look out for each other and try to help each other do their best. When there is conflict, it’s talked through face to face and eye to eye, with each party wanting the other’s best in the issue.
Which community would you rather live in? In both cases you’ll accuse me of exaggeration. And you’re right. Not many communities or families are as dark as the first picture, but some are, nearly. And no community fully realizes the ideal, but some come closer than others. In today’s text, Galatians 5:13-18, Paul will give us two key ideas to help us move from the slavery of the first community toward the freedom of the second community. We’ll find that real freedom is to be led by the Spirit into love for others. First we’ll learn that in freedom, brothers and sisters are served, not eaten. Second, in freedom the Spirit leads us away from slavery to our flesh. We looked at the first half of this text last week and we’ll look again at the second half next week, but I really wanted to capture the overlap this week, both parallels and the contrasts.
Let’s read the full text. Galatians 5:13-18. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. 16But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For 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 keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
Last week we looked at the first part of chapter 5 and saw three principles: First, from verse 1, by faith Christ has set us free from slavery to the law and to moralism. Second, from verses 6, we live out that freedom when faith expresses itself in love. Third, from this verse, 13, the love which most expresses freedom is to serve one another, to voluntarily become slaves to each other. So freedom is found in faith working through love to serve others. We illustrated this last week with faith as the fuel, love as the nozzle that focuses the energy and serving others as the force created by the rocket.
But Paul warns us not to abuse the freedom we have found in Christ such that it becomes an opportunity for the flesh. Even in Christ we can fall back into creating hellish communities of self-serving and other-harming sinfulness. That’s because our flesh, our old sinful nature, doesn’t want us to find the real freedom of serving others. The enemies of our souls, Satan and his demons, want us to find satisfaction in serving ourselves to the harm of others. The world, shaped by Satan, promotes all kinds of selfishness, materialism, de-humanization, violence. Should we be surprised our communities are toxic? The world, our flesh, and the Devil do conspire to cause harm and evil, until we unconsciously believe the only way to live is to hate, retaliate and hurt.
But we’re wrong. There is no satisfaction, no freedom to be found in indulging the sinful nature or living a selfish live. Freedom is expressed through love in serving others in all the communities where we find ourselves: in our marriages, our families, our church, our neighborhood, our workplace. Paul says that this is God’s highest ideal for human relationships. Verse 14: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The quote is from Leviticus 19 which is a chapter of practical laws for causing no harm to others, things like leaving a bit at the edge of your field for the poor and fatherless, paying wages on time, not putting a stumbling block before the blind, not distorting justice.
And then, verse 18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” You shall not create the hellish community but the heavenly one. This summary statement was general enough and perfect enough that it stood out. In the Gospels Jesus is asked, apparently more than once, “what are the greatest commandments?” He points to Deuteronomy 6, and says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” Scholars tell us that the recognition of love for God and love for others as the best summary of God’s law did not start with Jesus. In Luke when Jesus asks a similar question to a teacher of the law, he gives the same answer, and Jesus commends it.
But that questioner was unwilling, or unable to live what he knew. He says to Jesus, “But, who is my neighbor?” Which leads Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable Jesus’ emphasis is the same as Paul’s here: “through love serve one another.” The Samaritan did not just offer the beaten man his sympathy, but went out of his way to help, rescue and restore the one who had been hurt. He served in practical ways, which is what we are called to do as we live out our freedom in Christ in our communities. So powerful is this ‘love your neighbor’ command that Paul expounds it at greater length in Romans 13, and James also calls it the law of liberty or freedom, saying “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”
The alternative? Not good. Verse 15 “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” This is the hellish community, which comes from indulging your sinful nature. It’s an amazing picture because it presents a kind of Christian cannibalism, where the body of Christ eats itself, much as the rat snake and king snake have been seen to do. When we use hurtful speech, sweeping judgment, and blame shifting to indulge the sinful nature in community, it’s as if we are taking bites from our own body .
Robert Heinlein, in his science fantasy novel Glory Road shows what the result will be. At one point in the story three people are pitted against a huge, smelly monster named Igli, all claws and teeth and slime. But here’s how Heinlein imagines the outcome. “We were suffering bruises, contusions flesh wounds—and we weren't doing Igli any damage. Oh, he screamed like a TV horror film every time one of us twisted an ear or bent back a finger, but we weren't really hurting him and he was decidedly hurting us.
I had started with my arms around his knees and I stayed that way, of necessity, as long as I could, while Star tried to weigh down one of his arms and Rufo the other. But the situation was fluid; Igli thrashed like a rattler with its back broken and was forever getting one limb or another free and trying to gouge and bite. It got us into odd positions and I found myself hanging onto one calloused foot, trying to twist it off, while I stared into his open mouth, wide as a bear trap and less appetizing. His teeth needed cleaning.
So I shoved the toe of his foot into his mouth. Igli screamed, so I kept on shoving, and pretty soon he didn't have room to scream. I kept on pushing. When he had swallowed his own left leg up to the knee, he managed to wrench his right arm loose from Star and grabbed at his disappearing leg—and I grabbed his wrist. "Help me, I yelped to Star. “Push!” She got the idea and shoved with me. That arm went into his mouth to the elbow and the leg went farther in, quite a bit of the thigh. By then Rufo was working with us and forced Igli's left hand in past his cheek and into the jaws. Igli wasn't struggling so hard by then, short on air probably, so getting the toe of his right foot started into his mouth simply required determination, with Rufo hauling back on his hairy nostrils while I bore down with a knee on his chin and Star pushed.
We kept on feeding him into his mouth, gaining an inch at a time and never letting up. He was still quivering and trying to get loose when we had him rolled up clear to his hips, and his rank armpits about to disappear. It was like rolling a snowball in reverse; the more we pushed, the smaller he got and the more his mouth stretched—ugliest sight I ever have seen. Soon he was down to the size of a medicine ball... and then a soccer ball ... then a baseball and I rolled him between my palms and kept pushing, hard. A golf ball, a marble, a pea ... and finally there was nothing but some dirty grease on my hands. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”
“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” In freedom, brothers and sisters are served, not eaten. Love is the nozzle which focuses our energy on serving. Last week it appeared that faith was the fuel. “What matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision but faith working through love.” Beginning to verse 16 Paul changes the metaphor, or shifts to a new one, and we find that God the Holy Spirit is the fuel. The work of the flesh leads inevitably to this hellish community while the work of the Spirit leads directly to the heavenly community. Verse 16 “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Walk by the Spirit. Live by the Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is the fuel of the Christian life, and only in the power of the Spirit can the desires of the flesh be defeated.
The true enemy of the sinful nature, as revealed in Scripture, is not faith, or at least not faith without an object, but Spirit, and not our spirit but God the Holy Spirit, the hero of our daily struggle. The Spirit, as we know, was promised by Jesus. On the night he was betrayed he gave this promise “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” The Spirit is “God with us,” and furthermore he is God in us, the inexhaustible resource for new life. The indwelling Spirit leads and guide us, and fights in us the battle for sanctification, for holiness and Christlikeness.
Before we get to that, we need to also remember the Spirit’s larger role in the church and the world. Jesus says in Acts 1:8 “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” As we read Acts, we’re not surprised that the Spirit comes in power on the disciples and he gives gifts to the church of healing and proclaiming and prophecy and the witness of tongues. He uses the Apostles and others to give the New Testament. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” So the Spirit has this expansive, powerful, crucial role in the life of the church and in its witness to the world.
But that’s not Paul’s primary focus here. Verse 14: “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 keep you from doing the things you want to do.” He’s talking about the Spirit’s role at the heart level. The Spirit and the flesh are at war. The flesh, the sinful nature, keeps you from doing the things you want to do. Paul explains this at length in Romans 7 and 8. He says “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Do you hear the echo of “so that you do not do what you want”? Galatians 5 is an extremely condensed and valuable version of Romans 7 and 8, and those chapters are an expanded and valuable version of this part of Galatians 5.
Romans 7 goes on to say “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” But then, in Romans 8, he explains the role of the Holy Spirit in winning this war. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
“2For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.” The righteous requirements of the law have been “fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” You see that last phrase? That’s the same thing he says here, in the condensed version. Verse 16: walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. But as we expect, he expands on this in Romans 8, in what I have said is one of the most important verses in my own life. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” This is where the war is won. The mind set or submitted to the Spirit is life and peace.
But how do we connect these two things, the Spirit’s work in the world and the Spirit’s work in us? I believe the Spirit’s objective is to make us into people who can carry out his global mission in communities that are more and more heavenly. Love for others is the middle link that connects the inward purification and fire of the Holy Spirit to the outward miraculous witness of the Spirit to a fallen, sinful and needy world. It is through his work in us and through the nozzle of love that the Spirit shows his power in the world.
The flesh, in concert with Satan and his evil world system. wants to thwart that goal, even when we ourselves long for it, by keeping us in slavery to the hellish communities that sin creates. Communities that lean toward the ideal are communities where the members, more than a few of them, walk by the Spirit, and are led by the Spirit and have their minds set on the Spirit. Communities that are hellish are those where people have their minds set on the flesh and they live in the hateful, hurtful ways that grow from selfishness and sin.
So what does it mean to walk by the Spirit or to be led by the Spirit as Paul puts it in verse 18? I've had a lot of discussions over the last few years about the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In these discussions I’ve tended to emphasize the fact that the Holy Spirit leads us through the Word of God, that it’s the Word of God that shows us what to do, since the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God. Some of the people I've talked to have leaned hard toward the idea that the Holy Spirit can speak to us or lead us through more than just the Word of God, through circumstances and intuitions and impressions and dreams and visions and such. My response has to be, “yea, both/and. The Holy Spirit gives us concrete instruction through his word and subjective application by speaking through our daily circumstances and impressions and all these things. We figure out what kinds of things to do through the Spirit’s speaking of the Word to our hearts. Then we figure out the specifics and the when and the where through the Spirit’s daily guidance.
But what this passage seems to link together is that the Spirit’s goal for us is love in action. The passage says ‘love one another,’ ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and ‘through love serve one another.’ And then, down in verse 22, as we’ll see next week, it says that the fruit or product of the Spirit’s work in our lives is love. So, whatever means God uses to lead us and speak to us the product is always the same. It’s always other-focused and it goes though the nozzle of love. It leads to a heavenly community where the Spirit is powerfully at work, rather than a hellish community of hate and hurt.
So real freedom, according to Galatians 5, is to be led by the Spirit into love for others. In this freedom, brothers and sisters are served, not eaten. Not consumed by hate or bitterness, by selfishness or fear. Rather, when the Spirit is victorious over the flesh, we begin to be led by the Spirit, to walk by the Spirit in to a freedom that is free to love others and serve them.
I would love to close with a moving example of the Spirit at work in a loving community. In fact I’m reading an incredible true account right now of a community called Le Chambon that showed incredible love in the midst of the cruel Nazi domination of France. It is a perfect example of how the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, leads to the Spirit’s miraculous work in the world. But we’re going to save that for next week, because this week is a communion Sunday, and we want at this moment to turn our attention not forward to the results of the Spirit’s work in us but backward to the foundation of the Spirit’s work, what Paul called last week the scandal of the cross.