Galatians 5:1, 13-25
In a little over a week, Americans will celebrate their nation’s 240th birthday. Independence Day. July 4, 1776. That’s when we told the king of England, “You can’t tell us what to do.” Liberty, we declared, is an inalienable right of every human being.
Freedom! You can’t tell me what to do! At least that’s how a lot of people seem to understand the meaning of freedom.
In our reading from Galatians, however, the apostle Paul writes about a very different kind of freedom:
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Galatians 5:1)
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is one of his most passionate. In the first four chapters, Paul argues forcefully for a simple idea. Christians, Paul argues, are free from bondage to the Law given through Moses.
“Of course,” says the part of me shaped by a certain kind of Protestant outlook. “Paul is speaking out against legalism and works righteousness and salvation by one’s own effort.” The Old Testament, the scholars remind us, contained 613 laws, to which the rabbis added countless regulations concerning their observance. “What foolishness,” say the Protestant polemicists! “You can’t work your way to heaven. True religion is built on God’s grace and the work of Christ. Faith simply believes and receives what God has done. Grace is good. Legalism is bad. Laws are bad. Rules are bad.”
But while the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on God’s grace and Christ’s saving work and the need for personal faith are all right and proper, it turns out that many of the old reformers didn’t really understand ancient Judaism all that well. Recent scholarship has shown that ancient Judaism does not really deserve the term legalistic. Many Jews, if not most, lived within the boundaries of the Mosaic covenant out of gratitude for what God had done. God delivered them from their enemies, made them his people and saved them from the consequences of their own sins. God graciously established his covenant with his people through Moses. The way of obedience was the way of true happiness and blessedness. Wow!
If you go back and take a closer look at what Paul wrote to the Galatians, you will see that he is not arguing against what I would call “covenant keeping” or faithful living in obedience to God’s demands. Gentile converts to Christianity in Galatia were not trying to earn their salvation or work their way into God’s favor. The problem wasn’t that they were trying to live their lives within the boundaries of God’s covenant. The problem was that they were trying to unite themselves to the wrong covenant!
Paul doesn’t speak out so much against “works” in general as he does against “works of the Law,” the distinctive practices of the Law of Moses.
For Paul, it is important that God’s saving work in the world did not begin with Moses. It began with Abraham. God promised Abraham that he would give the patriarch descendants and land. That’s pretty much it. God didn’t say, “Here’s how you should worship me.” He didn’t give Abraham rules about how he should eat or dress or farm. He didn’t give instructions about how Abraham’s people were to live together in the land or run their economy.
Centuries later, God reaffirmed his promise to Abraham by establishing a new covenant with Moses and the people of the Exodus. The small family of Abraham and Sarah had become a great multitude in Egypt. God’s covenant with Moses gave form to the life of faith for this burgeoning kingdom. The Law of Moses revealed God and his nature more fully. It instituted the priestly work of the tabernacle and temple. It established boundary markers that distinguished Israel from its neighbors. It gave instructions to God’s people on how to live together and prosper together in the land of Promise. Through Moses, God provided Israel with both enduring laws and a living, prophetic presence to guide it.
Paul’s point was that God gave the Law of Moses to help Israel get from point A – the call of Abraham – to point B – the coming of the Messiah. It was a kind of interim arrangement, and never meant to be permanent. Now that the messiah had come, the Law of Moses had fulfilled its purposes. It is now time for God’s people to move from the time of preparation in Moses to the time of fulfillment in Christ.
Paul’s opponents said that Jesus was the savior of Israel. Become a Jew, they said; yoke yourself to the Law of Moses so that Israel’s Messiah can really save you. In a way, that makes sense.
Paul said that was going backwards. Jesus’ death and resurrection had already accomplished everything that needed to be accomplished. Those who were baptized into Christ Jesus were already fully members of the people of God. The fact that they had received the Holy Spirit was evidence of this. To try, then, to reenter into God’s promises by way of the covenant with Moses was horribly wrong.
First, it effectively denied faith in Christ as the door to God’s kingdom for all who believe. Jesus’s death and resurrection did more than offer Gentiles the opportunity to become good Jews. You didn’t really need Jesus for that.
Second, it united Gentile converts to the saving work of God at exactly the wrong point. A thousand years of history made it painfully clear that life under the Law of Moses did not achieve the kind of righteousness that God was looking for among his people. On the contrary, the Law revealed Israel’s persistent bent toward unrighteousness. Christ’s death and resurrection offered both life and righteousness in a way that the Law of Moses never could.
All those who belong to Christ are free from the Law of Moses. But that doesn’t mean that Christians have returned to the era of Abraham, when faith didn’t demand anything more than believing God’s promise. The Christian ethic is not, “Believe Jesus died and rose to save you, and do whatever you like.”
Paul says that the Law of Moses, with its detailed instructions, was like a person teaching a very young child. The law treated the people of God like children who needed very specific guidance. Now, under Christ, God trusts his people to be more mature, more “grown up” if you will, with more responsibility for life’s decisions.
Let me give you an example of what I mean from my experience in the Army. Military forces have found that it is generally more effective to issue what they call “mission orders” rather than “detailed orders.” Mission orders tell subordinates what commanders want accomplished and why, not how to do it. Every situation is different, and no set of detailed instructions could possibly cover every possible contingency. Mission orders give subordinates as much freedom as possible to accomplish the commander’s intent in an ever changing world. If you know what the commander wants you to accomplish, you can adjust your actions to any situation that presents itself.
In Galatians 5:13-14, Paul gives the church his vision of the “commander’s intent”.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)
Christ sets us free – truly free – from every form of bondage. But that doesn’t mean that we are free to do whatever we want. We are both free and responsible to fulfill Christ’s mission of love and redemption in every circumstance of life.
But where do we find the strength to love? Those who lived under the detailed rules of the Law of Moses couldn’t do it. The Old Testament is witness to their repeated failures. Do we think we are wiser, stronger, or purer? Do we think it is easier to live as responsible adults than it is to live as a child with all of life’s requirements laid out?
The power, of course, is not in us alone. The God in whom we have faith also lives in us and among us. So Paul wrote,
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 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. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Galatians 5:16-18)
So let me recap what we’ve seen thus far in three words: freedom, love and spirit. Galatians is a great book, isn’t it? Who doesn’t love freedom and love and spirituality?
But then we get to verse 19. In verse 13, Paul told us to love our neighbors and not to indulge the flesh. In verse 16 he told us to walk by the spirit and not to gratify the desires of the flesh. And then, beginning in verse 19, he tells us what he means by the word “flesh”.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, zeal, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:19-21)
Now that will get your attention. Paul’s list of fleshly works describes life in the Mediterranean culture of the first century. It is filled with sexual, spiritual and social disorders. And, Paul warns, those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Paul speaks in euphemisms when he talks about sexual immorality, impurity, depravity. Paul doesn’t so much name the vices as he characterizes them. When Paul speaks like this, it is partly for modesty’s sake. There are just some things that one doesn’t say in polite company. And partly because it simply wasn’t necessary to catalog the pagan world’s sexual vices. Everyone knew what he meant.
The works of the flesh also include pagan idolatry and sorcery. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, of course, the worship of the gods was a public virtue, not a vice. Gods and divine beings were everywhere, from the home to the field to the countless shrines and temples that adorned their major cities. The well-being of the individual, the family and society as a whole depended on the proper worship of the gods, offering the appropriate gifts and the performing the correct rites. Priests and magicians used arcane arts to discern and influence the divine will. Ancient idolatry was pervasive, and it was a work of the flesh.
Paul continues by listing a number of acts that lead to public disorder, social division, violence and human suffering. The militaristic culture of the Mediterranean world considered at least one of the vices in Paul’s list to be a qualified virtue. The word I translated as “hostilities” is the Greek word thumos, which can also be translated as “the warrior spirit” or “the will to win.” Greeks believed that thumos empowered warriors to fight bravely and to gain the victory.
Many of the other words that Paul uses in this section also reflect how the ancient culture both applauded and feared the warrior spirit. In Greek mythology, Strife was the sister of the war-god Ares. Among her children were Hardship, Pain, Starvation and Murder. Zeal was the god of struggle, the brother of Victory and Strength and Force. The power-based culture of the Greco-Roman world showed itself in both in the relationships between nations and in the relationships between neighbors, and it was a work of the flesh.
Paul concludes by denouncing the Greek penchant for drunkenness and carousing. The ancient world relished its parties filled with excessive drinking, sexual license and the opportunity to throw off all restraint. For Paul, this, too, was a destructive work of the flesh.
Together, the works of the flesh describe the Greco-Roman society in which Paul lived. Paul is not just listing individual, personal vices. Rather, he is drawing us a picture of the culture that surrounded the church. Society not only tolerated the works of the flesh, it celebrated them. It relied on them for its supposed health and happiness.
The flesh had built an anti-Kingdom. The vices that characterized Paul’s culture do not belong within God’s eternal realm. Those who cling to the works of the flesh, Paul says, will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
So where did Paul get this idea that Greek culture is totally messed up? What happened to the simple principles of love and being led by the spirit? Why does Paul start naming names when it comes to sin?
It is not a great leap from the moral demands of the Law of Moses to the kinds of things that Paul condemns in Galatians 5:19-21. Even though the Law of Moses no longer applied as a law, it had shaped Paul’s moral thinking as it had the teaching of Jesus himself. Our savior and his early followers were all products of the Jewish culture of holiness.
It’s part of our inheritance as well. If we are looking for guidance on how to fulfill the law of love in the power of the spirit, we can’t ignore the rest of the story that we find in the pages of the Old Testament. That’s one of the church’s enduring tasks: to listen to the scriptural story of how God has led his people in the past and apply it to our lives today.
No less than their Jewish forebears, Christians are to be holy – set apart from the world around them. Christians, however, are to set themselves apart from the culture not by the clothes they wear or the food they eat, but solely by the moral character of their lives.
For freedom, Christ has set us free. We are free, it is true, from bondage to the Law of Moses. That, quite frankly, is not a problem for very many modern Christians. There is not a long line of Christians waiting to be circumcised so that they can keep kosher.
But Christ also sets us free from our bondage to the culture that surrounds us. The culture’s immense power to shape our hearts and our minds is often invisible to us. We are immersed in it every time we turn on the television or listen to the radio or browse internet. We are immersed in it as we drive through landscapes marked by billboards and store signs. We are immersed in it with every academic class we take, every museum we visit and every concert we attend. We are immersed in it as we pass by the temples of modern culture, the high-rise business buildings, the massive government structures, the universities, the sports stadiums, the shopping complexes and the monuments of civil religion.
Given the culture’s pervasive influence, it’s pretty easy to delude ourselves about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable for Christians in this age. Christians, however, still live by different values than those celebrated in the culture around us. We cannot truly walk by the spirit and love our neighbors as long as we remain invisibly bound to the powers and values of this present age. That’s one of the reasons that it is so important for us to come together, to listen to God’s word, to pray the liturgy and to come to this table. Without the means of grace, we are adrift in the world of the flesh. Here, God reshapes our hearts and minds so that we can live holy lives in the midst of our fallen world. To walk by the spirit is, among other things, to live in the community that bears Christ’s name.
God, in his grace, frees us from our spiritual bondage to the powers of this age, at least partly by opening our eyes to see the works of the flesh among us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, he enables us to turn from sin and fulfill the law of love, so that we might inherit the kingdom of God. He produces the fruit of the spirit in those who belong to him by faith.
And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
So Paul makes his final appeal to the Christians in Galatia. It is the same as his appeal to us, and to the church of every generation.
Now 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. (Galatians 5:24-25)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Updated and republished June 26, 2016