The focus in Galatians is on how to live as Christians. The issue in Paul’s letter was that the old way of living (according to the law) was being forced on the Galatians by a group of Jews. The Old way is all about compliance with the law – but there is a new way: under the administration of grace. In this 5th chapter Paul get’s practical and shows how this new way ought to work.
There is a great tendency for us to treat Christian things as of little real importance. We attend a nice church in which we meet nice people and we sing nice hymns and generally experience a nice Christian culture. But at church we actually deal with matters of great significance. Parents often worry about their children, will they know good health, will they work hard at school, will they have good job prospects, will they marry the right person and so on. All important and worthy concerns but there is a much greater issue at stake: our eternal future. Recently we read in the news of a tragic situation in which a 14 year old girl who was dying of cancer declared her desire to be cryo –preserved in the hope that at some stage in the future human technology would allow her body to be awakened and repaired, I think there is little doubt that this young girl was offered a false hope. But what if one could have offered her a life that would be permanently free of disease and over which the force of old age would no longer operate, what if that new existence could be totally free of pain and illness and would be without sorrow of any kind, a future in which there would be harmony with one another and with the God of the universe? This is what is exactly what is on offer! This is important stuff because the alternative is an eternal future which is characterised by torment and eternal separation from God. Church is not really about nice stuff at all it is about eternal truth with implications that make our temporal worries and aspirations fade into relatively low significance.
As we contemplate these big issues we do not defer their impact on us until we die – there is an impact in the here and now and that impact is of perhaps greater consequence than perhaps we realise.
The situation for Jews in Paul’s day was that they were stuck with the law. They had to adhere to it. This was not exactly a liberating experience. Imagine that at every turn there is a reminder of what you need to do. Imagine a wife or a husband or a father or a mother for whom only perfection would be acceptable! I’m sure you’ve had the experience where it seems that whatever you do it is never good enough! This is what the law is like, it is only ever satisfied with perfection. This is slavery! But Christ came to set us free from this and having set us free it is vitally important that we don’t go back into slavery. Paul says ‘stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.’
Sometimes a single thing acts as a kind of symbol for a whole way of thinking and belief. For the Galatians a return to the administration of the law was tied up with the act of circumcision. There was no need whatsoever for anyone to be circumcised in the Galatian church, but those who were pressing for a return to the law were demanding exactly that. It wasn’t so much about the act of circumcision itself but was rather the fact that this was a symbol of taking on the old way of the law. Paul says that ‘if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.’ If the Galatians accepted circumcision they would end up going the whole hog and would bring themselves under the yoke of the whole law. Circumcision means nothing says Paul; it’s all about ‘faith expressing itself through love.’ The Galatians had been doing well but had been blown off course by the Jewish group. It takes just a little bit of yeast in a piece of dough to work its way through the whole batch says Paul. Churches are not immune to getting the gospel wrong. It seems almost inconceivable that in the days of the preaching of the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul that such errors could creep into the church - but they did. Shouldn’t that make us all the more wary for ourselves? Anything that hints that we must earn our way into heaven by obeying the law or doing good works must be quickly spotted and dealt with – salvation is a gift that cannot be earned under any circumstances. The issue in Paul’s day was of great importance as it threatened to undermine the gospel. Strong language was indicated and Paul didn’t hold back! He said ‘as for those agitators (the proponents of circumcision), I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.’ So there is a need to get this right, but if living under the administration of the law is not the right thing then what exactly is?
2. Spirit not flesh
Paul began this chapter with a reminder that we have been set free by Christ. Free from the law! This sounds quite liberating and suggests that under this new administration one could live as one pleased – anything is now permissible – you can indulge your every whim as there is no law to break! Happy days. Not quite! From time to time one hears a comedian or someone on TV mock the Christian faith by saying that they’d rather be in hell having a party where everything and anything goes than being forced to ‘be good’ in a straight laced heaven. This fills me with dismay, not only because life according to the sin nature is not fun at all but because it’s such a dreadful corruption and distortion of what is actually true. We have been set free of the law says Paul, but this does not mean licence to live recklessly sinful lives.
Paul does indeed say that we are free from the law, but this is not an excuse to ‘indulge the flesh.’ The underlying principle for a successful Christian life is summarised by Paul in these words: ‘serve one another humbly in love.’ In fact Paul summarises the entire law by quoting from Leviticus: ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ If this is the principle the question arises as to how exactly one can make this principle real. Paul gives us a simple description of our makeup which greatly helps. Often when we encounter highly complex systems it helps to describe their key features in a model. So for example the complexity of our economy can be described by a model – a model is not a perfect description of the complexity of the system but it is useful as it describes the system well enough for economists to gauge and simulate the effects of changes they might make, such as for example adjusting the interest rate of the central bank. Paul gives us a simple model of our make-up as believers. This is not a full and exhaustive description of what God has done within us but it is useful to help us understand. Paul says that we have two opposing forces at work within us, one he describes as ‘the Spirit’ and the other as ‘the flesh.’ These two opposing influences are not going anywhere, neither of them can be removed, they are part of what we are in our present situation. One writer helpfully described the scenario as being like trench warfare: both sides are dug in for a long war of attrition. Are we simply passive bystanders in this battle? Absolutely not – we have real influence on the outcome of the struggle. Paul says this: ‘live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.’ In verse 25 he also says ‘since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ We clearly have a choice. The idea seems to be this: if you want to do what is right don’t just try to live according to a set of rules but rather order your life and being according to the Spirit. We can all too easily order our lives according to the flesh: we can read articles, watch TV programmes, listen to music spend time with certain people that will inflame and encourage the fleshly side of our being or we can order our thinking and being according to the Spirit. How are you living right now? What do you fill your mind and being with? You have a choice – and this choice comes with consequences as we shall see in a moment.
So what does it look like when the flesh is in the ascendency in our lives, Paul gives us a list: ‘sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like.’ This is a distinctly unattractive list, and yet this is very much the sort of thing we encounter on a daily basis in our newspapers, magazines, TV and internet* (see footnote). Paul is addressing believers here remember and it seems clear that he is suggesting that careless believers can actually live like this because that old ‘flesh’ nature is still within us and is at war with the Spirit – what we do will influence which side is in the ascendency. If we however ‘live by the Spirit’ we will not place ourselves in danger of allowing the flesh to gratify its damaging desires. This raises an important question: what happens to a believer who allows the flesh to consistently win the battle with the Spirit? I’m sure you have met at some stage a believer who is living a life of sin and who is involved in at least some of Paul’s listed activities, in fact I suspect that if we are honest we see something of ourselves at least some of his list. Paul makes a startling statement: ‘those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ What could Paul possibly mean? There can be little doubt that some believers do not live lives that are in tune with the Spirit, there is also no doubt that salvation is not dependent upon what we do. There seems to be a distinction in Paul’s writing between salvation which is a gift and cannot be earned (or lost once received) and rewards which can only be earned by good work. The idea of rewards is spelled out quite clearly in 1 Corinthians 3 where Paul states that our work will be tested with fire, if it survives a reward will be given but if not, ‘the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved.’ Taking these two ideas together (salvation gifted, rewards as earned) I think it is right to say that Paul is indicating that if a believer consistently produces these things sinful things in their lives they will suffer loss and the loss will be that they will not inherit the kingdom of God – note that they will not be barred from entering but the inheritance will be lost. This is a sobering thought and one that ought to spur us on to do what is right and to avoid the ways of the flesh as though our lives depended on it.
That’s the bad news. Now some good news: there is a viable and achievable alternative – live by the Spirit or keep in step with the Spirit. Do you have a desire to do what is right? Then don’t try to live by the law but live by the Spirit – I think this means that we centre all of our thinking and activities on loving the Lord Jesus and as one writer put it by ordering our lived according to the Spirit or as Paul puts it, by keeping in step with the Spirit. If you rarely read the bible, if you rarely pray, if you rarely meet with fellow believers but rather spend your time ingesting the thinking, philosophy and beliefs of non-believers you will not have much hope of keeping in step with the Spirit. Most mornings I have the pleasure of walking through the centre of what I believe to be one of the finest cities on this planet. I walk past Buckingham palace and through St James’ Park. One morning just before the ‘trooping of the colour’ ceremony I happened to be walking along Birdcage walk the soldiers were practising drill and there was one particular soldier with a bass drum and he was hammering out the beat. I found to my surprise that within a few strides along Birdcage Walk I was walking in perfect time to the beat, what caught my attention was that all the other pedestrians on the same route were doing the same. We could hardly help ourselves! You see we were in the right environment, listening to the beat of the drum and we were in step. Which drum are we listening to? Is it the drum of the flesh or the beat of the Spirit?
The wonderful thing is that just as living according to the flesh produces a distinctly unattractive outcome, living according to the Spirit produces a beautiful outcome. Here’s what Paul says: ‘but the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, against such things there is no law.’
We have a choice as believers: we can order our lives according to the flesh or the Spirit, each has consequences in the fruit we produce in this life and each too has consequences on the rewards we will receive in the future life. What we do now, today, this week will have an impact for all of eternity – how will you walk today?
*Since I work in the world of drug research and development I’m interested to note that the Greek work translated as ‘witchcraft’ is pharmakeia for which the original meaning relates to administration of drugs – our English word pharmacy is derived from this Greek word. There is clearly some sort of connection between witchcraft and ingestion of certain drugs which appear to facilitate a dangerous connection to the spirit world. Indeed, many occult religions use the effects of mind altering drugs in their practices. Playing around with such substances is thus highly dangerous and I have to say that I worry greatly about the impact of legalisation of drugs such as marijuana – labelled as ‘soft’ and ‘recreational’ by materialistic and atheistic ‘drugs experts’ but I suspect such people care little about the potentially devastating spiritual consequences that these drugs doubtless have on many people’s lives.