Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them.
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Galatians #17 . Chapter 5:13-15
For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:13-15, HCSB)
Picture a man who is addicted to drugs. He lives for the high that comes from the drugs. He hates the low that comes afterwards. But love it or hate it, he is a slave to it. He has to have it. Now, imagine that God came to this man, and set him free from his addiction. He doesn’t have to have it any more. He’s free from the need. He doesn’t have to have the high anymore. He’s free from the awful lows. He’s been saved and healed from a life of slavery to the drug. He didn’t do it, God did it for him. There’s nothing he could have done to earn it. His relationship with drugs has been broken. There is no more connection between this man and drugs.
Now, picture the man, full of gratitude for his deliverance. He says, “I’ve been set free! I can do whatever I want now. The impact of drugs has been removed from me!”
After considering for a little bit, he says, “Since I’m free, I’m going to go celebrate by getting high!”
How foolish that would be! God delivered him from slavery to drugs, but he’s going right back to it. He’ll end up addicted again, enslaved again. He’s throwing away what God gave him. What’s the point of being freed from drugs if he’s just going go back and become enslaved all over again?
Paul is shifting his thoughts from explaining the freedom that Jesus got for us by dying, and moving to some ideas about how to live in that freedom.
His first concern is that the Galatians do not use their freedom in Christ as an “opportunity for the flesh.” We need to consider what Paul means by “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and it just means, essentially, “meat” or “muscle.” The apostle John uses it as a neutral term, generally meaning physical body. Paul sometimes uses it that way also. But more often, and certainly in Galatians, Paul uses “flesh” as a special theological term. He usually means basically, an orientation that is based upon outward things, and is turned away from God. There are several important things to understand here. First, Paul sees that orientation as coming from your physical life; and from a focus on your physical life. He doesn’t mean that your body is evil. But he means that once you are in Jesus, the most common pathway for sin is through your body and your physical mind. We’ll get into this in greater depth in a week or two, but listen to what Paul says about the flesh a few verses later:
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)
Obviously, these things are sinful. They drive a wedge between us and God. They hurt ourselves and others. Ultimately, they separate us from God completely – but we’ll talk about that next time. For now, we just need to understand that these are typical works of the flesh. They aren’t the flesh exactly, but they are results of allowing the flesh to have its way.
So, Paul is saying, “This freedom that we have in Jesus is not an excuse to indulge the flesh. Don’t let the flesh use this as an opportunity.” It’s like the drug addict who was freed from addiction. It makes no sense to use your freedom from drugs as an opportunity to take drugs. You are just entering into slavery to drugs again. You might as well not be free in the first place.
Now, sometimes, I understand, you don’t feel completely free from sin in the first place. Something in you still seems to want to sin. So are you really free? Listen carefully: that “something” inside you that still wants to sin is what Paul calls the flesh. If you are in Jesus, you are free from sin in your spirit. The deepest part of you doesn’t want to do it. The penalty has already been paid for it. You aren’t an addict anymore. Your deepest, most true identity is “New Creation in Christ.”
The flesh will say, “we must have this. We need it.” Paul recognizes that when we first hear that in Christ everything has already been accomplished for us, the flesh will say, “We are now free to satisfy ourselves however we want.” But it’s a trick. First it is a trick, because indulging the flesh never actually satisfies you. There may be a moment or two when you think you are satisfied, but it doesn’t last long, and there is always something missing.
Secondly it’s a trick, because if you follow that road, you will eventually end up enslaved to sin again. Note my words: “follow that road.” We all screw up from time to time. I’m not talking about that, and I don’t think Paul is either. What Paul is talking about is a deliberate, long-term pattern of indulging what the flesh wants, and choosing that consistently over what the Holy Spirit wants.
Paul wrote about this elsewhere. So did Peter and Jude:
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace.
What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey — either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Rom 6:12-16, HCSB)
Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. (1Pet 2:16, NET)
For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4, NET)
Fighting temptation is tough anyway. But don’t give the devil another weapon by saying, “Well, if I’m truly free in Christ, I can do whatever I want, can’t I? And what I really want, is to get drunk.” Fill in whatever temptation you have for “get drunk.” See that’s the thing: It’s your flesh that really wants to get drunk (or whatever your temptation is). It isn’t the deepest truest part of you. It isn’t your redeemed spirit. It isn’t Jesus living in you who wants that. So Paul says, “Deny your flesh. Don’t give it that excuse.” The trick is to listen to the truth of God’s word, and pay attention to that, while at the same time, ignoring the insistent loud cries and desires of the flesh. God’s word says now, you are holy.
You still fight with the desires you used to give in to. You still fight with the ways you learned to sort of satisfy your flesh. But that truest, most authentic part of you is not your flesh – not anymore, if you are in Jesus Christ. So let the flesh whine, and ignore it as much as possible. Focus on the truth that in Christ you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Look at it this way: your flesh dying. That’s right. It’s your flesh that is doomed to die. If you are in Christ, your spirit and your soul will live on, and you’ll get a new body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” The flesh is dying, so let it go ahead and die. All that noise and temptation and activity is just the death throes of the flesh.
Now, we have been focused on one half one sentence: don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. The second half says this: “but serve one another through love.”
Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them. Paul repeats something here that Jesus also said: “For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). I spoke last week about how this is sometimes generalized to become almost meaningless. This isn’t some vague principle about “as long as what I do is loving, it is righteous.”
Love always honors and seeks the very best for the person that is loved.
Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1Cor 13:4-7, HCSB)
In fact, let’s cut to the chase. The main thing everyone wants to be free to do, is to have sex with whomever they want. Isn’t sex loving? Doesn’t that make it OK?
Sex outside of marriage is not loving. Yes, I just wrote that. Why not? Because there is no permanent, unconditional commitment to the highest good of the other person. If there is no marriage involved, ultimately, the message is, “I am keeping my options open. I may be committed to you for now, but I’m not ready to commit to you in lifelong love.” Marriage is supposed to be the declaration of a lifelong, unconditional commitment. It is that decisive, unchanging commitment that is true love. Feelings are great, but they aren’t love. Love is commitment. Of course, our society has mostly ruined marriage, and it doesn’t really mean that to most people. But it should still mean that to people who are in Christ.
Sex in any other context is physical and emotional bond that falls short of true love. Because sex is so powerful, entering that bond without true love (commitment-love, that is marriage) ends up scarring people emotionally and making them harder; eventually it makes people less able to love in a commitment relationship.
Of course, Paul isn’t only talking about marriage when he talks about love. He is talking about Christian community. How about affirming others? Isn’t it always loving to affirm other people in whatever choices they make? Let’s go back to the drug addict. Which is more loving:
- a. Telling the drug addict that he’s special to you, and you support whatever choices in life he wants to make, including destroying his life with drugs.
- b. Telling the drug addict that he is wrong, and you will not encourage him or support him or give him comfort as he destroys himself.
It’s hard, but option b is almost always the more loving choice.
Loving others also means getting involved in their lives. It’s hard to love someone you don’t see very often. You can’t really have community with people you don’t know at all. Paul is saying, don’t focus on indulging yourself. Focus on valuing, honoring and blessing others. Be in community with them. Commit yourself to the good of those in your community.
Early Christians all correctly understood that one of the first places for this Christian love to play out was in their church community. Typically, they met in small churches in the homes of their members. They shared their lives and struggles with each other; their joys, hopes and disappointments. Their love for each other (which Jesus commanded) was supposed to spill out, and show the world what Jesus is like. Real love does that. But it started in the church community.
The call is to really love each other. This doesn’t mean we just endorse each other, or lie to each other that we think everything is great. It doesn’t mean everything is OK, as long as we can slap a “love” label on it. This is a commitment to honor and value one another; to keep the real best interests of others in your church community at heart.
If we can learn to love each other, I think we will naturally learn to love others outside of our community as well. In fact, that process is a reflection of the nature of God. God exists in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They love each other. There is true loving community at the heart of God’s nature. But his love couldn’t be contained there. It spilled out to create and love the universe and all its creatures. If we welcome his love in our midst, it will spill out and bless others also.