LIVING CRUCIFIED #2: WE LIVE IN TWO WORLDS

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The Christian life can be disheartening and frustrating sometimes. We seem to keep making the same mistakes, and going through the same cycle over and over again. The promises of the bible don’t seem to apply to us all the time. Sometimes, the problem might be that we don’t recognize the way in which the promises of God apply to us. The Bible teaches things about reality and human nature that are very important to understand, if we want to grasp the promises within it.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 2

I’m pulling an audible. For reasons which shall eventually be clear, I am renaming this series: Living Crucified.

PLEASE BOOKMARK THIS POST SO THAT YOU CAN REFER BACK TO THE DIAGRAMS LATER.

Last time we talked about the very beginning of following Jesus: turning away from self, and from sin, along with turning toward God in faith. We recognize that we are cut off from God, and God is the source of all truth, beauty, joy, goodness and life. We admit that we often – maybe even usually – turn away from God, when given the chance. We are committed to satisfying ourselves. All of this is leading us toward self-destruction, loneliness, hatred and isolation – that is separation from God and all that we truly need. When we try to do better, it doesn’t last. We continually fail. We can’t be good enough to remain anywhere near the Holiness of God’s presence. His holiness is so powerful, we would be destroyed by it. Even if we could come into holiness without changing, we would spoil it.

Into this mess steps Jesus. He calls all people to repent. Repenting means we turn away from sin and self, and turn toward God. We give our hearts over to God. We recognize that there is no hope within ourselves, and we place our trust in Jesus alone to make us worthy to be in the presence of God. We trust in him alone to cleanse us from sin, and connect us to the truth, beauty, joy, goodness and life that we need and crave.

So far, so good. Usually, when we first become Christians, there is a period of time when everything is wonderful and good. We feel free, and light. We are overwhelmed with gratitude toward God, and that overflows into how we treat other people. We think “this is it!”

But sooner or later, we seem to lose our way again. We find that the old person we used to be is still hanging around, just waiting for a chance to  take over once more. We start slipping a little, sinning again, living for ourselves. We feel bad, and promise to get it together again, but it keeps happening. We get frustrated with ourselves. But we know that what we believe is the truth. We know that God is real, and good, and we believe that everything we truly desire is to be found in Him, and Him alone. Although we often forget even that when we see something else we think we want.

And so, as time goes on, we think. “Wow. It’s really hard to be Christian. I’m not very good at it.” We cling to our hope that it is Jesus, not our own efforts, who makes us able to be in God’s good presence. But we sort of settle for the idea that we aren’t ever going to get much closer to God until we die. We kind of make peace with the fact that we sin all the time, and we live with a low grade of guilt and shame.

Now, if you read the New Testament, it doesn’t seem like the Christian life is supposed to be so…underwhelming.  Whole shelves of books have been dedicated to help people like us pull it together. Some of them are quite helpful. Somehow though, we can’t seem to make the improvements permanent or consistent. Then, we come across a bible verse like this one:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

It’s tempting to sort of throw up our hands and say, “Whatever.” It certainly doesn’t seem like we are new creations. It certainly doesn’t seem like the old is really gone.

I sometimes think we get hung up because we don’t understand the way the New Testament views reality in general, or human nature in particular. This next part may seem dry to you, but it is really important. I truly believe understanding the following ideas can be of tremendous practical help in living life the way God intends for us. So please consider giving this a bit of concentration and effort. THIS IS FOUNDATINAL, IMPORTANT STUFF.

Let’s start with reality in general. The Bible assumes that there are two parts to reality: The Eternal Reality, and the Temporary Reality.

18 So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:18, HCSB)

I have italicized four words above. First, there is a reality that is seen. What Paul means by that is that we can interact with that kind of reality by seeing, feeling, tasting, touching and so on. This is what most of us think about when we think about “reality,” or the “real world,” or perhaps: “the physical world.”

There is another reality that is unseen. We don’t interact with this reality through our eyes, or sense of smell, or anything like that. We can’t measure it, or deal with it scientifically. But it is there. It is part of reality. We might call this spiritual reality, or eternal reality. Almost all of the human race, for almost all of history, has accepted the existence of spiritual reality. Most people have experienced things that they know are more than just physical.

Our verse above tells us that the seen realm (you might call it “the physical world”) is temporary. In other words, it has a beginning and an end.  On the other hand, the unseen realm is eternal. It lasts forever.

Both the seen and unseen are important. We live in both types of reality as the same time. However, Paul tells us the we Christians should focus on the unseen realm, because it is eternal, and therefore greater.

I want to offer two analogies to help us think about these things. First, imagine a line. Above the line is the unseen, eternal reality, or realm.  Because this realm is eternal, it is more powerful. It is, you might say, “ultimate reality.” In the unseen realm things are what they are. Appearance and reality are exactly the same In the unseen realm, God exists in all the fullness of his power and glory. This is one reason God reveals himself to Moses as “I AM.” He is exactly what he is. Nothing can affect him or change him. He continually is.

Below the line is the seen realm, what we might think of as the physical world, or the temporary world. Here, things are changing. Things are not always as they seem to be. We have needs and struggles. Some days are terrific. Some days are awful. Most are somewhere in between.

Now here’s an amazing fact. We know that we live below the line, obviously. But even now, if you trust Jesus, a part of you already lives above the line.

Now all of this is just an illustration. The truth is, the eternal, unseen reality is all around us at every moment. There is no line in the sky, or anywhere else. But it is helpful to understand that there are two different aspects to reality, and the line helps us understand their relationship.

Here’s the other analogy. Imagine a book: a fiction novel; that is, a story. The story has a beginning, middle and end. Inside the book, the characters move from the beginning through the middle, toward the end. But the entire book – the story, with all its characters and events – is contained within the covers of the book. There is also a reality “outside the book.” Someone outside the book could go back to the beginning to re-read a part of it. Or, they could go to the end to see how it turns out.

A character inside the book may live through a storm. That’s part of the story they are in. The storm is terrifying and dangerous. Yet, outside the book, the events within the book have no power. A storm inside the story may threaten the lives of the characters, but it does not physically affect a reader who is outside the book.

The book (everything within the two covers) is the seen realm, the temporary realm. But outside the book is an entirely different, and much greater, reality. This is the unseen, the eternal realm. We human beings are inside the book, moving forward through the story. We can travel in only one direction – forward. We experience all that is going on in this story. And yet, in some amazing and wonderful way, we also have a connection to existence “outside the book.” A part of us is outside, in that eternal realm.

How could it be that we are in “both places at the same time,” so to speak? It is because of the way God made human beings. According to the Bible, There are three essential parts to a human being: body, soul and spirit. Here are a few verses that talk about them all at the same time:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12, ESV. “Joints and marrow” refer to a physical body)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

There are many more verses that talk about spirit without mentioning body, or soul without talking about spirit, and so on. But it is clear that the New Testament views humans as having those three parts: Body, Soul, & Spirit.

We all know what a body is. It has arms and legs and so on. In our bodies we do and say things. When we behave in any way, it is our body that is living out that behavior. Our bodies live entirely “below the line,” or “inside the book.” It is also very important to know the biblical word “flesh.” Flesh means: “your body, under the influence of sin.”

We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” from which we get our English word: “psyche.” Your soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions. The soul is, in a sense, the part of you that feels like you.

The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with the unseen, eternal realm.

Now, what has all that this got to do with us living in both the seen, temporary, world, and the unseen, eternal reality? Here’s another diagram that might help:

Our bodies live entirely in the seen, temporary reality. Our body cannot see or understand the eternal, unseen, spiritual realm. On the other hand, our Spirit lives entirely in that unseen, eternal reality. Our soul is in the middle: partly in the physical temporary reality, partly in the spiritual, eternal reality. The soul connects the body to the spirit. You might say it is the go-between. Your soul (“the essential you”) is connected to your body. It is also connected to your spirit. It is the “interface” between the seen and unseen, the temporary and the eternal, the purely physical and the purely spiritual.

Now, let’s return to the first problematic verse I shared:

7 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

Knowing what we know now, let’s think about this. Could I accurately say, at this moment, that the entire me – body, soul and spirit – is a new creation? Could I say truthfully, that the whole of the old me – body, soul and spirit – has passed away?

I think not. In the first place, my body is obviously not a new creation. In fact, it gets older every day. So this promise cannot be for my body – at least, not yet. But Paul talks like this is a done deal. Let’s keep going. What about my soul? Is my soul an entirely new creation? Has the old soul with its sinful desires and passions entirely passed away? I’m sorry to say that I don’t think so. But maybe sometimes it seems partly true of my soul.

Now we can see the truth: this promise is made today for my spirit. I do believe that one day – when I step into the new creation with body, soul and spirit, then all of me will be entirely new. My soul will be cleansed and purged from all the sinful influence of my flesh (flesh= my body influenced by sin). My flesh will be destroyed, and I will be given a new body with no sin in it at all. But right now, even before all that, I am already a new creation in my spirit.

Let’s look at the whole of the passage in which our verse is found:

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

That’s what we’re after. We’ve received forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We want to live in a new way, not for ourselves anymore. But how? Paul goes on:

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:14-17, ESV)

How do we start? By regarding no one according to the flesh. Remember, “the flesh” is our body under the influence of sin. We don’t regard our salvation as a salvation of that flesh. We don’t regard our new creation as happening in that flesh. We look at it a new way. How? By looking at the spirit! Our spirits live “above the line,” in eternity. In that eternal reality, in ultimate reality, our spirits are already new creations. A part of us is already perfect, whole, entirely holy and able to receive all the goodness, joy, love, beauty and truth of God’s presence.

So we don’t keep trying to find life here in our flesh. We don’t keep looking for life in the world that we see around us, the physical world. Instead, we look to ultimate reality, spiritual reality, for newness of life.

OK. So far so good. The promise is true and right. We really are new creations. The old really has passed away. But how to we begin to get that spirit-life into the life we live every day in the world that we see?

I’m so glad you asked. We will begin to answer that question next time.

PLEASE BOOKMARK OR PRINT THIS POST SO THAT YOU CAN REFER BACK TO THE DIAGRAMS.

THE WORKS OF THE FLESH

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How do we know we are living by the Spirit, and not the flesh? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. This isn’t about law. It is about knowing the difference between flesh and Spirit.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 19

Galatians #19 . Chapter 5:19-21

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)

There are many tensions in the Christian life. One of those tensions has to do with forgiveness and grace on the one hand, and sin and the flesh on the other. This is one of the passages that shows us the tension. Paul has spent almost five chapters explaining that we cannot earn God’s approval. We can only trust Jesus, and that through Jesus we have it. Our sins cannot keep us separated from God any longer, because through Jesus, sin has been dealt with, once and for all. And yet, that is not an excuse to sin. Paul explains that if we continue on practicing works of the flesh, we won’t be a part of God’s kingdom at all. How do we reconcile these things?

Paul gives us these descriptions as a guide. He has told us to not indulge the flesh, but rather, live by the Spirit. How do we know we are living by the Spirit? Well, there is a contrast. The flesh does certain things. The Spirit results in different things. If you find you are practicing the things of the flesh, it is time for a course correction.

Paul names several different things as works of the flesh. After that list, he says, “and anything similar.” So this is not a complete or exhaustive list. He isn’t making a catalogue of every sin of the flesh, he’s just painting an overall picture. I’m not going to go into each of these in detail, because the main point is the overall picture. These are just a few examples of what “the flesh” can look like. However, I do want to mention just a couple of the works of the flesh he uses as examples, because some of them are not recognized as wrong anymore. My point is not to just generally condemn people. We are all sinners; we are all saved by Jesus. But living according to the flesh, as we’re about to find out, is spiritually dangerous, and often destructive to our personal lives. So we ought to be clear about some of what society calls “normal” but the bible calls “the flesh.” PLEASE do not take this as condemnation. Take it as motivation to let Jesus lead your life, instead of living to please yourself or other human beings. Even if what follows is hard to listen to, stay with me. I think you’ll find some grace if you read on through the hard stuff and hear what else the Lord has to say to you today.

One of the works of the flesh is “sexual immorality.” This is a very broad term, and it means, “any sexual activity that takes place outside of marriage.” So it includes sex before marriage, adultery, homosexual sex, pornography and, well, anything that isn’t between a married couple.

I think the culture at large has stopped believing that sexual immorality is wrong. But truth is truth, regardless of how many people believe it. According to the bible – this very passage, in fact – it is wrong. People have changed their behavior, and they’ve changed their views to match their behavior. But the truth hasn’t changed.

I have some advice for young people who find themselves in a pattern of having sex without getting married: Just get married already. If you don’t love the other person enough to marry her, then you are just using her for sex, and isn’t that just a little despicable? But if you do love her enough to marry her, what’s the problem? Go on and tie the knot already. This is basically what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. You can send me a thank-you card on your twentieth anniversary.

Another one we don’t think about much, is idolatry. When I was a little kid in Hong Kong, I saw actual idols all over the place. There was a giant statue of some Buddhist god right next to the beach we went to every week, and we saw smaller ones scattered in all sorts of locations. But in the Western world that kind of idol is pretty uncommon. However the basic principle behind idolatry is alive and well, all over the world. An idol is a false god. It is something that we treat as God, even though it is not.

In the Western world, we don’t treat statues as gods. But many people treat money as a god. People seek comfort in money. They put it first in their lives. They dedicate their lives to its service. That’s idolatry. We can make other people into idols as well – seeking comfort in them, dedicating our lives to them, rather the Lord of all Creation. In this way, mothers can even treat their children as idols, or husbands, their wives. We might turn anything into an idol: success; food; being healthy and fit. Here in Music City, USA, I’ve met a lot of people who treat music as an idol. If you seek your main comfort in it, if it has a higher priority in your life than the one true God – even if it is religious activity, but not God himself – it is an idol.

Another thing Paul mentions is drunkenness. This is another thing that our culture accepts, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone much. But the bible calls it a work of the flesh, a sin. Now, some folks might ask, “How drunk do you have to be before you’re ‘Bible-drunk?’” (Did I just invent a new phrase?) If you are really asking that question, I think you are probably already in danger from the flesh. You want to know how far you can “legally” go in indulging your flesh. I’ll talk about that in a minute.

Paul describes the works of the flesh and then writes, those who prassontes such things will not inherit eternal life. The Greek could be transliterated as “prassontes.” The root form of the word is “prasso.” Prasso means “to practice; to do something repetitively.” Here are a few places where the word is used in a similar way:

“This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices (prasso) wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.” (John 3:19-21, HCSB)

Although they know full well God’s just sentence — that those who practice (prasso) such things deserve to die — they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice (prasso) them. (Rom 1:32, HCSB)

Prasso is used frequently in the New Testament. In Galatians 5:21, the form of the word is both present tense, and active. What is important about all that, is that Paul is not referring to occasional failures. He means a deliberately chosen, ongoing pattern of life – repeated practicing – of these works of the flesh. In Romans 2:25, Paul uses the word for people who “observe” the law. In that context it is clear. Those who observe the law do not simply do one part of the law once in a while. It is the pattern of their lives. So, here, with regard to works of the flesh, Paul is talking about a present, active, ongoing pattern of life. He says, those who live this way, who make it their practice to behave in this way – those people will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So, we need to be clear. We don’t mean that an alcoholic who falls off the wagon will be automatically excluded from God’s kingdom. On the other hand, someone who continues a pattern of drunkenness, is walking by the flesh, and walking further and further away from God. Let me say too, I’ve known many functional alcoholics who lie to themselves about whether or not they are really drunk. They might say, “I’m not drunk, I’m just a little buzzed is all.” If you have a pattern of being “a little buzzed” fairly often, you are in danger.

We aren’t talking about sometimes giving in to temptation. I’m not saying that to do that is right. But I am saying that the great spiritual danger comes when giving in to temptation becomes a way of life. If you want to know how many times a week it is OK to give into temptation, my response is, “Walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” If you want to know how much you can get away with, you are moving in the direction of flesh, not Spirit.

My struggle in preaching about this, is that I know there are some folks out there who live in an agony of guilty feelings. They worry that every little thing they do wrong is going to destroy them spiritually. To them, I want to say, “God is much bigger than that. The work of Jesus is much more powerful. Of course you should confess and repent, but don’t waste time with guilt and shame. Jesus came to remove those things. They are not part of you anymore.”

On the other hand, a new survey just this week shows that 62% of Americans think they are going to heaven when they die, and only 1.5% think they will go to hell. Other polls show that among people who believe in heaven (which is about 89% of the population), 85% think they are going there. The bottom line is, a lot of people who really have nothing at all to do with God, think they are going to be part of his kingdom after they die. And even some church-goers and people who call themselves Christians, are living completely according to the flesh.

I had a friend who was a Christian. He struggled with alcohol, and with sexual immorality (the two often go together). He was married, but at one point, he invited his mistress to live with him and his wife. As things got worse and worse, I spoke with him. I said something like this:

Imagine you are in a boat in the middle of an ocean, in water that is one thousand feet deep. You pick up a big, heavy rock, take a deep breath, and jump off the boat. You want to go down deep, and the rock will take you there fast. If you let go of the rock soon enough, you will be able to swim back to the surface. But the longer you hold onto the rock, the deeper it takes you and the more dangerous it becomes. Long before you get to the bottom, you will pass a point of no return, where you won’t have enough breath to make it back up to the surface before you drown, even if you let go of the rock.

This is you, my friend. Let go of the rock, before it is too late.

My friend did not let go of the rock. He destroyed his family, hurt many people, and died before he was 45 years old. Now, most people don’t die young just because they are living according to the flesh. My main point is that he never turned back. Once a strong Christian, he basically renounced his faith, rather than renounce his lifestyle of the flesh. And that is the point. Somewhere down the road, the choice between flesh and spirit becomes solidified. At a certain point, which is probably different for each person, at least some people become hardened and never do turn back to life with Jesus. Now, I don’t want to start a theological argument about whether or not you can lose your salvation. I am merely repeating what Paul himself wrote:

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.

The apostle John wrote something interesting that may have bearing on this. He said:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him — to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death. (1John 5:16-17, HCSB)

Sometimes, a sin is the result of a moment of weakness. It’s still a sin. It’s still something we ought to avoid. We should still repent (that is, reject it as a way of life) and confess (own up to it). But it is not something on which to waste a lot of time and energy. What I mean is, we turn away from the sin, we apply the work of the Jesus on the cross to it, we cling to Jesus as our holiness and move on with life.

But sometimes a sin is part of a long-term pattern of living by the desires of the flesh. We are holding on to the rock. We are going down; it is leading us to death, to separation from the kingdom of God.

Some people may want to know, “Just how far down can I go, and still let go of the rock and get back safely?” In other words, “just how much sin, how much indulging my flesh can I get away with before it is a problem?”

I think that type question is asked by two completely different groups of people. Some people may ask that, because they are worried that they have passed the point of no return. They know they have given in to the flesh many times, and when they hear bible passages like this, they think, “Oh my gosh, have I screwed it all up? Have I lost my salvation?” They want to know the answer to that question because they are worried that their sins have disqualified them.

To that first group of people, I want to repeat Paul’s first words to the Galatians:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. (Gal 1:3-4, HCSB)

Do not fear, the work of Jesus is stronger than the work of your flesh. Martin Luther says it like this:

“Those who sin because of weakness, even if they do it often, will not be denied forgiveness, provided that they rise again and do not persist in their sin.”

If you are worried about your flesh because you don’t want to be drawn away from Jesus, you are probably in a good place. You don’t have to worry. Just fix your eyes on Jesus. Remember that in him, you are already holy. Claim that as your identity, and live accordingly.

There are people, however, who simply want to know how much they can get away with. They ask the question because they want to indulge their flesh some more, if they can, and still go to heaven. These are the folks I worry about. Imagine a husband who comes to his wife and says this:

“Honey, how close can I get to having affair before it is a problem for you? Can I look at other women? Can I fantasize about them? What about flirting – can I do a little harmless flirting? What about kissing another woman? That’s not technically cheating, is it?”

I think it would be obvious that there is a problem in that marriage. If the husband wants to know what he can get away with, he is clearly not very interested in his wife, or loving toward her. These types of questions show that the relationship is in serious trouble.

It’s the same with Jesus. If someone wants to know how far they can indulge the flesh before it’s a problem, I’d have to say, “It’s obviously a problem right now.” Think about my illustration of the rock that is pulling you under water. When should you let go of the rock? Right now! However deep you are, let go of it immediately. If you are contemplating holding on to it a little longer, you already in the danger zone! If you want to know how much you can indulge the flesh (so that you can get the maximum amount of flesh-indulgence possible without losing salvation) you are already oriented toward the flesh, and not the Spirit.

But if you are walking according to the flesh – if you are in a pattern of indulging the flesh – it is time to let go of the rock. Luther puts it this way:

Persistence in sin is the worst of all. If they do not return to their sense but stubbornly go on gratifying the desires of their flesh, this is the surest possible sign of dishonesty in their spirit.

We aren’t saved by refraining from sin, or by doing good works. But the orientation of our soul does matter. Sometimes we fail. I get that. PLEASE don’t let that discourage you or hang you up. Just don’t fall into the trap of indulging the flesh as a pattern or lifestyle.

FOCUSING ON THE TRUTH

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The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The Spirit is quiet, but clear. Above all, the Spirit wants to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 18

GALATIANS #18. GALATIANS 5:16-18

I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18, HCSB)

I have struggled to prepare this message, because what is said is here actually quite simple, but at the same time, it is very deep. It isn’t hard to grasp the obvious meaning, but sometimes it is hard to grasp how profoundly this could affect our lives.

We need a little background as we talk about flesh and spirit. The bible describes human beings as made up of Spirit, Soul and Body (Hebrews 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; numerous other verses). We each have a body. We know what that is. Our body life is what our body does – what we do and say, how we behave. We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” which we have changed in English to “psyche.” Just like that English word, the soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions. The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with God.

Your flesh is located in your body. The soul – your emotions, thoughts and decisions – is the battleground between flesh and spirit. Your soul can give attention and power to the flesh, or to the spirit. Before you are in Jesus, your spirit is dead. The flesh has free reign to do what it wants. The soul may occasionally make an effort to do some good thing, or refrain from something especially bad, but it is not empowered by God to that. It has nothing to go on but what it gets from the body, and that is heavily influenced by the flesh. However, when we come to Jesus, he makes us fully alive, fully perfect in spirit. Now, God’s Holy Spirit has a means to speak to us, to our souls, through our spirits. Now, the battle is on.

It is important to remember that the Spirit is eternal. The soul is also eternal. But the body, and the flesh, are dying, even as you read this. What that means is that the flesh is not the “real you.” The real you is going to live on eternity, either with Jesus, if you continue to trust him, or in the eternal torment of separation from him. If you are with Jesus, your spirit and soul will get a new body at the resurrection, a body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” This idea that the Spirit is the “real you” is very important when it comes to walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh.

I think one of the first questions I have about Paul’s statement, is: “how do we recognize the Spirit?” In order to help us understand, I want to reference a text that I preached on about two years ago. Bear with me if you know it, because I think it will help us. Turn to 1 Kings 19:1-13 (if you are new to the Bible, that means the book of “1 Kings,” chapter number 19, verses 1 through 13). This is a story about the prophet Elijah.

Elijah had some tremendous victories in his life. There were times when he was full of faith, and God did amazing things through him. But there were also times when things were not going well for him at all. His life was a little bit like a roller coaster – up, because things were good, and down, because things were bad. At one point, he got so down that he ran away and lived in a cave. After a time of recovery, the Lord spoke to him, and told him to come to the entrance of the cave, because he was going to reveal his presence to Elijah.

And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:13, HCSB)

I think the Lord was making a point. Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”

God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”

And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send your fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.

Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.

What this story shows us, is the difference between flesh and spirit. Flesh is loud and insistent, even demanding. Elijah, even though he was a prophet, had been living according to the flesh. When things were good, he was OK. When things were bad, he was not. His focus was on the clamoring, demanding flesh. But what God showed him is that God’s truest presence is in the spirit. And the spirit is not loud, noisy, or demanding.

I’m reminded of a line from song by the Indigo Girls:

Now darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable;

And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear

I don’t know why that should be true, but it certainly is. This passage calls the call of God a “still small voice.” But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The voice of the spirit is like that. It wasn’t in all the ups and down of Elijah’s circumstances. It wasn’t even in the wind or fire or earthquake. It was a quiet whisper from God’s Spirit to Elijah’s spirit.

But here is something very important: Elijah recognized it. It was small. It was silent and intangible. And yet, it was truly there, and when it came, Elijah knew it. The New Testament seems to take for granted that we too, will recognize the voice of God’s Spirit, when we are in Jesus.

Paul gives us another clue. He says the Spirit and the Flesh are opposed to one another. They desire things that are opposite to each other. So here is a very practical help: If you sense a battle within you, if you want two different things, then one of those things is the voice of the Spirit; the other is the voice of the flesh. Now, I’m not talking about ordinary decisions, like what brand of jeans you should buy, or things like that. But if you are in Jesus, and you are presented with a choice of the flesh, there will be another voice, almost intangible, but recognizable, wanting to make a different choice. That is the voice of the Spirit.

The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The flesh wants to do whatever is necessary – including sin – to gratify itself. Bear in mind, the flesh doesn’t always want to sin overtly. This is not the devil, but rather your corrupted flesh. Flesh just wants to get what it wants. It doesn’t care if it sins to do it, but it doesn’t have to sin to do it. So, you can do some things that appear to be good, and still be doing them in the flesh. I know of a large ministry that is built upon the flesh of the founder. The founding pastor may not be overtly sinning. He’s building a large ministry, which undoubtedly has some positive influence on some folks. But he’s doing it out of his own effort, his own focus on outward success, and ultimately, for his own gratification. It may look outwardly good, but it is still flesh.

The Spirit is quiet, but clear. There is a sense of “goodness” and “rightness” to what the Spirit wants. I don’t mean a religious goodness – I mean a clear, positive feeling, thought or conviction that what it wants is good – good as in positive, and good as in morally right. The Spirit’s goal is not your personal success or immediate gratification. Instead, what the Holy Spirit wants, is to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you. Sometimes outward success will do that. Sometimes it won’t.

A lot of what it means to walk by the Spirit has to do with belief and focus. You need to trust it is true when the Bible tells you that the flesh is not the real you:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)

We don’t consider the flesh to be our true selves any more. We need to trust this, trust Jesus has really done this for us.

For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1John 2:16-17, ESV2011)

As we trust that Jesus has dealt with our sin and our flesh is on the way out, we start to see ourselves the way God sees us. The more you realize and trust that Jesus has made your righteous, the easier and more natural it will be for you to behave accordingly. We don’t need to struggle and strive with our flesh to change our behavior. Instead, we trust Jesus and what he has done for us. We cling to the truth that he has not only forgiven us, but he has changed us in the inmost being and through Him we have put off the old self and put on the new, which is righteous, holy and pure like God himself. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will begin to act as we believe. Paul says it like this to the Colossians:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:1-5, ESV emphasis added)

Very few translations include this, but in verse 5, it says literally: “put to death your body parts, the earthly ones…” In other words, the sins Paul names afterward are sins of the flesh and body. And the way to deal with these, the way to put them to death, he tells us in the preceding verses: set your minds on things above. Set your minds on the fact that you died and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. You fight temptation by believing that Jesus has already broken your connection with sin. You walk by the Spirit when you believe that you don’t have to gratify every impulse of your flesh, because real life is in the spirit, and in the spirit you are perfect and complete, and God has already met every need.

Part of this is about focus. We should seek the things that are above. We should set our minds on the things of the Spirit. Paul puts it like this to the Romans:

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. (Rom 8:5, ESV2011)

As I write this, I am on a “detox diet” with my wife. There are certain foods that I am avoiding for a certain period of time. I am hungry right at this moment. The truth is, I really want some pizza, but I’m not supposed to have any. There’s no good pretending I’m not hungry. And there’s no good pretending I don’t want pizza. But there is also no point in fantasizing about a crisp crust and Italian sausage and jalapenos and the most wonderful cheese. The more I do that, the more I want it, and eventually, it will lead me to go get pizza and ruin the effect of the detox.

I have three things that help me in this situation. First, I recognize that though I want it, I don’t have to have it. I’m not going to die without it. It won’t hurt me at all to abstain, and it will probably be good for me. So I commit to something higher than my own immediate gratification. Second, except for the purposes of this illustration, I refuse to focus on what I should not have. I know it’s available. I know I want it. But I’m not going to waste my time or sap my willpower by continuing to think about it. Third, I am going to get up as soon as I’m done here, and go eat some of the good satisfying food that I am perfectly free to have.

I think walking by the Spirit is very much like that. Of course we are tempted to gratify the flesh. That’s why Paul writes about this. But temptation isn’t sin. You’ll be tempted, so what? It won’t hurt you to abstain, and you can commit to something higher than your own immediate gratification. Second, refuse to focus on it. Instead, focus on the good things you already have in Jesus, and the more good that he wants to give you. Third, satisfy yourself in Jesus with the good that he provides, and especially with his presence and his Word.

Paul also says walking by the Spirit means you are not under law. I think there are two things we should think about in connection with this. First don’t worry about messing up. God’s moral law has not changed. It cannot change, because it is a reflection of his holiness. But Jesus has met that standard on our behalf. If, as we try and walk by the Spirit, we screw up and give in to the flesh, you are not now obligated to be perfect again. Romans 8:1-4 says this:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4, ESV2011)

We shouldn’t deliberately continue in a pattern of fleshly living. To do so takes us farther away from Jesus. But if we screw up sometimes, we are not condemned. Sin has already been dealt with for those who walk according to the Spirit. When you fail, get back up and move on in the Spirit. Don’t waste a lot of time condemning yourself, because in Jesus, there is no condemnation.

Second, the fact that we are not under law means we don’t live by a list that tells us how to behave in every situation. Instead, we make our goal to stick close to Jesus, to pay attention to the spirit. If we do that, the Spirit himself will guide us, and we don’t need a set of rules for every situation.

There is a lot here in these two verses this week. Let the Holy Spirit talk to you about it right now.