Flesh and Spirit

This is a lightly edited transcript of a sermon preached on January 16, 2022. For the original audio and/or video versions of this sermon, check the links on the Resources page.

Opening Prayer

Please pray with me.

Lord God, as all ways, Lord, thank you for this time that we have and this space that we have. Thank you for your presence and your continued grace throughout the week. Thank you for your comfort and your guidance and your strength.

We pray, Lord, that as we consider scripture, as we consider our relationships with you and with each other, that we would be open to digging deep, Lord. We pray that as we consider the way that we understand you and the way that we understand the work that you do in our lives we would have opportunities to be stretched — [that] we would be stretched gently by your Spirit into new places, into deeper thinking and deeper questions. We want to continue to grow, Lord, and to be challenged so that we can continue to be transformed into the kind of people who participate in the work of your kingdom.

We want to be the kind of people who are fulfilling the law in love. We want to be the kind of people who are loving our neighbors as ourselves. We want to be the kind of people who are good stewards of what we have received from you, Lord, and so we pray that your presence would not only be one of grace but of guidance and of empowerment and of understanding and wisdom. We pray that your presence with us would continually lead us down a deeper road to a deeper place where we can benefit the world in deeper ways.

We love you, Lord, and we pray these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.

Sermon

I’m going to be Galatians, this morning — Galatians, chapter 5.

One of the things we had to do when we were starting 1310 Ministries: we had to write a Mission and Vision statement. And, admittedly, it’s one of my least favorite parts about any project that involves any kind of mission or vision. Starting any business, starting any kind of group project where you have some kind of ambiguous goal, and trying to articulate that, nail it down, into something more understandable, something clearer, has always been challenging to me, but you have to do it. You have to do it, because if you don’t do it, it’s hard to stay on track with where you’re going. It’s too easy to get off-track and go to other places, because there are so many things we could be doing — so many things that [1310] Ministries can be, so many things that our lives, on personal levels, can be. And, as people who have different things going on in our lives, it’s so easy for one thing in our life to become part of another thing or to overtake another thing accidentally.

And so, creating 1310 Ministries Vision and Mission was important. We had to be able to put to words, to articulate clearly, what it is we want to accomplish with this ministry, with this congregation that we’re trying to put together.

The problem, though, is that often, when people write Mission and Vision statements or when people write goals for themselves, they make them very specific. There’s a time and place for that. The Mission and the Vision of the thing, of the business, of an organization, is not that place. Your Mission and your Vision is not supposed to be so overwhelmingly specific that it doesn’t leave room for creative application.

We find that same kind of temptation when we approach scripture — in the way that Christians approach what it means children of God, what it means to be Godly people, what it means to be righteous, what it means to be pleasing to God, what it means to not be living in sin… Any time we have these questions that become bigger than who we are or the way that we perceive the world or that challenge us in very mysterious ways or that seem unclear, we like to put a very clear application to it — a very clear definition — and the temptation is to become overly legalistic, and that’s the kind of thing we’re going to look at this morning in Galatians, chapter 5.

We’re going to look at the way that when approach the idea of the flesh and the spirit, we often become super legalistic about it, because it’s simpler that way. It’s easier to say this is what it means to define flesh, this is what it means to define spirit, and we’re not going to go anywhere beyond that, but when we approach these things — when we approach the idea of following the Spirit of God, of participating with the Spirit of God in the work of God in creation — we need to think of these things as Mission and Vision statements. They should be broad. They should give us something to build off of. They should be foundational. They shouldn’t be hyper specific, and we’ll see why, here, in just a minute.

In Galatians, chapter 5, starting in verse 13, this is what Paul writes:

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.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

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.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

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. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:13-25, NIV

Paul begins this passage with a statement about freedom. He says, in verse 13, “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.” This is very general. It’s vague. Be free. This is like Paul presenting his Mission statement, or beginning to present his Mission statement about the Gospel. You were called into freedom, and then he says, “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh,” and so he creates a contrast, here, between freedom and indulgence. Now we begin to see a little bit of contrast that helps us define what freedom is or what it looks like or what we can expect from it. It doesn’t lead to indulgence.

But, he doesn’t just say don’t indulge. He says don’t indulge the flesh. He presents another vague concept: the flesh, and a lot of people say, well, the flesh, for Paul, in a lot of the New Testament, represents the sinful nature of man versus, say, the spiritual, Godly nature of man. Ok, but again, that’s still very ambiguous. What is sin? What is spiritual nature? What does it mean to be Godly? He’s still being very general, but he contrasts freedom with indulgence of the flesh, so to be free is to not indulge the flesh, and to indulge the flesh is to not be free, and that brings the question: what is indulging the flesh?

And here’s where a lot of Christians go into what I said before; we become hyper specific. We jump right down to verse 19: “the acts of the flesh are obvious,” and then he enumerates all of these specific things — sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, etc. And so we say, “There, we’re done! To indulge the flesh is to do these things, because ‘the acts of the flesh are obvious.’” It’s very simple. It’s legalistic. We love that in the Western world. We love the idea of legalism that comes in and just very clearly defines in “plain” words, as far as we can tell, what something is.

The problem is that Paul doesn’t make that leap, and if you read the rest of Galatians, by this point you hopefully realize that the idea of a simplistic, legalistic set of rules or clear definition like this that’s just enumerated for us is the very thing that Paul is speaking against for the Galatians. Somebody has come in — this group of Jewish Christians has come in — and said, “Look, as people of God from the beginning, from the time of Abraham, we have the law that was given through Moses, and so we know — we can enumerate for you — what it is to be righteous, even in light of the Messiah,” and Paul rebukes the Galatians for even considering adopting that perspective. He rebukes them in really harsh words about being bewitched and being blind and giving in to these sorts of things, and then he goes on a little bit later to rebuke the people who are bringing that perspective.

Paul cannot rebuke them for adopting this rule-based faith and also present them the idea of a rule-based faith. That’s why Paul doesn’t make the leap immediately to verse 19. When he mentions the flesh, he doesn’t just say, “By the way, here’s what ‘the flesh’ means.” We can’t just skip over everything that’s in between. We become simplistic and legalistic, and we do the very thing that Paul is speaking against when he speaks against the circumcision crowd in Galatians.

Instead, he goes on in the rest of verse 13 to say, “Rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Paul presents the idea of freedom. Then, he says freedom is contrasted by indulgence of the flesh. Then, he says we’re contrasting indulgence of the flesh with serving one another humbly in love. He doesn’t answer “what does the flesh mean — what does it mean to indulge the flesh.” Instead, he presents another contrast; what it doesn’t mean is “serving one another humbly in love.” In other words, when we serve one another humbly in love, we don’t indulge the flesh. When we don’t indulge the flesh, we are not free, so he’s equating freedom with serving one another humbly in love.

He’s still keeping it very general, because, remember, this is like a Mission statement for Paul. Paul is laying a foundational groundwork about what it means to be free in Christ. It means don’t indulge the flesh, and what that means is, instead, serve one another humbly in love, and so in verse 14, when he continues, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: love your neighbor as yourself,” he’s now bringing law into conversation with freedom and love.

He says that the law transcended is love for your neighbor, and you might be thinking, “He doesn’t say ‘transcended.’ He says ‘fulfilled,” — fulfilled meaning “made complete.” Transcended kind of gives this idea that we’re moving beyond something. Why am I saying transcended when he says made complete? The reason I’m saying this is because back in Galatians 3, in verse 23, he says this:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25, NIV

In other words, we are no longer under the law, and this is more than just “we don’t follow the ‘old law’ anymore.” See, a lot of Christians, when we come here and we skip from verse 13 down to verse 19 in chapter 5 — when we do that simple, legalistic thing — all we’re doing is trading the Old Testament law for a new list of things enumerated by Paul, but Paul doesn’t say we’ve traded one law for another law. He says the law is no longer our guardian. We’re no longer under the law, at all. That’s the same thing he says in verse 5…

[Lost his place.]

In verse 23: “…gentleness and self-control. Against such things, there is no law.”

See, for Paul, the coming of age, accepting the faith that comes in Jesus Christ, becoming free in Christ, is more than just a new ruleset. It’s an actual transcendence. It’s a movement beyond the rules that the law offered. Fulfilling of the law is not the same as obeying all the rules. Fulfilling the law, for Paul, is a fulfillment of the spirit of the law. This is why he can say to them, “Don’t get circumcised.”

You gentiles, these Jewish Christians are coming in and telling you you have to be circumcised to be pleasing to God, because that’s what the old law said. Paul, himself, was almost certainly circumcised. The other Jews who were coming in and believing that Jesus is the Messiah were all circumcised, but he says you Gentiles don’t need to be circumcised, because it’s not obedience to the law that’s going to fulfill the law. Fulfillment of the law, the completion of the law, is to be true to the spirit of what the law represented. In other words, transcend the legalistic nature of the law as a set of rules.

If that’s the case — if loving your neighbor as yourself is not only the completion of the law but the transcendence of the law as our guardian — then when we get down to verse 19, Paul cannot possibly be saying, “Here’s the new ruleset that’s going to define what indulgence of the flesh means.” It has to be bigger than that, so in verse 15, he says, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (NIV) In verse 15, he provides another contrast.

If the law is fulfilled in loving your neighbor as yourself, then contrast to that is instead you bite and devour each other and you destroy one another, and Paul likes to do this throughout his writing. He likes to do this mirroring theme. I don’t remember what it’s called, so forgive me for that. He starts with the theme of flesh; do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh. Then, he moves on to love; rather, serve one another humbly in love. And then he does the opposite: flesh, love, love, flesh.

  • Don’t indulge the flesh.
    • Serve one another humbly in love.
    • The entire law is fulfilled in “love your neighbor.”
  • Bite and devour each other and be destroyed by each other (that’s the flesh).

Flesh, love, love, flesh.

Freedom in Christ is “not indulging in the flesh.” Freedom in Christ is “serving one another humbly in love.” Serving one another humbly in love means transcending the law as a legal document. Transcending the law as a legal document means “don’t bite and devour each other and destroy one another.” This is Paul’s core for what it means to fulfill the law. This is Paul’s core of what it means to be in Christ, and we see this mirrored all throughout his writing.

Romans 13:10 is a mirror of that. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love does no harm to a neighbor. All the commands are summed up in this: love your neighbor as yourself. This is the core — the heart — of how Paul perceives what God is doing in the world, especially through Christ, and so I say we transcend the law by loving our neighbor.

Then, in verse 16, he says,

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, NIV

Here, he’s much more explicit in this contrast. The Spirit and the flesh are opposed. That’s what he just laid out in broader terms. Now, he just comes out and says it. The Spirit and the flesh are contrary to one another. Indulging of the flesh is the opposite of indulging the Spirit, and indulging the Spirit is the opposite of indulging the flesh. They are opposed.

The implication is this: Spirit, loving your neighbor, freedom, humble service to one another, transcendence of the law — these are all the same thing. These are all related to each other. You do these things together. They’re different ways of talking about the same core idea.

Conversely, the flesh and the biting and devouring of each other are the same thing. Destruction of one another is the same thing.

This is the contrast that Paul is making, and he doesn’t offer any particular ruleset for these things. Instead, what he does is he brings us to verse 18, where he says the Spirit versus the law: transcend the law in the Spirit and be free in Christ so that you are no longer under the law, at all. This is important, because that’s the verse right before he starts to enumerate all of these things that he says are the acts of the flesh.

You’re not under the law, at all, he says, so when he enumerates these things, he can’t be setting a ruleset for us and saying, specifically, don’t do any of these things. He can’t be doing that. That’s the same thing as giving us a new law, and again, he says in many of his letters, the law is fulfillment of love. Love is the fulfillment of law, so it’s not about a ruleset. Transcend the law. You’re not under the law anymore.

So, when we come to [verse] 19 and he starts to enumerate all of these things of the acts of the flesh, instead of saying these things define what the flesh is, and therefore these are the things we need to avoid, what we should be saying is Paul’s mission statement about love fulfilling the law informs his list. And so the list should always be informed by the mission, not the other way around. The core of who God is, as a loving God, should inform the list, and this is Paul’s list. This is Paul’s expression, his examples, of what it might look like to act under the indulgence of the flesh, and so when we read these things, we should not be putting these things first. These things are results of the spirit of the law. These things are results of the transcendence of the law. These things are results in Paul’s time and place of his understanding of how a person might bite and devour each other and be destroyed by each other.

He says, “My understanding” — Paul’s understanding — “these things: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, descensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like are the sorts of things that you are engaging in that might be ‘biting and devouring at each other,’ and because of that, through these things, you might be destroying one another.”

But, remember, the rule is not “avoid these things.” The rule is “don’t bite and devour each other.” That is to say, the rule is “love your neighbor as yourself,” so the question is how are these things contributing to the destruction of others? We get so caught up in the list that we don’t stop to analyze what other things in our life might be devouring the people around us. We don’t stop to ask ourselves what we might be doing that’s not on this list that is destroying the people around us, because we’re so caught up in the simple legalism of just substituting this list for the mission statement that we don’t even take time to analyze what we’re actually doing in life.

Just because you don’t indulge in sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; just because you don’t indulge in idolatry and witchcraft; just because you don’t indulge in hatred and discord and jealousy and fits of rage doesn’t mean that everything you’re doing is loving to your neighbor. And you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, show me what I’m doing that’s not loving to my neighbor,” but that’s not what I’m here to do! I’m here to tell you to decide what you’re doing that’s not loving to your neighbor.

Jesus says examine the plank in your own eye first. He doesn’t say, “If you have a plank…” He says you do have a plank. Your brother or your sister, they have a speck in their eye. He says yeah, they’re doing things they shouldn’t be doing, but if you’re honest with yourself, you have this massive plank jutting out of your own eye that you need to address, and Paul says what that means is there’s something you’re doing that’s not loving your neighbor as yourself but instead biting and devouring at your neighbor.

If you sit back and you say to yourself, “Well, I’m not doing any of the things that Paul listed. Therefore, I am righteous,” then you’ve fallen into that same trap that the New Testament speaks out against later when it says if you say you have no sin, you’re a liar, and you make God out to be a liar, and if you say you love God but you hate your brother, then you make God out to be a liar, and you’re a deceiver, and your faith is useless. Paul says don’t do that, and yet we come to this very passage and we do that very thing.

And, again, Paul provides a contrast. He contrasted flesh and love. He contrasted love with flesh. He contrasted spirit and flesh. He says consider all of these things that might be destroying your brother and sister, and then consider the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If you’re having trouble analyzing what you’re doing that’s destroying your neighbor — biting and devouring at your neighbor — then ask yourself this: what are you doing that is loving and joyful and peaceful and patient and kind and good and faithful and gentle and self-controlled toward your neighbor? What are these things, and then do them more, or in another place, he says whatever is good, whatever is pure, focus on those things. Against such things, there is no law.

This is why we have transcended the law. It ought to be because we are so free in Christ that we are free to love our neighbor as ourself, regardless of what anyone else says. Instead, we go the opposite way, and we argue for freedom as an indulgence of the flesh. We argue for the very opposite thing that he says. We say, “Hey, I’m free in Christ, and I have freedom! Therefore, I can do what I want, and you can’t tell me otherwise.”

Instead, Paul comes down to the end and implies that we ought to be saying, “Hey, I’m free in Christ. Therefore, I can love my neighbor, and you can’t stop me,” but we would rather go the other way with that and say, “I don’t have to love my neighbor because I’m free.” And Paul says that’s not freedom. Freedom in Christ is humble servitude toward one another in love. Freedom is not indulgence of the flesh. That’s why he puts these things here and says, “This is how I perceived destruction of each other — the sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, witchcraft, dissension… These things are all about you.” Paul’s experience of these things is that we do them to indulge ourselves at the expense of our neighbor instead of indulging our neighbor in humble servitude out of love, but the fruit of the Spirit, [against which there is no law,] is love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and so on toward your brother and sister.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:24-25, NIV

This is Paul’s mission, his vision for his communities of Christ that he’s trying to foster and nurture. It’s not about having this ruleset and this list of things that we avoid so that we can be righteous or pure. It’s about asking ourselves, in everything that we do, is this biting and devouring and destroying my neighbor, or is this loving my neighbor? And when people come opposed to us, we don’t say, “Hey, I’m free to indulge my flesh in whatever way I desire.” Instead, we say, “Hey, I’m free to love my neighbor in whatever was is good. I’m free to humbly serve my neighbor in whatever way I desire.” That’s a very different view.

We need to move away from the overly legalistic and simplistic evaluation of what righteousness is. We need to move away from the legalistic way we just substitute one list for another. We need to move away from the way we try to justify our own selfish indulgence at the cost of our brothers and sisters, and we need to start wrestling with the more general mission and vision of God and the work that God is doing in creation, not just in this passage in Galatians but in all of scripture.

Yes, it is easier for these things to be simple. Yes, it is easier for these things to be legalistic, but at the end of the day, scripture testifies — and I would argue that most of our experiences testify — that that simplistic legalism really just justifies our devouring of our brothers and sisters.

It’s time to give in to the spirit of the law. It’s time to transcend that legalism in a way that says, “I will do whatever is loving to my neighbor, because that’s the freedom I have in Christ, and you cannot stop me. You cannot stop me from loving my brothers and sisters and the people around me.” That’s what led Jesus to the cross; even if you kill me, I will love you anyway. And if we would fight as hard for that as we fight for our selfish indulgences of the flesh, this world would be a much different place.

I am inviting you to answer that call in Christ. Not the call to do whatever you want, not the call to double down on your tribe, to double down on your own family at the expense of your neighbor, not the call to greed and self-indulgence, but the call to be so free in Christ that you can love your neighbor as yourself no matter the cost.

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