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Flesh v Spirit

A Bible study of Paul's letter to the Galatians

Paul completes his theoretical argument about Law and Grace, Sons or Slaves, with an allegory taken from Hebrew history. Paul is not teaching the theory of the covenants in Galatians 4 although many students have so used it. Paul clearly states that it is an allegory and it is his way of illustrating what he has been writing about. Paul wants to show that those who have come into Christ are free from legal slavery.

In Galatians 5.13, Paul begins the final part of his letter and in customary style draws the spiritual moral lessons from the theory of the earlier chapters. He answers the question that we should continually be asking, how does Christian doctrine and knowledge affect the Christian life and behaviour. He begins by drawing the battle lines between the old human nature that we inherited and the new spiritual nature that believers enjoy in union with Christ. This is much more than accepting Jesus as our pattern and example. Good as that may be, it is trying to do the impossible by imitating Him in our own human strength. In some respects it is the difference between trying to learn and practice a subject by using a text-book compared with having the master craftsman place his hand on ours for every movement that we make.

In verses 16 and 17 Paul writes of the 'flesh'. The Greek word for flesh, 'sarx', has several meanings and our modern speech does not convey Paul's meaning.. The REB translates this passage, "´┐Żlive by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desire of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other so that you do not do what you want". This is reminiscent of Romans 7. 14-25. What then are these two natures and how do they operate? We were naturally born with a sinful and "unspiritual nature" (REB). Those reared by parents whose lives were dedicated to God, may have something of the spiritual nature developed in their characters. Human nature, now unregenerate and sinful, was originally a creation of God in His image. Something of the original likeness remains, in spite of thousands of years and very many generations of being 'defaced' by sin and rebellion against God. Something too of the animal nature is within us except that we are often driven by habits rather than instincts. Paul found, what many of the human race have found, that there is a many sided tug of war going on inside us and we are pulled in different directions. We live in an environment of 'the world' and Satan. No wonder that so many are confused and make a variety of decisions about the same thing at different times and feel in conflict with themselves and others. Jesus, the only person without sin, was wonderfully sympathetic and gentle with those around Him who were obviously in a state of confusion and conflict. He knew that many of them didn't want that conflict. He knew also that they had little idea of how to resolve the problems and discover peace. How well He described them as 'sheep without a shepherd'. They were not usually criminals but just ordinary folk who in ignorance found it difficult to keep an unwavering upright attitude. They struggled to do right and Paul cried out, "Who will rescue me from this body that is taking me to death?" in Roman 7. There is only one way and it is found in Jesus Christ. Not only did He perfectly resolve conflict within himself, but He is able to do it in others. He can bring peace of mind in a way that no one else can do because He opened the way to peace and then has the power through the Holy Spirit to maintain that peace. What is also vital to the Christian is that Christ can gradually clarify in our minds what is truly of the old nature and what is truly the new life in Him.

Paul has not got rid of the Law. He did not promote lawlessness by the arguments in the earlier chapters of Galatians. Rather he was advocating a new attitude to the Law that really is the expression of the will of God. Therefore, since God is love, the real timeless, eternal law is love. Humanity is not without a definition of love. It is important at this time that

Christians should understand what love is, because it has been so misinterpreted and made ambiguous in modern culture that the word has almost lost its meaning. Many of those who 'sing' about it have not the slightest idea of its meaning. They make the rules of language as they go along. Jesus gave us a clear insight into the word in his wonderful parable of the Good Samaritan. In the New Testament the word attains its highest point in the love of God Himself. It is a quality that can reach out to the worst enemy and yet it is also that which binds together the closest earthly ties within a family or church. Without it, all else is a waste of time. "The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "Love your neighbour as yourself".

Then the apostle writes something that might seem very astonishing. The brethren in Galatia were fighting and 'devouring' each other. How could such a thing possibly go on in a company of consecrated, spirit-filled, followers of Jesus? Looking back over two thousand years of church history, it is apparently all too easy and the process has not stopped yet. The worst thing we can do is to look at other communities of the Lord's people and smugly feel that it doesn't and couldn't happen to us. Paul goes on to list a terrible catalogue of sins in verses 19-21. Although they don't appear to be the cause of trouble among the brethren of Galatia, the history of the church reveals that it would be wrong to assume that such things never happen among God's people. Leaders in high places as well as ordinary folk within the church have been guilty of this gross immorality. They are offences against God, against fellow believers, against people in the world and against the self which does such things.. Scripture warns against anyone thinking that he stands because that is just the time when one is most likely to fall. In deep humility and contrition we need to kneel at the foot of the cross and ask for our sins to be cleansed. Taking the lesson a little further Jesus makes it clear, in the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew 5 that we can be murderers and indecent in our thinking without committing an action. Our thoughts are part of the old nature that we are supposed to take off like a coat. This is not a problem to be worried about. Anxious thought or suspicion of others does not make our hearts right with God but putting on the new nature in Jesus and daily walking with Him does. If we are doing that, new life will grow in us and we shall find delight in Him and therefore in others of like mind. Then we shall find old things have genuinely passed away and all things have really become new.

The old nature still lingers in us. The Christians in Galatia had been born again and there was evidence of powerful things through the Holy Spirit in their lives. It was not glaring crime of which they were guilty. It was a religious matter; some would say a spiritual matter. They hankered after the human way of salvation. They could not trust, nor would they let their fellow believers trust, in Christ alone. In their case it was the rite of circumcision. At Antioch it had been the problem of eating the right food with the right people. These were 'things of the flesh'. That which comes between our brethren and ourselves, will eventually come between ourselves and the Lord and belongs to the old nature. Emphasis on the ''right way' to do God's service or the 'right way' to interpret Scripture can become 'things of the flesh'. It is not always what is said and done that is of the old nature but the attitude of arrogance and hypocrisy and these Jesus condemned more than anything else.

Our old nature is to be crucified. The growth of holiness in the Christian life cannot progress while the 'flesh' is allowed to flourish. We need to be decisive and certain about this and see clearly our spiritual objective. The Lord is not training those who can give all the right answers, parrot fashion, so that they can spend eternity repeating some doctrinal catechism. He needs people like Himself who can share His whole life in spreading the way of love and goodness and truth.

The Samaritan who stopped and bathed wounds and poured in oil and wine might have had some difficulty in his interpretation of the Law or in his performance of Levitical ritual but what he did on that Jericho road was in Jesus eyes the 'spiritual thing' to do. What the priest and Levite were going to do at Jerusalem, perhaps in the Temple, seemed to them to be very spiritual, but might be classed by Jesus as thoroughly 'fleshly'. The cup of cold water, given in the name of the Lord, will earn His approval and make us like Him more than all the 'pious talk' that has ever been said. Let us be sure that our conversation is truly in heaven and not just 'spiritual jargon'.

"But the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness and self-control. Against such there is no law." In those two verses of Galatians 5,

The Apostle summarises Christian character. This is the fruit of the spirit. This is that fruit of which Jesus spoke recorded in Matt.7.20. Not by their vast knowledge nor by their clever interpretations but by their fruit would we know the prophets in Israel. Nothing has changed. Jesus spoke eternal principles. We may do wonderful signs, we may be eloquent in debate, we may even speak with the golden voice of an angel but citizenship in the Kingdom of God is apparent by its 'fruit'. That fruit is clearly defined in Galatians 5 as qualities of character. Patient gentleness and faithful self-control are the best means of evangelism and not incisive argument. It is love, joy, peace and goodness that really matter when it comes to pastoral care.

(To be concluded)


From the Bible Study Monthly, February/March 20

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