A new bulletin article is posted every week! You can subscribe via our RSS feed or contact us via email to receive a mailed copy of the bulletin every two weeks. Both the electronic and mailed bulletins are provided free of charge.
In last week’s article, we considered the freedom promised in Christ, and searched for the answer to the question, freedom from what? Answers included the Law of Moses, judgment of man, and (more importantly), sin and death; but the quest also dragged us into the realization that absolute freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Being freed from unjust, unloving masters will simply lead to our enslavement, yet again, to something or someone else. The goal is to “become slaves of God” (Ro 6.22), submitting our will and our bodies for his service.
This is because we’re simply not equipped to be our own masters. When we try, we end up submitting our bodies to our own desires, which quickly becomes sin, and look, we’ve become slaves of Satan, again. Even though our rational, spiritual will knows better, we still give in to the flesh. Would we do that, if our rational, spiritual will were in charge?
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
This notoriously dense passage is a challenge to understand, but well worth the effort. Having parsed the language, the next point of confusion comes from the mistaken notion that Paul is making excuses for sin, or denying man’s culpability, saying twice, “it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (v17, v20). But that’s obviously not his point; rather, having accepted responsibility for his own sin, saying “I do the very thing I hate” (v15) and “evil…is what I keep on doing” (v19), he describes his “wretched” state (v24) by saying that sin has taken up residence within him. The problem is that he has presented his body as a slave to sin, and so now it rules him, even when he knows it’s bad for everyone. His flesh and his spirit are at war with each other, we might say. In fact, Paul did say that—
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.
Now we’re back in Galatians 5, where all of this talk about freedom in Christ first began. How are Christians supposed to deal with this internal conflict? In this same context, Paul told these erring Christians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Ga 5.13).
The whole letter, up to this point, has been about convincing Christians, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Ga 5.1). We’ve already considered the many forces in competition to be our masters, and seen that the best candidate, who allows the most meaningful freedom, is God—not to mention his plans to adopt even his slaves as sons and heirs; but as we move forward through this life, it’s not as if “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1Jn 2.16) will simply melt away and never bother us again. It’s not as if Jesus will physically prevent us from choosing the path of sin. He puts up roadblocks to slow us down and encourage us to reconsider, but many Christians still fall away. This is why the author of Hebrews encourages Christians,
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
As we deal with the daily onslaught of temptation, how do we sow to the spirit and not the flesh (Ga 6.8)?
The simplest response would be to deny all desires of the flesh. How far would that get you? You’d die of hunger in a few weeks, but not before you died of thirst in just a few days! God built in a fleshly desire for food and drink, and if you never satisfy those, you’re not racking up points before God by your refusal! In fact, this approach is doomed to failure, anyway. You’ll find you have excellent control over your breathing, too; and will find immense pleasure in a big breath of air after holding it under water, for example. That is a fleshly desire, too; but if you decide to abstain from breathing, you’ll soon discover that your will is inadequate to the task! God built these desires into us, for our good, and not merely to tempt us into sin.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
The conflict between flesh and spirit is a part of life in the flesh. Running from it won’t work. There are, of course, innumerable problems with “the indulgence of the flesh,” but putting your faith in asceticism is simply enslavement to flesh, in a slightly different form. Instead, the Christian is to keep fleshly desires in their proper place, and refuse to be ruled by them—after all, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Ga 5.24).
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Freedom in Christ is tough to pin down. Paul mentioned it in Galatians as if it were one of the defining features of the covenant with Christ, and yet acknowledged that it could be easily misunderstood and used as an excuse for bad behavior. James told us to “act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty” (2.12). He used the same Greek word behind Paul’s “freedom,” ἐλευθερία-eleutheria. But confusingly, James uses it to describe a “law.” Aren’t laws generally concerned with restricting our behavior, or saddling us with obligations? It’s odd to see these two concepts married together!
On top of that confusion, earlier in Galatians Paul spoke of
false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery…
This problem was the whole reason for the letter! Jewish Christians, or pseudo-Christians, to paraphrase Paul, were trying to bind the Law of Moses on all Christians, and while most of the Jewish Christians at the time already did keep that law out of habit, Paul refused to tolerate those who tried to push it on Gentile converts! That tells us Paul had in mind freedom from the Law of Moses, which seems like a satisfying answer; but we still haven’t seen the whole story!
Though a Jew, Paul exercised his freedom from the Law of Moses, and especially from the Jews’ traditions, which served to bolster the Law. For example, he associated with Gentiles, which an uncomfortable Peter described as an “unlawful” act when God told him to do the same (Ac 10.28). Yet it doesn’t quite stop there, for Paul. On another occasion, Paul wrote,
why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
(1 Corinthians 10.29-30)
We could easily mistake this for the same old problem, because the main reason it was considered outright unlawful for a Jew to associate with a Gentile was that the Gentiles didn’t keep the Jews’ dietary laws at all. Consequently, any meat acquired from Gentiles would very likely be unclean by the Jews’ standard. But that’s not actually the issue, here. What did Paul say, just prior?
But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his.
(1 Corinthians 10.28-29)
This is about food that had been used in idol worship, regardless of whether it was otherwise kosher! This concern would overlap somewhat with the Jews’ normal dietary restrictions; however, Paul wasn’t afraid of offending Jews, but Gentiles:
But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.
(1 Corinthians 8.7)
It’s a long way to get there, but it’s clear that Paul’s talk of liberty isn’t just about the Law of Moses. In fact, he clues us in even further, in the next letter he wrote.
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Notwithstanding all of our confusion over what doesn’t bind us, we can rest assured, we’ll always be bound to something or someone! In the quest to learn just from what Jesus wants to free us, we’ve amassed a bit of a list: from the Law of Moses; from man’s judgment; from sin; and from death. But while we were distracted, looking for these answers, we passed right over the real problem, which is that we were asking the wrong question in the first place! It’s not only freedom from, but also freedom to!
Our appetite for freedom is primarily driven by the desire to do whatever we want. But all the way back where we started, Paul told us, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Ga 5.13). Instead of the freedom from restrictions on doing what we want, Jesus offers us the liberty to freely choose what we ought. If you attempt to secure freedom from any and all restrictions, you’ll soon find yourself a slave to your own desires, a slave “to those that by nature are not gods,” to “the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Ga 4.9). But if, instead, you put your trust in Jesus Christ, surrender your will to his, crucify yourself, bury the old man, and rise as a new creation, living “by faith in the Son of God,” you can be freed from slavery to sin and death, and joined to a new master instead—God! Now, if the highest good were freedom from another’s rule, this might not be a worthwhile trade; but far from it! With God as your master, “the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Ro 6.22). It starts with accepting his will and his rules, in order to live in his household. But it isn’t purely an exchange of one master for another; Jesus also came to pave the way for our adoption. Soon, you’ll find yourself “no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Ga 4.7).
God rescued the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, made a covenant with them, and gave them his law at Mount Sinai; then, he led them toward the land he had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. The plan was straightforward: they were just supposed to march into the land. But there was a major hitch. Moses recounts,
“…and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’
“Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. Where are we going up?”
We can understand their fear—this was not a nation bred for war, and since the land was such a prize, convincing its inhabitants to give it up would be a challenge, to say the least! But there’s more:
“Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.’”
The Anakim were literal giants! No one wants to fight a giant! A giant defending his homeland, nation, and family was about the worst fight the Israelites could imagine, and they didn’t consider it winnable. But Moses continues:
“Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God…”
It was so simple. It was supposed to be comparatively easy, but they just wouldn’t do it! As a result, they got forty years of wandering in the wilderness instead, as a punishment for their rebellion. Eventually, God led them toward the promised land again, coming through the countries to the East of the Jordan River. The two Amorite kings of those lands, Sihon and Og, attacked Israel. Israel fought back, won the victory, and took the Amorites’ possessions, their lands, and their lives. Moses tells about these events in Deuteronomy 2 and 3, mentioning in passing (2.11 & 20, 3.11 & 13) that these were the lands of the Rephaim—who, he mentions nonchalantly, were giants like the Anakim (2.11)!
The point is subtle, but clear. The generation that was now poised to cross the Jordan and enter the land, had already fought Amorite giants and prevailed. Could there be any reason left, to repeat their fathers’ display of cowardice when they learned what kind of people they were going to have to fight, in order to take possession of their promised inheritance? Moses continues:
“Your eyes have seen all that the Lord your God has done to these two kings. So will the Lord do to all the kingdoms into which you are crossing. You shall not fear them, for it is the Lord your God who fights for you.”
As usual, God was using Old Testament events to teach New Testament principles. He was willing to give his people some incredible blessings, and he fought their battles for them, conquering the unconquerable. The Israelites’ fears had been reasonable—would you be happy to go toe-to-toe with an armed and angry giant? God’s tactic here wasn’t about winning that fight, but instead was focused on winning the trust and devotion of his chosen people. He could have simply destroyed Israel’s enemies away from their sight, and allowed them to walk into a pristine new homeland, without shedding blood. On other occasions, he did this sort of thing (e.g. 2Ki 7.5-7, 19.32-36), but he wanted Israel to stick its neck out, so to speak, in taking hold of its promised inheritance. That didn’t mean they actually won the victories themselves—as Moses said, “it is the Lord your God who fights for you.” But he wanted their participation—for them to take a leap of faith, and then another, and another, always trusting that God would see them safely through.
Is it all that different, today? We also face giants, of a spiritual sort. A hostile culture, anxiety, depression, addiction, temptation, uncertainty, and creeping doubt all compete to tear us away from our promised home in heaven, and just like the Israelites of old, we are inadequate to the task of defeating them! “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co 15.57). We don’t have to rely on ourselves. Jesus can defeat our enemies—and what’s more, he already has! He’s been through it all, living as a man, yet conquering all weakness and temptation. He never gave in to Satan, and he defeated death when he rose from the grave. If we’ll take those constant leaps of faith, follow where he leads, and participate in the story of our own redemption as he has instructed us, then
in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1.13-14)
This isn’t the only time Paul alludes to his personal history in order to make a point. In this instance, his immediate purpose in bringing this up is to emphasize that, despite having lived in Jerusalem for some time just as the church was first established and starting to grow, no one could reasonably argue that Paul was influenced on doctrinal matters by the apostles or other leaders in the Jerusalem church—at the time, he was actively seeking to put them to death! This is in service of a greater point about where he did get his gospel, and why the Galatian Christians should never have strayed away from what he taught them at first; but it also raises a side point, and one that is more obviously important to us, today.
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1.22-24)
What a turnaround! In another letter, Paul draws attention to the drastic change that was evident in his life as a result of meeting Jesus, saying, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Php 3.7). It’s a clear testament to Jesus’ power, and it deserves a closer look.
We don’t know many details about Paul’s early life, only that he was born in Tarsus on the southern coast of Asia Minor (Ac 22.3), and that he was born a Roman citizen (v28). At some point he was sent off to Jerusalem for his education, under the direction of the most prestigious teacher alive at the time, Gamaliel (v3). Reasoning from these points, we can surmise that Paul’s family was reasonably well-off, or at least well-connected, which generally amounts to the same thing. Between his circumstances, his obvious talent, and his hard work, he was the rising star among the Pharisees, with a bright future—from their perspective!
Another point requires some effort to see, but once found, is illuminating! In the early chapters of Acts, we’re given the details of several private conversations within the Jewish council (Ac 4.15-17, 5.21-26, 5.35-39, and 6.11-15). After that point, we no longer read of the council’s internal deliberations—in fact, we rarely read of the council at all! It’s not as if they gave up on persecuting the church and decided to pursue peace and harmony instead! So why doesn’t Luke tell us about their ongoing schemes? Why is it, that he can tell us everything that went on behind closed doors among the council in Jerusalem, right up until Paul became a Christian? Ah. That sounds like the answer, doesn’t it? To be clear, there are examples in the Bible of private conversations reported, in detail, by people who had no earthly means of learning their contents—on one occasion, it’s the primary driver of the story, when an astute Syrian tells his king, “Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom” (2Ki 6.12). But in this case, the sudden change is suspect, and it suggests that Luke got the information about these conversations, not directly from the Holy Spirit, but from Paul, who witnessed them himself! Either he was a member of the council already, or was trusted enough to be allowed in, as a helper to someone else, likely Gamaliel.
Paul had everything he wanted in this life: the approval of religious authorities, a position of increasing power and prestige, and an excellent forecast for his advancement among his people. And what did he have to do, in order to get it all? He had to ignore part of God’s word—the part about Jesus being God’s Son, the Christ. He wasn’t ignoring all of God’s word; on the contrary, the Scriptures were his focus! And where the Scriptures were concerned, he ruthlessly imposed his viewpoint on the people around him, raining terror and death on Israelites who disagreed. Because he refused to accept God’s Son, he became an enemy of God, while professing to be his servant.
But he turned! Did he need just a little tweak, a slight adjustment in his worldview? No, he changed his answer on the most important, fundamental question that faces each one of us: who is Jesus of Nazareth? Although he got many things right beforehand, none of that counted for anything, until he acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and turned completely around.
We tend to refer to chapter 9 of Acts as Paul’s “conversion story,” and although the word, conversion, does not appear in most of the modern Bible translations, it’s an excellent description of what Paul underwent. He didn’t just switch sides in a conflict—plenty of people have done that, with good or evil motives. He didn’t switch to a better-paying job—money never entered the equation at all. He didn’t seize an opportunity for more power and prestige—he already had those, and gave them up! He didn’t abandon a difficult path in favor of an easier one—he was relentlessly persecuted, mistreated, and eventually killed as a direct result of this conversion! But converted he was! He was completely transformed. His heart changed; his mind changed; his behavior changed. While his body stayed the same, in spirit the old Paul was dead and gone, crucified with Christ. Instead, Christ now lived in him (Ga 2.20). Does he live in you? Have you been converted?
“For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30.11-15)
Moses spoke these words to the ancient Israelites, shortly before they crossed the Jordan river to claim the inheritance God had promised them. They took a long road to get to this point, and their repeated disobedience along the way led to a forty-year delay, a punishment for their cowardly refusal to take the promised land when God told them to do so. At long last, they stood at the gate, poised to enter. Although Moses himself was denied entry due to his own act of rebellion against God, he did his best to prepare his people to go on without him, learn from their past mistakes, and make the most of this fresh start, as God fought their battles and gave them his promised inheritance.
In the passage above, Moses stressed that God was not requiring anything unreasonable of them. It’s not as if he expected them to keep rules, without telling them what the rules were! This comes at the tail end of a long rehearsal of the Law, which had been delivered in pieces over the preceding few decades, in three different books. The populace was mostly illiterate at the time, of course; but God commanded that his law be read aloud for the assembly (e.g. De 31.11). He also tasked the Levites with teaching it to the people (e.g. 33.10); he commanded parents to teach their children (e.g. 11.19); and he told all of them to discuss his rules regularly, “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (De 6.7). The commandment was certainly accessible!
How much more so, today? There are, of course, plenty of complex situations in which figuring out God’s will on the matter is tricky. One has only to listen to a few no-so-hypothetical questions about a convoluted circumstance involving divorce and remarriage, to realize that people can be extremely skilled at making messes, as well as looking for loopholes in God’s instructions that technically would allow whatever disordered desire they wish to indulge. Of course, no one will outsmart God and lawyer his way into heaven, but that doesn’t stop people from trying!
Nevertheless, today even more than when Moses gave his final speech to the Israelites, the commandment is very near, and can be in our minds and hearts, if we are willing to accept it. Rather than a list of 613 separate obligations and prohibitions, Jesus summarized it all in two commandments:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22.37-40)
Even when we struggle to figure out the right course of action, the struggle is in applying these two instructions; but they should be the unchanging bedrock of all our decisions. When we break any of God’s rules, it comes back to breaking one or both of these.
It often seems to us that the world is drastically different today from how it was during the time of Moses, but that’s not really the case. It’s dressed up differently, of course, but ultimately we face the same decision as the ancient Israelites—whether to love and worship God alone, or choose from an assortment of idols; and whether to act in love for our neighbor, or treat him as if his value is less than our own. It’s easy to convince ourselves that a few white lies, some minor financial cheating, and a little marital infidelity are no big deal—you can keep it a secret, and it’s not hurting anyone. But in reality, you’ve just harmed everyone involved and contributed to the societal decay that always leads to a miserable collapse into chaos and anarchy. You have chosen to love yourself—not God, and not your neighbor. If only someone could have foreseen the consequences, and perhaps warned us, “you shall not bear false witness” (De 5.20), “you shall not steal” (De 5.19), “you shall not covet” (De 5.21), and “you shall not commit adultery” (De 5.18)!
Far from being outdated and irrelevant, God’s instructions all those thousands of years ago cover the same moral evils we face today. Spiritually, it’s the same warfare, against the principalities and powers, “against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ep 6.12). The same basic choice has been presented to us, between light and darkness, between good and evil. As Moses told ancient Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life” (De 30.19). God has given us more resources even than he gave the Israelites—in the same book of Deuteronomy Moses promised Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (De 18.15). He has since fulfilled his promise, sending his Son to shine light into the whole world, to atone for our sins through his death, to call “all people everywhere to repent” (Ac 17.30), and “be born again” (Jn 3.7) into Christ’s kingdom. The alternative is sin, darkness, and death. The choice is yours.