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“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”– Galatians 5:13
What Will Prevail?
Freedom is a wonderful gift. Americans, particularly, revel in a raft of liberties that many people in the world do not enjoy. Yet, learning to exercise freedom responsibly can be a challenge.
Wise parents don’t let their children run wild, but provide structure that limits their freedom when they are young, granting greater liberty in decision making as the children grow. When young adults leave home for college or move out on their own and discover near-unlimited freedom, they may struggle to adjust to a life in which they are responsible for finding the balance between liberty and limits.
Freedom from legalism(vv. 1-12)
Young believers in the region of Galatia (now in eastern Turkey) struggled with a similar issue. Most of them had come from a pagan background, worshiping the various gods of Greek and Rome, or no gods at all. Paul and others had brought the gospel of Christ to them, good news of salvation through faith that led to abundant life in this world and the hope of eternal life hereafter.
The new believers accepted the gospel and “ran well,” according to Paul, until someone “cut them off” and hindered their pursuit of the truth (v. 6) by persuading them that they must also keep the Jewish law. This prompted a fiery letter in which Paul bemoaned the Galatians’ fascination with legalism and called them back to faith. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul declared. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1).
The Galatian believers, some of whom had previously lived with few limits, had struggled to understand how they could be both free and faithful to God. Thus, when a more legalistic band of evangelists came behind Paul and promoted the time-honored structures of Judaism as an addendum to faith, many found it to be an attractive solution – not realizing that in adopting the law, they had surrendered grace.
A story in Loren Eisley’s book, The Star Thrower, relates how he once captured a sparrow hawk for a research project, but didn’t have the heart to take it from its mate and keep it captive. He released the bird so it could fly free and be what it was created to be. Paul wrote as if the Galatians had been lured into a cage, bound by the law. He sought to set them free to be what Christ had called them and redeemed them to be.
Paul minced no words in warning his readers of the danger of legalism (vv. 2-12). Not only was circumcision useless, he said, but choosing to follow the law required one to keep the whole law, and was tantamount to turning one’s back on Christ. In words that are clear, even if troubling to “once-saved-always-saved Baptists,” Paul said “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (v. 4).
Paul’s strong words reveal how firmly he believed that putting one’s faith in Christ and putting one’s faith in works were mutually exclusive. It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that the gospel of grace is too good to be true, striving to earn our salvation, or to behave well enough to keep it. But God doesn’t love us because we’re good or because we profess acceptable creeds. God has given us minds for thinking and hearts for loving and hands for helping – and the freedom to use them as an expression of our love for Christ. That is what we are here for.
Freedom from libertinism(vv. 13-21)
Of course, Paul knew that there is also an opposite temptation. For every person who thinks Christianity is all about keeping laws and staying in the lines and using all the right words, there is another who thinks that liberty means license. So, Paul warned believers not to “use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (v. 13). The only “law” Christians need to guide their behavior is love, something even law-abiding Jews should know. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment,” Paul said: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 14, quoting Lev. 19:18b).
Believers are called to “live by the Spirit,” Paul insisted (v. 16), rather than living to gratify selfish desires: “what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh” (v. 17). Those who are led by the Spirit will naturally follow a path of love and thus “are not subject to the law” (v. 18). Freedom, then, is a paradox – Christians are most free when they are most bonded to God and to each other.
Following selfish desires, on the other hand, would lead to any number of vices. Paul’s list in vv. 19-21a included behaviors related to sex (“fornication, impurity, licentiousness”), to twisted ways of worship (“idolatry, sorcery”), and to hurtful means of relating to others (“enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these”).
Such behaviors are not characteristic of people who expect to “inherit the kingdom of God,” Paul said (v. 21b): they are not the nature of a Christian. For a Christian to try expressing freedom through gossip or drunkenness or spiteful behavior is like a hawk trying to fly under water. The hawk is free to fly in the great sky that is made to be his home. Fish were not made for dry land, pigs were not made to fly, and Christian people were not made to lead selfish and querulous lives.
Free to be what we’re made to be (vv. 22-26)
Spirit-led Christians don’t bear the rotten fruit of human selfishness, but the life-changing fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (vv. 22-23). Note that while Paul described negative behaviors as “works of the flesh,” he does not label the positive qualities as “works of the Spirit.” The love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of which he speaks are not works done in order to please God, but the natural outgrowth or expression of God’s Spirit dwelling within.
Some commentators have noticed that Paul’s list includes qualities of the mind (love, joy, peace), actions toward other persons (patience, kindness, generosity), and guiding principles of conduct (faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control). It is more likely that Paul simply put love – which he has stressed earlier in the chapter – in first place on the list, believing that the other qualities grow out of it. Self-control, put in the final position, would have also carried a stronger emphasis.
The word “love” translates agapē, which in the New Testament is often used to describe Christ-like, unselfish caring for others. Joy was highly prized in the Greek world, so much that then, as now, it was used as a personal name (the English name Kara derives from it). While the Greeks associated joy with happiness or a pleasant life, Paul gives it the added dimensions of righteousness and hope. Peace, in this context, probably reflects the Hebrew sense of shalom, which suggests not just quietness of mind, but all things whole and good.
The word for “patience” could also carry the sense of steadfastness or endurance, while “kindness” uniformly refers to showing care for others. Generosity is more commonly translated as “goodness” and is a near-synonym to kindness. “Faithfulness” renders the noun normally translated as “faith,” but in this context it takes an adjectival sense of describing one who is faithful. Gentleness translates a word the Greeks often used to suggest a “mild” personality, but it could also carry the sense of consideration for others, as it does here.
The term “self-control,” appearing in the final position, is probably an intentional contrast to “drunkenness” and “carousing,” the final elements of the earlier list of vices. Those who are led by the Spirit maintain a sufficient self-discipline to avoid uncontrolled behavior.
There is no law against these qualities, Paul noted. All of them build healthy relationships that make the church, the community, and the world a better place. As a bonus, our lives are better, too. Who wouldn’t want to be known for a joyous, loving, and patient life that both experiences and fosters peace, expressing generous kindness to others? Who wouldn’t want to have “faithful, gentle-spirited, and self-disciplined” on their résumé?
Such a life comes from belonging to Christ, having “crucified the flesh,” and being led by the Spirit (vv. 24-25). In this way, we are free to be what God has made us to be – free to be “slaves to each other” by loving one another as Jesus loved us. Such freedom may seem paradoxical, but Christians are most free when they are most bonded to God and to each other.
We cannot find that kind of life while in bondage to the world’s misguided freedom fantasies, but when we surrender ourselves to the Spirit of Christ, we become free to be all that God made us to be. Who could ask for anything more? NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for June 26, 2016 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Galatians 5:1-25
All of our students want freedom, and not just a little bit of freedom, but all of their freedom. What many of them don’t realize is that their freedom doesn’t mean that they get a free pass. Just because they have the freedom to say and do, doesn’t mean that there won’t be consequences because of the things that they say and do. As your students have their freedom, remember to walk with them instead of just completely letting go. Be there when the consequences of their freedom happens; celebrate with them when they succeed and sit with them when they fail. Also remind them that the freedom that they find in Christ will produce more fruit than trying to create their own.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“Harry Frees Dobby” from Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Galatians 5:1-25