Freedom in Christ

Today’s reading is Galatians 5:1-15Open Link in New Window

Here is today’s reflection by Richard.

This separate video will be available from 2pm Sunday.

Last week Amber eloquently summarised the letter to date and spoke of Paul’s love for the Galatians and the letter being written in this spirit. Today’s passage is series of contrasts: On one hand Paul pleads with the Galatians to accept freedom in Christ and on the other hand there warnings about legalism and its consequences.

As I was thinking about this passage the image of the love of a parent for their children came to mind. Many years ago one of our daughters started to run across a road near to our home. I managed to grab her but I can tell you she got the telling off of her life. I wanted to convey the gravity of what she had done so she wouldn’t do it again because I didn’t want any harm to come to her. Paul as a church father both encourages and gives stern warnings in love to the people in this fledgling church.

I am going to be working through the verses in this part of the letter to the Galatians so do have your Bible handy.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace

Verse one is a pivotal as it summarises everything that Paul is trying to get across. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Jews in Paul’s time spoke of “acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.” This was submitting themselves to the whole law no matter how difficult it might be to adhere to it. This kind of language is likely to have been used by those advocating circumcision. And what was the whole law? In addition to the numerous laws in the Torah (the first 5 books of the Bible) further rules were added to by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. It was an impossible burden. In addition Paul argues that if they do go ahead and get circumcised (an outward sign of taking on the yoke of the law) then quite simply they are relying on the law and not Christ—they have literally fallen from grace… or perhaps let go of grace. It is a question of trust—if they trust in rules then they have no need of Jesus.

Paul pleads to the Galatian church: do not go back to saddling yourself with trying to keep up with obeying the law, as it is nothing short of bondage.

Instead trust in Jesus (verse 1) who offers you complete freedom. One of the commentators said that Paul may have had Jesus words in mind in Matthew 11:28-30Open Link in New Window ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

If anyone knew this freedom and lightness of burden’s it was Paul. After all as a former Pharisee he knew what the law entailed but was freed by Jesus on the road to Damascus. This is why he is so passionate.

The Nature of Christian Freedom

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

In verses 5 and 6 Paul clarifies the nature of Christian freedom. It is through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are saved. Our backgrounds are of no consequence, what really matters is our faith and allowing the love of God to work out his plan in each one of our lives.

What a contrast to being tied down to a hundreds of rules—this is indeed freedom.

You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

There then comes a warning from Paul (verses 7-12) to those who are causing all this dissension and creating stumbling blocks to others.

Paul often saw the Christian life as a race. For those who watch athletics; sometimes runners in a team use a tactic to box their opponents in to prevent their progress. Paul is saying some people are doing just this—The Galatians started their Christian life off so well but now these false teachers are acting as a stumbling block and preventing the Galatians from receiving the full measure of the grace of God. This is definitely not from God despite it being dressed up as such.

These people, Paul argues, are like a speck of yeast which affects the whole dough. It only takes something small to pollute the rest of the batch.

For those who do, there is no doubt they will pay the penalty. We only have to think back to Jesus words against false teachers Matthew 7:15-20Open Link in New Window—they will be thrown in the fire.

In verse 12 the commentators generally agree that Paul is quite crude in his language. He says ‘For these people who have unsettled this Galatian church they should go beyond circumcision and go the whole hog and castrate themselves’. This is reference to the priests and devotees of the pagan Goddess Cybele (Sibelee) who as a mark of their devotion castrated themselves. In other words Paul is saying to those who are distracting this local congregation from the truth, they are no better than followers of a pagan goddess.

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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

As we come towards the end of this section (13 and 14) Paul wants to make sure that those listening do not get the idea that he advocating a free for all with no law or rules. Freedom in Jesus is not a licence to do what you like—the purpose of true freedom in Christ is service to one another and those around you. It is about living a holy life not by rules but in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul then goes on to say the entire law can be summed up in these words—You shall love your neighbour as yourself. This echoes part of Jesus words in Matthew 22Open Link in New Window—the greatest commandment.

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Finally, in verse 15 Paul warns the Galatians about from strife and division—it is a recipe for disaster. Having known churches which have been split internally the consequence is always the same—it destroys them. The consequences are damaged Christians and for some even a complete loss of faith. It is a disaster. I had a friend who was at a church that split up—the congregation was scattered and they stopped going to church altogether and formed a home group with a few friends. They were very scarred by the experience.

So what can we take from this passage today—I have two questions:

  1. The first is a question—what is holding us back or pulling us away from true freedom in Christ? It will be different things for each one of us.

    For many of us (me included) it is pull of self-reliance rather than dependence of Jesus and living a life filled with the Holy Spirit.

    Self-reliance: is a bit like a rip-current in the sea which can drag us off. Years ago swimming off a beach in Devon a teenager shouted to me for help—he was being pulled out to sea by a strong current. I grabbed him and got some surfers to take him in only to find myself struggling to get back. I started to panic a bit and then I remembered my lifesaving training—relax and steadily swim back to the shore. So often we do things in our own strength, thrashing around in the water as it were rather than trusting, praying and allowing Jesus to be in control.

  2. Paul talks about the entire law being about loving our neighbours as ourselves. What more can we do to fulfil this greatest of commandments?

    To love like this is about us being filled by the Holy Spirit who guides each and every day. If we allow the Spirit to fill us our eyes will be open to the need of others and we will listen to God’s promptings.

    Many years ago Laura and I were really struggling and needed a break but we were broke. Out of the blue and with no prompting a lovely Christian friend gave us a piece of paper. On it was a booking for a weekend away in the Cotswolds. Open to the Spirit he had seen our need and responded. In fact he went a stage further in his own life. He calculated what he needed to lead a simple life and gave the rest of his money away for a year. Our friend listened to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and acted on them.

    Now the object of this story is not to make ourselves feel guilty because guilt is not freedom! Freedom is trusting in Jesus for our very being and allowing him to use us in his service and take us on an incredible adventure.

Questions

  1. What does it mean for each one of us to have full freedom in Christ?
  2. What are the things that get in the way of us experiencing this full freedom?
  3. How can better serve one another and those around us?

There will be a video version of the service.

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