Freedom [part 2]

Galatians  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  32:13
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The Bible describes characteristics of what it means to be set free in Christ; how does this freedom shape our everyday life?

In the Ron Howard film Far and Away, Joseph Donnelly is a poor tenant sharecrop farmer in Ireland during the 1800s. After being evicted by the landowner from the land he farms, Joseph makes his way to America during the time of pioneer westward expansion. Joseph eventually works his way to Oklahoma in order to participate in the land rush being offered through the Homestead Act. Joseph Donnelly goes from a poor tenant farmer who lives in Ireland under the orders and wishes of an arrogant landlord, to a free farmer who lives in America on his own plot of land which he is free to develop by his own choices. Even though the movie Far and Away is fictional, the Homestead Act upon which this story is based is real history.
Passed by congress and signed into law by president Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the Homestead Act allowed for the settling of the great plains by offering free land. During the last half of the nineteenth century, much of the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains was federal land owned by the government, not private property. The Homestead Act created a system whereby sections of this land in the great plains could be settled and turned into farmland. When territory was made available by the government, anyone who wanted it was allowed to move in and claim up to 160 acres of land for free. It did not matter if you were a US citizen, or an immigrant just arriving as a foreigner, or a former slave set free by the emancipation proclamation; as long as you were at least 21 years old and could pay the $18 registration fee, you could claim 160 acres for yourself in territories that were declared open for homesteading. The only stipulation was that you had to live there for at least five years and make improvements upon the land so that it could be a farm or a ranch.
Some of the territorial openings that followed under the Homestead Act became rather famous for the land rushes that occurred when tens of thousands of people traveled west in order to find land to claim as a homestead. In one particularly famous event, two million acres of territory in Oklahoma was opened up for homesteading in the spring of 1889. Nearly 50,000 people showed up to take part in this land grab. Black and white Photographs show that the opening day of the Oklahoma homestead was a literal race. On April 2, 1889 at noon, federal officials opened up access to the territory in Oklahoma, and tens of thousands of people rushed in all at once.
Some of the people who registered to go in and claim land in Oklahoma during the homesteading event of 1889 cheated by sneaking in early before the land was officially opened for homesteading on April 2. Those who cheated by going into Oklahoma early were given a nickname. That nickname lives on yet today as the mascot of the University of Oklahoma. They were called “Sooners” because they went into Oklahoma to claim property too soon, before the land was officially open for homesteading. True story.
For many people in this country during the 1800s, the thought of being able to own a piece of land for yourself and have the freedom to live there and develop it as your own was a dream-come-true; something they never imagined in their world would ever be a possibility. But along with that freedom came the moral confrontation of doing what was right in order to live in that freedom, instead of abusing that freedom for purposes of their own selfish gain.
We are going to see something like this in today’s passage as we make our way towards the end of Galatians. We saw last time in the beginning of chapter 5 that the apostle Paul starts a discussion about freedom. And the point we left with last time is that freedom is a virtue. Today we finish chapter 5 of Galatians and we will see another feature of what it means for us to live as people who have been given freedom. We will see in this passage that freedom comes with a choice.
This part of Galatians includes the passage for which the letter of Galatians is probably best known: the fruit of the Spirit. Today I want us to work our way though the reading of these verses a piece at a time so that we can see these famous verses about the fruit of the Spirit within the larger story of this passage.
Galatians 5:13–15 NIV
13 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. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.


This first section has a familiar literary format which we see often in scripture. The outline mirrors itself be restating the same things but in reverse order. It looks like this:
A — do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh (13a) B — serve one another humbly in love (13b) B’ — entire law is fulfilled in one command: love your neighbor (14) A’ — if you bite and devour each other, you will destroy each other (15)
A — do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh (13a) B — serve one another humbly in love (13b) B’ — entire law is fulfilled in one command: love your neighbor (14) A’ — if you bite and devour each other, you will destroy each other (15)
flesh (Greek sarx) = sinful nature
This section can be seen as a back-and-forth of conditional statements about the nature of freedom. Conditional statements can be characterized as if this, then that. The comparison flows in two directions. If you use the freedom you have in Christ to do the wrong things for the wrong reasons, then the result will be your own destruction as you harm one another. Throughout all of the apostle Paul’s New Testament letters, he refers to these wrong and misguided expressions of freedom as flesh. It comes from the Greek word sarx which literally means flesh. The older version of the NIV Bible translates this term as “sinful nature.” This is closer understanding of what Paul means by this word even if it is not closer to the original meaning of the word.
Spirit (Greek pneuma) = life of faith given by God
This section of Galatians 5 is heavy with a contrast between the flesh and the Spirit. But it would be a mistake to think of these two terms as a comparison between the physical material world, and the supernatural spiritual world. In no way is it Paul’s intention to insinuate that every part of the physical world is bad, and only the spiritual heavenly world is good. That would be a denial of the truth we see in Genesis 1, in which God declares in each of the six days of creation that every single thing in the entire physical universe is good. The NIV Bible is right to substitute “sinful nature” in place of “flesh” as a better understanding of what is being contrasted in Galatians 5.
And so the flip side of using freedom for purposes of the flesh is to use freedom for purposes of the Spirit; here summarized as humble service to one another in love. Verse 14 reminds us that this love for one another is the entire fulfillment of the law. But the point made in this passage is that we have freedom to pursue this expression of love apart from any law.
In both instances, there is freedom. But in one direction—sinful nature/flesh—this freedom only leads to destruction; in the other direction—love/Spirit—this freedom leads to new life.
Galatians 5:16–18 NIV
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.


In the next section of verses we see the same pattern. It looks like this:
A — walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh (16) B — flesh and Spirit desire what is contrary to each other (17a) B’ — conflict of flesh and Spirit means your freedom cannot follow both desires (17b) A’ — follow the leading of the Spirit, not the leading of the law (18)
A — walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh (16) B — flesh and Spirit desire what is contrary to each other (17a) B’ — conflict of flesh and Spirit means your freedom cannot follow both desires (17b) A’ — follow the leading of the Spirit, not the leading of the law (18)
There is a continuation of the exact same conditional statements in this section of verses. If you walk by the Spirit, then you will not walk by the flesh. The reason for this is because the desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh run in opposite directions. It is not unusual in the Greek language for the word walk to be used metaphorically. And the Spirit is symbolic in this passage as encompassing all the chapters 1-4 have brought together about living as a child of God by faith through the grace that God has given. That entire life of faith we have been looking at over the past several weeks in these chapters of Galatians is all wrapped up together and characterized here in verse 16 as walking by the Spirit.
I am free to choose between following the Spirit or the flesh
But here’s the deal; you’re free to do that. You are free to make that choice to respond to the grace you have been given by God by embracing a life of faith which now walks in the Spirit. And on the other side of that, you are also free to choose the works of the flesh. Galatians tells us that we are free from the requirements of the law; we could choose the ways of the flesh because we are free to do so.
Spirit and flesh are opposed; I cannot choose both
But here is the point that Paul is making. Since the ways of the Spirit and the ways of the flesh are completely opposite, even though you are free to choose, you cannot choose both. If you choose to use your freedom to walk by the Spirit, then you cannot use your freedom to follow the ways of the flesh. Conversely, if you choose to use your freedom to gratify the desires of the flesh, then you cannot use your freedom to walk by the Spirit.
Yet, this whole discussion of flesh and Spirit needs a little further explanation. The final two sections of chapter 5 open this up for us to consider.
Galatians 5:19–21 NIV
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 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.


It is not at all uncommon for the apostle Paul to include these kinds of lists in his New Testament letters. In rather typical fashion, there is a contrasting list of both vices and virtues. Let’s note a couple things about this list that might help us make sense of it. First, it is not meant to be a comprehensive list. In other words, we should not walk away from these verses thinking that any other vices left off the list don’t count as an “act of the flesh.” Instead, we can see an obvious grouping of categorical vices that are meant to be representative of something much larger. A lawyer might suggest inserting a phrase like “including, but not limited to…”
acts of the flesh - representative list, not comprehensive list
moral evils - use of personal freedom that results in harming or ignoring others
Rather than looking at each one of these vices in some kind of analytical detail, then, it might be better for us to consider what this list as a whole represents. On either end of the list you see personal moral failures: sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry witchcraft; on the other end of the list drunkenness and orgies. A word about sexual immorality. It is the Greek word pornia from which we get our term pornography. It is a reference to the objectifying and abuse of someone else’s body for your own gratification. That makes a good understanding for how all these vices on the ends of this list are understood. These are examples that tell us any use of our personal freedom which ends in the harming or abuse or ignoring the needs of others for our own ends and our own gratification ought to be seen as an act of the flesh.
social evils - use of personal freedom that is directly pointed at harming others
inward attitudes that lead to outward actions
The middle of this list represents social vices: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy. These represent uses of freedom that are directly pointed at the harm and destruction of others. But even more, these are examples that point not only to outward expressions and actions, but also include inward attitudes of the heart.
Second, remember that this entire passage fits inside of Paul’s letter to the Christians in the churches of Galatia. Remember the overall context for this discussion centers on the fighting and division taking place inside the church among the Jewish Christians and the Greek Christians. Remember that chapter 5 in particular is all about freedom and the freedom we have in Christ apart from the Old Testament law of Moses. It would be completely outside of everything else in Galatians to look at these few verses about acts of the flesh and see them as rules to keep; that is exactly the very thing that Paul writes this letter to argue against!
No. Galatians is about freedom, not rules and laws. The discussion here is not about what you can do and cannot do. This is about freedom, and the best possible way to live inside of that freedom. For those who use their freedom to indulge in the acts of the flesh, Paul is saying, there is a better way!
Galatians 5:22–26 NIV
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.


fruit of the Spirit - representative list, not comprehensive list
This brings us to the final section of Galatians 5, which includes those well known verses about the fruit of the Spirit. And just like the last section, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather a representation of something larger. Walking in the Spirit embraces the freedom we have been given by God to follow in the steps of the Spirit. These fruits of the Spirit all point us in a direction which is meant to fill out and expand upon what we saw last week from the first half of chapter 5; that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. These qualities of the Spirit, then, express the best possible way to use the freedom we have in Christ to live a faith that expresses itself through love.
expansion of verse 6b - “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”
This is the remedy—the prescription—given by the word of God for a cure to the strife, division, and factions to separate people from one another in anxiety and anger. And let’s not forget that this all fits in a larger discussion about freedom and what it means to be people who are set free. Let’s end out consideration of Galatians 5 with an application of this passage into our understanding of freedom.
inward attitudes that lead to outward actions
In Ron Howard’s film Far and Away Joseph Donnelly goes from being trapped as a poor tenant sharecrop farmer in Ireland to owning his own land in America to farm however he chooses. The woman Jospeh falls in love with asks him what he will do with his land once he claims it and it becomes his own. At first, Joseph is stumped by this question. Even though Joseph Donnelly has been a farmer his entire life, he doesn’t know what he will grow on his own land because he has never had the freedom to make that choice on his own before. He forgot that freedom came with choices.

Freedom is a responsibility

As Americans, we talk about freedom a lot. We value freedom highly. But I wonder if we also have the tendency to forget that our freedom comes with choices; choices that fall into one of two categories: acts of the flesh or walking in the Spirit. But it seems that—as Americans—so often our thoughts about freedom and choices that come from our freedom end up being reduced to a discussion about rights. As Americans, we seem to automatically shift any ideas of freedom inside of some notion we carry about rights. We think freedom is a right that we have. And we think that freedom means we all have certain rights that ought to be guaranteed.
At the risk of wading into a controversial issue, there are those in our country right now who believe that it is somehow unconstitutional to mandate that people wear face masks during the pandemic. The claim is that this is an assault in personal freedom. That being free means I have rights. And without my rights I cannot truly be free. But that’s not what freedom is. Freedom is not about my rights. That’s not freedom; that’s just being selfish.
freedom is NOT about my rights
inward focus that leads to…[acts of the flesh]
There is nothing from Paul’s discussion about freedom in Galatians that should lead us to the conclusion that freedom is a right. In fact, I think Paul’s point about freedom in Galatians is just the opposite. Freedom is not a right; freedom is a responsibility.
Perhaps it is appropriate that we commemorated Veterans Day during this past week. Those who have served our nation by putting themselves in harms way to defend this country know that freedom is a responsibility. Freedom presents before us choices, and it takes responsibility to hold onto that freedom by making choices which will look past the selfishness of my own rights in order to value and protect others. What does a freedom of responsibility like that look like? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
freedom is about my responsibilities
outward focus that leads to…[fruit of the Spirit]
Those are the characteristics that come from the Spirit. And since you and I have been made children of God, we have the gift of God’s Spirit. And since you and I have been given the gift of God’s Spirit, we have the freedom to walk in the Spirit. May we be people who stay in step with the Spirit of God. May we be people truly embrace the freedom we have have been given in Christ. And may God use the freedom he has given us so that others may come to Jesus and be set free as well.
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