Flesh and Law

Galatians 5:16-18 (ESV)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. [17] 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. [18] But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Day and night are opposites. Wet and dry are opposites. The desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh are opposites. The Spirit and the law are…opposites?

In v. 17, the Apostle Paul is clear.  The desires of the Spirit and the desires of the flesh are complete opposites. The desires of the Spirit actually keep us from doing the desires of the flesh and vice versa. This makes sense. But the next comparison Paul makes is rather surprising. Verse 18 tells us that being “led by the Spirit” and being “under the law” are opposites.

Spirit and flesh are opposites. Spirit and law are opposites. So flesh and law…are the same?

At first glance, this seems absurd. How can breaking the speed limit and driving under the speed limit be the same exact thing? How can someone who completely abstains from alcohol be the same as an alcoholic?

When Paul refers to the law, he is still thinking about the battle between faith and circumcision. The law is not just a reference to God’s law in general but the desire of some to justify themselves before God with their good works. So Paul is saying that the person who indulges in their sinful desires and the person who keeps the law in order to earn God’s favor are the same. Both are driven by their self-centeredness.

The alcoholic is self-centered; he cares only for the pleasure of drunkenness even if it hurts everyone around him. Likewise, the self-righteous teetotaler is self-centered; she cares only for her own reputation and reward.

But Christians are no longer driven by the fleshly desires. No longer under the law, those led by the Spirit are free to serve and love others with no ulterior motive. No longer driven by selfish desire, we are free to be concerned solely with glorifying Christ.

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The Offense of the Cross

Galatians 5:7-12 (ESV)

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? [8] This persuasion is not from him who calls you. [9] A little leaven leavens the whole lump. [10] I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. [11] But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. [12] I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why someone would reject a free gift of grace for a demanding law of works. Would you rather win the lottery or work sixty hours a week for forty years? Most of us would probably choose the lottery. 

Yet somehow the Galatians, who “were running well” (v.7), are now greatly tempted to abandon Paul’s teaching and embrace circumcision. This error is attractive enough that it could “leaven the whole lump,” or corrupt the entire Galatian Church. It does not come from God (v. 8) and deserves punishment (v. 10), yet the Apostle Paul is persecuted for opposing it.  In fact, this issue behind circumcision is at the very center of what makes the cross offensive (v. 11).

So why is the cross so offensive?  

The message of the cross is that the Son of God had to die in order to save helpless sinners from themselves. The cross is offensive because it destroys our pride and self-reliance. We’re forced to acknowledge both our wickedness and our complete inability to do anything about it. We’re forced to admit that we are utterly at the mercy of God.

So when the message of circumcision comes to the Galatian Church, this way of earning acceptance before God appeals to their pride. Though painful, circumcision provides the Galatians with a means by which they can boast before God and one another. If one became so bold, he might even demand his rights before God, saying, “I’m circumcised, therefore You HAVE to bless me!” 

If salvation is by grace alone, then we cannot boast and we certainly cannot demand anything from God.  We can only be thankful and worship. 

Limited Need, Limited Relationship

Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless
C. John Miller

There are many professing Christians who have never fully grasped how lost in sin they really were, and how low God had to stoop to save them.  The propriety and morality of their outward lives has made it hard for them to believe that their need to be redeemed was as desperate as anyone else’s.  Up to a point, they are convinced of their need for salvation, but the fact that their outward lives have been unmarked by scandal or blasphemy has caused them to feel as if they don’t need it quite as much as some other people they see.

This complacent attitude toward the gospel, unarticulated though it may be, has…effects on the believer.  The first is a distance between himself and God that, somehow, he is never able to overcome.  He doesn’t understand why; he believes the right things, he prays, he is active in church and is willing to serve.  But the problem came about when he first placed himself partially out of the reach of the gospel and of grace.  A person who has limited his need for God’s grace has inevitably limited his relationship with God.  God’s unconditional, unlimited love for him is something he has missed.  It is beyond the realm of his self-centered experience.  He doesn’t, at bottom, really understand what happened – for him – at the cross.  He feels a need for many things, but does not hunger for the grace of atonement.  And it is very likely that the gap he senses in his relationship with God is causing him either to try to earn God’s favor with good works, or to rationalize away the richness of other Christian lives as maudlin, pietistic, or imbalanced.

A Surrender of Human Autonomy

Powerful Evangelism for the Powerless
C. John Miller

Often we do not take the trouble to explain to people that “choosing Christ” is not an act of human autonomy but a surrender of human autonomy.  We often teach them little about God and His perfect righteousness and His demand that we be perfectly righteous ourselves.  We minimize original sin and our deeply rooted self-will.

From an Enemy to a Son

The Message of 1 Peter
Edmund Clowney

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.

1 Peter 3:9

‘And I thank God that he has given me the love to seek to convert and to adopt as my son the enemy who killed my dear boys.’  These were the words of Korean Pastor Yang-won Son.  The year was 1948; the place was the town of Soon-chun, near the 38th parallel.  A band of Communists had taken control of the town for a brief period, and had executed Pastor Son’s two older boys, Matthew and John.  They died as martyrs, calling on their persecutors to have faith in Jesus.  When the Communists were driven out, Chai-sun, a young man of the village, was identified as one who had fired the murderous shots.  His execution was ordered.  Pastor Son requested that the charges be dropped and that Chai-sun be released into his custody for adoption.  Rachel, the thirteen-year-old sister of the murdered boys, testified to support her father’s incredible request.  Only then did the court agree to release Chai-sun.  He became the son of the pastor, and a believer in the grace of Jesus Christ.

A Chosen, Not Choice People

The Message of 1 Peter
Edmund Clowney

[9] But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. [10] Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:9–10

The wonder is not that God chooses some and not others (Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau).  The wonder is that God chooses any.  Certainly God does not choose an elite.  Israel is a chosen people, but not a choice people.

There Aren’t Very Many Happy People in the Bible

The Contemplative Pastor
Eugene Peterson

My job is not to solve people’s problems or make them happy, but to help them see the grace operating in their lives.  It’s hard to do, because our whole culture is going the other direction, saying that if you’re smart enough and get the right kind of help, you can solve all your problems.  The truth is, there aren’t very many happy people in the Bible.  But there are people who are experiencing joy, peace, and the meaning of Christ’s suffering in their lives.

Boasting About the Wrong Things

The Cross and Christian Ministry
D.A. Carson

[26] For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. [27] But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong…

– 1 Corinthians 1:26–27

God’s grace can reach anyone.  But being well regarded in the surrounding pagan society is in no sense an advantage.  If anyone approaches God on the basis of some putative wisdom or “pull” or wealth, he or she is necessarily excluded.  If God accepted people on such grounds, he would compromise himself.  He would be the worst kind of snob, the kind that is impressed by entirely superficial advantages – like a panting, third-rate social climber in a pinstripe suit, desperate to be approved and eager to fawn all over anyone who speaks with a posh accent.  Paul insists that such a vision of God is utter nonsense.  God is not impressed by the public philosophies, political clout, and the extravagant wealth that the world so greatly admires.  And the Corinthian believers should have recognized the point and disavowed such pagan allegiances themselves.  After all, the commonness of their own predominant backgrounds should have alerted them to the kind of people God frequently pursues…

Paul is not saying that Christians have nothing to boast about.  Rather, he is saying that if they boast about the things the world boasts about, they are boasting about the wrong things.

Come and Have Breakfast

John 21:9-14

[9] When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. [10] Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” [11] So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. [12] Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. [13] Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. [14] This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

In our passage, we see the incredible invitation Jesus extends to His disciples, “Come and have breakfast.”  It is a simple and incomprehensible request.

In verse 9, we read that Jesus already has fish and bread ready.  He was waiting for His disciples to return from their failed fishing trip.  Remember, Jesus is the Savior of the World and He has just risen from the dead, yet He is waiting to have breakfast with His disciples.

I remember the day my nephew was born.  I was actually supposed to have lunch with one of my church members.  When I heard the news, I did not hesitate.  I cancelled my lunch plans.  Days earlier, the Son of God conquered the devil, sin, and death.  He transformed all of human history.  And here He waits to have breakfast with His people.  It is important to Him.

In verse 10, Jesus asks them to bring some fish they had just caught.  Remember, the disciples caught nothing.  Any fish they had are the result of Jesus’s miracle.  If you invited me over for dinner and I walk in, take something out of your fridge, and hand it to you, you will not be impressed.  When we eat with Jesus, we bring nothing to the table.  But Jesus does not mind.  He wants to have breakfast with His disciples.

In verse 11, we see Peter’s nervous energy.  When he saw Jesus, he jumped out of the boat and swam to shore.  The other disciples who stayed in the boat arrive at the shore at more or less the same time.  When Jesus asks for a few fish for the meal, Peter brings 153 of them.  Peter had abandoned Jesus in His darkest moment.  He is filled with joy that Jesus has risen from the dead, yet at the same time, he is not sure how Jesus feels about him.

You may be a fairly nice person, but I know I have wronged many people over the course of my life.  I regret many things I have said and done.  At times I have wondered whether it is even possible to make up for these things, and this is with man.  What can we do when we betray God?  How can we pay Him back?  What are we going to do to make things right with Him, after all we’ve done?

Peter knows there’s nothing he can do.  And then in verse 12, Jesus says, “Come and have breakfast.”  In His invitation, Jesus is saying there is forgiveness for traitors and hypocrites.  There is grace for cowards and sinners.  There is no other god like this.

In the second half of verse 12, the disciples do not dare to ask who it is that they eat with.  They are tempted to ask, but they don’t.  They do not know this strange man cooking breakfast for them, but at the same time they do know.  Jesus must have looked different.  He is in His resurrection body.  His glory is shining.  For thirty years, Jesus had been hiding His majesty.  He appeared to be an ordinary carpenter.  Now, the disciples get a glimpse of the Word who was in beginning with God and who was God Himself.  The almighty, eternal Word invites them to breakfast.

Morning by morning, day by day, the Risen Son of God invites you to simply be with him, to share a meal with Him through reading His Word and praying.  Many times we say, “No.”  But He does not grow weary in extending the invitation.  When we hesitate, He gently asks, “Why do you wait?  For what do you delay?  My cross has made a way for you to be with Me.  Come and have breakfast with Me.”