The Devouring of the Church (Galatians 5:1-25)
How might we use the small bit of opportunity which we have been graced to make the world a bit better for our having been here? In many ways this is a fundamental question of human existence, and it was of principal concern to the prophets and apostles who delivered the Christian Bible to us.
In the book of Galatians, for instance, the Apostle Paul found himself in confrontation with a group of teachers in the earliest Christian Church who were using their short time on this planet to war against the Gospel of Jesus. Now, even though Paul continued to insist that these men were acting as enemies of God, they certainly didn’t believe they were God’s enemies. Quite to the contrary, they probably thought they were advocating for faithfulness to God.
Why get into all this? Well, I think Paul’s argument with these false teachers might help us as individual Christians and as a church to understand more fully what God believes to be the best use of our time on this side of eternity. For the purposes of this blog, I am going to be dealing primarily with Galatians, chapter 5, but this short article is really a summary engagement with Paul’s central thesis in the book of Galatians generally. The convenience of engaging with Galatians 5 is that the chapter serves in many ways both as a summary of Paul’s primary contention and as a fleshing out of what Paul’s teachings might look like in real life.
Verse 1 of Galatians 5 is Paul’s summary of the core message of the Gospel of Jesus as it relates to the central issue of Galatians, and it reads like this:
1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
If I have understood Paul’s argument in the book of Galatians adequately, I believe Paul has suggested that there are at least three ways in which we might live in response to this Gospel of Jesus. Two of those ways would be a waste of the time we have been given. Two of those ways would be tantamount to declaring war against God and partnering with those who would keep God’s kingdom from being realized. Only one represents partnership with God, commitment to the Gospel of Jesus, the repairing of the world.
We find a first response to the Gospel in Galatians 5, verses 2-6, and it is this: We could spend our time on this earth being antagonized by grace:
2 Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Well, what’s going on here? What’s the deal with circumcision? For the Jewish community of Paul’s day, circumcision was a physical sign in the flesh of one’s commitment to the Law of Moses, the Covenant of Mount Sinai, the Torah, the stipulations and laws that we find today in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Circumcision was an act that committed an eight-day old male child or an adult male convert to follow this Law all the days of his life.
It would appear that some early Jewish followers of Jesus assumed that anybody who wanted to follow Jesus must first submit to this sign of commitment to the Law of Moses. In the churches of Galatia these teachers were encouraging non-Jewish converts to Christianity to be circumcised, and Paul, as an Apostle of Jesus, refused to allow it. Did you catch Paul’s arguments against requiring Christians to be religiously circumcised?
First, Paul argued that the Law of Moses was not an agreement from which one could pick and choose. It was an all-or-nothing agreement. Now, some have argued that this was a presumption of the Judaism of Paul’s day, and others have contended that first century Judaism would have disagreed with Paul’s understanding here. And I suppose it is possible that Paul has reflected an understanding of Torah that was peculiar to an early Christian understanding of the Law of Moses.
Nonetheless, however Paul came to this comprehension of Torah originally, it does seem that Paul has done little more than paraphrase the Law itself in these verses. Deuteronomy 28:15 has said:
15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you: 
What did Moses say there? If you do not obey at least one of the commands…? If you do not obey some of the commands? No. Moses taught the Israelites that they were to obey all of the commands. If they did not obey them all, then Deuteronomy seems to have suggested that the covenant of Sinai would result in a curse.
According to Paul, this means that under the Law of Moses tithing was no more important than stoning someone who committed adultery, than bathing in the blood of a red, female cow after touching a dead body, than cancelling all debts in the country every 50 years, than making animal sacrifices, than honoring the Sabbath, than secretly desiring things that belonged to your neighbor. The law says, obey all of these and you will be blessed. Violate even one, and you will be cursed. This is the Covenant of Sinai.
For Paul, if Christians were to commit themselves to the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which would be indicated by religious circumcision, then they would become responsible to obey every detail of that covenant. For Paul, Israel itself had not obeyed that covenant, and consequently, the covenant had become a curse.
According to Paul, that is in part why Jesus came and died—to free Israel from the requirements of Sinai. So, for Paul, to commit oneself again to that covenant would be to undo all that Jesus came to do. Paul called it, falling away from grace.
Apparently, these early followers of Jesus were uncomfortable with the freedom for which Jesus died. They were being antagonized by God’s grace—by the new set of expectations that accompanied the New Covenant of Jesus. But, that was them, right?
Sure, but it can be us, as well. Any of us who place justice before mercy, who place rules and regulations before grace, who place the letter of the law over against its spirit—we, too, like these early followers of Jesus can find ourselves antagonized by grace.
In the Gospel of Mark we find a story of a confrontation that Jesus had with the Jewish Pharisees that might help to flesh out Paul’s concern here. The incidents come from Mark 2:23 – 3:6:
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
3: 1Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. 
The Ten Commandments, which are part of the Torah of Moses, required the Israelites to do no work on the seventh day of the week—the Sabbath (our Saturday). The Gospel of Mark has recounted at least two instances in which Jesus broke that requirement in the eyes of His Jewish contemporaries. First, Jesus allowed His disciples to pluck and eat un-harvested grain on the Sabbath, and second, He healed a person with a withered hand on the Sabbath.
When confronted about the grain, Jesus did not try to argue that His disciples had not broken the Sabbath. Instead, He pointed out a story from the First Testament in which David and his companions broke the Torah of Moses by eating grain that had been tithed to the priests.
Jesus’ point seems to have been that in terms of enforcement God had not treated the letter of the Law as absolute, even in the First Testament. As in the case of David, people were allowed to violate the Torah without penalty from God coming upon themselves in certain circumstances. If Jesus saw Himself as comparable to God and wanted to permit His disciples to violate the Law on an occasion, it was hardly unprecedented. I imagine the Pharisees might have been willing to concede the principle Jesus was highlighting. What they could not accept, of course, was that Jesus had the authority to authorize such exceptions.
The issue of healing on the Sabbath was a bit more complicated. The rabbinic tradition seems to suggest that first century Judaism did not object to healing on the Sabbath in every circumstance. The issue seems to have centered around the urgency of the need. If the healing was a matter of life and death, it seems to have been allowed on the Sabbath. But, if a person could survive until the next day, then no work should be done on the Sabbath, as the Torah required. Certainly, this man with a withered hand was in no immediate danger of death, so his healing could wait. In that case the Torah should have been followed.
This is one of the few instances in the Gospels in which we are told specifically that Jesus became angry. His argument seems to have been that the Sabbath law should never have been used as an excuse not to help someone in need. The Sabbath was to be a day of no work, but not a day of no mercy or grace. So, Jesus healed him.
However, what the Jewish leaders knew and Paul seems to have appreciated (he was a Pharisee, after all) is that the grace Jesus was asking for did in fact violate the Law of Moses, technically. Under the Torah of Moses, the Israelites didn’t really have the authority to extend that sort of grace. They had to obey the Torah first and foremost.
Therefore, if Jesus was going to initiate a kingdom in which grace and mercy would supersede obedience to a set of rules and regulations, then it could not be accomplished under the Law of Moses. It would require a New Covenant, a new agreement, a new set of expectations.
How many of us, Christians, have failed to appreciate these teachings of Jesus and of Paul. How many of us still want the wicked to be punished, the law-breakers to suffer, the evil to get their just desserts. How many of us would wield the law of God as a sword to attack our adversaries?
For Jesus and for Paul, these are the kinds of values and the kind of world from which Jesus died to free us. To think and act in these ways, after being freed by the blood of Jesus, is, for Paul, to fall away from grace.
It’s not that there are no requirements in this New Covenant of Jesus, as we’ll see shortly, but it is a covenant in which grace and mercy come first. This is the principle gospel-problem when we refuse to forgive those who have sinned against us or when we refuse to pray for our enemies. When we refuse to do these things we put law and justice before grace and mercy.
Some of us are rule people. We like guidelines and expectations, and we don’t like exceptions or compromise. When we hear that it is for freedom from the worldly principles which underlie the very nature of law that Jesus set us free by His blood, we can be antagonized by such grace. We don’t want to live in a world filled with such uncertainty; a world in which we can’t simply turn to a rule or regulation to tell us what to do in every circumstance; a world in which grace might be more important to God than rules; a world in which the right thing and the wrong thing might vary from situation to situation.
Now, it’s one thing to be scared, unnerved, confused, frustrated, or even angered by this freedom of the Gospel. But, it is quite another thing to try and convince people freed by Jesus to become slaves again to the tyranny of Law. When we hear that it is for freedom that Jesus has set us free, we might be more than antagonized by grace, we might actually ally ourselves with God’s enemies.
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? 8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” 10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. 11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
This is some of the most venomous Pauline language in the New Testament. And notice that Paul didn’t accuse those who are advocating for a return to Mount Sinai by way of religious circumcision simply as differing with him in opinion. Paul labeled these individuals as enemies of God.
Seems a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Well, perhaps not. Paul had personal experience with this way of viewing holiness and righteousness before God. Paul was an expert in the Torah–a Pharisee–and, traditionally, a student of a renowned Jewish rabbi. Initially, Paul had studied Jesus’ teachings and had decided that Jesus was a heretic, a violator of the Law of Moses, a man who was killed justly.
Even more, Paul had spent the early days of Christian history hunting down Christians, imprisoning them, and approving of their executions. Paul knew what the Law of Sinai required. Paul was an expert in the Law of Moses. And Paul knew that obedience to the Law of Moses was not compatible with the way of life commended by Jesus and His Apostles.
But, Paul had an encounter that changed his life forever. In the middle of a journey to hunt down more Christians, Paul met the risen Jesus face-to-face. On that day, Paul realized not that he had been wrong about the Law of Moses, but that he had been wrong about Jesus. As a man, Jesus had no authority to alter or to amend the Torah of Moses, and he certainly had no authority to author a New Covenant between God and humanity. But that day on the road, Paul found out that Jesus was no mere human. Jesus was God, and as God, Jesus had the authority to do all of that and more.
Paul had personal reason to call advocates for lingering submission to the Law of Moses enemies of God. He had been such a person; he had been an enemy of God. Paul had tried to destroy the church from the outside. And now, as an ambassador of the Gospel of Jesus, he was certainly not going to allow a person like his former self to destroy the church from the inside out. As Paul insisted in verse 6, true followers of God recognize that “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”
So, when we hear Paul’s summary of the Gospel, “1It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery,” we can be antagonized by such grace, or we can even become allied with God’s enemies against Jesus. But thankfully, there is a third way of living in response to this Gospel of grace. We can abandon ourselves to the Law of love.
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.” k 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
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.
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.
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. 
The spirit of the Law of Moses has become the letter of the Law of Jesus: ‘serve one another in love’. There are guidelines for behavior in the New Covenant of Jesus. As we’ve just read, there are ways to distinguish between those who have received God’s Spirit and those who have not—between those who are citizens of the Kingdom of God and those who are still slaves to the world. But, the key difference between true followers of God and the rest is not adherence to a cold set of rules and regulations. The key distinction is to be found in the capacity Jesus’ followers have for mercy and grace.
What’s the key difference between what Paul calls the acts of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit? The acts of the flesh are self-centered, self-gratifying, self-focused, self-obsessed, self-righteous. Law alone cannot free us from these evil self-absorptions. If anything, the Law often enhances them. If we are obsessed with our own happiness, our own gratification, our own blessings, our own suffering, or even our own salvation or our own righteousness, then, according to Paul, we are slaves to the flesh.
The Spirit frees us to place the needs of others alongside of ourselves. We have been set free to love. The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are behaviors full of grace, full of mercy, full of the love of others. The evidence of our faith is not abandonment to rules and regulations. It is abandonment to love—abandonment to the extending to others what has been extended to us in Jesus without limit and without end.
Does Jesus have expectations for His people which Christians should be concerned with embodying? Yes, He does. We can read the Gospels. We can sit at Jesus’ feet and hear His teachings during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. In fact, in many ways the moral requirements of Jesus’ New Covenant are far stricter and more difficult to embody than those of the Covenant of Sinai.
The Torah of Moses said, “Do not murder,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Do not hate.” The Torah of Moses said, “Do not commit adultery,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Do not lust in your heart.” The Torah of Moses said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but the Torah of Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” But, this covenant places grace and mercy first, and so, though the expectations may be infinitely higher, the criteria of judgment is far more gracious and merciful.
How will each of us use the time we have been given? Will we use it in service of God and of His kingdom, or will we use it to pursue desires and agendas of our own. Will we partner with God to remake the world and our place in it as He has commanded, or will we labor to create a world which meets our standards and expectations?
I hope you will choose to follow a God who died to save those who were killing Him, who prayed for His enemies, who broke the Law of Sinai on occasion out of His love and care for others, and who showed us the way of love. I hope that you will spend the few days you have been graced abandoned to love and not to law. In the words of Paul:
14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” k15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
 The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Galatians 5:1.
 Ibid, Galatians 5:2–6.
 See e.g., Deuteronomy 14:22-29.
 See e.g., Deuteronomy 22:22.
 See e.g., Numbers 19:1-22.
 See e.g., Deuteronomy 15:1-11.
 See e.g., Leviticus 1-7.
 See e.g., Exodus 20:8-11.
 See e.g., Deuteronomy 5:21.
 See e.g., Deuteronomy 28:1-2.
 Ibid., Mark 2:23–3:6.
 Ibid, Galatians 5:7–12.
 NIV, Galatians 5:13–26.