CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES

CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson LXXIV)

Wesleyan theologian Adam Clarke (1760-1832) similarly views this total freedom from all the burdensome rites, rituals, and ceremonies of the Mosaic law was not to be taken as the liberty for our sinful tendencies to do as they pleased. Jewish teachings on purification and sacrifice are significant because the Rabbis dictated them to control such moral failures. Clarke explains that Paul’s use of the phrase “by or of the flesh,” refers to all the unsanctified desires and sinful inclinations of the mind. It is the mind that sparks the body’s reaction.  So, whatever is not under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit of God in our thinking is liable to lead us into error.

With the freedom we were given by Jesus, the Anointed One comes the power to suppress our unnatural desires, not to forbid our natural feelings. The Gospel proclaims freedom from ceremonial laws while at the same time making us responsible for obeying the moral laws. To be freed from ceremonial laws is the Gospel of liberty; to pretend freedom from the moral law is lawlessness.[1] As Clarke sees it, Paul’s encouragement to serve one another in the dedication, even as a servant serves his master, this will also harness any unlawful behavior.

Another commentator, Ernest DeWitt Burton (1856-1925), sees Paul’s concern about the misuse of the freedom believers have in the Anointed One as one of “opportunity.” In other words, opportunity acts like a door hinge in our minds. Every opportunity given to us can either swing in the direction of doing what is right or doing what is wrong. To do right is using our freedom, to do wrong is abusing our privilege. To people accustomed to thinking of the Law as the only obstacle to self-indulgence, or to those, on the other hand, who have not been familiar with high ethical standards, such language can quickly be interpreted to mean that for the Christian there is nothing to stand in the way of the unrestrained indulgence of their impulses.[2]

So, what is going on in Galatia; were Galatian believers are more interested in satisfying the preferences of their sinful-self rather than the inclinations of their spiritual oneness with the Anointed One? Paul wants them to know that when it comes to our expressions of love and freedom, the one virtue that influences them both is that they must be mutually rewarding. In other words, manifestations of love must be of mutual benefit to both the giver and receiver. Even though God loved us while we were yet sinners, it was to His advantage since it showed His true feelings for us; and it was beneficial to us in that it drew us out of darkness into His marvelous light. Likewise, with freedom, Jesus said who the Son sets free are free indeed. Our LORD is pleased because it shows His desire for us to serve Him of our own volition, and it benefits us in that we can say with all honesty that we serve Him because we choose to do so. That’s why both love and freedom are acts of the will, not merely emotional responses to things that attract us.

Furthermore, we received neither love nor freedom to take advantage of such a blessing.  We should never use all that’s good and kind and loving for personal gain. Sometimes people use acts of love and freedom to draw attention to themselves and enhance their egos. Perhaps Paul was thinking about this when he wrote the Corinthian believers: “If I could speak all the languages of earth and heaven but didn’t love others, I would only sound like a broken gong or a cheap cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had enough faith to move mountains, but did not love others, I would be of no value.  If I gave everything I had to the poor and became deathly ill in the process so I could boast about it if I didn’t do it out of love for others, my effort would simply lead to going broke.” [3]

What caused Paul such grave concern? Could it be that he heard of some troublesome practices developing among the believers in Galatia after they split over whether or not to wed themselves to the old Jewish religious rituals and regulations, or whether to engage in the newness of worshiping God in spirit and truth? Is it possible that some misunderstood the freedom they received through the Anointed One that eliminated all the burdensome religious rituals and regulations of Mosaic Law, thinking they were now free to live any way they wanted to? Didn’t they see that the liberty they received was from things that oppressed how their spiritual oneness with the Anointed One’s expressed itself in spirit?  Why did they mistake that as the removal of restraints on how their sinful-self, manifested itself in the flesh?  While the Gospel proclaims liberty from Mosaic Law, it still binds us firmly to Moral Law. To claim freedom from Mosaic Law is liberty, but to declare independence from Moral Law, is lawlessness.

Current Bible commentator Richard N. Longenecker notes that previously Paul argued for Christian freedom against the Jewish religious legal system. Still, here in verse thirteen, he redirects his thought to contend for Christian freedom against “Christian” self-centered irresponsibility. Church laws must never regulate our liberty in union with the Anointed One. Neither should it ever become an occasion for church lawlessness. So, rather than statutes or licenses, the realities that characterize Christian freedom are “love,” “serving one another,” and “walking in the Spirit.” We see that these three appear throughout the exhortations from chapter five, verse thirteen, to chapter six, verse ten. It forms the skeleton of a believer’s faith to which all the muscles, tissues, and appearance conform.[4]

Grant R. Osborne also comments on how love holds a central place in the Christian life. Paul made his case against the false theology of his opponents. He showed that salvation comes only by faith and not by circumcision or the works of the Law. The Apostle challenged Galatians to turn from slavery under the Law and instead to seek the freedom that comes only in the Anointed One. People raised as pagans easily misconstrue liberty for libertinism and turn to immorality. So, now he has to clarify what he means by Christian independence. Freedom in the Anointed One is freedom in the Spirit, so they must realize it means giving priority to the will of the Spirit rather than the sinful tendencies of the flesh, as shown especially by the fruit of the spirit. Therefore, with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, love goes vertically to God and then goes horizontally to those around us. Fruit of the spirit blossoms in the Christian or the Church only when love is blooming at the center of each member’s being.[5]

British theologian Nicholas T. Wright, tells a story to illustrate the misuse of freedom. As he relates, in the middle of Oxford University, there stands a beautiful building, surrounded by well-kept grass. The building is a library, circular in shape, topped by a magnificent dome. It is gorgeous inside and out. People photograph it, make paintings of it, and admire it. It is called the “Radcliffe Camera.” At one time, high railings protected the grass that surrounds the building – so high that unless you were quite tall, they would obscure your view of the building itself. During the Second World War, however, the government commanded that ironwork be removed and melted down to make armaments.

As you can imagine, suddenly, the Radcliffe Camera and its grass were free from what was a rather forbidding barricade. During the 1950s and 1960s, there were small notices requesting people not to walk on the grass. Most people obeyed. But then, in the 1970s and 1980s, the grass became a favorite spot for tourists to picnic. People would have parties there. Vagrants from the town would hang out there, to drink, to beg, and sometimes to threaten passers-by. People in the library found it was getting noisy, and they couldn’t do their work. They trampled the grass so that it became worn out. The whole area no longer looked beautiful; instead, it looked messy and shabby.

Finally, in the late 1980s, the university made a decision: lower railings had to go up. Now, once again, the grass and building are beautiful. This little tale is all about the use and abuse of freedom. It is one thing to be set free from prison or slavery, and quite another to decide what to do with your freedom when you’ve got it. Every criminal faces this issue when released from prison: should I use my new-found freedom to go and commit more crimes? The fact that you are, in one sense, free to walk on, and even ruin, the grass around a beautiful building doesn’t mean that it is the right thing to do. Freedom from restraint, if it is to be of any use, must be matched by a sense of freedom for a particular purpose.[6]

Don Garlington takes what Paul says here in verses thirteen to fifteen as the Apostle’s message on the responsibilities of liberty in the Spirit by echoing verse one on the all-important call to freedom. He stresses that the recipients of this letter find their self-identity precisely in their birth of the “free woman” [Sarah], not the “slave woman” [Hagar].[7] Accordingly, Paul calls them “brethren” once more because he is sure of the genuineness of their faith, notwithstanding their momentary attraction to the Law teachers of the covenant. But having asserted the central thesis of this letter – freedom – he turns to the other side of the coin: they are not to use their liberty as an opportunity for gratifying their passions.

Garlington reminds us that freedom is not only from the old enslavement but in new responsibilities. As I read this, I thought of circumstances in which a parent gives their child going off to college, a credit card, with the provision of using it only for their “needs.” However, when the account summary comes in, they see that in addition to registration, books, food, and dorm expenses, there were also charges for a night club, a tavern, a rock concert, multiple taxi charges to resorts. In other words, since they had the credit card, they were tempted to use if for their “wants,” not for their “needs.” In the same way, Paul is telling the Galatians that they have the freedom to get what they need to serve God, the body of the Anointed One, and their fellow believers. But they felt free enough to explore other possibilities involving satisfying the desires of the flesh since, in their mind, the Torah no longer applies.[8]

[1] Clarke, Adam: Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[2] Burton, Ernest DeWitt, op. cit., pp. 291-292

[3] 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

[4] Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians, Vol. 41, op. cit., Kindle Location (12646-12650)

[5] Osborne, G. R: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 174–175

[6] Wright, Nicholas T., Paul for Everyone: Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[7] See Galatians 4:31

[8] Garlington, Don: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 152

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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