In chapter 4 of Galatians, Paul has to confront 2 different groups who are affected by the illegitimate teachings of the Legalists from Jerusalem: one group is sliding back into the heathen ways they had forsaken, and the other group is falling into the bondage of the law that had been fulfilled with the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. Now in Part 5 of the Galatians Study, the Lord (speaking through the Apostle Paul) reaffirms that if we are trying to be justified in the Law, then it is in our own works and thereby not in Christ. This means it is futile as well as in denial of the faith they proclaim in the Lord Jesus:
"It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." (Galatians 5:1-6, NASB, emphasis mine)
The "circumcision" spoken of here by Paul is metaphorical for being under the Law. It means that the believers in Galatia feel that only following the Law can save them, and it was already established by Paul that all that can save is Jesus' precious blood. The Law cannot save, and can never save.
Paul then explains that the legalism preached by those from Jerusalem is not from the Lord;
"You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves." (Galatians 5:7-12, NASB, emphasis mine)
"Leaven", as spoken of in scripture, refers to teaching. This holds true for all points in which is it mentioned, and holds true here. Like leaven, teaching can affect an entire group, be that teaching good or bad. Paul then trusts in the Lord that not only will the Galatians not turn away from the Lord entirely, but that those who had come from Jerusalem would answer to God for their mischief; namely, the main instigator of the group.
Paul takes a moment to ask them a question: if he were still preaching the Law (circumcision), then why is he being persecuted? If he were, then the cross would not be an offense anymore; this is meant to point out to the Galatians that his persecution is a proof to them that his message is true. And then Paul goes one farther and "wishes those that were troubling them would even mutilate themselves". This is not meant to be cruel or vindictive to Paul's persecutors, but in reflection of the "spiritual mutilation" they are attempting to perform upon the Galatians. If they are going to try to mutilate Gentile believers spiritually, then they should subject themselves first to the same thing, because they were only outwardly keeping the Law, while breaking it in their hearts by plotting murder and mayhem against Paul!
Paul then warns the Galatians against the flesh taking opportunity to strike:
"For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another." (Galatians 5:13-15, NASB, emphasis mine)
Paul's letters were often replies to questions and comments written to him by the churches, and here, he seems to be answering concerns mentioned by them. The freedom they had could easily become an opportunity for fleshly desires to rear their ugly heads, and Paul advised them not to fall prey to it. In the rush to nip at one another and cause spiritual harm, they could end up wrecking themselves and being "devoured"! But rather than see that happen, Paul advises them:
"But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law." (Galatians 5:16-18, NASB, emphasis mine)
Paul explains further that flesh is subject to the Law, and here we learn why the Law is so harsh: with the flesh, if you give an inch, it will take a mile!!! The flesh and the spirit are in opposition, and conversely, so are the Law and Grace. The flesh is under the Law, and the spirit is under Grace; the flesh cannot be under Grace anymore than the spirit can be under the Law, for neither was made for the other. And if we are born again and are now under Grace, then by all means and by necessity, we CANNOT be under the Law for it no longer pertains to us!!! As such, Paul tells the Galatians to walk according to the spirit so as not to do the things of the flesh, and to do so, the list he gives them is NOT a list of "if you do any ONE of these things you are done!", but a set of traits that, taken as a whole, denote a fleshly man:
"Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." (Galatians 5:19-21, NASB, emphasis mine)
The warning Paul gives here is not that "commit one and you're done", but that if these traits are largely present, then the person they appear in is flesh and NOT walking in the spirit. Likely, such a person is not saved if they are exhibiting all of these. But Paul doesn't leave the Galatians to puzzle out the opposite; he goes into detail the traits of the spirit-filled believer:
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23, NASB, emphasis mine)
In listing these qualities, Paul gives them a type for the person who walks with the Lord and trusts Him alone. This type of person is not giving place for the flesh to doubt, be anxious or angry, nor allowing it to follow the things that a mindset of flesh would do or pursue that are of the world.
Paul sums it up:
"Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another."(Galatians 5:24-26, NASB, emphasis mine)
To "crucify the flesh" does not mean that we literally nail ourselves to a wooden cross, but that what the flesh strives for no longer has any place in our lives. In being born again, we are not chained to the will of our flesh any longer: we can choose to serve the Lord and ignore what our flesh longs for. No, it isn't easy and it oftentimes involves a battle that takes more than what we have. But in the Lord, we can have victory over it and be free of it; we have but to go to the Lord and surrender the battle to Him...
...we cannot fight it in our own strength.
And this is where the Galatians "stepped off the road" in their walk: they were doubting because they were still fighting with the flesh, and when the flesh has room for its' wants, there is also room for doubt as well. The legalists from Jerusalem played upon this, and tried to shove a wedge in the faith of the Galatians, where the flesh had caused a breach and allowed a rift to appear. The problem exists today, and is the same now for us as it was for the Galatians; the same answer applies to us as well as them...
We must walk in the spirit, alongside the Lord. The only place for the flesh is the grave, and that grave is a wooden cross on the rugged hill of Calvary.
In Part 6, we will conclude this study with Paul's final comments to the churches in Galatia.
I bid you all peace.