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May 22 lesson: Freedom, Love, and Faith

May 16, 2022
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Freedom, Love, and Faith

Spring Quarter: God Frees and God Redeems
Unit 3: Liberating Letters

Sunday school lesson for the week of May 22, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady


Lesson Scripture: Galatians 5:1-15
Key Verse: Galatians 5:14


Lesson Aims
  1. Identify the key traits of a life free in Christ.
  2. Explain the connection between the law, faith and love.
  3. Plan one way to serve his or her neighbors as a practice of living a life of freedom in Christ.
Christian parenting involves more than telling scriptural truths; it also involves modeling ethical behavior. Yet sometimes even mature adults have trouble overcoming selfish practices – especially regarding love for others.

The churches in Galatia were wrestling with the tension of personal freedom and what was required of them as God’s children. Though divisions had formed, Paul, like an attentive father, offered a new perspective on the nature of law, liberty, and love.

Lesson Context

We are informed that today’s scripture text marks a transition in Paul’s teaching to the Galatian Christians. To this point, Paul defended the nature of his ministry (Galatians 1:9-11) and offered a new understanding in the nature of the law (3:21-22), especially for God’s children (3:26-29).

Among the Galatians were individuals who required Gentile believers’ adherence to Jewish religious customs and practices. Paul called out these Judaizers for compelling “Gentiles to follow Jewish customs” (2:14). Judaizers emphasized faithfulness to the old covenant – the Law of Moses – for salvation. They taught that Gentiles should show faithfulness to the words of the law to find salvation (1:6; see Acts 15:1-5). And the most visible way such faithfulness could be shown was by the act of circumcision (see Genesis 17:7-14). So what resulted among the Galatians was a tension between the words of the law and expression of faith (3:1-14).

Prior to today’s scripture text, Paul refers to the story of Abraham’s wives, Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:21-23; see Genesis 16:15; 17:16-21; 21:2). Paul retells the birth narratives of Isaac (by Sarah) and Ishmael (by Hagar). And we might assume that Paul would connect the physical descendants of Isaac and Ishmael to that of Jews and non-Jews respectively. However, Paul relates the spiritual descendants of Isaac to individuals in freedom from the old covenant children of God’s promises (4:28). By contrast, Paul describes the spiritual descendants of Ishmael as those in bondage to the old covenant, never to experience the inheritance of God’s children (4:30). The retelling made Paul’s point clear. It is through faith, not law adherence, that is God’s blessed inheritance.
  1. Fight for Freedom (Galatians 5:1)
Verse 1 is a stirring challenge to embrace freedom, not slavery. As Eugene Peterson put it in “The Message,” “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.”

Freedom in this regard is the result of a believer’s life made new in “Christ.” But freedom is not without cost. That Christ has set believers “free” indicates the cost: He “gave himself” for humanity’s sins (1:4; 2:20), “becoming a curse for us” as he hung on the cross (3:13; see also 5:30-31).

Throughout the letter, Paul emphasized the imitations of the Law of Moses as it related to the children of God (Galatians 2:16-20; 3:10-14, 19-26). Paul’s directive to avoid becoming “burdened again” in this regard is due to the teachings of the Judaizers.

That Paul describes the law as a “yoke” highlights the law’s demands, especially those placed on Galatian Gentiles (Acts 15:10). A yoke indicates the submission of a weaker power to a stronger power (example Genesis 27:40; Isaiah 9:4).

God desired that his people live freely (Colossians 2:16-23) following Jesus’ reminder that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Believers are to be burdened by the needs of others (see Galatians 6:2).
  1. Searching for Freedom (Galatians 5:2-6)
Verses 2 and 3 state two terrible consequences of a lapse into legalism for the Galatians. First, it would cancel the benefits of Christ for them – freeing them from the curse of the law, sin, and death. Christ’ work would provide them no value.

Second, it would put these Galatians under the necessity of keeping all of the Law. Perhaps the Galatians had not thought of it, but they could not submit to circumcision and stop there. Once they had admitted it was necessary, they would be admitting that all the rest of the law was also necessary. As James stated, to break one point of the Law was to be guilty of all the law (James 2:10). Obedience to the law was an all-or-nothing requirement! If people disobeyed the law at one point, they were guilty of disobeying the whole law.

In verse 4, Paul reiterates a previous point: a person cannot be justified by both “Christ” and “the law” (5:2-4). Only faith can bring justification (Romans 3:28).

The phrase “fallen away from grace” serves as a warning: the Galatians’ acceptance as children of God is entirely dependent on God’s grace. Thus, any attempt to find justification in the law will be equivalent to falling out of grace’s realm.

Now, the promise of righteousness through the Law is appealing because it is definite and tangible. However, the righteousness that comes through faith, Paul argues, is no less real. Although this righteousness may not be fully experienced until God’s final judgment, it is already present in the form of hope as the Spirit works in the believer now.

Because Paul has already expressed the failure of circumcision, some Galatians might highlight their own un-circumcision. Paul reminds them that “neither … has any value” regarding God’s righteousness. By highlighting the limitations of both, Paul reinforces that there is neither Jew nor Gentile … you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28; compare Galatian 6:15).

Instead, what really counts is a person’s faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians 2:16; 3:23-25). And this “faith” is not passive; it is not mere believing or hoping. Instead, faith has an active component. It expresses itself in the lives of believers and the outward expression of faith is demonstrated “through love” – a love rooted in God’s love (1 John 4:19).

The late Henri Nouwen was one of the great spiritual leaders of modern times. He was the author of more than 40 books and taught at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale. He spent the last seven years of his life with people with mental handicaps, serving as pastor of the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Canada. Nouwen was a good example of a person who demonstrated his faith through love.
  1.  Obstacles to Freedom (Galatians 5:7-12)
The metaphor of “running” a race is common in Paul’s writings (see 1 Corinthians 9:24, 25; Philippians 2:16). It described the Galatians’ pursuit of Paul’s teaching (Galatians 1:11, 2:2). They had started the “race” well by following what he taught! But Judaizers, teaching a different message, obstructed the Galatians’ obedience. That Paul asked “who cut in on you” was likely a rhetorical question; Paul knew their situation. He just wanted them to recognize the problem in their midst (compare 3:1).

Paul called the “persuasion” of the Galatian Judaizers “a different gospel” (Galatian 1:6) which would “pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7). Their message distracted other Galatians from following the gospel that calls to faith, obedience, and love.

As Paul moves on in his letter, he speaks of the methods of the false teachers and considers the end result of their problematic interference. He does this by quoting a proverbial saying from the world of bread-making, “a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (v.9).

The New Testament uses the word “yeast” figuratively elsewhere (example: Matthew 16:6-12). To Paul, the teachings of another “gospel” served as leaven among the Galatian believers. As they allowed a little of opposing, persuasive teaching to take hold, specifically the alleged need for circumcision, the rest of the false teachings would take hold. The result would be division among the Galatians.

So in verse 9, the churches in Galatia were in turmoil. They were wavering and perhaps even tilting toward Paul’s opponents, but they had not yet completely succeeded to the false teachers’ pervasive appeals. It is stated that Paul’s primary purpose in writing his letter probably was to provide a counterweight to the false teachers.

Against the influence of the other teachings, Paul was “confident” in the Galatians’ mindset toward faith. The resulting positive reinforcement served to motivate the Galatians, like a parent encouraging a child. Paul hoped they would not “like” another view of the gospel of Christ Jesus. And the individual teacher (the one … throwing you into confusion) who taught a different gospel than Paul’s would face God’s judgment and “pay the penalty” (Galatians 1:8-9).

In verse 11, we are left to assume that the Judaizers claimed Paul had continued “preaching circumcision.” Perhaps their claims were based on Paul’s former zeal in Judaism (Galatians 1:13-17), or his seemingly casual approach toward the issue (see 5:6).

Prior to his conversion, Paul had persecuted followers of Christ (example, Acts 9:4-5; 22:4). Paul was now the one to suffer the hardships he caused others to experience (compare 2 Corinthians 11:24-27).

Now, this is not the only time when Paul wrote on the “offense of the cross.” For messianic expectations, a crucified Messiah was “a stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23). So, to the Judaizers, salvation without the Spirit of the law was equally as offensive.

The highpoint of Paul’s defense hits an unexpected and graphic climax. He ends with an almost crudely blunt saying. Galatia, we are informed, was near Phrygia, and the great worship of that part of the world was the worship of “Cybele;” now it was the practice that priests and really devoted worshippers of Cybele mutilated themselves by castration. The Cybele priests were even eunuchs. So Paul says, “If you go on in this way, of which circumcision is the beginning, you might as well end up by castrating yourselves like these heathen priests.” For sure, this is a grim illustration of which a polite society might shudder, but it would be intensely real to the Galatians who knew all about the priests of Cybele, who, in fact, lived among them.
  1. Paradox of Freedom (Galatians 5:13-15)
Paul’s Galatian “brothers and sisters” – believers who expressed faith – were called from the yoke of the law’s demands. They were now to live into the freedom that Christ had given. The Lord had worked in the Galatians, and the time had come for them to move forward in his Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17)!

However, Paul extends a caution. The word “flesh” describes human nature that acts in sinful ways contrary to God’s Spirit (Romans 8:1-12; Galatians 6:8; Ephesians 2:3). Thus, freedom is not an occasion for believers to “indulge” their personal desires, especially sinful ones. In essence, liberty does not mean license. As Paul expressed it, “It could become an occasion to the flesh.” Again, Paul meant human nature without the motivation of the Holy Spirit.

If the Christian is not under the Law, then what is to prevent him/her from going in to the desires of the flesh? Paul’s answer to this critical question is, the commitment to be servants of one another through love! Once more, the remedy for living under the flesh is to “serve” others in love. As the Spirit brings freedom, a believer is required to use that freedom responsibly, concerned for the good of others (Romans 12:5-8; 1 Corinthians 12:7). If Paul had desired an example of this teaching, he could have easily referred to the life and ministry of Jesus (see Mark 10:45; John 13:4-16, 34-35; Philippians 2:3-8). In addition, Paul’s own life and ministry was an application of this verse (see 1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

In verse 14, Paul was likely referring to the Law of Moses and all that it required. The law’s teachings did not culminate in customs and rituals like circumcision. Instead, the law was fulfilled and found completely through a person’s overt concern for others (Romans 13:10).

Therefore, in the commitment to serve one another – this is what the Law is all about. If you love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18; Luke 10:27), then you have fulfilled the intent of the law (Romans 3:8-10). Thus, as we are reminded, Paul showed that he did not deny what the Law aimed at, which was righteousness. He simply pointed out that the Law cannot bring it about, but Jesus Christ can.

Related to verse 15, a tense conflict might lead a person to say or act in a manner that serves “to bite and devour” other people, like actions of a predator toward a weaker animal. If believers are not filled with love (see Galatians 5:14), their actions may tear others down.

If the Galatians attacked one another, the result would be mutually assured destruction. They would be destroyed by fleshly desires.

Conclusion

As Peter Scholtes (1938-2009) directed his South Side Chicago youth choir in the 1960s, he wanted a song that would unite the varied experience of his church’s youth group. After a day of work, Scholtes composed “They’ll know we are Christians.” The song, now made popular in numerous hymn books, reflected the sentiment of Jesus’ teaching that “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

While believers might be free from the demands of the law, Paul taught the Galatians that such freedom requires active love for others. And showing this love is the litmus test for a believer’s love for God.

The late Brennan Manning, priest and author, has written a book called “Ruthless Trust.” He says the book started writing itself with a remark from his spiritual director. “Brennan,” his spiritual director said, “you don’t need any more insights into the faith. You’ve got enough insight to last you 300 years. The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received.”

In reality, that’s we all need – to trust what we have received – that freedom in Christ is to love God and others.

Action Plan
  1. What steps can believers take so they don’t become burdened by sin?
  2. How can believers wait for the freedom of God’s righteousness in the midst of daily life?
  3. How can an accurate understanding of freedom hinder a Christian witness?
Resources for this lesson
  1. “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 321-328.
  2. “The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians” by William Barclay, pages 46-50.
  3. “Shepherd’s Notes” by David Shepherd, pages 63-69.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).

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