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The Fruit of Freedom
Spring Quarter: God Frees and God Redeems
Unit 3: Liberating Letters
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 29, 2022
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Galatians 5:16-26
Key Verse: Galatians 5:25
- List characteristics of life in the flesh and life in the Spirit.
- Explain how elements of “fruit” of the Spirit and “acts of the flesh” can be rank-ordered as to importance of why such an attempt should not be made.
- Identify a sinful tendency most besetting and commit to developing one specific fruit of the Spirit to counteract it.
A gripping story – word or film – has engaging, almost lifelike characters. And when conflict exists between such characters, the story narrative builds toward its breathtaking climax.
Additionally, a story’s narrative conflict and climax usually reflect an inner turmoil we can identify with. Now, Paul understood that his readers experienced spiritual turmoil. So in what serves as the dramatic climax (but not the end) of Paul’s letters to the Galatians, the conflict between Spirit and flesh comes to a head.
Central to Paul’s argument in this lesson, we are informed, is the nature of “the flesh.” However, the nature and implications of the flesh are not static in the New Testament. Even the dozens of uses of the word in Paul’s writings indicate slight differences and nuances. To claim a singular understanding of Paul’s view of the flesh would be mistaken.
Paul uses the word to speak of physical matter of living creatures generally (1 Corinthians 15:39) and the human body specifically (1 Corinthians 6:16). In other instances, flesh is regarded negatively. Paul referred to it in the context of circumcision (Galatians 6:12), rebellious human nature and desires (Romans 8:3-12), and temporal lineage in contrast to an eternal one (Romans 4:1; Galatians 4:23, 29).
As used in today’s Scripture context, flesh refers to the carnal, unredeemed self and its rebellious nature and desires (see Romans 13:13-14). In order for believers to live fully as children of God, the ways of the flesh must die (see Galatians 2:19-21).
As we understand, the entire epistle to the Galatians has been building to this lesson’s scripture text. With a proper understanding of God’s law and promises (Galatians 3:1-22) and true freedom in God’s Spirit (4:21-5:14), Paul puts all the pieces together.
- Stating the Sides (Galatians 5:16-18)
Paul envisions one option for the Galatian believers: to “walk by the Spirit of God.” By using a metaphor, Paul describes the kind of life required of disciples as a walk (see Romans 13:13; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Colossians 2:6-7). The metaphor refers to the ways first-century students might follow in the steps of their rabbis (teachers of the Jewish Law). As students did so, they would listen to the teaching and allow it to change their hearts and minds. If the Galatians followed Paul’s exhortation, their whole way of life would change.
As the Galatians walked in God’s Spirit, they would avoid defilement that comes from a heart out of tune with the Spirit. This would consist of “the desires of the flesh” (see Mark 7:18-23; 1 John 2:16). Now, Paul did not suggest that the Galatian believers should invite the Spirit of God into their already established way of life. Rather, he wanted them to allow the Spirit to determine their motivations and behaviors (see Galatians 5:25).
The way of “the flesh desires” that the working of “the Spirit” in a believer’s life would be thwarted. That Paul describes this as a desire alludes to the sinful acts of coveting (see Romans 7:7; 13:9) and lust (Matthew 5:28). Acts of the flesh certainly involve more than these two, but all acts of the flesh imply the flesh’s sinful desires.
The conflict between the flesh and the Spirit is very evident to Paul. The desires of the flesh lead to death while the desires of the Spirit lead to life (Romans 8:5-8). In other letters, Paul describes this conflict as being between the old, sinful self and the new, righteous self. Without the presence of God’s spirit working against the flesh, a person will act in sinful and selfish ways (see Galatians 5:19-21).
So it is obvious that a person cannot at the same time embrace fully the ways of the flesh and the ways of the Spirit. Their ways are in conflict with each other. And as a result, a believer – while filled with God’s Spirit – may experience a spiritual frustration (Romans 7:17-25). God’s Spirit has already provided a way out: freedom from the ways of the flesh (Romans 8:1;11,16).
In this sense, the battle has been won and believers are to follow the Spirit. Consequently, Paul’s conclusion is believers are not to “do whatever” the flesh desires. Instead, believers follow the Spirit’s way of life.
Not long ago, a friend shared with me an admirable testimony to his personal honor, integrity and faith. In another state he had refused to sell his vote for great personal gain in a large business transaction. He commented, “Eventually, because of it, I lost my job. But I can still look myself in the mirror and like what I see.” Perhaps that is one example of walking in the Spirit.
In verse 18, Paul expressed a new point of conflict between “the Spirit and the Law.” He was likely speaking of the demands of the Law of Moses. Paul previously connected the demands of the law and the ways of the flesh (Galatians 3:2-5). He had reminded the Galatians of their freedom from the law. Consequently, they were no longer “under a curse” (Galatians 3:10) nor “in custody” under the law (Galatians 3:23). So as they followed the Spirit, they would not experience the bondage of the flesh and the law (Galatians 5:1).
As we are informed, Paul’s exhortation was the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Jeremiah. God’s people would be marked by their following of God’s law on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:3). This promise took hold through a life committed to be in tune with the Spirit of the living God (2 Corinthians 3:3).
- Chasing the Flesh (Galatians 5:19-21)
For Paul, it was essential that freedom and liberty should mean not freedom to indulge this lower side of human nature, but freedom to walk in the life of the Spirit. Therefore, what follows are lists of vices (Galatians 5:17-21) and virtues (Galatians 5:22, 23). And such lists were not intended to be exhaustive catalogs for the readers but were representative (compare Romans 1:29-31; Colossians 3:5-9).
Indulgent and self-gratifying sexual acts outside of a marriage relationship make up sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” originally meant “prostitution.” By Paul’s time, it was used to denote a whole range of immoral sexual relationships, including incest (1 Corinthians 5:1). For believers to be caught up in sexual misconduct deeply grieves the Holy Spirit, whose presence within their lives has made their bodies temples unto the Lord.
Acts of sexual immorality, although often done in the name of love, are really the antithesis of love, which is the foremost fruit of the Spirit.
“Impurity” means uncleanness and has both a medical and ceremonial connotation. Even today doctors speak of cleaning a wound before they apply medication to it.
Under the Mosaic Law, ceremonial impurity barred one from participation in the worship rituals of the temple until the impediment was removed. Uncleanness, then, speaks of the defilement of sexual sin and the separation from God that it brings. God desires that his people acknowledge the holiness of their bodies and act accordingly (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Extravagant sexual vice, uncontrolled and shameless, is “debauchery.” The term implies lack of self-control, even to the point of shocking others without regard for decency (see Ephesians 4:19). So debauchery speaks of the total loss of limits, the lack of restraint, decency, and self-respect.
Now, it’s no secret that today our society is wildly swinging on its sexual hinges. With regard to current sexual attitudes and practices, we are living in a pagan, post-Christian society. More or less, anything goes between consenting adults. As long as it makes me feel “good,” that’s the fashion.
Paul’s cultural context was also obsessed with sexuality. Sites of pagan worship, such as temples to the goddess Aphrodite, utilized practice of sexual exploitation. Religious festivals frequently encouraged public and graphic expressions of sex.
Paul called Christians to a life of self-discipline, contrary to the ways of their culture. Indiscipline and excessiveness were and are simply not suitable for a life in God’s Spirit.
Paul’s second grouping concerned idolatrous acts of worship. “Idolatry” involved replacing worship for the one true God. In essence, this act exchanged God for a lie (see Exodus 20:3-6; Leviticus 19:4; Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 10:14; Romans 1:25).
So, what is idolatry? We are guilty of idolatry when anyone or anything usurps the place that God should have in our lives. The Second Commandment (Deuteronomy 5:8-10) forbids – absolutely forbids – the making or worshipping anything other than God Himself. But as the late James Kennedy expressed it, “There is a tendency in the human heart to worship things other than God.”
“Witchcraft” is the attempt to use physical objects and rituals to manipulate the spiritual world. Examples would include ancient pagan practices of magic, incantations, and drug use. In the New Testament, however, it is invariably associated with the occult, both here in Galatians and in Revelation, where it occurs twice (Revelation 9:21; 18:23).
And Paul’s final grouping of sins concerns a person’s treatment of others. “Hatred” refers to a spirit of hostility toward another person, God, or both. The specific forms this hatred can take in tearing down community life are: discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy.
“Discord” is a general description for the feeling of hostility among people – quarreling and disharmony (see 1 Corinthians 1:11; 3:3). We are told that in the New Testament this word is unique to Paul. He used it nine times to characterize the strife and discord that beset so many of his congregations.
Feelings of “jealousy” speak to the strong feelings that may arise from seeing the success of another person. “Fits of rage” are strong bursts of anger stemming from an impetuous mindset. “Self-ambition” results when hostile groups advance their own interests. These kinds of acts are the opposite of the self-giving love initiated by God’s Spirit. “Dissensions” continues interpersonal strife to the point of causing division (Romans 16:17-18). And “factions” point to false beliefs that lead to destructive differences within the community.
Now “envy” is another word similar in meaning to the trait of jealousy listed earlier, except that this word is plural, suggesting the multitudinous expressions of envious desire. Here in Galatians 5:21 it refers to the unacceptable rivalry that had sprung up from the malice and ill will of the Galatians toward one another. And, of course, it refers to the desire to deprive others of what they have.
Paul ends his list of vices by describing two public displays of overindulgence and self-destruction. “Drunkenness” – intoxication from alcohol – harms the body and clouds a person’s mind. A drunk person might lose control of his or her better judgment and participate in “orgies.” These are public displays of indulgence, gluttony, and immorality (Romans 13:13, I Peter 4:3).
Orgies is variously translated “revelings” (KJV), “carousing” (NRSV), “wild parties” (TLB). It occurs three times in the New Testament (here and in Romans 13:18 and I Peter 4:3). In each case it is linked to the sin of drunkenness. In New Testament times, as in our day, the abuse of alcohol contributed to marital infidelity, child and spouse abuse, the erosion of family life, and the moral chaos in society.
That the vice list ends with “and the like” confirms that Paul had not complied a comprehensive list. Rather, he wanted to highlight specific works of the flesh applicable to the Galatians.
The phrase, “as I did before” says that this was not the first time Paul had addressed these Galatians on this topic. “To these people who live like this,” the listed vices of the flesh, a strong warning is evident. People give their eternal inheritance of life through faith, not ethical behavior (Galatians 3:11-12,13). But righteous behavior serves as an indication of the presence of God’s Spirit. People who fail to act in accordance with the Spirit will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Important point! Occasional failure to live in this regard was not Paul’s concern. Instead, he was concerned with individuals who mock God’s Spirit as they continually lived in the flesh (Galatians 6:7-9). A life led by the Spirit will not continue the status quo of living apart from God’s path.
- Showing the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26)
Having given his list of vices, characteristics of the flesh, Paul now provides an in-depth listing of virtues appropriate to the life of a spirit-filled believer. We are told that Greco-Roman philosophers created virtue lists based on the cardinal values of their culture. However, Paul’s virtues list had a different basis: love for others indicative of the presence of God’s Spirit (Galatians 5:13-16).
Paul described the Spirit-filled life in agricultural terms, calling the attributes of such a life “fruit” (compare his other “fruit” thoughts in Ephesians 5:9; Philippians 1:11, 22; see also John 15:1-17). The metaphor alludes to the Spirit’s role in producing this harvest – a shift from human striving to the Spirit’s supplying. Only through submission to God’s Spirit will these fruits be evident in a believer’s life (see Matthew 7:16-20).
The word “love” is used frequently by Paul. It is significant that love heads the list of these nine graces of Christian life. Paul might well have placed a period after love and moved on to the conclusion of his letter.
Love is not merely “first among equals” in this listing, but rather the source and fountain from which all of the other graces flow. Love as a characteristic of the Christian life issued from God’s unfathomable love and infinite mercy toward us.
A Spirit-filled sense of “joy” does not come from or depend on circumstances. It’s a joy whose basis is God.
Now missionaries for the most part are a happy lot. Have you ever seen an unhappy missionary? I don’t think I have. But why? Mostly because they have learned the Christian secret of redemptive joy. They have attached themselves to the world’s sorrow and the struggles. They’ve learned to forget themselves and devote themselves to the service of Christ and others.
Spirit-filled “peace” does not imply the absence of distress. Rather peace finds its basis in the conviction of God’s all-sufficiency. Believers demonstrate peace as they work toward taking part in God’s restoration of the world. And this begins with the restoration of the relationships within the Church (see 1 Corinthians 14:33).
The next grouping of spiritual fruit describes a person’s attitude toward others. “Forbearance” expresses patient treatment of others, even in response to hurtful treatment. “Kindness” points toward a person’s loving disposition in relating to others. God’s action toward humanity provides the ultimate example (see Romans 2:4). “Goodness” is a rare word found only four times in the New Testament (and only in Paul). It conveys the idea of benevolence and generosity toward someone else – going the second mile when it is not required. The underlying Greek word translated “faithfulness” can also be translated as loyalty. It probably is that meaning in this verse. Specifically, it refers to the faithfulness required between believers (see Galatians 4:12-16).
Now, while the earlier groupings of fruit focused on a person’s treatment of others, this final grouping concerns a person’s demeanor. “Gentleness” implies self-restraining even in the midst of disagreement (see 2Timothy 2:2; 1 Peter 3:15-16). And that “self-control” appears last in Paul’s list may indicate its importance as a summation of the preceding virtues.
Christians are not to be passive while bearing the Spirit’s fruit. While the Spirit has a role in the growth of the fruit, the Christian must end anything that might hinder the growth condition of the fruit. Thus, Paul’s imagery unites Jesus’ followers with his experience on the cross. Following Jesus and expressing faith in Him requires believers to “have crucified the desires and ways of the flesh.” Believers are reminded here to put to death sinful practices so that new life might be found (Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 2:20). Paul wanted the Galatians to live not only for themselves, but for the One who died for them (2Corinthians 5:15).
In conclusion, it has been stated that if the Galatian epistle were a narrative, flesh and Spirit would serve as the main characters. And in this scenario, the conflict between the two played out in the lives of the Galatians. However, the Spirit has already won – the resolution of the story has been decided! Therefore, Paul wants and encourages his hearers and readers to live accordingly.
Resources for this lesson
- How can Christians measure whether they’re living in the direction of God’s Spirit?
- In what ways is the kingdom of God already established, but not yet fully realized?
- How might we go about cultivating fruit of the Spirit in our lives?
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).
- “2021-2022 NIV Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 329-336.
- “The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians” by William Barclay, pages 54-57.
- “Shepherd’s Notes” by David Shepherd, pages 68-79.