Having laid the foundation through our examination of the second chapter of Galatians, and specifically, the meal separation that was being fostered by the circumcision party, we can now move on to the fifth chapter of Galatians, which begins with “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). To what is Paul referring when he speaks of slavery? We do not have to wait long to find out, as we read “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you” (5:2). The thing that brought slavery was fairly clear.
Before we consider this issue of slavery, does this not bring us quickly back to the second chapter, and Peter’s separation of himself from the Gentiles for fear of the circumcision party? Are we not made to contemplate the rebuilding, based on the ongoing idea of a need for circumcision and other delineations of national Israel, of what it was that Christ tore down, as also mentioned in the second chapter? The things that God had commanded Israel to do as their end of being faithful to the covenant, which would have made them a light to the nations, had not been kept. Not keeping to those things had brought God’s judgment. That judgment, among other things, had taken the form of subjection to foreign powers, which could easily be thought of as a yoke of slavery.
Pointing back to his discourse of the second chapter, Paul once again says “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4). Holding to the standards of the old covenant, rather than the new covenant of the Gospel, results in nothing more than being severed from Christ. Under the old covenant, though there were times in which Israel had been blessed, cursing was what Israel had achieved. Insisting on old covenant requirements, such as circumcision and separation and the making of distinctions based on national boundaries, would only keep one under the curse of exile, slavery, and judgment, rather than in the grace of God, awaiting “the hope of righteousness” (5:5b), which was an expectation of God’s faithful fulfillment of His covenant of renewal and ultimate restoration of His people and His creation.
Paul goes on, writing “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (5:13a). Here, just like in the first verse, we find that use of the word “freedom,” making it an important facet to truly understanding Paul as we move forward. In light of all that we have seen, what should we suppose that Paul means when he talks about opportunities for the flesh? Well, it seems rather clear, based on the theme of the letter up to this point, that the opportunities for the flesh, which for Paul is also a sign of the old age prior to the Christ-event that changed everything, were somehow connected to the circumcision party, and the re-institution of the previously torn down marks of Israel, as seen in the desire to keep separate table fellowship, rather than acknowledge equality with Gentiles under the principle of the new covenant and the universal Lordship of Christ. Rather, Paul insists that they should “through love serve one another” (5:13). This was freedom. The presentation of freedom should have effectively reminded them of the slavery that resulted from doing what it was that they were intending to do.
As he observed the continuance of separation, Paul would say, “This persuasion is not from Him Who calls you” (5:8). Jew & Gentile were to serve one another through love. Taking opportunities for the flesh, insisting on an analysis and verification of circumcision, in the context of the standards of the now old covenant, was the opposite of the love that was dictated by the Spirit of Christ. To this line of thinking, Paul adds, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for they are opposed to each other” (5:16-17a).
Clearly, what Christ demanded, and which He expected to be carried out by the Spirit that would be gifted to His chosen, covenant people, was not to be found in maintaining standards and boundaries that would be conductive of separation and isolation. Israel had done this before, and in so doing, had not been the light of the world and the reflectors of the glory of God for all peoples. Doing anything along such lines would, once again, defeat God’s purposes for the calling out of a distinct, covenant people to be a blessing to all nations. The movement of the Spirit would be a movement of unity and the elimination of that which divided, whereas the desires of the flesh, in this case, would actually serve “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (5:17b)