When we consider these desires of the flesh, and naturally find ourselves thinking of “sins of the flesh,” we should not be deluded into thinking of such things as drinking, smoking, and adultery, which are what we routinely and shortsightedly want to throw into that category. Though this would be simple, it is far too shallow, and devalues the importance of the weighty issues with which Paul and the earliest Christ-followers were dealing. As he puts forth these desires or sins of the flesh, Paul wants to remind his readers what it was that God’s people (Israel) had accomplished in their attempts to keep the law as the evidence, directed at God, of their faithfulness to the covenant. This was designed to bring glory to themselves.
Rather, keeping the standards of the covenant---the basic provisions of the law in regards to idolatry, sanctuary and Sabbath--- are what God said would lead to their blessing. This blessing was to demonstrate to all nations God’s faithfulness to His covenant, through the visible blessings of His people, subsequently causing those nations to seek Him, and thereby bringing glory to Him. Unfortunately for Israel, the works of their flesh, as we see throughout the histories of the Hebrew Scriptures, were all that would generally be evident: “sexual immorality, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19b-21a). Yes, all of these things are to be found in the history of Israel, as they turned in on themselves and refused to be a light to the nations. Paul saw this simple matter of divisions in the realm of eating together, in a keeping of the law (circumcision, Sabbaths, food laws) as symbols of justification inside the new covenant, as leading in this direction again.
Contrary to our modern attempts at understanding this verse and utilizing it as a measuring stick for righteous behavior, this was not a list of personal, private sins of individual Israelites. Rather, this pointed to issues that were corporate and relational, and generally connected to idolatry (which would inevitably lead to sanctuary and Sabbath issues). When Israel would be viewed by the surrounding nations, rather than reflecting God’s intentions for His image-bearers for all the world to see, the Gentiles would instead see all of these things that Paul mentioned in verses nineteen through twenty-one. We should not be amazed, then, that God brought the judgment of cursing and exile. What should amaze us His longsuffering and merciful nature.
On the other hand, the working of the Spirit, in the breaking down of barriers and extension and development of “the kingdom of God” (5:21c), as the Gospel was proclaimed and Jew and Gentile served one another through love, was manifested not in separation but in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (5:22-23a). Paul then adds, “against such things there is no law” (5:23b), which we can place alongside the fourteenth verse of this chapter, which says “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14). Doing this left no time for withdrawal and separation and inspections concerning circumcision. Concordantly, all of these “fruits of the Spirit” should also not necessarily be seen as personal and individual traits and marks of private holiness, but rather, as the way in which the members of the kingdom of God, the body of Christ, behaved towards one another.
Not succumbing to the desire to maintain those long-standing national separations, which would merely result in the works of the flesh that we saw above, would indicate that these people truly did “belong to Christ Jesus” (5:24a), and through their confession of Him as Lord, and the actions that followed, demonstrate a unity with Him in which they had, in fact, “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (5:24b). The passion and desire to maintain the distinctions pronounced by the law would and should fall to the side. Through the extension of love towards one another, as evidenced by the working of the Spirit previously presented, there was less chance that these Galatians Christians would “become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (5:25).
God had broken down the barriers that separated Him from man, and which had separated man from being what God intended him to be, so it would be the height of presumption for His chosen people, Israel and Gentile, then and now, to allow for the erection of barriers amongst each other that serve to do little more than thwart God’s intentions for His kingdom. Equally sharing in the kingdom of God, regardless of race, class, social status or any previously understood standard of separation, especially in the visible and important area of table fellowship and the eating of meals, would be something that would cause those outside to take notice, and eventually serve to make God’s people a light to the nations. Reaching for this ideal, by the working of the Spirit, was a manifestation of conduct that would be very much in step with the Gospel.