World War II provided us with some tragic illustrations of theological truth. When Nazi Germany attacked Poland the battle was essentially won within a week and was virtually over in a month. Winston Churchill described the valiant effort of the poorly armed Poles:
They were heavily outclassed in artillery, and had but a single armoured brigade to meet the nine German Panzers, as they were already called. Their horse cavalry, of which they had twelve brigades, charged valiantly against the swarming tanks and armoured cars, but could not harm them with their swords and lances.99
Shirer sensed this same futility when he wrote:
Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long cannon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught. This was their—and the world’s— first experience of the blitzkrieg: the sudden surprise attack; the fighter planes and bombers roaring overhead, reconnoitering, attacking, spreading flame and terror; the Stukas screaming as they dove; the tanks, whole divisions of them, breaking through and thrusting forward thirty or forty miles a day; self-propelled, rapid-firing heavy guns rolling forty miles an hour down even the rutty Polish roads; the incredible speed of even the infantry, of the whole vast army of a million and a half men on motorized wheels, directed and co-ordinated through a maze of electronic communications consisting of intricate radio, telephone and telegraphic networks. This was a monstrous mechanized juggernaut such as the earth had never seen. … Within forty-eight hours the Polish Air Force was destroyed. … In one week the Polish Army had been vanquished.100
The victory of Germany over Poland can be principally explained by their superiority in weapons. Shirer described the rapid arms buildup of the Third Reich:
… the Army of the Third Reich had jumped from seven to fifty-one divisions in just four years. Among them were five heavy armored divisions and four light ones, a “modern battle cavalry” such as no other nation possessed. The Navy had built up from practically nothing. … From absolutely nothing, the Luftwaffe had built up a force of twenty-one squadrons with a personnel of 260,000 men. The armament industry, General Thomas said, was already producing more than it had during the peak of the last war and its output in most fields far exceeded that of any other country. In fact, total German rearmament, the General declared, was “probably unique in the world.”101
The weapons of Germany’s warfare played a significant part in the victories she won on the battlefield. One can only shudder at what might have happened if German technology had produced some of the weapons which were still in the developmental stages.
Having described the tremendous buildup of military weapons, Shirer makes a very interesting comment about the possibility of German victory: “Formidable as German military power was becoming at the beginning of the summer of 1939, the prospect of success in the war which Hitler was planning for the early fall depended on what kind of a war it was.”102
Allow me to paraphrase and apply Shirer’s words to our passage in Galatians 5: the kind of war which is waged determines the success of the weapons employed. This same principle explains the failure of the legalism of the Judaizers to subdue the sins of the pagan Gentiles. The weapon of the Law was ineffective because of the nature of the war. In Ephesians 6, Paul demonstrates the need for spiritual weapons, based upon the fact that we are engaged in a spiritual warfare. Galatians 5 also describes a spiritual warfare, but it is a war within the soul of the saint, rather than the external war found in Ephesians. In Ephesians 6, spiritual weapons are needed because of the fallen angelic forces who are resisting the saints. In Galatians 5, grace is needed because of the fallen nature which is still within us, waging war against the Spirit.
The Judaizers erred in that they were attempting to fight the spiritual war with the weapons of the flesh. They erroneously believed that the only way to overcome the evils of the heathen society of that day was to arm themselves with the Old Testament Law. To seek to subdue sin by means of the flesh is like trying to put out a grease fire with water—it only makes matters worse. Paul’s argument in our text is intended to show that the nature of the spiritual war which is being waged within the saint is such that the Law promotes sin, while grace alone prevents it.
The purpose of this message is to expound this passage as a whole, especially in the light of the context. We shall then seek to find its application to our own lives. The next message will cover the same passage, focusing on the principles regarding the spiritual life. We will then survey some of the major views of the spiritual life in contemporary evangelism and evaluate them in the light of Scripture.
The context of our passage is crucial to our understanding of Paul’s words. Chapter 5 begins a new section. Chapters 1 and 2 are primarily written as a defense of Paul’s apostleship and his authority. Chapters 3 and 4 are intended to prove the superiority and priority of grace over the Law by developing the priority and superiority of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Mosaic. Paul shows in chapters 3 and 4 that the Law cannot produce righteousness, while chapters 5 and 6 show how righteousness is produced by grace through the Holy Spirit.
The first 12 verses of chapter 5 concentrate on the subject of freedom, the goal of our salvation (cf. 5:1). To be circumcised was to submit oneself to the Old Testament Law, thus exchanging freedom for bondage. In verses 13 and following, the goal of this freedom in Christ is expounded. Galatians 5:1-12 explains what the Christian is free from, and the remainder of the chapter expounds on what the Christian is free for.
If the broad context is that of the freedom of the Christian, the narrower context is that of the contention and strife which exists within the Galatian churches. You will notice that our passage is encircled, as it were, by strife and contention. In verse 15 we learn that the Galatian saints were “biting and devouring” each other. In verse 26, there is a final exhortation not to “become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.” The freedom which was granted at salvation was a freedom from servitude to servanthood. The Galatian saints were made free to serve one another. The practical problem was that they were so divided by friction and strife that serving one another was greatly hindered. The situation is similar to having a beautiful and expensive automobile, with a lifetime supply of gasoline, but without any oil for lubrication. Even the most precision engine (or perhaps I should say, especially the most precision engine) cannot function without oil. The unity and harmony of the Galatian churches was disrupted by strife.
Paul claims that such strife was the result of walking in the flesh, rather than of walking in the Spirit. Walking in the flesh was the direct result of the Galatians’ turning to another gospel, a gospel which added law-keeping to grace. Paul seeks to solve the practical problem of disunity by exposing its roots: legalism. He further attempts to convince his readers that legalism will only promote sin, rather than prevent it, because of the war which is being waged within the soul.
13 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. 14 For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another.
Initially I viewed verses 13-15 as somewhat incidental, compared to the more important truths of “walking in the Spirit.”103 These verses, however, are vital to understanding the realm in which “walking in the Spirit” is to take place. Paul is not discussing spirituality in a vacuum, but in a very practical context as described in verses 13-15.
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 lest you be consumed by one another.104
Paul begins chapter 5 with the words, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” Verse 13 takes up the same theme but in a more precise way. Paul uses the term “only” to introduce a more restrictive view of the purpose of our freedom. The Judaizers reacted to Paul’s teaching because they feared that freedom would lead to license. A brief description of the evils of the Gentile world will help you understand the fears of the Judaizers.
The sexual life of the Graeco-Roman world in NT times was a lawless chaos. J. J. Chapman, describing the time in which Lucian lived, in the first half of the second century, writes: “Lucian lived in an age when shame seems to have vanished from the earth.” Demosthenes writes … “We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for the day-to-day needs of the body, but we have wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our homes” (Against Neaera, quoted, Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 573 B). … It is hardly possible to mention a great Greek figure who had not his hetaira, his mistress, and often these mistresses were the most beautiful and the most cultured women of their day. Alexander the Great had his Thais, … Aristotle had his Herpyllia, Plato his Archeaenassa, Pericles his Aspasia, Sophocles his Archippe. … “Chastity is simply a proof of ugliness” (Seneca, On Benefits 3.16.1-3). Innocence, says Seneca, is not rare, it is non-existent (On Anger 2,8). Juvenal paints the picture of the Roman woman passing the altar of Modesty with a cynical smile (Juvenal, Satires 6.308). “The greater the infamy, the wilder the delight,” said Tacitus (Tacitus, Annals 11.26).105
This kind of depravity I would call “red-blooded Gentile immorality.” The unnatural vices, Barclay writes, were running rampant:
Still worse was the unnatural vice which was rampant. It began in the imperial household. Caligula notoriously lived in habitual incest with his sister Drusilla, and the lust of Nero did not even spare his mother Agrippina (Suetonius, Caligula 34; Nero 28).106
The sin of homosexuality was even more prevalent in Paul’s day than it is today.
From the highest to the lowest society was riddled with homosexuality. This was a vice which Rome learned from Greece. J. J. Dollinger calls it “the great national disease of Greece” (J. J. Dollinger, The Gentile and the Jew, II, p. 239). … In one of his dialogues Lucian makes Lycinus relate: ‘It were better not to need marriage, but to follow Plato and Socrates and to be content with the love of boys’ (Lucian, The Lapiths 39). … Plato’s Symposium ranks as one of the great works of literature. Its subject is love, but it is homosexual love. Phaedrus begins the subject. “I know not,” he says, “any greater blessing to a young man who is beginning life than a virtuous lover, or to the lover than a beloved boy” (Plato, Symposium 178 D).
Gibbon writes: “Of the first fifteen Emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct. Julius Caesar was notoriously the lover of King Nicomedes of Bithynia. ‘The queen’s rival,’ they called him and his passion was the subject of the ribald songs the soldiers sang. Nero ‘married’ a castrated youth called Sporus and went in marriage procession with him throughout the streets of Rome, and he himself was ‘married’ to a freedman called Doryphorus.”107
Barclay draws the following conclusion: “It has been said that chastity was the one completely new virtue which Christianity introduced into the pagan world.”108 With the prevalence of such immorality in the Gentile culture, it is easy to understand the apprehension of the Jewish legalist. To prevent such corruption they felt that the rigors and restrictions of the Law were best imposed upon the Gentile saint.
Nevertheless, the Judaizers were wrong. Paul’s words in verse 13 make it clear that the freedom which the gospel gives is not the freedom to sin, but freedom from sin. Biblical freedom does not cater to the flesh, but crucifies it (cf. v. 24). Indulging the flesh is merely slavery to it, and thus is not freedom at all (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 7:16). Whenever one is a servant of the flesh, one is in bondage to it. Paul asserts that there is freedom from bondage to sin. Biblical freedom is not freedom to serve sin. It is not a license to immorality and all of the Gentile paganisms of the day. Paul’s word to the Judaizers is “the liberty of the gospel produces what you want—freedom from sin. The Law can never have this result.” Rather than being an opportunity to sin, freedom is a call to love. Paul urges the Galatian believers to “through love serve one another” (v. 13). Thus servanthood is the goal of freedom. We are free from sin. We are free for service to one another; service that is in love, not sensuality.
Verse 14 further destroys the argumentation of the Judaizers. The Judaizers taught that men needed to keep the Law. Paul has been contending that anyone who places himself under the Law by submitting to circumcision is only destined for failure, because it is impossible to perfectly keep the Law. However, even though the Law is wrong as a means to obtain righteousness, it is a commendable goal. This point is of vital importance. The readers of Galatians assume that the Law has no value because they have misinterpreted statements about being free from the Law and having died to the Law. Paul corrects this misunderstanding and states that the Law, in terms of a standard of righteousness, is valid. The righteousness which the Law describes is still a standard for today. While Law is a valid standard it cannot be a source of righteousness. The Judaizers incorrectly taught that the Law was a source of righteousness. They assumed that they could be righteous by keeping the Law. The Law’s standard will be fulfilled by those who walk in the Spirit as Paul makes clear in Romans 8.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law could not do (as a source), weak as it was through the flesh, God did sending His own son in the likeness of sinful flesh as an offering for sin. He condemned sin in the flesh in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2).
Men fulfill the Law, not by submitting to it as the Judaizers advocated but rather by walking in the Spirit. Paul does not discard the Law. Instead he views it as God intended it—a standard of righteousness.
The goal of the Law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 14b) is rather ironic in light of verse 15. Paul summarizes the requirement of the Law in this way because of the conflict within the Galatian church. The readers of this epistle may have been somewhat perplexed at Paul’s crystallization of the Law in light of the teaching of Christ. Why does Paul not refer to “the great and foremost commandment” (Matt. 22:38)?
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36-37).
Paul has been talking about devotion to Christ. His theme in these verses has not changed. Devotion to Christ is impossible without love for the brethren.
If someone says, “I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that one who loves God should love his brother also” (1 John 4:20-21).
The great summary of the Law with regard to others was also stated by Christ, “The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:31). Paul refers to this condensation of the Law because of the conflict in the church. Ironically, the Law under which the Gentiles placed themselves condemned them. The goal of the Law is brotherly love, yet verse 15 clearly indicates their failure in keeping this aspect of the Law. When the Law is promoted as the source of righteousness it has a boomerang effect. Instead of producing righteousness, it leads to selfishness. Rather than unity and harmony, rather than service one to another, the Galatians were biting and devouring each other. Like cats and dogs the Galatians were continually fighting with each other. Paul warned them that such action would eventually destroy them, “Take care lest you be consumed.” Rather than serving one another, they were sacrificing one another.
Initially I viewed verses 13-15 as a parenthesis, something to quickly read so that I could address the walk in the Spirit. After further reflection I am inclined to take these verses as the introduction. In fact, we will not understand the walk in the Spirit that Paul describes unless we understand as well the problem in Galatia. The church was riddled with strife and contention because they placed themselves under the Law, rather than fulfilling it by loving their neighbor as themselves. Thus walking in the Spirit is commanded in light of the goal of freedom, which is to serve one another in love.
15 But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another. 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17 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. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. 19 Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, 21 envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another.
Verses 16 and 17 are vitally important. Paul writes, “But I say, …” which I take to be a contrast to the biting and devouring one another in verse 15. “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (v. 16).
Paul previously argues in verse 13 that we are not freed in order to serve the flesh. However, in verse 15, Paul describes the Galatians as doing precisely this. They were serving themselves; that is to say, they were serving the flesh. They were not serving one another. Thus in verse 16, Paul capsulizes the solution to their selfishness. He asserts that fleshly desires are combatted by walking in the Spirit. Walking in the Spirit results in serving one another through love.
Verse 17 explains the crux of the conflict by describing the nature of the war within. “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.” Within us rages a battle between the flesh and the Spirit. It is critical to have a correct understanding of “the flesh.” The ancient Greeks believed that the real problem was a battle between the mind and the body. Thus some have incorrectly identified “the flesh” with the body. It is not entirely true and is an error still propagated today. One misguided teacher has called the body the “carton,” and he says it is the source of evil. This identification is incorrect because the body is to be presented to God as a holy, living sacrifice. We do not present something evil to God. The body is something which is to be transformed. As a matter of fact, our body will be transformed and glorified (Phil. 3:21). The body is not evil; the flesh is evil. The flesh does refer to our bodily appetites. The flesh is our fallen humanity, our fallen humanness. It is what we are apart from Christ.
We received the Spirit as a result of faith in Christ, and the Spirit is opposed to the flesh. Paul laid this foundation for the Galatians previously in chapter 3.
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Christ Jesus was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (Gal. 3:1-2).
In the above verses, Paul refers to the initial reception of the Holy Spirit that comes at conversion. He asked, “How did the Spirit come? Did the Spirit come by law-works? Did it come by submitting yourself to the Law? Did it come, so to speak, when you were circumcised?” No. The Spirit came by faith alone, as found in the example of Abram. Paul continues: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
Do you notice that those are two opposing forces—flesh and spirit? The following verses continue the dichotomy between the flesh and the Spirit. “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:4-5).
A distinct relationship is revealed, the relationship between faith and the Spirit, the Law and the flesh. Faith is related to the Spirit. Faith receives the Spirit of God, the agent of both salvation and sanctification. Law-keeping relies upon the flesh. When Paul speaks about the flesh and Spirit being at war one with another he writes, “For these things are in opposition to one another so that you may not do the things that you please” (v. 17b).
What exactly does Paul mean when he says, “… you may not do the things that you please”? In the light of Romans 7, I believe that Paul means we are unable to do the things that we want to do, that is, the things that we know are good. In other words, I believe it is those things which the Law requires, the standard of righteousness. Thus we are unable to do righteousness because the flesh and the Spirit are opposed to one another. The Galatians had opted to resist sin by submitting to the Law. However, Paul has demonstrated that submitting to the Law and adopting works results in surrendering faith. When the Law is not only the standard but the source of righteousness, there is only one means through which to keep it; that is, through the flesh. Since the flesh and the Spirit are opposed to one another, the Spirit doesn’t empower men who are under Law. The Spirit empowers men who live by faith. Thus Paul reasons, you cannot do the things which the Law requires. You cannot keep the standards of the Law in the power of the flesh because the flesh is opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit is opposed to the flesh. Consequently, if you are under Law your only power is the flesh, yet walking in the Spirit is the only means to serve one another in love. Men are defeated in their good intentions by submitting to the Law. To place oneself under the Law is to place oneself in a position where only the power of the flesh and the desires of the flesh are operative. Trying to overcome sin with Law is something like trying to put out a grease fire with water. All it does is multiply the problem. It makes sin grow rather than reducing it.
In verses 18 and following Paul characterizes the man who walks in the Spirit as a man who is not under the Law. “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law” (v. 18). The elaborate description of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit are given to demonstrate that if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Law. We will address further the deeds of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit in my next message. But I do want you to notice that the things which are described as the deeds of the flesh and the works of the Spirit are not all inclusive. These are not all of the things which are the works of the flesh, nor are they all of the things which are the fruit of the Spirit. Most of us probably assume these lists are complete and use them to assess our spiritual condition. Notice the wording of verse 21, “Those who practice such things …” Thus the works of the flesh that are listed are a mere sampling. Again, notice the wording in verse 23 in reference to the fruit of the Spirit: “against such things there is no law.” The fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists are mere examples.
The fruits of the Spirit and the works of the flesh which Paul has listed, were chosen because of the particular problem of the Galatians. The church was beset with strife, described as biting and devouring one another. When Paul recounted the deeds of the flesh, immorality, impurity, sensuality, I honestly believe that the Galatians were saying “Preach it brother, preach it! Oh, that’s the Gospel! Wow, look at him, coming down on sin!” It must have really tickled the ears of the Galatians because Judaism despised immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, and sorcery (vv. 19b-20a). Those were the “filthy five.”
They agreed with Paul that the “filthy five” shouldn’t be practiced. What they weren’t ready to hear was the rest of the list: “enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these …” (vv. 20-21a). Paul grouped them together as from the same source. Paul categorizes the Galatians “socially acceptable” sins with those that they would abhor committing. He wants to impress upon the Galations that they are acting in the flesh. Jesus severely dealt with the scribes and the Pharisees because of the same issue. The scribes and the Pharisees were basically law-abiding citizens. With, or around whom would you rather live? In what town would you rather live? A Pharisees’ town or a Gentile pagan town? I would choose the Pharisee town any day. However, the Lord reprimanded the scribes and Pharisees, “You white-washed sepulchres, you blind leaders of the blind, you snakes!” Yet He counseled the woman caught in the act of adultery, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Their socially acceptable sin is abominable in God’s sight because it comes out of a self-righteous heart. In our churches today we sometimes tolerate “socially acceptable” sin, while condemning those which are unacceptable (to us, at least).
Just as the deeds of the flesh were selected to address the problem in the Galatian church, the fruits of the Spirit are also samples relating to this strife. I see a relationship between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit. Let’s call the gifts of the Spirit charisma and the fruit of the Spirit character. They are both manifestations of grace. Is not the source of the fruit of the Spirit grace and not works? The word for spiritual gifts, charismata, is derived from the word for grace, charis. Let us compare spiritual gifts to gasoline and the fruit of the Spirit to oil. Even though gasoline makes a car run, without oil to lubricate the engine it would go nowhere. In the same way, spiritual gifts are a manifestation of God’s grace in the life of a believer, but without the fruit of the Spirit such gifts accomplish nothing.
An unbelieving psychiatrist, Victor Frankel, has given me further insight into this text, although his subject matter vastly differs. He describes the pursuit of happiness in the following words: “As for the pleasure principle I would go even farther in my criticism. It is my contention that in the final analysis that the pleasure is self-defeating.109
Victor Frankel is talking about the pursuit of pleasure as a goal. “The more one aims at pleasure, the more his aim is missed.”110 In other words, the very pursuit of happiness is what thwarts it. Then he continues: “And that is why one need not pursue happiness, one need not care for it once there is a reason for it. But even more, one cannot pursue it. To the extent to which one makes happiness the objective of his motivation, he necessarily makes it the object of his attention.”111
Later in the book he addresses the topic of the status drive. He gives the illustration of himself seeking something selfishly. He had published sixteen books, however one book was written anonymously. In an agreement with the publisher the German translation would be published anonymously. He purposely wrote it anonymously to conceal his identity, and the book turned out to be his bestseller.
Let me relate Victor Frankel’s theory about the pursuit of happiness to the message of the book of Galatians. The primary reason that the Galatians were deceived into pursuing legalism was because “being spiritual” became their goal. I believe that spirituality is never a legitimate goal. Take for example, the life and ministry of our Lord and the disciples. The disciples were concerned about spiritual status. In my estimation, in Christian circles today we attempt to become “spiritual” to attain status in the church. In the world, wealth gives prestige, in the church spirituality gives status. Do you understand why the disciples were concerned about who was going to be first in the Kingdom of God? They were status seekers. They looked for spiritual success to gain prestige. The Lord’s response to this kind of thinking was, “Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 20:26).
Verse 13 of our passage contains the same message that our Lord conveyed to the disciples. Service, not spirituality, is our goal. I maintain spirituality, like happiness, is something that is unattainable when pursued. It cannot be a legitimate goal. This helps us to understand why our Lord Jesus said to His disciples, “Abide in Me.” The goal is abiding in Christ, and the results are fruit-bearing. We have reversed the goal and the results. We have made fruit-bearing the goal because we think that is spiritual. We look at abiding in Him as the necessary evil, or the necessary mechanism to achieve fruitfulness.
When spirituality becomes our goal one of the consequences is that we become self-centered. We begin to ask ourselves, how am I doing? This is why we are so preoccupied with self-image. I suggest that self-image problems are the result of improper orientation. We are self-centered in orientation instead of being service-centered. In our passage Paul states that our goal is to serve one another.
Think through the Book of Philippians, in the light of what I’ve been saying about servanthood with regard to one another. Servanthood is the goal, not spirituality. When we seek spirituality as the highest aim, we look at distinctions as the basis for elevating ourselves above others. This problem was prevalent in Corinth, for example. When we seek to serve, we see distinctions as the opportunity to minister. We see that the differences in the body are designed by God so that the body can minister to itself in love.
Paul wrote the Book of Philippians in prison. In chapter 1 he sets forth the problems related to his imprisonment, two of which were his uncertain future and the fact that others were preaching the gospel in such a way as to distress Paul. How would you feel, and how would you respond, especially if you were preoccupied with being noted as spiritual? You can imagine the response of the other preachers who preached Christ out of selfish ambition. They said to their congregation, “We really need to pray for Paul. It’s obvious he’s under divine discipline. He’s in jail. God has taken away his ministry. God is rebuking him. Let’s pray for Paul that God would restore him.” Paul’s response to his situation was totally different, “Nevertheless Christ is being preached, and in that I rejoice.” Paul responded this way because he was a servant, not a status-seeker who wanted to be esteemed as spiritual.
Later in the chapter Paul writes that his uncertain future may include either life or death. If death was the outcome he would go to be with Christ. If not, Paul stated that he would labor on and continue to serve the saints. Paul had a servant’s heart, and was willing to do whatever advanced the cause of Christ. Paul drew his example from Christ, described as the suffering servant in chapter 2. I’ve always resisted the interpretation of the passage which says, “Let each one of you esteem others better than himself.” It has always troubled me whether the words in Greek mean “more important than,” or “better than.” I finally see the wisdom of the word “better.” What is the mentality of a servant? He sees others as over him. What is the mentality of one who chooses to be spiritual? He aspires to leadership. He aspires to have people serve him. The mentality of a servant is the mentality that sees others as better than and more important than himself.
In Philippians chapter 3 Paul is renouncing the error of the teaching of the circumcisers that men must submit to the Law to obtain righteousness. These men aspired to achieve their prescribed standard of spirituality. Instead Paul sought only to know Christ and Him crucified, the power of His resurrection. I suggest that one of the greatest problems in the church is that we’ve been seeking spirituality and not servanthood. Our focus is shifting from Christ, and we’re beginning to ask, “How spiritual are we?” We really cannot answer that question. I think that’s why Paul said in 1 Corinthians “I don’t judge myself” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:4). Spirituality is God’s business. Abiding is our responsibility. Serving is our responsibility. Whenever we shift our focus from Christ, even to such a pious-sounding commodity as spirituality, we begin to emphasize outward, external standards. This is the essence of legalism.
103 This thinking was not helped by the heading provided by the editors of some Bibles and by the way some commentators divide the chapter. The NIV is an exception, taking verses 13-15 as the introductory words of Paul under the category of “Life by the Spirit.”
104 I am quoting from the NASV because I prefer its more literal renderings of this passage, especially in the light of the need to carefully understand the meaning of technical terms such as “flesh,” which the NIV renders more loosely “sinful nature.”