Having been called and sent forth by the Holy Spirit, Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were commended to the grace of God by the Antioch assembly in Syria. They sailed from Seleucia to Cyprus, where they preached the word in Salamis and Paphos. Then, they moved on to Perga and Antioch in Pisidia. Later, they preached in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Through these intensive labours, lasting a ‘long time’, Acts 14. 3, assemblies known as the ‘Galatian assemblies’ came into existence. It was in Lystra that Paul was stoned, dragged out of the city, and left for dead.
At the conclusion of his first missionary journey, Paul retraced his steps, ‘confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith’, v. 22. This was done by means of timely counsel, teaching, and encouragement from the preachers.
Following this work of God, the believers soon came under the influence of teaching that was calculated to bring them into religious bondage. In verse 1, a bold caption could be written over the entire chapter, urging them to shun every kind of bondage, ‘Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage’, Gal. 5. 1.
Here, Paul warns them that, by accepting the Law as an added means of salvation, the Lord Jesus will be of no advantage to them. He therefore urges them to reject such bondage.
He then reminds them that whilst they were called to freedom, they should not use it as an opportunity for the flesh. He makes it perfectly clear that the believer has liberty from sin, not liberty to sin.
Now, he indicates that the believer lives by the Spirit and should walk by the Spirit. He (the Spirit) is mentioned no less than seven times. Four particular references to the Holy Spirit are worth considering: walking by the Spirit, v. 16, led by the Spirit, v. 18, live by the Spirit, v. 25, and walk (orderly, in line) by the Spirit, v. 25.
‘This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh’, Newberry. ‘But I say [this is what I mean] walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh’, ESV. ‘Walking by the Spirit’ is the rule and the power by which behaviour is to be regulated. It could equally be read ‘in the Spirit’. In this case, the Holy Spirit is regarded as the sphere within which, and the path along which, the life of freedom is to be lived.
‘But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law’. In this verse, Paul is not referring to the Spirit’s leading in assembly meetings. He is, however, referring to personal living. References to the leading of the Spirit in collective testimony are found in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. Here, in Galatians chapter 5, the Spirit of God is seen working in the believer, rather than through the believer. This has to do with the development of one’s character. Subjection to the directives of the Holy Spirit will produce fruitfulness, which is the fragrance redolent of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. To enjoy life by the Spirit, we must repudiate the Law, and law-keeping, as a means of justification, and as a way of life. Both the Law and the flesh are incapable of producing such a spiritual condition. The Law and the flesh are opposed to the Spirit of God, and the spiritual progress of the believer. Whereas, ‘To walk by the Spirit’ and to ‘be led by the Spirit’, indicate a purpose of heart and a determination to be under His control in every sphere and phase of life.
In verse 17, the Spirit and the flesh are opposed to each other. If a full life ‘in the Spirit’ is to be enjoyed, it is imperative that both the flesh and the Law be rejected. ‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: for these are contrary [opposed] the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would’. Some believers seem to overlook the fact of the Christian’s conflict with the flesh. They look upon regeneration as a total change, or renewal of the old sinful nature. If this were true, then the believer would have nothing with which to struggle. The world, also, would have no charms for those whose sinful flesh had been changed; and Satan would have nothing by which to act.
The place that Amalek occupied in the history of the nation of Israel provides typical and vital lessons for every believer in the Lord Jesus. C. H. Mackintosh observes, ‘Had Israel conceived the idea that, when Pharaoh’s hosts were gone, their conflict was at an end, they would have been sadly put about when Amalek came upon them. The fact is, their conflict only then began. Thus it is with the believer, for “all these things happened unto Israel for ensamples, and they are written for our admonition." (1 Cor. 10. 11)’.
From the moment of conversion, a perpetual conflict begins in the life of the believer, and remains to the end of their days. But this does not necessarily mean spiritual defeat. Is it our deepest longing to exclude fulfilling the desires of the flesh – the fallen nature or the sin principle? Then, this verse provides the answer. To deal with this conflict, we need a greater power than ourselves. ‘It is not a matter of hearing mysterious inner voices or irrational promptings; rather, it is a diligent desire to live according to the Word of God. After all, the Holy Spirit will not lead contrary to the Scriptures which He inspired’, David Newell.
It is extremely important to understand what is meant in the closing statement of verse 17, ‘so that ye cannot do the things that ye would’, or ‘to keep [prevent] you from doing the things you want to do’ ESV. Clearly, this refers to those things that you desire, the things toward which fallen nature naturally turns. These are enumerated in verse 19 as ‘the works of the flesh’. But the believer has come into liberty from such bondage. Since the believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, it is no longer inevitable that she/he must yield to the evil desires of the flesh. If the condition of verses 16 and 18 – walking by the Spirit and led by the Spirit – is fulfilled, the believer can enjoy happy liberty from such bondage. By yielding to the guidance and strengthening of the Spirit, the believer is empowered to refuse such promptings, and to yield the ‘fruit of the Spirit’, v. 22. ‘Walking by the Spirit’ will prevent us from fulfilling the desires of the flesh. This is the precious outcome of the restraining action of the Spirit on the constraining attitudes and actions of the flesh, giving victory to the believer.
Romans chapter 8 verse 2 helps us understand this better: ‘For the law [principle] of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death’. The characteristic principle of the Holy Spirit is to empower believers for holy living, whereas, the characteristic principle of indwelling sin is to drag a person down to death. It is like the law of gravity. When you throw a ball into the air, it comes back down to earth, because it is heavier than the air it displaces. Similarly, a living bird is also heavier than the air it displaces. But if you were to throw a living bird up in the air, the bird would flap its wings and fly away. Why? The law of life in the bird overcomes the law of gravity. The Spirit is the power of the risen life, the power in which that life is enjoyed.
In verses 19-25, Paul describes the characteristics of the two kinds of life; ‘life in the flesh’, vv. 19-21, and ‘life in the Spirit’, vv. 22-23.
This catalogue of evil may be considered in four groups:
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