The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The Spirit is quiet, but clear. Above all, the Spirit wants to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you.
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GALATIANS #18. GALATIANS 5:16-18
I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. (Gal 5:16-18, HCSB)
I have struggled to prepare this message, because what is said is here actually quite simple, but at the same time, it is very deep. It isn’t hard to grasp the obvious meaning, but sometimes it is hard to grasp how profoundly this could affect our lives.
We need a little background as we talk about flesh and spirit. The bible describes human beings as made up of Spirit, Soul and Body (Hebrews 4:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24; numerous other verses). We each have a body. We know what that is. Our body life is what our body does – what we do and say, how we behave. We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” which we have changed in English to “psyche.” Just like that English word, the soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions. The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with God.
Your flesh is located in your body. The soul – your emotions, thoughts and decisions – is the battleground between flesh and spirit. Your soul can give attention and power to the flesh, or to the spirit. Before you are in Jesus, your spirit is dead. The flesh has free reign to do what it wants. The soul may occasionally make an effort to do some good thing, or refrain from something especially bad, but it is not empowered by God to that. It has nothing to go on but what it gets from the body, and that is heavily influenced by the flesh. However, when we come to Jesus, he makes us fully alive, fully perfect in spirit. Now, God’s Holy Spirit has a means to speak to us, to our souls, through our spirits. Now, the battle is on.
It is important to remember that the Spirit is eternal. The soul is also eternal. But the body, and the flesh, are dying, even as you read this. What that means is that the flesh is not the “real you.” The real you is going to live on eternity, either with Jesus, if you continue to trust him, or in the eternal torment of separation from him. If you are with Jesus, your spirit and soul will get a new body at the resurrection, a body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” This idea that the Spirit is the “real you” is very important when it comes to walking by the Spirit and not by the flesh.
I think one of the first questions I have about Paul’s statement, is: “how do we recognize the Spirit?” In order to help us understand, I want to reference a text that I preached on about two years ago. Bear with me if you know it, because I think it will help us. Turn to 1 Kings 19:1-13 (if you are new to the Bible, that means the book of “1 Kings,” chapter number 19, verses 1 through 13). This is a story about the prophet Elijah.
Elijah had some tremendous victories in his life. There were times when he was full of faith, and God did amazing things through him. But there were also times when things were not going well for him at all. His life was a little bit like a roller coaster – up, because things were good, and down, because things were bad. At one point, he got so down that he ran away and lived in a cave. After a time of recovery, the Lord spoke to him, and told him to come to the entrance of the cave, because he was going to reveal his presence to Elijah.
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire, a thin silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:13, HCSB)
I think the Lord was making a point. Elijah was drawing his life from what was going on externally. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”
God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”
And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send your fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.
Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.
What this story shows us, is the difference between flesh and spirit. Flesh is loud and insistent, even demanding. Elijah, even though he was a prophet, had been living according to the flesh. When things were good, he was OK. When things were bad, he was not. His focus was on the clamoring, demanding flesh. But what God showed him is that God’s truest presence is in the spirit. And the spirit is not loud, noisy, or demanding.
I’m reminded of a line from song by the Indigo Girls:
Now darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable;
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I don’t know why that should be true, but it certainly is. This passage calls the call of God a “still small voice.” But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. But a literal rendering might be “a voice, silent and intangible.” The voice of the spirit is like that. It wasn’t in all the ups and down of Elijah’s circumstances. It wasn’t even in the wind or fire or earthquake. It was a quiet whisper from God’s Spirit to Elijah’s spirit.
But here is something very important: Elijah recognized it. It was small. It was silent and intangible. And yet, it was truly there, and when it came, Elijah knew it. The New Testament seems to take for granted that we too, will recognize the voice of God’s Spirit, when we are in Jesus.
Paul gives us another clue. He says the Spirit and the Flesh are opposed to one another. They desire things that are opposite to each other. So here is a very practical help: If you sense a battle within you, if you want two different things, then one of those things is the voice of the Spirit; the other is the voice of the flesh. Now, I’m not talking about ordinary decisions, like what brand of jeans you should buy, or things like that. But if you are in Jesus, and you are presented with a choice of the flesh, there will be another voice, almost intangible, but recognizable, wanting to make a different choice. That is the voice of the Spirit.
The flesh is loud and insistent. It demands its own way. Above all, the flesh wants self-gratification. The flesh wants to do whatever is necessary – including sin – to gratify itself. Bear in mind, the flesh doesn’t always want to sin overtly. This is not the devil, but rather your corrupted flesh. Flesh just wants to get what it wants. It doesn’t care if it sins to do it, but it doesn’t have to sin to do it. So, you can do some things that appear to be good, and still be doing them in the flesh. I know of a large ministry that is built upon the flesh of the founder. The founding pastor may not be overtly sinning. He’s building a large ministry, which undoubtedly has some positive influence on some folks. But he’s doing it out of his own effort, his own focus on outward success, and ultimately, for his own gratification. It may look outwardly good, but it is still flesh.
The Spirit is quiet, but clear. There is a sense of “goodness” and “rightness” to what the Spirit wants. I don’t mean a religious goodness – I mean a clear, positive feeling, thought or conviction that what it wants is good – good as in positive, and good as in morally right. The Spirit’s goal is not your personal success or immediate gratification. Instead, what the Holy Spirit wants, is to bring you closer to Jesus, and to bring others closer to Jesus through you. Sometimes outward success will do that. Sometimes it won’t.
A lot of what it means to walk by the Spirit has to do with belief and focus. You need to trust it is true when the Bible tells you that the flesh is not the real you:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)
We don’t consider the flesh to be our true selves any more. We need to trust this, trust Jesus has really done this for us.
For all that is in the world— the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1John 2:16-17, ESV2011)
As we trust that Jesus has dealt with our sin and our flesh is on the way out, we start to see ourselves the way God sees us. The more you realize and trust that Jesus has made your righteous, the easier and more natural it will be for you to behave accordingly. We don’t need to struggle and strive with our flesh to change our behavior. Instead, we trust Jesus and what he has done for us. We cling to the truth that he has not only forgiven us, but he has changed us in the inmost being and through Him we have put off the old self and put on the new, which is righteous, holy and pure like God himself. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, we will begin to act as we believe. Paul says it like this to the Colossians:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:1-5, ESV emphasis added)
Very few translations include this, but in verse 5, it says literally: “put to death your body parts, the earthly ones…” In other words, the sins Paul names afterward are sins of the flesh and body. And the way to deal with these, the way to put them to death, he tells us in the preceding verses: set your minds on things above. Set your minds on the fact that you died and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. You fight temptation by believing that Jesus has already broken your connection with sin. You walk by the Spirit when you believe that you don’t have to gratify every impulse of your flesh, because real life is in the spirit, and in the spirit you are perfect and complete, and God has already met every need.
Part of this is about focus. We should seek the things that are above. We should set our minds on the things of the Spirit. Paul puts it like this to the Romans:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Rom 8:5, ESV2011)
As I write this, I am on a “detox diet” with my wife. There are certain foods that I am avoiding for a certain period of time. I am hungry right at this moment. The truth is, I really want some pizza, but I’m not supposed to have any. There’s no good pretending I’m not hungry. And there’s no good pretending I don’t want pizza. But there is also no point in fantasizing about a crisp crust and Italian sausage and jalapenos and the most wonderful cheese. The more I do that, the more I want it, and eventually, it will lead me to go get pizza and ruin the effect of the detox.
I have three things that help me in this situation. First, I recognize that though I want it, I don’t have to have it. I’m not going to die without it. It won’t hurt me at all to abstain, and it will probably be good for me. So I commit to something higher than my own immediate gratification. Second, except for the purposes of this illustration, I refuse to focus on what I should not have. I know it’s available. I know I want it. But I’m not going to waste my time or sap my willpower by continuing to think about it. Third, I am going to get up as soon as I’m done here, and go eat some of the good satisfying food that I am perfectly free to have.
I think walking by the Spirit is very much like that. Of course we are tempted to gratify the flesh. That’s why Paul writes about this. But temptation isn’t sin. You’ll be tempted, so what? It won’t hurt you to abstain, and you can commit to something higher than your own immediate gratification. Second, refuse to focus on it. Instead, focus on the good things you already have in Jesus, and the more good that he wants to give you. Third, satisfy yourself in Jesus with the good that he provides, and especially with his presence and his Word.
Paul also says walking by the Spirit means you are not under law. I think there are two things we should think about in connection with this. First don’t worry about messing up. God’s moral law has not changed. It cannot change, because it is a reflection of his holiness. But Jesus has met that standard on our behalf. If, as we try and walk by the Spirit, we screw up and give in to the flesh, you are not now obligated to be perfect again. Romans 8:1-4 says this:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4, ESV2011)
We shouldn’t deliberately continue in a pattern of fleshly living. To do so takes us farther away from Jesus. But if we screw up sometimes, we are not condemned. Sin has already been dealt with for those who walk according to the Spirit. When you fail, get back up and move on in the Spirit. Don’t waste a lot of time condemning yourself, because in Jesus, there is no condemnation.
Second, the fact that we are not under law means we don’t live by a list that tells us how to behave in every situation. Instead, we make our goal to stick close to Jesus, to pay attention to the spirit. If we do that, the Spirit himself will guide us, and we don’t need a set of rules for every situation.
There is a lot here in these two verses this week. Let the Holy Spirit talk to you about it right now.