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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Christ freed us to serve one another
Text:Galatians 5:13-15 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Communion of Saints

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 18:1,2

Hymn 82:3 (after the law)

Psalm 119:13,14

Psalm 116:1,2,9,10

Psalm 18:14,15

Scripture readings:  John 13:1-20, Galatians 5

Text: Galatians 5:13-15

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Slavery is something none of us know anything about through personal experience.  I’m quite sure no one here in our congregation has ever been a slave.  Solomon Northup did though.  He was an African-American born in New York State in 1807 or 1808.  He was born into a free family and he was a free man.  Solomon Northup became a professional musician.  He played the violin.  One day, Northup travelled to Washington, DC to perform.  While there, he was drugged, kidnapped, and then sold into slavery.  Solomon Northup was sent to Louisiana and spent 12 years as a plantation slave before his family was able to rescue him and bring him back to New York.  He later wrote a book about his experiences.  The book was entitled Twelve Years A Slave – in 2013 it was made into a movie.  If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, you know how horrific American slavery was. 

Our passage this morning speaks in terms of freedom.  That word “freedom” is used in contrast with slavery.  That was something ancient Christians knew about.  They saw slavery all the time.  Some ancient Christians were slaves.  The most famous example is Onesimus in the book of Philemon.  Now that ancient slavery was different in some ways to American slavery in the 1800s.  For example, ancient slavery wasn’t race-based the way American slavery was.  But both forms were horrible.  Freedom has always been preferable to slavery.

So when Paul wrote in terms of slavery and freedom, his readers could connect with that immediately.  The book of Galatians was written to the churches in a region of Asia Minor known as Galatia – this area is in present-day Turkey.  These were churches troubled by problems.  They were dealing with false teaching which threatened the gospel.  But these churches were also dealing with inter-personal conflicts.  They had to learn how to live together as a community of Christian believers.

That’s where our passage for this morning fits in.  This part of God’s Word is addressed to Christians learning how to get along together.  It speaks to us today too and the challenges we face as a community of believers.  As we look at Galatians 5:13-15, we’ll see that Christ freed us to serve one another.  That’s our theme for this morning.  We’ll consider this passage and God’s:

  1. Calling
  2. Command
  3. Caution          

A moment ago, I mentioned that the Galatian churches were facing problems.  One of those problems was false teaching.  You can see that false teaching in the beginning of chapter 5, before our passage for this morning.  It was about the law.  Specifically, it was about the ceremonial requirements of the law.  Even more specifically, it was about circumcision.  You see, amongst the Galatian churches there were people teaching that Christ wasn’t enough for you to be right with God.  To be right with God, if you were a male, you also had to be circumcised.  That was easy enough if you were Jewish, but if you were a Gentile who’d become a Christian, that meant undergoing circumcision as an adult.  Those teaching this have been given the name Judaizers.  They were trying to bring Christians back to the Jewish ceremonies found in the Old Testament.  They were trying to say Christ wasn’t enough. 

That was undermining the gospel message.  That’s why Paul has strong words in Galatians about this false teaching.  Look at verse 4 of Galatians 5.   If you want to be justified, or declared righteous, by the law, you’re severed from Christ.  You’re cut off.  You’ve fallen from grace.  If you add law-keeping to Christ you lose Christ.  Those aren’t even the strongest words Paul has.  Look at verse 11.  If Paul were to be a preacher of the circumcision, telling people to follow the Old Testament ceremonial laws, the offense of the cross would be gone.  The cross says, “You can’t do it.  You need Jesus Christ.”  The Judaizers say, “Yes, you need Christ, but there’s also something you need to do.  You need to add your contribution.  Go and get circumcised and follow the law.  Do your part.” 

That leads to verse 12.  Look at that.  Paul says these Judaizers who insist on circumcision should just go ahead and lop off the whole male member.  Forget about a little foreskin!  Chop off the whole works – now that would really be adding to your righteousness!  If a little is going to do you good, then a lot is going to do you even better.  Of course, he’s showing how ridiculous their position is. 

This is all the background to verse 13.  The Holy Spirit says through Paul that the Galatian believers – indeed, all believers – have been called to freedom.  Now there are different ways Scripture speaks about our freedom as Christians.  We’ve been freed from sin, from death, from Satan, and so on.  But here in this context, freedom is particularly referring to freedom from the law as a way to earn salvation.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers (‘and sisters’ we can add).”  Who called them?  God did.  Through Christ and through the gospel, the Galatian believers have been freed from being enslaved to the notion that they have to do stuff to measure up for God.  God has called them to the freedom of the gospel.  The Jesus preached in the gospel says that you only need rest and trust in him and you’ll be saved.  You’ll be saved from the wrath you deserve.  That was true for the Galatians and it’s equally true for you.

Loved ones, no one is going to try to convince us today that we need to add circumcision to the gospel.  We don’t face the exact same challenges the Galatians did.  But there’s always the tendency to want to add something to the gospel.  We have to resist that.  You were called to freedom brothers and sisters.  That’s freedom from the slavery of thinking that you have to do your part to be in a friendly relationship with God.  God has called you free from that slavery.  That’s something to rejoice in and praise God for!  Praise God that he tells us that we only need Jesus as our Saviour, nothing else, no one else.  Only believe in Jesus and you are a child of God.  Only believe in the Saviour and you have eternal life and the hope of glory.

So our passage is finishing up addressing that error of the Judaizers.  But then it switches to addresses another error, an error that goes to the opposite extreme.  Martin Luther once compared the situation here to a drunk man riding a horse.  He climbs up into the saddle and as the horse starts moving forward, he falls off to the right side.  The drunk man climbs back up into the saddle, the horse starts moving forward, and he falls off to the left side.  The Judaizers fell off the horse to one side.  Now Paul doesn’t want the Galatian Christians to get back on the horse and fall off to the other side.

Look at the second part of verse 13.  “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…”  The Holy Spirit is addressing a temptation.  The temptation is to hear “freedom” and think, “Now I’m free to do whatever I want.  I’m free to live however I want.”  The temptation is to hear “freedom” and think, “I’m free to follow my own heart and do my own thing.”  God is addressing that temptation in the rest of our passage. 

He says, “do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.”  Christ has freed you from slavery to the law as way to earn salvation.  You’ve been set free from any idea of law-keeping as a way to measure up for heaven.  But now don’t think that this freedom is an “opportunity for the flesh.”  Have you ever heard of a bridgehead?  A bridgehead is a military concept.  It’s the place from where a military operation starts.  A good example is during the Second World War, Normandy was the bridgehead for the liberation of Europe.  Normandy was where the Allies landed in France and launched the process of defeating the Nazis.  Normandy was the bridgehead.  That’s the idea in our passage here with the word “opportunity.”  Don’t use your freedom as the bridgehead for your sinful nature.  The flesh is what’s left of your sinful nature.  All Christians have the remnants or leftovers of a sinful nature in them. The flesh tries to drag us back to a life of warfare against God.  If you’re not thinking straight, the teaching of Christ’s freedom could become a bridgehead for your flesh to wage war against God.  It could be the launching point for a campaign against God in your life.  But God doesn’t want that and neither should you as a believer who loves God.  You shouldn’t want that as a believer who’s thankful for the freedom we have through Christ. 

You’ve got to get your head screwed on straight.  Your freedom in Christ from the law is meant to free you for service.  In particular, he’s freed you for the purpose of serving one another.  You’ve been set free, not so that would go and be selfish.  Not so that you would serve yourself, but that you’d look outward and serve others.

Here it’s helpful to think in terms of discipleship.  Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ.  He is our Master, our Teacher.  We’re his students, his followers.  Disciples don’t just get information from their Teacher.  Being a Christian disciple isn’t just about filling your head with information from Christ through his Word.  It is that, but it’s far more.  It’s also about walking in the footsteps of our Master.  Disciples want to be like their Teacher.  They study his life and they want to follow his example. 

Now our passage says, “through love serve one another.”  This is why we read from John 13.  In John 13, we see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  He explicitly said in John 13:15, “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”  He didn’t mean that disciples are literally to wash each other’s feet.  But he did mean that we are to serve one another humbly and lovingly, just as he did.  And the foot washing incident isn’t even the greatest example of our Saviour’s loving service for others.  The cross is.  As we look at the cross, we see how much our Saviour loved.  He sacrificed himself in our place.  He gave everything for us, so we could be adopted as children of God.  The King of kings humbled himself and lovingly became a servant for his subjects.  The cross is the greatest illustration ever of Galatians 5:13, “through love serve one another.”  If you want to know what that looks like, look to Christ hanging on the Roman tree on Golgotha.  See your Saviour there, but also your Master, your Teacher. 

Now what is that going to look like among us?  What does it concretely look like for Christian disciples to serve one another through love?  We’ll find an answer to that as we take a closer look at verse 14.  Look with me at what it says there.  This is familiar, isn’t it?  It’s well-known because Christ quotes it in Matthew 22.   We sometimes hear it after the reading of the Ten Commandments.  When Christ said it, he wasn’t saying anything new.  He was simply quoting from the Old Testament.  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” – that command originally comes from Leviticus 19:18.

In Galatians 5:14, this is said to be the fulfillment of the “whole law.”  You might read that and wonder why and how.  If you think about it, don’t the first four commandments speak about our responsibility towards God?  Isn’t the law also summarized by the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength?  That’s true.  But here the focus is on our relationships with one another as believers.  So when it says the “whole law is fulfilled” by loving your neighbour as yourself, we need to read that as saying “the whole law with respect to other human beings.”  However, it’s also true that by loving your neighbour as yourself, you do show your love for God.  He’s commanded you to do so and when you follow his commandments, you show your love for him.  You can think of what it says in 1 John 5:3, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.”  So that’s not completely out of the picture here in Galatians 5:14. 

That brings us to the heart of the matter.  What does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself?  These days there’s a lot more attention to the “as yourself” part of this command.  There are those who say, “See, God wants you to love yourself.  Loving yourself is a biblical command.”  Then that ties in to the whole self-esteem thing.  Well, to begin with, a text without context is a pretext.  The whole point here in Galatians 5 has nothing to do with you loving yourself.  It says in verse 13, “through love serve one another.”  And in the next verse, we’re warned about attacking one another.  So stuff any notion of this teaching us to love ourselves.  That’s just not in view at all.

When Scripture says we’re to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, it assumes we’re going to love ourselves.  We’re going to do that naturally and instinctively.  That’s the way we normally are.  Let me clarify.  That’s not about having warm, fuzzy feelings when we think about ourselves.  It’s not about talking to ourselves and maybe saying things like, “I love you self, you’re so special to me.”  This isn’t about emotions or feelings at all.  Instead, it’s about instinctively taking care of yourself.  Taking care of your needs.  Normally, that’s what you do.  We’re not talking about the unusual situations where someone is depressed or suicidal or wants to self-harm.  But normally we take care of our needs.  If you’re in bed at night and you get cold, you pull the blanket or quilt over you. If you step on a nail, you’re not going to walk around with that nail in your foot – you’d want to pull it out and get rid of the pain.  If you’re thirsty and there’s water available, you’re going to drink the water.  And so on.  We instinctively take care of our needs – we don’t even have to really stop and think about it.  We just do it. 

That’s to be the same with regard to our neighbour – to anyone God puts on our path.  In this context, it’s specifically regarding our neighbours in the church community.  When it says, love your neighbour as yourself, God means that we’re to take care of others’ needs just as we instinctively take care of our own.  That doesn’t necessarily involve having warm, fuzzy feelings about other people.  That doesn’t necessarily involve your emotions.  The love prescribed here is more about action than it is about emotion or sentiment. 

That’s a key thing to recognize.  You might look around you in the church and find few people you have any strong emotional attachment to.  You might look around at your fellow church members and not feel anything like an emotional love, like the love between a mother and child, or a husband and wife.  Listen, you’re not being commanded to manufacture that emotion here in the Bible.  You’re not being called to dig into yourself and work up a sentiment of warm fuzziness towards others.  That’s not what this is about at all.  That may be there, and that will likely come to some degree somewhere along the way.  But it’s not the main thing.

The main thing is to serve one another by taking care of one another’s needs.  The main thing is to serve one another by looking out for one another’s interests.  The love here is love in action, by looking outward, desiring one another’s well-being and so asking, “How can I serve your needs?”  That’s what the gospel has freed us to do.  Without the gospel, we’re enslaved not only to the law, but to ourselves.  We only pursue self-interest.  But Christ has freed us to be servants to one another, looking outward for other’s interests and needs.

Brothers and sisters, that can be put into practice in many different ways.  Different members have different needs.  But some of our needs are all the same.  We all need others in our lives, even if we don’t always recognize it.  We need companionship.  We need fellowship.  We need mutual encouragement.  We need accountability.  We need allies.  No believer can go it alone and flourish.  As we saw from 1 Corinthians 12, all members of the body need the other members of the body.  That’s a need.  There’s a need for relationships within the church.  Putting this into practice, think about those members who don’t have close family nearby.  When you’ve grown up somewhere your whole life with your family all around, it’s easy to forget that there are members who don’t have their family close by.  That can be lonely.  Or think about those members who do have family nearby, but they’re not Christians.  They might be the only Christian in their family.  That can be lonely too.  They have a need for Christian fellowship and encouragement besides what they get on Sundays at church.  There are many more examples I could mention.  But here’s what I ask you to do.  Think about it for yourself – and if you have family, talk about it together.  Let’s really think about this and work with it.  Where are the needs in our church community?  How can you serve one another by taking care of one another’s needs?  How can you show yourself to be a disciple of Christ in this respect?                        

Our passage finishes off with a caution or warning.  It’s one we need to consider too.  It appears that the Galatian churches had members who were at each other’s throats.  They were fighting.  Instead, of caring for one another and looking out for one another’s needs, they were destroying one another.  As it says in verse 16, right after our passage, they were gratifying the desires of their flesh.  They were allowing their sinful nature to take control and that’s the way they liked it. 

But the Holy Spirit through Paul shows the reality of what’s going on.  He does it by using this very vivid language in verse 15.  Look at it.  “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.”  The language here is meant to get the picture of wild animals in your head.  Have you ever watched two cats fight?  They’re clawing at one another, biting one another, out of control.  A catfight is a wild and crazy thing to watch.  That’s the sort of thing pictured here in verse 15.  If believers act like that, they’re going to consume or destroy one another. 

But here’s something important to realize.  This biting and devouring doesn’t necessarily have to be a violent thing.  It doesn’t have to involve yelling, screaming, physical fighting.  Oftentimes in the church it isn’t.  Usually our biting and devouring is a little more civilized.  We just quietly tear into people behind their backs.  They might not even know they’re being bitten and devoured.  But the result is the same.  The result is destruction.  We’re destroying others and ourselves with this behaviour.   

This kind of behaviour is satanic.  Literally satanic.  It reflects Satan.  Elsewhere in the Bible, Satan is described with animal language.  He’s the serpent, he’s the beast.  First Peter 5:8 says, “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”  Satan hates you and has a terrible plan for your life.  He wants to make you like him – he wants to dehumanize you.   He wants to strip away your humanity and turn you into a destroying animal.  He wants you to be out of control and act like a crazy cat fighting with other crazy cats.  The devil wants you to be engaged in spiritual cannibalism, devouring and destroying one another.    

There are at least a couple of reasons why Satan wants to do that.  One is simply that it’s in his nature to rebel against God and kill and destroy.  But the other is that getting people to reflect his image is a sure-fire way to destroy the gospel.  Seeing people tear into each other means the gospel loses its credibility.  If God’s people are destroying one another, what does that say about the power of the gospel to transform people’s lives?  If an unbeliever sees us in our church attacking one another and biting each other’s heads off, that doesn’t make the gospel attractive.  It makes a mockery of the gospel. 

That’s not what we want, is it?  Loved ones, God is kind to give us this vivid caution or warning in our text.  He says, “Watch yourselves.  Don’t bite or devour one another.  If you do that, you’re going to wreck everything, including yourself.”  The better way is to look to Christ your Master.  The better way is to follow his example and lovingly serve one another.  The better way is to ask for the Holy Spirit to give us the power and strength to love one another as we love ourselves.  To look out for each other.  To take care of each other’s needs.

Brothers and sisters, the gospel’s message of freedom is so encouraging.  It encourages us that the full cost of our salvation was paid for by Christ.  That message then shapes our lives.  He has freed us from something and for something.  Christ has freed us from the need to contribute to our salvation.  And he has freed us to be more human.  Christ has freed us so that our lives don’t look like the lives of animals, but they look truly human as we serve one another and care for one another.  That’s his way, the best way, the only way to really live.  AMEN.                


Our heavenly Father,

Thank you for the freedom we have in Christ.  We’re grateful that we’re free from having to earn our way with you.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit so that we don’t see that freedom as an opportunity to live however we want in our sinful nature.  Instead, we do pray that your Spirit would work in us so we serve one another through love.  Help us to love each other and take care of each other’s needs.  We pray too that you’d help us to be at peace with one another.  Father, let there be no biting and devouring taking place among us.  If there is, we pray that you would give healing and reconciliation.  Please forgive us through Christ for the times we have done that.  Help us with your Spirit, change us, so we don’t undermine the credibility of the gospel, and so we don’t destroy one another.  Please help us all to look to Christ as our Master and to follow his example.  We pray that you’d show your mercy and favour.  Help us as a church community to grow in following your Word.          

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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