Our text is today’s Epistle (Galatians 5:16–24): 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will 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 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (ESV)
“You can’t see the forest for the trees”—I’m sure you have heard that expression. It describes a person who focuses too much on small details (the trees) and misses the big picture (the forest).
There is a real danger that you and I so focus on the small details of life that we neglect God’s big picture. How easy it is for us to wake up, have breakfast, start on our chores for the day, stop for lunch and dinner, watch a little tv or read a book, and then crawl into bed—all without taking time to pray and to meditate on God’s Word. And we also have come to expect that all the details of our lives should be pleasant and make us happy. But then we encounter pain, suffering, and hardship and we allow our faith to falter as we begin to question whether God actually loves us and hears our prayers.
“You can’t see the forest for the trees”—this expression, I’m afraid, is talking about us. And so we all must repent of our sin of neglecting God’s big picture for the small and passing details of our lives. Now, repentance is God’s gift to us. And in our repenting, we receive yet another gift from God—the gift of forgiveness. This morning, we receive forgiveness in the Word of Absolution and in the Lord’s Supper. And in giving us His gift of forgiveness, God also opens up our eyes to see the big picture—God’s big picture.
Today’s Epistle is all about seeing God’s big picture. For the Christian—for you and me—there is much more to life than accumulating a pile of pleasant, happy experiences. Our life in Christ is never about avoiding suffering and having an abundance of possessions. Rather, our calling is to live each day fully aware that the Last Day is coming, when the Kingdom of God will be manifested in all its fullness.
And our awareness that our Lord Jesus is returning must lead to a course of action. As St. Paul writes: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires (Romans 13:11-14).
It is very easy for us all to get so caught up in the trees—the small details: the chores and joys and sorrows of our lives—that we can’t see the forest—the big picture. But this morning, God is laying out before you the big picture—His big picture. And here it is: the Lord Jesus is coming back in your lifetime—either for you personally on the day you die or, should it occur in your lifetime, for the whole world on the Last Day. And so, your calling in Christ is to be aware that the Day of the Lord is at hand and also to take the appropriate course of action. And here, in today’s Epistle, in a single sentence, is the action that you who are baptized are to take: walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
You are living in the time between your Lord Jesus’ victory on the Good Friday cross and His return. And your calling is to walk by the Spirit rather than gratify the desires of the flesh.
Now, when St. Paul speaks of the flesh here, he is not referring to different parts of a human being, as in body and soul. And in this instance, he does not even our sinful human nature. Rather, Paul is referring to the entire existence apart from Christ and His Spirit within the present evil age. The flesh is a sphere of influence actively working in this fallen world to challenge and work against God and His people.
And likewise, when Paul says to walk by the Spirit, he is not referring to an person’s spirit, for the human spirit does not have the power to overcome the flesh. The “Spirit” here is the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Holy Trinity. Only the Holy Spirit can counteract the flesh with its evil thoughts and actions. And thanks to the Holy Spirit, you and I battle the flesh from the point of view of the decisive victory that took place in Christ on Good Friday and Easter. And we were given this victory at our Baptism, when God made us His holy children and Jesus became our Brother. As St. Paul writes: those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Do you see? In Baptism, you belong to Jesus and you live in the victory of His crucifixion and rising so that you may crucify the flesh and arise each day as a new creation in Christ.
Now, it is interesting that St. Paul writes about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. When we gratify the desires of the flesh, these are works that we do and for which we can take full credit. But when we walk by the Spirit, we bear fruit, and the fruit comes from outside of us and we cannot take any of the credit. We bear fruit only as the Holy Spirit keeps us connected to Jesus, as branches abide in the Vine.
When you see God’s big picture, then you understand that your life in Christ does not revolve around you having pleasant experiences. Rather, your life is a war between the Spirit and the flesh, and the war will not end until the day you die or the Lord returns.
As a baptized child of God, you battle daily against the desires of the flesh. And what a long list of sinful, shameful desires. St. Paul begins and ends this list with sinful works that are often more common outside the church— sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery,… drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. And in the middle of this list, Paul puts the sins that often trouble the church from within— enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy. Here, Paul is warning that the Church of Christ must guard against temptations coming from the outside and also from within. And with sex scandals and divisions being so prevalent throughout Christendom today, this list is as timely now as when Paul first wrote it.
Unbelievers think of sin along these lines: “The world is admirably arranged. I love to sin and God loves to forgive”. But we who are baptized cannot think so lightly of sin. Rather, we take seriously Paul’s warning that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. This is a warning to us all, reminding us of the necessity of repentance. Now, you and I daily stumble into sin, but by God’s grace, we are quick to repent, and God graciously forgives us. But there are sinners who persist in the works of the flesh, willfully and with no intention of repenting. And when such sinners persist unto death in wickedness without repenting, then they will indeed lose their place in God’s Kingdom.
Thanks be to God that, in Christ, we see God’s big picture—that the Lord Jesus will return and that we are to walk by the Spirit rather than gratify the desires of the flesh. And thanks be to God that Christ’s victory is ours and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us to battle against the flesh with its evil thoughts and actions. Yes, praise God that the Holy Spirit is ever working in our lives so that rather than doing the works of the flesh, we bear the fruit of the Spirit.
And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Now, does this remind you of anyone? It should. For you see, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are really descriptions of Christ Himself. Loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled are all adjectives that describe the Holy Triune God. And St. Paul urges us to strive for them through our Christian freedom. We have been crucified with Christ so that it is no longer us who live but Christ who lives in us.
And with Christ living in us, we no longer live to the flesh. Rather, in Christ, we love others with the same self-sacrificial love which Christ displayed when He died for a world of lost sinners. Our love does not consist of warm, good feelings but of concrete loving service.
And in Christ, we have joy. We do not allow our suffering to lead us to despair. Rather, we rejoice in the Lord, confident of the Lord’s saving work and our future glory.
In Christ, we have peace with God, for in Christ God has reconciled us sinners to Himself. And living in peace with God, we strive to live in peace with others.
In Christ, we have patience. In the Greek, the word means steadfastness or long-suffering and implies having a slow fuse. In other words, we do not throw a temper tantrum when confronted with troubles. Rather, we patiently endure our troubles and even the people causing our troubles, knowing that God patiently bears with people’s sins in order to allow time for repentance.
In Christ, we are kind. Whereas patience is the passive act of enduring, kindness is an active merciful goodness. The merciful kindness of believers is a mirror of God’s own kindness. And so we are kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave [us] (Ephesians 4:32).
In Christ, we are good in the sense of being generous in our dealings with others. No matter how others may hurt or harm us, we respond with a goodness which is the product of God’s light shining in our lives through faith in Christ. And this goodness expresses itself in our generous actions toward others.
In Christ, we are faithful in our devotion to God. The Samaritan healed of leprosy fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Thus, he confessed Jesus to be God. By God’s grace, you and I faithfully bow before Jesus, confessing Him to be the Son of the living God, to Whom, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, belong our worship and praise for all eternity. Of course, we are faithful in our devotion to God only because the Holy Triune God is faithful to us.
In Christ, we are gentle toward our fellow sinners. Rather than lashing out at them in anger when they sin against us, we do all we can to restore them gently. Such gentleness requires humility, as we refuse to put on any airs of self-importance. As our Lord is gentle with us, so we seek to treat others gently in the Name of Christ.
And finally, in Christ, we have self-control. The believer’s self-control expresses itself in the avoidance of sexual immorality, drunkenness, and all the other works of the flesh. And even more, the believer is characterized by the self-discipline of a spiritual athlete competing mightily in the service of the Lord. You belong to Jesus. And so, in the power of the Holy Spirit, you discipline yourself so that you bear the fruit of the Spirit and serve the Lord rather than gratify the desires of the flesh.
And this bearing of the fruit of the Spirit is possible only because you belong to Jesus. As Paul concludes: those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. In these modern times, we do not recognize how unusual Paul’s language is here. In Paul’s day, no one ever used crucifixion as a metaphor—it was such a horrific punishment that no one would have used the image of crucifixion in any kind of positive sense. But the Christians did, for they knew that it was a good thing to share in the crucifixion of Jesus. That is why Paul boldly proclaims that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
And so it is with you. In this life, you struggle; you have your sorrows; you often fail to love God and your neighbour; you daily fall into sin. But you are baptized, and thus you are a child of God. And the Holy Spirit dwells in you, so that now you see God’s big picture. You see that you will have to battle against the flesh until the day you die or the day Jesus returns. But you also know that you do not fight in your own strength. For you have been crucified with Christ and you are raised up with Christ and empowered by the Spirit to walk by the Spirit, so that you bear holy fruit rather than do the sinful works of the flesh. The flesh belongs to the old order that is passing away. But you no longer belong to that order, for you are a new creation in Christ. And the decisive victory that took place onGood Friday is now also the Lord’s victory that has taken place in your life. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27). And until the day He comes for you, you live in His victory as you walk by the Spirit. And that is God’s big picture. Amen.