Threading the Needle: Galatians 5:7-15 (Sermon)



I wanted to get a student volunteer to do this, but I will show you. Do you see this? This is a string. Do you see this? This is a needle. Have you ever tried to thread the needle? It may not be easy. It is also the phrase describing a car racing between other cars or confined spaces. Threading the needle is a delicate maneuver. One mess up, and you have a one hundred car pile-up. 


Today, we will hear how Paul threaded the needle in this Galatian passage between legalism and license. Last week, pastor Mike shared with us from the beginning of chapter 5 through verse 6. He reminded us that we are not saved by works of the law but by faith alone. That has been The main focus in the first five chapters of the book of Galatians. Paul was moving on to the application in his letter: faith working in love. This application involves a different law. This law goes between self-righteousness and selfishness, between the slavery of the law and false enslaving freedom. It cuts between the flesh of the Pharisee and the flesh of the faithless. Paul wanted his readers to see that neither legalism nor license is their calling. They had to thread the difference between the two. Let’s read it for ourselves. If you are able, stand with me. I have asked G.W. to read for us. You can come up here now. 



You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case othe offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!


For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 4:7–15)



Thank you. Let’s pray. Dear God, you are good. Thank you for sending your Son Jesus to die in our place. We thank you for your Word. It guides us. At times, many of us feel like we are stuck in quicksand, languishing. We can be struggling with a need to find our identity. We can be religious but dead inside. We don’t want to be slaves to manufactured rules. At the same time, some of us are stuck in another slavery. We are bound by the desires that war in our hearts. We crave, want, and yearn for more and more, so we feed our appetites. We give in only to find ourselves empty and hungry and coming up short. God, satisfy us with yourself. Help us to live for you and love others instead of only loving ourselves. Help us thread the difference between legalism and license. Make us more like you through your Word; in Jesus’s name, we pray, amen. You may be seated. 


Remember, Paul was writing to the Galatian churches in modern-day Turkey. He had been there at their inception. Sometime later, he got word that other teachers came in and distorted the gospel's message. They said you had to follow certain Jewish practices to be right before God. We don't know precisely what those practices were, but we hear hints in the letter with keywords like Jews and Gentiles, Mount Sinai, circumcision, and holy days. We read in Acts that a group of people was following Paul's missionary journey and arguing against him and the message. They were distorting the gospel. Paul was familiar with #gospeldrift in Galatia and elsewhere. Galatians is a letter to correct this. His letter quickly goes from a customary greeting to his harshest rebuke and warning. In our passage, we hear his tone when he makes a sarcastic jab at those seeking to draw the church away. The bottom line is that we are justified by faith, not religious works of the law. And that truth should change how we behave. Convictions drive actions. In our verses, Paul shifted gears from an intense theological debate to the practical implications for life. The overarching theme of this letter and series is, 

Return to the Gospel of grace so you can walk in freedom with the Spirit. 𝄇


The passage’s structure breaks down between describing the situation and its application. Verses 7 through 12 are Paul’s thoughts about the circumstance, while verses 13 through 15 are the call to action. Paul’s melodic line in these verses expanded on last week. Here is what I think Paul is saying in verses 7 through 15, 

Follow the law of the love instead of slavery to laws or lawlessness. 𝄇  


Let’s walk through this verse by verse and see what he wrote. Verse 7, 

“You were running well” (Galatians 5:7).

Paul often used the analogy of running. We are on a journey in life. There are ups and downs. There is resistance and setbacks. It can be challenging. It can be competitive. I love it. I love running. In this case, there are obstacles along the path. What barrier have you faced? What barrier did the Galatians have?


Look back at verse 7. 

“You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7).

Paul asked who had hindered the Galatians in their race of faith. He didn’t ask them who disqualified them or who stopped them. The race was not over. He answered his question in verse 8. 


“This persuasion is not from him who calls you” (Galatians 5:8).

Paul wanted the Galatians to know that the voice of the ones hindering them was not God. God is the one who called his followers to himself. He called them. The persuaders were just sales reps of a pseudo gospel. They were marketing for their gain, not the churches. The Galatians were already children by faith, sons, and daughters of the King. They didn’t need anything from these charlatans. God’s children were heirs of a promise. They were spiritually free and no longer slaves to sin. They had heaven and didn’t need an empty sarcophagus or tomb filled with dead works of the law.


Back in verse 7, Paul dropped a hint about this race. What was it about? It was about “obeying the truth”. What was that truth? In chapter 2, verse 5, we read about the gospel’s truth. In verse 14 of chapter 2 Paul said that Peter’s conduct was not in step with this gospel. How so? Peter would not hang out with Gentile believers because of peer pressure. The Jews looked down on the uncircumcised: the Gentiles. Peter was concerned about what others thought of him. His actions didn’t line up with his view of the gospel. He was acting like those who distorted it. What did Paul mean by the gospel? Jesus died for sin. Suppose one turns from their sin and believes in Jesus’sJesus’s death on their behalf. In that case, they have his righteousness, freedom from eternal punishment, the inheritance of heaven, and adoption into God’s family. Before God, by the power of the Spirit, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. They are all equal in value before God by grace. That is the good news. The Galatians church was being persuaded to exchange the good news for spiritual slavery to the Old Testament law. The law was in place as a guard and tutor until the messiah arrived. He came and fulfilled the law. The law remained a vestige of what once was pointing people to their need for the cross, for Jesus, who was the perfect law keeper, and his crucifixion for sin. Since Jesus died, we have a new law: the law of love. More could be said, but Paul changed the course of the conversation. 


Look at verse 9. He threw out a proverb. 

A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:9).

What did that mean? Raise your hand if you bake bread. A few of you. Leaven is another word for yeast. When making bread, a little yeast will fill it and turn it from being this to this [Matza to a slice of bread]. It is the same ingredients, yet, one has yeast, and the other doesn’t. Jesus used this concept to talk about the Pharisees (Mark 8:15). The Pharisees prided themselves in their obedience to the law, while they were far from God in their hearts. Beware the Pharisees. A little sin goes a long way. Paul used this phrase to warn against allowing gross sin left alone in the church (1 Corinthians 5:6). A compromise on morality and character can impact everything. 


If a little nuclear radiation leaked into our drinking water, that would not be good. How much of it would you bathe in? How much would you drink? How much exposure would you risk? I doubt much. A little radioactivity spoils it all. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Paul was not nitpicking. He was not being uptight, over-protective, exaggerating, narrow-minded, arrogant, or prudish. He was like a parent protecting their child with a lecture. Legalism is deadly. It is ruinous. That is one side that Paul keeps harping on in the first five chapters. We have heard this again and again and again.  


Paul then encouraged the church. 

“I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is” (Galatians 5:10). 

Paul was sure that they would read this letter and agree with him. This was like his approach to the Philippian church. He wrote, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Paul was confident of their relationship with the Lord and the Lord’s ability to save. They would agree in the end. At the same time, Paul was also confident that the heretics would face divine judgment. Justice will be served. “The one who is troubling you will bear the penalty.” 


In verse 11, Paul went on,  

“But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed” (Galatians 5:11).

What does the word still mean here? His detractors seemed to further their position by falsifying Paul’s endorsement. Paul argued that if that was the case, why was he still being persecuted? If that was the case, why would the message of Jesus’s death on the cross be offensive instead of sufficient? The whole point of Jesus’s death was to take the penalty for disobedience. It is not Jesus plus effort. No, as Paul wrote, circumcision means nothing. Faith is what matters. Jesus died to wash us. There was no other way to be right. That was a stumbling block for those who desired an alternative path. Paul reasoned that this circumcision party acted the way they did to avoid persecution and seek personal gain. It played to people’s pride. It is easier to think we are good enough or can get to God in our strength. We like easy tasks to complete. Following a bunch of religious rules is not the way to God. Remember, we must thread the needle between license and legalism. That means we, 

Follow the law of the love instead of slavery to laws or lawlessness.  


Look at verse 12. 

“I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12).

I won’t define emasculation. Did Paul write that? Some commentators don’t think he did because it seems vulgar. It seems to be the plain reading of the text. What was he getting at? Paul wanted the false teachers to leave the church alone. He already had told the church that those who teach righteousness based on law-keeping: and legalism should be cast out, severed from Christ, and accursed. So we see through these few verses Paul’s concern. One commentator wrote these verses, 7 through 12, “Appearing like a rambling collection of pointed remarks, rhetorical questions, proverbial expressions, threats, irony, and, climaxing it all, a joke of stark sarcasm” (Longnecker, Richard WCB). Here is my paraphrase. “They, the persuaders, were so concerned about circumcision that I wish they would go so far as to cut themselves off. That will show them how crazy they are.” 


In verse 13, Paul transitioned from the description of this one danger to another. In so doing, we begin to see the other barrier to one’s faith: the flesh. 

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

This is the other danger we must avoid: license. One side we must avoid is the enslavement of following the Old Testament rules to be right with God. In our day, it might be doing our devotions, being good, or any number of things that makes us feel religious. The other danger we must avoid is the lazy, self-centered, fleshly response to grace. Verse 13 broadens the scope of the Christian calling. The believers were called to freedom, not slavery. 


This is not the first time we read about calling, nor the last. Chapter 1, verse 6 states, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6). There is a calling to Christ, and there is a call to action. God had called the church to be free from the works of the law. God called them to freedom. Freedom from the law is based on righteousness and freedom from sin. However, that freedom didn’t mean that they had no obligations. They had duties, rules, and commands. Spiritual freedom is not a permission slip to do all the dark things we can think of. Paul addressed this in his letter to the Roman church. Chapter 6, verse 15, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:15). 


Paul brought up a warring principle in the believer, the flesh. This is threading the needle between legalism and license. The flesh can be a barrier to the race of faith. Verse 13 again.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Flesh in this verse is different from one’s effort or humanity, but the sinister motives and actions. Do you know what I am talking about? Paul defined the flesh in the coming verses.


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…. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 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.  (Galatians 6:17–21)


What desires of the flesh reside in you? What drives and forces work internally in you that don’t conform to God’s ways? Paul warned against using your freedom in Christ to indulge those tendencies. 


Rather,  “Through love serve one another.” 

“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Put to use the energy you have and use it to serve. Use your effort to love.  


I would say that our church does pretty well at serving. I saw many people help with the garage sale. This week people gave blood at Converge. We had a record amount of money given to missions. That is not to mention those of you who have volunteered to help with children’s ministry, worship ministry, benevolence, physical ministry, senior ministry, and women’s ministry. Some of you volunteer outside the church. I know that we serve with mixed motives. But we don’t throw out the call to serve just because we can’t do it perfectly. One of the marks of the true church is a heart of service in love.

VERSE 14  

Read verse 14. It tells us why we are to serve in love. 

“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14).

We serve because we love. We love because God calls us to. Jesus said the whole law could be summed up by love. The greatest command is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. For most of us, loving ourselves comes naturally. We feed ourselves. We get sleep. We put on clothes when we are cold. We do what we want for the most part. Even self-loathing can be narcissistic self-absorption, a love of self. Do we care for others as we care for ourselves? God wants us to love our neighbors. Do we? Do I? What does it look like to love our neighbors? Family is probably the closest neighbor. Do we love them? Do we love those God has brought to us in our neighborhood, at work, and in school? Do we even know those around us? Do we know what is going on in their life? Do we care?


Interestingly, Paul, who had spent so much time talking about freedom from the law, promoted this superior law, the law of love. It was the key to threading the needle between legalism and license. It is a defining mark of the Christian. That is the positive aspect of the command; there is a negative. 


Jump to verse 15. This section concludes with a warning.  

“But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15). 

Paul pivoted to a specific application of loving our neighbor. He threaded the needle, warning about one way the flesh operates. There is a way to cannibalize one another metaphorically and not love. Have you seen this? Even before the plague, our devouring began. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that if we are angry with our brother and call him a fool, we have committed murder. That means I am a murderer, and most of you are. We have a tendency, apart from walking in the Spirit, to operate in the flesh over and over and over again. We can’t love on our own. We need God’s Spirit to help us. We must admit we all have bludgeoned each other with words. Perhaps, we have done so even in the last week or this morning. We are verbal street fighters. We have devoured each other.


Harsh, rude, mean, unkind, impatient, and vindictive words are all part of the problem. Gossip and slander are not loving. Lies and bragging can be deadly. Friends, don’t destroy each other. Thread the needle and love instead of license to our fleshly words or legalism to our fleshly pride. Paul has moved from the Old Testament law to a new one, love. Paul will describe it in detail in the coming chapter’s application. 


If you are using your words to further yourself at the expense of another, stop. I was at the beach last week, and I heard a young man make fun of another man with him in front of some of his friends. He kept at it. Then he softened his tone. He said he was only joking. But was he? Let us not hide behind a computer or phone to say something we would never say to a person’s face. Let us not talk behind each other’s back. Let us not devour one another. I have in the past. We can do this accidentally. A while back, a brother shared with me how I hurt him. I made a joke about him in a meeting.


I didn’t think it was terrible. I didn’t mean to wound him. Hearing that, I offended and confused my brother. I confessed and asked forgiveness for speaking rudely, unkindly. I offered to make a broader apology. He said it wasn’t necessary. I felt horrible because I didn’t love him in my speech. Maybe you have a broken relationship that needs healing. It could be that you are like me and not aware of how you damaged the relationship. If you have offended someone, try to make it right. Own it, ask forgiveness, and seek the Spirit to change if you have hurt someone. Go and be reconciled to your brother or sister. Don’t let the sun go down on your sin. Deal with it. Today, we have communion. Let us resolve to be right with each other this week.  


Now, does such a new law feel too heavy? Does the law of love weigh you down? Does it make you feel like you come up short or carry a new burden? First, we must remember the indicative truth of the first five chapters, that we are not free based on our ability. The implication is that we no longer have to do anything to be saved. We never had to. Instead, we must repent from our sins and believe in his grace. That being the case, God invites us to live and love for him in gratitude for his grace. 


Don't fall for that trap for the believer who is prone to legalism. Embrace the good news that God loves you based on God's goodness, not your own. Fight self-righteousness. Embrace the good news that God loves you regardless of your past, present, and future. He has called you to freedom, true freedom. Grasp it. Rehearse it. As you comprehend what he has done, in thankfulness, seek to share that kind of love with others in word and deed. 


For the Non-Believer, admit your need for God’s help. We can’t love on our own. We will either put too much hope in ourselves and relative goodness, or we will put our stake in satisfying our appetites. Both will devour us. Neither is the gospel. Thread the needle of license and legalism and embrace God’s love to love. He died to forgive our sin. He died to make us right with him. He died to empower us to follow him. 


How might God want you to respond? Let’s take a moment to ponder that question. 

*All rights reserved. Use by permission.


Contact Form


Email *

Message *

Popular Posts