31. “Military Language in the Service of the Gospel” (Galatians 5:13)

In a few weeks we will pause and remember the D-Day landings at Normandy during World War II. When the conditions were right, the allies launched an attack at the French coast in order to gain a beachhead for a military campaign in Europe. With terrible human cost, they were successful.

As various scholars have noted1, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is sprinkled with terminology that has political and/or military connotations. The conflictive nature of the occasion for this letter seems to have encouraged Paul to characterize his opponents as those fostering a political or military conspiracy. Various terms have connotations of political treachery, traitorous activity, and military strategy. It may well be that aphorme (Galatians 5:13) is one of these terms.

In Galatians 5 Paul moves from this theological argument to the practical implications of his opponents’ teaching for the Galatians. Paul has pressed the point that the Galatian believers’ relationship with Jesus Christ has given them freedom from sin and its curse. To accept circumcision as a necessary completion to the Messiah’s work of salvation, Paul argues, is to place oneself again "under law" and all that that entails. Because Christians possess the Spirit of the Messiah, they have the power, motive and knowledge to live obediently before God – to fulfill the law of the Messiah (6:2).

Some believers might think that freedom in Christ provides an excuse for sinful living. So Paul states without equivocation that their "call to freedom" should not become "a beachhead (aphorme) for the flesh" (5:13). Greek writers such as Thucydides and Polybius define a military base of operations with this term. It comes to have a more general meaning of "cause", "occasion", or "opportunity". It can even refer to financial capital used to support a specific venture or enterprise.

Paul wants the Galatian believers to enjoy fully the Holy Spirit’s presence in their lives, their new freedom in Christ. However, he warns them to beware of subtle means that sin may use to take advantage of their "sinful inclination" (i.e. sarx or flesh). Paul affirms that a believer is a new creation – new mind, new heart, new will. But what remains unchanged is the physical linkage with the fallen world. Only when the resurrection occurs will this aspect of our personal beings finally be re-created fully in God’s image. Until then it becomes a ‘beachhead" that sin can use, perhaps through our instinctual responses to various stimuli, to entice us to sinful behaviour. Association of this term sarx with motives and passions suggests that Paul sees it linked closely with these aspects of our human nature.

We must be clear that here Paul is talking about believers. The old person stands "crucified with the Messiah" and the new person has emerged. Yet our physicality remains only partially redeemed. With the Holy Spirit’s assistance we can reject and stifle these sinful inclinations before they grow into mature evil. If we choose to "enslave ourselves to one another in love" (5:13b), then our concentration on this calling and responsibility will go a long way to helping us control our sinful inclination and not let sin gain a beachhead in our lives.

Paul also uses this term in Romans 7:8,11 to describe how sin takes advantage (aphorme) of the Mosaic law to entice a person to disobedience. In 1 Timothy 5:14 Paul encourages younger widows to marry so that "the enemy" (i.e. satan), will not be able to have any occasion (aphorme) to generate slander against them. In all of these cases in Galatians, Romans and 1 Timothy, it is a malicious party that seeks to take advantage of an opportunity to the harm and hurt of a person.2

What "beachhead" is sin seeking maliciously to find within your Christian life and thereby tempt you to betray your allegiance to Jesus? It will probably be subtle, seem reasonable, and cater to some sense of personal deprivation. We need to be vigilant because satan’s activity in this regard is continuous, always probing and seeking entry so that he might harm our spiritual life. God knew in advance what satan would seek to do and so He placed His own Spirit within His children to help us discern these incursions and have the power to oppose them.

Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,

  1. Consider a recent occasion when sin did gain victory in your life. How did it happen? What was the ‘beachhead’ that satan used successfully to defeat you?
  2. Reflect upon ways you might have rejected or stifled this sinful inclination? Whom could you have invited to pray for you? What action could you have taken to remove yourself from danger? Why did you not take this action?
  3. Consider a recent situation where you did reject temptation. Can you identify the ways in which God’s Spirit worked within you to help you? How could this experience prepare you for the next assault?

  • 1.  Hans D. Betz, Galatians. Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979). Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia. A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998):376 makes similar comments.
  • 2.  In 2 Corinthians 11:12 Paul describes the actions he is taking to defend himself to the Corinthian Christians as taking the opportunity to remove any opportunity from those attacking him. Earlier in this same epistle (5:12) Paul defends his response to the Corinthian believers as giving them opportunity to boast in their relationship with him, over against those who criticize him.

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