Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Resisting the Yoke of Slavery
Through his allegorical interpretation of the story of Hagar and Sarah in chapter four, Paul has argued that in Christ, God has made us children of the free woman and not the slave woman. In 5:1, Paul sums up the point of his allegory and introduces the discussion that follows: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).
The rabbis used the image of the law as a “yoke” with positive connotations, but Paul equates it with a yoke of slavery. In the ancient world, war captives were sometimes marched beneath an ox yoke as a symbol of their entry into slavery. Paul has already argued that before coming to know Christ, the Galatians were “enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods…to weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (4:8-9). Paul now claims that by accepting circumcision and law observance, the Galatians would return to a state of slavery.
In 5:2-12, Paul speaks directly to the main purpose of his letter: to dissuade the Galatians from accepting circumcision. Paul views this as a life and death matter for their spiritual health. If the Galatians allow themselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to them. They will be obliged to obey the entire law, and in seeking to be justified by the law, will be cut off from Christ, fallen from grace (5:2-4). Life in Christ means that we trust in God’s gift of righteousness, and that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:5-6).
Freedom and Love
In 5:13, Paul sounds the call to freedom once again: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” He then begins to sketch what it means to live in the freedom Christ gives.
Paul was likely aware that his emphasis on freedom could be viewed as dangerous, opening the door to libertinism. Paul exhorts the Galatians not to use their freedom as an “opportunity for self-indulgence,” or more literally, as a “base of operations for the flesh.”
Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.
Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to “become slaves to one another” through love. To serve “through love” means that serving is done not to meet the demands of the law or even to feel good about ourselves. It is completely focused on the needs of the neighbor.
Quoting Leviticus 19:18, Paul says that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (5:14). The word translated “summed up” (peplεrοtai) could also be translated “fulfilled.” Quite possibly Paul intends both meanings here. This commandment sums up the intent of the entire law, and loving the neighbor in this way fulfills the entire law (cf. Romans13:8-10; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37).
Paul’s understanding of love (agapε), of course, is not about sentimentality or warm feelings. It is the self-giving love God has shown us in Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This kind of love goes far beyond what the law demands. It is an all-encompassing way of life, constantly seeking to serve the neighbor.
The alternative to loving service to one another is described in 5:15: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” The verbs Paul uses suggest the actions of wild animals engaged in a struggle to the death. Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community.
Flesh and Spirit
Paul continues describing the stark contrast between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit. The NRSV translates verse 16 as two parallel imperatives: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The second part of verse 16 would be better translated as a statement of future results, conditional on the previous clause. In other words: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will by no means gratify the desires of the flesh.” When the Spirit is in command, the flesh loses its power.
Paul goes on to describe how the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit are diametrically opposed. He is not describing a dualistic split between body and spirit. Rather, “flesh” refers to the whole self under the power of sin, with all its self-seeking desires and self-serving ways.
We tend to think of “desires of the flesh” in terms of indulging bodily desires, and certainly some of the “works of the flesh” listed in 5:19-21 fit this category. But the other “works of the flesh” Paul lists are more about matters of heart, mind, and speech as these affect our relationships with God and one another. Eight of them have to do with divisiveness within the community: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. These less tangible “works of the flesh” can be every bit as destructive as the more salacious ones.
By contrast, the “fruit of the Spirit” is love with all the qualities that flow from it: “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things,” Paul adds (5:22-23). The Spirit, not the law, produces this fruit, which more than fulfills what the law requires.
“Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” Paul continues (5:24; cf. 2:19-20). Christ has freed us from slavery to sin and self-indulgence and has given us his Spirit. Verse 25 is a condition of fact: “If we live by the Spirit (and we do), let us also be guided by the Spirit.” The verb stoichοmen has military connotations of standing in formation or marching in line. In other words, “since the Spirit leads us, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
A couple different directions come to mind for preaching this text, depending on what is most pertinent in one’s context.
One could address the notion of freedom in our culture as license to do “whatever I want” or to gratify every desire. “As long as I am not hurting anyone,” so the saying goes. Yet unbridled self-indulgence is rarely harmless to the self or others. It inevitably leads to using others for one’s own ends, while the sinful self is never satisfied, always unfulfilled.
Paul offers a radically different understanding of freedom. The freedom Christ gives is not freedom for self-indulgence but freedom from self for service to others. It is the freedom in which life in community flourishes.
On the other hand, there are those in the church for whom this kind of freedom seems too risky, those who desire the security of prescribed rules. The command to love your neighbor as yourself seems too vague and hard to measure. There is always the temptation to add litmus tests of true faithfulness, such as a particular stand on an ethical issue.
Paul warns that by seeking justification in anything other than Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ and fall away from grace. The law cannot provide the security we seek. Our identity, our justification, our inheritance as God’s children are secured solely by God’s promise made good in Jesus Christ. God’s unconditional, self-giving love is the only power that can set us free to love our neighbors as ourselves. And faith working through love is the only thing that counts (5:6).