Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Paul’s message must have struck many as anarchism.
He seems to toss the law aside as a headstrong teenager disparages authority. In this chapter he begins to correct this misread by portraying the indentured nature of true freedom, a freedom that exists outside of but at the heart of the law.
Paul may have claimed to be all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:22), but he did not win friends and influence people through flattery. He pulls no punches in proclaiming the truth, and Galatians, this section in particular, may be him at his most provocative. Previous to Galatians 5, Paul has waged one of the most intense exegetical arguments in all the New Testament. After a series of seven Scriptures (Galatians 3), he draws attention to Abraham’s family to categorize some of his fellow Jews as the descendants of Hagar. It is that messy story and the shocking way he tells it that casts its shadow over his call to freedom in verse 1. The identity of the slave and the free person might just be surprising.
The indirect object is given pride of place in the first sentence of Galatians 5, putting emphasis on freedom. As a dative the word could be translated several ways, but in all these nuances Paul is claiming that the Galatian believers already have been released by the work of the Jewish Messiah. Paul instructs them to stay put in that freedom, and not be caught all over again in the yoke of slavery. As the story of Hagar may cause them to reflect, no one would want to return to enslavement having been released from it.
In between this imperative and the resumption of the lectionary text in verse 13 stands some of Paul’s most intense fighting words. The cost of enslavement is exceedingly high.
He avers in an almost oath-like statement that if they become circumcised, Christ is of no benefit to them. If they take that route, they have to keep the whole law; and since the path of righteousness laid out by the law and the path of righteousness laid out by Christ are mutually exclusive, they cannot travel on both. Switching to one will mean a departure from the other.
He is hopeful for his addressees however. They haven’t yet fallen from grace, and he is confident they won’t. They simply need to excise those who are arguing for righteousness by the law. If the Galatians don’t excise them, Paul wishes they would excise themselves.
It makes good sense why these verses do not appear in the lectionary. They speak of a very specific manifestation of a problem, circumcision, and they show Paul’s anger. If a congregation is open to deeper teaching in another kind of setting, these passages invite theological wrestling with the possibility of a fall from grace, as well as demonstrate the passion with which Paul railed against a corruption of the gospel.
Just as he does in verse 7, in verse 15 he goes back to their beginning. This must be a common rhetorical strategy of warnings as the author of Hebrews does the same, namely issues strong worries followed by comforting praise of previous behavior. When they were called, that call came for freedom. Just as was true with the dative in verse 1, the preposition epi used here demonstrates incredible flexibility. Whatever the preposition indicates about freedom (as foundation or aim), it is clear that they now have it. They are currently free.
Freedom is a tempting thing. It could easily be used to serve one’s self. “Flesh” could indicate one’s body (Galatians 1:16; 2:16, 20; 4:13, 14), or one’s negative behavior (3:3; 4:23, 29). Whether it be for bodily/emotional realities or vice, one’s freedom shouldn’t be self-serving.
Paul is seeking to avoid a pendulum swing here to anarchy. Freedom as opposed to the law does not mean freedom with disregard to the law. He claims that to live in freedom in this Spirit-led way is to fulfill the whole law. It is summed up in this phrase from Leviticus 19. Sitting between such universal commands as the prohibition against murder and such particular rules as the prohibition against mixing fabrics, Paul’s appeal complicates any simple categorization between the ceremonial and moral law. The wide focus of all the laws in Leviticus remains on the love of others in the community. If they don’t heed his admonition and use their freedom selfishly for their own flesh it will result in the harming of the flesh of others. Such cannibalism will certainly lead to mutual destruction. The imagery again is not for the faint of heart.
Instead of this destructive fleshly focus, Paul advises a Spirit-focused life. The two are mutually exclusive. The flesh has its desires and the Spirit has other ones. Interestingly it is not a contrast between passion and no passion, but different kinds of passion. These kinds of passion are set against one another. The sad result is that one’s will and one’s actions are often opposed.
Vice and virtue
His readers might have supposed then that their return to the law would be the way to avoid vice and pursue virtue. But Paul says they have already made their mutually-exclusive choice. They are led by the Spirit and are not under the law.
One could certainly do a study of the vices in the list, but I am not convinced that such pointillism was Paul’s intent. The list opens with the indiscriminate “whichever” and closes with the generalizing statement “and similar things like these.” Such statements indicate that this list is not exhaustive, they are simply examples of negative behavior.
Moreover he says that the works of the flesh are clear for anyone to see, and that he has taught them about these things before. Those whose lives are characterized only by the flesh will not inherit the kingdom. This point is not presented as a major controversy. It should be obvious to them who have been rescued from slavery and who has not.
When one is walking in the Spirit fruit comes, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Again, the list is worthy of individual or group study. He states that the there is no law against such things, suggesting like verse 14 that life of the Spirit is congruent with the heart of the law.
For those who have been released by Christ, Paul’s major concern is not that they will fall into these Kingdom-excluding sins. That problem has already been taken care of for them by crucifying their flesh with Christ. Nor is his worry that they won’t be able to do good. Life in the Spirit makes walking in the ways of the Spirit possible. Be who you already have become, he is saying. His concern is that they might forfeit this vice-denying, virtue-embodying Spirit-led freedom for an enslavement to rather than a fulfillment of the law.