Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Through Christ, we have been set free to serve one another in love. Though Paul’s metaphorical use of slavery is jarring, there is truth behind the metaphor. The cross teaches us what love looks like, and the work of God’s Spirit in us is the only way that we are ever going to be free from our own selfishness to exhibit a fraction of that kind of love toward anyone—let alone people whom we do not like.
At this point in Paul’s passion-filled letter he is deep in his argument against his opponents. After Paul has left the region, other teachers have come to the area, preaching the need for the Galatians to follow the law as the first sign of obedience in their newfound faith in Christ. Most likely, the opponents are promoting food practices and circumcision, since those are the issues mentioned explicitly in this letter (2:11-21; 5:2-12; 6:12-15).
Apparently, the teachers have claimed that the law is the vehicle of God’s Spirit (3:1-5). The law, according to Paul, however, has another function—to point out transgressions (3:19). If the law could have been created that guaranteed life, then God would have created that law (3:21). To submit to the “yoke of slavery” in 5:1 is to return to a system in which one places trust in obedience to the law. It is also a distortion of thinking about what the law can do.
For Paul the law is a guide in the darkness, a path toward justice in the “present evil age” (1:4). The holy, just, and good law (Romans 7:12), though, cannot defeat the power of sin. To trust in the law to do so is misguided. Sin has tarnished all—even God’s good creation. In 5:16-25, it is clear that there is a constant battle between the flesh that has been corrupted by this superpower of sin, and the Spirit that is at work transforming and redeeming. The vice list associated with the flesh is fairly typical of vice lists of the day and, while not intended to be exhaustive, is overwhelming. The flesh is “under the realm of the law” (5:18). The law exists because the flesh has been corrupted by sin.
The realm of the Spirit, though, is the realm of God’s new creation. It is “the kingdom of God” (5:21), a phrase rarely used in Paul’s letters but common to the Gospels. It is the inbreaking of God’s reign into life in the present. Again, the fruit of the Spirit is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but it is impressive nonetheless—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Why does Paul mention these tangible markers of the Spirit’s work in this letter? The Galatian believers are eager to take the next faithful steps in their faith journeys. They have welcomed these opposing teachers and their message—a message that Paul has labeled a distortion of the gospel, but that the church did not have enough training to discern as harmful. Adult men wanted to be circumcised to show their faith in Christ. People were willing to adopt new food practices to show their piety. They wanted tangible markers of their new existence in Christ.
Choosing circumcision is a big commitment, and a one-time act. It would publicly link the Galatians to the Jewish people and to their God—to the same God of their beloved leader Paul. It would be tempting to have a public marker of one’s faith journey. On the other hand—if the Galatians remain true to Paul’s gospel, the Spirit’s work is a process.
Paul is reminding them that the Spirit is at work transforming them into a new creation—into people who are more loving, gentle, and kind. Their transformation is tangible, and it is holistic—not confined to genitalia or table practices.
We often place the list of 5:22-23 into a spiritual gifts inventory, but that grossly misses the point. Paul uses the word “fruit” in the singular. In other words, the result of the Spirit’s work is all of the above and more. We don’t get to pick and choose and neither do the Galatians.
So how will the Galatians know that they are indeed a people being transformed—a people of the promise, children of God, clothed in Christ? Because they are a people who bear one another’s burdens, love one another, as Christ has loved them. They are a people whose actions are marked by the shape of the cross rather than their own selfish desires. They are fulfilling the intention of the law—to love their neighbors.
Is there a place for the law then in this new faith in Christ? For Paul, Christ has fulfilled the law by embodying what the love of neighbor looks like. In Galatians 5:14, he writes, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Thankfully, neither the Galatians’ salvation nor our own rests on our ability to fulfill that commandment. We are called, however, to follow in Christ’s footsteps—to love one another.
Paul will end this letter with a reminder that new creation is everything (6:15). God’s work of renewal through the resurrected Christ is the good news—not the law, and the Spirit is the very vehicle of that renewal. And the great news is that God’s Holy Spirit—that Great Change Agent—is at work among the Galatians even now. They are part of God’s new creation. They do not need to go back and place their trust in the law as an entry ticket to God’s cosmic salvation. They have nothing short of God’s Spirit at work among them, and as evidence of that Spirit, look at all that the Spirit has already managed to accomplish … just look at this fruit! The Great Change Agent is still working and still transforming.
Two thousand years later, God hasn’t given up on us. There is evidence of the Spirit’s work all around us in these days of Pentecost. Praise be to God.