Connections 06.30.2019: Set Free for Freedom

Galatians 5:1, 13-26

From the time children are old enough to understand the word “no,” they rebel against the limitations of rules. My younger daughter, Natalie, was curious and sneaky at age one. I remember her walking toward the electrical outlet that was right at her level, her eyes cutting to the side to see my reaction. Her tiny finger was pointed toward the holes, which, thankfully, were filled by a child-proofing cover. Even so, this was something she knew she should not do, something that could be life threatening with an unprotected outlet.

“Natalie, no!” I said sharply as she drew closer. Her head jerked toward me and her expression crumpled. I gathered her in my arms and looked into her blue eyes. “We don’t touch outlets. They will hurt us!”

When something is off limits, it seems that much more tantalizing to us. Think about the small ways we might rebel: jumping on the bed, bouncing on the trampoline with three people too many, eating an entire sleeve of cookies, taking a tiny piece of candy from the store without paying, staying out later than curfew, trying a sip of alcohol before we’re of legal age, going a step further than we planned in a relationship, driving ten miles over the speed limit, fibbing a bit on our tax returns…. I’m sure you could add some to the list.

The “no-nos” of the law can make us feel hemmed in, inhibited, trapped. It is human instinct to wonder what’s the big deal. What will really happen if I do this forbidden thing?

Paul offers us a better perspective. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he writes (Gal 5:1). He cautions us not to use this freedom to indulge ourselves, and then he echoes Jesus in reminding us that the entire law, which can feel so limiting with its hundreds of interpretations and expansions, is contained in one small, freeing sentence: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 14).

In verses 19-21, Paul lists some qualities and behaviors that are not loving—either to ourselves or to other people. Each of these causes harm.

In verses 22-23, he lists the “fruit of the Spirit,” which are qualities and behaviors that help us love others and ourselves. Each of these brings life.

I like the idea of being set free from the limiting law so that I can be guided by the freeing Spirit. I am glad to know that I can ask some simple questions when I’m not sure what to do: “Will this action or behavior show love to God, to others, and to myself? What fruit of the Spirit will this action or behavior produce?”

If the answer to the first question is yes and the answer to the second is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, or—sometimes the hardest one—self-control, then I’ll know I’m following the way of freedom in Christ. That’s a lot more life-giving than hearing “no” or “don’t” all the time.


• What is your perception of laws and rules? How do they make you feel? How do they motivate you to behave?

• Have you ever rebelled against a law or rule? If so, what was the result for others and/or for yourself?

• Why are laws and rules important in the workings of society?

• How can laws and rules burden people and take away their joy? How did Jesus free us from these burdens and restore our joy?

• How does Galatians 5:14—an echo of Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandment in Matthew 22:36-40—guide us in bearing the fruit of the Spirit as we live each day?

Reference Shelf

Introduction (5:1)

First, …any discussion of Paul’s understanding of freedom has to take account of its origin in the Christ-event. To some extent the language of freedom may reflect the practice of manumitting slaves in the first century, but more likely it recalls for the initial readers the story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt at the time of the exodus, a story regularly confessed in Jewish worship (Deut 6:20-25; 26:5-11). In both cases (the exodus and the crucifixion) freedom is rooted in a particular historical act of divine deliverance. Second, the word order in the Greek text stresses the purpose for which “Christ has set us free”—“for freedom.” The goal of freedom is the exercise of freedom, the living out of the gift given…. (91)

Love and Law (5:13-15)

The initial exhortation (5:13) has a double side: negatively, “see that your freedom does not become an occasion for the flesh to establish a beachhead for its activities”; and positively, “in love serve each other.” The two together highlight the sharp contrast between Paul’s understanding of freedom and the Stoic notion that was prevalent in the first century. Epictetus wrote, “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hinderance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered, whose desires attain their end, whose aversions do not fall into what they would avoid” (Discourses 4.1.1). For the Stoics, people demonstrate that they are free by curbing their passions and fears, by managing well their own souls, and by cultivating a disinterestedness toward the world. Rather than being at the mercy of the ups and downs of life, they are enabled to accept whatever comes with composure and equanimity. Paul’s presentation of freedom as engagement and service of one another rather than as independence and self-determination must have seemed jolting to readers with a Stoic bent.

While 5:13 is a particularly apt word for the Galatian communities disrupted to some extent by dissension, it has significance beyond its historical context. Martin Luther stated this most poignantly in his paradoxical affirmations: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Luther’s Works, 31:344). The statements belong together. The essence of Christian freedom is the loving service rendered to the neighbor.

Who is this enemy called “flesh” (sarx) of which the Galatians are directed in 5:13 to be wary? The word has a broad semantic meaning and is used, even in this one letter, with a variety of nuances. Without any pejorative connotations, it can designate a person’s physical character (literally, “flesh and blood,” 1:16) or humanity as a whole (literally, “all flesh,” 2:16) or the sphere of that which is human or natural (“in the flesh,” 2:20). Unlike Hellenistic dualism, Paul does not imply that “flesh” as material substance is inherently evil. It becomes for him an apt word to associate with circumcision, the removal of a piece of flesh from the human body (3:3; 6:12, 13). Its frequent contrast with “Spirit,” however, casts the word in a different light (3:3; 4:29; 5:16-24; 6:8). Since “Spirit” in Galatians is not an anthropological term but designates God’s powerful presence, betokening the inbreaking of the new age, “flesh” becomes associated with the world, with the old age that is passing away. It functions as a quasi-personal force, a hostile warrior in fierce combat with the Spirit (5:17)….

Verse 14 then supplies a reason (gar) why the readers should shun the “flesh” and should serve one another in love: the law has been fulfilled (has been brought to completion) in the one word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The more natural rendering of the Greek verb peplerotai (like a promise realized or a prayer answered) is probably to be preferred over “is summed up” (NRSV), a translation largely dependent on the parallelism to Rom 13:9 (where a different Greek verb is used). Paul, however, seems to be doing more than reducing the law to its essence, love. The perfect tense and passive voice of the verb indicate that something has happened to the law, with the result that love of neighbor (a citation from the law; Lev 19:18) can now be the single divine imperative for the people of God. The verb “has been fulfilled” echoes the action of Christ in removing of the law’s curse (3:13), in embodying the original promise given to Abraham (3:18), and thereby in 100 Love and Law restoring the law to its rightful identity….

The commonplace warning given in 5:15, that if the readers continue to fight like cats and dogs they will end up devouring one another, is a reminder that this paraenetic section is addressed first and foremost to the community and only in a secondary sense to individuals within the community. Those sitting in the Galatian congregations, listening to the letter read, would hear Paul’s words spoken about their common life, which may have been in some disarray. If the conflicts sparked by the agitators were to continue, the results could be disastrous. (98–100)

The Spirit Versus the Flesh (5:16-18)

The conflict between Spirit and flesh makes sense only when it is recognized that Paul as an apocalyptic theologian writes of two spheres of power that stand in fierce opposition to one another. On the one hand, the Spirit has been sent by God in conjunction with the Son to create the new family relationships, with the result that people are no longer known as slaves but as children (4:4-7). Throughout the New Testament the Spirit is the symbol par excellence of the powerful inbreaking of the new age (e.g., Matt 12:28; Luke 1:35; John 4:21-24; Acts 1:8; 2:16-21; Heb 6:4-6). In Galatians (with the exception of 6:18), “Spirit” (pneuma) consistently denotes the divine Spirit.

On the other hand, “flesh,” precisely because of its polarity to the Spirit, becomes associated with the old age, the field of force invaded by the Spirit (see the discussion of “flesh” at 5:13). It is misleading in this context to translate sarx (“flesh”) as “lower nature” (NEB), “sinful nature” (NIV), or “human nature” (TEV), as if it were an anthropological term, implying that the individual is divided into two parts, a spiritual nature and a fleshly nature. Instead, the Spirit and the flesh are two powers engaged in an apocalyptic combat, with the battlefield being the Galatian congregations.

The Greek imperative in 5:16 rendered by the NRSV as “Live by the Spirit” reflects the characteristically Pauline verb peripateo- (“walk”), meaning something like “conduct your daily life by the Spirit” (e.g., 1 Thess 2:12; 4:1,12; Rom 13:13; Phil 3:17, 18). The assumption is not that the Spirit is a reality the readers still have to appropriate; rather, the Spirit they have already received must be allowed to guide and direct their congregational life….

Two points need to be made about the syntax of 5:17-18. First, verse 17 begins with a conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. They oppose one another “in order that you not do these things that you want to do.” The clause expresses purpose (and not result) and declares the intent of each power, namely, to thwart the work of the other…. Nothing is implied about the status of the readers until 5:18. This leads to the second comment about the syntax. The opening clause of 5:18 is a first class conditional, implying that it assumes the reality of the condition. It could be translated, “But since (ei) you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” The readers are not victimized by a standoff between the flesh and the Spirit because their identity and allegiance are with the Spirit.

Works of the Flesh (5:19-21)

Fifteen specific items are listed among the obvious effects that the flesh produces (5:19-21), and at least eight are peculiarly disruptive of communal life (“enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy”). The list resembles in many ways the traditional catalogues of vices and virtues that go back to Plato (Republic 7. 536A) and Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics 2.6.15–3.7.15) and are particularly prominent in the Stoic moralists such as Epictetus (Discourses 2.8.23, 24.89-90), Dio Chrysostom (Orations 4.91–96), and the later Diogenes Laertius (Lives, “Zeno,” 7). Both vice and virtue lists (see 5:22-23) played an important part in moral instruction throughout the Greco-Roman world. Paul, however, uses the lists not to indicate what conduct persons should avoid (or what conduct they should nurture, in the case of 5:22-23), but what the opposing powers—flesh and Spirit—produce in the life of the community. If the community is guided by the flesh, then it can expect such behavior as 5:19-21 indicates. If it walks by the Spirit, then it can anticipate “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22-23).

Works of the Spirit (5:22-24)

The effect of labeling the outcomes of the flesh “works” and the outcomes of the Spirit “fruit” is significant. The particular choice of “fruit” stresses even more pointedly than “works” that the characteristics included in the list are the products of the Spirit’s presence and not the result of human initiative and activity. The language throughout the section is consistent—“led by the Spirit” (5:18), “the fruit of the Spirit” (5:22),” from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (6:8). Furthermore, the singular of the noun “fruit” suggests that the Spirit’s benefits are cohesive and unified. In distinction from the “gifts” of the Spirit, which are varied and multiple (1 Cor 12:4-11), the “fruit” is indivisible.

Not surprisingly, “love” heads the list. For Paul, the choice is hardly arbitrary or accidental in light of what is stated about “love” in 1 Corinthians 13. “Love” is not one virtue to be numbered among several others, but the quintessence of the Christian life (5:6, 13-14). The remainder of the list gives further substance to the word “love” and depicts the qualities characteristic of the community in which the Spirit is active.

Verse 24 provides a somewhat surprising conclusion to the two lists found in 5:19-23 in that “Spirit” is not mentioned: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” First, particularly since the name “Christ” has not been used since 5:6, its presence here is a reminder that “belonging to Christ” and “being led by the Spirit” may be two different ways of speaking but are not two separate experiences. The Spirit for Paul is not a second gift, additional to the gift of Christ. Second, the aorist tense of the verb (“have been crucified”) likely points to baptism, where believers are identified with Christ in his death (Rom 6:36) and where Christ is “put on” as a new robe (3:27). Baptism signifies death to the realm of the flesh, making its enticements no longer an option (cf. 6:14).

Guidance of the Spirit (5:25-26)

Verse 25 reiterates 5:16a, and the two verses provide cohesiveness for the section. The verb translated in the NRSV as “guided” carries the nuance of “being in line with” as a soldier marching in rank. The verse can be paraphrased, “Since the Spirit gives us life, let us continually follow in the Spirit’s steps.” The Galatian communities, prior to Paul’s writing, have obviously experienced disruption over the agitators’ demands that Gentiles be circumcised (see also 5:15), warranting the injunctions of 5:26: “Let us not boast, provoking and being jealous of one another.” (102–105)

Excerpts from Charles B. Cousar, Reading Galatians, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2001).

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.


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