Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Paul established the church in Galatia (4:13-14), but had moved on. Then he received word that certain Jewish-Christians were trying to persuade Galatian Christians to observe Jewish laws and rituals, including circumcision (5:2-12; 6:12-13) and the observance of “days, months, seasons, and years” (4:10). He is writing this letter to persuade the Galatian Christians not to adopt these unnecessary practices (3:10-14). Their righteousness depends not on observance of Jewish law, but upon the grace of God, made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2:21; 3:13-14).
In chapter 4, Paul called the Galatian disciples to live holy lives:
• He called them “to walk worthily of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and humility” (4:1).
• He emphasized the unity of believers (4:3, 11-16).
• He called them not to “walk as the rest of the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God” (4:17-18). They should instead “put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth” (4:24).
• He emphasized holy lives: “Putting away falsehood” (4:25)—anger (4:26-27)—theft (4:28)—corrupt speech (4:29)—”bitterness, wrath, anger, outcry, and slander”—and malice (4:31).
• He encouraged them to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God also in Christ forgave you” (4:32)
GALATIANS 5:1. STAND FIRM
1 Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
“Stand firm therefore in the liberty (Greek: eleuthero) by which Christ has made us free” (eleutheria) (v. 1a). A literal translation of the Greek would be, “Christ has liberated us for freedom.”
Note the similarity between the Greek words for liberty (eleuthero) and freedom (eleutheria). Paul uses these two similar words for emphasis.
Paul’s point is that the Mosaic Law, given by God as a tutor or schoolmaster (paidagogos—Galatians 3:24) to guide the Israelites, emphasized salvation by merit. When Christ came, the emphasis changed to salvation by the grace of God through faith in Christ.
The difference was life-changing. The law (613 commandments) prescribed in great detail exactly what a person could and could not do. The Talmud (thousands more rules) tried to specify the exact limits of commandments, such as the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. Even Biblical scholars had problems remembering all the rules. The ordinary person, even if literate, had little access to the Biblical text and could have only a vague idea when he/she had transgressed the law. It was an impossible situation.
But Christ set us free by subjecting us to the rule of grace rather than the rule of law. He too gave commandments (“Love God…love your neighbor” Matthew 22:37-40), but he was “full of grace” (John 1:14)—meaning that transgressors who are also believers can expect the blood of Christ to make them whole in God’s sight.
But we would be remiss if we were to ignore the grace of the Old Testament. Without grace, God would have abandoned the Israelites when they built a calf of gold at the base of Mount Sinai (Exodus 32:1-6)—or when they complained in the wilderness (Exodus 15:24; 16:2; 17:3; Numbers 11:1-2; 14:27-36; Jeremiah 2:29)—or when they refused to enter the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 1:19-33). He chastened Israel—he punished the Israelites—but he didn’t abandon them or cease to love them.
“and don’t be entangled again with a yoke (Greek: zygos) of bondage” (douleia) (v. 1b). A literal translation would be, “don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
A yoke, of course, was the wooden implement used to join two oxen to serve the purpose of their master. Because a yoke so restricted the oxen’s movements, it became a symbol of servitude. Biblical authors used the yoke as a metaphor for various kinds of bondage (Genesis 27:40; Leviticus 26:13; Numbers 25:3; Deuteronomy 28:48; 1 Kings 12:10-14; Isaiah 9:4; 10:27; 14:25; 47:6; 58:6, 9; Jeremiah 2:20, etc.). The Jewish law was a yoke (Jeremiah 5:5). Yahweh permitted Babylonia to burden the people of Judah with a yoke of oppression as a punishment (Isaiah 9:4)—but promised to break that yoke (Ezekiel 34:27).
So Paul uses a yoke as a metaphor for the bondage of the Mosaic Law, which was so impossibly detailed and restrictive, especially when the rules of the Talmud were added.
GALATIANS 5:2-12. IF YOU RECEIVE CIRCUMCISION
2 Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. 3 Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. 4 You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace. 5 For we, through the Spirit, by faith wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love. 7 You were running well! Who interfered with you that you should not obey the truth? 8 This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9 A little yeast grows through the whole lump. 10 I have confidence toward you in the Lord that you will think no other way. But he who troubles you will bear his judgment, whoever he is.
11 But I, brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish that those who disturb you would cut themselves off.
The Judaizers emphasized circumcision as a mark of submission to God. Christians have no need of circumcision, because we have been “circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands”—an act of God rather than man—a spiritual rather than a physical circumcision—a circumcision of the heart (Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29; see also Acts 15:1-29; Galatians 2:1-10).
Paul goes another step by seeing circumcision as submission to the law. When he says, If you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing” (v. 2), he is saying that we must choose one or the other, the law or Christ, as our savior. You cannot face both directions at the same time. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). If we choose to rely on the law (exemplified in this case by circumcision), then we can’t expect Christ to save us.
In this country (the U.S.A.), many male babies are circumcised shortly after birth. Does that mean that Christ will count them as adherents of the law and therefore exempt from Christ’s grace? Of course not! In most cases, circumcision is practiced, not for religious reasons, but because it is a standard practice in most hospitals. Even when it is practiced for religious reasons, the baby has no say in the decision.
Circumcision is not reversible. What about someone who has been circumcised and then turns to Christ? Will Christ exclude such a person? Of course not! Jesus said that “God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through him” (John 3:17). The Son could not honor that mission by permanently excluding believers who are trying to follow God’s will for their lives.
GALATIANS 5:13-21. CALLED FOR FREEDOM
13 For you, brothers, were called for freedom. Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh, but through love be servants to one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you don’t consume one another. 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality, uncleanness, lustfulness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, 21 envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these; of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.
“For you, brothers, were called (Greek: kaleo) for freedom” (v. 13a). As noted above, a literal translation of verse 1 is: “Christ has liberated us for freedom.” The idea here is much the same. When Paul uses the word kaleo here, he is speaking of a holy calling—a Godly calling. God has created us for freedom from the law (v. 1), and has called us to embrace freedom (v. 13a).
“Only don’t use your freedom for gain to the flesh” (Greek: sarx)“ (v. 13b). Sarx is an ugly-sounding word that depicts an often ugly reality—a focus on bodily indulgence rather than on Godly service. In the New Testament, sarx is most frequently used as a contrast with that which is spiritual (John 3:6; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 8:3-6). That is the case in this verse.
Paul is saying that our freedom from the law isn’t an invitation to loose living. It is not a license to sin. Paul expanded on this in his letter to the Romans, where he said that, at baptism, we became new creatures—no longer suited to sinful behavior:
“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just like Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him; knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no more has dominion over him! For the death that he died, he died to sin one time; but the life that he lives, he lives to God. Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:1-11).
“but through love (Greek: agape) be servants to one another” (v. 13c). Agape has to do with a concern for the well-being of the other person. It suggests giving, even to the point of sacrifice. Paul says here that believers who love each other with agape love will exemplify that love through service to one another.
“For the whole law is fulfilled (Greek: pleroo) in one word, in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 14). The word pleroo in this context means, “performed fully.” In other words, Paul is saying that those who love their neighbors have kept the law fully.
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 14b). This commandment is found first in Leviticus 19:18. When approached by a scribe asking, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” Jesus replied that the first two commandments are to love God with all our being—and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31).
“But if you bite and devour one another, be careful that you don’t consume one another” (v. 15). A more literal translation of the second part of this verse would be: “Watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”
We have seen this happen. We have seen people in the church or in families or in businesses biting and devouring those near them. When that happens, everyone loses—churches, families, businesses, and individuals. Collegial behavior—taking care of each other—builds up churches, families, and businesses.
“But I say, walk (Greek: peripateo) by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfill the lust (epithymia)of the flesh” (v. 16). The Greek word peripateo literally means “walk around” (peri means “around,” as in our English word “perimeter”—and pateo means “to walk.”).
From very early times, Jews used the word “walk” to speak of the manner in which one conducted one’s life. In this verse, Paul is calling believers to allow the Holy Spirit to shape the conduct of their lives. People who do that will not allow the lusts of their hearts to reign supreme when it comes to their conduct.
“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, that you may not do the things that you desire” (v. 17). The Spirit and the flesh are at war—vying for people’s hearts. Paul was well-acquainted with the struggle. In his letter to the Roman church, he said:
For I don’t know what I am doing. For I don’t practice what I desire to do; but what I hate, that I do. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, I consent to the law that it is good. So now it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing. For desire is present with me, but I don’t find it doing that which is good. For the good which I desire, I don’t do; but the evil which I don’t desire, that I practice. But if what I don’t desire, that I do, it is no more I that do it, but sin which dwells in me (Romans 7:15-20).
If that was the Apostle Paul’s experience, who is immune? Not me! Nor you!
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (v. 18). Those who are led by the Spirit have no need of the law. The Spirit will guide them around temptations, so that Spirit-leadership eliminates the need for laws that spell out precisely what is and what is not permissible.
The person who is guided by love for God has no need for a commandment against serving other gods. The person who is guided by love for neighbor has no need for a commandment not to steal or murder.
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious, which are: adultery, sexual immorality (Greek: porneia), uncleanness (akatharsia), lustfulness (aselgeia), idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousies, outbursts of anger, rivalries, divisions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, orgies (komos), and things like these” (vv. 19-21a).
Several of these words have to do with sexual immorality of one sort or another:
• Adultery, sexual immorality (porneia) has to do with any kind of sexual sin.
• Uncleanness (akatharsia) is uncleanness, to include moral impurity.
• Lustfulness (aselgeia) is debauchery, lustfulness, or perversion.
• Jealousies (zelos) is zeal or jealousy or anger, and is sometimes related to romance or sex.
• Orgies (komos) has to do with drunken revelry, which often leads to sexual immorality.
• Idolatry (eidololatria). Worshiping an idol would violate the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol…. You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20:3-5).
• Sorcery (pharmakeia) Using drugs in support of the occult, sorcery, or witchcraft.
• Hatred (echthra) Hatred or hostility.
• Strife (eris) Strife or contentious behavior.
• Outbursts of anger (thymos) Anger or strife.
• Rivalries (eritheia) Scheming to serve one’s own selfish interests.
• Divisions (dichostasiai) Divisions or factions (See John 17:20-23)
• Heresies (hairesis) Those who promote beliefs contrary to scripture.
• Envyings (phthonos) Experiencing pain at another person’s good fortune.
• Murders (I checked two Greek texts and didn’t find this word in this verse.)
• Drunkenness (methe) Overindulgence in alcohol or other drugs.
• Things like these (ho homoia) literally “similar passions.”
These vices are destroyers—destroyers of self and destroyers of relationships and organizations. In this context, they have to do with attitudes and actions that have the potential to destroy the church—the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7).
“of which I forewarn you, even as I also forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (v. 21b; see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). This is a difficult verse, because nearly everyone succumbs to one or more of Paul’s list of vices. Does that mean that those who have erred have no hope of salvation? I once heard a sermon, the theme of which (repeated again and again) was that God does not love sinners. Is that true? Of course not. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” But then he goes on to say that we are “justified freely by (God’s) grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). The grace of God is the answer to our need.
Jesus said, “God so loved the world, (Greek: kosmos) “that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). To understand the radical nature of that verse, we need to understand that the kosmos-world of which Jesus spoke was the world opposed to God—the world of sinful people.
But be sure to note that Jesus says, “whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Faith, not works, is the thing that makes it possible for us to avail ourselves of God’s grace. Undoubtedly, God stands ready, eagerly ready, to forgive the sins committed before we became disciples—but what about those committed after we became believers? It would be wonderful to think that believers never sin, but we know that isn’t true. As noted above, even Paul acknowledged his continuing struggle with sin (Romans 7:15-20).
But James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled’; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, ‘You have faith, and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (James 2:14-18).
It would appear that James is opposed to Paul with regard to the idea of works, but he isn’t. James doesn’t say that we can gain salvation by good works. He says that genuine faith will always manifest itself by good works. Any faith that produces no good works is not real faith.
GALATIANS 22-26. THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become conceited, provoking one another, and envying one another.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (v. 22-23a).
• Love (agape). An unselfish concern for the well-being of the other person.
• Joy (chara). We can be joyful, knowing that we have experience salvation.
• Peace (eirene). An inner peace derived from a deep relationship to God.
• Patience (makrothymia). Because God has been gracious to us, we should be gracious to one another.
• Kindness (chrestotes). Reaching out to others, offering support, whether physical or spiritual.
• Goodness (agathosyne). Good character manifested by benevolence.
• Faith (pistis). Faith in the Lord Jesus—steering the ship of our lives by Jesus’ star.
• Gentleness (prautes). A kind and gentle approach to people and tasks. Not weakness.
• Self-control (enkrateia). Control over one’s desires and actions. The opposite of self-indulgence.
“Against such things there is no law” (v. 23b). The law was given to spell out in great detail how people should relate to God and to other people. However, Spirit-directed people have no need of the law—no need for someone to spell out in detail how they should behave in relationships.
“Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh (Greek: sarx) with its passions and lusts” (v. 24). Paul states this as a fact (“you have been”) instead of an imperative (“you should do this”).
As stated above, sarx is an ugly-sounding word that depicts an often ugly reality—a focus on bodily indulgence rather than on Godly service. Now Paul labels the bodily indulgences as “passions and lusts.”
But those passions and lusts are dead for the believer, because believers “have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts”—or so says Paul. In our experience, we know that is not altogether the case. However devoted we might be to Christ, passions and lusts still rear their ugly heads now and then. If we are truly devoted to Christ, we will ask his help in dealing with the passions and lusts—and, when we find ourselves guilty, we can ask forgiveness.
In any event, slaying the passion-and-lusts demon is a lifelong task for even the most ardent believer.
“If we live by the Spirit, let’s also (Greek: stoicheo) walk by the Spirit” (v. 25). As noted above, from very early times, Jews used the word “walk” to speak of the manner in which one conducted one’s life.
The usual Greek word for “walk” is peripateo (see comments on v. 16)—but now Paul uses the wordstoicheo, which conveys the thought of standing or proceeding in an orderly fashion. In this verse,stoicheo conveys the thought of allowing the Spirit to direct our lives in an orderly, God-approved manner.
“Let’s not become conceited (Greek: kenodoxos), provoking one another, and envying one another” (v. 26). The word kenodoxos (conceited) combines two Greek words, kenos (vain) and doxa (glory)—so the English word vainglory (inordinate pride or excessive vanity) is a direct translation. In this verse kenodoxos speaks of those who think more highly of themselves than they ought to think—the exact opposite of Paul’s injunction “not to think of (themselves) more highly than (they) ought to think” (Romans 12:3).
That kind of false pride is a prescription for trouble. For one thing, it is transparent. People often recognize phonies, and refuse to believe anything they say. For another thing, conceited people often make life miserable for others. Conceit can be absolutely deadly in a church.
Humility, the opposite of conceit, is not often seen as a virtue today. We prize assertiveness rather than humility. However, as Christians, we are called to emulate Christ, who “existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
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George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan