13 October 2010

Galatians 5:18-26

"By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things." (v.22-23)


Paul, the writer of this letter to the Christians in Galatia, in modern-day Turkey, has been arguing passionately that the new people of God, Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) who have faith in Christ, are free from the demands of the Jewish Law.

But this is an argument open to misunderstanding. The Jewish Law was not just about the outward marks of religious identity, but its 613 commandments covered all aspects of human behaviour, righteous living as well as outward religious symbols. A god who did what is right demanded that his people do what is right too. In general terms of 'right behaviour' Jews and educated Gentiles would have been in agreement, as is evident from the 1st century ethical codes of the wider Greek and Roman world. So Paul could not risk his hearers getting the idea that moral behaviour no longer mattered to those who were 'in Christ', which could otherwise be the implication of "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law".

The "works of the flesh" were indeed obvious to both Jews and Gentiles, and Paul recites a familiar list. By 'flesh' Paul does not mean the physical body, but human life unrestrained by the power and presence of God ("the Spirit"), and he emphasises that those who live like that are not acceptable to God (just in case he has given the wrong impression).

Similarly, the list of characteristics of right behaviour would have been equally familiar, not least to Jews, but Paul is careful to say that these are derived not from the Jewish Law but from the presence of the Spirit of God in the lives of those who are in Christ, both Jew and Gentile. Note that "the fruit of the Spirit" is singular, it is not 'fruits'. The whole list characterises the person who belongs to Christ. And, just as fruit reveals the true nature of the plant bearing it, so Christians are identifiable to Jews and Gentiles as gracious people, guided by the Spirit.

To Ponder

Christians, says Paul, should be recognisable by their behaviour, not by outward religious symbolism. How true is that today?

For Paul, gracious behaviour is the mark of a person guided by the Spirit of God. How do you understand the work of the Spirit in a believer's life?

How relevant are Paul's two lists today? Would you amend them in any way? If so, how?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.