11 October 2012

Galatians 5:16-24

"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." (vv. 22-23)


An important part of Paul's wider argument that Gentiles (non Jews) have been incorporated into the people of God by faith alone, and not by the external imposition of 'Jewishness', is that their lives have been transformed by the Spirit of God. This was seen as a prophetic sign that the messianic age had come - "Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh" (Joel 2:28, quoted by Peter at Pentecost in Acts 2:17). So if Gentiles had received the Spirit, through faith in Jesus, nothing else was needed. Paul contrasts "the Spirit" with "the flesh" (vv. 16-17), by which he means two things: life without the Spirit, and, more literally, circumcision as the primary focus of Jewish law. In the case of his enemies, of course, they amount to the same thing as far as he is concerned. Remember (from yesterday's passage) that Paul is still very angry!

"Spirit" and "flesh" are opposed to each other. The "flesh" (the Jewish Christian insistence on circumcision) restricts the freedom that the Spirit brings to gentile Christ-followers - the freedom to live as God intends, free from the external demands of the Jewish law. Paul goes on to list "the works of the flesh" in verses 19-21, based on a familiar list of vices that would have been recognised by Paul's gentile readers as typical of the teachings of moral philosophers. And of course such things were abhorrent to Jews too, especially "fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry and sorcery" (vv. 19-20). But Paul very pointedly adds "enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy" (vv. 20-21) to the middle of the list. These were precisely the things he accused his opponents of, and so, quite clearly, they were not "led by the Spirit" (v. 18) and would not "enter the kingdom of God" (v. 21). This is a very rare reference to "the kingdom of God" in Paul's writings, so is all the more pointed here.

By contrast, those who are "led by the Spirit" (v. 18) exhibit the fruit of that in their lives, without the need to live by the external aspects of Jewish law. And these qualities, again, a familiar list of 'virtues', should mark out those who truly "belong to Christ Jesus" (v. 24). These evidently do not include Paul's opponents.

To Ponder

  • Do you think Paul's own attitude here reflects "the works of the flesh" or "the fruit of the Spirit"? To what extent does Paul's own anger undermine the authority of what he writes?
  • Christians are often seen as quick to condemn "the works of the flesh" in others, while showing little evidence of "the fruit of the Spirit" in their own lives. Is it important that Christians should be seen as 'nice people'? Why?
  • "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (v. 24). What do you think Paul meant?

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.