“Bear one another’s burdens—and so you will fill up [i.e. fulfill] (completely) the ‘Law of Christ'”
It is noteworthy that, throughout the first five chapters of Galatians (focused in chs. 3-4), Paul has been arguing that believers in Christ are freed from the Law (that is, of the obligation to observe the commands and regulations of the Old Testament/Jewish Torah). Now, suddenly, he re-introduces the idea of believers fulfilling the Law, but defined specifically as “the Law of Christ” (o( no/mo$ tou= Xristou=). Two questions naturally come to mind: (1) what exactly does Paul mean by this expression? and (2) what is the relationship (if any) between the “Law of Christ” and the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah)? I hope to address both questions in the process of examining this verse.
First, let us consider the overall context of his statement in v. 2:
Throughout the first four chapters of Galatians, and especially in chapters 3-4, Paul has been arguing rather extensively (and forcefully) two main points:
- That it is through faith in Christ, and not by observing the Torah (“works of Law”), that a person is made (or declared) just/righteous before God
- That with the coming Christ, and, especially, as a result of his sacrificial death, believers (those who trust in him) are no longer “under the Law” and are freed from its obligations and commands (and, in turn, freed from the enslaving power of sin as well).
However, in chapters 5 and 6 (5:1-6:10), Paul has moved from argument to exhortation and religious-ethical instruction (parenesis). Since believers have freedom in Christ, and are free from the Law, how is one to live and act?—what is the basis for governing and regulating attitudes and behavior? Paul makes two points clear in this section:
- Attitude and behavior is (to be) governed by the Holy Spirit, which involves believers accepting to be led/guided (to “walk”) by the Spirit
- Even though believers are free from the Law, being led by the Spirit will (and must) result in a moral and upright life, in spite of (and/or because of) the natural conflict between the Spirit and “flesh”
In Gal 5:26-6:10, we find the only section of practical instruction in the letter, in particular, 5:26-6:6:
- 5:26 describes behavior contrary to “walking in the Spirit” (cf. also v. 15)
- 6:1-2 urges faithful believers to exhibit the “fruit of the Spirit” in helping to restore an offender, and to “bear each others‘ burdens”
- 6:3-4 counsels self-examination for believers, emphasizing the importance of humility and personal integrity, emphasizing rather that each person must “bear his/her own burden”
In vv. 3-4, the believer turns inward, focusing on his/her own life and affairs, while in vv. 1-2, the believer turns outward, in order to aid and assist other believers in time of trouble. Paul’s statement in v. 2 is part of this second emphasis.
Verse 2a—”bear each other’s burdens…” (a)llh/lwn ta\ ba/rh basta/zete). It is this exhortation which defines the statement in 2b, and must be kept in mind when analyzing the expression “the Law of Christ”. It is also closely parallel to the exhortation in 5:13, as we shall see.
Verse 2b—”…and thus you will fill up (completely) the ‘Law of Christ'” (kai\ ou%tw$ a)naplhrw/sete to\n no/mon tou= Xristou=). “and thus” (kai\ ou%tw$) relates back to 2a, which serves as a conditional phrase—if you bear each other’s burden, then, in so doing, you will fill up the “Law of Christ”. The verb Paul uses (a)naplhro/w) is a compound form of plhro/w (plhróœ, “fill [up], fulfill”); the prefixed particle a)na (ana) indicating “up”, but essentially serving as an intensive element, i.e. “fill up completely“. The verb plhro/w can be used in the sense of observing or completing commands/regulations, i.e., of the Law (Torah), cf. Matt 5:17. However, in Galatians, Paul speaks in terms of the Torah commands being “done” (i.e. as “works”) rather than being “fulfilled”.
With regard to the expression “the Law of Christ”, it should be examined according to: (1) parallels in Galatians, (2) parallels in the other Pauline letters, and, finally, by way of brief comparison, (3) with any other relevant parallels in the New Testament.
“be slaves to each other [a)llh/loi$] through love”
“for all the Law is filled (up) [peplh/rwtai] in one word”
” bear each others’ [a)llh/lwn] burdens”
“and thus you will fill up [a)naplhrw/sete] the Law of Christ”
The “one word” in 5:14 is Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”), well-established in early Christian tradition as a central command (or principle), sometimes referred to as the “love command”, under the influence of similar language in the Gospel and letters of John (Jn 13:34-35; 14:15-24; 15:10-17; 1 Jn 2:7-11; 3:23; 4:21; 5:1-3). It is part of the two-fold “Great Commandment” in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:31 par; Matt 5:43; 19:19)—also related to the so-called “golden rule” (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31)—as a ‘summary’ of the Law. Paul offers a more precise contextual statement in Rom 13:8-10; for other instances in early Christian writings, see James 2:8; Didache 1:2; Barnabas 19:5; and Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 93:2. It is reasonable to relate this to the “Law of Christ” in Gal 6:2; I would suggest that the connection should be understood in the following terms:
- The ‘love command’ (Lev 19:18) is no longer associated with the Torah in early Christian tradition, but rather more directly with the teaching (and example) of Christ.
- In Paul’s thought, Christ, in his own person and by his work, represents (and brings) the end/completion/fulfillment of the entire Law (cf. Rom 10:4), just as the ‘love command’ effectively summarizes and fulfills (and thereby takes the place of) the entire Law.
- The new covenant (of faith and the Spirit) is defined as believers being “in Christ”, belonging to Christ, etc., just as the old covenant (at Sinai) was defined by inclusion of Israel according to the terms of the Law (Torah).
(2) Parallels in the other Pauline letters—Here I will focus on formal parallels, where Paul uses a phrase or expression similar to “the Law of Christ”.
- 1 Corinthians 9:21—”in [i.e. under] the Law of Christ” (e&nnomo$ Xristou=). This expression is nearly identical, with the context in 1 Corinthians being significant. In v. 20, Paul speaks of becoming like one who is “under the Law” in order to reach those “under the Law” (i.e., Israelites/Jews); similarly, to those who are “without (the) Law” (a&nomo$), i.e. Gentiles, he became as one who is “without (the) Law” (cf. Gal 2:12, 14). However, Paul is clearly uncomfortable referring to himself (and, presumably, any believer) as being “without Law”, so he parenthetically comments: “not (indeed) being without the Law of God, but in the law of Christ”. It is doubtless the use of the word a&nomo$ (“without law”) that prompts him to use (or to coin) the term e&nnomo$ (“in [the] law”).
- Romans 7:22, 25 (cf. also 8:7; 1 Cor 9:21)—”the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=). In Romans (and also 1 Cor 9:21), Paul uses this expression in a wider sense than “the Law” (o( no/mo$), the latter almost always referring specifically to the Old Testament/Jewish Law (Torah). In Rom 7:22ff, the “Law of God” is contrasted with the “Law of sin” as two principles fighting against each other, as a dynamic taking place in the life/heart/mind of a person prior to faith in Christ (note also the similar dynamic for believers in Gal 5:17). It would be fair, I think, to identify the expression “the Law of God” generally with the will of God, which, of course, is also communicated by way of the Torah commands.
- Romans 3:27—”the Law of faith/trust” (no/mo$ pi/stew$). This expresses the basic Pauline teaching that people are made/declared just (“justified”) before God through trust/faith (pi/sti$) in Christ, in direct contrast with the “law of works (e&rga)” (i.e., “works of the Law”).
- Romans 8:2—”the Law of the Spirit of life” (o( no/mo$ tou= pneu/mato$ th=$ zwh=$). This characterizes the principle, expressed repeatedly in Galatians (esp. Gal 5:1ff), that believers are free from the Law—not only specific commands preserved in the Torah, but also the “curse” of the Law and the power of sin, here phrased as “the Law of sin and death”. This freedom—the Law of the Spirit of life—is qualified and centered by the familiar expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|). Since the Holy Spirit is understood largely in terms of the Spirit of Christ, of his live-giving presence and power at work in the believer, the “Law of the Spirit of life” can be considered, to some extent, as synonymous with the “Law of Christ”.
- Romans 16:26 is also worth noting, where Paul speaks of “the charge/injunction [e)pitagh/] of God of-the-Ages”, in reference to God’s ordering of the proclamation and spread of the Gospel to the nations. In 1 Cor 7:19 we also find the expression “(the) commands/charges [e)ntolai] of God”, which could generally mean the commands of the Torah, but as Paul has just stated that “circumcision is nothing”, this is unlikely; possibly it refers to the ethical commands of the Torah (e.g. in the Decalogue), but it is probably better to consider the meaning as similar to the “command[s] of Christ” (cf. below).
(3) Parallels in the remainder of the New Testament—
- James 1:25; 2:12—”the Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$). This sounds like an expression which could have come from Galatians, with its emphasis on freedom in Christ. And, indeed, the overall context of James 1:22-2:13 is generally similar to Paul’s exhortation and instruction in Gal 5:1-6:10, in the sense that both passages emphasize: (a) the need for moral/ethical behavior among believers, and (b) that faith in Christ will (and should) result in sacrificial acts of mercy and service to those (believers) who are in difficulty. The main difference is that James speaks of all this in terms of “works” (e&rga) and “doing” (i.e. the “Law”) which Paul generally does not apply in Galatians. In James 1:25, the “Law of freedom” is characterized as “complete” (te/leio$), which possibly relates to the Pauline idea of the Law (Torah) being completed in the person and work of Christ (Rom 10:4, etc).
- James 2:8—”the kingly/royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$). Here the thought is even closer to the “Law of Christ” in Gal 6:2, and also with Gal 5:13-14. This “royal Law” is identified with the so-called love-command (Lev 19:18), as in Gal 5:14; similarly, the implication in James 2:10 is that violation of this command means violating the entire Law. In all likelihood, the “Law of freedom” and the “royal Law” are basically synonymous, and could fairly be identified with the “Law of Christ”.
- The Gospel and letters of John, for the most part, do not use the word no/mo$ (“law”), preferring rather the word e)ntolh/, either in the singular or plural. )Entolh/ literally signifies a charge or duty, etc, which is placed on someone, typically translated as “command(ment)”. The “commandments” (pl.) can be referred to as Christ’s, that is, coming from Christ (“his commandments”), cf. John 14:21 (cf. also 15:14); 1 John 2:3-4, or as God’s (the Father’s), 1 John 3:22-24; 5:2-3; 2 John 5-6, or both (Jn 12:49-50; 14:21, 31; 15:10)—with little (if any) distinction between the two. This accords with Johannine theology, especially as expressed by Jesus in the Gospel: that the Son only does and says what he sees/hears the Father doing and saying; in other words, Christ’s commands are the same as God’s (Jn 12:49; 14:31; 15:10). It is never specified just what these commandments are; rather, they seem to be identical with the “commandment” (sg.) of God (and Christ)—Jn 12:49-50; 15:12; 1 Jn 3:23; 4:21; 2 Jn 6. This (single) commandment is: (1) characterized as “new” (Jn 13:34; 1 Jn 2:8), and (2) defined in terms of love toward God and fellow believers (i.e. the two-fold “great commandment”) (Jn 13:34; 15:12, 17; 1 Jn 4:21; 5:2-3; 2 Jn 5-6; cf. also Jn 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1 Jn 2:5). Interestingly, in 1 Jn 2:7-8 and 2 Jn 5, the author explains that, in a sense, this is not actually a new commandment, but one already familiar from Scripture, the teaching of Jesus, and direct instruction by the Spirit. This may be a way of saying, along with Paul, that this “love command” summarizes and fulfills/completes the entire Law.