July 22: Galatians 5:17, 24

In the previous note, I discussed the pair of statements which bracket vv. 16-25 (see the chiastic outline for this section), the first of three concentric pairs (vv. 16-18, 23b-25) surrounding the central lists of vices (“works of the flesh”) and virtues (“fruit of the Spirit”). As previously indicated, these pairs may be summarized:

    • Exhortation (vv. 16, 25)
    • Conflict—Flesh vs. Spirit (vv. 17, 24)
    • Affirmation regarding freedom (vv. 18, 23b)

Today’s note will examine the second pair.

Conflict for believers (Flesh vs. Spirit)—Gal 5:17, 24

This conflict is expressed two different ways by Paul: (1) the current conflict (v. 17), and (2) its resolution (v. 18).

Verse 17:

aFor the flesh sets (its) impulse against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh—bfor these lie (stretched out) (one) against the other, so that you might not do the (thing)s which you might wish (to do).”

On the juxtaposition of flesh and Spirit in Galatians (and elsewhere in Paul’s letters), see the previous note and articles; on the “impulse [e)piqumi/a]” of the flesh, cf. also the previous note. Here, in verse 17, we find the related verb e)piqume/w, which I have translated by way of conflating two valid renderings: (a) “have an impulse toward (something)”, and (b) “set (one’s) mind/heart upon (something)”. The principal statement is 17a, which juxtaposes “flesh” and “Spirit”, setting them against each other. Previously in Galatians kata\ sarko/$/pneu/mato$ meant “according to the flesh/Spirit”, here it means, more precisely and fundamentally, “against the flesh/Spirit”. The opposition and mutual incompatibility (even hostility), indicated throughout Galatians, is here expressed directly.

Verse 17b expounds the essential statement with two, related, explanatory clauses:

    1. “for these [i.e. flesh and the Spirit] lie out (one) against the other…”—The particle ga/r relates this clause to what came before (the statement in 17a). The verb Paul uses is a)nti/keimai, “to lie (stretched out) against”, as two opposing animals or armies, etc; the preposition a)nti, like kata, means “against”, but in the more precise sense of two opponents facing each other.
    2. “…so that you might not do the (thing)s which you might wish (to do)”—The subordinating conjunctive particle i%na could indicate either a purpose or a result clause, i.e. “so (in order) that…” or “so that (as a result)…”; formally, a result clause is more appropriate, however, there is clearly the sense of a will being imposed, whether that of the opposing forces, or the overriding will/purpose of God (or both). The two verbs—qe/lhte and poih=te—are both subjunctive forms (“might wish”, “might do”); in other words, each opposing force obstructs and resists the will and action of the other.

Anyone familiar with Paul’s letters will recognize the similarity between verse 17 and Romans 7:15-25. A proper discussion of this passage will have to wait until its place in the series of articles and notes on “Paul’s View of the Law (in Romans)”. Even though, by consensus of most commentators, in Romans 7, Paul is dramatizing the situation of human beings prior to faith in Christ, while Galatians 5 relates specifically to believers as they live in Christ and by the Spirit, the dynamic he describes in each letter is very similar. The main difference, I believe, is that, in Romans 7, the flesh is additionally bound up under the enslaving forces of the Law and sin; in Galatians 5, on the other hand, only the flesh (the “impulse of the flesh”) is involved. The believer, as Paul teaches repeatedly in Galatians (and in Romans, for that matter) is free from both the Law of the Old Testament and the “law of sin”.

Verse 24:

“But the (one)s of (the) Anointed [Yeshua] have put to the stake [i.e. crucified] the flesh (together) with the sufferings and impulses (it brings)”

If the conflict (between flesh and Spirit) was stated in verse 17 (above), the way of resolution to the conflict (if believers are willing to accept it) is presented in verse 24. Each of the important expressions in this verse ought to be examined, at least briefly:

de\ (“but”)—the adversative conjunctive particle de/ properly relates to the prior verses (vv. 19-23), but it could just as well connect back to the statement of conflict in verse 17; in many ways, it is more appropriate and makes better sense in this context.

oi(tou= Xristou= [ )Ihsou=] (“the ones of the Anointed [Yeshua]”)—here Christian identity is described with a genitival expression, i.e. believers as the ones belonging to Christ, “of Christ”. Certainly this should be understood in relation to the familiar Pauline expression “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|).

e)stau/rwsan (“have put to the stake”)—the reference of course being to the believers’ identification with, and symbolic/spiritual participation in, the death (crucifixion) of Christ. This was already stated, famously and most powerfully, by Paul in Gal 2:19f:

“…I died away to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been put to the stake (together) with the Anointed…”

For other mention of the death and cross of Christ in Galatians, see Gal 1:1, 4; 2:20-21; 3:1, 13; 5:11. Through identification with the crucifixion (at the spiritual level), believers are freed from the Law, and, with it, from the power of sin (the “curse” of the Law, cf. 3:10-14). This freedom is expressed vividly in terms of dying—becoming dead to the Law; in Col 2:13-14, we find the even more dramatic image of the Law (and sin [debt/trespass]) itself dying, being nailed to the cross.

th\n sa/rka (“the flesh”)—on Paul’s use of sa/rc (“flesh”) see the previous notes and articles on the relevant passages in Galatians (“Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”). Interestingly, while Paul declares that, in Christ, believers are free from the Law and the power of sin, he never goes so far as to extend this freedom to the flesh. As he indicates repeatedly in his letters, and specifically here in Gal 5:17 (cf. above), believers face a regular conflict and daily struggle against the “impulse of the flesh”. For more on this thought, see below.

su\n (“with”)—the conjunction su/n, “(together) with” also appears in Gal 2:19, but prefixed to the verb stauro/w (“put to the stake”) in the compound form sustauro/w (“put to the stake [together] with”). There the conjunction connects the believer with Christ; here, in a different, opposite direction, it connects the flesh with its “sufferings and impulses”

toi=$ paqh/masin kai\ tai=$ e)piqumi/a$ (“the sufferings and the impulses”)—on the word e)piqumi/a (translated here as “impulse”), cf. the previous day’s note; the expression e)piqumi/a sarko/$ (“impulse of the flesh”) was used in verse 16. The word is fairly common in Paul’s letters (cf. 1 Thess 2:17; 4:5; Rom 1:24; 6:12; 7:7-8; 13:14; Phil 1:23; Col 3:5, also Eph 2:3; 4:22, etc), and can be fairly rendered “desire, longing”, sometimes in a positive sense, but more often in the negative sense of fleshly/carnal or sinful desire. The word pa/qhma refers to pain or (painful) suffering, hardship, affliction, etc., often indicating a strong emotion or impulse, i.e. “passion”; as such, the word (or the related noun pa/qo$) may be connected semantically with e)piqumi/a, cf. 1 Thess 4:5; Col 3:5. The nouns are plural, and should be seen as both deriving conceptually from the singular “impulse [e)piqumi/a] of the flesh”—the “impulses” (pl.) reflect the reality that believers will experience the “impulse” of the flesh on different occasions and in various forms, along with the effects (the “pains/sufferings”) they bring.

There is an important implication in the language of verse 24, when Paul states that believers (“the ones of Christ“) have put to death (crucified) the flesh—in other words, it does not happen automatically (or magically) as a result of Christ’s death; it requires involvement by the believer, in at least two respects:

    • Identification/participation with the crucifixion at the symbolic/spiritual level, through faith and the work of the Spirit—see esp. Gal 2:19-20 (cf. above)
    • The daily life of the believer, whereby the flesh—both its “impulse” and its “works”—are regularly “put to death” in a practical, habitual sense, cf. Rom 6:6ff; 8:13; Col 3:5; also Gal 6:8-9, 14; and note Jesus’ words in Mark 8:34 par. In traditional theological language, this is sometimes referred to as (self-)mortification.

Just as we are exhorted to “walk” in the Spirit (even though we already live in the Spirit), so we are exhorted to put the flesh to death (i.e. “crucify” it), even though we have already been “crucified with Christ”.