Paul’s View of the Law: Galatians (Chaps. 5-6)

The bulk of chapters 5 and 6 (5:1-6:10) makes up the exhortatio—that is, the section where, according to classical (deliberative) rhetoric, the author/speaker exhorts his audience to action or to a decision; in a religious or philosophical context, as here, this may be accompanied by ethical-moral instruction (parenesis) as well.

Exhortatio (Galatians 5:1-6:10)

I divide and outline the exhortatio into three main sections, prefaced by a primary exhortation:

    • 5:1—Exhortation regarding freedom vs. slavery
    • 5:2-12—Exhortation/warning regarding the Law (circumcision)
      —vv. 2-6: The Law vs. Christ
      —vv. 7-12: Those who are influencing the Galatians to observe the Law
    • 5:13-25—Exhortation/warning regarding freedom in Christ, which specifically includes:
      —vv. 16-21: The works of the flesh
      —vv. 22-25: The fruit of the Spirit
    • 5:26-6:10—Instruction related to Christian freedom (“walking in the Spirit”)
      5:26-6:6: Dealing with fellow believers—the “law of Christ”
      6:7-10: Harvest illustration and concluding warning

Galatians 5:1

The main exhortation in this verse picks up with the previous freedom vs. slavery theme used throughout the arguments in chapter 4:

“To freedom (the) Anointed has set us free; therefore stand (firm) and do not again have held (down) on you a yoke of slavery”

The dative of th=| e)leuqeri/a| is best understood as a dative of goal or purpose, i.e. “to freedom” , “for freedom”, parallel to the expression e)p’ e)leuqeri/a| in verse 13. For Paul, there is a fundamental connection between freedom and the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3:17). The exhortation is expressed according to two verbs:

The first is active, exhorting the Galatians to action (or continuation of action); the second is passive, implying something which is done to them by others, but which the Galatians may be allowing to happen. The image related to slavery is especially vivid—that of someone holding a yoke down upon their shoulders. This expression (“yoke of slavery”) is found in 1 Tim 6:1; a burdensome “yoke” is related to the Law in Acts 15:10 (Peter speaking), which may be contrasted with ‘yoke of Christ’ (Matt 11:29f)—cf. a possible parallel in the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2, to be discussed).

Galatians 5:2-12

This first section may be summarized as an exhortation (warning) regarding circumcision and Torah observance, which is, of course, the main reason (or cause) for Paul writing to the Galatians.

Vv. 2-6The Law vs. Christ. Paul begins directly, with a solemn asseveration:

“See—I, Paulus, relate to you that if you should be circumcised…”

In other words, if the Galatians allow themselves to be circumcised, and persuaded to be bound by the Torah commands, then the following will be the result:

    • Christ will be of no value to you (“will benefit/profit you nothing”), v. 2
    • You will be obligated (“one in debt”) to keep (lit. “to do”) the whole Law, v. 3
    • You will be made inactive (i.e. useless) (and will be) away from Christ, v. 4a
    • You will fall out of favor (with God), [i.e. will fall from grace], v. 4b

The first two results (vv. 2-3) use the language of commerce and debt, from two vantage points—(a) losing the value/profit of Christ, and (b) becoming indebted to the Law. The second two results (v. 4) are parallel expressions of loss, falling (a) “away from Christ” [a)po\ Xristou=], and (b) “out of favor/grace” [{e)c} th=$ xa/rito$]. From a modern-day Christian (or secular) standpoint, one might be inclined to view observance of the Torah as a relative matter of indifference, and yet, for Paul, as vv. 2-4 indicate, the consequences for the Galatians in so doing would be dire indeed. Why should this be? Is Paul simply indulging in some rhetorical exaggeration to make his point? The answer, I think, can be glimpsed by what follows in verse 5:

“For we, in/through (the) Spirit [pneu/mati], out of trust [e)k pi/stew$], look to receive from (God) (the) hope of justice/righteousness [e)lpi/da dikaiosu/nh$]”

This is another powerful declaration of Christian identity, bringing together in compact form several of the key terms and expression Paul has been using in Galatians. In particular, it is another clear statement of the fundamental premise that righteousness comes only through the Spirit and faith (in Christ), and not by observing the Law (indeed, quite the opposite!). An even more decisive declaration against keeping the Law comes in verse 6:

“For in (the) Anointed Yeshua circumcision does not have any strength, (and) neither (does having) a foreskin, but (rather) trust working in (you) through love

The Law, especially in its ritual/ceremonial aspects (the foremost being circumcision), has no strength; in this regard, see the description of the “elements [stoicheia] of the world” as “weak and poor” (4:9), as well as the basic proposition that the Law is not able to make/declare people just before God (2:15-16, etc, cf. also Paul in Acts 13:38-39). For the first time in Galatians, faith/trust in Christ is connected with love, and this will become an important emphasis in the instruction throughout chaps. 5 and 6. Also, there can be little doubt that we have here an intentional and specific contrast between “works [e&rga] of the Law” and faith/trust (by the Spirit) “working in [e)nergoume/nh]” us. For other Pauline formulations parallel to v. 6, cf. my upcoming note on Gal 6:15.

Vv. 7-12The ones influencing the Galatians. Here Paul breaks off to engage in a direct attack against his Jewish-Christian opponents, that is, the ones who are influencing the Galatians to be circumcised and to observe the Torah (cf. also further on in 6:12-13). It must be admitted that such polemic as Paul uses here, while generally acceptable within the standards of ancient (Greco-Roman) rhetoric and ‘diatribe’, makes for rather uncomfortable reading today. The specific language and style ought to be treated with considerable caution by commentators and preachers.

In many ways, verses 7-10 parallel vv. 2-4 (cf. above); while the earlier passage laid out the consequences for the Galatians if they accepted circumcision, here Paul describes the character (and fate) of those who have been encouraging them to be circumcised (i.e. the so-called “Judaizers”)—they are said:

    • to be contrary to the truth (v. 7)
    • contrary to the one calling people to faith (i.e. God) (v. 8)
    • troubling the peace and unity of believers (v. 9-10)
    • they will come under the judgment of God (v. 10b)

In some ways, vv. 11-12 serve as a parallel to the declaration in verse 6 (above); there Paul stated the unimportance of circumcision compared with faith/trust in Christ, here he contrasts proclaiming circumcision (and the Torah) with proclaiming the Gospel (especially the cross, i.e. the death of Christ). The exact logic and context of verse 11 is a bit difficult to determine; it may be that Paul’s opponents accused him of inconsistency, of advocating for circumcision even while denying its requirement for Gentiles (cf. Acts 16:3). In Gal 6:12-13, he also alludes to the fact that some (Jewish) Christians were embracing circumcision and the Torah so as to avoid persecution; here, however, he makes clear that the persecution he (and his fellow missionaries) have endured is because of the Gospel (the “cross of Christ”). After experiencing the transformative revelation of the Gospel message in Christ, through faith and the Spirit, to turn again to the Law (and circumcision) would effectively rob Christ’s death of its power and significance, as stated previously in Gal 2:21. Verse 12 concludes with a terse bit of darkly ironic wordplay, a kind of “bloody joke”:

“I owe [i.e. I wish] (it to them that) they will even cut themselves off, the ones stirring you up!”

Commentators are generally agreed that here the verb a)poko/ptw, “cut (away) from”, i.e. “cut off” is used in the sense of (self)-mutilation or amputation—i.e., castration. The ones troubling (“stirring up, upturning”) the Galatians are doing so by encouraging them to be circumcised, that is, to have the foreskin cut off; in more vulgar modern idiom, we might translate verse 12 as: “the ones (who are) unsettling you, I wish that they would cut off their {blank}!” Take Paul’s expression for what it is worth in context, it certainly is another example of how seriously he takes the issue.

Galatians 5:13-25

If vv. 2-12 was an exhortation (and warning) against observing the Torah, this section provides rather the opposite: regarding the freedom (i.e. freedom from the Law) which believers have in Christ. Verse 13 states the primary exhortation, similar to that in verse 1:

V. 13: “For you have been called out (to be) upon [i.e. for] freedom, brothers! only (do) not (let) the freedom (be) unto a rushing (away) from (God) to the flesh, but (rather) be a slave to one another through love.”

The word a)formh/ literally refers to a movement or sudden/violent impulse away from something (or someone) and toward something else. More abstractly, it can also indicate a tendency or opportunity to move/act in a particular direction. There is, perhaps, a modern tendency to think of the “flesh” as personal (carnal) sin, but the immediate context (and also the list of “works of the flesh” in vv. 19-21), rather emphasizes self-centered (and/or violent) behavior against others (that is, other believers). Such fleshy action and attitude disrupts and destroys the peace and unity of the body of Christ (believers as a whole). In this respect, it is indeed striking that Paul introduces the idea of true and proper slavery for believers—of serving one another through love. This prepares the way for the similarly surprising idea of Christians following the “Law”, but in a special, qualified sense.

Verses 14-15—After spending all of the first four chapters of Galatians setting Torah observance (“works of Law”) in contrast to the Spirit and faith in Christ, treating it in terms of slavery, Paul now turns to describe the way in which Christians are still under Law. This is done in a manner common, it would seem, in many parts of the early Church, by bringing together the entire Law under a single command:

“For all the Law is filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in one word, in the ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 14)

The quotation is from Lev 19:18 (LXX), a verse established in early Christian tradition through the teaching of Jesus, as part of the two-fold “greatest commandment” (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 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 likely that this particular teaching and use of Lev 19:18 is not original with Jesus, but may have been part of contemporary Jewish tradition, as associated with first/second-century Rabbis Hillel and Aqiba (cf. b. Shabbat 31a; Genesis Rabbah 24:7, etc). Paul actually does not refer to this as a command, nor as something which is to be “done”, but as something fulfilled (cf. Jesus’ words in Matt 5:17). Such love is identified by Paul, paradoxically, as slavery (that is, labor and service), but he does not refer to it in terms of “work” (as the observance of the Torah commands would be, “works”); any work that is done, in Paul’s thought, surely would be ascribed to Christ and the Spirit, cf. vv. 5-6, and the famous statement that Christ is the “end/completion of the Law” (Rom 10:4). In verse 15, Paul indicates what is opposite, i.e. behavior which violates the love-command—namely, antagonistic behavior toward one another, described in crude, “beastly” terms of biting, tearing, eating, etc.

Verses 16-25—Here Paul embeds within his exhortation and basic teaching (vv. 16-18, 23b-25) what is often described as a list (or catalog) of “vices and virtues” (vv. 19-23a). Such lists were traditional and basic to Christian instruction; Paul did not create these, but rather adapted them, drawing upon the traditional language and terminology, in his letters (lists of “vices” being much more common)—cf. Rom 1:19-31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:10-11; 6:9-10; 2 Cor 12:20-21; Col 3:5, 8; also Eph 4:31; 5:3-4; 1 Tim 1:9-10; 2 Tim 3:2-5; Titus 3:3. For other examples in the New Testament and early Christian literature, see Mark 7:21-22f par; 1 Pet 2:1; 4:3, 15; Rev 21:8; 22:14; Didache 2:1-5:2; Barnabas 18-20; the letter of Polycarp 2:2; 4:3; Hermas, Commandments 5.2.4, 6.2, 8.3-5; Similitudes 6; 9.15, etc. Of the many examples in Greco-Roman literature and philosophy, one of the earliest is in Plato’s Gorgias 524-525. Instances can also be cited from Hellenistic Judaism (works of Philo, etc) and the texts of the Qumran community, most famously the treatise of the “Two Spirits” in the Community Rule (1QS 4:3-11). For more on the subject, see the excursus in Betz, Galatians, pp. 281-3.

The list of ‘vices’ (vv. 19-21) are referred to specifically as “works of (the) flesh” (e&rga th=$ sarko/$), an expression clearly intended as parallel to “works of (the) Law” (e&rga tou= no/mou), Gal 2:16; 3:3, 5, 10. These are all generally actions, reflecting sinful, selfish and immoral behavior; and, even though the Law would appear to guard and regulate against such things, according to Paul it actually serves to make manifest and increase the very sinfulness expressed by this list (as discussed previously). This is not to be taken as an exhaustive catalog (or checklist), but one that fairly comprehensively represents human wickedness. As might be expected, Paul does not use the corresponding term “works of the Spirit” for the opposite list in vv. 22-23, but rather “fruit [karpo/$] of the Spirit”—for it is the Spirit that does the working (vv. 5-6), and, indeed, the items in the list are not actions, but rather personal characteristics, attitudes, and (one might say) modes of behavior, generally corresponding to the term virtue (a)reth/) in Greek philosophical and ethical thought. Commentators have noted a formal difference in the lists—the “works of the flesh” show little clear order, perhaps intentionally reflecting the inherent disorder of carnal behavior and lifestyle; the “fruit of the Spirit”, on the other hand, can be grouped neatly into three sets of three (cf. the similar famous triad in 1 Cor 13:4-6). To see how these two lists fit in the overall structure of this section, I would suggest the following (chiastic) outline:

  • Exhortation: “walk [peripate/w] in the Spirit” (v. 16)
    • Conflict for believers: “flesh against the Spirit” and “Spirit against flesh” (v. 17)
      • Affirmation for believers: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under Law” (v. 18)
        • Works of the flesh (vv. 19-21)
        • Fruit of the Spirit (vv. 22-23a)
      • Affirmation for believers: If the fruit of the Spirit is present, “there is no Law” (v. 23b)
    • Resolution of conflict: the flesh has been crucified (with Christ) (v. 24)
  • Exhortation: “walk [stoixe/w] in the Spirit” (v. 25)

Because of the importance of verses 16-18 and 23b-25, these will be discussed in more detail in separate notes.

Galatians 5:26-6:10

This section properly presents specific religious and ethical instruction (parenesis), making up a very small (but significant) portion of the letter.

5:26-6:6—Here Paul offers basic direction and encouragement in terms of dealing with fellow believers. It is here that Christian “Law” (that is, the ‘love-command’) is most clearly expressed. Verse 26 describes behavior which is opposite of that governed by the love-principle, in a manner similar to that of verse 15. Gal 6:1, by contrast, gives more positive instruction in how believers (according to the fruit of the Spirit) deal with such negative, sinful behavior, the goal being to restore/repair (katarti/zw) the life of the offender, and, in so doing, restore the body of believers (the body of Christ) as a whole. This is stated more generally in verse 2 as bearing each others’ burdens, and is also another way of stating the love-command (or principle), cf. 5:14 above, and my supplemental note on 6:2.. The expression “the Law of Christ” is significant, and will be discussed in a separate note. Verses 4-6 give practical advice and encouragement along these lines, in more conventional ethical terms, as can be found in other of Paul’s letters—for v. 4, cf. 1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 10:13, 15; 13:3, 5; for v. 5, cf. 1 Thess 4:11; 1 Cor 3:8; 7:7; Rom 14:5, 12; for v. 6, cf. 1 Thess 5:12-13; Rom 12:13; 15:27; 1 Cor 9:11; 2 Cor 9:12-14; Phil 4:15-17.

6:7-10—Paul concludes his exhortation with a proverbial illustration (vv. 7-9) involving the harvest, returning to the contrast and conflict between flesh and the Spirit—the warning is ultimately eschatological: however a person sows, whether “into the flesh” or “into the Spirit”, so he or she will reap in the end (i.e. the Judgment before God). This serves as a serious ethical warning. Freedom from a set of religious regulations and commands, means that it is absolutely necessary for believers to be guided by the Spirit, and, most importantly, to be willing to walk according to this guidance. It certainly may be tempting to resort to a set of (written) regulations to help in this regard, but, to do so will effectively cut off our reliance upon the Spirit of Christ. Paul was well aware of this, but believers throughout the centuries, it must be said, have generally been reluctant to accept his “antinomian” teaching.

In the final verse, Paul at least introduces a positive sense of “work” for Christians, in terms of doing good—that is, showing and demonstrating love and concern—for all human beings, but especially, and particular, toward fellow believers. This is the essence of the “love command” as taught by Christ in the Gospel of John (cf. throughout the discourses in chaps. 13-17).

References marked “Betz, Galatians” are to: Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, in the Hermeneia series (Fortress Press [1979]).