[Text: Galatians, especially Gal. 5-6]
As I noted in my previous post, Galatians is hard going, and most of us, I bet, breathe a sigh of relief when we arrive at chapters 5 and 6. Here the complicated theological arguments, examples and allegories of the previous chapters transition into practical instruction for the Christian community, complete with memorable lines about “keeping in step with the Spirit” and having “the fruit of the Spirit.” This is stuff we resonate with, not to mention recognize. We can handle this part just fine.
Not to spoil the party, but our eagerness to move on to the “relevant” teaching of these later chapters does a disservice to Paul’s message in this letter. Reading in this way, we treat Galatians as if chapters 1-4 (and maybe the beginning of 5) were written to The People Back Then, who had this obscure issue with circumcision and Jewish law-keeping, while chapters 5-6 were written to US. In this post I’d like to try to show how the original context of the epistle to the Galatians extends all the way to the end of the letter, and why this matters for our contemporary attempts to interpret Paul’s words.
You know the gist of Paul’s concern, I’m sure: Gentile congregations in Asia Minor, once happily converted, were now being plagued by the teaching that their salvation in Christ was not, in fact, complete; what was missing was adherence to Jewish laws, specifically circumcision (but probably Sabbath-keeping, holidays, and dietary rules as well). Paul’s passion for these people, and for the true gospel, comes out in his fiery words. “Don’t let ANYBODY mess with your minds,” he says, “not even an angel of God! There is only ONE gospel, and you’ve already got it.”
Crucial to his argument, and to our understanding of the later “practical” chapters, is the history of the Galatians’ initial encounter with the Holy Spirit. You remember the scenes in Acts, right, where certain conversions were accompanied by highly visible and audible “signs and wonders”? In the early days of the Church, when the original Jewish believers were first venturing outside their ethnic boundaries with their message about Jesus, God apparently turned up the volume on the Spirit’s presence—especially in born-again Gentiles, just so there would be no mistake about his acceptance of them. As Peter put it to a council of his brethren, “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”*
In Galatians, written very early in the newborn Church’s history,* Paul could appeal to these Gentile believers’ unmistakable experience of divine acceptance in an attempt to get them to see the logic of their situation. “Didn’t God supply the Spirit and work miracles among you, just because you believed?” he asks. “Did he wait to welcome you into Abraham’s family until you had jumped through all the hoops of the Jewish law? Of course not. So having begun by the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? That makes no sense!”
Note the contrast there, between “Spirit” on the one hand and “flesh” on the other. Paul is emphasizing the Spirit’s obvious acceptance of these believers, and the consequent uselessness of flesh-bound Jewish identity markers. But we have been conditioned to decontextualize these terms, reading them not with their historical references in mind so much as “what they mean to me today.” And “what they mean to me” naturally has to involve something other than a Jewish-Gentile tension about law-keeping, because that subject was laid to rest long ago and in a faraway land.
In our context-free interpretation, then, any mention of the Spirit is automatically understood to refer to prayerful, pious, spiritual behavior and thinking, maybe involving an inner “nudge” in a godly direction. In contrast, flesh is sinful—often specifically lustful or sexually impure—behavior and thinking, or sometimes it is whatever we do to “try to earn God’s favor.” Our revision of Paul’s main subject into terms that are familiar to us becomes a speedy bypass to contemporary relevance: why belabor that first-century ethnic tension, when we are trying to keep in step with the Spirit in the twenty-first?
Here’s how the interpretive bypass plays out in our reading of the practical instruction of Galatians 5 and 6, and what we lose because of it. I’ll give a couple illustrations, and you can test this idea further on your own.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
Given our interpretative leanings, we are likely to take from this verse the idea that if we pursue pious, prayerful behavior and thinking, we will not be overcome by lust and other vices. But is Christian morality Paul’s chief concern here? I don’t think so: his driving passion is to protect already-believers from the unnecessary, destructive, and merely-human teaching that salvation was contingent on Jewish law-keeping. “Walking by the Spirit” is, very simply, all about continuing on as you have started, secure in the knowledge that salvation doesn’t need the extra boost of circumcision or keeping kosher.
But what about the list of vices associated with flesh, and the virtues said to be the “fruit of the Spirit” at the end of chapter 5?
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, etc. . . . But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. . . .
Again, we are inclined to limit Paul’s discussion to questions of morality, seeing in these lists a cesspool of vices to avoid and a wellspring of virtues to cultivate. Certainly human morality is in view here, but the original context remains important. What would lead a person down the path to the cesspool of vices? Why, accepting the false gospel and giving in to those who would add Jewish law-keeping to a Christian’s “To Do” list!* On the other hand, what path leads to the wellspring of virtues? Why, the one they are already on, salvation by grace through faith!
Finally, consider this principle from chapter 6:
For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
It seems a fairly intuitive equation—if I pursue the ungodly passions of my sinful nature, my moral character will degenerate; but if I remain prayerfully guided by the Spirit, I will get to heaven. Actually, considered closely, the theo-logical conclusion of our intuitive interpretation should give us pause—since when is our eternal life contingent on our behavior?
It’s appropriate to have second thoughts about this familiar understanding of Paul’s principle, because a different interpretation is in fact more fitting. Remember that “corruption” is not necessarily moral degeneracy; in fact, in the Bible it most often refers to the physical degeneration of the body after death. Now the contrast works smoothly: the way of the flesh, here the way of Jewish law-keeping and circumcision, is NOT the way of the gospel, and so it ends in death. But the way of the Spirit—the way these Galatians first knew Christ, which everybody could plainly see in the signs and wonders that accompanied their conversion—is the one and only way to eternal life.
So Paul is still talking about circumcision versus plain-vanilla faith, even when we think we hear him talking only about moral choices. Even these practical parts of Galatians are anchored in a historical context that is alien to us. What can we hope to take away from these words, if we must shed our familiar assumptions about moral instruction and “Spirit v. flesh” in these passages?
Why not take away the message that simple, uncomplicated belief in Jesus leads to eternal life? Be affirmed in your faith, and become familiar with the character traits that will mark you as one of Abraham’s offspring, part of God’s Church. There’s plenty of good to strive for in Paul’s depiction of life along this path of the Spirit. Just don’t get confused, overinterpreting his warnings about “the flesh” as a decontextualized call to struggle against our sinful nature. As necessary as that struggle is in the believing life, it’s not a priority for Paul in Galatians.
*Probably around 48AD.
*Note, by the way, the shocking association of Jewish law-keeping with vice! Paul intends to shake them up by way of this stunning incongruity, as he did when he connected Torah-keeping Jews with the decidedly un-Jewish figure of Hagar in his earlier allegory.
All Bible quotations are taken from the ESV, though sometimes I have paraphrased things.
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