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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Beet's Commentary on Selected Books of the New Testament

Galatians 5



Other Authors
Verses 2-13


CH. 5:2-13A.

Behold I Paul say to you that if ye receive circumcision Christ will profit you nothing. And I protest again to every man receiving circumcision that he is a debtor to do the whole Law. Ye have been severed from Christ, whoever of you are being justified in law: from His grace ye have fallen away. For we, by the Spirit, through faith are eagerly waiting for a hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything nor uncircumcision but faith working through love.

Ye were running nobly. Who hindered you that ye should not obey the truth? The persuasion is not from Him that calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I am confident about you in the Lord that ye will be no otherwise minded. And he that disturbs you will bear the judgment, whoever he be. But I brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then, of no effect has the snare of the cross become. Would that they who unsettle you would even mutilate themselves. For ye were called for freedom, Brethren.

Galatians 5:2-6 bring the argument of DIV. II., which has been in part summed up in the allegory of § 18, to bear on the matter of circumcision. This practical application betrays a chief point in the teaching Paul combats in this Epistle, viz. that all Christians ought to be circumcised. So Galatians 6:12 : cp. Acts 15:1; Acts 15:5. Then follow in Galatians 5:7-12 sundry appeals.

I Paul: the personal influence of the Apostle brought to bear on the matter in hand. So 2 Corinthians 10:1.

CIRCUMCISION: now first mentioned. But its casual appearance here without explanation, and again in Galatians 6:12, suggests that it has been in view throughout the Epistle. It was the outward and visible gate into the bondage of the Jewish Law. Circumcision was prescribed by God to Abraham (Genesis 17:10) some fourteen or more years after by faith he obtained (Genesis 15:18) the Covenant, as a token (Genesis 17:11; Romans 4:11) and condition of it. As a rite, it was in some sense a forerunner of the Mosaic ritual: but, as a simple command easily and fully obeyed, it differed altogether from the many-sided Law, to which none could render due obedience. The rite seems (so Joshua 5:5) to have been carefully observed by Israel in Egypt: for we have no hint of a great circumcising at the Exodus. Cp. Exodus 4:25. Once (Exodus 12:48) it is assumed, and once (Leviticus 12:3) expressly though casually enjoined in the Law. Yet, strangely, it was not performed in the wilderness; but was restored (Joshua 5:3; Joshua 5:8) at the entrance into Canaan. In the O.T. the word circumcise is found again only in Jeremiah 4:4; Jeremiah 9:25, in a spiritual significance. But the common use

(Judges 14:3; Judges 15:18; 1 Samuel 14:6; 1 Samuel 17:26; 1 Samuel 17:36; 1 Samuel 18:25; 1 Samuel 18:27; 1 Samuel 31:4, 2 Samuel 1:20; 2 Samuel 3:14) of the word uncircumcised to distinguish the Philistines from Israel proves that in Israel the practice was universal. Practically, circumcision was a part of the Law of Moses, and was the initial rite of the Old Covenant.

If ye-receive-circumcision: not, if ye have already been circumcised, as though past circumcision were a final bar to future salvation; but, if ye are now undergoing circumcision, ye thereby deliberately reject the blessings brought by Christ. [The present subjunctive limits the assertion to the time during which the process of circumcision is going on; this being extended by implication so long as the persons concerned continue in the same mind. Subsequent repentance would remove them from under this tremendous condemnation. But this, Paul leaves now out of sight.] This word implies (so Galatians 6:12) that the Galatian Christians, though already observing sacred days, were as yet only contemplating circumcision. Hence the earnestness of Paul’s appeal.

Profit you nothing: cp. Romans 2:25; Romans 3:1; 1 Corinthians 13:3; 1 Corinthians 14:6; 1 Corinthians 15:32; Hebrews 4:2; Hebrews 13:9; James 2:14; James 2:16. They will have no part in the infinite gain bought for men by the precious blood of Christ. This statement will be proved in Galatians 5:3-4. And if we receive no gain from Christ, through whom are all things, ( 1 Corinthians 8:6,) we are poor indeed.

Galatians 5:3. Protest: literally call upon some one, especially God, as witness in our favour. It introduces a solemn assertion, as if made in the presence of God. Same word in N.T. only in Ephesians 4:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Acts 20:26; Acts 26:22. That all these are from the pen or lips of Paul, is a remarkable coincidence. If on his second visit to Galatia he had made a similar protest, to this the word again would naturally refer. But this supposition is by no means necessary. For Galatians 5:3 is a repetition in stronger language of Galatians 5:2.

Debtor to do the whole Law, implies, as Galatians 5:4 will show, that Christ will profit you nothing: and every one receiving circumcision includes if ye receive circumcision. This solemn repetition reveals how terrible is the consequence here deprecated. And we can understand it. For, the only reason for circumcision was its prescription in the Law: cp. John 7:23. Therefore, to undergo it, was to admit that the Law was still binding; and, if so, it was binding as a condition of the favour of God. Hence to undergo circumcision was (Galatians 5:4) to seek to be justified in law. But, His favour, none can obtain by law. For none can render to the Law the obedience it requires. Consequently, the continued validity of the Law involves a universal curse Now, from this curse Christ died to save us. Therefore, to maintain, by undergoing circumcision, a Christian’s obligation to keep the whole Law, is to reject the benefits of the death of Christ.

Galatians 5:4. Severed: so removed from Christ that in them He will produce no results. Same phrase in same sense in Romans 7:2; Romans 7:6 : same word in Romans 3:3; Romans 3:31; Galatians 3:17; Galatians 5:11. It states a fact which justifies the assertion Christ will profit you nothing, in a form suggesting that the cause is in themselves and not in Christ.

Justified in law: the Mosaic Law, but looked at in the abstract as a rule of conduct, and as a surrounding element in which they receive justification. See under Galatians 3:11.

Are-being-justified: the process now, from their point of view, actually going on. But it can never be completed: Galatians 3:11; Romans 3:20. See note under Romans 2:4. It is practically the same as seeking justification in law; but is more forcefully represented. Although actual justification in law is impossible, the mere beginning of the fruitless process, as Paul’s readers by their observance (Galatians 4:10) of days and seasons had already begun it, had actually separated them from the influences proceeding from the cross of Christ.

From His grace: literally, from the grace; of God (Galatians 2:21) and (Galatians 1:6) of Christ. This undeserved favour is the source of all spiritual good, and especially of the profit which comes through Christ. Justification in law is (Romans 4:4) essentially by merit; and thus excludes the free undeserved favour which comes through Christ.

Fallen-away, or fallen-out, from: James 1:11, 2 Peter 3:17. It is the exact opposite of stand in this grace, Romans 5:1; and suggests complete removal and lower position. [The Revisers’ rendering, are severed, are fallen, confuses needlessly the Greek perfect and aorist. The aorist merely records a past event, without thought of its results, and may be accurately rendered have been separated, have fallen.]

By preparing to be circumcised, the Galatian Christians were entering a process of justification in law, i.e. of justification by obeying the prescriptions of the Law of Moses. They thus acknowledged that in order to enjoy the favour of God they were bound to keep the whole Law: for the whole was given by the same authority. But Christ died in order that upon men who have broken the Law may come the undeserved favour of God. Consequently, to receive circumcision was to place oneself beyond the benefits which proceed from Christ, to abandon the lofty position in the favour of God enjoyed by those who believe the Gospel.

Galatians 5:5. We: very emphatic, contrasting the spiritual position of Paul and those like him with that of his readers. This contrast proves how far they have fallen.

The Spirit: of God: for this can be no other than the Spirit received through faith in Galatians 3:2; Galatians 3:14; cp. Galatians 4:6. He is looked at here not as a definite person but in the abstract as an animating principle. By Him was prompted this eager-waiting: same word in Romans 8:19; Romans 8:23; Romans 8:25; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20; Hebrews 9:28.

Through faith: subjective source of the eager waiting, and (Galatians 3:2; Galatians 3:14) of the Holy Spirit who prompts it. For (Romans 5:1 f) by faith… we rejoice in hope. Since hope is a stretching forward to good things to come, it is here used objectively as itself to come. So Titus 2:13, looking for the blessed hope and the appearance, etc.; Acts 24:15; Colossians 1:5, the hope laid up for us in heaven.

Hope of righteousness: a hope which belongs to, and goes along with, righteousness; cp. Ephesians 4:4; Colossians 1:23. Grammatically, righteousness might be the object hoped for. But this is unlikely. For, with Paul, the righteousness of faith is always (cp. Romans 9:30; 1 Corinthians 1:30) a present blessing; even though righteousness, in another sense, viz. the eternal principle of right doing, be still (1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22) a matter of pursuit. And, if righteousness were the object hoped for, it would be clumsy to represent this hope as itself eagerly waited for.

No: Paul waits ( 2 Timothy 4:8) for the crown of righteousness, the eternal reward which belongs to the righteous: and for the realisation of this hope he eagerly longs.

Righteousness: as in Romans 4:11; Romans 4:13; Romans 9:30; Romans 10:4 : the position or condition of one whom the judge approves. Of God’s approval, obtained by faith, right doing is a result. This close connection causes occasional ambiguity in the use of the word. Righteousness is the link between our faith and the Spirit who prompts our Hope. By faith we obtain the approbation of the Judge: and in token thereof God gives us the Holy Spirit, who moves us to wait eagerly for the fulfilment of the visions of future blessing opened to our view by His approbation.

Galatians 5:6. A general and contrasted statement, supporting the word faith in Galatians 5:5, and concluding the application to circumcision in Galatians 5:2-4 of the argument of DIV. II.

In Christ: the all surrounding, and yet personal, element of the new life: as in Galatians 2:4; Galatians 3:14; Galatians 3:26; Galatians 3:28; 2 Corinthians 5:17.

Avails anything: literally has any strength, i.e. is able to produce results.

Neither circumcision… nor uncircumcision: cp. Galatians 6:15; 1 Corinthians 7:19. Therefore, circumcision neither helps nor hinders life in Christ. This is an express abrogation of the covenant with Abraham, of which (cp. Genesis 17:10-14) circumcision was an absolute condition. Similarly, Christ abrogated the Mosaic Law: Mark 7:15-19; cp. Leviticus 11:42-45.

But faith: avails everything, as proved in the argument of Galatians 3:1-14, and implied in Galatians 5:5.

Working: producing results, an illustration and proof of the validity of faith.

Love; to our fellows, as in Galatians 5:13; its usual sense when not further qualified. So 1 Corinthians 8:1; 1 Corinthians 13:1 ff. It is a principle prompting us to draw others to ourselves, that their interests may become ours. This is the direction of the working of faith; which produces love and through love other results. For saving faith is an active principle moulding conduct and character. Cp. 1 Thessalonians 1:3. It does this (Galatians 5:22) through the Holy Spirit given (Galatians 3:2; Galatians 3:14) to those who believe. That faith produces results which all must approve, reveals its superiority to circumcision; and thus strengthens the contrast here asserted. This reference to love as an effect of faith prepares the way to Galatians 5:13-15; as does the word Spirit in Galatians 5:5 to Galatians 5:16-26. Paul thus approaches the moral teaching of DIV. III.

Notice in Galatians 5:5-6 faith, hope, and love; and in the same order as 1 Corinthians 13:13.

This description of spiritual life proves how great is the profit through Christ lost by those who undergo circumcision in order to obtain justification in the Mosaic Law.

Galatians 5:7-13 a. Sundry direct appeals against the teaching of the disturbers, concluding DIV. II.

Ye-were-running: in the Christian racecourse, recalling the metaphor of 1 Corinthians 9:24 : cp. Galatians 2:2. Nobly: same word in Galatians 4:17. Hindered: as if by breaking up the path.

You: emphatic. So good was their beginning that Paul asks who (cp. Galatians 3:1) has stopped them by breaking up the path along which they were running so well.

Obey: literally be-persuaded-by; the obedience of persuasion. Same word in Romans 2:8; Hebrews 13:17; James 3:3; Acts 5:36 f, Acts 5:40; Acts 21:14; Acts 23:21; Acts 28:24.

Obey truth: yield to the persuasive influence of the Gospel, this looked upon in its general character as corresponding with eternal reality. The article before truth is omitted in Vat., Sinai, Alex. MSS.; and by all editors later than Lachmann: but is found in almost all other MSS. Its insertion is so easy, its omission so difficult, to explain, that we may accept with some confidence the testimony of the oldest copies.

That ye should not obey truth: actual result, and therefore represented as the purpose, of the hindrance.

Persuasion: a word similar in form to that rendered obey; and suggested by it. Grammatically, it might denote either a persuasive influence, or surrender to such. Probably, the former here. For this is an answer to the question in Galatians 5:7 about the source of the disobedience. They refused to be persuaded by Truth because they had yielded to another persuasion. Close parallel in Romans 2:8. But the difference is very slight. For, passive surrender implies active persuasion. The influence to which they yielded is not from Him that calls you: i.e. God, as in Galatians 1:6. The present tense implies that the Gospel voice is still sounding. Galatians 1:6 refers to a voice heard in days gone by.

Galatians 5:9. Word for word as in 1 Corinthians 5:6 : see note. This suggests that it was a common proverb. Its application was so evident that Paul did not expound it. This proverb is in some sense a positive answer to Galatians 5:7. For it suggests that the source of the persuasion was small either in the number of the false teachers or in the apparent unimportance of their error. The latter is perhaps the more likely reference: for the importance of doctrine is more often overlooked than that of a few false teachers. In all ages, differences of doctrine have been held to be unimportant: whereas the influence of even one man has been felt to be great. The proverb also suggests that the result would be, as of many little things, silent, unobserved, yet pervasive and great. For the unseen leaven changes completely the nature of the whole lump. Paul thus calls attention, as does his protest in Galatians 5:3, to the importance of what seemed to the Galatians a small matter.

Galatians 5:10. I: emphatic contrast. After speaking of the obedient persuasion his readers refuse to the Truth and of the persuasion which does not come from Him that calls them, Paul gives his own persuasion about the Galatian Christians.

In the Lord: Romans 14:14; Philippians 1:14; Philippians 2:24; 2 Thessalonians 3:4. His confidence comes from union with the Master, and has Him for its surrounding element.

Minded: same word in Romans 8:5, (see note,) and Philippians 1:7; Philippians 2:2; Philippians 2:5; Philippians 3:15.

No otherwise minded: than Paul has just stated. He has a confidence about them which he feels to be an outflow of Christian life that, when they receive this letter, they will share his alarm about the influence of a little leaven and will recognise in the teaching of the disturbers an influence to be feared. This reveals Paul’s confidence that this letter will have its designed salutary effect. It is almost the only gleam of light in the Epistle.

He that disturbs you: hardly sufficient (in the absence of any other indication: contrast Galatians 5:12; Galatians 1:7; Galatians 6:12) to suggest one specially prominent man. Rather, Paul singles out any individual disturber who comes across his path and speaks of him personally.

Bear the judgment: the sentence which will be pronounced upon disturbers, this looked upon as a heavy burden, Notice that, as in 2 Corinthians 10:2; 2 Corinthians 10:6, etc., Paul distinguishes his readers, to whom he speaks and for whom he has hopes, from the disturbers, about whom he writes but to whom he says nothing, thus indicating that for them he has no hope.

Galatians 5:11. An abrupt question, which can be explained only as being a reply to a charge or insinuation, against Paul, of inconsistency. It is to us obscure because we do not know the charge which provoked it.

But I: emphatic, in contrast to he that disturbs.

Still preach: as before his conversion. For circumcision was an essential element of that Judaism which Paul then so eagerly advocated.

Why still? logical consequence; why do they go on persecuting me? This question implies that the chief ground of the hostility of Paul’s enemies was his denial that circumcision was binding on Gentiles. And naturally so. For they saw that this denial broke down the spiritual prerogative and monopoly which the Old Covenant gave to the Jewish nation.

Made-of-no-effect: shorn of results, as in Galatians 3:17.

Then (or if so) is made, etc.: correct inference from a false premiss, if I still preach circumcision; revealing its falsity: cp. 1 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Corinthians 7:14; 1 Corinthians 15:14; 1 Corinthians 15:18.

The snare of the cross: close coincidence with 1 Corinthians 1:23. The crucifixion of Christ led many to reject Him. It was therefore a trap in which they were caught. But Paul declares that if, while preaching the word of the cross, he still preaches the necessity of circumcision, then has the cross lost its power to hinder the faith of the Jews; in other words, that, if the shameful death of Christ is not inconsistent with the continued obligation of circumcision, i.e. with the continued prerogatives of Israel, it is no longer a difficulty to them. This implies that fear of the loss of spiritual pre-eminence lay at the root of that Jewish hatred to Jesus which took the form of bitter ridicule cast upon the mode of His death, a ridicule still recorded abundantly on the pages of ancient Jewish writers. Paul thus silently uncovers the wounded national pride which hid itself under the veil of refusal to believe in a crucified Messiah. His readers would understand the reference. See further under Galatians 6:12.

Galatians 5:12. A mere passing wish. The almost unknown Greek construction rather suggests that the wish will not be gratified.

Even; introduces a very extreme wish.

Mutilate themselves, or cut themselves off: used in the former sense, without any further explanation, in Deuteronomy 23:1 and Strabo, bk. xiii. p. 630, and Justin, 1st Apology ch. 27, “Some men mutilate themselves; and ascribe the mysteries to the mother of the gods,” i.e. to the goddess Cybele. This meaning is adopted here without question by Chrysostom and most Fathers. And it alone suits the extreme and unpractical form of this wish. Merely to desire the disturbers to leave the Church, would be an ordinary and moderate wish; and could not have been expressed in so remarkable a form. Of course, separation from the Church is included in Paul’s desire. But this would follow at once from heathen mutilation. Self-mutilation in honour of Cybele was practised at Pessinus in Galatia, which was indeed a chief seat of her worship. Paul wishes for a moment that the disturbers would go so far as to join the ranks of the heathen devotees around them. He thus compares circumcision with idolatrous mutilation. And rightly. For, although once commanded by God as a sign of His Covenant, yet to do it when no longer required, was but to imitate the needless self-inflictions of heathenism.

Unsettle: same word in Acts 17:6; Acts 21:38.

Galatians 5:13 a. A link binding § 19 to § 18, bringing Paul’s teaching about freedom to bear on the matter of circumcision; and a stepping stone to the moral teaching of § 20.

For ye: in marked contrast to they that unsettle you. The purpose of the Gospel summons is that we may become and continue free. But the Law brings bondage to all who trust in it. From this bondage Christ died to save us. Therefore Paul is prompted to wish for a moment that they who are causing confusion by endeavouring to lead his readers back into bondage would push their own conduct to its logical result and adopt the hideous mutilations common around them. For, thus, Christians would be saved from their subtle and evil influence.

DIVISION II. is, as we learn from its contents, a disproof of the teaching of some Jewish Christians in Galatia, as at Antioch (Acts 15:1) similar men taught, that Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved.

Against this teaching Paul appeals to his readers’ early Christian life, which was derived from faith and not from obedience to law; and to the similar case of Abraham, who obtained by faith his Covenant with God. The promise that in Abraham should all nations be blessed was a foresight of the Gospel: for only through Christ who bore for us the curse of the Law can it be fulfilled. To make its fulfilment contingent on obedience to the Law afterwards given, would destroy the real worth of the promise: which even human morality forbids. The purpose of the Law was to render salvation impossible except through faith, and thus to force us to Christ. But now this purpose has been accomplished: and by faith we are sons of God. We are, therefore, no longer under the Law. For it belongs to our spiritual childhood: and, now that the set time has come, we are free. The Galatian Christians, however, by their observance of sacred seasons show that they are turning back again to the rudiments of childhood. Paul fears lest his toil for them be in vain. And his fear prompts an earnest appeal. He remembers the warmth of his first reception in Galatia, and asks the reason of the change. He points silently to its authors; and exposes their secret and selfish motives.

The prominence given to the Mosaic Law by the disturbers suggests an appeal to its pages. In the family of Abraham were two sons: but only one was heir of the promise. So are there two Covenants of God with man. And the foregoing argument has shown that the children of the Old Covenant are, like those of Hagar, in bondage. But, in fulfilment of a joyous prophecy of Isaiah, there are now others, an unexpected offspring, who look up to Jerusalem as their Mother, to the free city above. Between the children of the Old and of the New Covenant there is conflict. But, as of yore, the bondmen have no inheritance with the free born. And, because his readers are children of freedom, Paul warns them not to submit to a yoke of bondage.

In plain language Paul states the real significance and consequence of circumcision. To undergo it, is to accept the Law as a condition of God’s favour: and, to do this, is to reject the work of Christ and the undeserved favour of God. In complete contrast to all trust in law, Paul cherishes a hope received by faith and from the Holy Spirit, which works in him love and its various manifestations. He warns his readers that an influence not from God is among them, and that a small beginning may be followed by wide-spread results. Yet he has confidence in them. The punishment will fall on the guilty person. Some men charge the Apostle with inconsistency in this matter of circumcision. But the hostility of the Jews disproves the charge. Indeed, their rejection of Christ crucified has its real ground in the overthrow of Jewish prerogatives involved in his death. So damaging is the influence of the disturbers that for the moment Paul almost wishes that they would relieve the Church of it by joining the ranks of the mutilated devotees of Cybele.

Verses 12-15


CHAPTERS 5:13-6:18


CH. 5:13-15.

Ye were called for freedom, Brethren. Only use not your freedom. for an occasion for the flesh: but through love be servants one to another. For the whole Law has been fulfilled in one word, in this, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18.) But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed lest one by another ye be consumed.

After doctrinal exposition follows, as its needful complement, moral teaching. Cp. Romans 12:1 ff. Indeed, Paul’s exposition of the Law would be perilously incomplete if he did not show that it produces the highest morality. Oversight of this has again and again led, on the one hand to immorality, and on the other to rejection or mutilation of the teaching of Paul by those whose moral instinct assures them that morality is imperative. Hence Paul is compelled to add to the doctrinal teaching of DIV. II. the moral development of it in §§ 20, 21. To this he adds in § 22 sundry applications of the same. In § 23 he closes the Epistle by a few words from his own hand about its chief matter.

Galatians 5:13 b. Paul’s passing wish in Galatians 5:12 that the disturbers would join the ranks of heathenism, he justified in Galatians 5:13 a by recalling his teaching in § 18 that God designs His servants to be free. He did this that in § 20 he may defend Christian freedom from its most serious abuse. The word freedom thus becomes a stepping stone to his exposition of Christian morality.

Only; as in Galatians 1:23; Galatians 3:2; Galatians 6:12, gives special prominence to one thing. Cp. Philippians 1:27.

The freedom: this definite liberty, to which God has called you.

An occasion: as in Romans 7:8; Romans 7:11; 2 Corinthians 5:12; 2 Corinthians 11:12; a point of departure for a course of activity.

The flesh: the material constitution of our bodies, which determines in great measure our present bodily life, and seeks to rule us entirely; this looked upon collectively and in the abstract as one definite and active power. See note under Romans 8:11. The flesh ever seeks to gratify its own desires and to avoid what it dislikes. Paul warns us not, on the ground that obedience to law is no longer to us a means of obtaining God’s favour, to surrender ourselves to the guidance of the flesh, as we shall do if we follow our own inclinations. He thus exposes a subtle foe ever present with us, and a very frequent and terrible abuse of justification by faith. This reference to the flesh prepares a way, as Paul’s wont is, to the teaching of § 21. Moreover, gratification of bodily desires is essentially and utterly opposed to love, and indeed lies at the root of all selfishness. Therefore, before introducing the Law of Love, Paul warns against the greatest obstacle to it.

By love be-servants: exact opposite of an occasion for the flesh.

Love: as in Galatians 5:6, where it is an outflow of faith.

Be servants: same word in Galatians 4:25; Romans 6:6; Romans 7:6; Romans 7:25; Romans 14:18; Romans 16:18. It denotes both the position, and the action, of a servant or slave. See under Romans 1:1. As ordinarily used, the word combines the ideas of bondage and of work done for another, both ideas being exemplified in the numerous slaves of Paul’s day. Of these two ideas one or other frequently absorbs sole attention, leaving the other almost or quite out of sight. Hence the apparent variety in the use of the word and the apparent contradiction here. God has called us to Himself that we may be absolutely free, i.e. not hemmed in by outward restraint. Yet we love our brethren: and, prompted by this, we cannot but use all our powers for their good, as much as if we were their slaves. Such bondage is perfect freedom: for it is an unrestrained outflow of our own inmost and highest will. The apparent contradiction results from the poverty of human language. Only by using contradictory terms can we mark out the limits of our thoughts, and thus guard them from overstatement. Compare carefully similar language, evidently familiar to Paul, in Romans 6:18; Romans 6:22; 1 Corinthians 9:19; 1 Peter 2:16.

Galatians 5:14. The whole Law: of Moses, which contains Leviticus 19:18.

Has been fulfilled: or made-full: same word in Romans 13:8; Romans 8:4; Matthew 1:22, etc. Obedience to the whole Law has been embodied in one word, so that he who has obeyed this one precept has rendered all the obedience the Law requires. For all the commands of the Law are prohibitions of something contrary to love. (Cp. 1 Timothy 1:5.) This implies that even the ritual of the Mosaic Law is subordinate to this great command. And, to work in us love, which is the essence of God and involves all blessedness, is the ultimate aim (cp. Romans 8:4) of both the Law and the Gospel.

Galatians 5:14 is a summary of Romans 13:8-10 : see my note. That Paul twice quotes Leviticus 19:18, reveals its importance to him. It is the complement of the twice quoted words in Habakkuk 2:4, The righteous man will live by faith. This precept is also quoted in James 2:8, thus forming a link between James and Paul; and in Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27, thus connecting the teaching of Paul and James with the recorded words of Jesus.

That the fulfilment of THE LAW is here given as a motive for conduct, proves that in some real sense the Law has abiding validity. This agrees with Romans 8:4, which says that fulfilment of the Law was a purpose of the mission of the Son of God. For, if so, the Law is an embodiment of God’s will about us; and therefore a rule of life to His servants. This is true specially of the deep underlying principles of the Law of Moses, such as that now before us. The mass of moral precepts belongs rather to the alphabet of morality. The ritual has abiding value as an expression of Gospel truth. Therefore, as in this verse, the Law may be quoted as a motive for Christian conduct.

All this does not contradict Paul’s teaching in Romans 7:4; Romans 7:6; Romans 6:14; Galatians 3:25 that we are dead to the Law and no longer under its power. For, obedience to law is no longer to us the condition, and means of obtaining, the favour of God. Else we should never obtain it. For until God smiles upon us we cannot obey Him aright. In the midst of our sins and our moral helplessness we obtain pardon simply by belief of the good news of Him who died for sinners. Pardon is followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit to be in us the motive-power of a new life in harmony with the will of God, and therefore with the Law. Yet, as a condition of the favour of God and consequently an iron gate excluding us from it, the Law has utterly lost its power. In this sense it has completely passed away. The barrier has been broken down by Him who bore our curse and burst for Himself and us the bars of death.

On the other hand, the authority of the Law, which is strengthened immensely by the transcript of it in our hearts, prevents us from believing intelligently that God smiles upon us while we do what He forbids. Consequently, without obedience there can be no abiding faith; and therefore no abiding smile of God. But obedience is a result of His favour; and therefore cannot be a means of obtaining it. Between these views of obedience there is an infinite practical difference.

We see therefore that the Law is no longer a dread taskmaster under whose rule we tremble, but our Father’s voice guiding our steps. And every precept is a promise of some good which our Father will work in us by His Spirit. Upon the ancient writing which condemned us has fallen light from the Cross of Christ: and the brightness of that light has changed its condemnation into promises of infinite blessing. It is now a lamp to our feet and a light to our path: and its statutes are our songs in the house of our pilgrimage.

To the advocates in Galatia of the abiding validity of the Law of Moses, this verse would come with special force.

Galatians 5:15. Conduct exactly opposed to love. That the readers were in danger of it, this warning proves.

Bite: like dogs or wild beasts.

And devour, or eat-up: a further stage. Same word in 2 Corinthians 11:20; Mark 12:40; Revelation 11:5.

Consumed: ultimate destruction. Same word in Luke 9:54. [The Greek present tenses describe the process; and the aorist, the result.] This verse suggests that the Judaizers had caused (cp. Acts 15:2) bitter contention between church-members; and reveals the need of the moral teaching of Galatians 5:13-14. Paul warns his readers that, if they so far forget the Law of love as to act like wild beasts, they will thereby destroy their spiritual life and themselves.

Verses 16-26


CH. 5:16-26.

And I say, Walk by the Spirit, and the desire of the flesh ye will not fulfil. For the flesh desires against the Spirit; and the Spirit against the flesh. For these are contrary, one to the other; in order that whatever things ye may wish these ye may not do. But if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under law. And manifest are the works of the flesh, which are fornication, uncleanness, wantonness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of fury, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revelling, and the things like these: of which I forewarn you, as I forewarned, that they who practise such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self control. Against such things there is no law. And they that belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the emotions and the desires of it. If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk. Let us not become vainglorious, provoking one another, envying one another.

After pointing to Love as the disposition of heart from which flows human morality, in contrast to self-surrender to the flesh, which is ever a source of enmity, Paul now still further traces Christian morality to its divine source, viz. the Spirit of God, whom he contrasts with the flesh. For the love described in § 20 is the love of the Spirit, Romans 15:30. Already Paul has taught that God gives to His adopted sons the Spirit of the only begotten Son to evoke in them filial confidence in God. He now teaches that the same Spirit will be the guide and strength of their life, neutralising in them the influence of the flesh and producing every form of moral good. In Galatians 5:16-17, he states the contrast of flesh and Spirit; and makes it more conspicuous by turning in Galatians 5:18-22 f, Galatians 5:24-25 again and again (cp. Romans 1:24-32) from one to the other. Of this comparison the words Spirit and flesh in Galatians 5:5; Galatians 5:13 are forerunners. He then concludes § 21 with a warning similar to, but milder than, the close of § 20.

Galatians 5:16. And I say: as in Galatians 4:1 : cp. Galatians 3:17. That Paul refers to the Spirit of the Son, is made quite certain by his constant teaching that He is the animating principle of the Christian life: cp. Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:9; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 1 Corinthians 6:19. This constant usage renders the article needless: cp. Galatians 3:3; Romans 8:13. And the absence of the article directs us to the Holy Spirit in His abstract quality as an inward animating principle: so Galatians 5:5; Galatians 5:18; Galatians 5:25; and flesh and desire here.

By the Spirit: under His active influence, both guiding and strengthening; ideas involved in the word Spirit. So Galatians 5:5; Galatians 5:18; Galatians 5:25; Galatians 3:3; Romans 8:13-14; Ephesians 1:13; in all which passages the Spirit is much more than (Ellicott and Lightfoot here) “the metaphorical path, manner, or rule of action.” He is the divine Agent of all Christian action. [Cp. Romans 3:24, by His grace; 1 Corinthians 15:10; Ephesians 2:1; Ephesians 2:5.] The Spirit guides us along a path corresponding to His own nature: hence the companion phrase, according to Spirit, in Romans 8:4.

Walk: cp. 2 Corinthians 12:18; Romans 8:4. Allow the Spirit to choose your steps.

Desire is the chief feature of the flesh: Galatians 5:24; Ephesians 2:3; cp. Romans 6:12. In virtue of their common constitution, our bodies yearn for various objects needful or pleasant. See note under Romans 8:11. And these longings of the flesh do not distinguish right from wrong. Consequently, to yield to them, leads inevitably to sin. As in Galatians 5:13, the word flesh reveals the source of the contention condemned in Galatians 5:15. See notes under 1 Corinthians 3:3; Romans 8:11.

Fulfil or accomplish: same word in Romans 2:27. It denotes the attainment of a goal or aim. Cognate word in 2 Corinthians 11:15, see note; Romans 6:21 f; 1 Corinthians 10:11; 1 Timothy 1:5. If the Holy Spirit guides our steps, then will the tendencies inherent to the constitution of our bodies be prevented from working out their otherwise inevitable results. (See note under Romans 8:17.) For the Spirit of God, if we yield to His inward guidance, will by His own infinite power defend us against the power of sin which seeks (Romans 6:12) to erect and maintain its throne in our bodies. Compare carefully Romans 8:13.

Galatians 5:17. Supports Galatians 5:16 by restating, and further expounding, the above contrast.

Desires against: absolute and mutual and active opposition of the flesh and the Spirit. The word desires is in itself neither good nor bad, and may therefore be supplied here as predicate of the Holy Spirit; as in Luke 22:15 it is predicated of Christ, and in 1 Peter 1:12 of angels. Cp. 1 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 6:11. The rendering lust (A.V. and R.V.) is therefore most unsuitable: for it cannot be predicated of the Spirit, and suggests an idea, viz. sin, not involved in the word. But since desire is a chief element in the practical influence of the flesh, and since in the flesh sin dwells and reigns, we read in the New Testament much more often of bad than of good desires. This implied desire of the Spirit makes the contrast of the two tendencies the more marked.

For these are opposed, etc.; supports the foregoing, by a restatement and further exposition.

In order that… ye may not do: purpose of each of these opposing influences. If we wish to do a good thing, the desire of the flesh tends to lead us the opposite way: and conversely. This inherent tendency of the constitution of our bodies to hinder in us the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s contrary purpose, are motives for following in all things the guidance of the Spirit; and are an assurance that if we do so this evil tendency will not in us attain its goal. The essential hostility of the two principles compels us to choose sides: and there can be no doubt what our choice should be. Thus Galatians 5:17 supports Galatians 5:16.

We have here no trace of blame; and therefore no hint that these words are true only of immature Christians such as Paul’s readers undoubtedly were. And the general terms, the flesh and the Spirit, suggest a universal truth. See under Galatians 5:24. The A.V. so that ye cannot do, etc., is a serious mistranslation. For it implies that the readers were not able to do what their better judgment approved; whereas Paul speaks only of opposite tendencies, leaving open the possibility of successfully resisting them.

Galatians 5:18. Another reason for Galatians 5:16.

Led by the Spirit: Romans 8:14 : parallel and equal to walk by the Spirit, but making more prominent the intelligent activity of the Spirit.

Under law: as in Galatians 4:4-5; Galatians 4:21; Romans 6:14 f; 1 Corinthians 9:20 : no longer held in bondage and condemnation under rules of conduct which we have already broken and are still unable to obey. This statement is proved in Galatians 5:23.

Galatians 5:19-21. Catalogue of the works of the flesh, interrupting the argument of Galatians 5:18 to reveal by contrast the excellence of the fruit of the Spirit, which last proves that those led by the Spirit are not under law.

It is also a third reason for walking by the Spirit.

Manifest: conspicuous before the eyes of men: see under Romans 1:19. All can see for themselves that the following list is correct.

The works of the flesh: various fulfillments of the desire of the flesh, results of surrender to the influence of our bodily life. Cp. works of law in Galatians 2:16, cp. Romans 2:15; of the Lord, 1 Corinthians 16:10; of God, John 9:3; John 6:28 f; of faith, 2 Thessalonians 1:11.

Which are: more correctly to which class belong, implying that the following list is not complete. Similar lists in Romans 1:29; Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Ephesians 5:5; Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 1:9; Mark 7:21; Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:15; 1 Peter 4:3. We note four divisions.

(1) Sensuality, including fornication, intercourse with harlots; see under 1 Corinthians 5:1 : uncleanness; Romans 1:24; anything inconsistent with personal purity: wantonness; Romans 13:13; insolent and open disregard of all restraint. Same three words together in 2 Corinthians 12:21. The last forms a sort of climax.

(2) Idolatry: and the closely related sorcery, the practice of magical arts; same word in Revelation 21:8; Revelation 22:15; Revelation 9:21; Revelation 18:23; Exodus 7:11; Exodus 7:22.

(3) Various forms of discord. Strife, jealousies, outbursts of fury, factions: same words in same order in 2 Corinthians 12:20; see notes there and 1 Corinthians 3:3.

Parties: same word in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the Greek original of our word heresy. They who adopted error formed themselves in later ages, for the more part, into parties outside the Catholic Church.

Envy: Romans 1:29; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:3; Matthew 27:18, James 4:5 : mere vexation at others’ good; a much worse word than jealousy which (see under 1 Corinthians 12:31) has good elements.

(4) Drunkenness and revelling or riotous feasting: same words in Romans 13:13 : cp. 1 Peter 4:3. [The plurals in this passage denote various outbursts of drunkenness, etc.]

And the like: added in a consciousness that even the above long list falls short of the infinite variety of sin.

This list begins with sins immediately prompted by the constitution of our bodies; then passes on to idolatry which rules men by gratifying their bodily desires; and to the collision with others which results inevitably from the selfishness of such gratification, and against which Paul has in Galatians 5:15 just warned his readers; and concludes with another class of sins immediately prompted by the appetites of the flesh.

I forewarn, or say-beforehand: before the penalty is inflicted. Same word in 2 Corinthians 13:2.

Forewarned: on a previous visit to Galatia. Whether the second fore- contrasts Paul’s former words with his words now or, like the first fore-, with their future fulfilment, is uncertain and unimportant. The previous word forewarn suggests slightly the latter reference. Paul reminds his readers that he is only repeating what he has said before.

Such things; reminds us again (cp. and the like just above and which sort of things in Galatians 5:19) of the infinite variety of sin, reaching far beyond the long catalogue given.

Inherit the kingdom of God: become, in virtue of filial relation to God, citizens of the future and glorious realm over which, in a royalty which His children will share, God will reign for ever. Same words in 1 Corinthians 6:10; 1 Corinthians 15:50.

Galatians 5:22-23. A fourth argument for Galatians 5:16; also completing the argument of Galatians 5:18.

Fruit: visible outgrowth of the unseen and mysterious vital force of the Holy Spirit. Cp. Romans 1:13; Romans 6:21 f; Ephesians 5:9; Philippians 1:11; Philippians 1:22; James 3:18. The change from works of the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit accords with Paul’s use of the word fruit only for good results. The various virtues following form, in organic unity, each promoting the others, the one fruit of the Spirit. Similar catalogues in Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 3:10.

Love: put first as the central principle of the Christian life. It is an outflow of the Spirit received through faith: Galatians 3:14; Galatians 5:6. And it links § 21 to § 20.

Joy: triumphant overflow of Christian gladness. Cp. joy in the Holy Spirit, Romans 14:17, 1 Thessalonians 1:6.

Peace: probably, as suggested by the words following, (cp. Romans 14:17-19,) concord with others, in contrast to the discord of Galatians 5:20.

Longsuffering: Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; 2 Timothy 3:10; 2 Timothy 4:2 : a long holding back of passion; slow to anger, James 1:19. A frequent attribute of God, Romans 2:4; Romans 9:22; as is kindness, Ephesians 2:7, a gentle mode of dealing with others.

Goodness: doing good to others, by methods not necessarily gentle; Romans 15:14; Ephesians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11.

Faith: probably faithfulness, a disposition on which others can rely, as in Romans 3:3. For, in its usual meaning, viz., assurance that God will fulfil His word, faith holds a unique place as the means by which we receive the Holy Spirit and the entire fruit of the Spirit; and is therefore not likely to be classed as one among many elements of that fruit.

Meekness: absence of self-assertion; see under 1 Corinthians 4:21.

Self-control: Acts 24:25; 2 Peter 1:6; Sirach 18:29, “self-control of soul after thy desires go not, and from thy passions refrain.” A cognate verb in 1 Corinthians 7:9; 1 Corinthians 9:25.

Against such things: in contrast to (Galatians 5:21) those who practise such things, of whom the Law declares that they will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Now, since the Spirit produces as His fruit dispositions which the Law does not condemn, they who (Galatians 5:18) are led by the Spirit are not under law. The law is no longer a burden under which they groan. Just so, upright citizens think nothing of the criminal law; whereas to those who break or wish to break it, the same law is a terrible reality. Thus Paul completes the argument of Galatians 5:18 in support of Galatians 5:16. This deliverance from the Law by fulfilment of it (Galatians 5:14) was a purpose of the mission of the Son of God: Romans 8:4. The unexpected reference to the Law in Galatians 5:14; Galatians 5:18; Galatians 5:23 reveals its large place in the thought of Paul.

Galatians 5:24. Another argument in support of Galatians 5:16, viz. that to fulfil the desire of the flesh is to renounce our own acceptance of the Christian life.

Belong to Christ Jesus, or literally (R.V.) are of Christ Jesus: 1 Corinthians 3:23; 2 Corinthians 10:7; cp. 1 Corinthians 3:4. They stand in special relation to Christ as His servants, disciples, members of His body, etc.

Crucified: as in Galatians 2:20; Galatians 6:14; Romans 6:6. Notice three crucifixions in this Epistle; of Paul, of the flesh and its desires, and of the world. Each of these implies the others. In each case crucified denotes death in virtue of Christ’s death on the cross and by union with the Crucified: cp. Galatians 2:20 with Galatians 5:19; Galatians 6:14 with Colossians 2:20.

The flesh is dead, i.e. its life, or in other words its activity and power, has come to an end: see note under Romans 7:8, and compare carefully Romans 6:6 and my note. They have crucified the flesh, by their own act: for the destruction of the power of the flesh resulted from their own self-surrender and faith. See note under 2 Corinthians 7:1.

The emotions: same word in same sense in Romans 7:5 : elsewhere it denotes suffering, as in 2 Corinthians 1:5 ff. Compare our word passion, which combines both meanings. Objects around first produce in us emotions, in which the mind is chiefly passive, acted upon from without: these, taking practical and active direction towards the objects which produce them, become desires. Desires are a constant accompaniment of flesh so long as it has vitality: and emotions are the beginning of desires. Paul declares that, together with the flesh these emotions and desires have, by self-surrender to Christ and by union with His death, altogether lost their power.

The categorical statement of Galatians 5:24, like Paul’s statements about himself in Galatians 2:20; Galatians 6:14, can be no less than a description of the ideal and normal Christian life, i.e. of the life which God designs us to live and which He is ready to work in us from this moment by His own infinite power and in proportion to our faith. At first sight this statement seems inconsistent with Galatians 5:17. For if the flesh has desire and purpose, it must be alive, whereas here Paul implies that it is dead. But this inconsistency is but the poverty of human language, which often compels us to state opposite sides of the same truth in terms apparently contradictory. Each statement admits an interpretation in harmony with the other. The flesh is still alive in the sense that it exerts upon us an influence towards forbidden objects which can be effectually resisted only by the presence of the Spirit of God within us. And this is a reason for following ever the guidance of the Spirit. On the other hand, if in all things we accept His guidance, this hostile influence of the flesh will be neutralised so completely that it will no longer influence our conduct or defile our thoughts. And, in view of this complete victory which Christ has gained for us by His death, and which God is ready to work now, in all who venture to believe His promise, by joining them to the Crucified One, Paul says correctly that to those who belong to Christ the flesh and its desires have passed away, that their life has altogether ceased. By so saying he greatly helps our faith to grasp and appropriate the victory here described. The discrepancy is not greater than that between Galatians 2:20, I live in the flesh and Romans 8:9, ye are not in the flesh.

Notice that just as the flesh is the link uniting us to the material world around and the medium through which, by its susceptibility to material influences and by its desire for material objects, the world acts upon us, so it is also the link uniting the unsaved to sin and the avenue through which operate the evil influence and the domination of the material world. Christ died in order that by His death this link may be practically broken and this avenue closed, that by union with the Crucified we may be set free from this influence and bondage. Virtually, we were set free when Christ died: formally, when we joined His Church: actually, when, and so far as, we venture to believe that this inward crucifixion is already ours.

Galatians 5:25. Concluding argument in support of Galatians 5:16, which verse it recalls. It is a practical application of the foregoing doctrinal teaching.

By the Spirit: as in Galatians 5:16; under the influence of the Holy Spirit acting upon us from within as an animating principle.

If we live by the Spirit: an assumed fact: for He is in us the breath of immortal life. Therefore, Paul says, we should allow Him to direct our steps. For, in proportion as we yield to His influence, will the life He imparts be rich. Similar thought in Romans 8:2 : for the law of the Spirit is the Holy Spirit guiding our action; and since He has made us free from the law of sin and of death, He is to us the Spirit of life.

Walk: different from the word in Galatians 5:16, but found in Galatians 6:16; Romans 4:12; Philippians 3:16; Acts 21:24; all very instructive parallels. It calls attention to the path in which we walk.

Galatians 5:26. Steps in which the Spirit will never guide us, a negative specific application of the doctrinal teaching of § 21 and a transition to the positive specific application of the same in § 22. This application was prompted doubtless by the disposition in the readers which suggested the similar application (Galatians 5:15) of § 20.

Vainglorious: Philippians 2:3, cherishing empty opinions about ourselves: further expounded in Galatians 6:3. From this root spring as offshoots mutual provocation and envy. Paul warns against both root and offshoots. [The present subjunctive suggests that the vainglory was already creeping in.]

Provoking (or challenging) one another: a frequent outcome of envy, i.e. of vexation at the superiority of others.

SECTION 21 implies that the great contrast of flesh and Spirit so familiar to Paul, (cp. Romans 8:4-13,) a contrast underlying and pervading both the natural and the moral constitution of man, is also the basis of his moral probation. See notes under Romans 8:11; Romans 8:17.

The flesh is the visible side of man, animated matter. Mysteriously pervading it, preserving it from corruption and giving to it growth and well-being, is the invisible spirit. Thus in man meet and at every point interpenetrate, the seen and unseen worlds; the one destined to crumble soon into its original dust, the other created for endless life. We have thus the unseen world within us, actually present to our inmost consciousness. Now each of these elements claims to rule our entire action and to mould our inner life. And they are in absolute opposition. The flesh, acting upon us through desires aroused by material objects around, tends to beget various kinds of actions, many of them indisputably bad. Such actions will exclude us from the glory of the coming kingdom. But in absolute opposition to the flesh is the one Spirit of God, whom God has given to dwell in the hearts of His people, that thus their spirit may have (Romans 8:10) immortal life, and to be in them an all-wise guide. The Spirit is the living and divine seed from which springs a harvest of moral excellence. This excellence is all that the Law requires. Consequently, for those under His influence the Law has no terrors. And in proportion as they follow His guidance is the life which He imparts rich and strong.

The evil influences of the flesh are still a power against which the Christian must needs be ever on his guard. But his warfare is shared by the Spirit of God, against whom even the flesh is powerless. Consequently, the presence of the Spirit in our hearts has already in us put an end, as we abide in faith, to the rule of the flesh. We may therefore say that in us, through the death of Christ, the flesh itself is already dead, that our old selves and our old life have been buried in His grave. All this is abundant reason for complete self-surrender to the guidance of the Spirit. He will inspire that love which is fulfilment of the Law, and which alone will save Christian liberty from degenerating into hurtful licence.

Notice the massive simplicity and grandeur of Paul’s double foundation of Christian morality. He lays down first the one precept of love, in the very words of the ancient Law, a precept including all others. But even this, if it stood alone, would but reveal our inability to do what God requires, and thus condemn us. Paul therefore invokes the Spirit, the seed divine from which grows, by its unseen and mysterious vitality, the fruit of love and of all virtue. A specimen of the superstructure this foundation is capable of supporting, Paul will erect for us in § 22.


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Bibliography Information
Beet, Joseph. "Commentary on Galatians 5:4". Joseph Beet's Commentary. 1877-90.

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