In the Galatians 3:23—4:7 reading assigned for last week, Paul is telling a coming of age story of identity (blended with a story of adult adoption, see last week’s blog for more). The key moment in the cultural story Paul seems to be drawing on is the donning of the toga virilis (Robe of Manhood, signifying full adult participation in society), sometimes also called the toga libera (Robe of Freedom). In Galatians 5, Paul explores the ramifications of the wearing the new Robe of Freedom in Christ.
Paul sees two potential concerns for the person who has newly attained freedom. The first is somewhat ludicrous in the story the way Paul is telling it (which is exactly why his argument is effective): after gaining the status of full citizen and donning the Robe of Freedom, no one would ever go back and put themselves under the authority of a tutor or chaperone or household manager! To make yourself the slave of a slave again, once you have been set free, is true bondage, and would be unthinkable!
So Paul says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1, ESV). Once you have put on the Robe of Freedom that is Christ, you don’t go back to the tutor and chaperone that is the Law (3:24-27). In this way, Paul makes observing circumcision seem not only wrong, but foolish. This part of Paul’s development (vv2-12) is skipped over in our reading for today, so we will skip it, too. (However, if the main struggle for your hearers right now is a religiosity bound up in rules and regulations, feel free to preach this part of Galatians 5 this week!)
A second and very real concern in Paul’s day is similar to the concern of every parent whose “adult” children have just gone off to college: at 17 or 18, new found freedom and independence could go terribly wrong. The almost mythic sins of college frat parties in our culture mirror the years after “taking the robe” in Paul’s day. (Something germane to “toga parties” perhaps...?) At any rate, the real danger of falling back into slavery to the Law is matched by the real danger of using your new found freedom to bring to completion the works of the flesh.
The question is, how are you going to live out your life as someone who has taken up the Robe of Freedom? Paul sees two choices: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only [choice 1] do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but [choice 2] through love serve one another.” (Gal 5:13, ESV).
(I’m sure you have a pretty clear idea about Neoplatonism and the dangers of equating Paul’s terms “flesh” and “spirit” in these verses to our fundamentally evil body and our basically good soul, so I’ll leave it to you to avoid giving the impression of Gnostic Dualism to your hearers. If you have no idea what I am talking about, it’s worth looking into before preaching these verses.)
The real danger of falling back into slavery to the Law is matched by the real danger of using your new found freedom to bring to completion the works of the flesh.
In 5:19-23, Paul is going to give us two lists of the kinds of activity that typify two very different ways of life, both of which are “free” from slavery to the Law. Here, Paul’s emphasis is not on single acts in time, but on the in trajectory of a life typified by these kinds of ongoing action. You can see this emphasis in the Paul’s repeated use of the 1st Principle Part (present tense) in this section: actively, regularly, habitually serve one another (v13) rather than regularly, constantly, habitually biting and devouring one another (v15). Continually, constantly, in an ongoing manner, walk by the Spirit (v16), be led by the Spirit (v18), and live by the Spirit (v25).
This pattern of present tense verbs (accompanied by the subjunctive in a few key clauses) is broken in v24: “Those [people] of [belonging to or being characterized by] Christ Jesus crucified (aorist) the flesh.” In the way Paul is telling the story in Galatians 3-5, this makes perfect sense. The believer experiences a defining moment or point in time when the sinful flesh, that wants to exploit our new freedom, is put to death. The result is an ongoing, habitual, regular walking in lock step with the Spirit (5:25).
It almost sounds too Lutheran to say that this point in time, which results in a new habitual way of living, is your baptism—but that theology was Paul’s before it was Luther’s. The crucifying of the flesh point in time in 5:24 connects back to the moment of donning the Robe of Freedom in 3:27, a rite of passage or coming of age that has been guiding Paul’s whole argument: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (NIV) or “put on Christ” (ESV).
That image of taking on a full role in the family makes sense of Paul’s statement in 5:21, that the people who are regularly, habitually, constantly marked by a pattern of behavior which belongs to the old, sinful nature are not living out their identity as full heirs, and appropriately, will end up not receiving the inheritance. You can use your freedom to walk away from the family; so watch out!
Paul is talking about a way of life, a trajectory, the end goal as well as the means to that end. The focus in this passage is not on a single act, however good or sinful. Rather, Paul is focused on something bigger that plays out over time.
In 5:14 Paul talks about fulfilling, bringing to completion, filling up the Law through love. Similarly, in 5:16 the regular, ongoing walking around in the Spirit is all about a way of life, not just a single step; and this way of life leads to not bringing to completion the desire of the sinful flesh.
Here’s where I wish our most regular translations would have chosen a different way of expressing Paul’s idea: “to gratify the desires of the flesh” sounds like giving in and doing something sinful for pleasure. And, while I suppose that’s not a mistranslation, the word Paul uses here is teléō, bring to a completed state, fulfill, cause something to reach its end goal, finish (you know, like the “It is finished!” from the cross—same verb).
Paul isn’t talking about a punctiliar gratification of a sinful desire; Paul has the telos, end point of a process, the ultimate finishing and fulfillment of sinful desire in mind. The “works (erga) of the flesh” (v19) are not simple, one time actions, but an ongoing process that is leading toward a fulfillment. Compare this to Paul in Philippians 1:6—“God, who began a good work (ergon) in you will bring it to completion (epi- teléō) until the Day of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” This “good work” is an ongoing action with an end goal. The “works of the flesh” in Gal 5:19 can also be seen as ongoing action with an end goal in mind.
Paul isn’t talking about a punctiliar gratification of a sinful desire; Paul has the telos, end point of a process, the ultimate finishing and fulfillment of sinful desire in mind.
In the same way, Paul’s list of “fruit” is not focused primarily on discrete end products, but on an ongoing process. In English, we can distinguish carrying a fruit until it’s ripe from producing a ripe fruit: of course, they are intimately related, but the first focuses on a process over time. The second emphasizes the end product. We use “bear fruit” to mean either: my tree can bear apples all summer long, but it can also bear apples in the fall when I pick the ripe fruit.
The Greek New Testament can talk about bearing fruit in two ways, as well. When the focus is on the end product, the verb (when there is a verb) tends toward poiéō (to make or do, see Matt 3:10, for example). When the emphasis is on the ongoing process of bearing fruit, however, the verb is phérō, to carry. That’s the word for “bearing (or carrying) fruit” in Jesus’ vine and branches extended analogy in John 15.
In Galatians 5:22, Paul doesn’t use a verb with the noun “fruit,” but I think the context probably demands the sense of carrying fruit over time until it is ripe at the harvest. This trajectory of our lives of faith is different from a single good (or bad) act in a simple moment: we are in the process of carrying the fruit of the Spirit and, while that certainly gets lived out in single acts at points in time, it’s all of those actions taken together that exemplify a life being led in an ongoing way by the Spirit, as opposed to a life being lived in an ongoing way by the fallen, sinful flesh.
Our freedom is lived out not under the burden of the Law. Our freedom is also not lived out in regular, habitual sinful living that brings to completion the desires of our sinful selves. Rather, we live out the freedom of those who have crucified the desires of the sinful flesh in baptism and now regularly, habitually, continually walk around in the Robe of Freedom who is Christ.
The emphasis is on the ongoing process of carrying fruit, not just on the singular fruit produced at a moment in time. That long-term view of fruit-bearing allows you to preach this text as an ongoing way of life rather than a laundry list of do’s and don’ts.
Of course, your people struggle with individual sins at specific points in time. Of course, Jesus died and rose so that all individual sins at specific points in time can be forgiven. And this week, the focus is on what you do with your freedom in Christ. A faithful response is characterized by an ongoing way of life lived on a trajectory that is brought to its natural goal and conclusion in love and service for neighbor, and ultimately leads to inheriting the full benefit of belonging to God’s eternal family in the Day of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Galatians 5:1, 13-25.