Galatians 5 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Galatians 5
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

(1) Stand fast therefore.—The external evidence is very strong in favour of a different reading: With (or, perhaps, For) liberty did Christ make us free. Stand fast, then, and be not entangled, &c. There seems to be no sufficient reason why this should not be adopted.

In the liberty.—The best grammarians seem agreed to take this rather in the sense, for liberty; otherwise it would be tempting to explain it as an instance of the Hebraising construction which we find in John 3:29 : “Rejoice with joy” (Authorised version “rejoice greatly”). It would then mean: “with a system, or state, of freedom Christ freed us;” in other words: “placed us in a state of freedom, so that we are free.”

The yoke of bondagei.e., the Judaising restraints and restrictions.

Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
(2-6) There can be no compromise between Christianity and Judaism. If you accept the one you must give up the other. Circumcision is a pledge or engagement to live by the rule of the Law. That rule must be taken as a whole. You are committed to the practice of the whole Law, and in that way alone you must seek for justification. Our position is something quite different. We hope to be admitted into a state of righteousness through the action of the Spirit on God’s side, and through faith on our own. The Christian owes the righteousness attributed to him, not to circumcision, but to a life of which faith is the motive and love the law.

The whole tenor of the Epistle shows that the Apostle viewed the attempts of the Judaising party with indignation; and at this point his language takes a more than usually stern and imperative tone. He speaks with the full weight of his apostolic authority, and warns the Galatians that no half-measures will avail, but that they must decide, once for all, either to give up Judaism or Christ.

This is one of the passages which have been insisted on as proving a direct antagonism between St. Paul and the other Apostles; but any one who enters into the thought of the Apostle, and follows the course of his impassioned reasoning, will see how unnecessary any such assumption is. Nothing is more in accordance with human nature than that the same man should at one time agree to the amicable compromise of Acts 15, and at another, some years later, with the field all to himself, and only his own converts to deal with, should allow freer scope to his own convictions. He is speaking with feelings highly roused, and with less regard to considerations of policy. Besides, the march of events had been rapid, and the principles of policy themselves would naturally change.

(2) Behold, I Paul.—The strong personality of the Apostle asserts itself; instead of going into an elaborate proof, he speaks with dogmatic authority, as though his bare word were enough.

Shall profit you nothing.—”Profit,” i.e., in the way of justification, as producing that state of righteousness in the sight of God by virtue of which the believer is released from wrath and received into the divine favour. The Apostle says that if this state of justification is sought through circumcision, it cannot be sought through Christ at the same time.

For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
(3) For I testify again.—Translate rather, Nay, I protest again, introducing a further argument. He who allows himself to be circumcised thereby commits himself wholly to the Law, just as, it might be said, he who is baptised commits himself wholly to Christ. The act of circumcision placed a man under the legal system, just as the act of baptism placed him under the Christian system. From that time forward he could not choose one part and refuse another, but was bound alike by all.

He is a debtor.—He is under an obligation.

Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
(4) Christ is become of no effect unto you.—Literally, Ye were (or, more idiomatically, are) abolished, made nothing, from Christ; a condensed form of expression for, Ye are made nothing (unchristianised), and cut off from Christ. Your relations to Christ are cancelled, and you are Christians no longer.

Are justified.—Strictly, seek to be justified.

Ye are fallen from grace.—The Christian is justified by an act of grace, or free, unearned favour, on the part of God. He who seeks for justification in any other way loses this grace. Grace is not here a state or disposition in the believer, but a divine act or relation.

For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.
(5) Through the Spirit.—Through the operation of the Spirit. It is the Spirit which makes faith effectual and righteousness real. The righteousness which comes by the Law is entirely human or “carnal,” the product of a man’s own efforts. The righteousness which is by faith is the gift of God, and that gift is communicated through the Spirit.

Wait for.—The Greek word means “to wait earnestly or eagerly,” as in Romans 8:19; Romans 8:23; Romans 8:25, et seq.

The hope of righteousness.—The righteousness which is the object of our hopes; the hoped-for, promised righteousness. More often the Apostle speaks of the state of righteousness as conferred upon the Christian at his baptism. This is, however, only a sort of ideal or potential righteousness; it is a state inherent in that kingdom of which the Christian then becomes a member, not a state inherent in the Christian himself. This ideal or potential righteousness becomes real and actual only at the end of the Christian’s career, when it is finally confirmed to him. Looking forward to this point, it is an object of hope.

For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
(6) In Jesus Christ.—When the Christian has entered into those close relations with Christ which his Christianity assumes.

Availeth any thing.—As “shall profit” in Galatians 5:2; avail in the way of justification.

Faith which worketh by love.—Faith in Christ, the devoted attachment to Christ, is the great motive power, the source or mainspring of action; and the law by which that action is regulated is the law of love. (Comp. Galatians 5:13-14 below, and Romans 13:8-10.) Faith makes a man seek to do the will of Christ; love tells him what that will is. It is clear that the faith thus described by St. Paul does not stop short in a mere head notion, and so is in no conflict with the teaching of St. James. (See James 2:14-26.)

Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth?
(7-12) All was going well at first. What sudden intruder has stopped your path and led you astray? Certainly it is not God, to whom you owe your calling, that has persuaded you to such a course. You tell me that not many have fallen away. But those few are enough to infect the whole. Not that I wish to implicate all in the sin of some. Most of you I can trust to be true to me. The author of your troubles, whoever he is, shall not escape. God shall judge him. Do you turn round on me and say that I, too, have preached circumcision? The persecutions that I have to undergo from the Jews are proof that I preach it no longer. If I do preach circumcision then the other stumbling-blocks in the way of my teaching are removed. I have no need to lay stress upon a crucified Messiah. The advocates of circumcision may carry their self-mutilation a step further if they please.

This section is very abrupt in style. The thought bounds from subject to subject, not stopping to insert links of connection. At the end of the passage there is a vein of severe irony.

(7) Ye did run well.—Again, as in Galatians 2:2, a metaphor from foot racing. The Galatians had made a good start, but suddenly changed their course.

Who did hinder you?—The metaphor here is not quite the same, but is somewhat akin to that just used. The original meaning of the word translated “hinder” is to “break up a road,” as an army before the advance of hostile forces.

The truthi.e., the doctrine taught by St. Paul in opposition to the Judaising tenets which had been introduced into the Galatian Church.

This persuasion cometh not of him that calleth you.
(8) This persuasion . . .—He who calls the Galatians is here, as elsewhere, God; and certainly, the Apostle says, it can have been by no intimation or guidance from Him that they were led to accept such perverted teaching.

A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
(9) A little leaven . . .—A pregnant expression, which leaves a good deal to the reader to supply. The proverb is true which says that a little leaven leavens the whole mass of dough. And so, in your case, the malcontents may be few, but they will soon ruin the whole Church. It seems decidedly more in accordance with the context to take the “little leaven” as referring rather to a few seceders than to a little bad doctrine.

I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be.
(10) I have confidence in you through the Lord.—Literally, I have confidence wish regard to you in the Lordi.e., such confidence as a Christian teacher ought to have in Christian scholars. This has reference to the main body of the Church; an exception is immediately made as to the disaffected party, and especially their leader.

That ye will be none otherwise mindedi.e., no otherwise than I would have you be.

Shall bear his judgment.—“Judgment” is here not equivalent to “condemnation.” He shall be “put upon his trial,” “shall bear the sentence that shall be passed on him”—viz., by God.

Whosoever he be.—The Apostle does not fix upon any one particular person as the cause of the troubles in the Galatian Church, but he says that, whoever he may be, God will judge him.

And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offence of the cross ceased.
(11)And I, brethren.—Rather, But I, brethren. Another abrupt transition. We should naturally infer from this passage that St. Paul had at one time seemed to preach, or at least to permit, circumcision. Thus, in the Acts, we should gather, from the account of the conference at Jerusalem in Acts 15, that he did not insist strongly upon this point, and on taking Timothy with him upon his second missionary journey—the very journey in which he first visited Galatia—his first step was to have him circumcised. It was only natural that the progress of time and of events should deepen the Apostle’s conviction of the radical antagonism between the ceremonial Judaism and Christianity. This he is now stating in the most emphatic manner, and he feels that he is open to a charge of something like inconsistency. The Galatians might say that he preached circumcision himself. His answer is, that if he really preached circumcision he would not be so persecuted by the Judaising party. And he has also a further answer, which is conveyed in an ironical form: “If I do preach circumcision, and if I have ceased to lay stress on that one great stumbling-block, the cross of Christ, I may assume that there are no more hindrances in the way of my teaching.” Circumcision is taken as occupying, in the Judaising system, the same place that the cross of Christ occupied in that of St. Paul. The two things are alternatives. If one is taught there is no need for the other.

Ceased.Done away; the same word as that which is translated “become of no effect” in Galatians 5:4.

I would they were even cut off which trouble you.
(12) I would they were even cut off.—The Authorised version is undoubtedly wrong here. The words may mean “cut themselves off,” i.e., from your communion, but it seems far best to take the words, with all the ancient Greek interpreters and a large majority of modern commentators, including Dr. Lightfoot and Bishop Wordsworth, as referring to an extension of the rite of circumcision, such as the Galatians might see frequently practised by the priests of Cybele, whose worship had one of its most imporant centres in their country—I would they would even make themselves eunuchs. Let them carry their self-mutilation still further, and not stop at circumcision.

The expression is in several ways surprising as coming from St. Paul. We should remember, in some mitigation of it, the fact just alluded to, that the Galatians were themselves familiar with this particular form of self-mutilation; and familiar with it, no doubt, in discourse as well as in act. Christianity, while it has had the effect of putting a stop to such horrible practices, has also banished them even from thought and word. It is less, perhaps, a matter of wonder that we should have to appeal to the difference in standard between the Apostle’s times and our own, than that we have to appeal to it so seldom. Still, at the best, words like these must be allowed to come some way short of the “meekness and gentleness of Christ.” We may compare with them, as well for the particular expression as for the general vehemence of language, Philippians 3:2 : “Beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of concision” (with a play on “circumcision”). The Apostle himself would have been the last to claim that he had “already attained, either were already perfect.” A highly nervous and excitable constitution such as his, shattered by bodily hardships and mental strain, could not but at times impair his power of self-control. It is to be noticed, however, that his indignation, if it sometimes carries him somewhat too far, is always roused in a worthy cause. Such momentary ebullitions as these are among the very few flaws in a truly noble and generous character, and are themselves in great part due to the ardour which makes it so noble.

Which trouble you.—A different word from that which is similarly translated in Galatians 5:10. Its meaning is stronger: “to uproot and overthrow.”

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.
(13-15) The Judaisers would deserve such a fate; for they are undoing the whole object with which you were called. You were called, not to legal bondage, but to freedom. This caution only is needed: Do not make freedom a pretext for self-indulgence. One servitude you may submit to—the service of love. So doing, you will fulfil the Law without being legalists. He who loves his neighbour as himself will need no other rule. On the other hand, dissensions will be fatal, not to one party only, but to all who take part in them.

(13) For.—This connecting particle supplies the reason for the Apostle’s severe treatment of the Judaisers.

An occasion to the flesh.—Do not, under the name “liberty,” give way to sensual excesses. This was the especial danger of the Gentile churches, such as Corinth, from which, as we have seen, the Apostle may have been writing. Galatia, too, was a Gentile church; and though it was for the present subject rather to Judaising influences, the character of the people was fickle, and St. Paul may have thought it well to hint a caution in this direction.

Serve.—There is a stress upon this word. The Apostle had been dissuading the Galatians from submitting to other forms of servitude. This one he will permit them.

For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
(14) This verse is another of the marked points of contact between this Epistle and that to the Romans. The theme of it is worked out at length in Romans 13:8-10.

Thy neighbour.—In the original command this appears to mean “thy fellow Israelite.” Our Lord, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, had given it a wider signification, and in the same wider sense it is used here.

But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.
This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.
(16-26) To follow the guidance of the Spirit is to obtain a double release: on the one hand, from the evil appetites and passions of the flesh or of sense—which is the direct antithesis to the Spirit—and on the other hand, from the dominion of the Law. It is easy to tell which has the upper hand—the flesh or the Spirit. The flesh is known by a long catalogue of sins, the Spirit by a like catalogue of Christian graces, the mere mention of which is enough to show that the Law has no power over them. Those who belong to Christ have got rid of the flesh, with all its impulses, by their union with a crucified Saviour. All the Christian has to do is to act really by the rule of the Spirit, without self-parade or quarrelling.

(16) Walk.—Conduct yourselves: a metaphor very common in the writings of St. Paul, but not peculiar to them. It occurs three times in the Gospels, once in the Acts, thirty-three times in St. Paul’s Epistles, once in the Hebrews, ten times in the Epistles of St. John, and once in the Apocalypse.

In the Spirit.—Rather, by the Spiriti.e. by the rule of the Spirit, as the Spirit directs. “The Spirit” is here undoubtedly the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God, not the spirit in man.

For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.
(17) For the flesh . . .—In this verse we have brought out most distinctly the antithesis between the flesh and the Spirit, which is one of the root ideas in the psychology of St. Paul. It does not amount to dualism, for the body, as such, is not regarded as evil. There is nothing to show that St. Paul considered matter in itself evil. But the body becomes the seat of evil; from it arise those carnal impulses which are the origin of sin. And it is the body, looked at in this light, which is designated as “the flesh.” The flesh is the body, as animated by an evil principle. It thus becomes opposed to the good principle: whether the good principle in itself—the Spirit of God, or that organ in which the good principle resides—the spirit in man.

So that ye cannot do the things that ye would.—The opposition between the flesh and the Spirit, each pulling a different way, prevents the will from acting freely. For a full comment on this, see Romans 7:15-23; Romans 7:25.

But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
(18) Ye are not under the law.—Strictly, Ye are not under law—law in the abstract. The flesh and law are correlative terms: to be free from the one is to be free from the other. The flesh represents unaided human nature, and law is the standard which this unaided human nature strives, but strives in vain, to fulfil. By the intervention of the Spirit, the law is fulfilled at the same time that its domination is abolished and human nature ceases to be unaided. In its highest part it is brought into direct contact with the divine nature, and the whole tenor of its actions changes accordingly.

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness,
(19) Now the works of the flesh are manifest.—It needs no elaborate disquisition to show what is meant by fulfilling the lust of the flesh. The effects which the flesh produces are plain and obvious enough. The catalogue which follows is not drawn up on any exact scientific principle, but divides itself roughly under four heads: (1) sins of sensuality; (2) sins of superstition; (3) sins of temper; (4) excesses.

It has been said that all our sinfulness may be resolved “into two elementary instincts: the instinct of self-preservation and the reproductive instinct.” The third class of sins—sins of temper—would be referred to the first of the heads; sins of sensuality and excess—the one immediately, the other more remotely—to the second. The sins of superstition mentioned are of a more secondary character, and arise out of intellectual errors.

Adultery.—This word is omitted in the best MSS.

Uncleanness, lasciviousness.—The first of these words signifies any kind of impurity, secret or open; the second flagrant breaches of public decency.

Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies,
(20) Idolatry.—When the Christian is warned against idolatry, it is not, of course, systematic idolatry that is meant, but that occasional compliance with idolatrous customs—taking part in the idol feasts, or eating of things offered to idols—which he might easily be led into by his intercourse with his heathen neighbours.

Witchcraft.Sorcery, or magic. It would seem that practices of this kind were especially common in Asia Minor. In Acts 19:19 we read that at Ephesus, “many of them which used curious arts brought their books together and burned them before all men;” and there is other evidence to the same effect.

Variance.Strife, or contention.

Emulations.—Singular and plural are somewhat strangely mixed throughout the list. There is a division of authorities as to the reading in the case of this word. It seems probable, upon the whole, that the singular is right—emulation, or jealousy. “Wrath,” on the other hand, should be wrathsi.e., ebullitions or outbreaks of wrath. (See the Note on Romans 2:8.)

Strife.—This appears to be a mistake in the Authorised version. The word was supposed to be connected with that translated “variance” above, and the two words received the same translation indifferently. The word ereis, which is here translated “variance,” is rendered by “strife” in Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 3:3, Philippians 1:15, 1 Timothy 6:4; on the other hand, the word eritheia is rendered by “strife” here and in 2 Corinthians 12:20, Philippians 2:3, James 3:14-16. It is rendered by “contention” in Romans 2:8 (“them that are contentious”) and Philippians 1:16. The true derivation of this latter word is, however, something quite different: it is to be sought in a word meaning “a day-labourer.” Hence we get the senses—(1) labour for hire; (2) interested canvassing for office; (3) a spirit of factious partisanship; factiousness. (This word, too, is really in the plural.)

Seditions, heresies.—Rather, divisions, parties. The Authorised version has too special and technical a sound, as if the first related to factions in the State, and the second in the Church. This is not really so. The two words are distinguished from each other, as the lighter and more aggravated forms of division: the first. divisions; the second, divisions organised into parties.

Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
(21) Murders.—There is considerable doubt as to whether this word ought to stand in the text. It is wanting in the two oldest MSS. and in some other good authorities. Internal considerations may be made to tell either for its omission or for its retention.

I tell you before.I foretell (or, forewarn) you; I tell you before the event proves my words to be true—i.e., before the day of judgment.

As I have also told you in time past.As I also told you before. The idea is the same as that in the last phrase. In the Greek all that corresponds to “in time past” is the use of the past tense. The occasion appears to have been on St. Paul’s last or second visit to Galatia.

The kingdom of God.—The Messianic kingdom; so called frequently in the Gospels (especially the second and third), and also by St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Corinthians 15:50.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,
(22) The fruit of the Spirit.—There does not seem to be any essential difference between this term and that used above: “the works of the flesh.” The fruit of the Spirit is that which naturally grows out of the operation of the Spirit, in which it naturally results. The expression “fruit” is, however, generally used by St. Paul in a good sense.

The list which follows brings out in a striking manner the peculiar finish and perfection which belongs to the Christian morality. It will be seen at a glance how it differs from any form of pagan or philosophic ethics. At the head of the list is “love,” which Christianity takes as its moving principle—not being, perhaps, alone in this, but alone in the systematic consistency with which it is carried out. Next comes “joy,” a peculiarly Christian grace, which has a much deeper root than mere natural cheerfulness of temper, and is rather the unfailing brightness and equanimity which proceeds from calm and settled principles animated by the Divine Spirit itself. It may be questioned whether “peace” is here the tranquility which is shed abroad in the heart by the sense of reconciliation with God, or rather, from the context that follows, peaceableness towards men. The remainder of the list, it will be seen, is made up of those delicate and fragile forms of virtue which the ordinary course of society is least likely to foster. Patriotism, courage, generosity, prudence, fortitude, are virtues that would be produced by the regular action of natural selection left to itself. “Long-suffering,” “gentleness,” “goodness,” “faith,” “meekness,” “temperance,” need a more spiritual process for their development.

Gentleness, goodness.—Perhaps, rather, kindness, goodness. The difference between the two Greek words and the ideas which they denote would appear to be somewhat similar to the difference between these two words in English. The second would represent a rather more positive tendency of disposition than the first.

Faith.—Rather, perhaps, faithfulness; not here in the sense peculiar to St. Paul, in which faith is the primary Christian virtue, but rather (as the context shows) “faithfulness,” or “trustworthiness” in dealing with men, along with, perhaps, that frank and unsuspicious temper which St. Paul ascribes specially to charity (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.
(23) Meekness, temperance.—”Meekness” is something more than “mildness,” which has been suggested as an alternative translation. “Mildness” would represent that side of the virtue which is turned towards men; but it has also another side, which is turned towards God—a gentle submissiveness to the divine will. By “temperance” is meant, in a general sense, “self-control”—a firm control over the passions.

Against suchi.e., “against such things;” not, as it was understood by many of the older commentators, “against such men.”

There is no law.—For such things law has no condemnation, and therefore they are removed beyond the sphere of law. This is the first and obvious meaning; it may be noticed, however, that these delicate Christian graces are above law as well as beyond. The ruder legal system of commands, sanctioned by punishment, would have no power to produce them; they can only grow in a more genial and softer soil, under the direct influence of the Spirit.

And they that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
(24) But such things are just what the Christian would do. He will have nothing to make him act differently. He will not need to be taught peaceableness, goodness, or self-control, for the impulses which run counter to these are dead within him: they were killed at the moment when he gave himself up wholly to a crucified Saviour.

And.—Better, How, or But; introducing a summary conclusion from what has gone before, applying it to the Christian.

They that are Christ’s.—The reading of the oldest MSS. is, they that are of Christ Jesus. The Messianic character of the Christian scheme is put forward prominently: “they that belong to Jesus, the Messiah.”

Have crucified the flesh.—Strictly, crucified: viz., in their baptism. A full comment on this expression is afforded by Romans 6:2-14, where see Notes. The relation into which the Christian is brought with Christ is such as to neutralise and deaden all the sensual impulses within him; and inasmuch as the central point in that relation is the crucifixion: inasmuch, further, as crucifixion is death, and the Christian is bound to make the death of his Master his own, so far as relates to sin, he is said not merely to “kill” but to “crucify” the flesh, with its evil appetites and passions.

Affections and lusts.—Passions and desires. “Affections” are passive—susceptibility to evil impressions; “lusts” active—desire for that which is forbidden.

If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
(25) If we live in the Spirit.—It seems, on the whole, best to translate: If we live by the Spirit; if we derive our life from the Spirit; if it is by the action of the Spirit that our moral activity as Christians is kept alive. At the same time, another way of taking the words is possible: If we live to the spirit, following the analogy of Romans 14:8 : “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord,” &c.

Let us also walk in the Spiriti.e., by the rule of the Spirit, as the Spirit dictates (comp. Galatians 5:16, and the Note). The life which the Spirit quickens needs human co-operation, an active effort on the part of the Christian, to realise it completely in practice. St. Paul first sets before his readers what food has done for them, and then uses this as an argument and stimulus to renewed efforts on their own part.

Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.
(26) Let us not be.—Strictly, Let us not become. When he left the Galatian Church St. Paul was satisfied with their condition, but he fears that they will change. The warning that he addresses to them exactly hits the weak points in the national character—fickleness, vanity, and a quarrelsome disposition.

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