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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Galatians 5

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-26

Chapter 5

AN OLD STORY AND A NEW MEANING (Galatians 4:21-31; Galatians 5:1)

5:1 Tell me this--you who want to be subject to the law, you listen to it being read to you, don't you? Well, then, it stands written in it that Abraham had two sons; one was the son of the slave girl and one was the son of the free woman. But the son of the slave girl was born in the ordinary human way, whereas the son of the free woman was born through a promise. Now these things are an allegory. For these two women stand for two covenants. One of these covenants--the one which originated on Mount Sinai--bears children who are destined for slavery--and that one is represented by Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai, which is in Arabia, and corresponds to the present Jerusalem; for she is a slave and so are her children. But the Jerusalem which is above is free and she is our mother. For it stands written, "Rejoice, O barren one, who never bore a child; break forth into a shout of joy, O you who know not the pangs of bearing a child; for the children of her who was left alone are more than those of her who had a husband." But we, brothers, are in the same position as Isaac; we are children of promise. But in the old days the child who was born in the ordinary human way persecuted the child who was born in the spiritual way; and exactly the same thing happens now. But what does the scripture say? "Cast out the slave girl and her son, for the son of the slave girl must not inherit with the son of the free woman." So we, brothers, are children not of the slave girl but of the free woman. It is for this freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand, therefore, in it and do not get yourselves involved all over again in a slavish yoke.

When we seek to interpret a passage like this we must remember that for the devout and scholarly Jew, and especially for the Rabbis, scripture had more than one meaning; and the literal meaning was often regarded as the least important. For the Jewish Rabbis a passage of scripture had four meanings. (i) Peshat, its simple or literal meaning. (ii) Remaz, its suggested meaning. (iii) Derush, the meaning deduced by investigation. (iv) Sod, the allegorical meaning. The first letters of these four words--P-R-D-S--are the consonants of the word Paradise--and when a man had succeeded in penetrating into these four different meanings he reached the joy of paradise!

It is to be noted that the summit of all meanings was the allegorical meaning. It therefore often happened that the Rabbis would take a simple bit of historical narrative from the Old Testament and read into it inner meanings which often appear to us fantastic but which were very convincing to the people of their day. Paul was a trained Rabbi; and that is what he is doing here. He takes the story involving Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac (Genesis 16:1-16; Genesis 17:1-27, Genesis 21:1-34 ), which in the Old Testament is a straightforward narrative and he allegorises it to illustrate his point.

The outline of the story is as follows: Abraham and Sarah were far advanced in years and Sarah had no child. She did what any wife would have done in those patriarchal times and sent Abraham in to her slave girl, Hagar, to see if she could bear a child on her behalf. Hagar had a son called Ishmael. In the meantime God had come and promised that Sarah would have a child, which was so difficult to believe that it appeared impossible to Abraham and Sarah; but in due time Isaac was born. That is to say, Ishmael was born of the ordinary human impulses of the flesh; Isaac was born because of God's promise; and Sarah was a free woman, while Hagar was a slave girl. From the beginning Hagar had been inclined to triumph over Sarah, because barrenness was a sore shame to a woman; there was an atmosphere charged with trouble. Later Sarah found Ishmael "mocking" (King James Version) Isaac--this Paul equates with persecution--and insisted that Hagar should be cast out, so that the child of the slave girl should not share the inheritance with her freeborn son. Further. Arabia was regarded as the land of slaves where the descendants of Hagar dwelt.

Paul takes that old story and allegorises it. Hagar stands for the old covenant of the law, made on Mount Sinai, which is in fact in Arabia, the land of Hagar's descendants. Hagar herself was a slave and all her children were born into slavery; and that covenant whose basis is the law turns men into slaves of the law. Hagar's child was born from merely human impulses; and legalism is the best that man can do. On the other hand Sarah stands for the new covenant in Jesus Christ, God's new way of dealing with men not by law but by grace. Her child was born free and according to God's promise--and all his descendants must be free. As the child of the slave girl persecuted the child of the free woman, the children of law now persecute the children of grace and promise. But as in the end the child of the slave girl was cast out and had no share in the inheritance, so in the end those who are legalists will be cast out from God and have no share in the inheritance of grace.

Strange as all this may seem to us, it enshrines one great truth. The man who makes law the principle of his life is in the position of a slave; whereas the man who makes grace the principle of his life is free, for, as a great saint put it, the Christian's maxim is, "Love God and do what you like." It is the power of that love, and not the constraint of law, that will keep us right; for love is always more powerful than law.

THE PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP (Galatians 5:1-12)

5:1-12 Look now it is I, Paul, who am speaking to you I tell you that if you get yourself circumcised Christ is no good to you. Again I give my word to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is under obligation to keep the whole law. You who seek to get yourselves right with God by means of legalism have got yourself into a position in which you have rendered ineffective all that Christ did for you. You have fallen from grace. For it is by the Spirit and by faith that we eagerly expect the hope of being right with God. For in Jesus Christ it is not of the slightest importance whether a man is circumcised or uncircumcised. What does matter is faith which works through love. You were running well. Who put up a road-block to stop you obeying the truth? The persuasion which is being exercised on you just now is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in you in the Lord; I am sure that you will take no other view. He who is upsetting you--whoever he is--will bear his own judgment. As for me, brothers, if I am still preaching that circumcision is necessary, why am I still being persecuted? So the stumbling-block of the Cross is removed, is it? I wish that those who are upsetting you would get themselves not only circumcised but castrated!

It was Paul's position that the way of grace and the way of law were mutually exclusive. The way of law makes salvation dependent on human achievement; the man who takes the way of grace simply casts himself and his sin upon the mercy of God. Paul went on to argue that if you accepted circumcision, that is to say, if you accepted one part of the law, logically you had to accept the whole law.

Suppose a man desires to become a naturalized subject of a country and carefully carries out all the rules and regulations of that country as they affect naturalization. He cannot stop there but is bound to accept all the other rules and regulations as well. So Paul argued that if a man were circumcised he had put himself under an obligation to the whole law to which circumcision was the introduction; and, if he took that way, he had automatically turned his back on the way of grace, and, as far as he was concerned, Christ might never have died.

To Paul all that mattered was faith which works through love. That is just another way of saying that the essence of Christianity is not law but a personal relationship to Jesus Christ. The Christian's faith is founded not on a book but on a person; its dynamic is not obedience to any law but love to Jesus Christ.

Once, the Galatians had known that, but now they were turning back to the law. "A little leaven," said Paul, "leavens the whole lump." For the Jew leaven nearly always stood for evil influence. What Paul is saying is, "This legalistic movement may not have gone very far yet, but you must root it out before it destroys your whole religion."

Paul ends with a very blunt saying. Galatia was near Phrygia and the great worship of that part of the world was of Cybele. It was the practice that priests and really devout worshippers of Cybele mutilated themselves by castration. Paul says, "If you go on in this way, of which circumcision is the beginning, you might as well end up by castrating yourselves like these heathen priests." It is a grim illustration at which a polite society raises its eyebrows, but it would be intensely real to the Galatians who knew all about the priests of Cybele.

CHRISTIAN FREEDOM (Galatians 5:13-15)

5:13-15 As for you, brothers, it was for freedom that you were called, only you must not use this freedom as a bridgehead through which the worst side of human nature can invade you, but in love you must serve one another; for the whole law stands complete in one word, in the sentence, "You must love your neighbour as yourself." But if you snap at one another, and devour one another, you must watch that you do not end up by wiping each other out.

With this paragraph Paul's letter changes its emphasis. Up to this point it has been theological; now it becomes intensely ethical. Paul had a characteristically practical mind. Even when he has been scaling the highest heights of thought he always ends a letter on a practical note. To him a theology was not the slightest use unless it could be lived out. In Romans he wrote one of the world's great theological treatises, and then, quite suddenly, in Romans 12:1-21 the theology came down to earth and issued in the most practical advice. Vincent Taylor once said, "The test of a good theologian is, can he write a tract?" That is to say, after his flights of thought can he reduce it all to something that the ordinary man can understand and do? Paul always triumphantly satisfies that test, just as here the whole matter is brought to the acid test of daily living.

His theology always ran one danger. When he declared that the end of the reign of law had come and that the reign of grace had arrived, it was always possible for someone to say, "That, then, means that I can do what I like; all the restraints are lifted and I can follow my inclinations wherever they lead me. Law is gone and grace ensures forgiveness anyway." But to the end of the day there remained for Paul two obligations. (i) One he does not mention here but it is implicit in all his thinking. It is the obligation to God. If God loved us like that then the love of Christ constrains us. I cannot soil a life which God paid for with his own life. (ii) There is the obligation to our fellow men. We are free, but our freedom loves its neighbour as itself.

The names of the different forms of government are suggestive. Monarchy is government by one, and began in the interests of efficiency, for government by committees has always had its drawbacks. Oligarchy means government by the few and can be justified by arguing that only the few are fit to govern. Aristocracy means government by the best, but best is left to be defined. Plutocracy means government by the wealthy and is justified by the claim that those who have the biggest stake in the country have a logical right to rule it. Democracy means government of the people, by the people, for the people. Christianity is the only true democracy, because in a Christian state everyone would think as much of his neighbour as he does of himself. Christian freedom is not licence, for the simple but tremendous reason that the Christian is not a man who has become free to sin, but a man, who, by the grace of God, has become free not to sin.

Paul adds a grim bit of advice. "Unless," he says, "you solve the problem of living together you will make life impossible." Selfishness in the end does not exalt a man; it destroys him.

THE EVIL THINGS (Galatians 5:16-21)

5:16-21 I tell you, let your walk and conversation be dominated by the Spirit, and don't let the desires of the lower side of your nature have their way. For the desires of the lower side of human nature are the very reverse of the desires of the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are the very reverse of those of the lower side of human nature, for these are fundamentally opposed to each other, so that you cannot do whatever you like. The deeds of the lower side of human nature are obvious fornication, impurity, wantonness, idolatry, witchcraft, enmity, strife, jealousy, uncontrolled temper. self-seeking, dissension, heretical division, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and all that is like these things, I warn you, as I have warned you before, that those who do things like that will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

No man was ever more conscious of the tension in human nature than Paul. As the soldier in Studdert Kennedy's poem said;

I'm a man and a man's a mixture

Right down from his very birth;

For part of him comes from heaven,

And part of him comes from earth.

For Paul it was essential that Christian freedom should mean not freedom to indulge the lower side of human nature, but freedom to walk in the life of the Spirit. He gives us a catalogue of evil things. Every word he uses has a picture behind it.

Fornication; it has been said, and said truly, that the one completely new virtue Christianity brought into the world was chastity. Christianity came into a world where sexual immorality was not only condoned, but was regarded as essential to the ordinary working of life.

Impurity; the word that Paul uses (akatharsia, Greek #167 is interesting. It can be used for the pus of an unclean wound, for a tree that has never been pruned, for material which has never been sifted. In its positive form (katharos (Greek #2513), an adjective meaning pure) it is commonly used in housing contracts to describe a house that is left clean and in good condition. But its most suggestive use is that katharos (Greek #2513) is used of that ceremonial cleanness which entitles a man to approach his gods. Impurity, then, is that which makes a man unfit to come before God, the soiling of life with the things which separate us from him.

Wantonness; this word (aselgeia, Greek #766) is translated licentiousness in the Revised Standard Version (Mark 7:22; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 4:19; 1 Peter 4:3; Jd 1:4 ; Romans 13:13 and 2 Peter 2:18). It has been defined as "readiness for any pleasure." The man who practises it has been said to know no restraint, but to do whatever caprice and wanton insolence may suggest. Josephus ascribed it to Jezebel when she built a temple to Baal in Jerusalem. The idea is that of a man who is so far gone in desire that he has ceased to care what people say or think.

Idolatry; this means the worship of gods which the hands of men have made. It is the sin in which material things have taken the place of God.

Witchcraft; this literally means the use of drugs. It can mean the beneficent use of drugs by a doctor; but it can also mean poisoning, and it came to be very specially connected with the use of drugs for sorcery, of which the ancient world was full.

Enmity; the idea is that of the man who is characteristically hostile to his fellow men; it is the precise opposite of the Christian virtue of love for the brethren and for all men.

Strife; originally this word had mainly to do with the rivalry for prizes. It can even be used in a good sense in that connection, but much more commonly it means the rivalry which has found its outcome in quarrellings and wrangling.

Jealousy; this word (zelos, Greek #2205, from which our word zeal comes) was originally a good word. It meant emulation, the desire to attain to nobility when we see it. But it degenerated; came to mean the desire to have what someone else has, wrong desire for what is not for us.

Uncontrolled temper ; the word Paul uses means bursts of temper. It describes not an anger which lasts but anger which flames out and then dies.

Self-seeking; this word has a very illuminating history. It is eritheia (Greek #2052) and originally meant the work of a hired labourer (erithos). So it came to mean work done for pay. It went on to mean canvassing for political or public office, and it describes the man who wants office, not from any motives of service. but for what he can get out of it.

Dissension; literally the word means a standing apart. After one of his great victories Nelson attributed it to the fact that he had the happiness to command a band of brothers. Dissension describes a society in which the very opposite is the case, where the members fly apart instead of coming together.

Heretical division; this might be described as crystallized dissension. The word is hairesis (Greek #139), from which comes our word heresy. Hairesis was not originally a bad word at all. It comes from a root which means to choose, and it was used for a philosopher's school of followers or for any band of people who shared a common belief. The tragedy of life is that people who hold different views very often finish up by disliking, not each others' views, but each other. It should be possible to differ with a man and yet remain friends.

Envy; this word (phthonos, Greek #5355), is a mean word. Euripides called it "the greatest of all diseases among men." The essence of it is that it does not describe the spirit which desires, nobly or ignobly, to have what someone else has: it describes the spirit which grudges the fact that the other person has these things at all. It does not so much want the things for itself; it merely wants to take them from the other. The Stoics defined it as "grief at someone else's good." Basil called it "grief at your neighbours good fortune." It is the quality, not so much of the jealous, but rather of the embittered mind.

Drunkenness; in the ancient world this was not a common vice. The Greeks drank more wine than they did milk; even children drank wine. But they drank it in the proportion of three parts of water to two of wine. Greek and Christian alike would have condemned drunkenness as a thing which turned a man into a beast.

Carousing; this word (komos) has an interesting history. A komos was a band of friends who accompanied a victor of the games after his victory. They danced and laughed and sang his praises. It also described the bands of the devotees of Bacchus, god of wine. It describes what in regency England would have been called a rout. It means unrestrained revelry. enjoyment that has degenerated into licence.

When we get to the root meaning of these words, we see that life has not changed so very much.

THE LOVELY THINGS (Galatians 5:22-26)

5:22-26 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, self-control. There is no law which condemns thing; like that. Those who belong to Jesus Christ have crucified their own unregenerate selves ;along with all their passions and their desires.

If we are living in the Spirit let us also keep step with the Spirit. Don't become seekers after empty reputation; don't provoke each other: don't envy each other.

As in the previous verses Paul set out the evil things characteristic of the flesh, so now he sets out the lovely things which are the fruit of the Spirit. Again it is worth while to look at each word separately.

Love; the New Testament word for love is agape (Greek #26). This is not a word which classical Greek uses commonly. In Greek there are four words for love. (a) Eros (compare Greek #2037) means the love of a man for a maid; it is the love which has passion in it. It is never used in the New Testament at all. (b) Philia (Greek #5373) is the warm love which we feel for our nearest and our dearest; it is a thing of the heart. (c) Storge (compare Greek #794) rather means affection and is specially used of the love of parents and children. (d) Agape (Greek #26), the Christian word, means unconquerable benevolence. It means that no matter what a man may do to us by way of insult or injury or humiliation we will never seek anything else but his highest good. It is therefore a feeling of the mind as much as of the heart; it concerns the will as much as the emotions. It describes the deliberate effort--which we can make only with the help of God--never to seek anything but the best even for those who seek the worst for us.

Joy; the Greek is chara (Greek #5479), and the characteristic of this word is that it most often describes that joy which has a basis in religion (compare Psalms 30:11; Romans 14:17; Romans 15:13; Philippians 1:4; Philippians 1:25). It is not the joy that comes from earthly things, still less from triumphing over someone else in competition. It is a joy whose foundation is God.

Peace; in contemporary colloquial Greek this word (eirene, Greek #1515) had two interesting usages. It was used of the serenity which a country enjoyed under the just and beneficent government of a good emperor; and it was used of the good order of a town or village. Villages had an official who was called the superintendent of the village's eirene (Greek #1515), the keeper of the public peace. Usually in the New Testament eirene (Greek #1515) stands for the Hebrew shalowm (Hebrew #7965) and means not just freedom from trouble but everything that makes for a man's highest good. Here it means that tranquillity of heart which derives from the all-pervading consciousness that our times are in the hands of God. It is interesting to note that Chara and Eirene both became very common Christian names in the Church.

Makrothumia (Greek #3115); this is a great word. The writer of First Maccabees (1 Maccabees 8:4) says that it was by makrothumia (Greek #3115) that the Romans became masters of the world, and by that he means the Roman persistence which would never make peace with an enemy even in defeat, a kind of conquering patience. Generally speaking the word is not used of patience in regard to things or events but in regard to people. Chrysostom said that it is the grace of the man who could revenge himself and does not, the man who is slow to wrath. The most illuminating thing about it is that it is commonly used in the New Testament of the attitude of God towards men (Romans 2:4; Romans 9:22; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Peter 3:20). If God had been a man, he would have wiped out this world long ago; but he has that patience which bears with all our sinning and will not cast us off. In our dealings with our fellow men we must reproduce this loving, forbearing, forgiving, patient attitude of God towards ourselves.

Kindness and goodness are closely connected words. For kindness the word is chrestotes (Greek #5544). It, too, is commonly translated goodness. The Rheims version of 2 Corinthians 6:6 translates it sweetness. It is a lovely word. Plutarch says that it has a far wider place than justice. Old wine is called chrestos (Greek #5543), mellow. Christ's yoke is called chrestos (Greek #5543) (Matthew 11:30), that is, it does not chafe. The whole idea of the word is a goodness which is kind. The word Paul uses for goodness (agathosune, Greek #19) is a peculiarly Bible word and does not occur in secular Greek (Romans 15:14; Ephesians 5:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). It is the widest word for goodness; it is defined as "virtue equipped at every point." What is the difference? Agathosune (Greek #19) might, and could, rebuke and discipline; chrestotes (Greek #5544) can only help. Trench says that Jesus showed agathosune (Greek #19) when he cleansed the Temple and drove out those who were making it a bazaar; but he showed chrestotes (Greek #5544) when he was kind to the sinning woman who anointed his feet. The Christian needs that goodness which at one and the same time can be kind and strong.

Fidelity; this word (pistis, Greek #4102) is common in secular Greek for trustworthiness. It is the characteristic of the man who is reliable.

Gentleness; praotes (Greek #4236) is the most untranslatable of words. In the New Testament it has three main meanings. (a) It means being submissive to the will of God (Matthew 5:5; Matthew 11:29; Matthew 21:5). (b) It means being teachable, being not too proud to learn (James 1:21). (c) Most often of all it means being considerate (1 Corinthians 4:21; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2). Aristotle defined praotes (Greek #4236) as the mean between excessive anger and excessive angerlessness, the quality of the man who is always angry at the right time and never at the wrong time. What throws most light on its meaning is that the adjective praus (Greek #4239) is used of an animal that has been tamed and brought under control; and so the word speaks of that self-control which Christ alone can give.

Self-control; the word is egkrateia (Greek #1466) which Plato uses of self-mastery. It is the spirit which has mastered its desires and its love of pleasure. It is used of the athlete's discipline of his body (1 Corinthians 9:25) and of the Christian's mastery of sex (1 Corinthians 7:9). Secular Greek uses it of the virtue of an Emperor who never lets his private interests influence the government of his people. It is the virtue which makes a man so master of himself that he is fit to be the servant of others.

It was Paul's belief and experience that the Christian died with Christ and rose again to a life, new and clean, in which the evil things of the old self were gone and the lovely things of the Spirit had come to fruition.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Galatians 5:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/galatians-5.html. 1956-1959.

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