When we live by the priorities of the Spirit, our lives will look very different from the world.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 5:13-26
For non-Christians, their lives are necessarily governed by self-preservation and selfishness. But when we are saved, we tap in to God’s Spirit who opens a new ethic for living: “love your neighbor as yourself”. The evidence of our salvation is the fruit of our action. Further, living in the flesh will destroy our churches.
For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. Galatians 5:13
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Gentleness
This word is the most misunderstood of them all. To be “gentle” means to have so much self-control that you only get angry at appropriate times—never at the wrong time. This is the virtue for giving discipline, confronting faults, meeting opposition, and giving Christian witness (see Jam 1:21, Gal 6:1, 2 Tim 2:25, 1 Pet 3:15). Moses was praised for being the gentlest of them all (Num 12:3), so you can use him as an illustration.
The Fashion Reality Makeover Show!
I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoyed watching What Not to Wear (it hasn’t been on since 2013!!). In this show, people with terrible fashion sense and wardrobes would be nominated by friends and family for a fashion makeover. That person would go to New York, shop for a new wardrobe, get a professional makeover, and then be sent home. At its worst, it was as superficial as you would expect a makeover show to be—all about appearances. But at its best, it made some really good points. For many on the show, what they looked like on the outside reflected how they felt about themselves on the inside. A woman in a bad relationship dressed to please her other. A woman with low self-esteem dressed bland and blah. A woman with body-image problems dressed baggy and over-modest. This show would do armchair psychology with them and help them see what was going on inside. Then, when they saw this “miraculous new you” in the mirror, they were emboldened to make the changes necessary to become a new person.
Shows like this get things half-right. Paul wants the Galatians to realize that what they “look like” on the outside (mainly—what they do) reveals what they are on the inside. The problem is that you can’t change what’s on the inside by getting a new wardrobe. What matters in life is being changed from the inside-out, and that can only be done by the Holy Spirit in salvation. However, if you are already a Christian, then “dressing appropriately” can make a difference in your life. Just like exercise and healthy eating can make a physical difference in your mind and body, doing Christian deeds can be a part of the process of shaping you to be more like Jesus. This is where personal responsibility comes in—we can choose to do the deeds of the flesh or the deeds of the Spirit, so let’s choose to “dress” like the Spirit. If you've seen this show, then this illustration might work to get you thinking along the lines of superficial transformation vs. real transformation. If we have been really transformed by the Spirit, we will see that reflected in our lives. If not, and we see ourselves living wrongly, then we need to come to Jesus in repentance and faith.
This Week's Big Idea: Virtues and Vices, Ancient and Modern
People have always loved creating lists of right and wrong. This was certainly true in Paul’s day, which is why he puts lists in his letters. But Paul’s lists of virtues didn’t look much like what was “going around”. As a discussion starter, you might consider asking what the world thinks of as virtues and vices. Here are some lists to help you out if your class offers nothing but blank stares:
Aristotle’s list of virtues:
Magnificence (joy of life)
Honor (respect, admiration)
Good temper (level-headedness)
Wit (sense of humor)
The ancient “Bushido Code” is a list of virtues:
In Paul’s day, the Roman Cultures added these to Aristotle’s list:
Perseverance (primarily military stamina)
Mercy (the ability to forgive)
Discipline (primarily in military setting)
Tenacity (strength of mind)
Frugality (economy and simplicity)
Industriousness (hard work)
Piety (duty in society, politics, and religion)
Prudence (foresight and wisdom)
Manliness (seriously—look it up)
[You might note how those additions are very practical and civic virtues (that I believe play a role in our country).]
The Roman Catholic Church has a classic list:
Humility (vice = pride)
Kindness (vice = envy)
Temperance (vice = gluttony)
Chastity (vice = lust)
Patience (vice = wrath)
Charity (vice = greed)
Diligence (vice = sloth)
What about today? What do people in America consider to be virtues? Well, if you google “modern virtues”, you get some pretty weird lists, so be careful out there. Here is one list that looks pretty comprehensive:
acceptance, assertiveness, authenticity, beauty, caring, cleanliness, commitment, compassion, confidence, consideration, contentment, cooperation, courage, creativity, detachment, determination, dignity, encouragement, enthusiasm, ethical, excellence, fairness, faith, flexibility, forgiveness, friendliness, generosity, gentleness, graciousness, gratitude, harmonious, helpfulness, honesty, honor, hope, humility, idealism, integrity, imaginative, joyfulness, justice, kindness, love, loyalty, moderation, modesty, optimistic, orderliness, passionate, patience, peace, perseverance, preparedness, purposefulness, reliability, respect, responsibility, reverence, self-discipline, service, sincerity, tact, temperate, tenacious, thankfulness, tolerance, trust, truthfulness, understanding, unity, visionary, wisdom, wonder.
I bolded the ones that seem not to have a parallel in the earlier lists. Frankly, those seem to reflect the times (what is socially aware and politically correct these days). If you didn't think of those, ask yourself why not. Keep that modern list of virtues in mind when we read what Paul says are the fruits of the Spirit! (If they’re interested, I put a list of modern vices at the bottom.)
Our Context in Galatians
Now we get into what Christian freedom looks like. Paul has made it clear that being free in Christ is better than being a slave to the law. But now he responds to the accusations that Christian “freedom” will lead people into all kinds of sin and lawlessness. Let me make this clear:
The reason anyone would accuse Christianity of a license to sin is because that is how they are. When they are given freedom, they choose to sin; therefore, when anyone else is given freedom, they must also choose to sin. It is human nature to think that way. Do you see how that just illustrates a basic biblical truth? Apart from Jesus, we all choose sin. We need to be transformed from the inside in order to use our freedom for good and to follow Jesus.
On the way to our passage, Paul gets sidetracked on the topic of circumcision. That’s because circumcision is a basic (and unmistakable) part of Judaism. If a Gentile allows himself to be circumcised in order to keep the law, he has missed the point of grace. What really matters is not whether or not they have been circumcised but whether or not their lives reveal the fruit of the Spirit.
Part 1: Freed (Galatians 5:13-15)
For you were called to be free, brothers and sisters; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.
There’s a Switchfoot song, “Meant to Live”, that includes the chorus, “We were meant to live for so much more. Have we lost ourselves?” They’re tapping into Paul’s plea here. God created humans to be free—free to have a relationship with Him, free to make this work what we want, free to live our lives to the fullest—but somewhere along the way we lost ourselves. We became slaves to sin (Paul is clear that we are slaves to what we desire). Jesus came to give us that freedom back, only for people like the Galatians to be duped into going back to a law-based life.
But the purpose of freedom is not self-indulgence. Ask this question: if someone were to give you a million dollars tomorrow, what would you spend it on? You’ll get a lot of selfish answers. Even some of the “spiritual” answers are just selfishness in disguise. Well, that’s what Paul is talking about here. Christians have been given a “get out of jail free” card, or a “school’s out for summer” card (from the world’s perspective). But that freedom is intended to be used for the good of others, not to please ourselves. Think about ways people might be tempted to abuse freedom (I think of the college student who chooses to spend more time partying than studying, or the worker who is put in charge of a shift and spends “alone” time watching tv). Abuse those freedoms too much, and they get taken away, right? Or what about the freedoms we don’t use at all—like our right to vote (only 36% of eligible voters even turned out during the last cycle)?
Well, this freedom in Christ is a similar opportunity. We don’t have to be constantly “looking over our shoulder” at the law. If someone invites us to their house, we don’t have to inspect it for paganism—God is with us. And if we’re talking to someone about Jesus at 6:00, we don’t have to stop the conversation to go pray somewhere. And if we want to go to a football game, and everyone around us has a potty mouth, we can choose to stay or go (not join in—that would be a bad choice). We have that freedom.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” is the perfect summary of the Christian ethic. Any “should I or shouldn’t I?” question can be run through that statement. Am I being loving? But remember, we’re talking about godly love, not superficial Santa Claus love. This is agape love, sacrificial love that is willing to confront wrongdoing and hold people accountable. The alternative? If we don’t love one another, we will destroy (“consume”) one another. Is that true? I think it is. Ask your class to describe a time when they stopped “loving” a friend or relative.
Bonus Illustration: Recycling
Here’s another way you can try to explain Paul’s point to the Galatians. Ask your class, Is it possible to take something bad and make it good? Of course it is—but it’s not always easy, and it’s not always obvious. For example, the technology that was used to create nuclear weapons was repurposed to create very powerful sources of usable energy. One person who grew up in the drug culture was able to use that knowledge in bringing down an entire distribution network. The “superbugs” that were created for God-only-knows what purpose have been used to help researchers find cures to other ailments. And so on.
More often than not, however, human beings are unable to turn something bad into something good. But God can. When we look at a list of vices, sometimes we wonder how a Christian can emerge from that. But God can reach into our hearts and turn us into someone who can re-channel those sins into a desire to do good. Think about Paul. Paul imprisoned Christians. But God used his unique background—a strong knowledge of the law, great zeal for truth, and tireless work ethic—to turn Paul into the greatest missionary of our history. It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t always pretty, but God did it. Be encouraged that God can remake all of us and the people we love.
Part 2: Controlled (Galatians 5:16-18)
I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
See below for a little more about “spirit” vs. “flesh”. All humans beings are body and spirit (note that I didn’t say we have a body and a spirit—I think that’s part of the confusion; rather, we are body and spirit); that’s what separates us from the animals, which are just body (yes, that means that there are no spirit animals and all dogs do not go to heaven; no, I don’t have time to elaborate on that now). As I explain below, all flesh is inherently selfish—it needs to survive physically. Spirit is different. To make a long story short, spirit can connect with the Holy Spirit. It is only by our spirit that we can understand how God wants us to live and what God wants us to do. When Jesus talks about being born again, He’s not talking about a physical re-birth but a spiritual one. Our spirit is reborn into a unique relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. That’s what separates Christians from non-Christians. For non-Christians, their spirit pursues the same thing as their flesh because their spirit doesn’t know any better. For Christians, we now have the ability to see life from God’s perspective.
When Paul tells the Galatians to “walk by the Spirit”, he means to live life through the priorities of God, not our selfish flesh. When he says that the desires of the flesh and spirit are “opposed”, that word may be better understood as “contrary to” or “in conflict with”. Flesh wants to survive; the Holy Spirit wants to save others. Does that make the flesh “bad”? Well, no. Just about every psychologist understands that self-preservation/survival instinct is at the top of all living motivations. Wanting to survive is not inherently wrong. But explain it this way: what if Jesus lived by a survival instinct? Aha! Survival is not necessarily wrong, but hopefully you can see how it might be in conflict with the Christian value of self-sacrifice. (On a side note, that’s can lead to a very deep discussion about how, say, people can become a suicide bomber, or a non-Christian soldier can throw himself on a grenade. Perhaps they tapped into their spirit to override their flesh somehow.)
Think of some simple examples of this—your spirit prompts you to share the gospel with that person, but your flesh is in a hurry to lunch; your spirit wants you to go to Sunday School, but your flesh wants to sleep in; your spirit wants you to take in a foster child, but your flesh says your spirit is crazy. They just want different things.
Aside: Spirit vs. Flesh vs. Law
Paul talks a lot about the “spirit” vs. the “flesh”. His most famous discourse on this is in Romans 7. This of it this way—our natural body has natural needs and desires. If we don’t feed our body or give it water, it will die (and we die with it). So it should only make sense that our flesh is greedy.
If it sounds like Paul puts that law and the flesh in the same realm, that’s because he does. What does the law govern? Physical behavior—the realm of the flesh. The law hints at thoughts and motives and ideas, but it only has “power” over action. Do x, don’t do y. The flesh, because it is inherently self-serving, needs a governess or nanny (as it were), something to keep it in check. But the spirit, which for the Christian becomes intimately connected with the Holy Spirit, does not need such a governess. That’s not to say that it is its own governor! But rather, it is directly responsible to God and needs no intermediary like the law.
The thing that many people misunderstand is that Paul is not saying that our body is bad and trapped inside that body is a good spirit (I think “spirit” and “soul” are interchangeable). That philosophy is called dualism and it’s pretty prevalent. No, our body and our spirit are connected; the time we spend after death waiting to be reunited to our body is the exception. The difference is that our body has different needs than our spirit. Our body needs physical things; our spirit can look beyond physical needs to the needs of others—or even to the extreme of self-sacrifice and self-denial. Our flesh can’t go there on its own.
Part 3: Abandoned (Galatians 5:19-21)
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I am warning you about these things—as I warned you before—that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This part of the passage is pretty obvious. If you talked about “what the world thinks of as vices and virtues”, you would bring it back up here. The point would be to note which of Paul’s list isn’t considered a vice these days by society at large. (I don’t think that sexual immorality is considered a big deal, and I’m not sure that drunkenness is the scarlet letter it used to be; maybe I’m wrong.) Paul’s point is simple: if your behavior includes these things, then you are not being controlled by the Spirit but rather your flesh. Note that this is not a comprehensive list but rather a representative list. There are four categories:
Sexual sins (sexual immorality—sex outside of marriage was normal in that day; moral impurity—lewd sexual acts; promiscuity—unrestrained lust)
Pagan sins (idolatry—worshiping false gods or putting anything before the true God; sorcery—specifically the use of drugs in witchcraft)
Relationship sins (hatred; strife—quarreling; jealousy; outbursts of anger; selfish ambition; dissention; factions—separating from people who disagree with you; envy)
Drunkenness (in Paul’s day, wine was so watered down that you really had to be out of control to get drunk; carousing—excessive partying)
Remember that no one sin is worse than any other, but Paul tends to highlight the sins that were the most common and cause the most problems. When Paul says “those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”, he means it. But the word “practice” means “lifestyle” or “habitual action”. In other words, if someone’s life is characterized by any of those behaviors, it proves that they are not living by the Spirit and thus are not saved in the first place. Paul is not saying that Christians cannot commit sin, but rather that Christians cannot wantonly live in sin. When Christians sin, we come under conviction. We can resist for a while, but eventually we will repent.
Part 4: Produced (Galatians 5:22-26)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
Now would be the time to find out how well you've been listening to David’s sermons. Do you understand what these fruits mean? You can point out that the word “fruit” is singular, which means that they are all tied together—they are a cluster of grapes, so to speak. Just as Jesus said that the law could be summarized in the Great Commandments, Paul says that these qualities show the heart of the law. The law will never condemn someone trying to live out this fruit.
But the fruit of the Spirit is contrary to the desires of the flesh, so if we want to live life God’s way, we have to “crucify” our old selves. We have to make a hard break with our former lives and desires. Think of this like going on a guided hike or tour. You might be tempted to go off on your own, but the right thing to do is stay right with your guide, no matter how slow or fast he walks. Paul’s phrase “keep in step” is actually from a military context—every soldier must stay in formation.
Then Paul goes back to his starting point: what gets in the way of a church modeling this for the world? Pride, envy, and provoking. If we let those behaviors into our lives and church, we will destroy ourselves. Is that true? Yep. Our challenge this week is to look for the “deeds of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit” in our lives and ask for help from someone to weed out one sin and focus on one spiritual fruit. Mindset: marathon, not a sprint.
Closing Thoughts: Modern Vices
If you try to google this, you’re going to get a bunch of listings for a band from Chicago, so come up with other ways to do your search.
For Aristotle, a vice was an excess (or lack) of a virtue. For example, for the virtue of courage, the corresponding vice would be foolhardiness or cowardice. For self-control, the vice would be self-indulgence or foolishness. For generosity, the vice would be miserliness or prodigality. Other vices would be vulgarity, vanity, ambition, boastfulness, envy, shamelessness, spitefulness, ambitionless, mockery.
Here is a pretty comprehensive list of what people today think of as vices:
abuse, addiction, anger, anxiety, arrogance, bigotry, bragging, condescension, corruption, cowardice, denial, dependency, disloyalty, dogmatism, doubt, egotism, envy, greed, humiliation, hypocrisy, ignorance, impatience, injustice, intolerance, jealousy, judgmental, materialism, prejudice, procrastination, recklessness, regret, sloth, snobbery, superficiality, untrustworthiness, vanity, wasteful, weakness, wrath.
Again, you can seem the signs of the times reflected in there (some of the additions are good, no?).
As a reminder, here is where you would go with this list if you chose to think about it: if someone were to start with this list of vices instead of the Bible, how would is distort their understanding of being a Christian?
For a list like this, it’s easy to identify bad behaviors; we all agree on most of what people shouldn’t do. Rather, the problem is in what this list leaves out or distorts. Dogmatism is only bad if it is in the wrong thing. Regret is good if it leads to repentance. Where is sin? Godlessness? Sexual immorality? Promiscuity? Drunkenness? That’s why we must let the Bible build our “lists”.