(I realize I’ve already posted another blog for this week, but I had something I wanted to get off my chest. Hope you don’t mind! And fair warning – this is a rant regarding preparing a Bible lesson, so it won’t hurt my feelings if you want to stop reading right now.)
In our Sunday morning Bible class at Beltway, we’re getting ready to start a new series for the summer on the Fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-23. In preparation for that, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that well known text, but I’m not finding much that’s terribly helpful for the questions I have.
Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s no shortage of devotional material on the Fruit of the Spirit. One well-known writer interprets the passage based on Jesus’ parable from Matt. 13 on the Sower & the Four Soils. Another wants to turn the Fruit of the Spirit into a commentary on Jesus’ words from John 15 about the vine and the branches and being fruitful. Other guys write about it from a strongly Calvinistic point of view, turning it into nothing more than a sermon against legalism. Now, all of that is fine, but before we look into comparing other scriptures to this text from Galatians, how about if we compare it to the rest of Galatians?
On the other hand, there are some excellent commentaries out there on each of the nine character traits that are listed, complete with excellent word studies on each. These studies describe the attribute being discussed, its background in secular Greek literature, other Biblical references, and so forth. Again, all of that is fine, and will be helpful in understanding the Spiritual characteristics involved, but the question remains, What is this list doing here, and what was Paul’s purpose in writing it?
Even bringing up the subject of Galatians gets people off topic. Mention Galatians, and a lot of NT scholars want to jump to Romans, where Paul supposedly gives a more thorough discussion of the points he raises in Galatians, OR they want to jump to Acts, and examine the alleged discrepancies between the historical timeline Paul presents in Galatians, versus the events as recorded by Luke in Acts. All of which gives me a headache, and none of which helps me answer the basic question: What was Paul’s original purpose in making this list?
I’m pretty sure he wasn’t looking to generate material for us to stick on coffee mugs and bumper stickers.
Here’s what I’ve figured out so far. Paul starts off in this letter by reminding them of his background, and how that his commission as an apostle did NOT come through any human agency, nor was his message and preaching beholden to the other apostles. Rather, in both cases, his authority to act as well as the content of his preaching and teaching, came directly from God. But then, with bluntness that the people of Galatia would have appreciated, he calls them “foolish and stupid” for abandoning the good news that he had brought, and instead, allowing themselves to be hoodwinked into accepting a false gospel that preached that faith in Jesus was not enough for salvation, and that we had to obey works of the law in order to earn God’s approval. In unmistakeable terms, he rebukes them for rejecting the beauty and simplicity of salvation by grace, in favor of the treadmill of a works-based legalism.
Throughout the book, he describes this by listing a number of contrasts – law vs. faith/grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. And the contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. And in this specific case, it is the works of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – vs. the Fruit of the Spirit.
In that picture, you have the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.
And, not for nothing, we should note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. This is not a buffet, and we mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any self-control right now.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.
Anyway, that’s a little insight into some of what I’ve been thinking about Galatians and the Fruit of the Spirit. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. And if my rant hasn’t scared you off, I hope you can join us as we explore each of these aspects of spiritual fruit, and discover how God’s fruit blesses us and those around us.
(The class will meet Sunday mornings at 10:50, during the second service. We meet at Beltway Park Baptist Church, Room A-110, and visitors are always welcome.)