Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

One of my favorite things about summer is the amazing variety of sweet and delicious fruit that becomes readily available during these long hot days. Cantaloupes and watermelons, peaches, plums – even cherries and fresh summer apples – they’re so refreshing and delectable, and such a wonderful treat. A very special memory from when I was a child was stopping at a roadside fruit stand on a family vacation and eating a peach as big as a softball, with the wonderful, sweet, sticky juice running down my arm. What a delight!

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising to learn that one of my favorite Bible passages is Galatians 5:22-23, where the Apostle Paul lists the nine qualities that he describes as the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Now, there is no shortage of devotional material on this text, but in my opinion, much of it misses the main point.

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been listing the large number of contrasts believers must face: works vs. faith; law vs. grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. The contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. By the time he gets to chapter five, he is talking about the acts of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – versus the Fruit of the Spirit.

Specifically, he says, “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) Please read that list again. “Hatred – discord – jealousy – fits of rage – selfish ambition.” Sounds like it was taken from today’s national news.

But then please notice 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.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23) The apostle makes it clear that if we are Jesus-followers, if God’s Holy Spirit is living and working within us, then these nine qualities will be evident in our lives. These must be the things that others see in us.

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. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals Himself through patience, sometimes though kindness, always through love.

Another thing: This is not a buffet! We mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any gentleness or self-control.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing ALL 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.

One last thing to notice is that every aspect of this fruit is seen in terms of our relationships with God and one another. It’s how we treat other people – our relationships with one another – that reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Our faith is not lived out in a vacuum.

May the Spirit produce in us that which is pleasing in His sight.

Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

(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.

grapes1_0Oh, 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.)