I’ve been reading an interesting book about the history of the Bible (called, “The Book: A History of The Bible”). It’s got glossy pages and pictures of ancient manuscript pages and has detailed information about some things I already knew, and others I didn’t. One thing that is so obvious is that the Bible was only compiled into its current order around the 4th century AD. That order changed slightly, depending on which tradition one followed; but in general it’s been the same since then. The Bible was also very rarely produced as a whole until the Middle Ages; it was just too expensive and unwieldy to do it that way, and the tradition was to publish one book at a time, or perhaps the four Gospels and maybe the Psalms, or whichever books the person writing or commissioning desired to include. Which destroys the very un-scholarly assertion (only of some, thankfully) that the injunction at the end of Revelation not to “add to these things” precludes the addition of further revelation or scripture to the Bible as a whole, rather than just that revelation. But that’s a topic for another post. I just wanted to mention the fact that I’ve been reading this book, so that I can refer to it later and because the chapter I’m reading at the moment is about Bible Commentaries, which were very popular from the beginning of its history – meaning, the beginning of the history of each of its books. Of course, commentaries on scripture were given from way back at the very beginning – a decent portion of the Bible itself is commentary. I realised that a lot of what I do, and especially where I began with this blog, is commentary on the scriptures. I love getting those insights, and I love discovering scriptures anew in a class or when an apostle ‘expounds’ them and I get a whole new picture of what it means. Sometimes it’s just another layer built upon the past layers, and sometimes it’s a flash of clarity that leaves me wide-eyed and about-turned.
Well, this is another mini-commentary, tonight on Galatians 5. I’ve often gone to verses 22 and 23 for a description of the fruits of the Spirit, and today I wondered again about that little bit at the end that’s always seemed slightly strange: after listing the fruits, Paul writes that “against such there is no law”. What does that mean? Why would there be a law against those things? Is it some sort of poetic ending (to this thought) that he included in his letter to make it sound nice, or is there an actual meaning to it? Well, after years of wondering, I actually decided to find out. I figured understanding the context of those verses was a good way to start, so I read the chapter from the beginning. Then I read it in my French Bible, which acts as a sort of Bible dictionary for when I want to get a second opinion, especially for the New Testament, and especially for Paul’s letters. I didn’t come up with anything amazing, but I understood it a lot better, and found some interesting connections (I love connections). Of course, the context of those verses isn’t just in the chapter, but the whole letter to the Galatians. Paul wrote this letter because a whole lot of people in this area had chosen to reject correct Gospel teachings and go back to the old Jewish law. So Galatians is all about the futility of choosing the bondage of the Mosaic Law over the freedom of the Gospel covenant established by Christ. He explains how the whole point of Christ’s coming and Atonement was to save them from the confines of the Law; to show them the way of faith, mercy and grace; to save them through love, not compulsion. I can sense Paul’s frustration at the short-sighted, stubborn rejection of the Gospel’s peace and beauty for the old, surpassed, strict and unforgiving traditions of ‘Judaism’ (actually, a lot of Paul’s letters are about this. It seems to have been a big problem).
So now we have context. Our lovely chapter 5 begins with Paul pleading with the Galatians not to give up the liberty they’ve gained through Christ for the Law of Moses (when it mentions “law”, “the law”, or “circumcision” in this part of the Bible, it usually means the Law of Moses, or traditional Judaism). They have to choose one: if they choose the Law, they give up Christ, because He superseded the Law – which He gave in the first place, of course, and for specific purpose. It was never meant to last forever. The whole point of Christ’s sacrifice was to save us from the whole law. Paul says in other places that no-one can ever live the whole law; they will always fall short, because that’s the nature of being human. The only way to become whole, perfected, is through Jesus Christ. He took upon Himself the whole law, because we cannot. And He offers us the terms of mercy – whatever we can do, we do, and it is enough, as long as we keep trying to do it. He changes our hearts and heals our hurts. We give ourselves up to Him and His conditions – we “submit cheerfully to all the will of the Lord” – we take upon ourselves His light burden and easy yoke (easier than sin and the whole law), and He gives us peace, hope, and freedom in return.
But someone had come among the Galatians and told them the wrong thing. He or she had convinced them that the old Law was better. What?! How could being subject to the whole law – being accountable for absolutely everything, with no mercy or salvation except the hope of your own exacting uprightness – be preferrable to that? Paul makes clear in this chapter that they were giving up freedom for bondage. He compares seeking justification through the exact keeping of the law with the faith of looking to the Holy Ghost for justification. He is the One who purifies our desires and justifies us (makes us “right” or square with eternal law). As we give ourselves to Christ (remember the Sacrament prayers), the Holy Ghost dwells with us and creates this process of gradual justification and purification of our desires. The thing which apparently makes the difference here is “faith which worketh by love” (verse 6), not being perfect keepers of the Law. Faith and love change our hearts and make us more like Christ. Faith and love cause us to begin a good thing, and keep us going. Faith is hoping for something we can’t see yet, and love is extending ourselves so that we or another person can progress (I got that from Dr Scott Peck). In the Gospel, these attributes are the power, not the Law of Moses. The Law itself, like Paul keeps telling the members, has no power except to condemn.
Paul then warns the Galatians against using their liberation from the exacting Law of Moses as an excuse to do whatever they want (verse 13). Instead, the Gospel gives them freedom to live by love – to keep the whole law through this. The whole law is the meaning behind the Law of Moses. This meaning was Christ. And the whole message of Christ when He came to the earth was love. It always has been: love caused Adam and Eve to descend from the Garden and have children; it caused Enoch to preach the Gospel and create Zion; it led Abraham to leave his corrupted birthplace and found a new land of devotion and promise; it caused God to send His Son to be our sacrifice, and it caused the Son to choose and to fulfil that mission. Therefore, pleads Paul, don’t imagine that our franchisement by Christ is leave to live for ourselves only, as though we have no love. Our liberty is true liberty, not that pretend kind that the world preaches. It’s the freedom to be led by the Spirit. If we are led by the Spirit, He takes care of the justification process. We are no longer under the jurisdiction of the Law – there’s no need to keep the old ordinances – but we cannot just walk after our own law. That’s not freedom, and it’s not following the Spirit. Paul lists the fruits of walking after our own law, which he calls following the desires of the flesh. They’re not pretty: idolatries, murder, adultery, drunkenness, jealousies, envyings, disputes, divisions, sects within the church…. They’re all indications of un-love. Then he lists the fruits of following the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness and kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. You feel different just reading them! What’s interesting is what Paul then explains (the part I used to think was strange): the Law (see how the capital letter makes such a difference in understanding this bit?) isn’t against these things anyway. A gentle reminder that the whole purpose of the Law was to lead to Christ, and His Gospel and love, and that anyone who really understood it knew that what it really meant was love of God and neighbour. This little phrase also connects with verse 18, which states that when you are led by the Spirit, you are no longer under the Law; it no longer has the power of decision over you. You’re living by the Gospel law, or the fulness of what the Law meant to convey, which is that love is everything. “The Law” is also a sort of stand-in for the flesh, or mortal desires. Being led by the Spirit frees us from being led by these, so that we produce the beautiful fruits instead of the ugly ones.