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The Middle Way of the Spirit:

An Exegesis of Galatians 5:16-26

June 20, 2016
Drew Dixon

The fruit of the Spirit are often sung about in Sunday School or meditated on devotionally.

Such practices can certainly be spiritually enriching, but a closer look at their context shows that they

are not merely a list of attributes for Christians to aspire to but rather the resounding climax of Pauls

argument throughout the letter to the Galatians. In this paper I will look at the cultural and literary

contexts of the passage this list is found in, then look specifically at the passage in detail, and conclude

with some theological applications. We will discover in Galatians 5:16-26 that, amidst polarizing

opposion, Paul articulates a middle way of the Spirit.

Cultural Context

Tatha Wiley provides an immensely helpful background to the cultural situation into which

Paul wrote this letter. She explains Pauls audience, The groups to whom Paul writes were likely

exclusively Gentile.1 Thus, Gentile conversion is a central issue in Galatians. Wiley describes two

primary challenges that Paul faced in this issue, On one front was the continuing attraction of former

religious beliefs for some in these assemblies On another front were fellow Jesus evangelists whose

presence in Galatia threatened the credibility of his interpretation of Gods acceptance of Gentile

women and men.2 The people among the Galatian churches were pulled between their pagan pasts

and the Judaizers who taught adherence to the Jewish Law for Gentile converts. Pauls challenge is

finding a middle way between these two, which he argues in this passage.

Another item of cultural background to aid in understanding the passage is that the people in

Galatia were not only Gentile, but also had a history of Roman colonization. Stephen Mitchell writes

1 Tatha Wiley, Paul and the Gentile Women: Reframing Galatians (New York: Continuum, 2005), 55.
2 Ibid., 67.

about the Galatians, They were renowned warriors and prized mercenaries whose outlandish

appearance, great physical stature, and barbarian ways struck terror into their enemies, but they were

insufficiently disciplined to prevail over the armies of the Hellenistic kingdoms or Roman legions. 3

They were a people acquainted with warfare and tribal opposition. Opposition is central to this passage.

Literary Context

Gordon Fee describes this passage as the crux for understanding Galatians as a whole.4 He

describes that, while many understand this passage as a shift from doctrinal teaching to practical

application, it is better understood as the final (necessary) stage of the argument.5 Thus, this passage

can be seen as a grand crescendo and climax of the book. Rather than applying doctrine by way of

imperative, this passage proves doctrine by way of practice. The problem which Paul put forth in 3:3,

Having begun by the Spirit, are you now fulfilled by the flesh?, is now answered in 5:16, Keep

walking by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desire of the flesh.

Throughout the letter, Paul confronts each of the two opponents discussed above. First, in

1:11-2:14, Paul reasserts his credibility, which the Judaizers questioned, by recounting his revelation

of Jesus and subsequent ministry. Then, in 2:15-3:29, Paul combats their teaching, that Gentile

converts must follow the Jewish Law, by insisting that righteousness comes not through the works

of the law, but rather through the faithfulness of Christ (2:16). After this, in 4:1-20, Paul confronts

the other opponent, the Galatians former paganism, by reminding the Galatians of when they did

not know God and were enslaved to weak and worthless principles (4:8-9). Finally, in 4:21-5:15,

Paul brings both of these opponents together in an allegorical interpretation of Hagars story in which

Stephen Mitchell, Galatia, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary: D-G, vol. Vol. 2, The Anchor Bible Dictionary

(Doubleday, 1992), 870.

4 Gordon D. Fee, Gods Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson

Publishers, 1994), 420.

5 Ibid., 421

Hagar is a slave who is identified with Sinai (where the Law came from) which was a mountain (where

the pagans worshipped).6 This section culminates in Pauls exhortation to freedom in 5:1-5:15.

Passage Overview

This passage picks up here from 5:16-26. This passage contains four basic sections. First,

verses 16-18, act as an introduction and transition in which Paul declares the middle way of the Spirit.

Second, verses 19-21, contain a vice list, warning the audience of the works of the flesh. Third,

verses 22-23, contain a virtue list, inviting the audience into the fruit of the Spirit. Finally, verses 24-

26, act as a conclusion to the passage in which Paul reasserts the middle way of the Spirit and

transitions to the conclusion of the letter.

Before looking at the passage in detail, I must comment on a primary theme running through

it. In this passage, Paul describes the Spirit and the flesh in absolute opposition to one another

(vs 17). There are at least two ways this can be interpreted. First, it could be read as a description of

internal dissonance, that an individuals spirit is at war with their flesh. Second, it could be read as a

description of eschatological cosmic forces, that Gods Spirit is at war with the Flesh. A third

interpretation conflates the two, understanding it as Gods Spirit at war with human flesh. Religious

piety has often preferred this third, conflated, interpretation, leading to abusive spiritual environments.

This interpretation is not only harmful, but also ignores other passages where Paul describes a union

between our bodies and the Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19; 15:44). Secular tendency would likely prefer

the first interpretation, leading to a therapeutic reading, devoid of Gods activity. Richard Hays warns

against the secular tendency, The whole passage will be badly misinterpreted if one understands Spirit

and Flesh as anthropological terms for a perennial duality within the individual human personality.7

6 Wiley, Paul and the Gentile Women, 69.

7 Richard B. Hays, The Letter to the Galatians, in The New Interpreters Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck, vol. 11

(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 326.

Due to the collective address and eschatological nature of the passage, it should not be understood as

a personal internal conflict but rather as a conflict between the cosmic forces Flesh and Spirit.

Detailed Analysis

What follows is a detailed discussion of the passage with my own translation and commentary

with special attention to progression of the argument throughout the passage, key literary features,

and theological insights.

16 But I say, keep walking by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desire of the flesh.

This far Paul has confronted his opposition. He has argued against the legalism of the Judaizers

and warned against the former paganism of the Gentiles. If they are not to follow the law, but also

not return to their former ways, then what is the way forward? But I say Paul responds. This

verse is the middle way that Paul teaches. This is not just a practical outworking of the doctrine which

Paul had instructed thus far; it is the solution to the problems he had confronted. Richard Longenecker

describes, The truly unique feature of Pauline ethics is the role assigned to the Spirit.8 For Paul,

ethics are not to be derived from the Law nor be abandoned to paganism, but rather navigated by the


The phrase, keep walking by the Spirit, is the only imperative found in the whole passage.

All that follows should be understood as a description of this single command. The verb, walking,

alludes to the Old Testament and Rabbinic traditions that refer to living life in general.9 The opposing

phrase, fulfill the desire of the flesh, as observed earlier, corresponds to 3:3 by using the same Greek

verb. The return to this concept suggests that Pauls entire intervening argument is contained within

8 Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, ed. Ralph P. Martin, vol. 41, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, Texas:

Word Books, 1990), 244.

9 Ibid., 244.

this phrase. The flesh should be understood as both the legalism which the Judaizers teach and the

paganism which the Gentiles resist. Both of these enslave, but the Spirit grants freedom.

17 For, the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for each is opposed by the
other, so you may not do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the

Why might Pauls middle way be successful? If people are not tethered to the Law, how can

one be sure that they will not simply do whatever [they] want and return to their pagan past?

According to Paul, the Law does not prevent someone from the flesh. In fact, for Gentiles, the Law

actually contributes to living in the flesh! Walking by the Spirit will succeed because, unlike the Law,

the Spirit is against the flesh. Each one is opposed by the other.

The word opposed is warfare language. By using this word, Paul alludes to the kind of

warfare, colonization, and oppression that the Galatians would have been familiar with from their

history with Rome. This taps in to the theme of freedom. Because Spirit and Flesh are opposed to

each other, one must overcome the other. The freedom Paul calls them to must not be used for the

flesh (5:13), but rather keep in line with the Spirit (5:25). Thus, if they keep walking by the Spirit

then they will be caught up in this opposition and therefore will not do whatever [they] want. Yet,

if not keeping the Law, what will they do? Many Christians have settled to essentially make a new law.

But Paul insists that being led by the Spirit is quite different from being under the law.

19 The works of the flesh are obvious, which is sexual misconduct, uncleanness, self-abandonment,
20 idolatry, pharmaceutical intoxication, enmity, provocation, jealousy, rage, selfishness, division,
heresy, 21 envy, alcoholic intoxication, wild parties, and similar things.

Paul expounds upon the opposition between the Flesh and the Spirit beginning here with a

vice list and then continuing with a virtue list in 22-23. Paul begins this vice list with the statement

that works of the flesh are obvious. In saying this, Paul reasserts the unnecessary nature of the Law

for moral and ethical instruction. Such knowledge is universally available and obvious.

Many scholars have attempted to find a specific order or structure to this list, but Longenecker

suggests it is best understood as a random collection of terms.10 Similarly, Hays suggests the list, is

not comprehensive; it is merely an illustrative catalog of the human behaviors that result when the

flesh is given a base of operation.11 This interpretation is supported by singular verb of being that

begins the list. The singular verb suggests that these are not meant to be understood as many different

actions, but rather different actions that make up one way of being, namely being in the flesh.

Though this list is not comprehensive nor ordered in any particular way, it is worthy to note

some of the words and concepts within. When considering the larger argument of the letter, each

word in this list can be identified with one of the two major opponents previously discussed. While

the first three and final two items on this list may generically refer to various kinds of promiscuity,

they may also refer to pagan worship which often included sexual acts with temple prostitutes and

drunken revelry. The fourth and fifth items on the list are more explicitly associated with pagan

practices of idol worship and sorcery, which often involved the use of substances for a spiritual high.

The eight items that have not yet been discussed all have to do with communal disruption,

which can be associated with the theological and social disruptions the Judiazers brought to the

community with their teaching. Perhaps the most noteworthy within the list are division and

heresy which are precisely what the Judiazers were spreading and what Paul so passionately fought.

Such divisions are opposed to the oneness Paul expounded on in 3:28, There is not Jew nor Greek,

there is not slave nor free, there is not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

I tell you this just as I told you before, because those who practice these things will not inherit the
kingdom of God.

10 Ibid., 254.
11 Hays, The Letter to the Galatians, 327.

Paul reinforces this list by referring to what was probably something he had previously taught

during his ministry in Galatia. Longenecker explains that lists like this one were common in Pauls

day12 and it likely had its origin in Greek ethical teaching.13 But what sets Pauls list apart is the

eschatological nature of it. These have not only to do with immediate ethics, but also ultimate

inheritance. Paul draws ethical practice into the greater participation in the kingdom of God.

22 But, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, steadfastness, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23
meekness, self-control: there is not a law against these things.

Here, Paul turns to a virtue list of the fruit of the Spirit. Hays observes, In contrast to the

multiple and various works of the flesh, the Spirit produces the singular fruit of a community.14

While the works of the flesh brought division, the fruit of the Spirit brings unity. Like the previous

list, this one also should not be read as exhaustive or comprehensive. Rather, it is meant to illuminate

the imagination of the Spirit-filled community.

A few noteworthy observations about this list should be mentioned. First, the items on this

list all require community in order to come about. Love, kindness, goodness, etc. each require multiple

persons. Hays writes, We should not interpret this fruit as referring only to character qualities of the

individual; Paul is primarily concerned with the way in which the Spirits work I made manifest in

community.15 This becomes even more clear as Paul gives specific communal instructions in the

conclusion of the letter (6:1-10). Second, the final item on the list, self-control, is in direct opposition

to items on the previous list such as self-abandonment and wild parties. This is another example

of how the Spirit is opposed to the flesh. Finally, the item in the middle of the list, faithfulness, has

12 Longenecker, Galatians, 249.

13 Ibid., 251.
14 Hays, The Letter to the Galatians, 327.
15 Ibid., 327.

already been a prominent theme throughout the letter. After expounding upon righteousness coming

through the faithfulness of Christ (2:16), he describes that same faithfulness as a key attribute of the

faith community as they keep walking by the Spirit.

Paul concludes this virtue list by declaring that, while these attributes are in opposition to the

flesh, they do not contradict the Law. This is why Pauls middle way is superior to the Judaizers way

of the Law. The Law gave instruction, but did not oppose the flesh. The Spirit, on the other hand,

gives guidance and leads to freedom (vs 18).

24 But those of Christ crucified the flesh with the sufferings and the desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit,
then by the Spirit we keep in line. 26 May we not become filled with empty glory, provoking one another,
envying one another.

In the concluding lines of this passage Paul draws everything together with an allusion to

earlier statements, a summary of this section, and a transition to the next section. Longenecker explains

that, in verse 24, Paul is alluding to his earlier baptismal statement in 3:27-28.16 Those who have been

baptized into Christ (3:27) are now of Christ (5:24), having joined him in his crucifixion. This is

similar to what Paul writes elsewhere, We were buried with [Christ Jesus] through baptism into death

(Romans 6:4). Since Paul alludes to this baptismal statement here, it can be understood that the fruit

of the Spirit is the means by which the baptized community becomes one in Christ (3:28).

In verse 25, Paul summarizes this section by making a statement parallel to the one he began

with in verses 16-17. In the first half of this verse, live by the Spirit is parallel to walking by the

Spirit of verse 16. Then, in the second half of the verse, Paul revisits the warfare imagery of verse 17.

The verb keep in line conjures up the image of armies lined up in opposition on a battlefield. In the

opposition between the Spirit and the Flesh, we are to keep in line with the Spirit.17

16 Longenecker, Galatians, 264.

17 Hays, The Letter to the Galatians, 326.

Finally, in verse 26, Paul transitions to the final section of this letter where he will give

instructions to the community. He warns the community again of the division brought about about

by works of the flesh. In the next section he will give instructions to the spiritual ones (6:1).


I will conclude with a few theological and practical insights. First, the cosmic and

eschatological nature of this passage ought to function as a reminder to the Church that we are

involved in something much greater than simply the here and now. As Paul writes elsewhere, We do

not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic

powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

(Ephesians 6:12, ESV) The institutional and programmatic nature of many churches can distract from

walking by the Spirit which this passage commands.

Second, the communal nature of this passage functions as a challenge and encouragement to

individuals. Spiritual individualism and spiritual loneliness are two sides of the same coin, which runs

rampant in todays culture. This passage challenges the individual into the vulnerability of shared

spiritual community and encourages the lonely by reminding them of the wider community.

Finally, though not explicitly mentioned in the passage, the two applications above are joined

together in the liturgical act of baptism, which was alluded to in the passage. Baptism is an act which

unites body and Spirit, therefore is a cosmic act of warfare against the flesh. It is also a communal act

which is done by one person to another. In the place of baptism, a person enters into Christ, becomes

one with the community, and embarks upon the middle way of the Spirit.


Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, and William Arndt. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament
and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Fee, Gordon D. Gods Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, Mass:
Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.

Hays, Richard B. The Letter to the Galatians. In The New Interpreters Bible, edited by Leander E.
Keck, 11:181348. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

Longenecker, Richard N. Galatians. Edited by Ralph P. Martin. Vol. 41. Word Biblical Commentary.
Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1990.

Mitchell, Stephen. Galatia. In The Anchor Bible Dictionary: D-G, Vol. 2:87072. The Anchor Bible
Dictionary. Doubleday, 1992.

Wiley, Tatha. Paul and the Gentile Women: Reframing Galatians. New York: Continuum, 2005.