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New Testament Words and Verses
Galatians 5:1-23, Works of Flesh and Fruit of Spirit



This memorable passage from the Epistle to the Galatians has always played an important role in Christian ethical instruction.  It is interesting that, as a youth, I was encouraged to memorize the second half of the list (the fruit of the Spirit) though, come to think of it I never recall anyone defining in precise terms what the dozen or so words describing the fruit of the Spirit actually meant. And now, as I return to the text many years later, I find myself facing two predicaments.  First, I somehow find more interesting to study the works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit and, second, I wonder about the value of moral exhortation which is at the heart of these texts. That is, is there a value in having a figure of authority say, “Be kind”?  or “Don’t get drunk”?  It seems that by the time one has come to maturity in life that the importance of these exhortations fades, even though a timely reminder of some of them on occasion may be salutary.


                                                           Setting the Context—Gal. 5:14-15


Before actually getting into the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit, it might be helpful to capture this list in a summative form or from the perspective of the principal value underlying them. This value is mentioned in Gal. 5:14—that the entire law is fulfilled in this one command:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  This, then, is the overriding principle, the centrality of love of neighbor.


Then, in 5:15 he turns to a warning. One of the few reasons I give the warning is that it gives three precious verbs, two of which are NT hapaxes. First, the Greek:


εἰ δὲ ἀλλήλους δάκνετε καὶ κατεσθίετε, βλέπετε μὴ ὑπ’ ἀλλήλων ἀναλωθῆτε. . .


“But if you bite and devour each other, see to it that you are not consumed by each other.”


The form of the sentence isn’t helpful.  Usually when we begin a statement with and “if” clause and then go to the “then” clause, the “then” clause describes the consequences of actions taken in the “if” clause. But that isn’t what we have here. We do have an “if” clause—“if you bite and devour”—and the clause is vivid enough, but we would have expected something like, ‘then you have no place in the Kingdom of God’ or ‘You will be in need of forgiveness.’  But instead of these we have, “See to it that you are not destroyed/consumed by each other. . .”  It is saying, ‘Ok, I guess you may eat and devour, but just make sure you aren’t destroyed by it.’  This makes little sense.  In the present form it suggests that you can go ahead and “bite” and “devour,” but make sure you stop short before people are completely consumed.  I would contend this isn’t really much of an instantiation of the principle of love of neighbor of the prior verse.


                                                                                   Works of the Flesh


So, with this rather inauspicious beginning, our author encourages us to look at the works of the flesh—which are to be avoided, and the fruit of the Spirit—which are to be embraced. The Greek of the former reads (Gal. 5:19-21): 


φανερὰ δέ ἐστιν τὰ ἔργα τῆς σαρκός, ἅτινά ἐστιν πορνεία, ἀκαθαρσία, ἀσέλγεια, εἰδωλολατρία, φαρμακεία, ἔχθραι, ἔρις, ζῆλος, θυμοί, ἐριθεῖαι, διχοστασίαι, αἱρέσεις, φθόνοι, μέθαι, κῶμοι καὶ τὰ ὅμοια τούτοις. . .


It might be helpful to put them one at a time with several English translations that are either in dictionaries or various translations of the Bible. Many scholars have pointed out that this list of fifteen terms can conveniently be divided into four categories:  (a) sexual sins: (b) sins connected with non-Christian worship; (c) violations of the law of love; and (d) sins of intemperance. It might also be helpful just to go a few at a time.  “Manifest/clear/evident are the words of the flesh.”  They are:


                                                                                            Sexual Sins


πορνεία— sexual immorality, adultery, fornication, unchastity

ἀκαθαρσία—uncleanness, moral impurity

ἀσέλγεια—indecency, lack of restraint, debauchery, sensuality, lasciviousness, lewdness


Let’s go slowly so that we can savor the indecencies which are to be avoided. These three indecencies not only appear here but also in II Cor. 12:21, where they are in a different order: ἀκαθαρσία, πορνεία, ἀσέλγεια.  Col. 3:5 has πορνεία and ἀκαθαρσία, but then follows it with several words not on the Gal. 5 list:   πάθος (passion/inordinate affection); ἐπιθυμία, which is a strong word for passions, lust, unhealthy desires; πλεονεξία, which has to do with covetousness or greediness. Interestingly, in Col. 3:5, this last term, πλεονεξία, is then described as εἰδωλολατρεία, or “idol worship,” though the connection between the two terms isn’t obvious to me. εἰδωλολατρεία, however, will appear in our second group of vices in Gal. 5.


Though sometimes πορνεία appears to refer to a specific immoral sexual practice (i.e., adultery), I usually think of it as a generic term for sexual immorality.  Just toss out the term and it is enough to make people cringe or cry out in terror.  “Sexual immorality” is the work of the flesh. Who could disagree? πορνεία appears 25x in the NT, with seven of those being in Revelation, where immorality is a pretty important theme because it is practiced by that immoral lady who sits on the throne. Let’s just call it “sexual immorality” and leave it to the imagination of the hearer.


ἀκαθαρσία doesn’t take us much further.  The alpha privative just takes away from “cleanness” or “purity,” so some kind of sexual impurity is in view.  It isn’t mentioned whether this is a violation of the Jewish purity laws (probably not) or any kind of ancient purity code. One commentator suggests that this relates to “unnatural vices to which many heathen were addicted,” which comment tells us more about the interpretive world of the writer than the world he is trying to describe. And, indeed, even if we knew the precise world to which these words were pointing (and I don’t think we do), we would be hard-pressed if we could “translate” the term to today.  Does “impurity” or “uncleanness” mean that one is simply to abstain from certain actions relating to physical pleasure? One enters into endless and relatively useless speculation about this term.


ἀσέλγεια—it’s even worse when scholars try to describe this word. It gives them license to wind up and throw their hardest fastball against all kinds of immorality.  Here are some of the terms that people use to describe it: lustfulness, lasciviousness, reckless shamelessness in unclean indulgence or open and unabashed indulgence in impurity.  But, as some scholars note, it might be “wanton petulance” or “capricious insolence.”  Why not “open, shameless profligacy”? One gets the impression after chuckling through modern definitions of the terms that we really don’t know what they mean. The three of these vices are all in the sexual area, and the Apostle seems to want to emphasize how vile are the illicit desires of the flesh.  If you have to ask, it probably is either πορνεία, ἀκαθαρσία or ἀσέλγεια. Just stop it!  It will get you bumped from the banquet, tossed from the table, frozen out of the feast in the Kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:20

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