But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)
Years ago, I heard some simple advice for interpreting the Bible, “When a passage begins with ‘therefore,’ you should ask what it’s there for.” The point is, the word “therefore” tells you
the writer is completing a discussion and is about to give you the summary. While the summary is important, you can’t appreciate it without first reading the discussion. You should apply the same approach when a passage begins with the word “but,” like today’s verse. The word is a signal you are about to get a negative “bookend” to a point the writer has just made. You can’t understand and apply what follows the “but” without first understanding what comes before it.
Let’s test that principle of interpretation on today’s verse. This verse is at the end of Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia. They had fallen back into the practice of legalism, or the belief that their salvation was based on how well the followed the Old Testament laws. Paul has spent most of his letter telling them why they don’t need to live that way and has begun his summary. He concludes the letter by reminding the believers that they are free from the law and its condemnation. And then Paul reminds them that they are not free to do whatever they like even though the law no longer condemns them.
If you read Paul’s entire discussion, you will get today’s verse and the “but” in context:
So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions. But when you are directed by the Spirit, you are not under obligation to the law of Moses.
When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. Let us not become conceited, or provoke one another, or be jealous of one another. Galatians 5:16-26 (NLT)
You may have noticed that the fancy calligraphy version of this verse on coffee mugs and inspirational posters leaves off the word “but.” As a result, if you don’t know there is an important discussion leading up to Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit, you are left to believe Paul’s message is all love and sunshine: we become believers, our life is transformed, and we walk about exuding love, joy, peace, patience, etc. That is great sound-bite theology. It is not Paul’s message and it is not what we experience in real life.
Our experience, and Paul’s message leading up to “but,” is that the acts of the flesh are at war with the fruit of the Spirit, for example, hate is at war with the Spiritual fruit of love and fits of rage are competing with the Spiritual fruit of peace. He doesn’t set up a one-to-one correspondence, but you see the tension he is describing. When you read only the list of the fruits of the Spirit, you feel guilty because your life isn’t perfect you don’t exhibit all the fruits of the Spirit all the time. When you read the part that comes before the “but,” you see that Paul wasn’t writing about living a perfect life. Instead, he is describing the life you live every day. When we are faithful and allow God to work through us, we exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. When we fall back into our old ways, we exhibit the works of the flesh. This tension is always with us. The Galatians were saying it was OK to fall back into their old ways because God’s grace would save them in spite of what they did. Paul’s response to this point was clear and sobering, “Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21 (NLT)) Verse 21 will never make it on a mug or lovely poster. But it is essential to understanding Paul’s message.
I am encouraged when I read today’s verse with the “but” in it because it reminds me that all the things I do when left to my own devices are balanced by the things that God will do through me if I let him. The battle between good and evil believers fight all the time tells s that God is at work in our lives changing us into the people he wants me to be.
I am finishing the year and my list of Bible verses. Would you like to suggest a verse or passage for a post in the new year? Please leave a comment.
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