A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 54

Freedom and Love (Gal 5:13-15)

Gal 5:13 resumes the subject of Gal 5:1. 1 “Now, as I was saying, you have been called to be free, but do not misunderstand the word! Do not misuse the freedom as an opening for sensual enjoyment! Rather serve one another through love. You desire to be slaves of the Law. Let this service to others be your slavery, and remember that for you the Law is completely fulfilled in the observance of the one principle, Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself. Whereas, if you show malignity in word or deed to your neighbour, the issue will be mutual destruction.”

Very characteristic here is the recurrence to the word Freedom; the most remarkable feature in the whole Epistle is the prominence given to the idea of Freedom.

An arithmetical statement will make this plain. The words ἐλεύθερος, ἐλευθερία, ἐλευθερόω, occur in this Epistle eleven times; but in Romans they occur only seven times, in the two Corinthians eight times, and in all the rest of Paul’s Epistles twice.

It is not a sufficient explanation to say that the idea was forced into prominence by the subject on which Paul has to write. The same subject is treated at far greater length in Romans, and the words occur much less frequently there in proportion to the size of the two letters. The idea of freedom is not the only form under which the struggle against Judaism can be expressed; one might also look at it from other points of view. The prominence of the idea is something special to this Epistle.

It may be said that Paul here appeals to a specially strong feeling in the minds of his readers: that it is because they were free in heart and in aspiration that he tries to rouse this strong characteristic of theirs against the Judaistic propaganda.

That argument does injustice to Paul. From that point of view one will always misjudge him. If he simply desired to win a victory over Judaism, he might appeal to them in that way; but he has a far wider view and aim. He does not simply select such arguments as will weigh most at the moment with his Galatian readers. He is content with no victory that does not strengthen the whole mind and character of the Galatians. As has been already pointed out, his purpose in the Epistle is not to frame an argument against Judaism: he tries to elevate and ennoble the minds of the Galatians, so that they may look at the question from a higher and truer point of view.

Therefore he does not seize on the more powerful emotions and passions of his readers, and try to harness these against Judaism. He tries to strengthen their weakness, and to make their minds harmonious and well-balanced, so that they may judge truly and wisely. If Paul calls the Galatians to freedom, and repeats the call, and presses home the idea to them, it is not because they were already specially free in mind and thought. It is because they were a people that needed to be roused to freedom — a people in whom the aspiration after freedom was dormant, and must be carefully fostered and fanned into flame.

In writing to the Churches of Asia and Achaia, he could not safely speak too much about freedom: for the Greek influence was strong among them, and an abuse of freedom degenerating into licence was the besetting weakness of the Greek race. He had to summon them to obedience to rule and law, instead of calling them to freedom. It was more important to insist on self-restraint, on abnegation, on contentment, than to stir up aspirations and longing after a new state of society.

The contrast between the insistence on rule and order to the Ephesians or the Colossians, all strongly Hellenised, and the preaching of freedom to the Phrygians and Lycaonians, still only half freed from native ritual, is very characteristic of Paul’s versatile sympathy.

It is obvious how appropriate and necessary this topic was in addressing a people like the Phrygians and Lycaonians of the South Galatian Province, “just beginning to rise from the torpor of Oriental peasant life, and to appreciate the beauty of Greek thought and the splendour of Roman power”.2 Lack of the sense of individuality and freedom characterises the Oriental mind as distinguished from the Western. That sense was peculiarly lacking in the Phrygians, who were reckoned by the ancients as pre-eminently the nation born and intended for slaves; but what is called the Phrygian character by the ancients was really the character of the Anatolian plateau as a whole (apart from the mountaineers of the coastward rim), simple, easy-minded, contented, good-humoured, submissive, yet capable of being roused to extreme religious enthusiasm; a people possessing many of the fundamental virtues, but needing intermixture with a more sprightly people in order to develop into a really strong and good race. Mixture and intercourse and education had planted the seeds of higher individual development among them, but the young growth needed careful tending. All that is said in Chapter 6 of St. Paul the Traveller on the situation in Antioch, Iconium, Derbe and Lystra at the time of Paul’s first visit, and on the spirit of his work there, bears on this subject. The Epistle is a continuation of the work of the first journey.

So he leads them up towards freedom. But there is a danger. Freedom may easily be misconstrued and abused, and he points out the safeguard. It lies in Love; and he quotes the Saviour’s epitome of the whole law of human conduct.

It would add to the pointedness of this passage, if we could suppose that the Galatians had pleaded3 as a sort of apology for their defection to Judaism, that they felt the need of some helper and guide as they struggled along the difficult path towards Christian perfection; and that they found such a guide in the Law.

Paul may actually be quoting that plea, when he says in Gal 5:21, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the Law”; and it may have suggested to him the explanation of the Law’s true function as child-ward ( XXXIX), He fully sympathised with the difficulty which the Galatians felt; and he therefore shows how in practice the effect of Faith was gradually perfected in the character, with Love as the guide. It was true that the “lusts of the flesh” were strong and dangerous, yet the Galatians ought not to look to the Law to tell them what to do and what to avoid. Love will eradicate these lusts by substituting for them new and stronger motives of action. Paul has already shown in Gal 3:2 ff. that it is unreasonable to look to the Law for help in perfecting what has been begun by Faith.

A single enunciation of this so important warning, about the danger and the safeguard, was not enough. Therefore a special paragraph repeats and enlarges it ( LV).


[1] The-particle γάρ, in 13, is not to be treated as giving a reason for something said in the last verse. It indicates that the proper subject is taken up again after a digression.

[2] St. Paul the Traveller, p. 149.

[3] Whether actually in a letter addressed to Paul or through the messenger who reported the situation to him: see LIX.

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