Galatians 5:15 “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”
“biting and devouring each other” Cannibalism horrified both Jewish and Greek sensibilities in the ancient world. This sort of metaphor was not uncommon in Jewish texts (see, e.g., Proverbs 30:14) and would have pushed the right buttons in the audience this letter was aimed at regarding the seriousness of the situation. Focusing the metaphor on the mouth and teeth also serves to connect this concept to the fact that the dispute was really about words, the use of words, and arguing.
“you will be destroyed” The “you” here is amplified in the original Greek. It implies not just an individual, but the entire congregation. Again, the foundational principle of God’s promise in Christ is RELATIONSHIP. In these last two verses, Paul sums up how the promise is connected to and works with our relationship with each other in the Body of Christ. In verse 13, he notes we are called to freedom, we are set free in Jesus not for ourselves, but to serve (and not to serve as a slave, but to serve “in love”). Verse 14 quotes the Law of Moses to support this promise and concept – this has been the focal point of God’s plan all along! Now, here in verse 15, Paul lays out the consequences of NOT following the concepts laid out in verse 13 and 14 – relationships are destroyed, and the entire church is devastated. Verse 15, then, is the opposite of the previous two verses.
But here is an important notion – verse 13 warns that we shouldn’t use our freedom in Christ to indulge in the sinful nature. This was the main accusation the Judiazers used for insisting on obedience to the Mosaic Law – without the Law, people would do whatever they want, and sin and depravity will reign. But if you look ahead a little further, to verse 19, Paul explains the kind of behavior that proceeds from “indulging the sinful nature" as stated in verse 13. Verses 19-20 list the usual “sinful nature” type activities that come to mind when most folks visualize “indulging” that nature. “Sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry, and witchcraft.” These sins are probably at the top of the list of concerns for the Judiazers as well. But as Paul’s list of sins continues, we see things more common to the “good people” of middle class America, things that go on in your local church community all the time – “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy.” You see, the “acts of the sinful nature,” (literally, the “flesh”) are not just limited to things like drunken orgies, drug binges, sleeping around, and bowing down to graven images – the kinds of things that much of ancient Greek society encouraged and which offended Jewish sensibilities (as well as violating God’s Law!), but include a whole bevy of “fleshly” activity that a straight laced, dignified, ceremonial (“church going,” if you will!), properly obedient to all the rituals Jewish fella (or modern day Christian) could indulge in and still appear to be respectable. Defining a person’s status and acceptability to God by the mere observance of rules and rituals produces a self-righteous, haughty, and critical spirit. By insisting on obedience to rules as the defining concept, you guarantee “indulging in the sinful nature” because the community of believers are now competing to show off their righteousness (even if only subconsciously) rather than working together in love. The ultimate result of relying on the law to save us is the destruction of relationships! And as Paul points out here, “you will be destroyed by each other.” The Devil is not to blame here, at least not so much. If we choose this path, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the ultimate destruction of our relationship with Jesus, and our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ.