A Commentary by John Stott
In Galatians 5:16-25 the apostle Paul has described both the Christian conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, and the way of victory through crucifying the flesh and walking by the Spirit.
Galatians 5:26 – 6:5 describes one of the practical results of this victory. It concerns our personal relationships, especially with fellow-believers in the congregation. This is plain from the exhortations of verses 25 and 26. Verse 25: *If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit*. Verse 26: *Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another*. Ephesians 5:18 ff. is similar, where the outcome of the command ‘Be filled with the Spirit’ includes ‘addressing one another’ and being ‘subject to one another’. Both passages show that the first and great evidence of our walking by the Spirit or being filled with the Spirit is not some private mystical experience of our own, but our practical relationships of love with other people. And since the first fruit of the Spirit is love, this is only logical.
But it is easy to talk about ‘love’ in an abstract and general way; it is much harder to get down to concrete, particular situations in which we actually demonstrate our love for one another. It is some of these which Paul now unfolds. He tells us how, if we are walking by the Spirit, we shall and shall not behave towards each other.
1). How Christians should not treat each other (verse 26).
*Let us have no self-conceit (AV ‘vainglory’), no provoking of one another, no envy of one another*. This is a very instructive verse because it shows that our conduct to others is determined by our opinion of ourselves. It is when we have ‘self-conceit’ that we provoke and envy other people. This word (the Greek adjective *kenodoxos*) denotes somebody who has an opinion of himself which is empty, vain or false. He is cherishing an illusion about himself or is just plain conceited. Now, when we are conceited, our relationships with other people are bound to be poisoned. Indeed, whenever relationships with other people deteriorate, conceit is nearly always the basic cause. According to Paul, when we are conceited, we tend to do one of two things; we either ‘provoke’ one another or ‘envy’ one another.
First, we provoke one another. This Greek verb (*prokaleo*) is unique in the New Testament. It means to ‘challenge’ somebody to a contest. It implies that we are so sure of our superiority that we want to demonstrate it. So we challenge people to dispute it in order to give ourselves a chance to prove it. Secondly, we envy one another, being jealous of one another’s gifts or attainments.
What the apostle writes here is entirely true to our own experience. Generally speaking, we adopt towards each other one of these two attitudes. We are motivated by feelings either of inferiority or superiority. If we regard ourselves as superior to other people we challenge them, for we want them to know and feel our superiority. If, on the other hand, we regard them as superior to us, we envy them. In both cases our attitude is due to ‘vainglory’ or ‘conceit’, to our having such a fantasy opinion of ourselves that we cannot bear rivals.
Very different is that love which is the fruit of the Spirit, which Christians exhibit when they are walking by the Spirit. Such people have no self-conceit, or rather are continuously seeking by the Spirit to subdue it. They do not think of themselves more highly than they ought to think; they think soberly (Rom.12:3). The Holy Spirit has opened their eyes to see both their own sin and unworthiness and also the importance and value of other people in the sight of God. People with such love regard others as ‘more important’ and seek every opportunity to serve them. (Phil. 2:3: ‘Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves.’ This cannot be a command to regard everybody, including the worst offenders, as morally ‘better’ [since humility is neither blind nor perverse], but rather to regard them as ‘more important’ and therefore worthy to be served.)
To sum up, then, truly Christian relationships are governed not by rivalry but by service. The correct attitude to other people is not ‘I’m better than you and I’ll prove it’, nor ‘You’re better than I and I resent it’, but ‘You are a person of importance in your own right (because God made you in His own image and Christ died for you) and it is my joy and privilege to serve you’.