Paul alludes to Leviticus 19:18: the Law is fulfilled in one commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). This verse is the most quoted verse from the Pentateuch in the New Testament, despite the fact it is almost never referred to in first century Jewish texts. Perhaps this is because Jesus himself stressed love of neighbor as a fulfillment of the law.
There was a lively debate in the first century on how to sum up the Law. When a teacher of the Law asks Jesus what the greatest command is, he responds “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:34-40). Jesus says the Law and prophets “hang” on these two commandments.
However, defining just who was included as a neighbor was also a hotly debated topic. Prior to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus is asked by an expert in the Law to define “neighbor.” The man likely understood the word “neighbor” to refer to his fellow Jews, since that is what neighbor means in Leviticus. But Jesus expands “neighbor” to include anyone who is in need.
It is possible Paul has fellow-Christians in mind here, given the context of factions within the church (5:15, 26), but he will expand the doing of good in 6:10 to everyone, but especially the “household of faith.” Paul’s point is not, “if you want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” He has said repeatedly that the age of the Law is done and over with and the one who is in Christ is free from the Mosaic Law.
After arguing that Gentiles do not have to keep the Law, it is ironic Paul now says when they love their neighbors they “fulfill the Law.” It is as if Paul is saying, “If you really want to keep the Law, love your neighbor.” Like a prophet from the Old Testament, Paul tells his readers their observance of rituals do not mean anything if they do not do the heart of the Law, namely, love of God and love of neighbors. If one is loving one’s neighbor, then they are already doing the “spirit of the Law.” By walking by the Holy Spirit, the believer is already fulfilling the whole law.
The reason the Galatian believers are to submit to the Law of Love in Christ is that their current behavior is going to destroy the church. They are biting and devouring one another (5:15). Paul describes the factions in the Galatian churches as wild animals. They are like “mad beasts fighting each other so that they went up killing each other” (Betz 277). Wild animals are commonly used as metaphors for bad behavior in the Greco-Roman world, so this is a metaphor the Galatians would have immediately understood.
There is a danger in keeping the Law, but Paul says here there is also danger in factionalism. The body of Christ functions best when there is unity in local churches (Phil 2:1-4). The problem Paul must address is therefore “how do I serve my brother and sister in love?”
How does Paul describe the life of service to one’s neighbor in Galatians? What does this “look like” in a contemporary setting?