Don’t Hold Your Breath

 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

Galatians 5:25

The passage cited above comes at the end of a discussion on the Spirit and flesh from Paul’s divinely inspired letter to the Galatians. Earlier, beginning in verse 16, a clear demarcation is made between fruits of the flesh and fruits of the Spirit, leading to this final, summary exhortation. In the verse above there are three primary words for our consideration: live (zao), Spirit (pnuema), and walk or keep in step (stoichea). As we might expect, there is a relationship between them that lies beyond their English translation, as we will see.

When we think of the word ‘live’ in English, we generally consider it along the lines of life and death or in terms of how we go about our days. But this is really a surficial understanding of the word and notably doesn’t carry the weight as our word in the passage above. The word zao/zoe in the original language means to be possessed of a vitality, that is, strong and active with energy. Scripturally, we see it with reference to living water, living hope, in terms of spiritual life from the dead, and significantly in relation to God Himself as it is “in Him we live and move and have our being”, denoting He is the giver of life.

But to live requires outside influence. Even if considered in basic terms, we cannot live without food, water, etc. However, there is a significant, necessary outside ingredient that is intertwined with life itself, namely breath, “then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7). Our word for this from the passage above is pneuma and it can be translated as breath, spirit, or Spirit depending on the context. This of course overlaps the idea of the Spirit with breath. While zao/zoe means to be possessed of a vitality, as we saw earlier, the Spirit is indeed this vitality. In other words, the Spirit supplies the vigor and energy necessary to live a life for Christ. We of course have seen this throughout Scripture, particularly as the Spirit progresses from the Son of God to His disciples and subsequently all believers. Of note is John 20:22, “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'” The parallels between this passage from John and earlier from Genesis are striking. Summarizing then, just as breath is required for physical life, as referenced in Genesis 2:7, so too is breath (Spirit) required for spiritual life, as referenced in John 20:22.

This provides us with a better understanding for the first part of our verse from Galatians above, “if we live by the Spirit”. Seeing then that this living by the Spirit means that He supplies the vitality, vigor, and energy for our spiritual life, we now turn towards the second part for what it means to keep in step with the Spirit.

Recall that our third significant word from the passage was stoichea, translated here as keeping in step and sometimes as following the Spirit. In the Scriptures, particular Pauline writings, we have seen the connection between faith and practice, often represented in terms of our daily walk. The usual word for this is paripateo, which we have previously studied. Here, however something remarkably different is implied. Stoichea doesn’t so much refer to a daily walk or stroll, rather its meaning is to walk in lockstep, to march orderly in a line as a soldier would. In fact, it is a military term. If we were to expand on the imagery, it would look much like a military procession with the Spirit out in front and the soldiers, as it were, falling in ranks marching orderly behind Him.

Having now looked at each of our significant words from the verse above, let’s now put the entire picture together for our application. The fact that this verse begins with a conditional, “if” doesn’t mean that the practice of walking in step with the Spirit is optional, rather the condition is on whether a person is genuinely filled with the Spirit that can come only through repentance and faith in Christ. Commenting on this passage, Martin Luther writes, “[Paul] writes: ‘If we live in the Spirit.’ Where the Spirit is, men gain new attitudes. Where formerly they were vainglorious, spiteful and envious, they now become humble, gentle and patient. Such men seek not their own glory, but the glory of God. They do not provoke each other to wrath or envy, but prefer others to themselves.” The presence of the Spirit in the heart of a believer brings life, indeed vitality, such that every area of the persons life is changed for the better, for holiness. The thought life is changed. The attitude is changed. The tongue is changed. The people and places we keep company with are changed. Failure to recognize this, indeed failure to have change in these areas, or at minimum a desire to change in these areas, should cause us to examine the genuineness of our profession of faith and claim to be indwelt with the life-giving Spirit. Grace is available for all our failures (1 John 1:9), but recognition of them is mandatory (1 John 1:10).

We conclude our study here with a word from 17th century Purtian Stephen Charnock on the importance of our walk, “Where the honor of God is not practically owned in the lives of men, the being of God is not sensibly acknowledged in the hearts of men.” If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

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Christian saved by grace through faith.

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