I want to introduce a way of reading or studying Scripture.
We are not simply reading words when we read Scripture or any other literary work. We read a literary material when we read Scripture, that is, the material we read is structured (composed or arranged) a certain way.
By composition I mean to refer to different literary types in Scripture. One is narrative/historical (e.g., Exodus or Acts), another is epistolary (i.e., formal Letters that carry a central argument, e.g., Romans and Galatians). Then there is poetry (e.g., Psalms, Proverbs), and prophecy (e.g., Hosea, Revelation). Poetry is a very entertaining study, if you ask me. I like the way it gets us into the emotion of the matter. Under poetry we study figures of speech. The simple ones include metaphor, simile, synecdoche, etc. Then we have parallelism, where the words or thought in the first line are parallel to the words or thought in the second line.
Different literary types are governed by their respective interpretative principles.
A chiasm is a form of parallelism in which words or thoughts expressed in the first half of the parallelism are repeated in the second half which reverses them. Chiasm is a literary technique to make a larger point.
The basic literary structure of a chiasm is ABA where the first A is parallel or corresponds to the last A.The B is the middle of the structure. The basic structure can be an extended one, like ABCxDxCBA, depending upon the literary length of the unit. Did you notice how CBA inverted ABC? (The middle of the structure is D.)
The hallmark of chiasm is inverted parallelism.
Because of the nature of the literary material the thoughtful reader will need to ask, “what is the author doing or saying here?” My seminary professor pointed out more than once, “A text cannot mean what it never meant.”
I submit that the passage of Galatians 5:16-26 is a chiasm. Paul makes a larger point in it.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
(This is how to read the chiasm. A is parallel to A1, and B to B1, and C or C1towards the middle, which is D).
The terms “Spirit” and “flesh” bracket the entire passage of 5:16-26. Paul inverts (A) “Spirit/flesh” to (A1) “flesh/Spirit,” a sure indication of chiasm. As we work inward we find the next parallel terms are “law” and “law” (B/B1), followed by “acts of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit” (C/C1). Which brings us finally to the middle chiasm: “inherit the kingdom of God” (D).
The beautiful thing about the ABCxDxCBA literary structure is how the chiasm points us to the middle: “inherit the kingdom of God.” A chiasm like this one functions to make a larger point in the passage. Like an arrow head the chiasm points us to the middle: “inherit the kingdom of God.”
Now, while the “fruit of the Spirit” is a rich study in and of itself it is part of the chiasm which middle is “inherit the kingdom of God.” A person that demonstrates the “acts of the flesh” in his life “cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Conversely, a person that demonstrates the “fruit of the Spirit” in his life can and will!
That is the larger point made by the chiasm of the passage.
Now allow me to make a few comments.
You must have heard of the eager evangelizer who encourages a prospective convert to “follow me” in prayer. Usually, after the prayer the evangelist assures the new convert that he is now “born again” and, on that account, is guaranteed to “go to heaven” (when he dies), or some such words.
The obvious problem here is that the new convert does not die there and then!(Or did he?) The person goes home, or proceeds to complete an errand, etc. The point is, the new convert continues to live! So, what does the new convert do between “getting saved” and “going to heaven”? Because heaven can be a long wait, you know.
In talking about the “distance” between the now and the hereafter I like using the phrase “collapsed middle.” The eager evangelist has neglected to tell his convert about the newness of life that (1) the new convert must now begin to live, which can be (2) a long one and (3) full of spiritual struggles with the “flesh” (v17; Romans 7:18-25).
Paul says when we are led by the Spirit He produces the “fruit of the Spirit” in our life. The “fruit” is the evidence we are heirs of the kingdom of God. We will “inherit the kingdom of God.”