“Flesh” versus “Spirit”


When I say “fruit of the Spirit,” many of you will mentally turn to Galatians 5, but we see also these characteristics elsewhere. So let’s see what the New Testament teaches about what a proper list of vices and virtues might look like. To do that, we’ll begin with the foundation for anything like this, then we’ll look at some New Testament lists.

Vineyards, Vines, and Fruit

Israel as God’s Vineyard


Since we’re talking about fruit, it might be a good thing to start with the biblical imagery of vine and fruit and branch out from there. In the Old Testament, Israel is a vine brought up out of Egypt and nurtured in the wilderness (Ps 80:8–19; Ezek 17:5–10; 19:10–14; Hos 14:7). This vineyard is eventually destroyed by divine judgment and at the hands of bad leaders (Isa 5:1–7).

Life in the Vine

I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener
This is background for Jesus’s parables about the vine (John 15:1–8), about vineyard and its tenants (Matt 21:23–22:14), and about good and bad fruit (Matt 13:1–9; 21:19, 33-44):

I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more. You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1–5)

Jesus as vine
Jesus Christ as the Vine (16th century icon)

Here Jesus’s exhortation echoes the Old Testament teaching about Israel being God’s vine and vineyard, which God himself cultivates. Jesus uses that imagery to tell us where the root and stalk of Christian discipleship is to be found.

Just because something is “fruitful” doesn’t mean it’s a good thing

And looking forward, Jesus initiates what will become an important New Testament theme, which is union with Christ. It’s by virtue of our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection that we experience sin’s atonement, justification, adoption. It’s by virtue of our union with Christ that we are counted as heirs and coheirs of the kingdom of God now and into eternity.

Good versus Bad Fruit

Here would be a good place to interject a note of caution about what we think of when we read “fruit.” Just because something is “fruitful” doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing, because Jesus talked of both good and bad fruit.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. (Matt 7:15–20)

Here Jesus speaks of being wary of false prophets who don’t produce the fruit of righteousness. And again, Jesus echoes the Old Testament metaphor of the Lord as the vineyard keeper, and of Israel as the vineyard chastised by God’s judgment. In the same context, Jesus goes on to speak about distinguishing between true and false disciples (Matt 7:21–23), between solid and weak foundations (Matt 7:24–27). Of course, the solid foundation is Christ, just as he is the vine to which we must all remain attached.

“Works” versus “Fruit”

So Paul’s list of the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit comes out of that old Testament background. But it also draws on a rich tradition of vice and virtue lists1See J. Daryl, Charles, “Vice and Virtue Lists,” Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, eds. Stanley F. Porter Craig A. Evans (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000); Timothy L. Jacobs, “Virtue and Vice Lists,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, eds. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016). like we find in the ancient Near East,2Ancient Near Eastern law codes: Code of Ur-Nammu (ca. 2100 BC), Sumerian laws of Lipit Ishtar (c. 1925 BC), Akkadian laws of Eshnunna (c. 1800 BC), and Hittite laws (1650–1200 BC) of Asia Minor. the Graeco-Roman world,3Classical Greek sources (before 336 BC): Aristotle: Eudemian Ethics 2.3.4; Plato: Gorgias 525–6; Republic 4.427e, 6.490c–e, 427c–434d, 543c–580a. and Jewish literature.4Deuterocanonical Literature: Wisdom of Solomon 4:11; 8:4–9; 12:10; 14:21–31; Sirach 7:1–7; and Pseudepigrapha: 4 Maccabees 1:18; 1 Enoch 91:5–7; Jubilees 21:21, 23:144; 3 Baruch 4:17, 13:3–4; Testament of Reuben 3:2–8; Testament of Judah 16:1–2, 19:1–4; Testament of Gad 5:1–3; Testament of Asher 2:5–6; Testament of Benjamin 6:4; Sibylline Oracles 2:253–97, 3:36–45; Assumption of Moses 7:110. And of course, we see it elsewhere in the New Testament itself, and then on into early Christian literature. For at least the Jewish background and early Christian examples, I’ll quote a lot, since it’s less accesible to you than what you find in the New Testament itself.

Jewish Background

Wisdom of Solomon 14:25–26

​… and all is a raging riot of blood and murder, theft and deceit, corruption, faithlessness, tumult, perjury, confusion over what is good, forgetfulness of favors, defiling of souls, sexual perversion, disorder in marriages, adultery, and debauchery.

​4 Maccabees 1:26–27

In the soul it is boastfulness, covetousness, thirst for honor, rivalry, and malice; in the body, indiscriminate eating, gluttony, and solitary gormandizing.​

4 Maccabees 2:15

It is evident that reason rules even the more violent emotions: lust for power, vainglory, boasting, arrogance, and malice.

1QS 4.9–11

… to the spirit of deceit belong greed, sluggishness in the service of justice, wickedness, falsehood, pride, haughtiness of heart, dishonesty, trickery, cruelty, much insincerity, impatience, much foolishness, impudent enthusiasm for appalling acts performed in a lustful passion, filthy paths in the service of impurity, blasphemous tongue, blindness of eyes, hardness of hearing, stiffness of neck, hardness of heart in order to walk in all the paths of darkness and evil cunning.

Philo, Sacrifices of Cain and Abel, 32

(32) Know, then, my good friend, that if you become a votary of pleasure you will be all these things: a bold, cunning, audacious, unsociable, uncourteous, inhuman, lawless, savage, illtempered, unrestrainable, worthless man; deaf to advice, foolish, full of evil acts, unteachable, unjust, unfair, one who has no participation with others, one who cannot be trusted in his agreements, one with whom there is no peace, covetous, most lawless, unfriendly, homeless, cityless, seditious, faithless, disorderly, impious, unholy, unsettled, unstable, uninitiated, profane, polluted, indecent, destructive, murderous, illiberal, abrupt, brutal, slavish, cowardly, intemperate, irregular, disgraceful, shameful, doing and suffering all infamy, colourless, immoderate, unsatiable, insolent, conceited, self-willed, mean, envious, calumnious, quarrelsome, slanderous, greedy, deceitful, cheating, rash, ignorant, stupid, inharmonious, dishonest, disobedient, obstinate, tricky, swindling, insincere, suspicious, hated, absurd, difficult to detect, difficult to avoid, destructive, evil-minded, disproportionate, an unreasonable chatterer, a proser, a gossip, a vain babbler, a flatterer, a fool, full of heavy sorrow, weak in bearing grief, trembling at every sound, inclined to delay, inconsiderate, improvident, impudent, neglectful of good, unprepared, ignorant of virtue, always in the wrong, erring, stumbling, ill-managed, ill-governed, a glutton, a captive, a spendthrift, easily yielding, most crafty, double-minded, double-tongued, perfidious, treacherous, unscrupulous, always unsuccessful, always in want, infirm of purpose, fickle, a wanderer, a follower of others, yielding to impulses, open to the attacks of enemies, mad, easily satisfied, fond of life, fond of vain glory, passionate, ill-tempered, lazy, a procrastinator, suspected, incurable, full of evil jealousies, despairing, full of tears, rejoicing in evil, frantic, beside yourself, without any steady character, contriving evil, eager for disgraceful gain, selfish, a willing slave, an eager enemy, a demagogue, a bad steward, stiffnecked, effeminate, outcast, confused, discarded, mocking, injurious, vain, full of unmitigated unalloyed misery.

2 Enoch 10.4–5

And I said, “Woe, woe! How very frightful this place is!” And those men said to me, “This place, Enoch, has been prepared for those who do not glorify God, who practice on the earth the sin |which is against nature, which is child corruption in the anus in the manner of Sodom, of witchcraft, enchantments, divinations, trafficking with demons, who boast about their evil deeds—stealing, lying, insulting, coveting, resentment, fornication, murder—and who steal the souls of men secretly, seizing the poor by the throat, taking away their possessions, enriching themselves from the possessions of others, defrauding them; who, when they are able to provide sustenance, bring about the death of the hungry by starvation; and, when they are able to provide clothing, take away the last garment of the naked; who do not acknowledge their Creator, but bow down to idols which have no souls, which can neither see nor hear, vain gods; constructing images, and bowing down to vile things made by hands—for all these this place has been prepared as an eternal reward.”

Christian: New Testament

Galatians 5:19–21 speaks of a deadly trajectory:

“flesh” → folly → vice → death

Then Galatians 5:22–23 contrasts that with a life-giving trajectory:

“Spirit” → Wisdom → Virtue → Life

And we see strong parallels to that in Paul’s description of what love is and isn’t (1 Cor 13:4–7). We’ll treat that in more detail in separate blogs, and of course those two lists don’t come close to exhausting the New Testament lists that focus on vice and/or virtue.5Virtue lists: 2 Cor 6:6–8; Gal 5:22–23; Eph 4:32; 5:9; Phil 4:8; Col 3:12; 1 Tim 4:12; 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22; 3:10; Jas 3:17; 1 Peter 3:8; 2 Pet 1:5–7. Vice lists: Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21–22; Rom 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Cor 5:10–11; 6:9–10; 2 Cor 6:9–10; 12:20–21; Gal 5:19–21; Eph 4:31; 5:3–5; Col 3:5, 8; 1 Tim 1:9–10; 2 Tim 3:2–5; Titus 3:3; Jas 3:15; 1 Pet 2:1; 4:3, 15; Rev 9:21; 21:8; 22:15.

Christian: Patristic

1 Clement 35.5–6

But how shall this be, dearly beloved? If our mind be fixed through faith towards God; if we seek out those things which are well pleasing and acceptable unto Him; if we accomplish such things as beseem His faultless will, and follow the way of truth, casting off from ourselves all unrighteousness and iniquity, covetousness, strifes, malignities and deceits, whisperings and backbitings, hatred of God, pride and arrogance, vainglory and inhospitality. For they that do these things are hateful to God; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent unto them.​

Didache 5.1–2

But the way of death is this. First of all, it is evil and full of a curse; murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magical arts, witchcrafts, plunderings, false witnessings, hypocrisies, doubleness of heart, treachery, pride, malice, stubbornness, covetousness, foul-speaking, jealousy, boldness, exaltation, boastfulness; persecutors of good men, hating truth, loving a lie, not perceiving the reward of righteousness, not cleaving to the good nor to righteous judgment, wakeful not for that which is good but for that which is evil; from whom gentleness and forbearance stand aloof; loving vain things, pursuing a recompense, not pitying the poor man, not toiling for him that is oppressed with toil, not recognizing Him that made them, murderers of children, corrupters of the creatures of God, turning away from him that is in want, oppressing him that is afflicted, advocates of the wealthy, unjust judges of the poor, altogether sinful. May ye be delivered, my children, from all these things.

Epistle of Barnabas 20:1–2

But the way of the Black One is crooked and full of a curse. For it is a way of eternal death with punishment wherein are the things that destroy men’s souls—idolatry, boldness, exaltation of power, hypocrisy, doubleness of heart, adultery, murder, plundering, pride, transgression, treachery, malice, stubbornness, witchcraft, magic, covetousness, absence of the fear of God; persecutors of good men, hating the truth, loving lies, not perceiving the reward of righteousness, not cleaving to the good nor to righteous judgment, paying no heed to the widow and the orphan, wakeful not for the fear of God but for that which is evil; men from whom gentleness and forbearance stand aloof and far off; loving vain things, pursuing a recompense, not pitying the poor man, not toiling for him that is oppressed with toil, ready in slander, not recognizing Him that made them, murderers of children, corrupters of the creatures of God, turning away from him that is in want, oppressing him that is afflicted, advocates of the wealthy, unjust judges of the poor, sinful in all things.

A look ahead…

Well, that gives you some pretty good background to the next several blogs, which will treat the works of the flesh and then the fruit of the Spirit. I hope you’ll stay with me on this.

Author: Dale A. Brueggemann

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