"But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another." (Galatians 5:15).
Somewhere between A.D. 48 and A.D. 58, the apostle Paul sat down to write a letter to the churches of Galatia. This letter was written to address one particular subject: the erroneous teaching that Gentile Christians must obey the Law of Moses in order to be saved. The apostles and elders of Jerusalem discussed this issue prior to Paul's composition of this epistle (Acts 15). The decision of the Holy Spirit in this regard was not to burden Gentile Christians with the commands of the Old Law, and in particular the practice of circumcision (Acts 15:28). Yet, there were "false brethren" who had secretly entered the church "to spy out" their liberty in Christ (Galatians 2:4). These continued to cause problems among the churches of Galatia.
Paul addresses this issue among the churches in a three-fold manner. First, he discusses his authority as an apostle, as inspired of the Holy Spirit, to speak to such matters (1 - 2:14). Second, he offers an analysis of the issue itself in light of the person of Christ and the scriptures (2:15-4:31). Finally, he discusses the application of the truths elucidated to the lives of the Gentiles (5:1-6:18). It is within this third section of scripture that we find our text, Galatians 5:15.
Galatians chapter five begins with a declaration of Christian liberty. The Christian has been freed from the Law of Moses, but if the Christian desires to go back to that Law, then he falls from grace (5:4). That which avails for the Christian is "faith working through love" (5:6). Paul had established the churches of Galatia upon his first missionary tour (Acts 13-14) and so they were "running well" (5:7). However, they had been hindered by another gospel (5:7; 1:8, 9). Paul reiterates that they were called to freedom--freedom from the Law of Moses, but not freedom to practice licentiousness (5:13). Christians are not free from Christ's fulfillment of the law and that fulfillment is in loving one's neighbor (5:14). It is within this context that Paul writes, "But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another."
The verbs employed in this verse are only used in this one place in the Greek New Testament. The Greek scholar Robertson in his "Word Pictures" says that the verbs were used commonly to describe the actions of wild animals tearing and devouring each other. The words biting and devouring are obviously used figuratively. "Biting" refers to the aggressive and incisive action of gnashing on one another through words and actions characteristic of men whose minds are closed to the possibility of performing deeds of charity toward each other. Devouring indicates that the goal of such biting was to consume to the point of digestion and elimination. Thus, the brethren, acting in such a way, would finally gain nothing.
The word for "consume" is only used in one other place in the Greek New Testament, Luke 9:54 where James and John seek to call down fire from heaven upon the inhospitable Samaritans. In that passage (verse 55), Jesus tells the Sons of Thunder "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of." Consumption, says Paul, is the ultimate end of such biting and devouring. The result is an obvious vacancy for the cause of truth. The "one another" and "one of another" in the verse indicate that both parties were practicing such behavior. Those who had not been taken by false doctrine had devolved into conceit, provocation, envy, and wrestling with personalities instead of issues (5:26-6:2). They ought to have been practicing meekness in relationship to restoring their brother. Those who had been taken by falsehoods had evidently withheld contributions and ceased supporting the work of the church (6:6-10). They ought to have been working together toward the mutual edification of one another and not their destruction through false teaching. When an atmosphere of mistrust, deceit, inflammation, unwillingness to communicate, and failure to bear one another's burdens prevails among Christians such can only result in biting, devouring, consumption and mutual destruction. The end consequence is the dissolution of the church, the beautiful bride for which Jesus died.
David Lipscomb in his commentary on 2 Corinthians and Galatians notes:
"The Galatians were of a warm temperament, quick to resent wrong and prone to imagine it. The dissension excited by the Judaizers had aroused their combative temper to a high degree, and excited a spirit of commotion and recrimination among them."
J.W. Shepherd adds in the same volume,
"Biting describes the wounding and exasperating effect in which their controversies were carried on; devour warns them of its destructiveness. Taunts were hurled at each other; vituperation supplied the lack of argument. It bore fruit in personal thrusts and quarrels, in an angry, vindictive spirit which spread through the churches and broke out in various forms of contention."
J.W. McGarvey paraphrases this verse in his commentary on Galatians. He says:
"But if, instead of having the spirit of love, which becomes men, ye be animated with the spirit of wild beasts, which, in their hasty rancor, bite each other, and, in their settled, inveterate malice, gnaw at and devour each other, take heed that your conduct does not result in your being consumed one of another."
Within the midst of Paul's rebuke, he supplies the spiritual solution which faithful brethren will allow to prevail in such circumstances. He says, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law" (5:22, 23). Application of this fruit in our life will lead toward peaceful and non-contentious resolutions to both private problems and brotherhood wide contentions. Our liberty in Christ ought to be used to enslave ourselves to one another in love (5:13). Let us pursue such every day and patiently bear one another's burdens for in so doing we shall fulfill the law of Christ (6:2).