Paul begins the list of virtues with “love.” One reason why it is listed first is that all of the virtues that follow require love working with them in order to be evident in a Spirit-led believer’s life. This is alluded to when Paul writes “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). By listing “love” first, Paul also seems to be emphasizing love as the greatest virtue by which all other fruit are able to grow. In a shorter list of virtues, Paul comes to the same conclusion, saying, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
“Love” is contrasted by the tenth work of the flesh in Galatians 5:20: “quarrels” (some translations call it “selfish ambition”). Whereas love unifies and bonds a body of believers, quarrels are the first step towards division and hatred towards one another. Paul strings several similar deeds of the flesh together by listing “quarrels, dissensions, and factions.” The order of these words might be intentional since it is the order in which a division typically happens. For example, using the subject of circumcision that in large part prompted Paul to write to the Galatians, whether or not a Christian should be circumcised first began as a “quarrel” (2:4) until people began to choose sides and have “dissention” which inevitably led to “factions” (2:12). Many church splits happen this way as well. People start to quarrel about little things like the style of music or not enough parking or the color of the carpet (that really happened!) and then begin to choose sides. Soon everything is contested and nothing gets done until one side decides to leave and start their own church. So instead of just condemning factions, Paul condemns the practice of quarreling and dissensions that ultimately lead to factions as a way to help prevent divisiveness within the churches.
When Paul lists “love” as the first fruit of the Spirit, he is not talking about self-love which might lead to selfish acts and division, but love for others and bringing a plentiful harvest of virtues into the community. All of the fruits of the Spirit are acts on behalf of one another done in love for one another rather than acts against one another done in love for one’s own self.
That is not to say you shouldn’t love yourself. How can you love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t love yourself? But love for ONLY yourself with no regard for others can only result in division and isolation. True love brings healing and wholeness – not just to the one who loves but those being loved.
Jesus raised the bar even higher when He said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) It is one thing to love everyone as you love yourself, but Jesus commanded us to love everyone the same way He loves us. The Greek word for love in both John 13:34 and Galatians 5:22 is the noun form of agape, which prior to this command, was considered an unconditional love that only God was capable of having for humans. But when Jesus commanded us to love each other as He loves us, He gave us the power to do so.
That is what walking by the Spirit is all about: allowing the Holy Spirit to work within you so that the fruit of His labor results in deeds that you never dreamed possible. Only then would you be able to love God, love others, love your enemies, and truly love yourself.
Love is a fruit – not a vegetable. Love is the result (fruit) of the Holy Spirit in your life. It is an action that displays an attitude. Love is not a vegetable, lying motionless as if in a coma when others are in need. May God use us to show His love to everyone.