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What does it mean to walk by the Spirit?

Once, at a wedding celebration, an older couple gave a delightful exhibition of ballroom dancing. I was aware that the man led, and the woman responded; there was neither coercion on his part nor reluctance on hers. Instead, they moved as one, two people in harmony.

That is an illustration of what it means to walk by the Spirit.

Let me explain. 

2 texts

Twice in the Bible, we find the statement, “walk by the Spirit.” 

The first occurrence is Galatians 5:16 (NASB): 

But I say, walk [peripateō] by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.

The second appears nine verses later (5:25): 

[Since] we live by the Spirit, let us also walk [stoicheō] by the Spirit.

I have indicated the different Greek words translated “walk.” We will come to the importance of that distinction in a moment.

A metaphor

Walking in good company is one of life’s pleasures.

In the Bible, walking is a prime metaphor or illustration not only for a person’s lifestyle but also for interaction with someone else.

The first occurrence of walking is “they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden” (Genesis 3:8); the second, “And Enoch walked with God” (5:22). These examples (among others) picture “the active divine presence among the people God has created and called.”[1]

The entry for “walk, walking” in The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery laments the tendency to translate these words as “live, conduct, or behave” as it reduces “the reader’s capacity to allow concrete, everyday activities to become windows on divine realities.” So, I have used the NASB, which retains the language of the metaphor.

In this case, walking evokes the rich imagery of a relational activity in companionship with the Spirit, not simply the act of living.

3 Observations

Here are a few insights about these two clauses:

1.         Imperative: The action word (verb) “walk” in 5:16 is imperative. This means that God expects us to “walk by the Spirit.” It requires that we do something, not simply experience the Spirit passively. We will deal with what this means in the next post in this series.

2.         Spirit vs. flesh: One result of “walking by the Spirit” (5:16) is that “you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” It is the empowering of the Spirit that enables a person to resist the flesh.

In the next verse (5:17), we learn that the Spirit and the flesh are actively opposed to each other

the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another 

By now, we have some comprehension of who the Spirit is, but what is the flesh?

In this context, the flesh is not simply that material part of us, our bodies. Here, the “flesh” is “the seat of sin in [humans]” (Vine’s Dictionary)—the active agent within us that empowers sinfulness. The NIV translates this as “the sinful nature.”

Here are some of the works this flesh produces (5:19-21):

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

On the other hand, the Holy Spirit is God’s empowering presence that produces this fruit in our lives (5:22-23):

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control

The behavior produced in a person carrying out the desires of the flesh is radically different from what is manifested in a person walking by the Spirit.  

3.         In step: Although “walk” is used in both our verses, they are two different words in Greek. In Galatians 5:16, “walk” (peripateō) is the common word for the activity of walking. 

In 5:26, “walk” (stoicheō) is walking “in line with a person or thing considered as a standard for one’s conduct, hold to, agree with, follow, conform” (BDAG). One example is a military unit. The soldiers are not merely walking together, each soldier is in step with the others. Another example is our opening illustration—a dance. The NIV helpfully translates “walk by the Spirit” as “keep in step with the Spirit.” 

What stoicheō adds to walking is the appeal to pay attention to the direction, pace, and tempo of the Spirit—not ignoring Him and doing our own ‘thing’; not running ahead or lagging behind but keeping in step with the Spirit. Another translation puts it this way (NLT):

Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives.

Summing up

We now should have at least a partial answer to what it means to walk by the Spirit. 

For the follower of Jesus, there is a closeness with the Spirit—even intimacy. On our part, this intimacy involves an awareness of His movement and sensitive responsiveness to Him. There is a willingness to be led by Him as he sets the direction, the pace, and the tempo. This is, in part, what it means to walk by the Spirit.

The question remains, “How can we walk by the Spirit?” That is the focus of the next post.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO How can you be filled with the Spirit?

[1] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, s.v. “Walk, walking,” 922.

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