Scanning through my email, my attention is caught by the Bold Capital Letters that read – URGENT FAMILY BUSINESS. I forget to look at the sender and open it to find an invitation to join a multi-level marketing scheme. Disappointed, I send the email to the trash and walk away.
Imagine you have been hearing Paul’s letter read to you, the entire thing in one sitting, really it wouldn’t take that long, about an hour, and suddenly you are hit by the words: See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (Gal 6:11). The letters probably double in size. A listener would have been familiar enough with ancient letter writing to know that most letters were dictated to a secretary who had really nice penmanship and would smooth out the language and make it rhetorically acceptable. That is probably what has been being done in this letter, but suddenly the words hit you like a ton of bricks. Unlike my M-L-M email that was junk disguised to be important, Paul’s statement that he is writing is important. What are his words? What does he want to say? What really is his main point?
Essentially it is this: 1) We are unable to obey the Law, 2) we allow peer pressure to conform us to the world and draw us away from Christ and 3) the New life of Christ is all that really matters. These closing words are a restatement of the entire letter. With these words, Paul puts his stamp of approval on everything that has been written.
As a way of entering into these three points, let me ask you a question: Are you worried about how people perceive you or are you worried about how God perceives you? Essentially Paul is saying there are only 2 options in the world related to our acceptance: To glory in the Cross or To glory in yourself and what you do and believe and say. You can glory in your circumcision, or your church attendance, or the number of converts you have made, or the number of baptisms you have performed, or the devotional habits you have or the social issues you support and fight against. You can glory in your theological orthodoxy, the sacraments you partake of, the care you gave to your parents, the integrity you have shown in business, or anything else that you want to glory in. You can find value and base you acceptance on any of these things (others perception of you or your own perception), but they are all ways of boasting in the flesh and taking pride in our actions, OR you can boast in Christ and God’s perception of you in him.
Now if you boast in the flesh, if you find security, strength or acceptance in these thing, there is some bad new: They don’t matter. If you are already saved, these things don’t add anything to God’s gift of grace and if you are not saved, these things wont get you any closer to God than if you ignored everyone of them. Why? Because neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything (Gal 6:15a). Our actions can’t save us, in fact the opposite is true, our actions have already condemned us. We are judged because we are sinners and every attempt to alleviate our sin by our own actions adds even more sin to our already bad predicament.
We store up wrath when we turn from Christ and glory in the flesh and place our confidence in the things we can do, have done, will do, or even the things other people have done to or for us. Now why would people do such things? Why would people focus on their efforts and abilities instead of on Christ’s? The answer is simple: We want to be accepted by others. Human societies are all founded on common actions and beliefs. Culture is nothing more than the group acceptance of certain ways of living and thinking. The Judaizers have a problem common to us all, they were part of a culture putting immense pressure on them to conform. And that resulted in them wanting to make a good impression outwardly…the only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ (Gal 6:12).
Human cultures teach us to seek approval from others. Cultures have excelled at making approval sucks; we want to suck as much approval as possible from those around us whom we respect. We want to stick our straw into the cups of those we think are important and drink deeply of their admiration, acceptance and validation. We do it because we like approval and that is what we have been taught matters, and so we do things contrary to the gospel in order to fit it. We don’t evangelize because it isn’t polite. We don’t challenge pluralism because it isn’t considered kind to others of a different opinion. We don’t have large families even though children are always considered a blessing in the Bible because it isn’t responsible. There are countless things our culture pressures us to do or not to do. But aside from wanting just approval and accolades, Paul lists a second reason, possibly even deeper in our psychology- we don’t want to be persecuted, we don’t want to suffer. These two, fitting in and not suffering, are actually two sides of the same coin, for acceptance implies that we don’t want to be persecuted and not wanting to be persecuted means that we want to be accepted.
This happens all the time in our Christian world. Consider the Seeker driven Church model of the 80’s and 90’s. Thousands of churches jumped on board, frequently because a few people in the congregation wanted to be “with it.” Many of them were pastors looking for accolades from their fellow clergy or from denominational boards, or who didn’t want to continue dealing with the negative feedback from those who were upset because their church wasn’t growing as fast as someone else’s.
Or consider the number of intelligent Christians in academia who compromise on the gospel and believe that Christianity is one way among many, or that a belief in creation over evolution is naïve and uninformed, or that homosexuality is an acceptable life choice if done in a committed monogamous relationship. Why do so many Christians fall for these kinds of beliefs in the academic world or in pop culture? Because those we value and those whose acceptance is most important to us are unchristian colleagues, many of them “smart people” who will either aid us in careers or who will persecute us if we stand in the way of the “liberal agenda.”
Or consider the number of Christians who spend most of their time talking about what they have done, or whom they have talked to, or how much they have sacrificed for God. Why do they focus so much on themselves and their actions or abstinence from actions? Because those whom they respect and admire are other Christians whose approval they think they can get if they do the proper actions, but whose ire they fear if they don’t. Cults are notorious for this kind of system, but as believers we are not immune to it. We fall into the same pits that everyone does.
Maybe you don’t identify with any of those examples. I encourage you to reflect on your actions? Reflect on your motivations for doing or not doing certain things, for saying or not saying certain things. Why do you shy away from evangelism? Why do you avoid caring for the poor, or adopting the orphan? Why do you consider hating your enemy and taking their life in war acceptable? Why do you laugh at crass language or coarse joking? Consider these and many other things like them and see if Paul’s prognosis is true. Are you concerned with others perceptions more than with obedience? Are you seeking to avoid persecution and suffering? Do either of these motivations drive you? IF so, and I think that all of us have areas of our life where it is true, then the Gospel says, Don’t boast in the flesh, boast in Christ and that can only happen when there is a new creation. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gal 6:15).
2Cor 5:17 has a wonderful truth to teach us regarding this same thing: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! What counts and matters is being in Christ, united to Christ, crucified from the concerns and cares of what the world offers and being so focused on Christ that we only care what he has to offer, what he has to say and what he desires. What is the most important thing is having the acceptance of Christ, and that comes on the cross. Nowhere else can it be found. The cross, alone, is the place where every sinner is accepted on the merits of Christ, and so the cross, alone, is the place to boast, not in the self, but in what Jesus has done for all who believe. But even more, the cross is the place where our sin and our concern with the world is crucified and done away with so that persecution begins looking like a badge of honor. A celebration of God’s goodness to us. How else could the disciples have rejoiced at being counted worthy to suffer for the name, unless they had allowed their love of the world to be put to death?
It isn’t important how you look, or if you can obey all the law; what is important is whether you are alive. Are you alive in Christ, have you been born of the Spirit of Christ? Jesus says as much when he tells Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5-6). Jesus says that everyone is fleshly, we all have that need to do and say, to be accepted and to persecute those who aren’t, that doesn’t matter with God, what matters is if the Spirit of God has given us new life, and if the Spirit has, then we are accepted by God, we can enter the kingdom, we have something to take great delight in, we can boast for the world will have nothing to offer us any longer.
If we are alive, persecution will come from the dead world, so Don’t seek acceptance at the external level of what you do or don’t do, this is part of the world of the dead. Rather, seek acceptance from God. Revel in the new birth and the fruit God is growing in you. Celebrate the love that originates at the cross, the grace that is greater than all your sin and mine. Rejoice in the persecution that is received for being united to Jesus. Rave about it, pleasure in it, for then the focus is taken off yourself and place upon God and Christ: (Rev. 5:13) “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”
I think this is why Paul can say, “Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (Galatians 6:17). He is focused on Christ and the cross and the gift of life in him and so the persecution, the danger, the ridicule, the hardship, they mean nothing, they are nothing. For one who is made alive in Christ understands that the dead try to bring us down to the grace, but they can do nothing, they can cause nothing for when we are united to Christ, we bear his marks and he bears ours. And that is what makes life so good and the gift so amazing.
And so Paul winds his letter down with a benediction that is quite amazing and comforting and assuring that this gospel, the one true gospel, is for all men, women and children. He says, Peace and Mercy to all who follow this rule (seeking acceptance in Christ alone), even to the Israel of God…The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen” (Gal 6:16, 18).
And so we end Galatians exactly where we began with an exaltation of Christ and the cross and the grace of God as opposed to human effort. Rave in the cross, pleasure in it and share that with others. May God’s mercy and peace follow you in this. Amen.