We’ve listened to Paul state his claim to authority. We’ve heard him cement what the gospel is. We’ve received his pastoral care and exhortation to see the gospel dig deep and bear fruit in our lives. And now we’ve come to his concluding warning and benediction in Galatians.
Paul begins by saying, "see with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.” This is taken as Paul’s stamp-seal of authenticity and approval. What’s interesting about it is that he might have written it with really physically large letters, or the entire letter might have been personally written by him. Whatever the case, it tells us that this letter was of utmost importance, for Paul clearly feels strongly about what he’s writing. As we read on to hear what Paul has to say, bear these 2 questions in mind: What really matters in the Christian life? And what should Christians hold on to?
(A) Opposition to the Cross: Pursuing something shallow, self-centred, and futile (Gal 6:12-13)
At the end of this letter, Paul closes by going back to the initial issue that led to the writing of this letter -- the issue of circumcision. Why did some want others to be circumcised? Paul gives us 3 reasons for their actions: 1) to make a good showing in the flesh, 2) to not be persecuted for the cross of Christ, and 3) to boast in the circumcised’s flesh.
These 3 reasons are very telling about what they value. To those that want a good showing in the flesh, it tells us that they champion appearances. It is clear that these people are obsessed about making others appear a certain way. They do so because they take pride in their own appearances and observances of the law as a way of hiding their personal brokenness. All they are doing is fooling themselves and others into thinking that their lives are good and merry because they appear to be following the law. They don’t know who God truly is, but they think that it’s acceptable because they appear to be following the law.
These are also people that fear persecution. But isn’t that an absolutely natural thing? Who likes pain and suffering anyway? Who doesn’t flinch at the thought of it? Paul’s point here is that this shows a lack of wholehearted commitment. They are only committed to the law for as long as it is comfortable for them. Once it pushes past comfort into pain and suffering, they are nowhere to be seen! Isn’t that a large part of the offence of the Cross to the Jews? A God who is humiliated, brought low, and suffering is a God they do not want to associate themselves with!
The third reason, to boast in the circumcised's flesh, tells us that they take pride in the compliance of other people. They mask and hide brokenness at an institutional level by taking pride in how they have gotten others to look like them. They try to keep solidarity as a group for they think that they are safe in numbers. Ultimately, this all points to a certain self-centredness and self-righteousness. We see a picture of people who look towards works and quantifiables, all for the sake of self satisfaction and security. Anything that threatens personal or corporate security is thrown out, and all the rest they have is in a security wrought by one’s own efforts and accomplishments. But isn’t this exactly what the Cross preaches against?
And there’s a big problem - these people don’t even keep the law (Gal 6:13)! This partially explains their effort to seek peace and compliance in another’s efforts. They are unable to follow the law for themselves, so they emphasise their own holiness as much as possible. Instead of exhorting one another to be holy as God is holy, then end up preaching that you should be holy as they are holy! What a stark contrast Jesus brings to people of this sort. In Matthew 5, we see Jesus interpreting the law in an even harsher way. Anger against a brother is tantamount to murder. Lustful looks are tantamount to adultery. Love is extended even to one’s enemies. The list goes on. Nowhere do we see any sign of Jesus relaxing God’s call to holiness. But there is something sobering to be learnt here. These false teachers are fervent and filled with passion for (self) justification, but all of their fervency and passion still can’t help them to keep the law. Isn’t this a picture of our futile efforts to seek our own salvation through our own efforts through the law. The point here is clear: it is simply not possible to justify yourself! Our holiness finds its place in Christ and Christ alone.
Friends, this pursuit of the shallow, self-centred, and futile is opposed to the Cross. Here is the question at hand: how much of yourself do you see in these people? Think about what makes you good with God. Are you fighting hard to keep up appearances? Angry at disagreement? These false teachers are a reflection of ourselves - what we would be if not for the Cross.
(B) Boasting in the Cross: Recognising power to overcome sin and transform lives (Gal 6:14-15)
Instead of boasting in the flesh, Paul cries out, “but far be it for me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”! What does boasting in Christ look like, and why should we boast in it?
To boast is to tell of something’s value and significance, but the Cross is a very odd thing to boast in for It is typically a symbol of torture, death, and humiliation to the world. But for some reason, it is a symbol of power, love, and hope for Christians. Clearly, there is something of great significance here that has turned what should be of ultimate death and despair to something of ultimate hope and love.
When you come to the Cross, you are going to have to talk about death. It isn’t something we like talking about, but Christ’s death on the Cross is different for the Christian. When Christ died, He took the punishment of the world upon Himself and fulfilled the redemptive plan of God. God’s promise of a Saviour who will crush the head of the snake came to pass through Christ who fulfilled all the prophecies and died for sinners like you and me! Isn’t this why the Cross is the heart of the gospel? The death of one Man became good news for all people, for it tells of our adoption into God’s family, and it points to the everlasting hope we have through the Cross. That is where our value, significance, and purpose lies. Aren’t these the words that well up in our hearts when we sing,
“And let my song forever be, my only boast is You
Hallelujah, all I have is Christ…is my life”
That which should have been despair and loss has become all our hope and life. Friends, do you see the gravity and significance of the Cross? It is not a symbol at the top of our churches, or an adornment around our necks. It is the good news that we were hopelessly lost, but now found, forgiven, and eternally secure.
Paul says in the same verse that the Cross effected his crucifixion to the world, the world to Him. This speaks of a separation from the world, where we are dead to the world and the world dead to us. The world has no hold and no sway over us any longer, for our citizenship is now in heaven. The world here is representative of sin that champions a salvation by works. We see a picture of God pitted against the world, and faith pitted against works. Our victory in Christ means death to sin and all that is associated with it. The power of the Cross has shattered the power of sin and freed us from its bondage. It means that we have turned away, rejected, and denied this part in ourselves - the first act of repentance!
Gal 6:14 begins with the words, “but far be it from me”, which speaks of a resolute, passionate, and empowered turning away from sin (the world). Remember that this is Paul speaking. Paul, the one who used to persecute Christians for their faith - the worst of sinners! For him to have been able to leave all of that behind Him and find faith in Jesus Christ and the Cross, speaks volumes about the very same power that resides in us now.
This brings us to the contrast in Gal 6:15, that we are now a new creation. What matters in this world today? There are things in this world that count for something, and things in this world that don’t count for anything. We know in hindsight that the results on our PSLE, ‘O’ Level, and ‘A’ Level certificates don’t really count for anything. What really matters is your admission into the next stage of your life. This is a similar contrast to Paul’s message that your efforts to save yourself by your works don’t count for anything - the works that you do for the sake of the works have no true significance in your life!, just like a score on PSLE certificate. Instead, we see the power of the Cross, doing what works could never do, to create a new creation! This new creation is made possible only by the Spirit of God, Who came to us only through the Cross could give. 2 Cor 5:17-18 tells us that the old has passed away and the new creation has come because of the power of the Cross. All that truly matters is whether you believe, and therefore, boast in the Cross.
Friends, what does the Cross really mean to you? Do you see how it transforms the way you think about work, relationships, ministry, your struggle with guilt, and sinfulness? Do you feel like there is so much you have to get right before you can take the next step? Feel that way no more, for it was finished on the Cross. This is our boast and our stay.
(C) Blessings of the Cross: Receiving assurance, forgiveness, and unmerited favour (Gal 6:16-18)
Paul’s final plea is for no one to cause him trouble. Here, he restates his authority in contrast with the false authority of the false teachers. He has suffered for the sake of faith in Christ, has endured trials and tribulations, and has marks to show for it! Think about this in contrast with the Jews who feared persecution because of the Cross of Christ. It could be that he was urging people to stop stirring up dissent against the church, and he could also have been telling them to stop trying to introduce a works-based salvation into the church. By laying things out clearly, he means to tell them to stop being confused and troubled over this matter.
He concludes by speaking of the blessings of God for those who walk by this rule (to boast in the Cross of Jesus Christ): peace and mercy for them and for the Israel of God, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ for their spirits.
Peace draws us to the idea of assurance that we are now part of God’s family, and can therefore find comfort in the salvation that God has given to us. This peace has been added unto us. It tells us that we are saved and have something positive added on in our lives that enables us to live in a secure comfort.
Mercy reminds us that we are people who have committed wrongs, for it is only shown to people as such. When we struggle with sin or think back on our past lives of sin, we are to remember that God’s mercy means that we are forgiven. This addresses something that already exists, in contrast to the peace that is added onto us.
It is rather interesting that Paul uses the phrase, “Israel of God” here. It is the only time this phrase is used in the Bible, and it could mean that Paul was introducing a new definition of what it means to be “Israel”. This idea of being God’s chosen people is no longer bound by norms and cultural laws, but by a response to the gospel which acknowledges how we have been called and saved by grace.
Finally, grace reminds us of the unmerited favor we have from God. It is not gained by works, and it is a reminder for us today that when we look at the Cross, there is nothing we can do to earn our own salvation. The war between the world and Christianity is a war between salvation by works and salvation by grace alone. Hear Paul’s words that have echoed through the ages. Hear, “grace be with you”, and know that we have received grace upon grace in Christ, and that it is only a gospel of grace that saves.