Read the rest of the series on the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 6:12-18.
Paul has little new to stay—he’s shot his bolt, so to speak.1 All that remains is to press a few reminders and offer his informed assessment of the Judaizer’s motives.
See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! (Galatians 6:11).
Paul often uses a secretary to transcribe his letters (cf. Rom 16:22). But here, at the end of this unpleasant but necessary communique, Paul takes the pen from his secretary’s hand and writes the last bit himself. The Christians in Galatia who handled the letter would immediately see the different handwriting and hopefully be touched by the gesture. In a letter with contains so many stern rebukes, a loving and personal touch like this is a nice touch.
Paul reveals that this isn’t an honest dispute between two parties who have a theological disagreement.
Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:12).
The Judaizers are pushing for “converts” in order to avoid persecution. We don’t know the precise situation.2 Many believe the Judaizers fear persecution from the larger Jewish community—and that may well be the issue. But, I believe the true threat are local Roman authorities who may have little patience for what they perceive to be an exclusivist cult. Here are a few points along that line:
- The Roman Empire was a syncretistic society. All sorts of religions flourished and were tolerated to some degree. All that was asked in return by Jesus’ day was a sort of mega-pluralism—a respect and homage to the cult of the Emperor.
- The Jews were generally not loved but tolerated. Yes, they had their invisible God who couldn’t be represented by images or idols, and they had their fanaticism about their God being the “only one.” Yes, it was weird and exclusivist. But, for all that, Jews were a known quantity. They were understood, acknowledged, and tolerated within limits. They’d carved out a precarious place for themselves in the Roman world.
- The Christians were a different story. At first, the Romans saw them as a Jewish cult and so “the Way” initially had some measure of quasi-legitimacy. But the movement was rapidly being recognized as a “new thing.” This “new thing” got no love from the Roman authorities, who didn’t know or understand what it was about. A new, exclusivist cult that pronounced that this man Jesus was the true king? A martyr whose death was stirring unrest in various places throughout the Mediterranean basin? This was trouble.
- If you’re a Jewish person who is attracted to Christianity (for whatever reason), what is one way to (a) stay under a protective umbrella of religious toleration, and (b) retain Jesus-ish teachings? One possible solution is to combine Judaism with Jesus. First, you emphasize the fraudulent heritage of works righteousness to which the true Old Covenant religion had degenerated—the rally-cry3 of Acts 15:1; “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved!” This is the tradition which Paul earlier labeled “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6). Second, you just add Jesus into the mix. Be a good Jew … and believe Jesus is the Messiah, then keep doing both.
By hiding under the cloak of the Old Covenant, these Judaizers hope to “avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ,” (Gal 6:12). They fear the stigma of identifying themselves with Jesus, His message, and all this implies. This means “the cross of Christ” has some hold on them, which suggests (a) they either are professing Christians already, or (b) they’re intrigued enough by the Christian story to be tagged as being Christians—which is essentially the same thing in the eyes of local Roman authorities. Either way, the Jewish emphasis of their teaching—the entire point at issue in Paul’s letter—is to some extent a front.4
Perhaps some would think it presumptuous of Paul to say this—has he become a mind reader? How does he know what their motives really are? But, the fact is that Paul is the most experienced missionary in the Christian community. He has experience. He knows the ground. He knows the players. He knows the motives. He speaks with the sure confidence of a man who knows his job very, very well. It’s the same kind of experience that enables a professional in any field to hear the bare facts of a situation and then pronounce an opinion that seems clairvoyant and telepathic—especially when it’s proven right.
“How did you know that!” we ask.
Experience, that’s how.
Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh (Galatians 6:13).
Nobody can keep the law—not even the Judaizers. Yet, they want people to buy in on a system that had twisted the Old Covenant into a relationship with God based on good works. And why? So they could use them as cover for being Jewish, to escape the taint of being Christian. What a ridiculous situation! They claim the cross of Christ, yet spend all their time denigrating it—boasting about their convert’s circumcision—in order to escape suspicion by the local authorities! With “believers” like that, who needs enemies?
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).
Paul has a different focus. The world is dead to him. Babylon is dead to him. The harlot atop the beast, with all her charms and wiles and beauty, is dead to him (Rev 17). The world has been crucified to him. Of course, no mortal human is totally dead to the world, and Paul has told us about his own struggles to stay faithful to Jesus (Rom 7:7f). But, we get the idea. Paul has made the decision to follow Jesus and boast in “the cross,” to not knuckle under and look for some cover to shield himself from the Roman authorities. He crossed that bridge a long time ago and then burnt it behind him.
Because of Jesus and the new and better relationship that comes along with the new and better covenant, Paul can sum up the whole matter with this:
Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation (Galatians 6:15).
Are you a Christian? Have you had an encounter with Jesus via the Holy Spirit? Has the Lord opened your heart to understand the things of God? Has the Spirit lifted aside that Satanic veil so the Gospel can shine in (2 Cor 4:3f)? Have you been born again? Do you have spiritual life? These questions are all getting at the same idea—have you been made new in relationship with Jesus Christ?
… if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).
In Christ, we’re changed. Reconciliation triggers moral and spiritual renovation in our hearts and minds. The “ministry of reconciliation” of which Paul speaks is the good news that triggers this divine renovation. This is the Christian community’s mission, its ethos, its telos. We’re ambassadors who represent the new Jerusalem in kingdom outposts scattered hither and yon across rural and urban Babylon. We show and tell about Jesus so people would choose to be reconciled to God.
Against that mission, what exactly is circumcision? It’s nothing.
The new creation is the first principle. That’s the question, and that’s the only question that matters. Circumcision, uncircumcision—it doesn’t matter. Legalists always focus on these things because it’s what they think God wants. They think relationship with God is about “doing the right things” (orthopraxy), and so they think it’s really important to identify the right things so we can all do them. Paul says no—all that’s pointless. It’s downstream of the first principle, which is “are you a new creation in relationship with Jesus?”
Who are the people who follow this rule? Who are the folks who really get that this “new creation” business is the hinge upon which everything turns?
Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
True believers are the ones who understand all this—ones who aren’t defined by outmoded covenant markers, but by the inward love that comes from being a new creation in union with Christ. The “true” Israelites are the ones whose hearts are marked with God’s covenant sign (Rom 2:28-29)—who’ve been “branded” (as it were) by the Holy Spirit. The true child of Abraham is the person (whether she be Jewish or whatever) who has the same faith and trust in God that Abraham displayed (Rom 4:16; cp. Gal 3:7). In union with Jesus Christ, we are all children of God through faith (Gal 3:26). Paul explained earlier that, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise,” (Gal 3:29).
And by ‘the Israel of God’ he means without doubt the true Israel, those who are sons of God through faith in his Son, whether of Jewish or Gentile descent after the flesh.5
Some Christians believe Paul refers to two group; (a) Gentiles who follow the rule of “new creation or bust,” and (b) the Jewish folks who do likewise. This is grammatically possible, but contextually unlikely.6 In this letter Paul simply isn’t concerned about a future for Israel—turn to Romans 9-11 if you want to see that discussion. In a context in which he’s combatting legalist Judaizer posers, the very last thing the apostle would do would be to toss out onto the table a reference to ethnic Israel as a bloc. No—his focus here is on real believers, no matter who they are.
The “true circumcision,” Paul declared elsewhere, are “we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh,” (Phil 3:3). When Jesus rescues us, He marks us with an invisible “circumcision” (so to speak) on our heart that declares us to be His (Col 2:11). This marker is a beacon saying that we’re now alive with Christ.
So, in that vein, the “true Israel” are those people (Jewish, Canadian, Azeri, Chilean, or whatever) who understand that the new creation is the only thing that matters for relationship with God, because it’s the only thing that establishes this relationship! 7
From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen (Galatians 6:17-18).
The late pastor John Stott wrote this about the scandal of the cross of Christ:
Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size.8
This is what Paul wanted the Galatians to see. It’s what he wants us all to see. I hope we do.
1 This is James Dunn’s phrase (Galatians, p. 343), but he employs it at Galatians 6:16.
2 Another possibility is that these Judaizers don’t so much fear the Romans, but sanctions from their own Jewish communities (Hendriksen, Galatians, pp. 242-243; Ridderbos, Galatians, pp. 242-244; Barnes, Notes on Galatians, pp. 397-398). Either is quite possible. On balance, I can’t square the idea of a Jewish person giving Jesus any formal approval and still hoping to escape censure by his Jewish community. This is why I think the Roman connection is slightly more probable, here.
3 Stott, Galatians, p. 176.
4 James Dunn believes the would-be persecutors whom the Judaizers fear are their Jewish communities, and intriguingly suggests the taint they’re trying to escape is the idea that Jesus is all one needs (Galatians, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1993), p. 336f).
This may well be correct, and I may change this commentary to align with it after further reflection. For now, I think (a) the would-be persecutors are still the local Roman authorities, who are not monolithic in their benevolence or their cruelty, and (b) the outage of the cross which the Judaizers wish to avoid is identification with this “new Christian cult.” They want the Romans to see them as Jewish. The Romans don’t particularly care about the theological content of the Christian story, but rather about its implications for their social order. This concern will only grow.
5 Hovey, Galatians, in American Commentary, p. 78.
6 See esp. Hendriksen, Galatians, pp. 246-247.
7 In the phrase καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ, the conjunction is ascensive and hones in on the “them” and explains who they are. It’s essentially appositional. The genitive in Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ is subjective—God’s Israel, which basically means “God’s people.” This suggests it could be a possessive genitive, but that usage is generally for personal property, not people in a relationship. We have a translation conundrum here, because the true force of “Israel” in this context is to emphasize the “real believers.” A more colloquial rendering (and perhaps a more accurate one) would be something like “… peace and mercy to them—the true believers.”
On my interpretation of “Israel of God,” see (1) Alford, New Testament, p. 2.360; (2) DeSilva, Galatians: A Handbook on the Greek Text, p. 145, (3) Stott, Galatians, in BST, p. 180, (4) esp. Schreiner, Galatians, p. 381f, and (5) the NLT, RSV, NIV, REB. For a contrary view which sees two groups (Gentiles + Jews), see Fung, Galatians, in NICNT, loc. 3730f.
8 Stott, Galatians, p. 179.