Commentary on Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
Freedom in Community (6:1-10)
In the first part of chapter six, Paul continues describing what life in community looks like when we live in the freedom Christ gives and use that freedom to serve one another.
Paul offers the example of dealing with a member of the community detected in a transgression. “You who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (6:1). Gentleness, after all, is one of the fruits of the Spirit. The goal of dealing with the transgressor is not punishment, but restoration and healing. The verb katartizo is often used as a medical term, to refer to setting a bone or joint right so that proper healing can occur.
While seeking to restore the transgressor, community members are to take care that they themselves are not tempted (6:1). Given what follows, Paul likely means being tempted to a false evaluation of self in comparison to the fallen brother or sister (6:3).
“Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul says, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (6:2). Paul has a radical understanding of the responsibility believers have for one another. They are to share all burdens, even the burdens of guilt and shame when one of them goes astray. This is another way of fulfilling the “law of Christ,” the command to love neighbor as self (5:14).
Loving the neighbor this way means resisting self-deception (6:3), recognizing that I am every bit as vulnerable to temptation as my neighbor, every bit as dependent upon the grace of God. It means that rather than comparing myself to my neighbor, I engage in self-examination: “All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads” (6:4-5).
Here Paul seems to contradict himself. Though we are to bear one another’s burdens, we each carry our own load. Though we bear responsibility for one another, judgment belongs to God alone. We need to examine our lives, not in comparison to our neighbor, but only to see whether we are walking according to the Spirit. In the final judgment, we each will answer for our own lives.
“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow,” Paul says (6:7). Our way of life will have its natural consequences. If we “sow to the flesh,” led by self-seeking desires, we will reap the only thing the flesh can produce—corruption. If we “sow to the Spirit,” led by the Spirit and investing in what is eternal, we will reap eternal life from the Spirit (6:8).
Here and several other places in his letters (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:12-15; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 2:6-11, 16; 14:10), Paul’s warnings about being judged according to our work may seem to contradict his message that we are saved solely by God’s grace. Yet Paul is not saying that we can save ourselves by our works. “Faith working through love” is God’s work in us from beginning to end (Philippians 1:6; 2:13). Paul maintains that believers can face the judgment with confidence in God’s mercy, “for God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9; cf. Rom 8:1, 33-34).
The time remaining before the final judgment is not a time for growing lax or “weary in doing what is right.” It is rather an opportune time (kairos) for working for the good of all, so that the eschatological harvest will be even greater (Gal 6:9-10).
Paul’s Postscript (6:11-18)
Galatians 6:11-18 is not the only postscript Paul writes in his own handwriting (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:21; 2 Thessalonians 3:17), but it is the longest. Instead of including the usual greetings, Paul returns again to the main themes of his letter.
First, he takes a few parting shots at his opponents in Galatia who are trying to convince the Galatians to be circumcised. He accuses them of having self-serving motives, saying that they “want to make a good showing in the flesh” (6:12) and to “boast about your flesh” (6:13), i.e., to boast about their success in proselytizing. They also want to avoid being “persecuted for the cross of Christ” (6:12), presumably by fellow Jews. Paul adds that those advocating circumcision for the Galatians do not even obey the law themselves (6:13), a remark that recalls his conflict with Cephas described in 2:11-14.
In contrast to his opponents who boast in the flesh, Paul declares, “May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (6:14; cf. 2:10-20; 5:24).
In speaking of the world (kosmos) here, Paul does not mean the created universe, but rather the “present evil age” (1:4). It is the world in which “weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (4:9) still enslave, the world in which barriers between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female still divide (3:28). Paul must still contend with this world, but lives in a “crucified” relationship to it. He recognizes that it is passing away, for in the death and resurrection of Christ, a new creation has shattered the old order.
Paul reiterates his firm conviction that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (6:15) He then prays for peace and mercy upon all who follow this rule (6:16).
Too often, it seems, interpersonal dynamics in the church simply mirror those of the world. There is no shortage of finger-pointing for whatever is perceived to be wrong, and no shortage of judgment for those perceived to have messed up. Too often those experiencing crisis in their lives avoid the church for fear of judgment or being smothered by condescending care-givers. The person or family in crisis grows more isolated, and the community of faith is not the place of healing and restoration it is intended to be.
In stark contrast is Paul’s understanding of the responsibility we bear for one another. This responsibility extends to restoring one who has transgressed, but doing so in a spirit of gentleness, without judgment, without an air of condescension. It means “bearing one another’s burdens,” recognizing our own vulnerability and sharing in the guilt and pain of the transgression as well as the responsibility for healing and restoration.
Bearing one another’s burdens in this way is a tall order, a fine line to walk. The temptations of excessive meddling, self-deception, and judging the neighbor are ever present. Yet we are called to be an alternative community of God’s grace, mercy, healing, and restoration in an unforgiving world. This is possible only by the power of the Spirit, only by God remaking us a new creation in Christ.