Commentary on Galatians 6:[1-6] 7-16
The final chapter of Galatians ties closely to what has come before.
In the first half of the chapter Paul continues the theme of healthy living in community, and in the second he addresses, for the final time, the particular pressing issue in Galatia. The general principles and the historical particularity both aid contemporary readers in their own practices of life together.
The communal fruit of the spirit continued
Galatians 5 is much better known since it is the repository of the contrasting lists of the “works of the flesh” and the “fruit of the Spirit.” As those who have been crucified with Christ Paul believes the Galatians can walk in the free life they currently possess. This is not just an individual piety, but becomes apparent through interactions with others. Pride, provoking, or envying others would not be commensurate with life in the Spirit.
Instead of being antagonistic to others, Paul urges the exact opposite — namely, care for others. Spiritual ones should gently restore anyone who is caught in sin. Since he has affirmed that they are all in the Spirit, one might think that no one in this community could fall into sin. Paul recognizes — and reminds them of — the potential for human failure. Even the spiritual who are helping an entangled sibling should be on the lookout lest they succumb to temptation. But this kind of care is worth the risk. To help shoulder the burdens of others is the way the law of Christ is fulfilled. This is precisely the way Paul appealed to the law in 5:14; loving others is the way to fulfill the law.
Verses 3 through 5 are very difficult to understand. I suggest they include a counter example. If Paul’s desire is that they support one another, these verses describe someone who tries to go “on his own.” My argument arises from the dissonance of verse 2 and 5. Bearing one another’s burdens is the fulfillment of the law (verse 2), but verse 5 suggests that each person will bear her own burden. Several commentators suggest that verse 5 speaks of one’s accountability in the final judgment, and this is certainly possible. I wonder, instead, if verse 5 is the result when one tries to do the Christian faith without the support of others. They will have to bear their own burden.
If that is correct, then the person is verse 3 is someone who thinks he is something when he is nothing. In light of the context this is either the person who has fallen into sin and imagines she does not need the help of others or the person trying to mend another and imagines that she is not prone to temptation. If anyone thinks they can “do it on their own” they are self-deceived. Verse 4 then is a hypothetical situation that continues this mentality. If that person tests his own work, he might imagine that he has a boast in himself and not in any others. It is that kind of person then who would have to bear his own burden.
In contrast to this self-reliance, Paul wants those who are taught the word to share with those who teach them. So again, those who are helped and those who are helping each other should practice a mutuality of “all good things.”
In verse 8, Paul again returns to a theme from the previous chapter. Flesh results in destruction and Spirit results in eternal life. Since the flesh motif has been used in situations of divisiveness (5:15 and 20), it seems probable that that emphasis on mutuality continues. Fleshliness is to hurt others, Spirit-living is to support them. He wants the Galatians to keep doing this kind of good — specified in verse 10 as others-directed good — until the harvest time arrives.
Most commentators believe that Paul takes the stylus at this point to write the closing section. When he writes, he returns to the pressing issue in the community, circumcision. Those who desire this for the Galatians fail in several ways, according to Paul. They care about reputation. They do not embrace the shame of the cross. They do not even keep the law. Paul could mean that they who urge circumcision fail to keep the whole law or that they fail to keep the heart of the law, namely truly loving the other by keeping their focus on faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ alone.
Paul contrasts himself with them. His only boast is in the cross. Through it he has died to the world, where boasting in one’s self or one’s followers is the norm. As he said earlier in Galatians 5 (verse 6), circumcision is not the base of the problem. What really matters is the new creation, a different way of saying the new life found in the Spirit. For those who keep their focus on that new creation, he can wish them peace and mercy. This would include the Galatian Gentiles, and it also includes the Jewish people, the Israel of God. This is a phrase he often uses to designate the people of ethnic Israel (Romans 9–11; 2 Corinthians 3). So, his terms here are inclusive. He wishes peace and mercy upon them who do not enforce the law upon others or do not take it upon themselves as a means of righteousness.
Self-awareness in the cross
In both sections, Paul is urging healthy self-awareness. He wants the Galatians to know their need for others, and ultimately their need for the cruciform Spirit of Christ. Only in him do they find the peace free of self-aggrandizement and self-reliance. Only in him do they find the genuine mercy for fellow strugglers. The new creation can start among them in the present as they realize, like he has, their death to these systems of the world. It is striking how much that we, just as first-century Galatians, need a word exhorting us to mutual mercy and dependence.