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Galatians 6:1-18

June 6, 2016

This last chapter pulls together and summarizes many of the major themes of the letter.

6:1 is a wonderful line about restoring erring church members in a “spirit of gentleness.” The irony is that Paul has not been very gentle in this letter! But this verse is certainly a better embodiment of the Spirit and strategy for the future church than the tone of the rest of the letter.

6:2 and 6:5 appear to contradict each other, but they are referring to different aspects of our discipleship. To belong to one another in the church is to bear with one another, and to help one another in selfless ways. But our discipleship is also a kind of product that we are producing. Paul is warning believers not to compare themselves to each other–this leads to pride and undermines relationships. We are each producing our own “product” for God, and we should judge it (and God will judge it) on its own merits, not in comparison to others!

6:6 establishes the principle (echoing Jesus) that those who preach and teach the good news should receive some basic support from those who receive the teaching. I doubt that Paul saw preaching as a full-time “occupation” that should receive a commensurate salary. He himself chose to support himself through his occupation as a tent maker so as not to burden his infant congregations or give the impression he was preaching out of a desire for personal gain. Nonetheless, just as Jesus and his disciples traveled around Galilee preaching and healing, and in return received lodging and food, so those who continue such a ministry should have basic needs met. But I wonder if the church today would be healthier if we did not automatically assume that every congregation is supposed to have a full-time salaried pastor. The professionalization of ministry has made ministry pastor-centered instead of congregation-centered; it has also produced ministers who treat ministry like a ladder to ever-higher pay and status. On the other hand, in many denominations pastors were very poorly paid for generations, and pastors’ families sometimes suffered from lack of resources. I do not know the right approach or balance. I would like to promote generous support for ministers (most of whom will be part-time) while also avoiding the pitfalls of professionalization.

Beginning at verse 11, Paul now writes a post-script in his own hand (instead of dictating the letter). By writing in his own hand-writing, he is authenticating that the letter really does come from him. He has a distinctive way of writing–he writes with large letters. Some have speculated that he writes with large letters because he has very poor eyesight. This seems possible to me. It is also possible that his hands have been damaged by punishment and he can only write in large letters. Or, it is possible he writes with large letters because he is, in a sense, underlining the importance of these final words.

In verses 12-15 he is summarizing his main point, which is: these other missionaries are telling you that you must be circumcised, not because they really follow the Law completely and with integrity, but because they want to avoid persecution from their fellow Jews. They are failing to preach the full radical implications of Jesus’ cross–that his self-giving death breaks the power of sin and death and inaugurates a new creation and a new age of the Spirit. The Law is no longer needed by Gentiles who are joining the people of God through Christ. Faith (trust and loyalty and love) has replaced all the entry-identity¬†stipulations of the Law such as circumcision.

Paul then ends by referring to his wounds suffered on behalf of Jesus. He is not saying his wounds are the exact same as Jesus’ wounds–Paul was not crucified; but he has been seriously wounded in ways similar to how Jesus was wounded.

What is the relevance of this letter for the church today? The issue of circumcision–Paul’s main concern–is no longer an issue. But the deeper issue of what makes a person fully a part of God’s community is still crucial, and Paul’s answer is still true: faith. But we have distorted what faith means, and a careful reading of this letter may help us recover what Paul meant by faith. He did not primarily mean a cognitive belief or doctrine about Jesus’ divinity. He meant trust in God’s love and redeeming power, faithfulness to Jesus’ way, surrender of one’s self, and living by the Spirit–which means living by self-giving love for all. Faith is an all-encompassing life in a new creation where Jesus is Lord of all.

Miraculously, this little letter, intended for one tiny obscure congregation, got copied and passed around over and over again until it created a spiritual revolution–a revolution that continues to this day.

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From → Galatians

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