READ : Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18
There are many reasons for accepting the authority of the apostle Paul, not the least of which is the fact that he bore the marks of Jesus.
Paul’s usual practice when he finished a letter was to sign his name to it to verify its authenticity. The main body of the letter would have been written out by a secretary to whom Paul dictated what he wanted to say, but at the very end the apostle would take the pen into his own hand for a signature. It was both a personal touch and a way of guarding against forgery by an imposter.
Here in Galatians Paul expands his signature into a final postscript that is introduced with the words, “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!” (Gal. 6:11). Some people think he’s talking about his poor penmanship, perhaps the result of bad eyesight. But I think Paul draws attention to his handwriting not because it was so awkward but because it was so deliberate.
There is a famous story in American history about the signing of the Declaration of Independence by the Continental Congress in 1776. The president of the Congress, John Hancock of Massachusetts, was first to sign. As he scrawled his name below the document in huge clear letters, Hancock remarked, “King George ought to be able to read that without his eyeglasses.”
Like John Hancock’s, Paul’s signature was a statement. His large letters were deliberate and for emphasis, intended to make his readers sit up and take notice of what he had to say in the conclusion of his fiery epistle. So let’s listen to his closing words in Galatians, chapter 6.
RECIPROCAL BURDEN BEARING
Here is Paul’s first bit of counsel:
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves.
At the heart of that paragraph is one of the New Testament’s most beautiful reciprocal commands. Those are all the “one anothers,” the things we are supposed to both give and receive mutually as Christians. So here Paul encourages us to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
The assumption behind this exhortation is that we all have burdens that we are carrying with us. Worry, fear, guilt, grief, discouragement, temptation, doubt, illness, bereavement, depression, family trouble, financial problems, job difficulties, emotional or spiritual distress – the list of burdens goes on and on, and every one of us has them.
So the first assumption behind the reciprocal command to bear one other’s burdens is that we all have them. And the second is that we all need help in carrying them. If we are going to receive that help, we will have to be willing to open ourselves up to each other, becoming more honest, transparent and humble enough to say, “I need you. Please help me.” Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to allow someone to step alongside us and shoulder the burden we’ve been carrying alone.
Bearing one another’s burdens in the body of Christ also means we must be willing to offer this same kind of help as well as receive it. And what does that require? I think that, as a beginning, we have to be willing to get close to our brothers and sisters, and that means approaching them on the same level. The greatest obstacle to offering genuine help to a fellow believer is the pride that makes me think I’m too important. My time is too valuable to spend on somebody who needs me. The problem, as Paul points out here, is “thinking we are something” when in fact, apart from God’s grace, we really are nothing very special (cf. v.3).
If I once realize that in myself I am nobody special, then I will also understand that no one else can be lower than I am or beneath my notice. So I won’t look down on anyone or view them with a superior attitude. And then, having come alongside of a burdened fellow traveler, we must reach out to them. We should stand ready, both literally and figuratively, to extend our arms to lift up, comfort, embrace, and assist.
I remember watching an Olympic Marathon race on television some years ago in which one of the runners who entered the stadium for the final lap was in obvious trouble. Racked with pain, suffering from exhaustion and dehydration, she staggered unsteadily down the track. Seeing her confusion and suffering, even the television commentator cried out for someone to help her. But no one did. No one could touch her because it was against the rules.
Well, God never intended the Christian life to be a solo marathon. It is a race, yes, but it’s one we were meant to run together in a group with mutual support. I think a case could be made that the greatest need in the Christian church is for a genuine readiness to care for and be cared for by each other. This, says the apostle, is how we fulfill the law of Christ. We’ve seen again and again in Galatians how Paul argues against keeping the law as a means of self-justification. He wants nothing to do, to put it mildly, with trying to earn salvation through obedience to the law. But this argument doesn’t mean that Paul is anti-law. Far from it! There is a law the law of reciprocal love the law of Christ that we will strive with all our might to keep and obey, not because we’ll be saved by doing so, but because we have been saved through Christ’s own love for us. We love because he first loved us. We love others as he first loved us. That’s the whole law of God in a nutshell. Don’t you agree we should follow it?
PERSEVERANCE IN DOING GOOD
Next in the apostle’s closing exhortation comes an encouragement to persevere, to keep on keeping on in doing good.
7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. 8 If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. 9 So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
If there is anything in short supply in contemporary society it is faithfulness. We all know that we in the West live in a culture where life is fast and everything is disposable including people and relationships. Researcher George Barna lists the following signs of reduced commitment in our society:
- The divorce rate continues to climb; half of all new marriages end in divorce.
- Adults feel they have fewer close friends than did adults in past decades.
- Brand loyalty in consumer purchasing studies has dropped in most product categories.
- The proportion of people willing to join an organization as a formal member is declining. That’s for all organizations – unions, political parties, clubs and associations, as well as churches.
- The percentage of people who commit to attending events but fail to show is on the rise.
All of these statistics merely confirm what those of us involved in the church have realized for some time, namely, that loyalty “ain’t what it used to be.” People today leave one church for another or stop going altogether for any kind of reason and sometimes for no reason at all. “Brand loyalty has dropped.” They regularly quit responsibilities in Christ’s kingdom because they are burned out. “The percentage of those who commit but fail to show is on the rise.” Recently a pastor friend told me with a frustrated grimace about a family in his church who informed him matter-of-factly that they had decided to take a “sabbatical” from worship! The Sabbath was made for worship! And so it goes nowadays. Demands upon our time are up; willingness to give it in service to others is down. Volunteerism, family dinner, long vacations, Sunday as Sabbath are out. Paid help, convenience foods, weekend getaways, and Sunday as recreational day are in.
So what does our faith say to all of this? Our culture demands excellent service, professionalism, and consumer satisfaction. New Testament Christianity calls for self-sacrifice, invites us to personal suffering, and holds up patient endurance as a necessary virtue. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (v. 9). How’s that as an answer to complaints of burnout? Paul’s stirring call is to perseverance to stick-to-it-iveness in the ministry of doing good to all.
He buttresses his exhortation with an analogy from agriculture. One of the most basic laws of life is expressed in the principle of sowing and reaping. The kind and quantity of the crop you will harvest is determined by what you plant and how you tend it (vv. 7-9). That is as true in matters of faith as it is on the farm. The good that we do to others at every opportunity is never lost; our service in the name of Christ is never wasted. Nothing that is done for the Lord is ever in vain. Can you imagine a farmer coming in to supper and saying to his wife, “Well, I just lost all of our seed corn. It’s gone, buried out there in the field.” No, whatever we plant will return to us in the harvest at the last day, provided we don’t give up and quit.
THE MARKS OF JESUS
As we come to the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, I am moved by the very last word with which he brings this great work to a close. There is his exclamation in verse 14: “God forbid that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” The only thing Paul was proud of was Christ’s cross, the supreme symbol and expression of God’s saving grace. The only thing Paul wanted to brag about was what God had done for him, not what he had done for God. Because of the cross, Paul was dead as far as the allure of the world was concerned. He would have heartily agreed with a remark of Luther’s: “If someone knocked on the door of my heart and asked who lived there, I would not say ‘Martin Luther’ but ‘Jesus Christ.'”
Then there is the poignant line just before Paul’s final benediction. “Let no one trouble me, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (v. 17). The word he uses is stigmata. In later Roman Catholic devotion the stigmata were understood as physical manifestations of the five wounds Christ received on the cross (in his hands, feet and side). St. Francis of Assisi was said to have exhibited these in his own flesh at the end of his life as a result of his intense devotional meditations upon the Passion of Christ. But Paul is not referring to any mystical phenomenon. He’s talking about actual scars, the real wounds he himself had received in the service of Christ, the results of all the beatings, stoning, torture and hardship he endured through the years for the sake of his ministry for the Lord Jesus (see 2 Cor. 11:23-27). These marks are the apostle’s “red badge of courage,” and they earned for him an unquestioned authority.
The marks of Jesus are just one more reason why we should listen to Paul’s apostolic teaching and follow it.