When I undertook this idea of creating a Bible study blog on Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it was my intention of checking in every month or so with a new post. Alas, life happens! Suffice to say, I have been unable to maintain that plan, and I’m embarrassed to say that this is my first new post since December.
But thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m working from home more often, and I actually have a little time to invest in the projects that were back-burnered. With that said, let’s dig into the epistle again.
I’ve included the last verse of chapter five with the first five verses of chapter six because it seems to lead nicely into the words Paul is about to share, words that begin to conclude this epistle.
Remember the issue Paul was addressing to the churches in the region of Galatia? Judaizers had infiltrated this church, leading some away from the pure Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. Judaizers were insisting that, in addition to faith in Christ, adherance to the Old Testament Jewish laws and rituals were also necessary unto salvation. Now that Paul has denounced such false teaching in the previous chapters, he’s laying the ground here for a restoration and reconciliation between the brothers and sisters in these churches. Some obviously had not wavered in their faith, and rightly held to the true Gospel which Paul had first brought to them. Others, weaker in understanding and perhaps more immature in their faith, would now need to be gently and lovingly restored by those who were stronger and more spiritually mature.
This section of the epistle is clearly directed at those who did not waver in their faith, who held firm to the Gospel Paul had delivered to them. Yet Paul has words of warning to them, as well…
26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. 1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load.
We’ve all been on both sides of a situation where someone has erred, and seeks to be restored. At times we’ve been the erring person, and at times we’ve been called upon to restore the erring person.
- What is the temptation for those who are doing the restoring?
- What “law of Christ” is Paul referring to in v. 2?
- Is Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth when he essentially says (in v. 3) “if you think you’re something, you’re really nothinng” and then (in v. 4) “take pride in yourselves”? Which is it?
In popular culture, self-image, self-esteem, self-evaluation is a huge deal. Bookstores and libraries have whole sections dedicated to raising your self awareness and building a more positive you. Most of those authors of those books would take a dim view of Paul’s assertion that if anyone thinks they are something when they are nothing deceives themselves. There’s a paradox in Christianity when it comes to self-image that popular culture will never understand.
I wonder how Paul would measure up on the couches of psycholgists today. Paul’s assertion is that no believer has any right to regard himself or herself as anything but nothing. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he calls himself the least of all apostles. In Ephesians 3:8 he refers to himself as less than the least of all God’s people. And in 1 Timothy 1:15 he says that Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am the worst (the Greek word here would mean “prominent”)
Is this just pious exaggeration? [I don’t know about you, but I grow tired of all the word inflation that goes on these days. Everything is awesome, or amazing, or insane. The hot fudge sundae I just had from Robert’s was insanely awesome!] Is that what Paul is doing here? I’m the worst of sinners! Of all God’s people, I am the least! No – these are considered statements – thought out, carefully chosen words.
Skeptics of Christianity may call it pathelogical. Some of our hymns have very descriptive words to describe our situation before God that some might find distubing, such as this from Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed:
Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?
Or in the familiar hym mn Amazing Grace, we get this:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch; like me!
For such a worm as I…a wretch like me? Modern pscyhology would call this damaging to one’s psyche. In fact it’s a big reason why people leave Christianity.
But let’s use Paul as a case study. If what he says about himself is true – I am nothing, I am the least – shouldn’t Paul have been lacking in confidence and boldness? And yet when we look at his life, is that what we see? No. In 2 Corinthians 11 – he gives a little list of what he has endured:
23 I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
Clearly, Paul is no wimp!
Again, skeptics might counter by saying that pathological people with low self-esteem would subject themselves to this as a coping mechanism. But that’s not consistent with Paul’s behavior – he had no death wish or martyr complex. At times he boldly stood up to magistrates and counsels who unlawfully whipped him as a Roman citizen.
So he is not contradicting himself when he says we are nothing and yet we can take pride in ourselves.
As a Pharisee, Paul’s “religiouness” kept himself from admitting his nothingness. A religious person does not say “I am nothing.” Many Christians today may feel that way but they will never admit it. They won’t say it out loud. “Look at how I obey the Law.” or “Look at my church attendance,” “Look at how well I raised my family,” etc. But the Gospel of Jesus is different than religion. While Paul calls himself the worst of sinners, he can also say in the same breath, “Imitate me.”
Here’s the reality: To admit you are nothing is to end your religiousness. You are nothing. And…you should take pride in yourself. In this world every person is afraid that they’re nothing. Hollywood celebraties, professional athletes, your next door neighbor, you and me. So what do we do? We try to hide the fact that we’re nothing. Or we deny it. We surround ourselves with people who we hope will validate and appreciate us for who we are. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of celebraties. Just watch the next Oscars and see for yourself.
Buf if you get your self-image by comparing yourself to others, you’re enslaved. An essential part of being a Christian is to admit that you are nothing. You need a Savior. Another hymn puts it this way: “Nothing in my hands I bring, only to His cross I cling.”
Nothingness and greatness simultaenously. The world’s shallow understanding of what makes for a self-image will never understand this. Luther really explained this well in his commentary on Galatians:
So now we may certainly think, “Although I still sin, I don’t despair, because Christ lives, who is both my righteousness and my eternal life.” In that righteousness I have no sin, no fear, no guilty conscience, no fear of death. I am indeed a sinner in this life of mine and in my own righteousness, but I have another life, another righteousness above this life, which is in Christ, the Son of God, who knows no sin or death, but is eternal righteousness and eternal life.
So let’s take this back to Paul’s words to those Christians in the churches of Galatia who needed to gently restore those who erred in following the Judaizers.
Tim Keller explains it like this (I’m paraphrasing…) God gives everyone different roads to travel. If I encounter someone with a bad temper, I may immediately think, “That’s one immature Christian,” and look down on him and put him in a category lower than me. But how can I say that when I have no idea about the road he’s traveled and is traveling. He may be 50% of the way down the road he’s on, while I may be only 10% down the road God put me on. We have different starting lines. I had the privlige of growing up in a Christian home where I was surrounded by nothing but positive role models. Others have had very different starting points in life. I need to remember that before I am so quick to judge and label.
You have no justification for judging others. Revel in your nothingness! It’s God’s opinion of you that matters.
What resonates with you in this section of Galatians?
What has it been like to be on the receiving end of restoration? Or on the restoring end?
How would you explain the dual nature of a Christian’s self-evaluation of
- I am the worst of sinners, (1 Timothy 1:15) and
- Imitate me as I imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 6:11)
to someone new to or outside of Christianity?
How are Luther’s words about this helpful?
What about Keller’s take on all of us at different starting points in our faith maturity?