God had us in mind, all throughout history. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.
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Galatians #25 . Chapter 6:11-17
Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised — but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves; however, they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh. (Galatians 6:11-13)
I’ve mentioned verse 11 before. I think it is evidence that Paul had some sort of vision problem, and that he was slightly self-conscious about it. In most of his letters he has something like this:
This greeting is in my own hand — Paul. This is a sign in every letter; this is how I write. (2Thess 3:17, HCSB)
So his handwriting was somewhat distinctive, and perhaps not very good. That’s one of the blessing of our modern times – most of you will never know what my handwriting looks like! In any case, Paul may have a reason for referring to his handwriting here. It was, as I have said, apparently awkward and not very skillful. He is saying, “Look at my handwriting – it looks childish! I’m not trying to impress anyone. Those who want to impress you are the ones you need to watch out for!” He is referring, of course, to the false teachers who are trying to make the Galatians believe that they must not only trust Jesus, but also keep the Jewish law.
Paul makes three claims about the Galatian false teachers. First, he says that they want to make a good impression in the flesh, in order to avoid persecution. In the early days of Christianity, most of the persecution of Christians was instigated by Jews. Many Jewish people felt that the teaching about salvation through Jesus was a corruption of Judaism, a blasphemous heresy. They didn’t see it as a separate religion (and to be fair, neither did the Christians, at first). Christianity is based upon the Jewish Bible (which we call the Old Testament), as well as the teachings of the apostles (which we call the New Testament). So the Jews thought they needed to stamp out this Jewish blasphemy. They were frequently directly violent toward Christians. In places where Roman law was strongly in place, they used Roman regulations to get the Christians imprisoned, whipped and punished. Paul himself had once been a Jew whose life mission was to persecute and destroy Christianity.
Paul claims that the real motivation of the Galatian false teachers is to prove that they are good Jews, and thus avoid being persecuted. So they were willing to trust Jesus, as long as it didn’t cost them anything. But when society started moving against them, they compromised the message of grace in order to avoid the difficulties of being opposed to the Jews.
I have never been seriously persecuted for the message of grace in Jesus. I have, however, seen people who share my faith mocked and derided, and even called “dangerous” in the media. They often make fun of us in films and television. I have been called names and had people swear at me because of my faith, but nothing more serious than that. But even at that level of social pressure, there is temptation to compromise. The true message of the gospel is that there is no other way to be saved, except through Jesus. That sounds narrow-minded and ignorant to our culture today. I would feel a lot less pressure if I didn’t insist on that part of my doctrine.
The bible says we all sin, and that is a problem that can only be fixed by Jesus. But there are several things that the Bible calls “sin” that our society likes to practice and approve: sexual sins of all types, drunkenness, to name a few. I’m not trying to get non-Christians to live out Christian morality, but Christians at least, need to know what the bible says, and we should do our best to live by it. However, even many Christians do not want to acknowledge the truth of the Bible when it calls certain behaviors sinful. When I insist that we need the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus because of such things, I get a lot of angry push back. It would be a lot easier for me if I quit believing that some of those things are sinful. But Paul has harsh words for those who compromise or cave in to pressure and persecution.
Paul also says that the Galatian false teachers are hypocrites. They don’t actually keep the Jewish law, they just pretend enough to avoid persecution. Third, he says that they simply want to boast about the Galatians. Specifically, they want to boast to Jews that they caused the Galatians to become circumcised.
Now, as I’ve said many times throughout this series, we don’t have a big problem anymore with Christians insisting that we follow the Jewish Talmud and ceremonial laws. But we still have false teachers. One example of false teaching is what I call the “prosperity gospel.” I pick on this one often, because it is one of the most influential false teachings within the Christian church in America today.
As a sort of practice run for identifying false teaching, let’s look at the prosperity gospel according to these three things that Paul says about false teachers.
How does the prosperity gospel relate to persecution? Well, the main message is that if you follow God, things will go well for you. They talk a little bit about Jesus, as the Galatian false teachers did. But the main message is not the inner transformation of your spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sin, isn’t presented as a moral issue, as much as it is something that prevents you from getting the life you want, here and now. In other words, the things that offend people and draw persecution: the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the problem of sin – are not central to the prosperity gospel. The message of grace in Jesus Christ is not the main thing. Instead the main thing is improving your life here and now. Most people are already seeking a better life here and now. Most people want to find a good way to health, wealth and general prosperity. There is nothing offensive about that. There is nothing to persecute, because the goal of the prosperity gospel is the same as the goal of most secular Americans: to be prosperous and have a good life here and now.
What about hypocrisy? I suggest that you find out what you can about the regular lives of the people you listen to. If they aren’t open and honest, I would be wary of their teachings. One very popular teacher who tends to give the prosperity message was recently asked about his marriage. He said, on camera, with a straight face, that he and his wife had never had any struggles in their marriage. The interviewer questioned him, asking “Not ever?” He repeated, “never.” Now, I don’t know the details of his marriage, so theoretically, that could be true. But I know human nature, and if it is true of any married couple, they are the rarest people in the history of the world. I’m not willing to say he’s lying, but I wouldn’t trust a man who says that. As it turns out, this same man has made statements about what the bible says that are completely false, so my distrust has been justified. I suspect that this man felt compelled to say he had never experienced difficulty in his marriage because his overall message is that if you follow God, you will not have trouble here on earth. False messages breed false living.
And finally, the message of the prosperity gospel directs people to focus on themselves, rather than the cross of Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal is for my life to be better. The true gospel glorifies Jesus, glories in him and his suffering, as Paul did. The prosperity gospel glorifies what happens in my life. They praise God, certainly, but the praise him because of how he makes their lives better (sometimes). The focus on my life, not Jesus’ death. The boasting is in the details of my life, not in the cross of Christ.
I think these three things: avoiding hard parts of the gospel message, dishonesty or hypocrisy and focus on something other than Jesus, are helpful markers for us to identify false teaching. The bottom line is, we should watch out for things that pander to our flesh.
Paul goes on:
But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14, HCSB)
Paul says to the world, “you’re dead to me. I’m dead to you.” I don’t think he means nature or “the planet.” I think when he says “the world” here, he means all the ways and customs and habits of living for the flesh, for self-gratification. Money, power, status, security, comfort, self-indulgence, excess, focus on pleasure – all these are “the world.” These are the things that Paul says he is dead to. He says that the work of Jesus on the cross has separated him from such things. Paul is not supposed to be a super-Christian. If, through the cross, Paul was crucified to the world, than we too, can experience the same thing, but it happened for Paul, through Jesus Christ.
A lot of times I catch myself wanting power, status, security, comfort etc. But oh, what joy and peace I have when I am free from those desires! I believe I can have that freedom more and more, as I trust Jesus more and more, and let him be the dominant thing in my life. You can have that same freedom too, the same way as Paul. Paul’s point in saying that was to encourage the Galatians to have the same attitude.
Affirming that point, Paul says:
For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)
What matters is what Jesus is doing to transform you from the inside out. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)
Paul lived, believing that was true. Through his words, the Holy Spirit calls us to live that way also. Remember, the deepest, truest, most real you, is not your flesh, if you are in Jesus. The real you, if you are in Jesus, is a new creation in Him. That’s what matters.
Just as the real you is a new creation in Christ, so the real people of God are all those who trust Jesus Christ. Paul says:
May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God! (Galatians 6:16)
When Paul says “The Israel of God” he is making a distinction between the physical Israel and the spiritual one. The physical Israel are those who are physically descended through Abraham and Isaac. But the spiritual people Israel, the “Israel of God” are those who, like Abraham, have faith. Remember, Paul wrote earlier:
And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:29, HCSB)
Paul said the Romans:
This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. (Rom 4:16-17, HCSB)
There are two reasons this is important today. The first is that it changes the way we look at the Old Testament. The promises given to the people of Israel are also given to all who trust Jesus. The Old Testament is relevant, because we are the chosen people of God.
And that brings us to the second reason this is important: God had us in mind, all throughout history. He didn’t choose merely the Israelites as his specially chosen people – he also chose you, if you trust Jesus. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.
Paul closes with finality:
From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body scars for the cause of Jesus. Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Gal 6:15-18, HCSB)
What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today? Have you been trying to make a good impression in the flesh? Perhaps you’ve been tempted to avoid ridicule by softening the message of Jesus. Or maybe you need to identify false teaching that has swayed you away from the central gospel message. Do you need to hear that you truly are a new creation in Jesus Christ? Do you need to hear that you are truly one of God’s chosen people? Maybe you need to live in the truth that you are dead to the world, or something else. Let the Spirit speak right now.