The Object of Paul’s Boasting
Far be it for me to glory (boast) except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14
The letter to the Galatians is undoubtedly Paul’s most emotional piece of writing. In it from first to last the apostle has highlighted his gospel in the light of the challenges it was facing.
Wrapping Things Up
With verse 11 Paul begins a final wrap-up in his own hand. He had dictated the rest of his letter to one of his colleagues. Now the apostle goes out of his way to point out the “large letters” that he is using. The text doesn’t tell us why he writes so large, but three suggestions have emerged to explain it. One possibility is that he had poor eyesight and, as a result, he penned with an outsized script. Those who hold that position refer to his bodily ailment of Galatians 4:13 and to the fact that believers would have given him their own eyes (verse 15). A second suggestion is that Paul was not professional scribe and thus formed rather sprawling and untidy letters.
Those suggestions may have some validity, but, given the content of his final few verses, it is most likely that he employed the large letters for emphasis. We still do the same thing today when we use capital letters, italics, or underlining. Such literary techniques signal the reader to pay attention because what follows is important. Along that line, the final section contains the interpretive clues to the understanding of Paul’s major concern in the letter as a whole and should be employed as the interpretive (hermeneutical) key to the intention of the Apostle.
Certainly Paul highlights and pounds home in Galatians 6:12-16 themes evident throughout the epistle. One of them concerns his problem with the Judaizers, which has been central from the first verse of chapter one. Here is his most straightforward manner, he outlines the techniques of those seeking to lead the Galatian believers away from the gospel truth that Paul had taught them. Circumcision was undoubtedly at the center of their message. They were apparently the same men that the book of Acts represents as claiming that “unless you were circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Such a teaching was the ultimate heresy for Paul, whose message centered on salvation by grace accepted through faith (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8).
But the good news was that they were as yet still trying to compel the Galatians to be circumcised (Galatians 6:12). Some of the believers may have already gone that direction, but from this verse it appears that many if not most had not yet taken that step. Thus Paul’s urgent, vigorous, and aggressive style in writing to the Galatians. They were as he saw it, in the midst of a life-and-death struggle. The word compel points to the pressure that the Judaizers were applying to the Galatian believers. These teachings were not saying that circumcision was a helpful rite for people who chose to accept it, but that it was necessary for true Christian initiation.
Paul has two things to say about such tactics. First, those pushing circumcision had a desire to make a good showing in the flesh so that they may boast in your flesh (verse 13, NASB). Paul’s point was that the Judaizers wanted ecclesiastical statistics; so many circumcisions in a given year was certainly something to boast about. It is easy to smile at them. But baptismal statistics in mission area can at time be just as dangerous.
Second, Paul uplifted the cross of Christ. If the symbol of the Judaizers’ theology was circumcision, that Paul’s was the Cross. The first was a well-recognized emblem even by Roman government. Circumcision saved Jews from persecution because the authorities officially recognized the Jewish religion and officially allowed Jews (that is, those who were circumcised) to practice it. Christians who were not circumcised did not have that protection. We need to remember that Rome viewed the earliest Christians as belonging to the Jewish sect. They did not yet classify them as a distinct religion.
On the other hand, the Romans regarded the cross as a despicable thing. In fact, it was the most ignoble of all objects – a matter of unrelieved shame, not of boasting. It is difficult, after sixteen centuries and more during which the cross had been a sacred symbol, to realize the unspeakable horror and loathing which the very mention or thought of the cross provoked in Paul’s day. The word crux (cross) was unmentionable in polite Roman society (Cicero, Pro Rabirio 16); even when one was being condemned to death by crucifixion the sentence used an archaic formula which served as a sort of euphemism: arvori infelici suspendito, hang him on the unlucky tree (cicero, ibid., 13).