Studies in Galatians, Ephesians and Philippians
9. Galatians 6:1-16 - Do Good to All
In many of his letters, Paul concludes with a list of commands. In Galatians, he gives a series of proverbs. He wants his readers to be guided by the Spirit, not a list of laws, so he gives them principles that require some thought.
Restore a sinner gently (verses 1-5)
The Galatian Christians were probably concerned about sin — they were attracted to the law of Moses because it seemed to address the problem of misbehavior. But Paul is more concerned about the person than he is the sin: “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.”
What kind of sin is Paul talking about — a moment of weakness, or a persistent problem? It’s not clear, but it alienated the person from the community, and restoration was needed. This must be done gently by Spirit-led people, who know their own tendency to sin in other, perhaps less public ways. We should treat others the way that we want to be treated, with compassion and patience.
As brothers and sisters in the faith, we are to help one another: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” If you want a law, he seems to say, start with the law of helping others. Jesus served others rather than himself, and so should we. When someone is caught in a sin, we need to help the person — not make the burden heavier. This is love, which fulfills the purpose of God’s law (5:14).
Paul’s next proverb is a truism: “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves.” This seems to be a warning for people who think they are spiritual giants and never likely to be caught in a sin. If you think you can stand on your own, he says elsewhere, watch out, for you could fall, too (1 Corinthians 10:12).
“Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.” We are not the judge of how well other people are doing in the faith — but we should be attentive to whether we are doing what we ought. We can celebrate that we have grown, but we should not take pride in being better than others. Each person has his or her own journey in life. As Paul says, “each one should carry their own load.”
On the surface, this appears to contradict what Paul said in verse 2. Are we to help one another, or to be self-reliant? Well, both. We should be attentive to our own life, but we should also help others—and we should recognize that we will sometimes fall short in our responsibilities, and will then need the help of others. Spiritual growth is a matter of cooperation, not competition.
Supporting teachers, doing good (verses 6-10)
Paul’s next proverb concerns financial support for the leaders of the church: “The one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.” When the people were spiritually immature, Paul was willing to support himself by making tents, but he also taught that believers should support those who labor in the gospel. If we want teachers to help us with their abilities, then we must help them according to our ability.
Paul says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” This principle could be applied in many settings; here, it seems to refer to financial support for teachers in the church. No matter how diligent our teachers are, if they have to support themselves financially, they will inevitably have less time to help others. When we give more, we receive more.
Paul applies the proverb to spiritual matters: “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” A self-centered life produces only material things that eventually waste away. A life curved in on itself doesn’t even want the kind of life that God offers.
But if we are attentive to spiritual priorities, the result will be more blessings from the Spirit. This is not a matter of earning eternal life through good works — it is simply an acknowledgment that spiritual choices have results. If we focus on ourselves, our life will produce nothing of value. But if we make decisions in life following the Spirit, we will be participating in the kind of life we will enjoy forever. The Spirit leads us and empowers us, but we still have the choice of how to live, and our decisions do have consequences.
Paul makes it clear that the works of the law cannot save us, but he has nothing against good works: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Why do we get tired of doing good? Because it doesn’t always have immediate rewards. But it will eventually have good results.
Paul concludes: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” Since doing good is the right way to live, we should do good not just to our friends, but to all people — and yet Paul notes that we have a special responsibility to others in the church.
In Paul’s day, wealthy citizens often financed public banquets and new civic buildings: they were “doing good to all.” Be a public benefactor, Paul is saying, especially within the church. If you sow generously, you will reap abundantly (2 Corinthians 9:6).
Boasting in the cross (verses 11-16)
Paul now takes the quill and writes the closing words himself, as Greek authors often did. He writes in large letters either for emphasis, or simply because he was not as skilled as the secretary in writing on porous papyrus. “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!”
He adds a few thoughts about circumcision: “Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.” Basically, the false teachers wanted Christianity to be a sect within Judaism, and for all Gentile believers to become proselytes. They may have offered various religious reasons, but Paul says that what they really wanted was to be accepted by unbelieving Jews.
But there is an irony here: “Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.” As a former Pharisee, Paul knew the rigor involved in keeping all the laws — and these people don’t have that kind of zeal, he says. They just want to brag about bringing proselytes into the Jewish fold.
Boasting about achievements is hazardous to our spiritual health. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” When we boast in the cross, we are “boasting” in our weakness, admitting that human effort ends only in death. We are proclaiming the gospel of what Christ has done.
Because of the cross, our old self is irrelevant. The new spiritual reality is that it doesn’t matter whether a person is Jewish or Gentile. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” In the cross, we died, and in the resurrection, we were made new. Our relationship with God is based on our connection with Christ, not on our flesh.
“Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule to the Israel of God.” The “rule” is that circumcision doesn’t matter. Paul is ending with a benediction on those who accept his teaching. They are “the Israel of God.” If people want to be part of Israel according to God’s definition, they should ignore the flesh and trust in their new status in Christ.
Things to think about
- Based on Paul’s letter, how could believers in Galatia know whether they were “spiritual”? (v. 1)
- If I am dealing with a person caught in sin, what kind of words would help the person carry the burden? (v. 2)
- In the support I give my pastor, am I trying to please the Spirit, or have I grown weary? (vv. 8-9)
- How do I boast in the cross of Christ? (v. 14)
The Greeks had a word for it: kαταρτιζω
When Paul exhorted believers to “restore” a person who had sinned (Galatians 6:1), he used the Greek word katartizō. This comes from the Greek word artizō (related to the English words artistry and artisan), and the prefix kata (which can have a variety of meanings, but in this word conveys a sense of completeness).
This is the word that Mark uses to say that the disciples were mending or preparing their nets (Mark 1:19), and Jesus uses it for a fully trained student (Luke 6:40). In secular Greek, it was used for a doctor setting a broken bone so that it could heal. In general, it means to make something suited for its purpose.
By using this word, Paul is putting emphasis on the solution, not the problem. “The whole atmosphere of the word lays the stress not on punishment but on cure” (William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, 53). “The goal here is not punishment or expulsion of the transgressor but restoration to the person’s former state” (Ben Witherington, Grace in Galatia, 422).
Author: Michael Morrison, PhD, 1989, 2012