“I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves…. But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. For each one will bear his own load….For those who are circumcised do not even keep the Law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised so that they may boast in your flesh.” Gal 5:12; 6:4, 5, 13
I came across this series of verses while I was reading the Bible today. Galatians is a really interesting letter and after Romans is probably my favorite. Scholars surmise that the church in Galatia was being led astray by Jewish Christians who were insisting to the Gentiles that they had to keep all elements of the Torah in order to be saved in Christ. As the members of the church of Galatia are being led astray by this false teaching, Paul is prompted to write one of his most scathing letters. Of the letters to churches, only in Galatians does Paul not take the time to give God thanks for the church he is addressing. Of the letters to the churches, only Galatians does not end with greetings from other people. Paul has something to say and it has to say it expeditiously. He spends a major portion the letter defending his status as an apostle, largely because his teachings were being attacked by these former Jews who are attempting to establish a gospel other than what Paul had taught the church. He spends most of the letter re-establishing the idea that the Gentiles are free from the burdensome regulations of the law that the Jews felt they had to follow, including circumcision. Then in chapter 5, Paul, in what is either righteous anger or extreme sarcasm, essentially says, “I wish those that want you to mutilate yourselves would go and mutilate themselves!” Go and do to yourselves what you want others to do to themselves. Cut your own self Paul says…
We as Christians often find ourselves in the position of the Christian Jews that Paul attacked in Galatians. So often we place ourselves, without God’s permission, in the position of determining the pace of someone else’s walk with Christ. Even with the best of intentions, we appoint ourselves as the repairers of the breaches in other people’s lives. But there is a hidden danger in this attitude that Paul highlights. Why is it that these people want to see others circumcised? So that “they may boast in your flesh,” not their own. We must be careful that we do not use our good deeds towards others (if they are actually good deeds in the first place) as a substitute for our own introspection, for our own relationship with Christ. The aid we think that we are giving to others cannot replace the aid we must first give to ourselves in turning to the Savior and seeking to grow more like Him. Paul expressed the idea to the Corinthians this way, “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it….Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1 Cor 9:23, 26, 27) Paul understood that he had a responsibility to others as an apostle and a leader of God’s church. But he also understood that he had a responsibility to make his own calling and election sure. Paul’s message to the Galatian church is that these people who are burdening them do not have this responsibility. And even thought they are to “Bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal 6:2) their responsibility is first to themselves and their own work. I would say the same to us today. For some of us, our responsibility is not to everyone else, at every possible time. God has not always sent us to correct the sins of others. But we do know for a fact that God has given us the responsibility to correct our own sins and faults with His aid and guidance.
While Paul certainly didn’t want people to literally mutilate themselves (we hope), the concept of taking care of yourself repeats itself from that point till the end of the book. Paul encourages each member to examine their own work. He goes even further and criticizes those who want to require circumcision for not living up to the standard of the law in their own lives. Peter agreed with this criticism as it related to the yoke of the law that the Jews had placed upon themselves. Peter said it this way, "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are." (Acts 15:10, 11) They both are in agreement with Christ, who said, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Matt 7:3-5) Paul is passing along this tried and true message from Christ to Galatia and finally to us – Before we attempt to cut others, we must first go through the process of cutting ourselves.
Jason Hines is an attorney and doctoral student in Religion, Politics, and Society at the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at http://thehinesight.blogspot.com.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6026