Boasting in the Cross, Or, Not Keeping Up With the Joneses’

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Boasting in the Cross, Or, Not Keeping Up With the Joneses’

Boasting. Where does it come from? The need to show that I am better than others? That I am morally superior, own more, have more of “something” than the next person? In America, they call this phenomenon, “keeping up with the Joneses.” The idea is that everyone is supposedly all striving to keep up with this imaginary family, or real family as the case may be, who has the best of everything. You get the idea. Unless we can appear to have the same or better than others around us, we have somehow failed at life. It’s all baloney to get us to buy more, consume more, pretend more. For the Galatians, keeping up with the Joneses or the Judaizers who boasted about their flesh, or lack of it, this meant getting circumcised. Perhaps the worst part of this situation that Paul fought against in his letter to them is the fact that those who imposed this rule were not even keeping the law themselves! In the closing remarks of his letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul reaffirms his underlying message throughout in his final appeal. What is his letter all about? It boils down in the end to the controversy over the practice of circumcision and being ‘under the law,’ versus placing trust and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Sabbath School lesson this week brings to a close Paul’s final arguments.

 

Paul’s Large Letters

Paul makes a final impassioned appeal to the Galatians by pointing out to them that he himself is writing in large letters (Gal. 6:11). Paul would have used a scribe and dictated most of his writings, but his bold lettering may have been difficult for him. His attempt to write to them in large letters may have indicated poor eyesight, or simply the fact that he really wanted to emphasize and personalize his message to them. Years ago, when email first began, at times people would send a message for EMPHASIS in CAPITAL LETTERS! However, we quickly learned that to do so could come across as bold or even offensive, and to generally avoid the use of caps when communicating with others via email. It can even make a person appear angry, or a little crazy, and should therefore be avoided. For Paul, writing big and bold letters in his own hand signified the urgency and importance of the message he wanted to share.

 

Circumcision or, Persecution. Any takers?

Paul explains his feelings about the false teachers who have compelled the Galatian Gentiles to be circumcised. He identifies them, not in so many words, as a bunch of hypocrites who were trying to avoid persecution by not wanting to be identified as Christians. Wow. That is a difficult place to be in. How excited are you about being persecuted? Would you get circumcised, or talk others into it to avoid it? I mean, it was part of the Old Testament practice and lifestyle, after all. Paul writes:

“As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh” (Gal. 6:12-13).

While I’m not sure what the ‘being on show’ is referring to, it does seem to indicate that Paul viewed them as boasters.

Paul also saw through the deception of the legalistic Judaizers who compelled the Galatians to be circumcised. They pretended to be concerned about bringing them under the law, but the reality was, they were doing it for themselves. Paul says, they really just wanted to be able to boast about themselves in compelling others to follow suit. Like a trophy, or medal won through deceit, compelling the Galatians to cut off their foreskins in order to follow Christ was wrong. However, another reason underlying their pressure to conform was the fact that they wanted to avoid persecution. What was the nature of the persecution? We don’t know exactly. It may have been persecution or pressure from within Judaism, rather than outside. They were afraid of their own religious organization and getting kicked out. Wherever the pressure was coming from, it was the wrong reason to get others into a practice that no longer had anything to do with obedience to God and faith in Jesus Christ. The worst part is that they came up with a false gospel to cover their behavior.

 

Boasting in Nothing Except the Cross of Jesus Christ

But boasting isn’t all bad, right? Anyone ever boasted about their kid’s team winning in competition sport? Or a friend who got a special award? We may unwittingly boast about others quite a lot. If you think about all the things that are special and unique about others, including yourself you might come up with some things to talk about. Such as the miracle of birth, each person’s unique fingerprint, personality, talents, skills, and potential to contribute to the world. Is there anything to slightly boast about? God has made each of us unique and special. But this is not what Paul is talking about here. What he wants the Galatians (and us) to know is that really there is nothing in this life that we have to boast about. Nothing. Nada. Because ultimately every good thing comes from God. So we’ve got nothing to boast about. Not only does getting circumcised not count, neither does being a pastor, elder, teacher, prayer coordinator, or even president.

 

Compared to the offer of the gift of salvation through the sacrificial death of Christ, there is nothing that we could possibly point to that places us on any moral vantage point with God. Even Sabbath keeping would be discounted here as a basis for boasting ourselves as good and righteous. Paul says,

“But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:14-15).

Paul had a lot he could boast about, his background, educational achievements, knowledge, citizenship, spiritual heritage, etc. In the end, it didn’t mean anything to him. The only thing that mattered was knowing Jesus Christ and being transformed into a new creation by God. He wanted to give God all the glory for all of it.

 

The irony is that there is nothing glorious about a cross. It was so despised as a form of persecution and death by the Romans that they didn’t mention it in polite conversation. If Jesus had died a different way, would he say a glorious knife? Or a glorious guillotine? And yet, the cross has become a famous symbol for the death of Christ. People wear it around their necks, hang it in their cars, stick it on bumpers, erect it in churches, place it on steeples. It is a widely recognized symbol. And Paul wanted to boast about it. Do you? The cross was the means by which Paul became crucified to the world with all its possessions and goods, fame, riches, honor, and power. He died to the world, he died to keeping up with the Joneses.

 

Suffering for Christ

In the end, Paul wanted to bless the Galatians. He wanted them to understand the truth in Christ Jesus that they did not have to follow the legalists who demanded circumcision in order to be in a saving relationship with God. He writes to them, “And as many as walk according to this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Paul wasn’t out to spread hate. Rather, he desired God’s peace and mercy to be upon them all, including Israel, the people of God. He made his last appeal, and now asks that they trouble him no more.

 

Paul was suffering physically and perhaps in other ways as well. He writes,

“From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus. Brethren, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, amen” (Gal. 6:17-18).

After suffering shipwreck, persecution, starvation, and deprivation Paul needed some R&R time to heal. That’s understandable. Whatever these marks were, his suffering was real. Even so, the cross was the most precious to Paul because Christ understood what it means to suffer. When we realize that Christ can identify with our pain, it releases a burden that we are somehow suffering alone in this world. And all we can do is depend on His grace to get us through. Paul ends by wishing them all God’s grace and I do too.

 

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About the author

Katrina Blue

Katrina Blue is assistant professor of Religion at Pacific Union College. Her Ph.D. from Andrews University is in Theological Studies. She wrote her dissertation on the topic of "Union with Christ in the Writings of Ellen G. White" (2015). She is passionate about spirituality and making God's truth relevant to the world.