STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 27
October 24, 1999
v.2 In one instance in the NT (Revelation 2:2) the word the NIV translates “carry” means “tolerate” or “put up with” and this has led some to suggest that such is the idea here: “put up with” or “tolerate” one another, and especially the spiritual are to tolerate the less spiritual. The idea would then be akin to Paul’s statement in Romans 15:1: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” But the word is used many times in the NT and almost always in the ordinary sense of carry or bear and, surely, that is Paul’s idea here. And he was a magnificent exemplar of what he preaches to us all here. Think of his remark in 2 Corinthians 11:28-29. After enumerating his own sufferings for the gospel’s sake he goes on to describe the sympathetic suffering he endured because of the sufferings of his churches. “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?”
“law of Christ” Christ is the law giver, after all, from Sinai to the Upper-room. (Remember the second verse of the Christmas hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”: O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height, in ancient times did give the law, in cloud and majesty and awe.”) Paul is not distinguishing the law of Christ from the law of Moses, as if they were two different laws, as some have imagined, but is placing the authority of Christ behind the law. Which law in particular? The law of love which he has said above (5:14) sums up the entire law, and which Christ made a point of restating and demonstrating by his own life. The law of love is uniquely the law of Christ who perfectly fulfilled it in his own life and work and who then made it the cornerstone of the teaching about the life of those who would follow him.
v.3 Clearly a warning against spiritual pride, like Paul’s statement in Romans 12:3: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment…”
v.5 The phrase is a common maxim as is the phrase in 6:3. Paul is applying it to the point made in v. 4, as the “for” at the beginning of v. 5 indicates. I don’t understand the NIV’s translation of the verb here, which is a simple future. Paul does not say that each man shouldbear his own load, but that each man will bear his own load. The verb “carry” or “bear” is the same as in v. 2; the noun “load” is different from the noun “burden” in v. 2. Still the similarity is striking and, no doubt, intended to be so. In the one place Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens and a few verses later tells us that we will all have to bear our own burdens. A paradox, Chesterton wrote, is “truth standing on its head to get attention.”
Now, all of this is one interconnected argument. The NIV omits a “for” at the beginning of v.3 – taking it as simply a minor connective – which I fear, diminishes our sense of that interconnection of thought. But, the flow of the argument suggests that the burden of v. 3, its place in the context, is to provide a circumstantial qualification
to what has gone before. If you are proud and think of others proudly as a result, you will not be able to fulfill the law of Christ or bear the burdens of others.
Verses 4 and 5 then complete that thought by describing how and upon what grounds one can come to a right estimation of oneself in order that one might bear the burdens of others rightly and so fulfill the law of Christ.
What is very interesting about this argument is that, quite naturally, we take Paul to mean that we should think of ourselves as nothing and that, in that humility, we will be able to bear the burdens of others. Thinking little of ourselves we will not be deterred from seeing others as worthy of our attention, care, and love. For example, the very fine commentator, William Hendriksen, says, in his comment on v. 4, that if after one has tested himself and his conduct in the mirror of God’s law and Christ’s example, “there is still room for making claims – as there may be, indeed! – then the possibilities of glorying will have arisen from himself, that is, from that which God has accomplished in his heart…” [Galatians, 234] But, when he imagines what “claims” such a man might make, he suggests “he can claim to be a sinner, saved by grace.” In other words “the taking pride in himself” in v. 4 is only a rhetorical statement. No one is really supposed to take pride in himself. There is some truth in that viewpoint, of course. Later in this same chapter Paul will say, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
But that does not seem to be Paul’s point in vv. 3-5. That it is not Paul’s meaning, I think, is demonstrated in at least three statements that he makes in these three verses (3-5).
First, perhaps you noticed in v. 3 that Paul says “if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself…” It is not obvious that Paul means to say that we are nothing and ought to think of ourselves as nothing. In Romans 12:3 he writes merely that we ought not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought but ought to think of ourselves with sober judgment, according to the measure of faith God has given us. That is a very different thing than saying that true humility means having a sense that we are nothing and do nothing, at least of any real worth.
That is certainly not what Paul thought of himself. Morbid self-contempt slanders the Giver of all good gifts. Paul certainly didn’t indulge in it. He knew his great sinfulness; he knew very well his considerable weaknesses, but he was not above talking about his accomplishments either. He refers to himself as a wise master-builder (1 Corinthians 3:10), a steward of the mysteries of God (4:1), he tells the Corinthians that he is their spiritual father, a role that stands above 10,000 spiritual tutors (4:15), he even says that he, by the grace of God, worked harder than any of the other apostles (1 Corinthians 15:10) – a remarkable statement by any account. He has already described his previous ministry to the Galatians in chapters 1 and 2, including his rebuke of Peter. In 2 Corinthians 11, you remember, he gives a lengthy account of his sufferings on behalf of the gospel. Paul is not saying that he amounts to nothing. He would, of course, admit freely and want to say that it is by the grace of God that he was what he was. But that is not his point here, as v. 5 demonstrates. We have to answer for our own lives, he says there, but not in the sense, obviously enough, that we have nothing to say and must all absolutely fail that test. No, we must each give an account of our own lives. That is the Bible’s teaching. We’ll say more about that in a moment.
Second, in v. 4 Paul is stressing personal responsibility, especially as it lays the axe to the root of prideful comparisons with others. And there he says, “Then he can take pride in himself…” A Christian’s own achievement will be the ground of his pride, not his comparison of himself with someone who does less well (remember we began the section at v. 1 with the idea of more and less spiritual Christians).
In Romans 15:17 Paul says that he has reason to boast, in Jesus Christ of course, in his work as an apostle and an evangelist. There he uses the verb form of the word that appears in a noun form here in v. 4. “Therefore I glory (boast) in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God [i.e. he will not compare himself or his work with others] by what I have said and done –…
And in a very similar vein he says in 2 Corinthians 10:13-18: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves [the false teachers in Corinth; remember there were false teachers in Galatia too and they may well lie behind Paul’s remarks here in 6:2-5]. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise. We, however, will not boast beyond proper limits, but will confine our boasting to the field God has assigned to us, a field that reaches even to you. We are not going too far in our boasting, as would be the case if we had not come to you, for we did get as far as you with the gospel of Christ. Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others.” And that entire section, interestingly, concludes with a thought similar to that of v. 5: “For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.”
In other words, it is not any boasting, any sort of pride in accomplishment, that Paul is forbidding in v. 4, but a boasting “beyond proper limits,” a boasting that is based not on what the Lord has done through us but on a comparison with the work and the accomplishment of others.
Third, and finally, there is v. 5 and its statement that we will carry our own load.
Strange as it may seem in an argument devoted to justification by faith alone, Paul did not hesitate to introduce the concept of personal responsibility and the judgment according to works. He will elaborate these ideas still more in vv. 7ff. where he teaches that a man will reap what he sows. Works may not save anyone, but they will be to some important extent the measure of one’s life as God evaluates and judges that life. He says elsewhere that there will be reward apportioned to Christians at the last day according to the obedience of their lives. That fact is assumed here. The present question is not the existence of such a judgment according to works, but the ground and basis of it. What Paul is mainly after, as the “for” at the beginning of v. 5 indicates, is the recognition that in the day of judgment Paul will not be asked how his achievements compared with Peter’s, but, rather, how faithfully he made use of what God had given him, how faithfully he had answered the summons God had addressed to him. Each individual Christian must consider his own life against the standard of God’s law and Christ’s example, not the performance of some other Christian, especially some other Christian who doesn’t do so well – which, of course, are the Christians we are inclined to compare ourselves with. And when we judge ourselves against the law of God and the example of Christ, we will forever stop taking comfort in the fact that some other Christian seems in some ways to be less successful or less faithful than we are! That is no help to us whatsoever! God does not grade on a curve!
We all should have something to take pride in, in that truly gracious and Christian way, but it cannot rest on any comparison with the life and work of other Christians. If it does, we will be sadly surprised on the Great Day!
As Hendriksen puts it [234-235]: “Burdens must be carried jointly, but the load of responsibility differs for each individual, and in the Judgment Day the manner in which brother A has assumed his responsibility will not make things easier or harder for brother B. The latter, too, will have to carry his own load.”
Or, in other words, you care for your brothers and sisters because it is right and the will of Christ your Savior, and because you will be rewarded for having done so or held accountable for having failed to do so. The fact that another Christian has screwed up or is needy in some way, does not in any way absolve you of responsibility for him or her, nor does it set you above him or her. The burdens of other brethren are simply the opportunity for us to fulfill the law of Christ. We will have to give answer for whether we seized that opportunity or in foolish pride and indifference to others wasted it and failed to serve the brethren and to obey our Lord and Judge.
Plain speaking and a serious, but wonderfully clarifying view of life from the Apostle to the Gentiles.