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Galatians 6:1-16 Biblical Commentary:
Paul established the church in Galatia (4:13-14), but moved on. Then he received word that certain Jewish-Christians were trying to persuade Galatian Christians to observe Jewish laws and rituals, including circumcision (5:2-12; 6:12-13) and the observance of “days, months, seasons, and years” (4:10). He is writing this letter to persuade the Galatian Christians not to adopt these unnecessary practices (3:10-14). Their righteousness depends not on observance of Jewish law, but upon the grace of God, made manifest through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (2:21; 3:13-14).
In chapter 5:
• Paul called these Galatian Christians to embrace their freedom from the law (5:1).
• He told them that, if they were circumcised, Christ would be of no benefit to them (5:2).
• The key was not circumcision but love (5:6).
• He reaffirmed that they were called to freedom—but not license (5:13).
• The law is summarized as follows: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14).
• He listed the works of the flesh (5:19-21) and the fruits of the Spirit (5:22-24).
• He called them to walk by the Spirit, and not to provoke or envy one another (5:25-26).
GALATIANS 6:1-5. BEAR ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS
1 Brothers, even if a man is caught in some fault, you who are spiritual must restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself so that you also aren’t tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each man test his own work, and then he will take pride in himself and not in his neighbor. 5 For each man will bear his own burden.
“Brothers, even if a man is caught in some fault, you who are spiritual must restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness” (Greek: prautes) (v. 1a). Christians have often been depicted as frowning and finger-wagging, always accusing others of misdoing. But Paul calls the Galatian Christians to rehabilitate anyone caught in sin—and to do so in a spirit of gentleness.
The word prautes (gentleness) is often translated meekness. We should not think that prautes is weakness. Prautes is, instead, power under control—able to display the appropriate response to fit the circumstance. In some cases, that might be anger. In other cases, it might be gentleness. Both can be useful in a rehabilitative process.
Jesus described himself as “praus and lowly in heart” (11:29). Matthew described Jesus as a king, “praus, and mounted on a donkey” (21:5). Jesus modeled praus at his trial, where he refused to defend himself. He was poised and in control, not weak, but refusing to make claims for himself or to mount a defense.
“looking to yourself so that you also aren’t tempted” (v. 1b). The person confronting a sinner can be tempted in various ways. This verse sounds as if a person confronting a drunk might be tempted to join the drunk in drinking to excess. That will seldom happen.
More likely, the person doing the confronting will be tempted to adopt a judgmental attitude that will (1) make it difficult to relate to the drunk—to the detriment of the sinner—and (2) well up inside the confronter as spiritual pride—to the detriment of the confronter.
But some sins are contagious, especially when people begin to regard them as normative behavior.
“Bear one another’s burdens” (v. 2a). To bear one another’s burdens is to provide help where help is needed, whether that be spiritual or physical—a shoulder to cry on or a loaf of bread or help with a house payment—whatever is needed.
In this verse, Paul is talking about Christians helping Christians. Christians have, from the beginning, thought of themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ, and brothers and sisters have a heart for each other—at least in healthy families.
But Christians also bear burdens for people outside the church. Our little congregation currently has one man in Nicaragua helping to drill wells and another man helping with an orphanage in Africa. Both expect to serve in those places for at least a year. A local Christian eye doctor goes on an annual mission to provide eye care to indigent people. Habitat for Humanity is a faith-based ministry that provides houses to needy people with no religious test. Christian have banded together to share health-care costs. The possibilities for burden-bearing are limited only by our imaginations.
“and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2b). It seems odd that Paul would speak of the law of Christ, because his letter to the Galatians emphasizes that Christ has set us from the law.
• However, Christ endorsed two laws—love God and love your neighbor—and said that all the law and prophets depend on those two laws (Matthew 22:34-40). The person who obeys those two laws can be assured of living in proper relationship to God and neighbor.
• Paul listed works of the flesh, warning that those who dealt in such things would not inherit the kingdom of God (5:16-21)—and listed the fruits of the Spirit, calling the Galatians to live by the Spirit (5:22-25).
Even though Paul was opposed to Christians submitting to Jewish laws, such as circumcision, he was not averse to explaining how the Christian life involves adhering to certain behaviors and avoiding other behaviors.
“For if a man thinks himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (v. 3). People with big egos aren’t likely to bear another person’s burdens. Egocentric people tend to be judgmental and uncaring.
Such people deceive themselves, because they lack the virtues that would make them truly great in the kingdom of God.
“But let each man test (Greek: dokimazo) his own work” (v. 4a). The word dokimazo means to test or prove something. Paul is calling these Galatians to examine their own work with a critical eye to determine what has value and what doesn’t.
“and then he will take pride in himself and not in his neighbor” (v. 4b). Believers who examine their own work critically—discarding unworthy works while building up those that are worthy—will have proper cause to take pride in their work. Paul calls these Galatians to focus on improving themselves instead of focusing on what their neighbor is doing.
“For each man will bear his own burden” (v. 5). This seems contrary to “bear one another’s burdens in verse 2. However, it is just a shift of emphasis. Beginning in verse 4, Paul encouraged these believers to mind their own business rather than trying to mind their neighbor’s business. Verse 5 continues that emphasis.
Just think how much happier a world this would be if we would all do that—if we would mind our own business rather than our neighbor’s business. Just imagine how much more smoothly our churches would run if all Christians would do this. Just imagine how much more effective would be our witness to the world.
Someone once said, “The church is the only army in the world that shoots its own wounded.” Instead of doing that, let’s learn to restore the fallen person in a spirit of gentleness (5:1)—and to bear one another’s burdens (6:2)—and to mind our own business.
GALATIANS 6:6. SHARING ALL GOOD THINGS
6 But let him who is taught in the word share all good things with him who teaches.
Although Paul earned his own livelihood by making tents, he understood the needs of those who teach the word of God. It is only right, then, for those who are taught to “share all good things” with their teacher.
GALATIANS 6:7-10. SOWING AND REAPING
7 Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. 8 For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption. But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith.
“Don’t be deceived. God is not mocked” (v. 7a). We cannot fool God. We might ignore God or ridicule faith or claim that there is no God, but God knows our hearts and will have the final word.
“for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (v. 7b). The Bible is full of these homely aphorisms, and we are the richer for it. They are easy to remember, so they sit in our consciousness ready to bless us at just the right time.
Every gardener will recognize the truth behind this saying. We can’t reap lettuce by sowing radish seed. We literally reap that which we sow. If we are generous with the seed, we will gain a greater harvest. If we are stingy with the seed, we won’t enjoy as good a crop as we otherwise would.
As we will see in the next verse, that is true in the spiritual as well as in the physical realm.
“For he who sows to his own flesh (Greek: sarx) will from the flesh reap corruption (Greek:phthora). But he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (v. 8). In the last chapter, Paul contrasted the works of the flesh (5:19-21) and the fruits of the Spirit (5:22-24). He uses that same flesh/Spirit duality in this verse.
Sarx (flesh) depicts a focus on bodily indulgence rather than on Godly service. The works of the flesh include such things as sexual immorality, idolatry, sorcery, jealousy, drunkenness, “and things like these.” By way of contrast, the fruits of the Spirit include such things as love, joy, peace, and things like that.
Paul promises that the person “who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (v. 8). I am reminded of a story, probably apocryphal, about a missionary and his wife returning to their homeland after a lifetime of service on their mission field. As their ship came near the pier, they noticed another ship with a celebrity aboard being greeted by a great crowd. The missionary commented that no one had come to greet them for their homecoming. Then he heard a voice say, “You aren’t home yet.”
“Let us not be weary in doing good, for we will reap in due season, if we don’t give up” (v. 9). Paul promises that, if we do good works, “we will reap in due season.” We must remember that God’s timetable for rewards might not be as prompt as we would like. The rewards of faithful service might come slowly—but they will come certainly.
But Paul adds, “if we don’t give up.” By coincidence, I happened recently to read an article on the number of clergy who leave the ministry every year—and the number who would like to leave but feel trapped. The numbers are high, because the pressures on clergy are intense—and they often find it difficult to see that they have accomplished anything.
But we don’t have to be clergy to get discouraged. Lay people experience the same kind of burnout if they have been active in church leadership.
So Paul’s comment, “if we don’t give up,” comes both as a statement of fact and a warning.
“So then, as we have opportunity, let’s do what is good toward all men, and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith” (v. 10). As noted above, missionaries, physicians serving a one or two-week mission to a needy locale, and organizations such as Habitat for Humanity serve everyone—with no faith requirement. Paul encourages that kind of outreach “toward all men.”
But then he adds, “and especially toward those who are of the household of the faith.” This is reminiscent of his counsel in verse 2 to bear one another’s burdens. Christians have a great responsibility to serve those across the seas—but we also have an obligation, perhaps even greater, to serve those in the next pew.
GALATIANS 6:11-16. THEY COMPEL YOU, BUT NOT THEMSELVES
11 See with what large letters I write to you with my own hand. 12 As many as desire to look good in the flesh, they compel you to be circumcised; only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ.13 For even they who receive circumcision don’t keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 As many as walk by this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on God’s Israel.
“See with what large letters I write to you with my own hand” (v. 11). Paul typically dictated his letters to an amanuensis (a person trained to take dictation). He probably dictated most of this letter, but took over the writing with this verse, his way of giving special emphasis to what follows.
“As many as desire to look good in the flesh, they compel you to be circumcised; only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (v. 12). Paul addresses the motives of the Judaizers, saying that they are trying to compel circumcision of Christians for three reasons: (1) so that they might “look good in the flesh”—in other words, so that they might look good to other people; (2) to escape being persecuted; and (3) so “that they may boast in your flesh” (v. 13).
Paul understood persecution of Christians by Jews, because he had been on both ends personally—both persecutor (Acts 9:1) and persecuted (Acts 9:23-25; 13:44-45, 50; 14:5, 19; 16:19-40; 17:5-8, 13-14; 18:12-17; 19:9, 21-41; 21:27-36, 30; 23:1 26:32).
“For even they who receive circumcision don’t keep the law themselves, but they desire to have you circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh” (v. 13). In the old West, gunslingers sometimes carved a notch in their gun for each person they had killed. We have something of that mentality here—although more civilized. The Judaizers were seeking bragging rights about persuading Christians to observe the Jewish law, especially with regard to circumcision.
“But far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14a). In contrast to the Judaizers, Paul is not seeking bragging rights about anything other than the efficacy of the cross of Christ. “Pride in the Law has been displaced by pride in the Cross; pride in ‘righteousness’ as an achievement, by pride in that which empties him of pride” (C.H. Dodd, New Testament Studies).
“through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (v. 14b). At one time, Paul had much of which to be proud. He described himself as “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the assembly (church); concerning the righteousness which is in the law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5-6). But he concluded by saying, “However, what things were gain to me, these have I counted loss for Christ” (Philippians 3:7).
“For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (v. 15). Christ doesn’t use circumcision or uncircumcision as a basis for inclusion or exclusion. Both are meaningless categories to him.
• Earlier, Paul said, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision amounts to anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love” (5:6).
• Now he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”
The difference in these two statements is that “faith working through love” is something over which the believer has some control—but “a new creation” is something wholly the product of the Creator’s creative nature.
“As many as walk by this rule” (Greek: kanon) (v. 16a). The Greek word kanon (rule) would have been used by a carpenter to describe anything used for measurements: A balance scale, a plumb line, or a ruler. The early church adopted kanon (as our word canon) for the accepted list of Biblical books. Paul uses kanon here metaphorically as a standard or rule—a measuring stick by which we can measure our lives. He is blessing the rule that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision amount to anything.
“peace and mercy be on them” (v. 16b). Paul pronounces a benediction of peace and mercy on all who follow this kanon—this rule that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything in Christ’s accounting.
“and on God’s Israel” (v. 16c). Israel was historically the people of God—God’s chosen people. The church is the New Israel. When Paul uses this phrase, “God’s Israel,” he is probably referring to the New Israel—the new people of God—which would include both Jews (such as Paul) and Gentiles (whom Paul serves as the apostle to the Gentiles).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fung, Ronald Y.K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
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