Have you ever been loved in a way that really astounded you? Have you ever been served in a way that, when you sat back and thought about it, really humbled you?
It is likely that we all have examples in our lives of moments like these that surprised us as someone went out of their way to really serve and love above and beyond the call of duty. There was no obligation on their part, they just loved and served.
My friend Jon is a loving servant. He does amazing stuff all the time, but most recently he heard my parents will be moving to the area in the next few months, and his immediate reaction was that he would be glad to drive a truck, take me, and pack my parents’ stuff with me. That is his loving, servant heart, and it is a result of the gospel at work in him.
Jon, like us, has been freed from sin and is now free to love and serve, and this is where Paul is going in Galatians. Paul is encouraging us to use our Christian freedom as an opportunity to love through serving others.
Keep Running Well
Paul continues his points from Galatians 5:1–6 where he calls them to be free as Christians and not submit to Judaizing tendencies in the call to circumcise (cf. Acts 15). Only faith that works itself out in love matters, and this is where Paul goes in greater detail.
False brothers (Gal. 2:4) came and brought a false gospel (Gal. 1:6–9) of works (Gal. 3:1–14). Paul tells the Galatians to keep running the race well, not to be hindered in perseverance in the Christian faith (cf. Heb. 12:1–3). God is the one who called them to salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (1:6), and any persuasion to the contrary was false.
Paul is concerned because a little presence of false teaching can infiltrate the whole church (i.e., “the whole lump,” 5:9; cf. 1 Cor. 5:6). Some say of these Judaizers that Paul still preaches circumcision (Acts 16:1–3), but he appeals to his persecutions and says he suffers because he preaches and boasts in nothing but the cross (Gal. 6:14–15).
Verse 12 probably means something like, “They would do a lot less harm if they castrated themselves than if they circumcised you.” There is no escaping the fact that these are harsh words, shocking words. And all that simply goes to show how shocking and serious the issue is.
My daughter just ran her first 5k. She trained, but she was very nervous, wondering if she could complete it. We sought to help her with sleep, diet, training, etc., all to help her succeed. This is Paul, helping his people run. If someone hindered my daughter in the race, believe me, I would intervene, and this is what Paul is doing.
In this context where Judaism is well known, circumcision was taught by some as being necessary for salvation. We may scoff at that idea, but what gets added to our gospel understanding at times?
We cannot save ourselves. Do we see the need to add to what Christ has done to be right with God? Do we think our quiet times, ministry, or good works add in terms of our value before God? Or do we rest in Christ, knowing every good we get in the gospel is because of faith and union to him?
Know that Christ is the reason we can cease striving today. Let him be your identity so you are not under condemnation, and let him then be your example so that by grace and the Spirit you can continue to grow.
Use Your Freedom Well: Not for Selfish Ends, but to Love and Serve
Paul reminds them that they are called to Christian freedom. They were slaves to sin, and now they are slaves to righteousness (Rom. 6:1–12).
They should not submit to a “yoke of slavery,” coming back under the Mosaic Law as their covenant to earn righteousness before God. (legalism; Gal. 5:1). They should not use their freedom as a means of gratifying their sinful desires (license; Gal. 5:13). They also should not use their freedom as an opportunity to “bite and devour” one another or use one another for selfish gain, thus destroying each other.
Instead, freedom in Christ should lead Christians to serve one another through love. These false teachers were doing what they did to exalt themselves (Gal. 6:12–13), but Paul wants to remind them of an essential point of their faith, namely, that they were set free from sin by faith in Christ, not to go back to sin or indulge in works righteousness, but in order that through love they might serve one another as Christ loved and served us (Mark 10:45).
Freedom can be a word used in a variety of ways in our society as we thank God for those who fight for our freedom in this country, as well as those who want to claim freedom for their rights to do any number of things. We can remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who dreamed of a day when his brothers and sisters are “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last.”
Here though is the essence of true freedom, freedom in Christ.
We need to remember, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). We also need to recall that the world will know us by the love we have for one another (John 13:34–35). And we must remember that we love because he first loved us (1 John 4:7–21). We need to seek to serve others out of a heart of love. The gospel frees us to consider others as better than ourselves and to consider not merely our own interests but also the interests of others (Phil. 2:3–4).
Think of a person, people, a ministry, those outside of your church that you could serve. Go serve them and pray that God would give you a heart of love as you do so, so that your overflow of joy in God would gladly meet the needs of another.
Fulfill the Law
Paul says that when we are set free from sin and through love we serve one another, that this actually fulfills the whole Old Testament law, which says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (5:14; Lev. 19:18). This likely reminds you of the encounter Jesus had with a questioner about what the greatest commandment in the law is (Matt. 22:34–40). Jesus responded by citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.
There are 613 laws in the Pentateuch, and Jesus, as well as Paul, points to these as essential, as a summary of the remaining laws. In other words, if you can love God and people, you will keep the remaining laws. Paul is certainly assuming and pointing to the first command in various places, but here he is concerned with their understanding of faith working itself out in love (Gal. 5:6). Circumcision is no longer a key command they must keep as God’s covenant people; rather the Old Testament and New Testament are marked most predominantly by love of God and people.
I know that as a church you love you a lot. I love me a lot. This is not a call to love yourself; we already do that. This is a call to miraculous love of others at that level.
Seek to know the commands in Scripture, and seek to understand not only how to do them but also how they ultimately point to my love of God and others. Keeping commandments with no affection for God is not the aim.
If loving your neighbor as yourself sounds impossible, that’s because it is. Jesus calls us not just to love friends and family but to love enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:43–44). Preach the gospel to yourself ongoingly, forgive as God forgives us (Eph. 4:32), continue to learn from Jesus how to love, and do so in the strength he supplies (1 Peter 4:11).
Use your Christian freedom as an opportunity to love through serving others. The gospel is the path away from both legalism (earning God’s favor by my own righteousness) and license (the gospel frees me to sin because God is gracious).
Instead, our Christian lives are bookended by the objective work of Christ and the subjective work of the Spirit. Keep running, forsake false gospels, forsake opportunities for our sinful desires, forsake destroying one another out of selfishness, and instead, in freedom, serve one another from a heart that genuinely loves. The gospel saves, and the gospel calls us to that kind of lifestyle.
Jeremy Kimble is Assistant Professor of Theology at Cedarville University and the author of '40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline' (Kregel, 2017).