Now that we’ve reached the end of Galatians, you would expect some sort of summary and Paul doesn’t disappoint. What Paul does for us here at the end is summarize the essence of Christianity. Now, one can describe the essence of Christianity in different ways. You could say to “love God and love your neighbor” is the essence. Or, you could simplify it even further with one word and say the essence of Christianity is love, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but that’s not exactly how Paul answers the question.
Let’s look at what Paul is emphasizing. In verse 11 Paul writes…
11 Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting.
Now it could be that Paul writes in this way because of his poor eyesight. In Galatians 4:13-15 he talks about having a weakness of the flesh and some think he’s talking about not being able to see very well. That could be, but there is another explanation which seems even more likely.
The other explanation is that Paul wrote these final words, in his own hand, with large letters, in order to add emphasis, in order to highlight his final thoughts.
It seems the least likely to me that Paul at the end of his letter would want to draw attention to himself. Galatians has been all about God and his glory so it seems strange to me that at the end he would want to draw attention to himself. Instead it seems more likely he would want to draw attention to his message, which is a message about God.
So, if Paul is adding emphasis in these last few verses, what is Paul’s emphasis?
The answer is no less than the essence of Christianity. So there are two questions to ask that will help us understand what Paul is saying. First…
1) Is Christianity essentially an inward or an outward religion?
And Paul’s answer is that Christianity is essentially an internal religion.
While there are certainly external aspects to Christianity, Christianity is essentially internal at its core.
Now, before we look at the text, remember he’s answering this way because of who he’s addressing. He’s addressing those who were more concerned with external circumcision than with circumcision of the heart.
And he’s addressing us, too. Externally, we go to church, we get baptized, we take communion, we read our Bibles, we pray publicly and privately. These are important, but it is what happens on the inside of us that is most important.
So, Paul was confronting those who wanted to make what was external most important. Specifically, they cared most about circumcision and keeping the law. In verse 12 we read…
12a Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised…
The mantra of those preaching external circumcision according to Acts 15:1 was “Unless you are circumcised…you cannot be saved.”
They emphasized circumcision because they wanted to make a good outward showing. They wanted to make a “good impression” upon others—all external motives.
Verse 13 adds…
13b …they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh.
So the outward sign was the most important thing so they could have bragging rights.
Some Christians, today, make the same mistake by requiring baptism for salvation. Now, as important as baptism is, and something obedient Christians will do, it is still only an outward sign of an inward change.
Now, what we boast about often reflects what we value the most. Pastors, especially, might brag about how many baptisms they had this year or how many people they have in the seats. But as important as these these things are, they are only external signs and they are not what matter most.
So what does matter most?
If we jump down to verse 15 Paul gives us the answer…
15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.
It’s what is on the inside that matters most. It’s the new creation on the inside that matters. Circumcision, uncircumcision, all the external stuff isn’t what really matters.
So, the essence of christianity is internal not external.
And the application of this principle is huge. The implication is that money or no money isn’t what matters, what matters is a new creation. Health or no health isn’t what matters. What matters is a new creation. People in the pews or no people in the pews isn’t what matters. What matters most is a new creation on the inside of those people.
Again, it’s not that that external doesn’t matter but we get things mixed up when we substitute a good thing for the best thing. If we have money but not a changed heart what good is that? If we have our health but are not trusting in Christ what good is that? If we fill the seats with people who aren’t saved, but think they are, what are we really accomplishing?
All we are doing is what Paul calls, “making a good impression in the flesh.” We may be able to brag to people but not to God.
Of course this isn’t a new problem. Isaiah said more than 1500 years ago in chapter 29:13…
13 The Lord said: These people approach me with their speeches to honor me with lip-service— yet their hearts are far from me, and human rules direct their worship of me.
14 Therefore, I will again confound these people with wonder after wonder. The wisdom of their wise will vanish, and the perception of their perceptive will be hidden.
In other words, God says he’s not impressed with amazing speeches from human wisdom or even worship if it has no heart. What He cares about is the internal, not all the external stuff that can so often be a substitute for real thing.
Every instance of real revival in the past has included a shift away from what is fundamentally external to what is internal. At the core of all genuine revivals is a deep internal conviction, despair even, and genuine repentance that externally manifests itself in heartfelt prayer, Bible study, and church attendance.
At the core of these revivals was an internal change in people. Without a heart change all we have is a form of religion which is nothing at all.
So, as we conclude Galatians, remember Christianity is fundamentally internal. Real change, change that matters most is internal change.
The second question…
2) Is Christianity fundamentally human or divine?
We could ask the question in a slightly different way. Is Christianity fundamentally about what we do or about what God does? Or, is Christianity about what we do for God or about what He does for us?
The correct answer is obvious: Christianity is about God, but the application of it is sometimes difficult.
For those Paul was addressing, even though they might have said Christianity was all about Jesus, in reality Christianity and salvation for them was all about what they did.
For them starting with circumcision and then continuing on with keeping the law was what you needed to do in order to be saved. For them Christianity was a human religion based upon human work.
But this makes no sense. How could a person ever be good enough long enough to earn the eternal gift of eternal life? And it seems even those who were falsely teaching this didn’t really believe it either.
Verse 13 says…
13 For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves, and yet they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh.
These false teachers seem to understand that you can’t earn it but they still insist on circumcision in order to have bragging rights. They wanted to make Christianity all about them and their accomplishments.
But there is another reason these false teachers emphasized human works. If we back up to verse 12 we read…
12 Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised—but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.
These false teachers didn’t want to be persecuted for the cross of Christ.
See, the cross brings persecution because of what it fundamentally says about humans. The cross says that humans are sinners in need of a Savior. The cross tells us how awful our sin really is and how desperate we really are. It shows us reality and we don’t like it.
Instead, we like to be inflated with compliments and teaching that makes us feel important. We like religion that is primarily about us, how special we are, and how we can achieve anything if we just try hard enough.
And many churches have constructed a religion void of the cross and persecution. Their teachings are primarily about how to have happy marriages, how to be successful, how to reach your potential, how to financially prosper, and on and on. Not bad topics, necessarily, but a steady diet of them without the cross and its implications makes Christianity all about us.
People don’t like to be told they are sinners and if they aren’t being changed inwardly by the Holy Spirit they will persecute you when you try to tell them.
Christians are viewed as fine people by the world, for the most part, until we start to tell you the truth about hell and what happens to those who won’t trust in a crucified Jesus.
Once you start to go in that direction things start to get ugly. Then the persecution starts.
So, since we want to be viewed favorably, since we want to maintain our positive external image, the temptation is to adopt a Christianity without the cross, a version of Christianity that is primarily about what most people would agree with: be nice, get along, love others, be the best person you can be.
But Christianity isn’t fundamentally about us or what we do, it’s fundamentally about what God has done and is doing.
And Paul won’t compromise. He says in verse 14…
14 But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world.
For Paul, boasting in yourself and boasting in the cross are mutually exclusive. If you start boasting in yourself, even a little, you are embracing the world and undermining the whole meaning of the cross.
For Paul, we have to choose one or the other and if we choose Christ crucified on the cross we are cutting ourselves off from the world. That’s what he means when he says “the world has been crucified to men through the cross, and I to the world.”
Not that we don’t continue to reach out those who are lost but those that embrace Christ are in opposition with the world because we see things differently.
We see that our existence, the world God created, everything is fundamentally about Him. Christianity is not about giving glory to us but about giving glory to God. It’s about boasting in the cross, in what God has done.
And only those who have been fundamentally changed at an internal, heart level get this.
False Christians are all about the external and the outward human need to save ourselves. But true Christians are all about the cross of Christ and becoming a new creation through the power of the Holy Sprit’s work of regeneration and sanctification.
Reading verse 15 again…
15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation.
This is the essence of Christianity. Christianity, the gospel, is fundamentally about what God has done and is doing in us internally.
Then Paul adds in verse 16…
16 May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy even to the Israel of God!
Now, there are at least two important points to make about this verse.
First is that the church, the Israel of God, has a “standard” or rule by which to guide it.
In other words, the church has a tool by which it can determine if it’s on the right track. And that tool is everything Paul just said about the essence of Christianity. Christianity is fundamentally internal and divine. It’s all about what God does on the inside of us. When we start to make it all about us, and what we can visibly see, then we are deviating from the standard.
Secondly, verse 16 tell us peace comes when we follow the standard. Don’t you want peace? We all do. Then focus on the cross. This is very practical. To have peace, get your mind off yourself and focus on what Christ has done, not on everything you still need to do.
Now, verse 17 makes up Paul’s conclusion to his conclusion…
17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
Paul had been taking a lot “trouble” from those within the church but it was time for them to stop. They doubted his authority. They questioned his message but it was time for that to end and the reason he gives are the marks of Jesus on his body. These are outward signs of an even greater inward authority.
Remember, the world loves most Christians as long as we don’t get all preachy about Christ crucified. As long as we just emphasize a message of love and being nice to our neighbors we can be pretty sure we’ll avoid any physical harm.
But Paul had the scars to prove he was teaching the truth. The real external signs of apostolic authority aren’t riches and wealth but the signs of suffering and weakness. Paul had the marks of Jesus because he had been boasting about nothing but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Remember, as soon as you start telling people they are sinners and need a Savior, watch out. Even professing Christians may not react well. Many of the Galatians didn’t.
What about you? What do you boast in? Is the cross something you rarely think of? Is it just something you use so you can get what you want? Do you avoid talking about it because of what it is fundamentally about? Would you rather hear a more practical sermon about almost anything except the cross?
But it doesn’t get any more practical than the cross. The cross is fundamentally about our weakness and God’s strength. It’s about our inability and His ability. It’s about His salvation that he gives, not about our salvation that we deserve or earn.
The cross is about grace. Paul began the book of Galatians with grace and now he ends it with grace. Verse 18…
18 Brothers and sisters, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
We begin with grace because we were declared righteous not because of what we do but through faith in what Christ has done. We continue by grace because our assurance of salvation doesn’t rest upon our efforts but upon Christ’s.
So let us love this grace of Jesus Christ. Let us embrace this grace not in an abstract way, but in a personal way, internally in our spirit, in our hearts. Amen.