Notes for teaching on Galatians 6:1-18, which is featured in Explore the Bible, Fall 2018, Session 7.
Paul ends his letter with a call to mutual care in the Galatian community. He then returns to the argument against his opponents and points to the importance of new creation.
The passage is applicable today because it calls us to consider a number of aspects of what it is to lie faithfully.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
6:1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
Though the bulk of Galatians has been directed toward misunderstandings of the Mosaic law, chapter 5 revealed that the Law was not the only challenge that the church faced. 5:15 speaks of “biting and devouring one another,” while 5:26 warns against becoming “conceited, provoking and envying one another.” Strife, then, was at least a danger in the Galatian congregation. If this strife was actually taking place, it may well have flowed from the controversy over the Law. Whatever the case, Paul continues with this new theme of strife here in the first part of chapter 6.
While 6:1-6 will ultimately warn against strife in the congregation, it begins with an appeal to mutual care. The Galatians should be their brother’s (and sister’s) keepers by restoring those who have gone astray. Paul issues this appeal to the “spiritual” members of the congregation. I think that the NIV does well in rendering this as “you who live by the Spirit.” Paul has just said that those who live by the Spirit will not “gratify the desires of the flesh” (5:17). The unstated other side to this statement is that those who live by the Spirit please God. These people, then, the ones who are living well in the faith, should restore those who are not.
It is not enough for Paul to simply call for the “spiritual” members of the congregation to restore those who are caught in sin, though. No, he must also tell them how to restore those individuals and what to watch out for as they do. When restoring a person, this should be done “gently,” which means that we are careful not to beat people over the head with their shortcomings. Rather than playing games of guilt and condemnation, we are to approach our brothers and sisters gently with the message of repentance and restoration. This call to gentleness serves as Paul’s first guard against strife.
Next, Paul warns the restorers to be careful lest they themselves be tempted. The idea here is not that they will be tempted by the same sin that they are correcting, though that might indeed happen. Rather, they are to guard themselves against the sin of pride that might flow from knowing that they are “doing better” in their spiritual walk than other people. This is what Paul is referring to in v 3 when he speaks of people thinking they are “something when they are not.” It is also the point of v 4’s call for everyone to “test their own actions.” Rather than comparing the faithfulness of believers against one another on the day of judgment, God will measure each person against the standard of Christ. As such, each Christian should be faithful with his/her own “load” in life rather than comparing his/her performance with others. Doing this will bring about a proper pride that does not hold itself above others. These warnings against pride serve as Paul’s third guard against strife in the Galatian community.
The second guard came in v 2, where Paul gave the reasoning for restoring one another gently. We do this because in carrying one another’s burdens, we “fulfill the law of Christ,” which is the law of love (see 5:14). This line of thought moves from the specific to the general as correcting those caught in sin is placed under the umbrella of bearing one another’s burdens. Think here of a father who tells his son to drive the speed limit because good drivers follow the rules of the road. Of course, there are more rules than how fast one should drive, but the father is applying the general principle of good driving to the specific practice of not exceeding the speed limit. The same is true of Paul. There are many ways to bear one another’s loads, but Paul is applying this general principle specifically to restoring wayward brothers and sisters. This serves as a guard against strife because it brings the motivation for restoration into clear view. It is a matter of love and obedience rather than pride.
Paul ends this section by calling the Galatian congregants to financially support their teachers in the faith. McKnight explains Paul’s reason for tacking this call on to what precedes it:
Having discussed the problem of a sinful brother and the process of restoring him without getting caught up in the web of pride, Paul closes with an underlying principle: each person must stand before God and be personally responsible. But this raises a problem that Paul knew all too well: those who are full-time teachers cannot really live completely independently; they need the financial support of others. So Paul now curbs his idea that everyone should carry his own load with the idea that an exception is granted to teachers: they need support because they cannot always carry their own load. This verse, then, is little more than a parenthetical remark—a footnote if you will, and one whose logic is not so easy to discern.
Interestingly, this section calls for Christians to “carry each other’s burdens” and “carry their own load.” While these commands seem contradictory (Why would we help each other if everyone is supposed to manage their own load?), they actually chart a course of healthy interdependence. Each of us should carry our own loads as we are able. However, when our loads become too much to bear or we stumble along the way, we find that our brothers and sisters in Christ are there to help. By implementing these principles of self-responsibility and other-care, Paul guards against the very real possibility that some congregants might take advantage of others.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Here, Paul returns to the garden imagery he employed in chapter 5 when he spoke of the fruit of the Spirit. In that passage, the Spirit caused the Christian to exhibit the kinds of character traits that please God. Here, the Christian makes a conscious choice to move in the Spirit’s direction or, as Paul said at the end of chapter 5, to keep in step with the Spirit. How does one do this? By living a life that is sown to the Spirit rather than the flesh. Doing so leads to life, while reaping to the flesh leads to destruction. When Paul says that God cannot be mocked, he is saying that this principle of reaping and sowing is in play. A person cannot “mock” God by sowing to the flesh and expecting to reap good things.
Before this point, Paul was speaking of properly restoring the wayward. Now he again applies that specific instance to a general principle. Before he spoke of the law of Christ. Now he speaks of sowing and reaping. One way of sowing to the Spirit is to do good to all people as we have opportunity and especially to fellow Christians. Good deeds are broad in their definition, and this is a directive for all of life. At the same time, in a congregation that is being plagued by bad theology and possible strife, doing good means restoring the wayward and avoiding strife.
11 See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!
As Paul now comes to the end of his letter, he takes over the writing himself (he has been dictating up to this point). NT Wright explains the importance of Paul writing in his own hand:
At least half of all the items that come through my letter-box each day are what we loosely call ‘junk mail’. Often I receive letters which, though they may have my name at the top, have in fact been mass-produced by a computer as part of an advertising campaign. Even the letters that are personal, and meant for me, are often produced on a computer. They, too, can have a somewhat detached feel.
You know you are in touch with a real, living, breathing human being when your correspondent takes the trouble not only to sign his or her name but also to add a few final sentences in personal handwriting. And that is precisely what Paul does here.
12 Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. 14 May I never 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 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. 16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.
As Paul comes to the end of his letter, he returns to his major argument against the “Judaizers” (those who were calling for the Galatians to be circumcised). As he has done before, Paul casts his opponents’ motives in a negative light. They call for circumcision because:
- They want to avoid persecution (presumably from Jews who kept the Law, whether Christian or not).
- They are looking to boast about winning converts to their way of thinking.
Paul then draws himself in a different light. Rather than boasting in his accomplishments or the success of his ministry, he hopes that he will only ever boast in “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While we are used to this language in the church today, people in the ancient world would have thought this strange. Paul says elsewhere that the cross is “foolishness to the Greeks” and “a stumbling block to the Jews,” which means that non-Christians just didn’t understand why a person would boast in the execution of his leader. For Paul, though, the crucifixion is the turning point of history. It is the place where God defeated the rebellious powers of the world and bought a people for himself. More than this, those who are “in Christ” have been crucified with him, which means they have died to the world. This is another way for Paul to talk about freedom. He is free from the world because he has died to the world in Christ.
Paul then sums everything up with a tight phrase: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.” This statement mirrors 5:6, where what matters instead of circumcision/uncircumcision is “faith working itself out in love.” Here, what matters is “new creation.” By comparing these verses to one another, we find that people of new creation have faith that is expressed in love. New creation goes beyond this, though. In the scriptures, everything is heading toward new creation – the time when God will remake his world and restore humanity to its proper place as good rulers of creation along with Christ. By the Spirit, Paul says, Christians experience and embody this future reality in the present. It is as if the future kingdom of God is bubbling up in history as the Spirit does his work among God’s people.
17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. 
Paul closes his letter by reminding the Galatians of his faithfulness. He has been persecuted for Jesus’ sake (something that his opponents are seeking to avoid; see 6:12) and has the scars to prove it. This being the case, he does not deserve the trouble that his opponents are bringing on him.
Then, Paul ends with a blessing. May Christ (and not the Law!) bless you with grace.
Notes for Teaching
This passage is rich in content. Here are points that I would highlight:
- Christians should care for one another. (Carry each other’s burdens.)
- Christians should not take advantage of one another. (Each one should bear his own load.)
- Carrying for one another can mean confronting sin in one another’s lives.
- Such confrontation should be pursued gently.
- Confronters should be wary of pride.
- In life, a person either sows to the flesh or to the Spirit.
- A person will reap what he/she sows.
- Christians are crucified to the world.
- Christians experience and embody “new creation”.
I would give special attention to the dynamic between caring for one another and caring for ourselves. In our culture, we are quick to worry about being take advantage of when we do good? Paul addresses that worry in this passage. I might also draw out the part on sowing to the Spirit. What exactly does this mean?
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What are ways that we Christians should love one another?
- Are there any times when we need to practice tough love?
Freedom in Christ
Read: Gal 6:1-6
- What do you think Paul means when he refers to the “law of Christ”?
- How do we fulfill the law of Christ?
- What specifically does Paul have in mind in this passage?
- What does it mean for Christians to restore one another gently? Why should we be gentle?
- What sin is Paul worried the restorers will fall into?
- Why is comparison dangerous for Christians?
- In this passage, Paul says Christians should “carry each other’s burdens” and “carry their own loads.” How do these two commands interact with one another?
- What should Christians do if it becomes clear that someone is taking advantage of the community and not carrying his/her own load?
- Why does Paul end this section talking about sharing with teachers?
Read: Gal 6:7-10
- What does it mean that “a man reaps what he sows?” Do you think this is true?
- What are ways that Christians might sow to the flesh?
- What are ways that Christians can sow to the Spirit?
- What specific way of sowing to the Spirit is Paul calling for here?
- Why should we give special consideration to “those in the body of believers”?
- In a world with so many opportunities for good, how do we know where to draw the line for the sake of self and family health?
Read: Gal 6:11-18
- Why do you think Paul mentions writing in his own hand?
- What does Paul believe about the motivation of his opponents?
- How would Paul’s opponents avoid persecution by embracing the Mosaic Law?
- What do you think it means to boast in the cross of Christ?
- What does it mean to be crucified to the world? How did this come about for us?
- What does Paul mean when he says that “new creation” is what matters in the lives of God’s people?
- This lesson has been full! What points jump out to you as especially important?
Scott McKnight’s Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary series.
NT Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians
Explore the Bible Curriculum