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Careful studies of thousands of letters written in Paul's day have led to the discovery that most of the letters exhibit two styles of handwriting: a refined style of a trained secretary in the body of the letter and a more casual style of the author in the conclusion. It appears that it was common practice for letters to be written by dictation to secretaries. The author would personally write only a few lines at the end of the letter. Usually these concluding lines in the author's own hand summarized the cardinal points of the letter. Evidently the author's summary of the main points served not only to verify that he had actually made those points in his dictation to his secretary but also to underline the points he wanted his readers to remember. For this reason the conclusion of a letter often provided important interpretive clues to the entire letter.
We see this common practice of letterwriting in Paul's letter to the Galatians. At verse 11 he indicates that he has taken up the pen to conclude the letter: See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand! Since most of the members of the Galatian churches would not be able to see that there was a change in script when his letter was read to the churches, it was necessary for Paul to draw attention to the fact that he had picked up the pen and was writing the conclusion. Some have suggested that he wrote with large letters because he had poor eyesight or because he had a clumsy workman's hand. Such conjectures have little evidence to support them. It makes more sense to suppose that Paul wrote his conclusion in large letters because he wanted to emphasize to the Galatian congregations the importance of the main points of the letter in his concluding summary. In our day we might draw attention through boldface type or double underlining of the main points.
The main points to which Paul draws attention in his conclusion are points of contrast between himself and the false teachers who have misled the Galatian churches. To clarify these points of contrast, Paul first summarizes the position of the false teachers, the way of the world (vv. 12-13), and then restates his own position, the way of the cross (vv. 14-15). He concludes with a peace benediction (v. 16), a final statement of his authority (v. 17) and a grace benediction (v. 18).
Paul's character sketch of the false teachers in these two verses is the clearest picture we have of them in the entire letter. From his perspective, Paul detects three motives behind their mission to the Galatian churches. First, he says they are motivated by an obsession with outward uniformity: Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised (v. 12). Their emphasis on circumcision proved that they were concerned only about making everybody look the same outwardly (literally "in the flesh").
Although many Gentiles in Paul's day viewed circumcision as a barbarous custom, and most today would view it as merely an optional medical procedure, for the Jews it was the mark of belonging to the covenant people of God. Before we react too harshly to their preoccupation with such a personal mark "in the flesh," perhaps we should see how often outward uniformity in such things as mode of baptism, type of clothes and even hairstyle has become a major concern in our contemporary churches. Some teachers in our churches have also been so totally preoccupied by the "circumcision" or "cutting away" of certain external practices (smoking, drinking and dancing) that they seem relatively unconcerned with inward change. Since we can keep impressive statistics about outward conformity, we tend to focus on it: so many people came to church, so many people were baptized, so many people were well dressed and clean-cut, so many people voted for the right politician. What an impressive church! But all of this good impression outwardly may conceal proud, unrepentant hearts.
The second motive Paul detects in the false teachers is their concern for their own personal safety: The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ (v. 12). If Jewish Christians associated with Gentile Christians simply on the basis of their common belief that the cross of Christ is the only way of salvation, then they would be condemned by zealous Jews for negating the central Jewish teaching that only faithful, law-abiding Jews were included in the covenant of salvation. But if the Jewish Christians led Gentile Christians to live as faithful Jews should live by getting circumcised and observing sabbath regulations and dietary laws, then their zealous Jewish friends would compliment rather than condemn them for their association with Gentiles. For then it would be obvious that what really mattered to them was not their belief in a crucified Messiah, but identification with the Jewish nation.
Paul pierces through the hypocrisy of the false teachers to disclose a third motive driving their circumcision campaign. They were motivated by pride in their national identity: Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh (v. 13). They were not really interested in the moral transformation of the Galatian Christians; they were not teaching circumcision and the law so that Galatian churches would attain new heights of spirituality. Their own inconsistency in following the law demonstrated that devotion to the law was not their basic motivation. What they were really interested in was being able to boast to fellow Jews that they were good Jews. "Look at all the Gentiles we have circumcised and brought into the Jewish nation," they boasted. They sought to earn credit with the Jews by proselytizing the Gentile Christians and forcing them to live like Jews. So what was most important to them was not encouraging the spiritual growth of others but maintaining their own national identity as zealous Jews. Because they were driven by their nationalistic pride, they were breaking the central command of the law: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
In contrast to the prideful boasting of the false teachers, Paul quickly reaffirms his own commitment to the cross of Christ (v. 14) and the new creation in Christ (v. 15).
All prideful boasting is excluded by the cross of Christ, because identification with Christ in his death on the cross results in the death of all reasons for such boasting: 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. The world is characterized by prideful boasting about national identity, social status and religious practices. When I live in the world, my life will inevitably be characterized by such boasting. But when I die, the way of the world will no longer govern my life. My belief in the cross of Christ includes not only the realization that he died for me to rescue me from judgment under the law of God, but also the constant awareness that I must reckon myself to have died with him. My participation in Christ's death means that I no longer have any reason for boasting in myself, since the old self characterized by the values of the world is dead. This absolute renunciation of all prideful boasting because of total identification with the crucified Messiah is the aspiration of every true believer.
Belief in Christ leads not only to death but also to life: Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation. The reality of life in this new creation has been a theme of the entire letter. We have a new relationship with God: we are no longer slaves; we are his children and are free to address him by the Spirit as Father, Abba (4:6). We have a new relationship with one another: we are no longer imprisoned and divided by racial, social or gender barriers; we are now free and one in Christ (3:28).
The gospel is the rule for Paul's life; it determines both the spiritual and the social dimensions of his life. No longer does he relate to God or to others on the basis of his Jewish identity, but on the basis of his union with Christ in his death and resurrection.
Paul closes his letter with a benediction: Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule, even to the Israel of God (v. 16). Throughout the entire letter Paul has appealed to the gospel as the rule to follow in our relationship with God and with one another. All who follow this rule of the gospel will certainly experience peace and mercy in their relationship with God and in their relationships with others. For the gospel gives peace with God on the basis of his mercy. And all who have experienced the gospel work for peace with others by expressing the same compassion that they have received from God through Christ.
Some have interpreted Paul's reference here to the Israel of God as a reference to the national entity, the Jewish people. In other words, they interpret Paul as pronouncing a benediction both on those who believe in and live by the gospel and on the Jewish people. This interpretation is often defended on the basis of Paul's clear expression of compassion and hope for Israel in Romans 9--11. In that context Paul uses the title "Israel" to mean the Jewish people and promises God's blessing for Israel. But in the context of his letter to the Galatian believers, it appears that Paul is using Israel of God as a title for the Galatian believers. By giving this title to the Galatian Christians, he is able to summarize his major arguments that they are indeed the true children of Abraham (3:6-29), the children of the free woman, just as Isaac was (4:21-31). The false teachers were claiming that only those who followed the law belonged to Israel. Now Paul proclaims that all those who follow the gospel are the true Israel of God.
After the benediction on all believers, Paul adds a warning directed against those who have been causing trouble in the churches. Paul takes their attack on the churches personally and gives the basis of his authority for stopping their attack: Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus (v. 17). The marks on Paul's body were the scars caused by his sufferings as an apostle of Christ. These marks demonstrated his unswerving loyalty to the gospel of Christ. While the false teachers were preoccupied with the mark left by the ritual of circumcision, Paul drew attention to the marks left by the reality of serving Christ. Such a proof of devotion to Christ should silence all critics.
The final benediction sums up the message of the letter: The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. The grace of Jesus Christ experienced in the spirit makes all believers true brothers and sisters in the family of God.