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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."