Glorying in the Cross of Christ
See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. 14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. (Galatians 6:11-16 ESV)
In verse 14 of our text, the apostle Paul passionately declares that he glories in nothing but the cross of Christ. He contrasts himself with those making much of law, almost shouting to his readers, and to us, that it be far from him “to boast [in anything] except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” When one takes this to heart and considers the fact that he himself once took pride in the law, and in keeping the law, being zealous for the traditions of his fathers, such a declaration ought to “kick” us in the pants. Just think on it: Paul, once zealous for the Law, now a zealot for the cross. At one time, the apostle would have been on the same page with the kind of men he describes in the previous two verses, more or less. But now he labors to set himself completely apart from them. As one noted, “Pride in the Law has been displaced by pride in the Cross; pride in righteousness as an achievement, by pride in that which empties him of pride.”
Furthermore, and moreover, it should not be missed: what the apostle has so obviously engaged in, needs to be the activity of the church in every generation, namely self-criticism. It’s true. In writing against those dead earnest for law, he was pitting himself against the man he once was. Why he did this is before us, in verse 14. When one sees the cross in all its glory, when one sees the cross as the Great Divide of redemptive history, the end of the law and the beginning of covenantal grace with all that Christ achieved for sinners there, then his posture will mimic the apostle’s. He will glory in the cross. Everything else will seem to be a thing shameful to him, as though nailed to a piece of wood.
In the 15th verse explanation is given. Paul tells us why he glories exclusively in the cross. He tells us that he so glories for three reasons. He so glories in the cross because by it (1) Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized, (2) Old Covenant privileges are nullified, and (3) New Covenant promises are realized (or fulfilled).
(1) Old Covenant Distinctions Neutralized
Verse 15: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision…” This is an old covenant distinction. It is a distinction belonging to the time and era before Christ came. It is a distinction that marked the time before Christ died, was buried, rose to life, ascended, was enthroned on David’s throne, and sent His Spirit. Jews were circumcised. Other nations were uncircumcised. You need not go there. But in Genesis 17, Moses records the ‘why’ of the mark. He writes these words:
“And God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.’”
Moses goes on to tell us this mark was a sign of this covenant God made with Abraham and his offspring. Every male, whether born a Jew or bought by a Jew, wore the mark. Every other nation did not wear the sign. God had sovereignly, for no reason outside Himself, made a distinction between the nation that would come from Abraham’s loins and every other nation (Gentiles).
The language of the first exodus illustrates this distinction, this ethnic, national distinction, enormously well. Even a quick reading of that book of law bears this out. You recall the burning bush. Moses was minding his own business, tending Jethro’s flock. And the Lord appeared to him in a flame and says to him, “I have surely seen the affliction of MY people who are in Egypt…” God claims the sons of Abraham, the Hebrews, to be His people. He does not say this of any other nation, not the Egyptians or the Canaanites or the Hittites, or the Amorites or the Jebusites! God knew & cared for Israel in a way that He did not know any other ethnic group or family or tribe or tongue. The God who is is a God who makes distinctions among men! And He does so sovereignly.
Then we fly over the plague sequence. To the king of Egypt, through Moses the prophet, the Lord repeatedly commands, “Let MY people go, that they may serve me.” “Let MY people go, that they may serve me.” Not every people group was God’s people. There were the Hebrews, the Israelites, the sons of Israel, Abraham’s grandson…and there was everybody else. Israel was the object of divine favor; the Gentiles not so much.
The final plague bears this out even more explicitly. Let’s allow Moses to stir our memories. “At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock [The pain and economic hit Japan took pales in comparison]. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians. And there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was not a house where someone was not dead.”
Such was the divine judgment on all who lived in Egypt. It begs the question, does it not? What about the sons of Abraham? What about “MY people,” those marked in the flesh by the sign of the covenant, i.e. circumcision? Were they not in Egypt, amongst the Egyptians? // When the Lord revealed what the final plague/judgment would be to Moses, he told Moses that
“There shall be a great cry throughout all the land of Egypt…. But not a dog shall growl against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.”
Israel was circumcised. It bore the sign of God’s promise to Abraham. Egypt did not. And so the Passover came to pass, the blood of lambs on Hebrew doorposts. And so the exodus, “God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew.” He knew them in a way that he did not know any other nation or people group.
To further establish this distinction, a quick look at the fifth book of the law is enough. In Deuteronomy 7 we find the circumcised ready to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. Moses commands the nation to not marry anyone from another nation. And then he lists reasons for that command. Among them is the foundational reason stated in the sixth verse of that chapter. He tells them that they “…are a people holy to the Lord [their] God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” Above all peoples and nations, the Lord had “set his heart in love” on the nation called Israel, the so-called “covenant community.”
But here in Galatians, Paul unabashedly declares this distinction to be neutralized. Covenantally speaking, the playing field is now level. It doesn’t matter if one is circumcised or not. It matters not if one is a Jew or not. One’s family tree counts for nothing this side of the cross. “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:28. Distinctions based on who one’s parents are, of nationality, of genealogy, are no more. No more is the question, “From what stock are you?” a question of any weight. God does not bless on the basis of flesh and blood. On the other hand, on the other side of the evangelical spectrum, it must be noted: Israel does not have a future simply because of its family tree. The only thing that avails & counts is the cross. The cross neutralizes (nullifies) Old Covenant distinctions.
We know the cross divides. We know the cross places a wall between men. But here we see the cross making peace between men, bringing them together. The apostle makes this explicit in his epistle to the Ephesians chapter two. There he calls upon the Ephesian saints, “Gentiles in the flesh, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by what is called the circumcision,” to remember that at one time they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants, having no hope and without God in the world.” “But now,” he writes, “in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one [i.e. circumcised and uncircumcised, Jews & Gentiles, Israel and non-Israel] & has broken down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in the place of the two (i.e. Jews & Gentiles, Israel & non-Israel), so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross…” The cross neutralizes Old Covenant distinctions! Ethnic Israel or not, it matters not. The cross nullifies the distinction. The cross creates one new body, the church, from two bodies that are not the church, namely the Old Covenant community of Israel & every other nation.
(2) Old Covenant Privileges Nullified
The cross neutralizes Old Covenant distinctions. And it also nullifies Old Covenant privileges. To be numbered amongst the circumcised was to be numbered amongst those with great advantages. “To begin with, Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” God spoke to them directly, “at many times and in many ways.” “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” God cared for them, rescued them from their enemies, fed them, favored them, and imposed a covenant upon them. He gave them His law. Four hundred and thirty years after the covenant of circumcision, the circumcised nation met God at Sinai. Just listen to how Moses sums this covenant up. Listen now! This is beyond fascinating. It’s as striking as it is undeniable. Exodus 34.28 –
“So he [Moses] was there with the Lord 40 days and 40 nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water(!). And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Exodus 34.28
Why this is so striking is what Hebrews 8.13 states. It says this: “In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete.” It was a great privilege to have special revelation from God. To be given that which is ‘holy, righteous and good,’ was of tremendous advantage. It was so for a number of reasons. But ultimately it was so because it spoke of Christ and His work, but only by way of shadow. “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities…” says the writer to the Hebrews. But now that Christ, “the true form,” has come, what need is there for a shadow? Do we love the shadow or the person? Do we love the shadow our spouses cast, or do we love our spouses themselves? “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross,” says Paul, “for neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [things Old Covenant] counts for anything.”
The point to grasp in context here is this: In light of the cross, the Old Covenant is a non-issue. Whether one was a Jew or a Gentile was beside the point. That is to say, whether one possessed the law or not, and therefore knew what the law demanded or not, was irrelevant. After all, Jews had the law. And the uncircumcised, not having the law, not blessed with that possession and advantage, were ‘lawless.’ They were not put under “the covenant, the ten commandments.” But these matters no longer matter. We’ll get to the heart of the matter in a moment. For now, Paul is telling us that Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized. The cross does this. Therefore, Old Covenant privileges are nullified as well. Nothing that we ourselves do, or have done to us, as adults or infants, counts before God. It has no saving merit. It does not put us into a privileged place before God. It matters not if our families are believers, or if they are flaming pagans, with not a Bible in sight.
Incidentally, we can have bookshelves full of Bibles and even read them studiously. In and of itself, such activity doesn’t mean much. The Jewish scribes did this, and to no avail, right? We must be mindful to not think in ways Old Covenant. To think Old Covenant is to think like Nike Shoes and ‘Just do it.’ ‘Just do it’ and you’ll win. ‘Just do it’ and you’ll win the race. That’s what the false teachers were telling the Galatian believers. Just get circumcised. Just observe the special days. Just keep the law. Just do any number of things the Scriptures commend and command, and you’ll be saved. And so Paul says to them, “You were running well [i.e. apart from the Old Covenant). Who hindered you from obeying the truth?” Galatians 5:7. ‘Who tripped you up, trying to sell you an old, worthless pair of running shoes?’
New Covenant Promises Realized
Paul glories in the cross because by it (1) Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized, (2) Old Covenant privileges are nullified, and (3) New Covenant promises are realized (or fulfilled). The only thing that counts in light of the cross is “a new creation.” It is claimed that Paul uses this phrase in two ways. Sometimes he uses it to mean the new age of the last days, the period of redemptive history brought about by the Christ event. “If anyone is in Christ,” he writes elsewhere, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” There may be a sense of that here.
However, it is best to take “a new creation” as the matter of the heart. The only thing that counts is the heart of the matter, which is the matter of the heart. Read the prophets. Read Ezekiel. Discover for yourself what God promised to do in the new age of the last days. See that He said He would give His people a new heart, that He would put His Spirit within His people, even the people of Israel. What is “a new creation?” I love how John Brown puts it. He puts it like this: It is “the mind and heart transformed by divine truth regarding the cross of Christ, made effectual by divine influence.” There is a change of character. The way a man thinks is altogether changed. The way he acts is altogether changed. New affections are given. He loves God. His soul magnifies the Lord. His greatest joy is the exultation of Christ. And His greatest sorrow is to see Christ diminished. This IS something. This and nothing else! This IS something. And this is not something one can just do. This is God’s work. This is God by His Spirit radically changing hearts, even by the power of a creative act! It’s called a new CREATION for a purpose!
Lamentable is the fact there is a low view of what a Christian is, of what regeneration is. Any number of people can claim to be one. Anyone can call himself a Christian, believing himself to be one, and yet know nothing of this new creation. He may think that since he does this or that, since he keeps in good company and attends the right church, or since he engages in any number of religious exercises, wears the right clothes, and refrains from certain activities, that he is a believer. Beloved, think with me a moment. What kind of power did God have to exercise when creating the universe? What kind of power did God exert when forming Mount Norquay or Sulfur Mountain or even Mount Robson? What does it take for God to knit a baby in its mother’s womb? That is creative power! Creative power is the power that gives life where there is no life! And that is precisely the power involved in the new creation. It is divine. It’s real. And it’s unmistakable! This is a transforming power, one that changes a man in the core of his being. What makes one a Christian is not what one does; what makes a man a true Christian is what God does by His Spirit. And when God transforms a life, giving a new heart, sending His Spirit, even the Spirit of His Son, into a man’s heart, faith works through love – love for God, for Christ, for His Word, for the church, for the lost. He seeks not, nor cares for, the smiles of those at the hockey arena, or wherever.
A Final Benediction
By the cross, Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized, Old Covenant privileges are nullified, and New Covenant promises are realized.
And finally, the apostle gives a final benediction. In verse 16, he says: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.” This is an enormously crucial verse. In it, Paul pronounces a blessing upon all who walk, or live in accordance to, or better, keep in step with, this rule, peace and mercy be upon them. Keep in step with what rule? What is this rule? “Rule” here is a standard or principle, a measuring rod. Here, it refers to the standard of true Christianity. Now hear this, beloved. The apostolic standard of Christianity, the apostolic standard of the Gospel is what Paul writes in verses 14 and 15. The center and crux of it is the cross. By it, Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized, Old Covenant privileges are nullified, and New Covenant promises are realized. The essence of true Christianity is spiritual, of the heart, a new creation. Anything or anyone else, any theology, “Christian,’ “evangelical,” or otherwise, that does not keep in step with this standard, is false. It isn’t true to the Biblical standard. Paul isn’t blessing such ones. He’s blessing those who keep in step with what he has set as the standard.
But who are they exactly? Are there two groups Paul blesses here, or what? It sounds like there might be two. Just look at it: “As for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, AND upon the Israel of God.” Sounds like there are two groups of men here: ‘all who walk by this rule,’ AND ‘the Israel of God.’ In fact, there is only one group of men here. Without getting too technical, context demands that the word rendered ’and’ be rendered ‘even.’ The effect is that the ‘all who walk by this rule IS the Israel of God,’ that is, the true, spiritual Israel, the church. Remember Paul’s statements defining who the son’s of Abraham are. Galatians 3.7. “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Galatians3:29. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Translation: All who are joined to Christ by faith are the Israel of God! The church is the new and true Israel. The church is that now nation which is “a chose race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession.” All God promised Abraham, God now gives to the church. The church, Abraham’s spiritual sons and daughters, is the heir “according to promise.”
There are a thousand ways to conclude. And there are, no doubt, a thousand questions that each of us could ask ourselves in response, if only to engage in some self-criticism. Two of them might be: (1) Do I have a high view of the church, even as God sees the church? The church after all, as the Israel of God, is that for whom the Lord Jesus Christ died. He died that the blessings and promises of Abraham would be lavished upon and be fulfilled in the church. The church is not, as some would have us believe, a parenthesis in redemptive history. The church is at the apex of redemptive history! The church was God’s plan since before time began! (2) Am I keeping in step with the apostolic standard of Christianity? Is the cross front and center? Is the world crucified to me and I to the world? Do I boast in it to the degree that what is objectively true is personally true, that my life reflects the truth that Old Covenant distinctions are neutralized, Old Covenant privileges are nullified, and New Covenant promises are realized in my life, that I am a new creation? These are good and relevant questions. (3) A third question might be this: Where are the teachers I most admire in relation to all this? Do they hold to the standard of Christianity the apostle sets? Or do they resist the notion that the cross nullifies old covenant distinctions and privileges? These are important matters. I do not think it to be an overstatement to say that they are life and death issues. Surely, Paul himself thought so. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit … to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
~ Todd Braye
Courtesy Todd Braye and Unveiled | Beholding the Glory of Christ