Introduction: We come now to the end of this great letter about the Lord Jesus Christ and the message of his saving work—the gospel or the good news. The original readers of this letter needed the teaching written here, because they were being tempted by false teachers to turn back from Christ and the gospel to the rules and rituals of human religion. We need its message, because we face the same kind of challenges today. In this passionate end to this letter, which Paul writes with his own hand, the Spirit of God calls all who read back to what really matters. It throbs with the zeal of a man who knew what really matters, and what really mattered to him was not religion or a pleasant life, but the Lord Jesus Christ and the gospel.
One of our problems is that we dabble in everything and are not passionate about anything. We have so many alternatives to occupy our attention that we cannot focus on even what is crucial. We all have “destructive distraction disorder” that disables us from passionately following Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. The glory of the cross of Christ does not stir us, because we are distracted by so many other pursuits. These closing words call us to break from lesser matters and to live for what really matters—Christ and the gospel.
Theme: Since Christians should only glory in the cross of Christ, we must be prepared to think and act according to the gospel.
I. Let us understand what counts. 6:15-16
A. External ceremonies or rituals do not count.
1. Nothing external can cause a saving change in a person; nothing external matters.
Illustration: The type of schooling, the family environment, the kind of church, the amount of zeal, etc., all apart from God’s grace cannot change a soul.
2. This is true both positively and negatively. Performance of rituals and rules cannot save or produce a godly way of life; neither can non-performance. Legalism and lawlessness alike fail. This is very hard for people to grasp. People think that the cure for legalism is lawlessness, which has been the conventional wisdom of American society since the 1960s. This has produced the inevitable pendulum effect in people on the religious and cultural right, who have assumed that the cure for lawlessness is legalism. So we have wasted our country with competing agendas to either legislate lawlessness or legalism. Both are wrong; both do not count.
B. A new creation does count (cf. 2 Cor 5:16-17).
1. A supernatural work of God is required—creative power! When we are saved or rescued from sin, God supernaturally acts in us. In human religion, people pursue rules and rituals. But in true Christianity, God acts to save us. He does for us what we cannot do, like the trauma team rescuing a helpless person after a traffic accident.
Apply: Have you come to the point in your life that you realize that the Lord Jesus Christ must rescue you? Have you ever cried out to him to rescue you from sin, guilt, and condemnation?
2. Meaning of “new creation”: The totality of all that God is doing for us in Christ—a new covenant, new birth, new life, new people, new privileges, and a new nation. It involves the whole saving graces of regeneration and conversion: the new birth from above and repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
C. The blessing of God rests on those in the new creation.
1. There is background in the Old Testament Scriptures for Paul’s words (cf. Num 6:24-26; Ps 125:5; 128:6).
2. Here peace is joined with mercy. The only ones who know peace are the recipients of God’s saving mercy. And mercy is what the believer continues to need (Heb 4:16).
D. Identification of the true “Israel”
1. “Israel” in this context does not refer to physical Israel. “Israel” must refer to those who “follow this rule” because there cannot be mercy and peace for those who would not follow it. One group cannot be distinct from the other. In addition, the whole tone of the letter has been to emphasize the unity of the people of God. It would be against Paul’s purpose suddenly to speak of a group separate from the church at this point. Christ has created in himself one new man (Eph 2:15). There is one people of God. We are united in one group, not divided into two groups.
2. “Israel” is used in the sense of the true people of God. There are other similar usages in the New Testament Scriptures (Ph 3:3; Gal 3:29). This one new people have a faith and practice that is in conformity with the cross of Christ and the new creation in him. The cross and the new creation are the rule that we follow in our thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions.
Apply: How are the cross of Christ and the new creation that is in him presently remaking you and your way of life?
II. Let us join together for the progress of the gospel. 6:17
A. Our desire should not be to hinder the spiritual leadership of the church.
1. We all should proper respect for Christ’s ministers. Though some have become tyrannical and abusive, many others have labored self-sacrificially for the glory of God and the good of the church.
2. We should assist in their labors (cf. 3 Jn 5-8).
B. We should properly recognize service for Christ.
1. Paul had received wounds in his service for the Lord (2 Cor 11:23-25). He had suffered much (cf. Ac 9:16) for Christ’s sake.
2. Consider another example. Ph 2:25-30
Apply: When we see people serving Christ, let us encourage them and join with them.
III. Let us reaffirm brotherly love in Christ. 6:18
A. These reaffirmations must be recognizable.
1. Paul restates his relationship with them; they are his brothers. Yes, he was very concerned about them, just as he would be very, very concerned about American Christians. But he reaffirms his spiritual relationship with those who glory in Christ and the gospel.
2. We, too, must let others know our affection for them. This is not to be said once, and then neglected. It requires constant restatement. We are members of God’s family; we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We must act as partners in the gospel.
B. These reaffirmations must be gracious.
1. The greatest blessing we can seek for each other is the grace of the Lord. cf. 1:3
2. “He prays not only that grace may be bestowed upon them freely, but that they may have a proper feeling of it in their minds. It is only really enjoyed by us when it reaches to our spirit. We ought therefore to ask that God would prepare in our souls a habitation for His grace. Amen.” [Calvin]
Apply: This week, reaffirm your brotherly love to others in this gathering of believers. Go out for coffee, send someone a card or email, call someone, or go for a walk together. Restore or renew your relationship with others in the good news of Christ. Share your life with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Next: Concluding Thoughts on Galatians