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“Boasting in the Cross”

Galatians 6:11-18
Bob DeGray
May 27, 2018

Key Sentence

The cross is the door from the old life of works to a new creation.


I. The wrong side of the door (Galatians 6:11-13)
II. The door (Galatians 6:14-15)
III. The right side of the door (Galatians 6:16-18)


This is the last week in our study of Galatians, and I thought about writing a story to wrap it up, but sometimes truth is more incredible. I read a book, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which is the true but novelized story of Pino Lella. You won’t be surprised to learn that Pino lived in World War 2 Italy. He is 17 when his remarkable story starts. Part of it is the months he spent guiding Jewish refugees across the Alps to Switzerland. The section includes a heart-stopping journey Pino took with five refugees, a family of four from the countryside, and a violinist from Pino’s home city, Milan. The book is written about Pino but for my purposes I’ll tell the story from the violinist’s point of view.

Elena stared at the young men before her. Did she know them? Life before her escape from Milan seemed a blur. The older boy, Pino, explained that they had met her at a party at their family’s apartment.” Elena almost smiled as she thought about that night. “It seems so long ago.” The boy gestured at her wedding ring. “Is your husband here, Mrs. Napolitano?” Elena felt tears well up in her eyes. “He made the Germans chase him when we escaped our apartment. They . . . they caught him. They sent him away with the other Jews. No one knows where. They don’t come back.” Elena dabbed a handkerchief to her eyes and in a hoarse voice said, “Father Re said you two will take me to Switzerland.” “Yes, but with this snow, it won’t be easy.” In her mind Elena heard the voice of her husband, his favorite saying “Nothing in life worth doing is easy.”

Paul ends this letter to the Galatians with three points that review his main themes. He starts with a final rebuke to the Judaizers, those who would call the new Christians at Galatia into a Jewish system of merit through law. Paul contrasts them with those who embrace the cross. And he prays the Galatians on the right side of the cross would have lives filled with mercy, peace and grace.

The big idea is that the cross is the door from your old life of self-salvation to new life as a new creation in Christ. The first section points to the Judaizers, and speaks of life on the wrong side of the door. Galatians 6:11-13 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12It 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. 13For 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.

Verse 11 is a weird and interesting and hints at several things. First, it’s a signature. “This is really from me.” Paul closes several letters this way.

It confirms, second, that Paul did not write out his letters. He dictated them, and on at least one occasion the scribe who wrote Paul’s words had his own words to say “I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord.” Third, why does he say, only here, that he writes in large letters? It might be for emphasis. “Pay attention to this.” But some wonder if Paul had an eye injury or disease. When he talked in chapter 4 about the ailment that brought him to Galatia, he said the Galatians would have given him their eyes. Maybe he was had eye problems and had to write large to see his own letters.

In verse 12, for the last time, Paul speaks of the Judaizers, this time warning the Galatians about what they were attempting to do and why they were doing it. This final warning is also a reminder of all the previous warnings he’s given. He says “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.” The idea of this legalism, Paul says, is to make a good impression outwardly, and by implication, a false impression. But Paul says it’s being done ‘in the flesh,’ that is, out of the sinful nature, which is always self-centered and wants human influence and success.

Why did the Judaizer persevere so strongly? First, Paul says, they wanted to escape the persecution that attached to Christ's cross. It isn’t Christ himself who is their problem. A Christ who is only a teacher could be accepted into Judaism or any other religion. The difficulty is the cross, because the cross speaks of the necessity of a divine death as the only solution to the sin of man. As Boice says, “to have the cross is to have three disquieting and humiliating doctrines: (1) man is a sinner; (2) his sin brings him under the curse of God, which curse Christ bore; and (3) nothing man can do can earn salvation, for if this were possible, the cross would have been unnecessary.” These doctrines aroud thei anger of people who want to think they are good enough for heaven.

Second, verse 13, the Judaizers persevered in their error because of their desire to boast that they had been able to win over the Galatians. But, Paul says, they themselves can’t keep the law, so their boasting is groundless. Could it be that they are trying to make up for their own shortcomings by persuading other to circumcision? Trying to earn favor with God or man? If so, it’s a hopeless quest. You can’t be right with God by works or moralism or being good enough, because you will fail and sin and fall short. As Paul said in chapter 2, by the works of the law no one will be justified, made right with God.

The next part of Elena’s story illustrates this. They left for Switzerland at 2 a.m. along with the D’Angelo family of four. Pino had found her a pair of boots, even while preparing his ropes and gear, skis, poles and climbing equipment.

It all terrified Elena. Since taking up the violin thirty-five years ago she’d mostly sat and practiced, her dream of playing at La Scala achieved before she was thirty. She hugged herself again. She could do this, must do this, not just for herself, nor her husband, wherever he was, but for the baby. Eight years of marriage. Three failed pregnancies. But now! She knew she had to be strong.

The climb out was terrifying and exhausting, a hill so steep it wanted to pull you over backwards, slick with ice and snow. Elena trudged along in the sturdy boots Pino had found. When, a long time later, they reached a flat place, she was more exhausted than she’d ever been. Her breathing raced like a Paganini caprice. Then she saw the narrow chimney of rock ahead. “Oh no,” she said. Pino put his hand on her shoulder. “It’s not as bad as it looks.” “It’s worse than it looks. I should go back. I’m holding the others up.” The nausea Elena had been fighting rose in her gorge. She turned and vomited. Mrs. D’Angelo spoke from the darkness “You should climb for your baby. You know what it might mean if you went back down..” Elena’s resolve stiffened. “I’ll climb.”

The boy, Pino, led the way. With crampons on his feet and using ice axes, he climbed the chimney. Every half meter he stopped and hacked out a foothold. Elena hoped her short legs would reach the distance. At the top Pino pounded a piton into a narrow crevice and lowered a rope. The D’Angelo family went first, leaving only Elena and young Mimo. “Right hand first,” Mimo said. “Climb the stairs Pino made.” “But I’ll slip.” “We’re holding the rope,” Pino called down. “Kick those crampons and swing the axes like you mean it, like your violin bow when you play con smania.” That last, referring to playing with passion, got her. She gripped the ax, slashed out and was rewarded a solid thump. Centimeters at a time, resting her weight on the rope, she pulled up.

Four meters up her right foot slipped. She shrieked, falling, jerked to a stop by the rope Pino held. She begged to be let down, but Pino refused. Finally, she forced herself to try again. Thirty minutes later, they hauled her over the edge. In the light of Pino’s lamp, she could see the frost coating her clothes, feel the icy snot that clung to her face. “I hated that,” she said. “Every second of it I hated. I’ve never been so scared and I’ve never prayed so hard.” “But you’re here,” Pino said, grinning. “You did it. For your baby.”

Dawn was filtering in as they traversed a wide shoulder, skirting the mountain peak that rose bare to their left. The light revealed menacing clouds which soon dropped heavy snow into the howling wind. Would they survive the climb only to die in a blizzard? Before long they had to stop, backs to the wind, waiting for a pause in the onslaught. Elena wanted to sit, but Pino wouldn’t let her, even after she and the others were coated with a thick layer of ice.

Finally, he relented. “I know a place we can shelter and get warm!” Minutes later, he and Mimo kicked snow from the door of a shepherd’s hut. The stove Pino lit gave off a delicious heat, and Elena relished the pain of feeling returning to her feet. “We’ll spend the night,” Pino said. Lying on the dirt, Elena dropped into an exhausted sleep. Hours later, a sound like a locomotive woke her. The train rumbled right at them, shook the ground, passed. Then there was deep silence, broken only by groaning and popping of the logs supporting the roof. “What was that, Pino?” “Avalanche,” Pino said. He lit a match and opened the door. Avalanche-hardened snow and debris completely blocked the exit. Elena stared at it in horror. “My God, Pino, it’s buried us alive.”

No matter how hard we try, there is no such thing as self rescue. I’m telling Elena’s story partly to throw light on Pino. She wouldn’t have made it without his help and bravery. But the hero of our story is Jesus. Paul knows that Jesus is the door through which we pass from our old life to a new life. Galatians 6:14-15 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. 15For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.

The Judaizers wanted to change the thinking of the Galatians partly because they themselves were unwilling to be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Paul desires the opposite. He won’t boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s easy for us to miss the shocking nature of this. F.F. Bruce says “the word crux was unmentionable in polite Roman society ... even when one was being condemned to crucifixion the sentence read only “hang him on the unlucky tree” But Paul said the unmentionable word and gloried in it.”

The central truth of Christianity is that Jesus went to the cross for the salvation of sinners. “I boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Do we do that? The cross is where we witness Christ’s sacrificial death, and thus to our sin and forgiveness. The word ‘Lord’ speaks to his divinity, ‘Jesus’ speaks of his humanity and his mission to save, and ‘Christ’ speaks of his fulfillment of God’s promises. We can boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The cross brings you and me to a point of change so radical that Paul calls it a crucifixion. But what dies is our allegiance to the world and its ways, self-centeredness, pride, legalism, moralism and the works of the flesh. Those things die, and I die as well, my old self crucified with Christ. The cross is a whole new beginning for those who believe. We step through that door, a door we could never open in our own strength, into new life as a new creation. Verse 15, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision count for anything in our salvation. The thing that counts is to be born again, to become a new creation.

2nd Corinthians 5:17 “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation: the old has gone, the new has come.” This was the heart of the gospel Paul proclaimed. Galatians 4:4 taught us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” On the wrong side of the door, the old sinful nature cannot save us. But Jesus is the door. Through him we find redemption, forgiveness and new life. This is the heart of our story:

Pino turned from the ice filled door to the stove. He began to remove the chimney. “What are you doing?” Elana asked. “Trying not to suffocate.” “Oh dear God,” she said. “After everything I’ve been through, my baby and I are going to choke to death?” “Not if I can help it.” Pino dislodged snow from the chimney, first by hand, then with one of his ski poles. The ice was hard. Progress was slow. As hours passed the air became stifling. Elana felt short of breath. Finally, during Mimo’s turn, something clanked down the chimney. “Ahhhh,” he yelled in pain. “That hurt.” A chunk of ice lay in the dirt. Pino went to the chimney, put his hand to it. “I feel it,” he said. “We’ve got air!”

“Now we dig out,” Pino said. Elana, breathing deeply, realized she was learning to trust the resolute young man. They stared at the debris filled door and guessed there might be three meters of snow. Then they attacked the avalanche rubble with ice axes. At first small blocks and gravel-sized streams of ice came free with each strike. Then the ice became hard, solid as cement. Progress ground to a crawl. Finally, at eight p.m. Pino’s lamp died. In the pitch blackness, Elena despaired again. “How will we see to dig?” Pino dug into his pack and came out with two candles. “We’ve got these,” he said, “but we need to sleep.”

After a small meal of the remaining provisions, Elana fell into an exhausted slumber. Twice during the night she dreamed of being buried alive in a casket, and woke with a start, listening to the others breathing and the tic-tic-tic of the stove cooling. The third time she woke to find Pino and Mimo attacking the tunnel with renewed energy. The pieces they now displaced were larger, ten or twelve centimeters thick. The snow’s different, she thought. It was breakable. She gasped with horror at the thought of the tunnel collapsing, Pino buried. Hours later the last candle sputtered and went out. “Why?” she whispered. “What did we–?” “Pino!” Mimo shouted. “Pino, look up!” Elena raised her head and saw that the tunnel had not gone pitch dark. Not long later, finally, came the shout from far up the tunnel that she had longed to hear “I’m through. . . . I’m through!”

Jesus, the hero of our story, for the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame and has opened for us a new and living way, a new life. Paul ends with a glimpse into that life. Galatians 6:16-18 As for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. 18The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.

Paul pronounces a blessing on those who live in the light of this truth, who walk according to this rule of grace alone and faith alone. Paul asks that they, we, be blessed with peace and mercy. Peace is needed, for sin makes sinners enemies of God. But Christ saves us from our sin and from divine hostility, and by this act of mercy he brings peace with God. Now peace and mercy can also characterize our lives. Even when things go crazy, like this week in a lot of ways, God still gives his peace and pours out mercy on our weary souls.

Upon the Israel of God is an unusual addition. Paul has it only here. But Israel was the name of the people of God and Paul has just been outlining the way sinners can become members of that people. Hee prays for peace not only on his correspondents in Galatia, but on all God's people wherever they may be.

In verse 17 Paul reflects on the fact that even on the right side of the door, believers will face struggle and persecution. The whole letter indicates that he has had considerable opposition. He is ready to defend the Gospel, and bear any burden needed to do so, but he’s not looking for trouble, nor for anyone to trouble him. In fact, “I already bear the marks of Christ.” This probably means that, like Jesus, Paul was physically scarred. These are probably not the same scars Jesus wears, but scars from the same opposition Jesus received. They testified to his readiness to suffer for Christ, showed him to be Christ's own.

Finally, verse 18, Paul usually ends his letters with a prayer for grace. It’s doubly fitting here as he has so strongly argued for grace as the foundation for rescue, rather than law or works. You can’t go through that door on your own merit, but only by grace, and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ continues on the far side through the Holy Spirit, who leads us and produces his fruit in our lives.

It’s comforting that Paul ends this last verse with the word brothers, this affectionate address. Coming at the very end of the letter he shows that, despite all the problems to which he has referred in this vigorous epistle, and the undoubted forcefulness of his opponents, he still sees himself as at one with his correspondents. They are all members of the heavenly family and are bound by family ties, all on the same side of the door. Amen.

Elena was the third to go up the tunnel, after Pino and Mr. D’Angelo. She felt set free when she poked her head out of the mouth, like a rabbit blinking in the sunlight. The cold mountain air was delicious. A huge rubble field surrounded the hut, and high above she could see the scar where the avalanche had started. Rock and dirt and small trees were mixed into the new snow.

Seeing the destruction and getting a sense of the sheer power of the avalanche, she believed it was a miracle that they’d survived. “What’s that?” she said to Pino, gesturing down the valley. “That, madame, is Val di Lei,” Pino said. “Down below in those trees Italy becomes Switzerland.” “It looks far,” she said, feeling suddenly weak. “About five kilometers?” Pino said. The short distance suddenly felt infinite. Elena sat on a snow boulder, one hand on her belly. She knew what was happening, and it terrified her. “I can’t do it,” she murmured.

“Sure you can,” Pino said. She shook her head, started to cry. “All this. It’s been too much. I’m spotting blood.” Pino looked confused until Mrs. D’Angelo said, “The baby, Pino.” Then his face fell into despair. “I shouldn’t move at all,” Elena said. She knew it to be true. She’d lost those other babies. “But you can’t stay here,” Mimo said. “You’ll die.” “And if I move, my child will die.”

“I won’t take a step!” Elena said, suddenly hysterical. Pino stared at her, then down at the snow in defeat. Suddenly he looked back up. “Maybe you don’t have to take a step.” He dropped his pack and put on his long wooden skis with leather and steel cable bear trap bindings. “Ready?” he said. “Ready for what?” Elena replied. “Get on my back,” Pino said. “I’m taking you piggyback.” “On skis?” she said. “I’ve never been on skis in my entire life.” “You never were buried in an avalanche before, either,” Pino said. “And you won’t be on skis. I will. I’m giving you a chance to save your baby and be free.” Elena stared at him, at the snow, then at the tunnel. She’d already experienced a miracle. Maybe God would give one more. She stood up out of the snow, shaking with fear.

“Hold my shoulders, not my neck,” Pino said, turning his back to her again. “And wrap your legs tight around my waist.” Elena grabbed his shoulders. He squatted and helped her up onto the small of his back. “Don’t let go,” Pino said. “Letting go? No, never. Absolutely the farthest thing from my mind.”

Pino shuffled his feet, and aimed the skis downhill toward the outer edge of the avalanche field, some thirty meters away. They began to slide. There were bumps and ragged chunks of ice. He tried to avoid them as they picked up speed. But then one loomed unavoidably in their way. They went right up over the top and launched, sailing through the air. “Ahhhh!!!!” Elena screamed. Pino landed awkwardly, but regained his balanced. They shot out of the debris field into fluffy powder snow.

Pino began to churn his legs. The skis arced left and then right in long, linked curves, building speed and blowing through snowdrifts that exploded and showered their faces. Elena hadn’t spoken since that first shriek, but now she found the thrill of the ride overwhelming. “Wheeeeeeeeee!” she cried “It’s like we’re birds, Pino! We’re flying!” She giggled and made “whoop!” noises every time they dropped off a knoll, looking ahead over his shoulder as they made long, floating, lazy S-turns downslope toward the woods and final freedom. At the end Pino began going straight downhill. The skis hissed as they hurtled down that last pitch, thirty, forty, maybe fifty kilometers an hour. When the ground flattened out Pino stayed low and they almost made the tree line.

They were both quiet for a second. Then Elena began to laugh. “What a crazy thing we’ve done,” she thought. She got down, and, holding her belly, knelt in the soft snow still laughing uncontrollably. Pino was caught up in her snorts and giggles. He fell beside her and laughed until he was crying. “Pino!” a man’s voice called sharply. Elena startled and looked up to see a man standing just inside the tree line. He was carrying a shotgun. “We made it, Mr. Bergstrom!” Pino cried. “You’re a day late,” Bergstrom said. “And get out of the open. Bring her into the woods.” Pino sobered and took his skis off. “I think everything’s going to be all right now, Pino,” Elena said. “I can feel it.” “Can you walk?” Pino asked. “I can try,” she said. He helped her to her feet.

“What’s wrong with her?” Bergstrom asked when they’d slogged into the trees. Elena explained about the baby and the spotting, but now without fear. “I think I can walk however far you need me to.” “Not that far, a few hundred meters,” Bergstrom said. “Once you’re in Switzerland, I can build you a fire. I’ll go down and come back for you with a sled.” “A few hundred meters I think I can do,” she said. “And a fire sounds like heaven above. Have you ever skied, Mr. Bergstrom?” The Swiss man looked at her as if she were slightly addled, but nodded. “Isn’t it grand?” she said. “Isn’t it the greatest thing ever?”

Do you see how that fits? We come through the door Christ has opened, but we cannot walk even the rest of the way ourselves. We get on his back, we get filled with his Spirit, and then we can not only walk, but fly. And it’s grand. Scary, with unexpected twists and turns, but it’s the greatest thing ever. May it be so for each of us.