Have you ever gotten so exasperated with a situation that words just seem to tumble out? You know, like when a toddler makes a 5-alarm mess just as you’re getting ready for work. Or like that time when something at work ruined your day. Thoughts and words just seem to tumble out in random, unconnected order. Our next section from Galatians has that kind of thought tumbling feel to it.
Paul wrote, “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.” (Galatians 5:7–12, NASB95) Untangling Paul’s words provide three themes. His care for the Galatians, his anger at those upsetting their faith, and the centrality of the cross.
Paul cared deeply for the Galatians. Interventions are always uncomfortable, and we only do them for those we truly love. Paul is asking them to examine their path. Who is hindering them in their faith? What leaven has crept into their walk with Jesus and each other? Surely this persuasion did not come from Jesus. Who then? As with the rest of the letter, Paul is trying to pull them back onto the path of faith.
There is no doubt that Paul was angry with those pulling the Galatians off of the path. He uses harsh words and images towards them even so far as wishing that in the act of circumcision, they would go further and castrate themselves. Ouch. Anger is real. Paul’s anger was righteous in this case because he sought to protect and restore what the false teachers were doing. Jesus said something similar, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, NASB95) Double ouch. Righteous anger is rare, but there is room for it when it is called for.
Paul identifies a huge truth with just a few words, “the stumbling block of the cross.” While Paul doesn’t spell it out, those troubling the Galatians couldn’t overcome the truth of the cross. The cross was a stumbling block to their teaching. Through the cross, there is forgiveness, there is access to God, there is acceptance, there is unearned love given through overwhelming grace. For some, it is a stumbling block and a curse; for Christ-followers, it is central to our faith.
The cross of Jesus has an amazing mix of symbols. On the one hand, it is an instrument of death, a device designed to inflict torturous capital punishment. And yet, we wear it around our necks and identify our religion in its shape. It was intended to be an instrument of shame, and the drawn-out death performed on it as a warning to others. And yet, Jesus bore our shame, so we no longer need to carry it ourselves. Far from a warning, it is now a beacon of hope and of salvation. Like all forms of capital punishment, the cross was an instrument of state power—the power and authority of a government to take a life as a punishment for crime. And yet, it is a declarative example of God’s power over sin and death, which leads to life. The very thing that took life is now the symbol of God’s life-giving love.