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Pastoral Ministry in Galatians

Paul’s letter to the Galatians might not be the first place we turn for a model of pastoral ministry. It might even be the last place we’d think to go, given its dense theological arguments and Paul’s exasperated tone. And yet in many ways it is a shining example and defence of authentic ministry.

You can see that best in the final passage – Gal 6:11-18. In those climactic verses, much of the letter’s argument is brought to bear on the question of how true gospel ministry can be distinguished from false and fleshly ministry.

Two things in particular characterise Paul’s ministry: he boasts in the cross of Jesus and he bears the marks of Jesus.

Boasting in the cross of Jesus

So much of the letter is designed to celebrate the work of Jesus so that the Galatian church will put its hope there. In Gal 1:4 Paul speaks of Jesus “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.” The rest of the letter develops that theme, showing how Christ’s coming is the definitive intervention, the great turning point in human history, where slavery turns to freedom and curse to blessing. God has sent his Son and his Spirit into the world and that changes everything.

Boasting in the cross bears many fruits but Paul draws our attention to two in particular. First, it unites God’s people because at the foot of the cross we boast in what Christ has
done for us all, rather than those things that we might be tempted to think make us different, better than others. As Paul says in 6:15, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything” – none of those markers or status symbols or reasons why I have any kind of advantage mean anything.

So boasting in the cross transforms how we all relate to each other, but it also transforms a ministry. The false teachers boast in themselves and so their true purpose is to impress others (6:12); the people they minister to are just a means to that end (6:13). But as the early church father John Chrysostom said, boasting in the cross frees Paul to serve others instead of pursuing his own glory. Secure in the knowledge he is redeemed and adopted, “Paul is dead to the praise of men, distinguished positions, reputation, wealth, and all such things as have a show of splendour.”

Bearing the marks of Jesus

The other remarkable difference between Paul and his opponents emerges because the false teachers are trying to convince the men of the church to be circumcised (6:12). In that way, the false teachers want to impose a mark on others, but Paul here speaks about bearing a mark on his own body (6:17). The contrast is so powerful! Paul endures suffering and hardship for the people, he literally bears the scars of that, so that his churches might enjoy the freedom and grace of God.

That phrase “marks of Jesus” in 6:17 is designed to remind us of the wounds Jesus endured on our behalf. Paul’s point is that all faithful ministry will follow that same path; enduing suffering on behalf of God’s people instead of dishing it out. Bearing the marks of Jesus that others might be spared. Preserving their freedom rather than bending people to our will.

The “marks of Jesus” might also echo the way slaves would be marked as belonging to their master. If the false teachers want to impose marks on others and lord it over them, Paul is content to serve his Lord and revels in the scars that mark him out as the slave of Christ.

So Galatians 6 - it’s not a complete picture of ministry, of course. But at the end of his most passionate letter, Paul gives us a striking sketch of ministry you can trust: where the cross is our boast, and where the marks of Jesus are borne in service of him and on behalf of others.

This article was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Evangelicals Now.


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