The first thing a preacher might notice about this text is it contains some apparent contradictions. The third line says, “Bear one another’s burdens,” but at the end of the same paragraph it says, “For each will have to bear his own load.” How can we bear the burden for one another if each must bear his own load? Then again, in the previous sentence we read, “Let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone,” but at the beginning of the last paragraph the author asserts, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:14). So how can it be that each is supposed to find reason to boast in his own work?
These are not contradictions, but paradoxes which emerge when Saint Paul looks, as he sometimes does, at the same situation from two different angles. He looks from the standpoint of the Law, and later returns from the perspective of the Gospel. Following the contour of the pericope, then, the preacher has outstanding material for the Law/Gospel dynamic.
According to the Law, everyone will be judged by their own deeds, on his own work. So, before the judgment of God we only have our own works to boast in and not our neighbor’s. But the Gospel shows us a wonderful exception. The one man whose works are worth anything allows us to be judged based on His works, to boast in them, and so Paul happily concludes, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:14). So, under the Law we do bear our own load, an intolerable load, for who could shoulder the burden of their own guilt and carry it on earth, much less to Heaven? But under the Gospel, our Lord Jesus bears our load and frees us to help others with their burdens.
This is the picture of the Christian community we are shown, reaching back to Pentecost (the season we are currently in) and the formation of the New Covenant people of God. The image chosen to describe the moral life of the believer is a graphic one. Each is carrying a burden (1:2), and the burden is the obligation of the holy Law of God, or more precisely it is our inability to keep His Law. One of the criticisms Jesus made of those who interpreted the Law of God for the people of His day was this, “You load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers” (Luke 11:46). So, you imagine people staggering and stumbling under this moral weight. From the times of the Old Testament stumbling has been an image to describe peril, especially moral peril (cf. Isaiah 59:10; Proverbs 4:16). Therefore, it is for each of us as we go our way: There is a danger we will crumble under a weight which is too much for us to bear and fall into peril of our souls. Law. Sin. Inability. It is all right there.
Then comes the invitation of Jesus: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-29).
As Christians, we find ourselves still staggering under the Law, failing and falling. Then what? This is the next point for Paul. We need someone to help us to our feet. The lesson says we do it for each other. It is extraordinary that the Lord should have arranged it this way, but here it is. When one Christian topples under the weight, and falls into sin, then another believer, tottering in unstable equilibrium under the same burden, should be the one to help them up.
How is it done? We all know enough of the principles of mechanics to see how the one who acts as a crane to hoist up another must be strong. They must stand on solid ground, the moral high ground. Only from there could one venture to lift another. So, our text tells us everyone must find, “his reason to boast in himself alone and not in his neighbor.” They must be up to the task and must test their own work. But you know this is impossible. Mechanics must give way to theology. Which of us could deem ourselves strong enough to be able to rescue another? We know if we even tried to point out the moral speck in our neighbor’s eye, we would be prevented by the mote in our own. Inevitably there is no boast in ourselves. That was “law talk” reminding us we stand or fall on the merits of our own lives in God’s judgement. Stand or fall? We all fall if we rely on our own virtues under God’s verdict.
We have nothing to boast about, except one thing. Like Saint Paul, we can boast only in the Cross of Jesus. If you wanted something to boast of, what could be greater than this. As we look to the Cross on which the Son of God gave His life, we know He did it for me. I did nothing for Him.
So long as the boast is only in Him and in His cross, God has a use for us. Despite the law of mechanics, God can use us to help one another in our weakness and stumbling. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27). When one sinner falls under the burden of temptation, of a law which is too much for their frailty, whom should God appoint to aid them but another sinner. Would you rather not be helped up by a fellow sinner who knows what it is to stumble?
The New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes a telling analogy. “Every high priest chosen from among men,” it says, “is appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness” (Hebrews 5:1-2). We will come to the point of this analogy in a moment, but that is the help I would want in my moment of weakness – one who can deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, “since he himself is beset with weakness” (5:2). And so, St. Paul says in the opening words of our text, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1). You are qualified for the job precisely because you have no qualifications for it – no moral greatness, nothing to boast about, except, of course, the Cross of Christ.
The point of the Hebrews’ analogy about the high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses is Jesus, our great High Priest, also walked this earth and faced its temptations. In every way He was tested as we are, only in His case without sinning (Hebrews 4:15). But the point is not left there. Did you admit earlier, too, how in the case of your own collapse you likewise would desire the helping hand of a fellow sinner? God gives you just that. A righteous and holy Messiah in Heaven who is impervious to our temptations is no use to us in our mire. We need one who will enter it with us and for us. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
We look as much to be pulled up as to pull another to their feet. We reach upwards to the helping hand before reaching down to offer one. We also look to the fellowship of the Church, to one another, to help us in our weakness. This, too, is part of the consequences of Pentecost.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Galatians 6:1-18.