Bearing One Another's Burdens

Dr. Don Garlington

1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. 5 For each one shall bear his own load. 6 Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.   Galatians 6:1-7 (NKJV)

The time comes when we have to face the kind of situation which is depicted in this passage of Galatians 6:1-5. We have to set the context of this. I am always telling my students, context, context, context, the first rule is Context and the second rule is Refer to Rule One. You can think of context as a series of concentric circles. A little circle, a bigger circle, a bigger circle, a bigger circle, as far back as you can push it. What I want to do, by way of brief introduction to this passage, is to push the circle back to about a couple of hundred years before Paul wrote Galatians. Then we will narrow it somewhat to the argument of Galatians itself, and finally look at our passage. It is important to understand the New Testament in its historical setting and its historical context. 

About two hundred years before Paul wrote Galatians a king named Antiochus IV, who came from the land of Syria, attempted to subjugate the Jewish people, and impose Greek culture and Greek language. He tried to obliterate every vestige of Jewish particularism and when propaganda didn’t work, then he engaged simply in old fashioned persecution. There are some very graphic passages in the books called Maccabees. We read, for example, that when mothers would circumcise their sons then the infants would be killed and tied around the mother’s neck. Rather horrible martyr stories are to be found as well, about people who were disembowelled, and burned and all the rest of it. The issue was that they refused to eat pork! Now to you and me that may not sound like a very crucial issue, but they knew that if they did that, that they would be violating the covenant, and opening the floodgates to all kinds of pagan excess. As a reaction there was a war for independence. Everyone knows the name Judas Maccabeus, their famous leader. The Jews did win this war of independence, but because they had been persecuted with regard to the law, then zeal for the law became the hallmark of the day.

Zeal for the law took the form of violence. What some of these people did was to refer back to the Old Testament, for example to Phineas in Numbers 25. On that occasion, when Israel came to the land of Moab, they were seduced by the daughters of Moab. An Israelite man and a woman of Midian were caught together in the precincts of the temple. Phineas comes along and runs his sword through them, and so he stays the wrath of God against Israel on that occasion. It is very interesting that when you go back to the Old Testament, all the references to zeal have to do with violence. Remember how Elijah said, “I am very zealous for the Lord God of hosts,” and then immediately thereafter put to death all the prophets of Baal? Jehu, a man who used to drive his chariot the way some of us drive our cars, announced that he was zealous and then went out and killed the rest of the house of Ahab. So zeal for the law, including violence, became the order of the day.

Saul of Tarsus bought into that precisely when he was a Pharisee. In Galatians 1 he says, “So zealous was I for the traditions of the fathers.” What he had been doing, of course, was attempting to lay waste the church of Christ. In Philippians he could say that he was a persecutor of the church. He was one who would not flinch at the use of brutal violence for the sake of purifying, of cutting out what he saw as a cancer that had come upon the nation Israel. What does all that have to do with Galatians? It has everything to do with Galatians, because the very people who came along after Paul, dogging his steps, teaching what is called the “other gospel,” were in fact erstwhile Pharisees. It is a strange thing, but in Paul’s day there was a group of Jewish people, Pharisees, in particular, who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, probably because they acknowledged his resurrection, and they couldn’t deny the power of what happened on the day of Pentecost. Yet they brought into Christianity the old Jewish doctrine, the baggage as far as Paul was concerned, that when the Messiah comes He is going to leave the law intact, precisely as it had always been. Paul had believed that once, and yet Paul, after he was knocked down on the road to Damascus, came to understand that the Messiah was cursed by the law. And as such the Messiah has removed the law, so that the barrier has come down between Jew and Gentile.

Here we begin to narrow the context a little bit, and come to Galatians 5. Mind you, don’t just read the epistle from beginning to end, but from the end to the beginning. When you read Galatians in light of what is said at the end, some remarkable things come out at the beginning of the letter. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (Gal 3:10).What he is getting down to is the fact that the Judaizers have cut the heart out of the law, because they have not actually loved as the very law says that they ought to love. The whole law, he says, is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” What you find in Galatia is the spirit of self-conceit, as Paul says, “provoking one another, biting and devouring one another, envy of one another.” Any time you get people to do things that are not actually in the law of Christ, this is going to be the mentality. In Galatians 5 what we find is really the practical fruit of this Judaizing theology. It was exclusive, it was narrow, it was harsh, it was bitter. This is why Galatians 5:6 “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love,” focuses upon love, because these Judaizers were loveless. It became apparent in the way that they dealt with people.

All of that brings us to look at the text itself, Galatians 6:1-5. Paul says, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass.” One of the most remarkable things at the beginning of this passage is that Paul doesn’t spend much time telling us what the trespass is. In fact, he doesn’t say at all what the trespass is! It may be something relatively minor, or it may be something relatively scandalous and shameful, but that is not the focal point of Paul’s concern in these verses, rather it is the way that such a person is to be restored. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this trespass is something very grievous, bringing reproach upon the individual, upon his family and upon the church at large. That being so, we might be tempted to act drastically, to get out the ball bat. Consider how some young—or not so young—people get hold of the five points of Calvinism; and once they do, a chemical reaction takes place. As the saying goes, they have the doctrines of grace but not the grace of the doctrines. For example, they find a little fellow who is passing out “the four spiritual laws” and evangelizing the best he knows how. They say to him, “Hey! What do you think about the free will of man and the sovereignty of God?” And you know what he is going to say, because he doesn’t have enough theology to fill a cavity in your tooth. So out comes the ball bat—Louisville slugger—Wham, wham, wham! In the same way, an overzealous ministry can wipe up the floor with people; it can aim a double barreled shotgun straight on and leave a bleeding mangled mess, and in the end do more harm.

There is the story of a southern Baptist pastor; I don’t know if we know him so well in Canada, but those who know the Southern Baptist Church will know the name of George Trewett, who was pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, for a number of years. On one occasion one of the deacons in that church fell into sin. Most of the deacons were ready to go with the ball bat. They were ready to go to this man who had brought shame upon the church and hand his head back to him. But there was one deacon who didn’t want to go. When Dr. Trewett asked him why he said “Well, if I had been in that circumstance, I’m not sure that I would have faired any better.” Trewett said to him, “You are precisely the man I want to go with me.” The trespass can be something shameful, something full of reproach yet Paul passes right by that. He tells us the way that we ought to deal with any trespass, whatever it is What he does is to identify the spiritual as those who are marked out to do this work.

In certain Christian traditions, the word spirituality is identified with reading your Bible so many hours a day, praying so many hours, witnessing to so many people and so on. Those things are fine and good, but the problem is that you can do all of those things and not really be spiritual. Or you can really be spiritual and go through periods of time when you don’t do any of those things. Spirituality here is defined precisely by the context of the passage. Refer to rule one: the context. In the context of Galatians 6, the spiritual are those who bear the fruit of the Spirit, over against the works of the flesh. The fruit of the Spirit are such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. Do you notice that love heads the list and everything that follows really is a variation on that theme? Even something like self-control, we will see in a moment, is a variation on love. The spiritual are those who have not bought in to this Judaizing gospel of taking the law and using it as a ball bat to beat people with, but rather are those who have come to understand that it is Jesus Himself, who was meek and lowly in heart.

The spiritual do the restoring and the way they do it is in a spirit of gentleness. I suppose it might seem redundant to us, but Paul is emphasizing the point. The reference here could be to the human spirit or to the Holy Spirit and at the end of the day it is really both at the same time. It is the human spirit that is acted upon by the Holy Spirit, but it is in a spirit of gentleness. Gentleness is a word that is frequently misunderstood. It could be translated meekness. We are often told that meekness is not weakness and, whilst that is right, what I think it is, is illustrated very well by a piece of Greek literature. This very word is used in a certain text to refer to a horse which has been broken. Now the horse still has as much strength as it had before, but now that strength is under control and it is manageable, it is useful. Gentleness is strength under control. Paul stresses that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control, because he goes on to say, in the very next clause of verse two, “Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Here is a passage that, even after you put it in context, you have to see that he is driving at something very specific. The temptation that he is probably referring to is the temptation to lash out, to be angry, to be uncontrolled in the response. How different these Judaizers were. If these are the same group of people as in 2 Corinthians 11:19-21, we can understand why Paul says to the Corinthians, “For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if a man makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!” The reference to striking in the face is probably to be taken literally, not figuratively. But the spiritual are not so. To fall in this area is to create a far worse mess than you had to begin with. Again, Paul majors on the Spirit of gentleness and minors on the transgression itself

In v 2 Paul says “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.” Again we have to see that Paul is driving at something very specific. I have been at prayer meetings where people would say, “Pray for me please, because I am bearing a burden.” This burden may turn out to be that their neighbours are too noisy at night-time, playing music until two or three in the morning. Or they have got a problem with their boss, or a problem with their mother-in-law, or whatever it may be, and this is the burden that they are bearing. Well, I have no doubt that those things can be burdens. But the burden that Paul has in mind here in Galatians 6 is really the sin burden, the consequences of the sin. Normally sins are not just private sins, but they affect those who are around us. If someone goes to a party and drinks too much, then drives a car too fast and hits some one on a cross walk, he has got a multiplicity of problems, both legal and moral and medical. Paul is saying that if we bear the burden then we will be responsible for the effects of what others do, even when they sin. It may mean forbearing with the person himself for a period of time, because this could happen again.

J.G. Machen, the founder of Westminster Seminary, was a renowned scholar. His grasp of languages, of Greek, Hebrew, German, French and Latin and so forth was lmost unprecedented. He was a great scholar, and yet there was a period of time, when he was at Princeton, that he would go to the house of a drunk and clean up after him. I had to do that on one occasion, it is not a very pleasant experience, I can assure you. Yet, Machen would do it repeatedly. Now there is an example of bearing the burden, because there are consequences to sin. We bear the burden, when we bear up the person who has sinned and aid with the consequences. “And if you do that”, Paul says, “you will fulfil the law of Christ.” 

Now the phrase “the law of Christ” is coined directly over against the phrase “the law of Moses.” The Judaizers want people to keep a law, so Paul comes along and says, “Fine. I too want you to keep a law. We have plenty of laws to keep, but they are identified with the law of Christ.” Now Christ has jettisoned a great deal of what Moses required and yet the very heart and the essence of what was in the Mosaic covenant is still here. This is why in chapter 5 Paul can say the whole law is fulfilled in the one word, loving your neighbour as yourself. To fulfil the law means to bring about the reason for its existence in the first place. When Jesus says that He came not to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfil them, He means that the law and the prophets had a certain reason for existence and in his mission and ministry he brings that purpose to its climax and conclusion. So even the law of Moses was meant to create a community of love, and the law of Christ is meant to create a community of love. That being so, there is no place for harshness. There is no place for the ball bat approach, because the community of love is a delicate thing. The Scottish Puritan Robert Leighton once said that the grace of God in a human heart is like a tender plant in strange, unkindly soil; and that the gospel ministry was given to cause that struggling plant to grow and flourish.

That is not the end of the story. As we keep reading Paul says, “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing he deceives himself.” There have been various views of what this means. But it is really very simple to refer to 1 Corinthians 13. If I have not love I am what? Nothing! Here is the one who says, “You know I have been called by God. I have been equipped. I have been placed in this office. You’d better get out of the way when you see me coming.” That is the one who thinks he is something. But it doesn’t matter about his gifts, it doesn’t matter about his profile, it doesn’t matter how good a talker he is, if he doesn’t have love he is nothing. And Paul is quick to inform him of that!

As we keep reading, this passage becomes even more remarkable. Verse 4 is one we need to let sink in for a little bit. Paul says, “But let each one test his own work and then his reason to boast will be in himself and not in his neighbour.” Now from a certain point of view that is very strange. He says, “Don’t compare yourself with others. You know you can always find someone who is worse than you. And by comparison you can count yourself as being somewhat superior.” But Paul tells us that it is not the one who has sinned who is to be the paradigm, the model, for our self-esteem, but rather he says it is our own work. It is in our own work that we are to boast. That seems to cut against a certain strand of Christian tradition, does it not? Similarly, we are told that if you are humble, you don’t know it. And reference is made to that fictional book, “Humility and How I Attained It.” In Numbers chapter 6 Aaron and Miriam were complaining that Moses seemed to have been the favourite one. Moses, who is writing the text, says that Moses was the meekest man upon the face of the whole earth, speaking of himself. It seems to me that he knew he was humble! Look at Acts chapter 20, Paul tells the Ephesian elders that, “I served, I laboured in your presence with all humility.” I think he knew it! That blows one myth out of the water.

There is another myth that needs to be blown out of the water. We are told that we are not to boast. People even quote from Paul in this very letter, “Not that I should boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,”Gal 6:14. Yet here he seems to be contradicting that. “Test your own work, and then you will be able to boast. Not in the shortcomings of others but in what you yourself have done in your own work.” Maybe that is a verse we need to cut out of the New Testament since it seems to mess up our system a little bit. How do we explain it? I think we need to refer to the passage that I just quoted. At one time Paul, as a proud Pharisee was very boastful. He boasted in Israel, he boasted in his relationship to the God of Israel, he boasted in the law, he boasted in the covenant, he boasted in the fact that they were of the elect people. He would have agreed with a certain passage in Jewish literature that says “Don’t give your glory and advantages to another. They belong to us. They are ours exclusively.” He was boasting in that vein. But then he was knocked down to the ground on the road to Damascus, and when he regained his sight, he shifted the object of his boasting from the law to Christ. The very language of boasting in Christ, being proud of Christ, glorying in Christ is in the New Testament, is in Paul. We have to assume that as our presupposition. That being the case, Paul boasts in the cross, and it is from the cross that the love of God flows to his people. When I boast in my work, I am boasting in what I have been enabled to do through the love of God flowing from the cross to me. And in this context, what I am doing, my work, is identifiable with love. Agape love. Paul is saying effectively, I can boast in my love, because my love is the gift of God coming from the One who loved me and gave himself for me. The reason to boast (v.4) is a boast in the cross, it is a boast in the love of the cross. There is no place for boasting and wanting to be a bigshot in the kingdom. Like James and John who came to Jesus saying, “Lord, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” They want to sit at the right hand and the left hand in the kingdom. They want to report only to Jesus and then everyone else report to them. That kind of boasting is excluded by definition, because the cross has ruled it out.

Coming to the end of the passage, it becomes curiouser and curiouser. Paul says, “For each one will have to bear his own load.” Wait a minute, didn’t he just say, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ”? Now he says, “Everyone will have to bear his own load.” Is it that Paul wrote part of this passage one evening and then finished it the next morning and forgot what he said earlier on? I doubt it. Galatians shows evidence of having been written with some haste. So how do we reconcile that, bear one another’s burdens and yet at the same time you are going to have to bear your own load? You could always cheat, you know, and say there are different words in the Greek. But the Greek is not really the big issue here. The point again is context, the argument which Paul is pursuing. This is the high point to which he is moving. You have to connect it with verse 7 and following, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows that shall he also reap.” Paul goes on to use this metaphor, “For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. Whoever sows into the flesh, the idea of the soil of the flesh, is going to reap from that soil, corruption. But then the one, who sows into the soil of the Spirit is going to reap from the soil of the Spirit, eternal life.” And so when you consider verse 5 in the light of verse 7, it turns out that the load that everyone has to bear, is one’s own accountability in the Day of Judgment. Even though it is a similar word “bear” in verse 5 to that in verse 2, there is a different reference. What he is saying in plain language is this: those who have been Pharisee-like, those who have been Judaizer-like in their treatment of others, those who have not loved, have sown to the flesh. We tend to say that the flesh is sensual things and while it does have that reference, in this context flesh means the attitude of biting and devouring. The Judaizers had evolved, what you might call the doctrine of “sanctified hatred.” Now that seems like a contradiction of terms if there ever was one. But that was it, nonetheless,that if the object of your hatred falls outside of the pale of what you consider to be orthodoxy, then you show no tolerance at all. There are those who live a whole lifetime doing that. Paul says that they are deceived if they do it. That is why he says, “Don’t be deceived.” It is easy to be deceived and stand up for orthodoxy as such, yet all the while hating those who have fallen short of your standard.

There is a similar thing in Romans 12. Paul says in chapter 12:9 that our love is to be unhypocritical, meaning that it is to be a consistent love. He pursues that up to a certain point and he quotes from Deuteronomy 32, “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” In most preaching, that is taken out of its context and is made into an evangelistic message. Those on the outside, if they don’t repent, are going to bear God’s wrath.” Indeed they are, but Paul applies this, not to the pagan world of his day, he applies it to the church in Rome. He is saying very plainly that those who have exercised a hypocritical love will bear the wrath of God in the last day, as that wrath fell in the first instance on Israel, an idolatrous and apostate people. Do you see the consequences, how grave they are? Paul can say to Timothy, “Guard the deposit, that precious thing that has been given to you,” at the same time correcting one’s opponent in the spirit of gentleness.

This is a practical word for everyday life for us. In fact I can’t think of a text more practical than this one. The time is going to come when you will have to bear the burdens of others, and you may not want to. You may find it to be an inconvenience. You may find it to be an embarrassment. You may find it to be troublesome and problematic. And yet the law of Christ exists to create a community of love. The new commandment, which is not new at all from a certain point of view, is that you love one another. We have been called to just that. J.C. Ryle has a wonderful paper in his book on Practical Religion. He points out that we are not justified by love as such, it is the cross of Christ which saves. Yet at the same time, those who have not loved, indicate that they have not really experienced the love of God flowing from the cross. How can you be harsh? How can you be legislative? How can you assume a Judaizing position, if you have really experienced what forgiveness is all about? Remember those who are forgiven much, love much. Jesus came not to call the righteous, that is, Pharisee-like groups. Mind you, they were righteous from a certain point of view, it was not just self-perceived righteousness, they really were righteous in the sense that they strove to be loyal to God and his law, unlike the “sinners,” tax collectors and prostitutes and such like, who renounced the covenant and the God of the covenant. In the parable of the Great Supper, Jesus is bold enough to say that the kingdom will consist of the blind, the lame, the halt, people who were not allowed into the solemn assembly of Israel. The kingdom that He has come to establish is totally opposite of what the righteous were expecting and totally subversive to their expectation. It is composed of those who are sinners. Sinners at the beginning, sinners in the middle, and sinners at the end.

My own apologetics teacher of Westminster, Cornelius Van Til, was well into his eighties when he gave a lecture on a certain occasion. They were having a question and answer session afterwards. A young man stood up and said “Well, Dr. Van Til, I believe sanctification works this way that I work on one problem at a time and then I move onto the next problem. And you know, by the time I am finished I am sanctified.” Van Til, his hand shaking from age at that point, said, “Young man, that is incipient perfectionism. Because I am still struggling with the same problems now that I struggled with when I was your age.” You could just hear the air gush out of that young fellow. And so it is a struggle all the way through in that regard, and that is why love is the prime requisite and love is the defining characteristic. If Judaism had its boundary markers, the Christian church has its boundary marker too, and that is the love of the brethren and that fulfils the law of Christ.

This is a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Don Garlington.