In one of my papers, I was spending a lot of time in Galatians 6:2-3, which reads, "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself" (ESV).
As I was studying and writing about this passage, I came across Dr. Timothy George's New American Commentary on Galatians. I thought his words on Galatians 6:2-3 were profound, so I wanted to share them here on the blog. I have edited the excerpt's paragraph breaks and took out some of the annotations for readability. Here is Dr. George:
The church of Jesus Christ is not a charitable organization like the Red Cross or a civic club such as the Rotary or Kiwanis. It is rather a family of born-again brothers and sisters supernaturally knit together by the Holy Spirit in a common fellowship of mutual edification and love. In this context Paul admonished his readers to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ. The immediate context refers back to the preceding verse and conveys the idea of the spiritually mature bearing with and helping to restore those who have fallen into sin. But burden bearing cannot be restricted to that one situation alone.
The word for "burden" means literally "a heavy weight or stone" someone is required to carry for a long distance. Figuratively it came to mean any oppressive ordeal or hardship that was difficult to bear, as in Matt 20:12, where Jesus spoke of the workers in the vineyard "who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day." The old-fashioned English word "tote" conveys something of this idea in our language. To tote something is not simply to pick it up and put it back down again. It is rather to carry or haul a heavy load, usually on one's arms or back, for a great distance, perhaps many miles. We may gather four important truths about practical Christian living from Paul's injunction to bear one another's burdens.
The Reality of Burdens
All Christians have burdens. Our burdens may differ in size and shape and will vary in kind depending on the providential ordering of our lives. For some it is the burden of temptation and the consequences of a moral lapse, as in v. 1 here. For others it may be a physical ailment, or mental disorder, or family crisis, or lack of employment, or demonic oppression, or a host of other things; but no Christian is exempt from burdens. Creation itself is broken and groaning, and believers groan with it, waiting for the final deliverance that will come only with the return of our Redeemer in glory (Rom 8:1828). Prosperity gospels of easy believism and quick-fix recovery belong more to the spirit of this age than to the Spirit of Christ, who "Son though he was, had to prove the meaning of obedience through all that he suffered" (Heb 5:9).
The Myth of Self-sufficiency
We all have burdens, and God does not intend for us to carry them by ourselves in isolation from our brothers and sisters. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism taught that the goal of the happy life was apatheia, a studied aloofness from pleasure and pain, and self-sufficiency, the ability to brave the harsh elements of life without dependence upon others. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it, "The primary sign of a well-ordered mind is a man's ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company." But there is a vast difference between Stoic equanimity and Christian courage.
The myth of self-sufficiency is not a mark of bravery but rather a sign of pride. Paul's maxim in v. 3 is aimed at this perverted understanding of the self. "If a man thinks he is somebody,' he is deceiving himself, for that very thought proves that he is nobody" (Phillips). Such an attitude of conceited self-importance leads to two fundamental failures in relationship: one, the refusal to bear the burdens of others, for that would be a task too menial and deprecating for a person who "thinks he is something"; the other, the refusal to allow anyone else to help shoulder one's own burdens since that would be an admission of weakness and need. To live this way, however, is to practice the art of self-deception, for "no man is an island entire to itself."
The Imperative of Mutuality
Because all Christians have burdens and since none are sufficient unto themselves to bear their burdens alone, God has so tempered the body of Christ that its members are to be priests to one another, bearing one another's burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ. Paul's most extensive elaboration on the theme of Christian mutuality is in his discourse on the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12. There in the context of a fractured fellowship beset with rival parties and self-serving leaders,
Paul declared that God has so brought the members of the congregation into mutual relationship "that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (1 Cor 12:2526). Luther said that a Christian must have "broad shoulders and husky bones" in order to carry the burdens of his brothers and sisters.125 The command to bear one another's burdens in no way mitigates against the other New Testament imperative to cast all our cares upon Christ, since he cares for us (1 Pet 5:7).
The apostle Paul knew a great deal about burdens. On one occasion he was severely oppressed by afflictions at every turn fightings without and fears within. In this moment of crisis, he later wrote, "But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus" (2 Cor 7:56). J. Stott comments on this text:
God's comfort was not given to Paul through his private prayer and waiting upon the Lord, but through the companionship of a friend and through the good news which he brought. Human friendship, in which we bear one another's burdens, is part of the purpose of God for his people. So we should not keep our burdens to ourselves, but rather seek a Christian friend who will help to bear them with us.
The duty of bearing one another's burdens is stated in the imperative mood; it is not an option but a command. One of the much-neglected features of contemporary Baptist church life is the congregational covenant, an expression of communal commitment in responsibility, setting forth the ethical standards and obligations incumbent upon all members. Historically, Baptist church covenants have encouraged not only public worship, personal devotion, and congregational discipline but also a caring and pastoral attitude on the part of each church member toward every other member. In this context Gal 6:2 has been frequently paraphrased in these historic documents. On November 4, 1790, an English Baptist church meeting in the Horse Fair, Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire, set forth as a part of its congregational covenant the following statement, agreeing:
To walk in love toward those with whom we stand connected in the bonds of Christian fellowship. As the effect of this, we will pray much for one another. As we have opportunity, we will associate together for religious purposes. Those of us who are in more comfortable situations in life than some of our brethren, with regard to the good things of Providence, will administer as we have ability and see occasion, to their necessities. We will bear one another's burdens, sympathize with the afflicted in body and mind, so far as we know their case, under their trials; and as we see occasion, advise, caution, and encourage one another. We will watch over one another for good. We will studiously avoid giving or taking offenses. Thus we will make it our study to fulfill the law of Christ. These things, and whatever else may appear enjoined by the Word of God, we promise in the strength of divine grace to observe and practice. But knowing our insufficiency for anything that is spiritually good, in and of ourselves, we look up to him who giveth power to the faint, rejoicing that in the Lord we have not only righteousness but strength. Hold thou us up, O Lord, and we shall be safe! Amen!
Living by the Law of Christ
Bear one another's burdens, Paul said, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. Nowhere else did Paul use the expression "the law of Christ", although 1 Cor 9:21 contains a similar phrase, "though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law." Throughout the earlier part of Galatians, Paul frequently pictured Christ and grace opposed to law and works, showing conclusively that justification can never be achieved by observing the requirements of the Mosaic legislation, which no one can do perfectly in any event, but only through faith in Jesus Christ, who in his atoning death on the cross bore the curse of the law and now freely offers salvation for all who believe.
This is the heart of the gospel and Paul is not here backtracking or sidestepping from this fundamental doctrinal commitment. However, as Paul has shown already in Gal 56, the moral law of God has never been abrogated or annulled, although the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic legislation have been made obsolete by the coming of Christ.
The moral law of God, epitomized in the Ten Commandments and summarized in Jesus' restatement of the "new commandment" given to his disciples (John 13:34; 15:12; 1 John 3:23), continues to play an important role in the life of the justified believer. In sum, the "law of Christ" is for Paul "the whole tradition of Jesus' ethical teaching, confirmed by his character and conduct and reproduced within his people by the power of the Spirit" (cf. Rom 8:2).
Chris Martin is an Author Coach at a Christian publishing company. He blogs regularly at MillennialEvangelical.com to help pastors better understand, reach, and equip millennials. You can find him on [email protected] or on Facebook at Facebook.com/MillennialEvangelical.