Those who would force the Galatians to be circumcised had two motivations: to make a good showing in the flesh (they wanted to boast in the Galatians’ flesh), and to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.
In the UK in 2016, when someone mentions persecution, I think the most prominent people in our context who are so loudly opposed to Christianity and want to stamp it out are probably liberal atheists. So to us, the idea of avoiding persecution by boasting in the fact that we persuaded people to be circumcised sounds bizarre. Liberal atheists aren’t going to stop persecuting us because we boast about persuading people to be circumcised.
In the context of this letter, the people who would’ve been impressed by the Galatians’ circumcision, and who would’ve persecuted people for preaching the cross of Christ, were very devoutly religious, the Judaisers.
We see many people around us living in ways that are clearly contrary to God’s law, and I think I used to assume the reason people rejected Christianity was they don’t like having to obey the rules. And in some cases that might be true. But in this letter Paul warns us to look out for a less blatant way of rejecting Christianity.
The people Paul is warning about have rejected Christianity precisely because they do like having rules to obey, and these people are inside the church! They wanted the Galatian Christians to be circumcised. They wanted the Galatians to perform a work in the flesh that they could boast in. They wanted to be able to tell their Judaising friends how successful they’d been in getting so many of the Galatians up to that standard of holiness.
I think this kind of thing shows up in different ways in churches today. Some people might be proud of the number of people who attend their church services, or the number at the mid-week prayer meeting. For others it might be what people wear to the services (all the men wear ties), or that they sing the right songs, or they use the right Bible translation. Still others might be proud of their church’s evangelistic efforts and outreach programs.
It’s not that it’s wrong to care about those things. The problem arises when the reason we care about them is not really about keeping God’s law, but making a good showing in the flesh. In v13 Paul is talking about people who are circumcised, but do not themselves keep the law. Those people wouldn’t see it like that. They would say the reason for being circumcised was because they wanted to obey to the law. But the root of true obedience to the law is loving God and loving our neighbours (Matt 22:35-40, 1 Cor 13:3). The reason these people in Galatia were doing the outward actions that the ceremonial law required was not rooted in love for God or their neighbour; it was that they wanted to be seen to be obeying the law – they wanted to make a good showing in the flesh.
Do we sometimes “obey” like that? For example, it’s obviously a good thing to share the gospel with unbelievers, and I don’t mean to attack anyone who’s ever said anything like this – I’m sure their intentions are good – but it bothers me a bit when people talk about the unbelieving “contacts” they’ve had conversations with. It makes it sound like the reason for doing evangelism is more about wanting to be seen to obey the great commission and adding to your tally of contacts that you’ve shared the gospel with, rather than actually loving those people and wanting them to know Jesus.
The danger in pointing out our flawed motivations for trying to obey the law is that we might be tempted to give up on it. If we wait until our motives for evangelism (or anything else) are perfectly pure, we’ll never do anything. But I think Paul’s point is that it’s unhelpful to listen to people who would try to challenge us to obey the law in order to make a good showing in the flesh. He says they want to boast in your flesh – they want you to act in a certain way to make them look good – they want to use you to build up their own reputation, to be able to say “look how good my church is; look how much effort they put into this, that and the other, because of my teaching”. This contrasts with Paul’s desire for the Galatians in 4v19: “I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”. Paul is not concerned with how the Galatians behaviour reflects on him; he just wants Christ to be formed in them, and let that inward transformation take care of their behaviour. There’s also a contrast with what Paul boasts in in v14: “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. These other people in Galatia avoided the cross of Christ because they didn’t want to be persecuted, but Paul would boast in nothing else because the cross of Christ is everything. The cross of Christ is life to us; without it we’d be condemned to eternal just punishment for our sin. To Paul, the persecution he faced for the cross of Christ was worth it to see people come to faith in Christ and to see Christ formed in them.