Brothers and sisters, see what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised - only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the Law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but a new creation! As for those who will follow this rule - peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one trouble me, for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.
The above reading is actually the conclusion of Saint Paul's letter the Christian community in Galatia. In those days, most letters were not written personally. Usually, the letters were dictated to special scribes. The author himself would sometimes write a few lines in the end.
Apostle Paul followed this practice for most, if not all, of his letters. But at the end he would sign them with a wonderful formula, wishing upon others the grace of God, something that became exemplary for the Christian epistles.
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul departs from the custom and personally writes not only the ending, but the whole excerpt that is presented above. This underlines the importance of what he wants to say.
Paul says that he writes in "large letters," meaning alphabetical letters, not messages that are sent out. It is unclear why he wrote in large letters. Some suppose that he wrote in large letters in order to give a greater weight to what is written, as if highlighting it. Others, for example Saint John Chrysostom, supposed that these words do not indicate the importance of the message, but rather Pauls bad handwriting. A third group explained the large letters with poor eyesight due to a disease, to which Paul alluded earlier in the Epistle (Galatians 4:13-15).
Whatever is the case, this concluding part represents, as it were, the summary of the whole Epistle to the Galatians. Paul speech is decorated with sincere feeling and great insight. The whole Epistle bears resemblance to the work of apology (apologetics - a defense in oral argument or written letter of a Christian doctrine). He defends the Gospel, defends his apostolic authority, which was questioned and even rejected by some of his opponents. And at the end of his apology, Paul inserts the full authority of his personality. Perhaps, this is the only Epistle of Paul with such impressive conclusion.
Saint Paul addresses his opponents, just like in the beginning of this Epistle, where he puts them under anathema (a ban) for their distortion of the message of the Gospel, where they claimed that only the Jews were saved in Christ Jesus, and not all of humanity.
This was adhered to by Judaizers, who believed that Christ's death on the Cross and resurrection was not enough for our salvation. They insisted that all who desired to be saved had also to be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses, since the Messiah came to the circumcised Jews, and not to the uncircumcised Gentiles. The concept of their faith centered on the "flesh." They, as Saint Paul wrote, wanted to be distinguished, that is, show off their "flesh." They prided themselves on their fleshly/carnal advantages and carnal superiority. And they wanted to boast about the flesh of the Galatians, for circumcising a few more Gentile converts.
The word "flesh" that is repeated in the text, here means physical circumcision, not the circumcision of the heart, about which Paul writes. God did give the command to Abraham to circumcise the faithful, as a sign His covenant of the chosen people. However, the physical circumcision on its own did not mean much at all (like today's baptism for the sake of honoring the tradition of our ancestors, and not for the life in Christ within His Church and for the salvation).
The meaninglessness of circumcision on its own, without the accompanying faith, was warned against by the prophets fo the Old Testament. Nonetheless, the Jews considered circumcision to be of principal importance, insisting that without it no one can be saved.
This point was absurd and bordered with magic, and Paul realized it well. The sign of belonging to a covenant with God was not enough, if people did not adhere to what that sign meant, namely faith and dedication to God. The circumcision of the flesh symbolized the circumcision of the heart. If the heart was not converted to God, then all physical circumcisions lost their meanings. That's why, with the New Testament that Christ established, it was of no significance whether the person was circumcised or not, what was important was whether the person was born anew from on High, whether the person became a new creature, God's new creation in the place of the old creation.
Paul's second reproach of his opponents was about their poor fulfillment of the Law. Their own lack of following the Law, their hypocrisy, they tried to cover up with successfully joining others to the Law through the circumcision. Hence, they boasted about the flesh of others.
Paul contrasts himself to the behavior of his opponents. He is not boasting about the flesh, neither his own, nor someone else's. Instead, he boasts of the Cross of Christ. It just so happens that the Cross signifies the destruction of the flesh, which is our human self-boasting in our sinfulness that leads us away from God. Only the Cross is worthy of praise, not the flesh, which "desires what is opposed to the Spirit" (Galatians 5:17), because "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24).
No human deeds of the flesh and the world can do what God did on the Cross, upon which took place the redemption from slavery to sin, death, and the Law. That's why, for Saint Paul, the world does not represent its former values, just like his human self no longer exists for this world. Deprived of its strength and value, the world no longer poses any threat to Paul, no temptation; the world, in a sense, nothing now. And vice-versa, Paul does not represent any interest to the world, since he has left it (not physically, but spiritually; that's what happens when we "put on Christ" at baptism - we die to the world and live for Christ).
The new world, created through the Cross and Resurrection, is absolutely independent from circumcision and uncircumcision. This world is the new creation. The old world and everything old that belongs to it is exhausted (2 Corinthians 5:17). Everyone who has been crucified together with Christ and resurrected with Him is that new creation already in this world. If the new world has already begun, and the old one has ended, then we are living at the end of time. We are experiencing a transition to a new time. The future is already the present. This is Paul's self-awareness.
Rejecting all annoying talk about the need to circumcise and bear the burden of the Law of Moses, Paul refers to those marks, to signs of belonging to Christ, that he bears on his own body. Perhaps there were scars and wounds that he got from the beatings he endured for the Lord. With these signs of the flesh he could truly boast.
If above reads a bit clunky, I ask your forgiveness, this is a translation and I am not much of a translator :)
The above notes are translated from Russian from here.
Yours in the Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest