“As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12).
The Living Bible paraphrase of Galatians 6:12 translates this passage in a manner that is easily accessible to 21st century audiences: “Those teachers of yours who are trying to convince you to be circumcised are doing it for just one reason: so that they can be popular and avoid the persecution they would get if they admitted that the cross of Christ alone can save.”
So by uncovering the motives of these false teachers, Paul the Apostle took aim at the root of their heretical message. That “root” was comprised of a selfish desire to “look good outwardly” (CJB) and produced two malignant branches. The first branch represented a false concern for the Galatians’ spiritual well-being. The second branch involved a desire to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ.
One commentator makes a timely observation that can help us identify those who engage in similar behaviors today…
“The ones who trouble the Galatians are considered to be hypocritical opportunists, attempting to build their own misguided view of spirituality (vv. 12–13) by forcing the Galatians into a dependent relationship. The Judaizers’ motivation in all this is considered to be fear—a desire not to be persecuted (v. 12), presumably by their own nonbelieving brethren (the same who have resoundly persecuted Paul!).” (1)
As mentioned earlier, we should be alert to those who seek to impose a similar degree of spiritual dependency. For instance, note the use of the word “compel” within this passage. The false teachers of the New Testament era sought to coerce the Galatians into dependence upon Christ and “something else” for salvation. In this instance, that “something else” involved the physical act of circumcision. Today, that “something else” might involve any number of additions to the finished work of Christ.
Therefore, Galatians 6:12 serves as an important benchmark that we can use to distinguish those who are traveling the same path taken by the false teachers of Galatia. While the act of circumcision was not wrong in itself, the pressure exerted by those who taught that circumcision was a necessary prerequisite for salvation certainly was. In light of this, we should be diligent to guard against modern-day expressions of this idea lest we fall into a similar legalistic trap.
(1) McClelland, S. E. (1995). Galatians. In Evangelical Commentary on the Bible (Vol. 3, p. 1019). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.