Words Give Details; Context Paints the Picture

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In my devotional reading I have been going through Galatians—a book very deep and interesting. In Galatians 6 there is a well-known section that some see as self-contradictory. I must admit, when simply skimmed, it causes one to double-take and ask, “Paul, what are you saying here?” This is Galatians 6:1-5. In 6:2 Paul commands, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV). Then in 6:5 he says, “For each should carry his own load” (NIV). So which is it? Are we to carry each other’s burdens or carry our own? Interestingly, the answer is “yes and yes” (Sorry, but years of studying philosophy lead one to give answers like this). What appears to be a contradiction is easily explained and will be useful to show one of the most basic rules of Biblical interpretation.

It is natural to wonder if an answer can be found in the original language. The problem is that both Greek terms are, according to Verbrugge, used interchangeably. But this does help us understand a bit of what is happening. I find it interesting that in such a construction Paul chose to use two words that mean ultimately the same thing instead of just using the same word twice. He seems to want to trigger a sense of difference.

Just as important as word choice is the surrounding context of each usage. This is actually where we will find our answer. We forget that one word can have different meanings according to how and where it is used. This causes a common error in reasoning known as equivocation where a term is used two different ways in an argument without taking into account the differences in usage. One famous example that will help you to see this is:

  • Premise 1: Nothing is better than eternal happiness.
  • Premise 2: A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
  • Conclusion: A ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.

In the example the word “nothing” has two different meanings. In Galatians 6:1-5, we have two different “loads” being discussed. One must be shared; the other, borne by the individual.

The first burden spoken about is the burden of a sinning brother or sister. In this case we are to lovingly lift them up and restore the sinner. Doing this, sharing this burden of sin and guilt, fulfills the law of Christ (6:1f). The second burden is the burden of our service for God (6:3-5). We are to judge our actions and self honestly, without comparison to the work of another. In this way we bear our own burden and not that of another.

To illustrate the second burden, look at something that is very common among pastors. When two pastors get together there are two things they want to know about each other before anything else is discussed. One, “How many people attend your church?” Two, “How many people can your church building hold?” We hear those numbers and do “holy math” to figure out who has the bigger church and is therefore the alpha dog. I see this as the pastoral version of two dogs sniffing each other. Often we determine our own success or failure by how our ministry compares to the ministry of another pastor. This is wrong though because I am responsible to bear my own burden and not his.

When interpreting scripture context is king! An old adage that I like is, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Words alone give little details of meaning; the complete picture is painted by the context.

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