Galatians 6:17 Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.
“Finally, let no one cause me trouble” Throughout this letter, Paul has been on the defensive. The heresy of the Judiazers threatened his whole ministry and purpose, as well as the purity and fundamental truth of the Gospel. The “trouble” I believe he is trying to head off is the concept of the Galatian Christians continuing to put him in a position where it is necessary to vindicate his apostolic authority (as he did in Galatians 1:11 – 2:10) and the divine truth of the message he brought to the Gentiles (as he did in Galatians 2:11 through 4:7). He is really concluding this letter by stating that the issues he’s discussed and the conclusions he’s reached are settled – there is no more reason to debate any of these concepts.
“for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” The word for “mark” here is the Greek word “stigma.” It literally means to make a mark on the skin through sticking or pricking. It’s a word that describes the process of tattooing the skin, or branding with a hot iron, or even cutting the skin so as to leave a distinctive mark. In Paul’s day, slaves, criminals and prisoners of war were tattooed for identification. Certain pagan religious cults, such as those in Egypt and Syria, also used tattoos to show devotion to their Gods or to designate that a person was set apart to serve the Gods. Tattoos were used to show to which master the person being marked belonged. The mark was a testimony to whom the person belonged, or to whom the animal belonged (the Greeks and Romans generally associated tattoos with barbarians, and branding was reserved for animals). The law of Moses specifically prohibited tattoos, so Jewish tradition allowed for other outward signs of a slave or servant – an earring, for example.
But this Greek word “stigma” had broad application, and could be used to describe any mark or puncture wound. Our modern English use of the word “stigma” is a direct descendant of the Greek usage. The mark placed on a slave or criminal denoted shame. Today, in English, “stigma” means something that serves to be a mark of shame or infamy, a stain, or reproach, especially regarding a person’s reputation.
So what did Paul mean by “marks of Jesus” that he bore in his body? I believe he meant it both literally and figuratively. Paul did bear actual scars and wounds that evidenced the persecution he suffered for the sake of Christ. He had been stoned (Acts 14:19), beaten (Acts 16:22, 2 Corinthians 11:25) suffered a variety of illnesses, some of which may have been the product of the stoning and beatings (2 Corinthians 12:7, Galatians 4:13-14). These physical “scars” marked him as a servant of Christ (see Galatians 1:10 and 2 Corinthians 4:10) in the same way the slave’s tattoo marked his as a bond servant.
But there is, of course, a deeper, spiritual meaning. Christ’s wounds were affected through the concept of sticking or pricking or piercing. Literally, in the meaning of the ancient Greek word, “stigma.” Thus, the ancient Greeks would have used the very same word to describe the wounds that crucifixion produced – nails driven through the hands (or wrists) and feet, the spear thrust into Christ’s side. Indeed, the Latin derivation of this word – “stigmata” – has been used to describe not just the wounds of Christ , but a cultic practice among Roman Catholic ascetics whereby the wounds of Christ ostensibly and purportedly supernaturally appear on the hands and feet of a person devoted to Christ. Paul certainly isn’t referring to that – but crucifixion is a major theme in this book – being crucified with Christ, dying to self, and walking in the newness of life in Jesus just as Christ rose from the dead. Paul noted that he – and all believers – are “crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). Paul had not been literally crucified (no actual “stigmata” in his body), but was one with Christ’s death and resurrection in the Spirit. Therefore, he bore the “marks” of Jesus in the Spirit. (Galatians 6:14). For while the word here for “body” literally means the human body, it can also be translated simply as “me.” I do think Paul is referring to literal marks on his body from the wounds he received in persecution, but we miss so much if we don’t also consider this deeper meaning.