Although Paul has hinted previously about the agenda and motivation of his opponents (see Gal. 1:7, 4:17), his remarks in Galatians 6:12, 13 are the first explicit comments he makes about his opponents. He describes them as wanting “to make a good showing in the flesh” (ESV). The phrase “a good showing” in Greek literally means to put on “a good face.” In fact, the word for “face” is the same in Greek as the word for an actor’s mask, and this word was even used figuratively to refer to the role played by an actor. In other words, Paul is saying that these people were like actors seeking the approval of an audience. In a culture based on honor and shame, conformity is essential, and those teaching the errors appear to have been seeking to improve their honor rating before their fellow Jews in Galatia and other Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem.
Paul makes an important point about one of their motives—the desire to avoid persecution. Though persecution can certainly be understood in its more dramatic forms involving physical abuse, it can be just as damaging even in its more “mild” forms of harassment and exclusion. Paul and other fanatical zealots in Judea had once carried out the former type (Gal. 1:13), but the latter also had its effect on Christians.
The Jewish religious leaders still had significant political influence in many areas. They had the official sanction of Rome; hence, many Jewish believers were eager to maintain good relations with them. By circumcising Gentiles and teaching them to observe the Torah, the troublemakers in Galatia could find a point of common ground with the local Jews. Not only would this allow them to maintain friendly contact with the synagogues, but they could even strengthen their ties with the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, who had a growing suspicion about the work being done with the Gentiles (Acts 21:20, 21). No doubt, too, in one sense their actions could have made their witness to the Jews more effective.
Whatever situation Paul has in mind, his meaning is clear: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12, NKJV).
Think through the reason these people had for teaching their errors. It sounds pretty reasonable, all things considered. What should this tell us about how even the “best” of motives can lead us astray if we aren’t careful? When was the last time you ended up doing wrong things for the right motives?