Text: Galatians 4:12-20
Date: 05 Aug 2018
As we have worked our way through the first three chapters of Galatians we have seen the developing argument between Paul on the one hand and Cephas and the Judaisers on the other. The huge disagreement between them centred on how salvation may be received with Paul believing that faith in Jesus Christ was all that was needed. Meanwhile Cephas and his friends argued that more was needed; Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t enough to bring that much desired salvation.
In today’s passage though we move on to a more personal section of the letter, where Paul shares details of his personal problems and his feelings for the Galatians. It’s true to say that this is probably the most affectionate part of the letter as Paul shows his love as a Pastor for the members of the Galatian church. Notice in 4:12 that he refers to the Galatians as “brother and sisters” and then later in 4:19 he addresses them as “my dear children”. He feels for these people and loves them just as any Pastor would and certainly does.
Although this is quite an affectionate passage, Paul still asks a couple of difficult but important questions and before going on to make a number of interesting points. Over the next few minutes I want us to look at these verses and see what we can learn from them.
Part 1 (4:12)
I mentioned in last week’s sermon when we looked at 4:1-11; that Paul was a bit exasperated with the Galatians because of their falling away from faith in Christ. Consequently he opens this short passage by pleading with them to become like him in the way that he placed his faith in Christ and followed Him to the exclusion of all else. Paul was desperate for them to share in the love and freedom that he had in Christ so that they too could receive the promise of salvation. Paul happily reminds them that when he visited Galatia he became like them. He didn’t behave as someone special or keep his distance; he joined in with their daily lives as Gentiles. He said something similar to the Corinthians when he wrote, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-22) I take that to mean that he blended in and didn’t behave like a tourist might when on holiday in a strange place. I also read that as meaning that, just as Jesus did, he went to where the people were, possibly to their work place, their homes, or dare I say it, the tavern or the pub!
In Galatians 1-3 Paul had had some pretty harsh words for the Galatians and so it would have been easy for them to think that he was simply being vindictive because they had upset him. Paul is anxious to erase that thought from their minds hence his comment, “You have done me no wrong” (4:12b). This part of Paul’s letter was not written out of anger but out of the love that he had for them, and as we read through the passage we may see that love shining through.
Part 2 (4:13-16)
Over the next few verses, 4:13-16, Paul discusses how it was he came to visit Galatia and the illness that made him do it. We know from 2 Corinthians 12:7 that Paul had an ongoing illness or affliction of some sort. He wrote to the Corinthians and explained, “... in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” It may seem strange to us that God should allow such a thing to happen and yet there was a reason for it. Paul explains that whilst he pleaded with the Lord to take this unnamed affliction from him, He didn’t but instead told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It was the Lord’s way of ensuring that Paul relied on Him and not on his own strength or power. That is an important lesson for all of us since I’m sure that we all think that we can do things without any help from Jesus. Wrong! If we want to follow Him and serve Him in our daily lives then it is vital that we rely on His grace and His power to help us. Paul knew that and so didn’t complain about having this illness; he just relied on God’s help to get him through the hard times.
The precise nature of Paul’s illness is never mentioned in Scripture and so there has always been speculation as to what it may have been. The most plausible explanation that I have come across is that Paul suffered from some form of malaria. We know from Acts 13:13-14 that Paul had visited Perga in the region of Pamphylia immediately before continuing on to Pisidian Antioch in Galatia. Perga was a marshy lowland area where a type of malaria was common and it is an illness that can recur even when an individual is no longer in a malaria area. It seems quite possible then that that is what was ailing Paul. Galatia was 3600 feet higher than Perga meaning that the climate would have been much more temperate and far more suitable for Paul’s condition. It has also been suggested that Paul may have suffered from a form of depression, an affliction that wouldn’t have been helped during his visit to Perga by the sudden departure of John Mark. As I say, this is all speculation although both malaria and depression are illnesses that can rear up when we least expect them and that is almost certainly what was happening with Paul. Paul’s comment in 4:13 that “it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you” would certainly support the malaria theory given the differences in climate between Perga and Pisidian Antioch.
At around the time that Paul was conducting his missionary journeys it was generally felt that any illness or disability was a curse from God. When Jesus was out and about one day He healed a blind man and it’s interesting to see the response of His disciples who asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2). Whatever Paul’s illness was, the Galatians accepted him for who he was and although Paul tells us that, “my illness was a trial to you” (4:14), the Galatians “did not treat me [him] with contempt or scorn” (4:14). There is a lesson there for us since we would do well to follow the Galatians’ example and accept people for who they are regardless of any illness that they may be suffering from whether it is obvious or not so obvious. In fact so welcoming were the Galatian people towards Paul that he tells them, “you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus Himself” (4:14b). This welcome was most definitely in line with the words of Jesus Who told His disciples, “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40). Paul was a servant of the Lord and was received as such by the people in Galatia and I can imagine that Paul was more than pleased with that welcome. Here he was an itinerant preacher with an illness who just happened to visit Galatia to preach the gospel. He hadn’t planned to be there although God had planned it for him, which may have added to Paul’s apparent amazement at the welcome that he received.
However, no warm welcome lasts for ever which is why Paul asks the question in 4:15a, “Where, then, is your blessing of me now?” They had welcomed him, they had heard him preach the gospel, they had treated him very well despite his debilitating illness, and yet, now, they had turned away from him and towards the Judaisers. I can almost hear the confusion in Paul’s voice as he asked that question. Despite that question he went on to remind them that he knew that “if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (4:15b). Now that statement may make you think that Paul’s affliction concerned his eyes and the Galatians may have almost been proposing an early form of lens or cornea transplant. Good though that may sound, it isn’t the case! In the prevailing culture, the sacrificing of one’s eyes for someone else was a figure of speech used to illustrate a great sacrifice and in Greek culture friendship was especially demonstrated by sacrifice. What Paul is saying is that the friendship between them was so great that they would have been willing to make that sacrifice if it helped him.
Paul is very obviously perplexed by their change in attitude towards him. Having made him feel more than welcome and having given the impression that they would make a huge sacrifice if it helped him get over his illness, they seemed to have turned against him and the good news of Jesus. Despite all that and having affirmed that he knew and appreciated the depth of their love and friendship for him, Paul goes on to ask another tough question, “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (4:16). Not everyone likes hearing the truth do they? The truth can often hurt although as Jesus told a group of Jews He was teaching, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We could ask the same question today. Preachers and Pastors up and down the land are asking that question week after week and in doing so have often become the enemy of their congregation. We know from 4:13 that Paul “preached the gospel” to the Galatians; it is a gospel of truth but a gospel that also challenges us and makes us think about our lives and our behaviour. It is also a gospel that lifts us out of our comfort zone, away from the seemingly attractive world with all the razzle dazzle that it has to offer. The gospel offers life in all its reality; that is, a life in paradise with Jesus. Now, if the truth of that message makes enemies then so be it.
Part 3 (4:17-20)
In the next couple of verses, 4:17-18, Paul tries to convince the Galatians that the Judaisers aren’t all that they may seem. He acknowledges that they are “zealous to win you over” (4:17). That may sound fantastic but it was for no good purpose. These Judaisers were preaching a different gospel and not a gospel of truth. They were denying the work of Christ in His crucifixion and subsequent resurrection by suggesting that more was needed; that they needed to become Jews by being circumcised and following the Law with its plethora of rules and regulations. Paul adds that their real aim was to turn the Galatian believers away from Paul and his message of salvation through the work of Christ on the Cross, and towards their own watered down message. Paul knew that if the Judaisers succeeded in their task then they would have an army of zealous recruits to help them in persuading others to follow. Whilst Paul makes it clear that he has nothing against people being zealous “provided the purpose is good” (4:18), he obviously felt that the zealousness shown by the Judaisers was for the wrong purpose. He wanted the Galatian believers to be zealous but zealous for Christ, and not just when he was with them. There are hundreds of stories of people coming to faith in Jesus and being strong in that faith but then falling away when the preacher or evangelist who led them to Christ has gone and is no longer around. Faith that is strong and is totally focussed on Jesus Christ will always remain strong even if or when the Pastor departs. That is what Paul was looking for.
In the closing two verses, 4:19-20, we see Paul continuing to express his frustration at what was happening. He obviously feels a great love for them, hence addressing them as “my dear children” and yet it bothers him that he has worked so hard and tried to do so much for them seemingly in vain. We often see that expression “in the pains of childbirth” (4:19) in Scripture and it is generally used to demonstrate the level of anguish that someone is suffering. The pain of childbirth was the greatest pain that was known at the time and so it served as a useful way of illustrating the level of pain that someone was experiencing. Paul’s anguish was made worse by his not being with them. He wanted to be with them as he felt that he could help them and guide them in the right way.
During Paul’s time letters were considered a surrogate for someone’s presence; which may be why Paul wrote so many! It is also true that Paul found it easier to adopt a sterner attitude in a letter than he would have done in person. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians has some particularly hard passages and Paul explained why that was in 2 Corinthians 2:4 when he wrote, “For I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you.” Paul also felt that great depth of love for the Galatians which may explain why he suggests in 4:20 that if he was with them he may have changed his tone by being less stern. His desire to be with them was simply because of his love for them and the sheer fact that they left him perplexed by their seeming change of attitude.
After spending quite some time arguing against the work of the Judaisers and the stance being adopted by the Galatians, Paul now moves on to write a more personal note. He thanks them for the way they had accepted him despite his debilitating illness. He thanks them for the warmth and depth of the welcome they gave him. And he thanks them that they were prepared to make a great sacrifice if it would have helped him. Sadly however the mood changes as he asks why they appear to have turned against him simply for telling the truth. They had heard him preach the gospel and many had accepted Christ as Saviour as a result. Now however they had been led astray by the work of the Judaisers and their false gospel and so turned against Paul.
This change within the Galatian community had left Paul feeling perplexed. He had loved them, he had helped them, and he had become like them in order to win them over to Christ. The way they treated him when he first arrived showed their love for him; sadly that love now seemed to have dimmed somewhat.
It is difficult to be absolutely sure if Paul is perplexed by the diminishing love that the Galatians felt for him or the diminishing love that they felt for Jesus. Yes, Christians should love their Pastor, but far more importantly they should love the Lord Jesus Christ.