III. C. ii. Remember our Relationship! (4:12–20)

Paul’s exasperation with the Galatians dies quickly and he moves into an extended appeal to remember the quality of their relationship in the past, when they honoured him as a spiritual father, appreciat­ing his divine message and personal sacrifices on their behalf. He is agitated by the Judaists and their dishonourable intentions toward the Galatians; and desperately anxious to find a way, any way, to snatch them from the deadly peril into which they are drifting.

Yearning for Past Intimacy

12 “Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all. 13 Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. 14 And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.15 Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? For I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me.”

  1. Paul reaches out to his converts, a note of pleading in his voice. “I beg you” (NET), “become as I am; for I also have become as you are.” (RSV) It was not easy for Paul, born a Hebrew, to become a member of the exclusive association of Pharisees, dedicated to keeping the Law and the traditions of the fathers in all good conscience at all times, to identify with the Gentiles he was trying to reach; yet it was his settled policy, as he explained to the Corinthians (1 Cor 9:19–23).

It is worth quoting this passage at some length, as it speaks so directly to the situation in Galatia that we cannot help feeling that is where Paul first adopted this policy:

“For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”

Having reached out to them, it was now his ap­peal that they should be “as I am,” honouring Christ by a life lived from the heart in good conscience (cf. 1 Cor 11:1), not bound up in regulations that had served their purpose, and should now be laid to rest.

His feelings for them, he assures them, are as strong as ever: “Ye have not injured me at all.” They could put this present difference behind them if only the Galatians would return to a sound faith.

  1. He reminds them of his visit. Luke in Acts tells us nothing of Paul’s sickness at this time; yet Paul reminds the Galatians that when he came to them he was seriously ill. William Ramsay explains:

“First, the disease was active during Paul’s residence in Galatia, yet it was compatible with long journeys … It follows that the disease did not take the form of one single attack of illness. It was intermittent. At one time Paul was prostrated by an attack at another he was able for considerable exertion, both in travel and in preaching.

Second, the disease was such as to be naturally regarded by the people of Asia Minor with con­tempt or loathing; but, far from so regarding him, they received him as an angel of God. The verbal contrast is so pointed as to suggest that the disease was one which the people ordinarily regarded as due to the direct action and curse of God … a sufferer was usually regarded as one under the Divine curse on account of some crime.

Now, the inscriptions show that one disease was regarded in Asia Minor was due to the immediate action of God. These show that, when a native of the country prayed to the god or goddess to avenge him of his enemy, he asked that his enemy should be ‘burnt up’with fever, ‘in which strength wastes away without any visible affliction of a part of the body. This kind of disease was understood to be caused by fire sent from the world of death by direct act of the god, which consumed the inner life and spirit of the sufferer. A full description of an attack of fever, with its recurring paroxysms and characteristic symptoms, is given in a late curse: ‘May he suffer fevers, chill, torments, pallors, sweatings, heats by day and by night.’”1

He identifies Paul’s chronic illness as malaria, and comments:

“Everyone who is familiar with the effect of the fevers that infest especially the south coasts of Asia Minor, but are found everywhere in the country, knows that they come in recurring attacks, which prostrate the sufferer for the time, and then, after exhausting themselves, pass off, leaving him very weak; that a common remedy familiar to all is change to the higher lands; and that, whenever anyone who has once suffered has his strength taxed, physically or mentally, the old enemy prostrates him afresh, and makes him for a time incapable of any work. Apart from the weakness and ague, the most trying and painful accompaniment is severe headache.”

If Ramsay is right, Paul contracted the fever in the lowlands of Pamphylia when he crossed from Cyprus to the mainland on his first missionary journey with Barnabas (Acts 13–14). He was forced into the Galatian highlands in order to recover, but suffered from chronic chills and fevers and crippling migraines throughout his time among them.

Yet the Galatians had seen past the symptoms and the humiliating weakness, and discerned the incredible passion for preaching that drove Paul to continue even under such suffering. They had been amazed by his single-minded focus on the message he brought to them from Christ. His condition was a trial to them (as the RSV and NET correctly translate the passage), but they did not scorn or spurn him. They received him as “the angel of God,” a glorious messenger come with a message from God Himself; indeed, as if he were “Christ Jesus” himself.

  1. Then they had been overwhelmed with a feeling of great blessedness that the Gospel of God should have come to their remote region in such a way. But now—where had that feeling gone? Appreciating his great sacrifice for them, they would have repaid the favour, even, Paul suggests, gouging out their eyes and giving them to him, if required. It is an extreme illustration, but underlines the tremendous esteem in which they had held him.

Agitated by the Judaists, and their Dishonourable Intentions

16 “Am I therefore become your enemy, be­cause I tell you the truth? 17 They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them. 18 But it is good to be zeal­ously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you”.

  1. Now, tragically, the Galatians had been turned against him by the Judaists, and regarded him as an en­emy! The Judaists misrepresented the Gospel, and Paul; they flattered the Galatians. Paul spoke the truth about the Gospel and the Judaists, and told the Galatians exactly how things were. But their extreme affection had become extreme distrust” (RV). “They make much of you”(RSV). “They court you eagerly”(NET). “What do you think their motives are?” is Paul’s implied ques­tion. “Why are they courting you so ardently?” “What is behind their sudden zeal for you?”2 The Lord had earlier condemned the proselytizing zeal that compassed sea and land to make converts for reasons of personal fame or gain (Matt 23:14), and Paul does the same.

“No good motive,” Paul responds. “Do you think they want to embrace you?” That is certainly the impression the Judaists had given, but it was an illusion. Rather, “they want to shut you out”(RSV). This was not the warm embrace of a lover, but the manipulative game of somebody who appeared to extend affection, but was in reality withholding it. Their spiritual manipulation was a calculated at­tempt to create a desperate need for acceptance in the hearts of the Galatians. We might paraphrase Paul’s words, “They want to shut you out completely, to lock you out, so that you will become increas­ingly desperate to win their approval, and will do whatever it takes”.

By simultaneously courting the Galatians, while withholding their approval, and no doubt also their fellowship (cf 2:12–13), the Judaists hoped that these Gentiles would become desperate, bow be­fore them, submit to circumcision and embrace the whole of the Law. They were wooing the Galatians, seducing them away from Christ, stealing their hearts for Judaism and the Law.

  1. Zeal itself was not the problem. Paul himself had zealously sought the Galatians, and continued to do so. The problem was the Judaists’ distorted gospel, twisted logic, nefarious purpose, and ma­nipulative psychological games: “It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing—and not only when I am present with you”. Paul did not desire to monopolize the affections and attentions of the Galatians; but he certainly did not want them seduced from Christ.

Desperately Anxious for his Spiritual Children

19 “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, 20 I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you.”

One of the great things about Paul is the way he unashamedly wears his heart on his sleeve. He yearns for his spiritual children, who are estranged from him. “My infants, my darlings,” he calls them, a very affectionate expression found only here.

  1. Like a woman reliving childbirth, Paul feels all over again the “birth pains”—the doubt, the difficulty, the uncertainty, the sacrifice, the labour involved in bringing a spiritual child to birth. He had thought the process complete, the child safely delivered. But now he discovers that Christ has not been formed in them. There has been no time for “the renewing of the mind” to take place so that the gospel wine, working from within, can transform them (Rom 12:2). Or, to take another figure, there has been no time for them to gaze “with open face” into the mirror of the Scriptures, discern the glory of their Lord there, and be changed into his image “from glory to glory.” Before the Galatians had had any opportunity to grow up into spiritual maturity, the Judaists had swooped on the newborn. Their life now hung in the balance; and Paul is flooded with anxiety.
  2. “If only I could be there,” Paul muses; “and face to face with you, change my tone” (RSV). Like John, he would much rather communicate “face to face” (2 John 1:12; 3 John 14). As it stands, he says, “I am perplexed about you” (RV, RSV, NET). “I do not know what to say or do next.” He is at his wits’ end, not knowing how to get through to them so that they can reverse out of the deadly peril into which they are drifting. What on earth can he do?