On to Maturity

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Galatians 4:8-20

Whatever goal you may have set yourself in life, there’s only one that really matters – and that is to live the life of Jesus Christ, by faith alone.

The apostle Paul has mentioned many arguments in the course of his lengthy written plea urging the Christians in Galatia to live their life by faith in Christ instead of by legalistic works of righteousness. Paul’s extended argument, which takes up essentially all of the first four chapters of Galatians, began with a reference to the gospel message that he had preached to them (1:6-9), followed by successive appeals to his apostolic authority (1:11-12), the example of his own conversion and subsequent ministry (1:13-2:14), the inherent meaning of justification by faith in Christ (2:15-21), the Galatians’ own experience of Christ and the Spirit (3:1-5), the teaching of the Old Testament (3:6-18), and the function and purpose of the law with respect to Christ (3:19-4:7). In every instance the point Paul makes is the same: Christians can and must live by faith alone.

Now he comes to his final argument, his last appeal. This one is even more personal than all those that have come before. The apostle appeals to the Galatians on the basis of their personal history and relationship. In the course of his letter Paul has been working his way through a series of important and sometimes, frankly, complex arguments dealing with the theology of grace. But at this point he turns from teasing the Galatians’ brains to tugging at their heartstrings. He appeals to their personal friendship, to the emotional bonds that shared experiences had forged between them. He is not just Paul the Theologian any longer, Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, the Defender of the Faith, all head and no heart. He is Paul the Pastor, Paul the man who loved these folk and who wasn’t above letting his feelings for them show.

Paul was not writing merely out of some prim concern for doctrinal correctness, but because he cared deeply about these people, his people and fellow believers. He could see where the course they were in danger of taking would lead them. “I fear for you,” he cried out (v. 11). He knew that whenever the gospel is distorted authentic freedom goes and slavery returns. Paul’s greatest fear, as he saw the Galatians slipping back into a legalistic mind set and religious system, was that they would become entangled again in a bondage to ideas or principles that would rob them of their liberty in Jesus Christ, perhaps even of their salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

So after all that he’s said Paul tries one more argument, appealing now not to doctrinal truth or logic or Biblical teaching, but to the feelings these believers had for him, the one who had led them to Christ. This is what he wrote.

8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? 10 You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. 11 I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.

12 Friends, I beg you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong. 13 You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; 14 though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them. 18 It is good to be made much of for a good purpose at all times, and not only when I am present with you. 19 My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, 20 I wish I were present with you now and could change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Galatians 4:8-20

A CHANGING RELATIONSHIP

The relationship between Paul and the Galatians had been established when he visited the region where they lived in Asia Minor during his first missionary journey. This relationship was grounded in the Apostle Paul’s willingness to identify with those people. “I became like you,” he reminds them.

Identification with those whom we are called to serve is one of the basic principles for all Christian ministry and mission. Paul put himself in the Galatians’ place, trying to think as they thought and feel what they felt. He identified with them completely. He was not superior or condescending towards them, rather, he lovingly embraced them and freely gave himself to them. He became as much like them as he could, in order to save as many of them as he could (cf. 1 Cor. 9:22). Every good pastor and missionary practices this same kind of incarnational ministry of personal identification, which is the only basis for trust and affection.

Paul and the Galatians’ relationship, begun in identification, developed into genuine intimacy. He reminds the Galatians of their initial encounter: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you” (v.13). This is another of those tantalizing autobiographical hints that are scattered throughout Paul’s writings and that leave us wanting more detailed information about his life. Just what was this illness that caused him to stop in Galatia? Was it fever perhaps, or malaria, or maybe something that involved his eyesight, as many commentators have surmised (cf. v.15)? Was this the origin of, or related to, Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions in another of his letters? We don’t really know, but apparently the apostle Paul only stopped in Galatia because of his infirmity, although once there he turned what might have been viewed as a disruption of his plans into an opportunity for evangelism. (I wonder how often things we consider to be personal setbacks are actually given us by God as a means to advance his kingdom, if only we would make use of them.)

At any rate Paul, though weak and ill, stayed and preached the gospel to the Galatians, and they responded enthusiastically (v.14-15). From the very beginning their reception was warm and accepting, both of the apostle and his message. That was surprising in a way because Paul’s illness had left him open to contempt. One version translates verse 14 this way: “You resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at the state of my poor body.” Tradition says that Paul was physically ugly to begin with – short, bald-headed, beak-nosed, spindly-legged. Add in the effects of his infirmity or illness, and it would have been easy for the Galatians to mock and reject him. Paul had very little physical appeal. He would have made a lousy television evangelist. His public presence, far from being attractive, was actually a hindrance. If God operated according to human standards, Paul never would have been called to a public ministry. But the Galatians welcomed him, loved him, poured out their hearts to him, embraced him as if he were an angel from God, as if he were Christ himself, and they would have done anything for him.

The love, warmth, and intensity of Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Galatia is best expressed in an image from verse19. They are, says Paul, “My dear children.” Paul often thought and regularly spoke in this way of those who had been converted through his preaching (see 1 Cor. 4:15, 1 Thess. 2:11ff.). It is a natural image for the intimate bond that springs up between missionaries and those who have come to life under their ministry. But that isn’t to say that Paul was ultimately responsible for the salvation of the Galatians. God, not Paul, was the Galatians’ true Father. But the terms Paul chooses and the events he recalls all serve to reinforce these incredibly strong ties between himself and the Galatians.

But if this is what their relation has been, now something has arisen that has threatened and changed it. “Have I now become your enemy?” asks Paul (v.16). What happened to the joy the Galatians had felt for Paul and he for them? Does all their past history suddenly count for nothing? Paul hasn’t changed in the least. He’s still the same man, preaching the same message. How is it that he now is viewed as the enemy? Is it because he dares to tell them a truth that they don’t want to hear? The problem, as we know, lies with those enemies who have insinuated themselves into the Galatians’ confidence through flattery and who are attempting to win them over to a different “gospel.” These pseudo-Christian teachers want to turn Paul’s children against him, poisoning their minds against his message and setting their hearts against his person. They are false teachers who are insincere and self-serving, narrow-minded religious zealots. They don’t really care about the welfare of the Christians in Galatia. Their interest is not in helping or serving them but merely using these people to increase their own personal following (v.17). So whom should the Galatians care about? Whom should they listen to?

AN UNCHANGING GOAL

Paul’s direct appeal is based on their old relationship. “Friends, I beg you, become as I am!” (v.12). They were, in a sense, his spiritual children. Now Paul wants these Christians to become his sisters and brothers in the Lord. He once identified with them; now he wishes they would identify with him and share his experience. When Paul urges the Galatians to “become as I am,” he means for them to have the same faith and live the same life in Christ that Paul did, to be free with the full liberty of the gospel, in full possession of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. Paul’s plea is not only for Christian faithfulness but for Christian maturity. He didn’t want them to remain children forever (what parent does?); he wanted them to grow in grace and strength as believers.

What he really wanted was that they should reach the great, unchanging goal of every Christian life. Paul tells us what that is in verse 19: “My little children, for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you. . . .” We have already seen how Paul introduces the parent/child image in order to describe his relationship with the Galatians. But look at the way he applies it. He speaks of himself, not as their father, but as their mother, in fact, their pregnant mother! He says it’s as though he’s going through childbirth with them all over again, suffering the pains of labor and delivery. Once already Paul had in a sense “given birth” to them, but now the Galatians are in danger of slipping back into a sub-Christian mind-set. So the apostle has been thrown back into the whole painful and nerve-wracking experience again. He won’t be delivered “until Christ is formed in you,” or, to put it differently, “until they have been conformed to the likeness of Jesus Christ.”

This is Paul’s intense desire, his ultimate goal, because this is the definition of Christian maturity. The Christian life is not a matter of keeping lists of rules or following various regulations or carrying out complicated ceremonies or observing special days and seasons (v.10). Laws and principles, seasons and days, spiritual disciplines, may be helpful aids or guidelines in living the Christian life. But we are not to become slaves to them, or treat them as the end of that life. No, the end of the Christian life is Jesus Christ. Our goal is simply to live and love as he did. Jesus Christ did not die and rise again to help us develop “spirituality.” His reason for entering our world was not to offer us encouragement and advice on living successfully or to help us follow the rules a little better. The purpose of the gospel is not to improve us but to transform us.

“Mere improvement is no redemption,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.”

Most of us would probably be satisfied with a slightly improved version of our self, just an adjustment here and there to make us perform a little better. That’s what the world’s religions are trying to help us produce. But the goal of the gospel is more ambitious. It is to make us in every way like Jesus Christ. God won’t be satisfied with anything less. Neither would Paul. Neither should we.