Paul’s Concern for the Galatians
Galatians 4: 8-20
The book of Galatians has been called a fighting epistle and that is well said. In it Paul fights like a warrior for the truth of the gospel but he also fights like a pastor for the souls of men. In fact the better analogy is that of a parent. He calls the Galatians “my children” in verse 19 of our passage and he writes to them with all of the concern of a mother who sees her child going down a path of self destruction. “I am again in labor,” he says. So Paul, the great lion of God as Augustine called him, was also like the mother Hen the Lord spoke of who wanted to gather her chicks under her wings for protection.
The Galatians were living in spiritual bondage before the gospel. But by the grace of God Paul visited the region and told them about salvation in Christ. They responded to the gospel, grew in their faith and had a close relationship with Paul. But for some unknown reason after receiving their freedom in Christ they took a turn back to bondage. They started following the regulations of the law. They came to Christ by grace but they were deceived by false teachers to think they must continue by works and merit to be accepted to God.
Their relationship with Paul was fractured, their joy was lost and they found themselves back in spiritual bondage. In this passage, Paul pleads with them not to continue in spiritual bondage.
In this passage, we find that Paul is perplexed. He loves the Galatian believers and he is concerned for the Galatians. So I am going to title my sermon as “Paul’s Concern for the Galatians” and divide it into three points: 1) why was Paul concerned for the Galatians, 2) The Compassionate Plea and 3) Two goals of two ministries.
1. Why was Paul concerned for the Galatians?
Look at verses 8 to 11:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
In the Old Testament we read and wonder why Israelites would get freedom from Egypt and want to return to slavery again. Why would the Galatians of the first century with freedom in Christ want to turn back to the regulations of the law, in other words, to slavery? Why would a Christian today saved by grace return to the bondage of sin?
It is perplexing. It makes no sense. Paul is perplexed because what they have done is so foolish.
Paul gives us three pictures in these verses. He gives us a picture of what we’re like before Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we trust Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we add something to Christ in order to be accepted.
a. What we’re like before Christ
Paul says in verse 8, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” This is a very insightful description. Paul says that before Christ, we’re enslaved to false gods. He’s talking about their pagan idol-worship. He doesn’t name their false gods, but they would have known the various gods worshiped in the temples. But Paul says something radical. Worshiping anyone or anything other than God through Christ is slavery.
We’re all by nature worshipers. We’re hardwired to attribute ultimate worth to someone or something bigger than ourselves. It could be a religion. It could be anything: a hobby, a political system, a philosophy, a sport, a job. Everyone worships someone or something bigger than themselves and looks for ultimate meaning.
For example, if we put our greatest hope in gaining wealth, we will be controlled and enslaved. We will be completely under the power of money. If we are not doing well at gaining it, we will be devastated. And even if we do get “enough”, we will be disappointed, and seek more. If we treat things that are not gods as though they are, we become slaves to them spiritually.
Whatever we worship other than God will enslave us. Tim Keller says, “If anything but Jesus is a requirement for being happy or worthy, that thing will become our slavemaster.”
Let’s just pause here because this is so important. This is the picture of everyone who does not know Jesus Christ. We’re all worshipers. We all look to someone or something other than God for our ultimate meaning. And we’re all enslaved to whatever that is. My friends, what are the things that are enslaving you? Is it money? Or approval of people? What are you looking for other than God for your ultimate meaning?
b. What we’re like when we trust Christ
But then Paul gives us a picture of what happens when we come to know the power of the gospel. He says in verse 9, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Before, we didn’t know God. When we heard the gospel, we came to know God. “Know” here doesn’t mean just head knowledge. It means to know personally and relationally. It’s the knowledge that comes from friendship, not from reading a set of facts or doctrines.
But I love what Paul says here. He does say we came to know God, but then he stops himself and says, “or rather to be known by God.” This reminds me of the ending of Tim Keller’s excellent book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. A woman prayed “God, help me find you,” but she never seemed to get anywhere. One day a friend told her to try praying, “God, come and find me.” And he did. God finds us more than we find him. Before we ever knew God, God knew us. God chose us. We became the objects of his love. We know God because God knew us first. He loves us and graciously chose us to be his own.
The word to know is frequently used in the Old Testament. For example in Amos 3:2 God says to Israel “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” Now God of course knew all of the families of the earth. He knew all of the nations. God is omniscient. In fact he established all of the nations, set their boundaries, knows them completely, fully, absolutely. He knows everything. So it doesn’t mean he knows intellectually here. He means he knows personally. He knew Israel in a special way. He knew them in a personal way. They were his nation by election, by his choice. He chose Israel out of all of the nations.
So the gospel picture: knowing God because he first knew us. Then we have one more picture.
c. What we’re like when we add something to Christ
He writes, in verse 9b“…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”
Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying that adding anything to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is another form of idol-worship. This is shocking! Trying to earn God’s approval by our own efforts is no better than paganism. Justification by works is just as enslaving as idol-worship.
What Paul is saying is that there are two ways to be lost. There are two ways to reject God. One way to reject God is to worship idols literally and look for our ultimate meaning and satisfaction in anything other than God. The other way to be lost and enslaved is to be religious and to base our acceptance on anything other than Jesus.
The perfect example of this is Jesus’ story of the two brothers in Luke 15. A father had one very immoral, younger, prodigal son, and one very moral elder son. Both of them wanted control of the father’s wealth but did not want the father. Both were alienated from the father’s heart. At the end of the story though, the immoral son repents and goes into the father, while the moral one stays outside in anger.
Verse 10, “You observe days and months and seasons and years.” - they were (literally) religiously observing all the festivals and ceremonies of the Old Testament. Well the problem here wasn’t that they were observing the Sabbath or Jewish feast days. But the Galatians were following the religious schedule of the law, not as a freedom but as an obligation. They were again becoming slaves to the elemental things. Today some Christians return to bondage of the world system or legalism. It is returning to spiritual slavery.
So Paul says verse 11, “I fear for you that perhaps I have labored over you in vain.” Paul just felt like everything he had done there had become wasted efforts if they remained under the influence of the Judaizers.
Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying that there are a lot of people who think they’re Christians who are no better off than idol-worshipers. He’s saying that if we come to church and read our Bibles and be really good people, as long as we’re basing our acceptance on our good behavior rather than on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s demonic and it’s enslaving, and the demons are thrilled with this version of Christianity.
We’re in danger of embracing something that looks like Christianity but is basically just a Christian version of paganism. Why is Paul concerned? Because when we get fuzzy on the gospel, when we begin to trust our own performance, when we lose sight of the cross, it is actually more dangerous than when we were pagans because we don’t even realize what’s going on.
There’s only one way to avoid being enslaved: to put your hope in Jesus and nothing else for your salvation; to look to Christ and the cross as your only hope.
2. The Compassionate Plea
Paul leaves deep theology behind here. It is like you have been talking to a friend who destroyed their life by a foolish decision.
12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?
He pleaded with them. Become like me with freedom in Christ. Paul spoke of identity. He became like them, he became all things to all men, to make them like him, having freedom in Christ.
Paul also reminds them of the relationship they previously had. They would in the past do anything for him. I can testify he says that, if you could have done so, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.
In fact in verse 13 Paul says that it was because of this illness that he preached to them the first time. Evidentially he was so severely sick that it required that he remain there to recover. And during that time, the Galatians, did not scorn or despise rather received him as angel of God.
No wonder Paul loved these Galatians and felt deeply for them. This made it all the more sad that their attitude had changed toward him.
Paul says in verse 15 What then has become of your blessedness or joy?
Paul asks them, what happened to your joy or blessedness? It was a plea for them to enjoy their Christian liberty, to re-enter the experience of their Christian freedom. They originally had that freedom and joy when they first accepted his preaching and showed unusual kindness toward him.
That’s what legalism does. It robs people of blessing. It robs people of joy and freedom. Now it gives a lot. It gives a lot of rules and regulations to keep. It gives a lot of burden to bear but it robs people of blessing.
The Galatians had understood that and loved Paul for bringing them the message of freedom. Then the Judaizers came with their legalism and the gratitude and love and joy that the Galatians had, they were all snuffed out under the new burdens that they had been placed under. And in place of those great blessings of joy and love and peace grew pride and anger and weariness. So now Paul who had been like an angel to them, like Christ himself, was their enemy. And the reason he says in verse 16 is he had told them the truth. He had taught grace.
3. Two Goals of Two Ministries
17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
Now the real enemy Paul explains is the Judaizers or false teachers. They were completely self-serving. That was the reason they came to Galatia to gain the Galatians for themselves. He says in verse 17 “They make much of you.” Literally they are zealous for you which is not bad in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with people being interested in you, showing an interest in you, being zealous for you.
For Example: Parents are zealous for their children, eager for them to have what is best and know the truth and to live well and to live rightly.
In fact Paul says in verse 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose. He had come to Galatia seeking these Galatians, seeking them for a good purpose because he was seeking them for Christ.
But these Judaizers or false teachers were not seeking them in that way. They weren’t courting them for Christ. They were seducing them. They were bewitching them for themselves. Paul writes, “They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them,” meaning shut them out from Paul’s influence, from his teaching of grace. That was the reason that they attacked his apostleship in order to isolate these Galatians from his influence. They had succeeded in doing that. They had convinced them that Paul was their enemy. They wanted the Galatians to depend upon them alone for spiritual counsel.
The Judaizers were building their own little kingdom. Ministers sometimes do that. They work hard at building a ministry but not for Christ. It’s for themselves. It’s for their own glory or maybe for financial gain. That is typical of false ministers of the gospel and I think we see a lot of that but it can also be true of a genuine believer, a genuine minister of the gospel. We can become seduced into those kinds of selfish motives of selfish ambition ourselves. We all need to examine our motives for what we do.
Paul’s motives were pure and selfless. He understood that his task as a spiritual leader was to direct people to love and follow Christ, not to promote himself. And he was completely devoted to that. His only concern was to grow the Galatians into Christ. His concern for them was like that of a mother for her children. He writes, “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” He wanted to see them grow up in the faith and become like Christ, just like parents want to see their children grow to maturity in every way.
For example: These days, as a father, I enjoyed seeing how my son Rufus grew daily. Recently I was able to see my son able to sleep sideways, which he was not able to a few days back.
Paul went through labor with them the first time when he originally brought the gospel to them, suffering with illness, suffering persecution and yet through those efforts they were born again. But now he is again in labor with them, suffering all over again with the pains of worry, the work of prayer and the difficult effort of trying to reclaim them for the truth. Now he doesn’t deny their salvation but their spiritual condition was so weak and immature that it was as though John Calvin said they had again become embryos.
Paul has to bring them back to their original understanding when they first believed the gospel. It took great effort on his part but out of great love for them he labors for them. He is determined to labor for them until the shapeless embryo becomes a mature person, until he says “Christ is formed in you.” That was the apostle’s goal for God’s people. That’s God’s goal for us.
Now Paul believed that the Galatians were believers. He believed that they were in Christ. He calls them his children. But it wasn’t enough that they were in Christ. He wanted to see Christ formed in them. He wanted to carry on his labor of love, of helping that happen by being there and he concludes the text by saying in verse 20 that I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone. He wouldn’t change his teaching. He wouldn’t change his doctrine. He wished he could be with them to reinforce the great doctrines of grace and justification and sanctification. But he would like to do it with a milder language and win them back.