November 16, 2013

The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians

Tom Lowe


Chapter III.C.1.b: Because of their Loss of Joy (4:12-20)


Galatians 4.12-20 (KJV)


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.

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.

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.





12 Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all.

Although he was a man of strong convictions and many conflicts, Paul had a genius for developing deep and lasting friendships. Between him and his spiritual children there was always shared feelings and reactions in times of suffering and victory (2 Cor. 1.3-11).

“Be as I am” is better translated become as I am. In Galatians 2.19-20[1], Paul told them the kind of man he is, and now he asks them to be like that. He has a right to expect this because he too has relinquished all his special privileges as a member of God’s chosen people, and has put himself on the same level as the Gentiles in respect to the grace of God (Gal. 2.15, 16[2]). Through faith in Christ he and they had taken their place on common ground which required them to give up all reliance upon the Law as a way of salvation. The Galatians had been listening to false teachers, and they were looking upon Paul as an enemy because he told them the truth. Paul is saying, “We are all on the same plane. We are all believers, and we are all in the body of Christ. In view of this we ought to be very polite to one another.” He challenged the Galatians, “Become like me, for I became like you,” that is, “Become free of the Law as I am, for after my conversion I became like the Gentiles, no longer living under the Law.” Paul had been a proud, self-righteous Pharisee, trusting in his own righteousness to save him (Phil. 3.4-6[3]). But when he came to Christ, he abandoned all efforts to save himself, trusting wholly in God’s grace (Phil. 3.7-9[4]). He urged the Galatians to follow his example and avoid the legalism of the Judaizers. The irony is that the Galatians were putting themselves under the Law after their conversions.

Paul was a wonderful spiritual father; he knew how to balance rebuke with love. The apostle desires that they would be of one mind with him with respect to the Law of Moses, as well as being united in love for one another. This is something that all of us should bear in mind: When we must criticize or correct others, we should be sure to convince them that our reproofs come from a sincere desire to honor God and religion, and help them maintain a good relationship with God and the Church.

“Ye have not injured me at all” is a reference to his first visit to the churches in Galatia. However much he was hurt by them now, he recalled that the Galatians were very kind to him and accepted his preaching at that time, while the Jews persecuted him. This relationship contrasts with the hostilities described in Acts 13.45, 50[5]; 14.4-6, 19[6] which would be described accurately by the term “injured.” But the treatment he received from the Christian community on those occasions was exactly the opposite. The term “injured”, however, means more than physical injury, since the emotional injury done to him might have been worse than the physical. Anything that threatened the stability and hindered the progress of his churches was a wrong done to him. He wanted to return to that relationship which he enjoyed with them at their first meeting. He is turning from “spanking” (see Gal 4.8-11) to “embracing” as he remind the believers of their love for him and his love for them. At one point their love was so great that they were willing to sacrifice anything for him, but now he had become their enemy. The Judaizers had come in and stolen their affection.


13 Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first.

Bible students wish Paul had been more explicit here, because we are not quite sure what he is talking about when he mentions his “infirmity of the flesh.” He is referring to the first time he visited them. At that time he was suffering from some physical affliction. Apparently Paul had not intended to visit them, but was forced to do so by this physical malady. We can only speculate as to what this was. There are a couple of diseases that have been suggested, one of which is probably the ailment he calls his “thorn in the flesh.”

The first possibility is malaria, which he may have contracted in the costal lowlands of Pamphylia. That could explain why Paul and Barnabas did not preach at Perga, a city in Pamphylia (Acts 13.13, 14[7]). The cooler and healthier weather in Galatia and especially at Pisidian Antioch, where Paul went when he left Perga, would have brought some relief to the fever caused by malaria. Although malaria is a serious and debilitating disease, its attacks are not continuous; Paul could have ministered between bouts of fever.

The second possibility is an affliction of the eyes (v. 4.15), which is probably his thorn in the flesh as we will see as we read on.

Although Paul was pained now by the Galatians placing themselves under the Law, he recalls that the Galatians did him no injury during his first visit, but they overlooked his “infirmity of the flesh,” which made him a sick man and caused him to remain with them longer than he planned. Whatever it was, it must have made Paul somewhat repulsive to look at, because he commends the Galatians for the way they received him in spite of the way he looked. Paul did not leave their area until he had acquainted them with the good news of the Gospel.


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.


“And my temptation which was in my flesh” means the trial, which elsewhere he calls his thorn in the flesh.

“As an angel of God” means as a heaven-inspired and sent messenger from God: angel means messenger (Mal. 2.7[8]). It is a Hebrew and Oriental phrase for a person to be received with the highest respect (Zech. 12.8[9]). An angel is free from the flesh, infirmity, and temptation.

“As Christ” means as Christ’s representative (Matt. 10.40[10]). Christ is Lord of angels.

The cordial reception Paul had enjoyed on his first visit to Galatia was made all the more gratifying in view of his physical illness. Since physical illness was regarded as God’s punishment for sins, it would have been natural for the Galatians to conclude that he was an angel, not of God, but of Satan. Paul does not tell us whether his disease was malaria, epilepsy, migraine, eye trouble, or some other malady, and the difficulty of diagnosing the case of a living patient should warn us of the futility of attempting it for one who has been dead almost two thousand years. All the meager data tells us is that Paul’s affliction was chronic, very painful, repulsive, and humiliating; but it did not disable him completely or keep him from leading an intensely active life. It is more to the point to observe what Paul made of his handicap (2 Cor. 1.3-11; 4.16-5.15; 12.1-10; Rom. 8.18-39).

Whether the attacks continued throughout the period of Acts 13-14, we do not know; but they were frequent enough to make a lasting impression on the Galatians. His sickness created an opportunity for them to think lightly of him and reject him. However, they did not reject or despise him, like they would one they suspected of having an evil spirit. Paul’s condition, as taxing and frustrating as it was to himself and his friends, did not prevent the Spirit of God from shining in him and through him, and it allowed Christ’s compassion to flow through the Galatians into his life. They treated him as one would treat an angel, or even as they would treat Christ himself. It is a wonderful thing when people accept God’s servants, not because of their outward appearance, but because they represent the Lord and bring His message.


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.


They had received Paul with joy, congratulating themselves that the apostle had preached in their midst. Their appreciation knew no limits; they would even been willing to sacrifice their own eyes for Paul. Now Paul asks them, “What has happened to that love? What has happened to the blessedness—the happiness—you experienced when you heard the Gospel and trusted Christ?” Of course, Paul knew what happened; the Judaizers had come in and stolen their hearts.


The word “blessedness” has been rendered satisfaction in the RSV and it describes the sense of total well-being which Paul’s presence and preaching brought to the Galatians. In their joyful gratitude they did all they could to alleviate his condition; they would have given him their very eyes, but there was a physical limit to their range of vicarious suffering. As far as possible, he and his Galatian friends were bearing each other’s burdens, but some things each had to bear for himself.


To every saint and sinner who has prayed for the removal of some thorn, let Paul speak his word of wisdom (2 Cor. 12.7[11]). He prayed three times, he tells us, for the removal of his thorn, because he thought it hindered his work. It worried him and it humiliated him. It perhaps irritated his faith and disturbed his Christian work. It seems that Christ did not answer to his satisfaction. Why would He not answer the prayer of his faithful servant? The reason may be that there is a health that hardens, and a prosperity that makes people unkind. Defeat, illness, bankruptcy, broken friendships may be the weakness through which God’s strength is made perfect. “My grace is sufficient for thee” (2 Cor. 12.9). His grace is divine kindness in action. Grace is the power of God meeting a human soul, and redeeming it, including the handling of its infirmities and thorns.


 One of the marks of a false teacher is that he tries to attract other men’s converts to himself, and not simply to the truth of the Word or to the person of Jesus Christ. It was not the Judaizers who originally came to Galatia and led them to Christ; it was Paul. Like the cultists today, these false teachers were not winning lost sinners to Christ, but were stealing converts from those who were truly serving the Lord. Paul had proved to be their loving friend. He had “become as they were” by identifying himself with them (v.12). Now they were turning away from Paul and following false shepherds.


Paul told them the truth, but the Judaizers told them lies. Paul sought to glorify Christ, but the Judaizers glorified themselves and their converts. “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them” (Gal. 4.17; NIV). 


A true servant of God does not “use people to build himself up or his work; he ministers in love to help people know Christ better and glorify Him. Beware of that religious worker who wants your exclusive allegiance because he is the only one who is right. He will use you as long as he can then drop you for somebody else—and your fall will be a painful one. The task of a spiritual leader is to get people to love and follow Christ, not to promote himself and his ministry.


I’ll go out on a limb here and say that probably Paul’s thorn in the flesh was some sort of eye trouble (Gal. 6.11[12]), and it evidentially made him very unattractive. I can’t imagine them wanting to pluck out their eyes if what he really needed was another leg. Apparently Paul had an eye disease which is common in that land and is characterized by excessive pus that runs out of the eyes. You can well understand how unattractive that would be to look at while he was ministering to them. Paul says, “You just ignored it, and received me so wonderfully when I preached the Gospel to you.”



16 Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?


Here is Paul’s answer to the question he asked in the previous verse. Paul exclaims, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” Or better yet, “So, by telling you the truth, I have become your enemy!” He had to tell the truth even at the risk of making enemies, but this very compulsion may lead to religious controversy and threaten Christian harmony.


How fickle were these Galatians! They were turning against the Lord, the Gospel of Grace, and the messenger who brought them the news of justification by faith.


Unless counteracted, the effect of this controversy upon the fellowship would be as shattering as the religious convictions of both sides were sincere and deep-seated. There were perhaps three ways to approach this situation. First, there was the tolerant attitude which might have said, “My religion is the best for me, yours is the best for you; let’s not try to convert each other;” but that would have put the Christian missionary enterprise to sleep. A second approach is intolerance which would say something like this: “Since error is sin against God, religious liberty does not include freedom to err; therefore, we who have the truth have the right and duty to prevent you from believing and propagating anything contrary to my gospel.” Paul’s solution was neither of these; it is found in what he said in 1 Corinthians 3.21-23[13]; he would test all things and hold fast to all that harmonized with his principal of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ. But although the range of things that met this test was wide enough for eternity (Rom 8.32[14]), the stress caused by the differences in interpretation of the one Gospel caused Paul to write “Anathema,” and led his spiritual children to sometimes call him their enemy. But the Galatians preserved this letter; and from that fact we may infer that the constructive love of Christ proved stronger than the corrosive effect of religious controversy.


“Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” (Prov. 27.6). Paul had proved his love for the Galatians by telling them the truth; but they would not accept it. They were enjoying the kisses of the Judaizers, not realizing that these kisses were leading them into bondage and sorrow. Christ had made them sons and heirs, but they were rapidly becoming slaves and beggars. In our contemporary society, many people do not want the preacher to preach the truth from the pulpit. They would much rather he say something complementary that would smooth their feathers and make them feel good. We all like to have our backs rubbed, and there is a lot of back-rubbing from the contemporary pulpit instead of the declaration of the truth.


It is clear that the apostle did not incur their enmity for telling them the truth on his first visit, but his words here imply that it happened after that and before his writing this letter, which would mean that it occurred at his second visit (Acts 18.23[15]).



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.


A free translation of verses 17 and 18 would have Paul saying in effect: “They unfairly compete for your favor, because they want to exclude you from the fellowship so that you will seek to be associated with them. Now it is good to be sought after for good motives, but this is not always the case, and you should adhere to the Gospel I taught you even when I am not with you.” Paul charges his opponents with ulterior motives; that they do not seek supporters “well” (honestly, honorably, fairly) and not for a good purpose. These would-be leaders, who want to build up a following for themselves, claim to be the only true Christians, and they exclude—“shut out” those who disagree with them. They excommunicate men from their “true church” in order to frighten them into currying favor for readmission! Paul concedes that it is a good thing to be sought after if the motives of both the seeker and the sought are good, and if both are honestly serving a good cause. But in that case there is still another stipulation; it must “always” be that way, not just when the parties are together, but also when one is absent. When Paul was present, the Galatians responded favorably. Now he reminds them that the same Gospel was no less a joy and a blessing in his absence. He hints that if his competitors were absent, they might not care enough about the Galatians even to write letters to them.


Paul made it clear that he was not averse to having another man minister to them rather than himself, providing the ministry was of the right sort—aiding the cause of the truth.



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.


A free translation of verses 19 and 20 would read: “I think of you as my dear children for whom my heart aches until Christ is fully formed in you; and I wish I could be with you now so I could deal first hand with your situation, because I am at a loss of what to make of you. Paul’s challenge to the Judaizers was to imitate him in being sincere and faithful “fathers” of spiritual “children,” as he called his converts. In a bold figure of speech he compares his anxiety to the throes of childbirth. But as usual with his comparisons, he suddenly shifts the reference and applies it to the Galatian Christians who are about to give birth to Christ. His own “labor’ now becomes the anxiety of one who is waiting until Christ is “formed” in them. Paul longed for these believers to be transformed into the image of Christ. This expression describes the Christian life as a kind of reincarnation of Christ in a believer’s life.  This is, in fact, God’s ideal and purpose—for Christ to live His life in and then through each believer (Gal. 2.20[16]). Yet the apostle was perplexed about the Galatians because he felt their spiritual development was being arrested. He had a deep desire to be with them, so that he could speak gently, but firmly, concerning his grave concerns. However, he was filled with misgivings. Had his approach and language been too severe, or had he not been forthright in warning his “children”? If only he could be in Galatia! Then he could gauge the situation more accurately and control it by changing his “tone” (voice). The apostle had strong feelings for these people. He used strong language in his letter, but you can see his tender heart.


The Galatians had not lost their salvation—they were still Christians; but they were losing the enjoyment of their salvation and finding satisfaction in their works instead. Sad to say, they did not realize their losses. They actually thought they were becoming better Christians by substituting Law for grace, and the religious deeds of the flesh for the fruit of the Spirit. Paul was deeply hurt (travail) to see them falling back into legalism. He longed to see Christ formed in them, just as we parents long to see our children mature in the will of God.


Paul felt that another visit was in order. It would accomplish more than a letter. Then he could speak softly to them, as a mother to an erring but still beloved child.

[1] For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live ; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

[2] We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

[3] Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.

[4] But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

[5] But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming. But the Jews stirred up the devout and honorable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts.

[6] But the multitude of the city was divided: and part held with the Jews, and part with the apostles. And when there was an assault made both of the Gentiles, and also of the Jews with their rulers, to use them despitefully, and to stone them, They were ware of it, and fled unto Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and unto the region that lieth round about. And there came thither certain Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who persuaded the people, and, having stoned Paul, drew him out of the city, supposing he had been dead.

[7] Now when Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.

[8] For the priest's lips should keep knowledge, and they should seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.

[9] In that day shall the LORD defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David; and the house of David shall be as God, as the angel of the LORD before them.

[10] He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.

[11] And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.

[12] Ye see how large a letter I have written unto you with mine own hand.

[13] Therefore let no man glory in men. For all things are yours; Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; And ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's.

[14] He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?

[15]  And after he had spent some time there, he departed, and went over all the country of Galatia and Phrygia in order, strengthening all the disciples.

[16] I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

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