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Galatians 4:8-20

May 9, 2016

In this passage Paul’s emotions become more sorrowful, and his pleas more personal.

In verse 8-11 he refers to the previous pagan existence of the Galatians. Their nature worship was a kind of slavery to invisible forces in rebellion against the God who is above and beyond all. Paul now makes the startling claim that by seeking to live by the rituals of the Mosaic Law the Galatians are, in effect, going back to a similar sort of slavery to the same invisible forces! This is quite a shocking accusation that would have been quite offensive to the Jewish-Christian missionaries who preached that the Galatians must live by the Law. Paul is claiming that observing the Law is essentially the same bondage as pagan nature worship. It is difficult for me to make that jump. Surely a commitment to following the laws given to Moses is quite different from the worship of capricious nature gods and the use of magic. But for Paul they share a fundamental inadequacy; without being freed by God’s gift of grace, all religion is slavery to our selfish nature.

This basic distinction between the type of faith Paul is preaching and the type of faith the other missionaries are preaching is perhaps captured by the opening phrase of verse 9: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God . . . .” That mid-sentence correction is the essential difference. Pagan worship and Law-oriented worship are both about trying to know or please God; but the only faith that frees us is one in which God takes the initiative, God does the bridging, and God breaks our slavery through a gift of amazing grace. We do not come to know God; God knows us.

One of the ways in which the Galatians have been reverting to spiritual slavery is through observing special days and seasons. Apparently Paul is referring to their observing Sabbath and other Jewish festivals. (Paul explicitly denigrates observing the Sabbath in Colossians 2:16.) This is quite remarkable because observance of a special day of rest is found in the Ten Commandments and grounded in creation itself in Genesis 1. But for Paul, any observance of an outward and physical identity marker is a step backwards, and undermines the meaning and purpose of Christ’s sacrifice and gift of grace. Paul keeps his language general (“special days, and months, and seasons, and years”) because for him there is no difference between Jewish holy days and pagan holy days.

This is certainly not the attitude the church has adopted throughout the centuries! Christians today may be lax in Sabbath observance, but we do not reject it outright as Paul does. On the contrary, a slew of Christian spiritual writers see the observance of a weekly day of rest, and having other times set aside for meditation and reflection, as crucial spiritual disciplines for developing Christian faith and maturity. It seems to me that in the long run Paul has not won his argument. Even Christians today who view themselves as strongly Pauline, and strongly focused on a gospel of grace, not works, still embrace Sabbath observance in some form. And how is observing the Sabbath inherently different from observing rituals such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Are these not all identity markers?

As is often the case, both sides hold crucial truths, and both sides can slide into misuse. Paul’s gospel of grace easily becomes a mere mental attitude or inner experience with little discipline or discipleship. Paul’s opponents easily become self-righteous and degenerate into a message of “just try harder.” Grace and ritual and the royal law (love your neighbor as yourself) must all be held together.

Verses 12-20 are particularly heart-felt, even tender. Paul wishes for the kind of relationship and response he had with them at first. He wonders whether he will need to go through the agony of childbirth with them all over again. He asks them to become like him, just as he became like them. In the ancient world, a preacher’s character was just as important as the message; the character of the speaker gave verification of the message. Over time the church lost this connection. We should retrieve it. We need to be, as individuals and as a faith community, people of mature and ethical and healthy and joyous character. That is the proof of our message.

Intriguingly, Paul refers to some sort of adverse condition that caused him to preach in Galatia to begin with–a condition that might have caused contempt, but which instead they responded to with warm welcome. What was this condition? In general there are three possibilities: a recurring illness that troubled Paul (the NIV favors this option by translating “condition” as “illness”), or recurring blindness/poor vision, or the crippling consequences of having been beaten or whipped or stoned by previous persecutors.

Any of these are possible. Many have speculated that Paul was an epileptic or that he had some other very troublesome illness–a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me (2 Corinthians 12:7). I think recurring blindness or vision problems is another strong possibility. After all, Paul was blinded on his way to Damascus; and he refers to the Galatians wishing to give him their eyes (4:15); and mentions the fact that when he writes he draws very large letters (6:11). But another strong possibility is that his “recurring illness” was actually recurring persecution! It may be that he had to periodically recover from the many beatings he endured (2 Corinthians 11:23-25). These beatings were the “marks of Christ” on his body. So the beatings could have been viewed with contempt by some, or as supporting his message by others.

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From → Galatians

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