We need always to look at ourselves through three lenses: the lens of creation, the lens of sin, and the lens of redemption in Christ. As we understand what we are by creation (all made in the image of God), by sin (rebellious and relationship mess makers), and by redemption (united in Christ with all believers), we will have a starting point to work through the messiness of friendship in Christ. Oh yes, sometimes believers’ relationships with one another can be strained! But we should see how even strained relationships can be opportunities to serve one another in love for gospel growth. This passage sets forth a fact of Christian experience. A person can be a staunch defender of the faith and at the same time very zealous for the good and eternal salvation of people. In fact, the person who loves the truth of the gospel also loves people, who need the salvation purchased by the Christ of the gospel.
Illustration: Surely there are many throughout church history that show forth both of these qualities. If you would like to read the stories of two of them, I recommend biographies of George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon.
In our text Paul relates his love for the Galatians, while at the same time he expresses his zeal for the truth. He is willing to work through their messy relationship to establish them more firmly in the truth. May we learn this lesson well.
I. Paul appeals for reconciliation (Gal 4:12).
A. He was open toward them.
1. The phrase “become like me, for I became like you” means “‘I have come to regard myself as one of you’—more particularly, I am your father and you are my children (cf. v. 19)” (Bruce). See also 2 Cor 6:11-13.
2. In other words, Paul wants them to have the same affection for him that he has for them. He is embodying a Biblical principle: A gospel kind of love motivates us to lay aside non-essential differences in order to reach people.
B. He was ready to forgive them.
1. “Alienation of affection is often greatly increased by a consciousness that we have acted unkindly to one whom we once loved, and a suspicion that in consequence of this he cannot but regard us with unfriendly feelings. It is in consequence of this, that when friends quarrel the offender frequently finds it more difficult than the offended to resume the cordiality of affectionate feeling which previously existed between them. It was, I apprehend, for the purpose of removing this obstacle out of the way of a complete restoration of a right state of feeling in the Galatians towards himself that he adds, ‘Ye have not injured me at all’” (Brown, pp. 90-91).
2. We need to clear roadblocks out of the way in our relationships. Wisdom in relating to other people, who have the same problems with sin that we do, is not to think about what they might deserve but how to win them back. “For it is always true that ‘to be loved you must be lovable’” (Calvin). Don’t exclaim, “Do you know what he/she did to me?” Instead, humbly ask, “How can I restore this relationship? How can I make it better than before?”
Apply: Apply forgiveness in Christ to your relationship. Make it a friendship based on Christ.
II. Paul presents the contrast between their former and present relationship (4:13-16).
A. They used to delight in Paul’s ministry.
1. Though he had first come among them with some kind of disagreeable illness (we don’t know what it was), they gladly welcomed him. The Lord uses various means that are sometimes disagreeable to us to spread the knowledge of Jesus Christ. For example, sometimes the Lord uses personal or family difficulties to make known the need and way of salvation to people. People assume they can fix anything, until they run smack into a problem that they can’t fix.
2. Though Paul was a sinner like them, they were right in receiving him as they did (cf. Mt 10:40; 2 Cor 5:20). If you want people to receive you like Christ, then you must speak the word of Christ with the compassion of Christ.
B. They presently disliked Paul and his ministry.
1. Their attitude had so changed that Paul wonders if he had become their enemy. At such times we can wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?” And then we can fall into the pity party of “I didn’t do anything!” (This might be self-righteousness and blame-shifting.) Or we might think, “Where is the Lord in all this?” (This is denial of Christ’s promise; he is with us to the end of the age. He is pursuing his agenda that you share in his sufferings.)
2. Their problem was their attitude toward the truth. Notice how people can flip-flop. It is strange that their present reason for rejecting him was their former reason for receiving him gladly. This shows the corrosive power of error in hearts with remaining sin.
Quote: “There is an important lesson here. When the Galatians recognized Paul’s apostolic authority, they treated him as an angel, as Christ Jesus. But when they did not like his message, he became their enemy. How fickle they were, and foolish! An apostle’s authority does not cease when he begins to teach unpopular truths. We cannot be selective in our reading of the apostolic doctrine of the New Testament. We cannot, when we like what an apostle teaches, defer to him as an angel, and when we do not like what he teaches, hate him and reject him as an enemy. No, the apostles of Jesus Christ have authority in everything they teach, where we happen to like it or not” (Stott, p. 115).
Apply: What is your attitude toward the gospel? If you love it, then rejoice in those who preach the gospel.
III. Paul tells them the contrast between him and the false teachers (4:17-20).
A. The false teachers were zealous.
1. They were motivated by a party spirit. True teaching seeks to win people’s loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. As Whitefield said, “Let the name of Whitefield perish!” He wanted Christ’s name to be honored. False teaching seeks to bind people to human leadership. “You must be part of our group!”
2. They worked toward their goal of alienating the Galatians from Paul. If they could separate the Galatians from the one who taught the truth, their plan to conquer them would be well on the way to success.
3. So Paul has to remind the Galatians of the nature of true zeal. It has a right object and is constant. For example, you need to be living for Christ at all times, and not only when someone else is pressuring you to participate.
B. Paul was zealous with a godly zeal.
1. He was motivated by tender affection for them. Notice his affectionate address, “My dear children.” His love had a sacrificial character—like the love of a mother in child birth longing to see her child alive.
2. He had a godly goal for them—Christ-likeness. “If ministers wish to be something, let them labor to form Christ, not themselves” (Calvin). Paul is not dividing the work of Christ into two stages here, such as first justification and then some form of sanctification. “It is rather that the one implies the other and reliance on law for salvation [or sanctification] negates both” (Bruce, p. 213, my addition in brackets).
3. He was perplexed about them. He heard reports, but firsthand knowledge is better than secondhand information. Even an apostle had doubts about the accomplishments of his ministry. Some are so sure about their ministry that they can count their converts in ten minutes. Please tell me, what ever made you think that you can know that someone is saved by some prayer or brief statement they make? The apostles had joy when their children walked in the truth (3 Jn 4). Paul did not see that walk in the truth, so he was perplexed, rather than joyous, about the Galatians.
Apply: Here is what really matters! Is the minister preaching the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ with Christ-like attitudes? Is Christ being formed in the hearts of the people to whom he ministers? The measure of any church and any ministry is the presence of Jesus Christ as Lord. Do we exalt in his glory? Do we worship through him by the Spirit? Do we walk in his ways of godliness and holiness? Is his love abounding and overflowing? Is his joy a common experience? Is Christ’s peace ruling in our hearts? Please, please, let us have no more boasting about how large or small or whatever a church may be! Let us see Christ formed in everyone, and then, whoever boasts, let him boast in the Lord!