An Exploration of Galatians: Paul Makes a Personal Plea
Galatians 4:12-16; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 - Paul was accepted, but is now concerned that he is the enemy because he speaks the truth
“I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong; but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
Galatians 4:12-16 NASB1995
Paul now makes a personal plea and urges the Galatian brethren to become like him, for he has also become like them. I have to confess something: My brain went into lock-down mode trying to figure out this passage so I read a LOT of commentary. Let’s start with the plea, by looking at Enduring Word:
Paul knew well that he wasn’t sinlessly perfect. He wasn’t standing before the Galatian Christians, saying, “Look at how perfect I am. Don’t worry about following Jesus, just follow me.” He simply wanted them to follow him as he followed Jesus.
Instead, Paul knew the Galatian Christians should imitate his consistency. The Galatians started out with the right understanding of the gospel, because Paul led them into the right understanding. But some of them didn’t stay there like Paul did, and in that way, they should become like Paul.
Paul knew the Galatian Christians should imitate his liberty. Paul was free in Jesus, and he wanted them to know the same freedom. In that way, they should become like Paul. “Be as I am is an exhortation to the Galatians to become Christians in the same sense as Paul is a Christian, one who is not bound by the Jewish law.” (Leon Morris)
In some sense every Christian should be able to say to others, “become like me.” “All Christians should be able to say something like this, especially to unbelievers, namely that we are so satisfied with Jesus Christ, with His freedom, joy and salvation, that we want other people to become like us.” (John Stott)
I really like the John Stott quote in the last paragraph. Others should look at us and desperately want what we have as believers. Paul wants the Galatians to come back to the right understanding of the Gospel and to be satisfied with Jesus. Paul was free in Jesus and he wanted them to know the same freedom. He became like them, which might mean he set aside the Law and became more like the Gentiles or it could mean that he used to embrace legalism, but gave it up with Grace.
Paul is downplaying the idea that they have hurt him with their embrace of the Judaizers by saying they have done him no wrong, but then he reminds them that they received him like an angel from God, in spite of the bodily condition that he exhibited at the time. Well, this admission gets the Bible pundits and analyzers going into overtime trying to figure out what was wrong with Paul. Readers familiar with his epistles know how he mentioned a “thorn in his side” in 2 Corinthians 12:
“Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-9 NASB1995
Enduring Word addresses these maladies without making a long science project out of it and, in fact, has some cautionary words about trying to diagnose Paul after 2000 years:
We know that when Paul was in the region of south Galatia, persecutors tried to execute him by stoning in the city of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). His attackers gave him up for dead, yet he miraculously survived. Some think that this was the cause of the physical infirmity he mentions. But Paul was already in the region of Galatia when that happened; his wording in Galatians 4 suggests that he came into the region because of a physical infirmity.
“The emphatic position of the phrase suggests that Paul’s original plan had been to go elsewhere (perhaps westward toward Ephesus) and that his missionary visit to the Galatians was due solely to his illness and his need for recuperation.” (Ronald Fung)
What exactly was Paul’s physical infirmity? Some believe his problem was depression, or epilepsy, or that his illness was connected with the thorn in the flesh mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12. None of these can be established with certainty.
According to Acts 13, Paul came to the region of Galatia – specifically, the city of Pisidian Antioch – from the city of Perga in the region of Pamphylia. We know a few things about Perga; first, it was the place where John Mark abandoned Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13), and the trials related to the physical infirmity may have had something to do with it. Second, Perga was in lowland, marshy area. The Galatian city of Pisidian Antioch was some 3,600 feet higher than Perga. It has been suggested that Paul’s physical infirmity was a type of malaria common to the lowlands of Perga. William Barclay described this malaria as producing a terrible pain that was like “a red-hot bar thrust through the forehead.”
However, we should remember what Morris quoted from Stamm: “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 nineteen hundred years.”
Suffice to say, the Galatians accepted him readily in spite of his illness. Other commentators believe that Paul had a serious eye problem because of the verse where he says they would have plucked out their eyes and given them to him but there is no proof of this supposition, either. The point is that they accepted him and had a sense of blessing from him in spite of a physical ailment or ailments that might have been off-putting or distracting. The cultural standards in that day, for Jew and Gentile, were rather inhumane, in that people suffering from visible ailments were shunned and/or the ailment was thought to be punishment (like “karma”) for wrongdoing or past or even family sins. Paul did such an effective job preaching to the Galatians when he first met with them that they were able to see that the Grace from Jesus overcomes “karma” or cause-and-effect. Sadly, the Judaizers probably told the Galatians that Paul was being punished because he was under the law’s curse.
Paul ends this passage to the Galatians by asking if he has become their enemy by telling the truth. Here’s a good commentary from Precept Austin from John MacArthur:
The Galatian believers who had succumbed to the Judaizing heresy were guilty of spiritual defection. Nothing tears the heart of a faithful pastor, teacher, youth worker, or missionary so much as seeing someone he has led to the Lord turn away from the faith. How much more does such defection grieve the Lord Himself?....The implication is that on a second trip to Galatia by Paul some of the church members there had already come under the influence of the Judaizers and had begun to doubt the truth of salvation by faith alone, which they had learned and accepted from him.
The gospel of legalism had become more attractive to them than the gospel of grace, and the man who had been their beloved friend had become to them like an enemy. Many people appreciate a preacher or teacher only as long as he says what they want to hear. The confused and defecting believers in Galatia had once greatly admired Paul, but now they looked on him as their enemy, because he confronted them with the truth about the genuine gospel of God, which had saved them, and the false teaching of the Judaizers, which led them back into the bondage of legalism.
This is so applicable to many of today’s churches who are turning increasingly to apostasy instead of the truth of the Bible, rather than just cranking up the legalism charade. Those who are firm about the truth of Scripture are now the enemy, worthy of destruction. They are accused of being Christian “nationalists” (whatever those are) or patriarchal or supremacists or bigots. The time is rapidly approaching when openly or publicly quoting the Bible may become illegal because God’s truth is considered hate speech. This Link goes to a story about a Finnish minister of Parliament who was just recently cleared of hate speech charges (after two rounds) after she said in a text that marriage was between a man and a woman. Paul at least had the luxury of slow communications to try and straighten out the mess at the churches in Galatia. We can only pray and plea for the hearts of believers in this chaotic age (and also pray for the growing population of the lost) in 2023.
My next devotional examines more of this same passage in Galatians 4:17-20 - Paul is perplexed.
Heaven on Wheels Daily Prayer:
Dear Lord - Thank you that by Grace we do not judge others on their ailments or appearances, but by the heart that they have for you. May we not become the enemy if we speak the truth. Amen.
Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved. lockman.org
Commentary from Enduring Word by David Guzik is used with written permission.
The personal testimony of Bruce Hurt, creator of Precept Austin, may be found Here.