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Bible treehuggercomThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Galatians 4:12-16

12 Brothers,[a] 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?[b]


Last week’s post discussed Paul’s deep sadness and disappointment that the Galatians were turning to the false beliefs of the Judaisers. He ended those verses with this lament:

11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

He changes his tone in today’s verses.

Matthew Henry’s commentary states (emphases mine):

That these Christians might be the more ashamed of their defection from the truth of the gospel which Paul had preached to them, he here reminds them of the great affection they formerly had for him and his ministry, and puts them upon considering how very unsuitable their present behaviour was to what they then professed.

John MacArthur has more on Galatians and today’s verses:

Galatians is a book in the New Testament written by the apostle Paul, one of thirteen New Testament books that he wrote. It’s the first one that he wrote in terms of chronology, and it is a book designed really to do one thing, and that is to proclaim the fact that salvation is by faith alone in Jesus Christ; that salvation does not come to those who are good or do good works, or religious, or involved in religious ceremonies, rituals; whether they be circumcision, baptism, or any other right or ritual. Those cannot achieve salvation, nor do they partly achieve salvation, as if there’s a combination between faith and works. Paul’s message in Galatians is that God forgives the sins of those who believe in Jesus Christ, and no works play any role in that at all. Works are the result of salvation, not the reason for it, not the cause of it.

So Paul has been defending the doctrine of justification by faith alone into chapter 4. And now in verse 12, he sets aside his arguments, and this is a much different portion of Scripture. In fact, it’s a bit of a shocking change in the character of this book. The book has been very polemic, very severe, pronouncing curses on people who tamper with the gospel, warning those who have been bewitched by false doctrine; it has called such people fools. This has been a very strong formidable proclamation of salvation by faith alone in Christ. It has been head, you might say, and not heart …

This is where his heart takes over. His anger and his frustration, you might say, have run their course. It’s not over

Here we see the gentle side of Paul, and it’s a rare insight.

In entreating — begging — the Galatians to become as he is, Paul calls them his ‘brethren’ and remembers that they did him no wrong (verse 12).

Henry explains why Paul’s tone changes:

He styles them brethren, though he knew their hearts were in a great measure alienated from him. He desires that all resentments might be laid aside, and that they would bear the same temper of mind towards him which he did to them; he would have them to be as he was, for he was as they were, and moreover tells them that they had not injured him at all. He had no quarrel with them upon his own account. Though, in blaming their conduct, he had expressed himself with some warmth and concern of mind he assured them that it was not owing to any sense of personal injury or affront (as they might be ready to think), but proceeded wholly from a zeal for the truth and purity of the gospel, and their welfare and happiness. Thus he endeavours to mollify their spirits towards him, that so they might be the better disposed to receive the admonitions he was giving them. Hereby he teaches us that in reproving others we should take care to convince them that our reproofs do not proceed from any private pique or resentment, but from a sincere regard to the honour of God and religion and their truest welfare; for they are then likely to be most successful when they appear to be most disinterested.

MacArthur looks at the word ‘entreating’ — ‘begging’ in his translation — and the phraseology in the verse:

Let’s look at his appeal. I find this one of the most fascinating parts of this entire epistle. Verse 12: “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are.” Now this is strong: “I beg you.” That is a very strong verb. He is begging now. It’s not so much the father commanding as it is the mother begging, pleading. But it’s a strong attitude behind the begging.

“I beg of you, brethren,” – he identifies them first as brethren, and then down in verse 19 as children – “become as I am.” Now what do you think he means by that, “become as I am”? What do you mean, Paul? “I mean, I am free from the Mosaic law.”

If you go back to chapter 2, verse 19, “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I’ve been crucified with Christ.” He has been delivered from, severed from the Mosaic customs and rituals: circumcision, ceremonies, all the things that went with it. Not from morality, not from the divine nature and the definitions of righteousness which are forever; but from the Mosaic formulas, the externals.

“I have been delivered from them. I no longer have anything to do with them. I have been set free from them; I now live free in Christ. I now live under grace. I now live in union with Christ. And what I could not do through the law because I was weak in my flesh, I can now do through Christ who is strong in me. I have been disconnected from all that old Mosaic religion.” So he says to them, “Become as I am. Disconnect yourself from those teachings of the Judaizers. Disconnect yourself.”

And then he adds this: “For I also have become as you are.” “Look, when I came here, when I came here to minister to you, I became as you are.” First Corinthians 9, he says, “Be all things to all men, that you might win some.”

“So when I came to you as Gentiles, I stepped into your culture and your world, and I didn’t bring Jewish traditions. I had none of those constraints on my own life. I came to you like a Gentile. As a Jew I had all that legal prescription that tied me up. As a Jew I was into it, I was deep into it; I observed all of it, I lived under it, until I came to encounter Christ. And Christ forgave my sin, granted me His righteousness, and set me free from bondage to legalism.”

Paul’s appeal is very simple: “I had all the advantages of Judaism. I had the advantages of Judaism to the max level. I had it to the highest possible conceivable level, that devotion to religion, Jewish religion. And it’s all gone; it’s all rubbish; it’s all empty. And now I have become, as it were, like a Gentile, free from all of it. Don’t you go back into what I have been delivered from.” He said back in chapter 3, verse 28, “In Christ there’s neither Jew nor Gentile.”

“It’s all new. That was all shadow and picture and illustration. And now the substance, the reality has come, and that’s Christ. You’re no longer under the law, you’re in Christ. You’re no longer under the Mosaic law, you are in Christ.”

He reminds them that it was because of a physical ailment of his that he came to preach to them (verse 13).

The end of Acts 13 begins with his arrival in Galatia and continues into Acts 15 with the Jerusalem Council which ruled that circumcision was unnecessary. Pisidia was a region of Galatia. My posts follow:

Acts 13:13-14a and Acts 13:40-43 — Paul, Barnabas, companions, Antioch, Pisidia, Anatolia, Jewish – Gentile audience

Acts 14:1-7 — Paul, Barnabas, Iconium, Lystra, Anatolia, miracle, crippled man

Acts 14:19-23 – Paul, Paul stoned, Lystra, miracle, Barnabas, Derbe, return to Lystra, Iconium, Antioch (in Pisidia), Anatolia

Acts 14:24-28 – Paul, Barnabas, Pisidia (part of Anatolia), Pamphylia, Perga (Pamphylia), Attalia (Pamphylia), Antioch (Syria), spending time with Antioch disciples

Acts 15:1-5 – Paul, Barnabas, Antioch (Syria), party of the Pharisees (or ‘of the circumcision’, meaning Judaisers or those of the ‘circumcision party’), the Jerusalem Council

Acts 15:30-35 — Jerusalem Council, letter to the Gentiles, Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Judas Barsabbas, Antioch (Syria), rejoicing Gentiles

MacArthur recaps the beginning of this sojourn for us:

“Look, you were all there in the early days on that first missionary journey when I preached the gospel. You knew the Jews hated the gospel I preached. But you heard it, you believed it; you received it with joy and blessing and salvation; and you did me no wrong, as the Jews did.”

Chapter 14, verse 19: “Jews came from Antioch and Iconium into that area, and having won over the crowd, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.” They were furious enough to try to kill him.

MacArthur says that, although we cannot be sure, it is likely he came down with malaria, hadn’t intended to stop in Galatia but had to, possibly because the illness affected his sight:

I don’t think Galatia, the region of Galatia, was on the plan for the first missionary journey. I think Paul was there because he was sick; that’s what it’s saying. That is clearly it. “Because of a bodily illness, I preached the gospel to you the first time.” “If I hadn’t have been ill, you wouldn’t have heard the gospel.”

In God’s providence somehow, Paul contracted some kind of illness. Originally he did not plan to stay in Galatia, or maybe even to go there. We don’t know why he went there. It’s a little bit more elevated than some of the lowlands of Pamphylia. Some suspect that maybe there was an epidemic of mosquitoes and malaria in the lowlands, and he went up into this area to get a little bit of relief from that; we don’t know that. But he was sick.

Could it have been a malarial sickness? Could have been, because malarial sickness is kind of recurring, its symptoms ebb and flow, and he would have been able to still minister and still preach and still teach in times of strength, and then maybe settle down in times of weakness as he fought the disease. And we do know something about malaria. It can attack the optic nerve; and in attacking the optic nerve, it can develop basically color blindness, some atrophy, and ultimately even blindness.

So perhaps it was malaria that he had somehow contracted; we can’t be dogmatic about that. But it was enough to keep him in one area so that he couldn’t go anywhere else. But still he had enough power or strength to be able to do the ministry that he did while he was there. It wasn’t totally debilitating, but it kept him, you could say, off the road.

“There I was. I was sick, so sick I couldn’t leave; so sick, you were kind of an afterthought, that’s the only reason I was there. But God had a better plan.”

Paul goes on to remember their kindness. His illness was a trial for them but they received him as if he were an angel of God, as Christ Jesus (verse 14).

MacArthur explains why Paul’s illness was a trial for the Galatians:

Now look at verse 14: “And that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition.” What does he mean by that? Why was it a trial to them? Literally, he says, “My illness was a trial to you. My illness was a trial to you.” Why was it? Because he was not able to do all the things they wanted him to do; because it kept him away from them a lot of the time when he had piercing, torturous headaches and pains.

Like the Jews, the Gentiles viewed illness negatively, as if it were a sort of divine curse from either God, in the case of the Jews, or, for Gentiles, a judgement from their deities:

in the ancient world, if somebody claimed to be a prophet of God, and particularly if somebody claimed to be the one who represented the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he had chronic physical problems, this would be a way certainly to discredit his claims. “And yet, you did not despise” – that means to regard as nothing – “or loathe me,” – that means to spit out – “you didn’t think of me as nothing, you didn’t spit me back out, even though I had this illness, which was a trial or a temptation to you.”

Why was it a temptation? The Jews, first of all, believed that if you had an illness, this is the judgment of God. Go back to the book of Job where that theology is articulated by Job’s friends – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – chapter 4, chapter 8, chapter 11. They come to Job and they say, “Job, you have all this trouble because there’s sin in your life. You’re under judgment, God is punishing you; that’s our theology.”

That was longtime Jewish theology, the theology of trouble. “You have it because you’re sinful, and God is punishing you.” You say, “Yeah, but these are Gentiles.” Yes, but the fascinating thing to me is the Gentiles had the same theology

But … Paul says, “Though that illness was a temptation to you to despise or loathe me, to spit me out, to think nothing of me because your theology told you this was a sign that I was under divine judgment, you didn’t do that. Quite the opposite. You received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.” Really an amazing, amazing statement.

And that shows the works of the Spirit of God on their hearts. “You received me; you didn’t yield to some temptation to judge the messenger and judge the message by my outward appearance, by my physical illness, you received me as if I was an angel from God, or Christ Jesus Himself. Do you remember those days?”

Paul asks what happened to that blessed state of theirs since, when, if it had done any good, they would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to the Apostle (verse 15).

That verse further indicates that he must have had problems with his eyesight.

MacArthur tells us:

Transplants weren’t possible, “But if they had been, you would have given me your eyes.” Wow. Deuteronomy 32:10 speaks of guarding someone, and it wants to makes an illustration of how important it is to guard someone, and it says guarding someone as if he were the pupil of your eye.

Look, of all our extremities, the eye is the most precious. “You would have plucked out your eyes. You would have given me a transplant,” if indeed this is a physical malady, if indeed this is because malaria had attacked his eyes. Perhaps something had attacked his eyes, some eye infection that would be everywhere in the ancient world. “You would have literally given me your eye.” It’s very, very reasonable to presume that he had some eye issues.

Look at chapter 6, verse 11, toward the end of the book: “See with what large letters I’m writing to you with my own hand.” Why is he writing in large letters? Possibly because those are the only ones he can see. Why is he even writing? Because in his other letters he had a secretary. And then at the end of the letter, such as the end of 1 Corinthians, the end of Colossians, the end of 2 Thessalonians, he says, “I signed with my own hand.” He would always write a final few words in his own hand so that everyone would know this was not a forgery.

But this particular epistle, his first, he says in chapter 6, verse 11, “I wrote it.” He apparently didn’t have a secretary or an amanuensis at that time, and he launched into this thing with his own hand and he wrote with large letters, letters that would allow him to see what the Holy Spirit was inspiring through him.

He returns to his sadness about their rejection of him for telling them the truth (verse 16), the Gospel truth, as it were.

Henry says that this prevails in ministry even now — a rejection of the messenger who gives a congregation the eternal truth. Such a minister must persevere, regardless:

Am I become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? How is it that I, who was heretofore your favourite, am now accounted your enemy? Can you pretend any other reason for it than that I have told you the truth, endeavoured to acquaint you with, and to confirm you in, the truth of the gospel? And, if not, how unreasonable must your disaffection be!” Note, 1. It is no uncommon thing for men to account those their enemies who are really their best friends; for so, undoubtedly, those are, whether ministers or others, who tell them the truth, and deal freely and faithfully with them in matters relating to their eternal salvation, as the apostle now did with these Christians. 2. Ministers may sometimes create enemies to themselves by the faithful discharge of their duty; for this was the case of Paul, he was accounted their enemy for telling them the truth. 3. Yet ministers must not forbear speaking the truth, for fear of offending others and drawing their displeasure upon them. 4. They may be easy in their own minds, when they are conscious to themselves that, if others have become their enemies, it is only for telling them the truth.

Paul then resumes his sadness and bewilderment over the Galatians’ acceptance of the Judaisers. More on that next week.

Next time — Galatians 4:17-20


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