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In order to understand Paul's personal appeal--become like me--we need to see how the entire rebuke section of the letter (1:6--4:11) establishes the background for this appeal. Paul rebuked the Galatian believers for disloyalty to the gospel (1:6). Under the influence of false teachers, they were turning from the true gospel and following another gospel which required circumcision and observance of the law for inclusion in the people of God. Paul reinforced his rebuke for disloyalty to the true gospel by telling the story of his own loyalty to the truth of the gospel (1:11--2:21). Since he was called by God to preach the gospel to Gentiles, he firmly resisted anyone who excluded Gentiles on the basis of the law. Paul also rebuked the Galatian Christians for foolishness about the gospel (3:1-5). In their confusion they thought that works of the law were required to enjoy the blessing of God. Paul undergirded his rebuke for foolishness by an exposition of the promise to Abraham fulfilled in Christ (3:6--4:11). Since Gentile Christians were children of Abraham and included in God's promise to Abraham because they believed in Christ, they could not be excluded from the blessing of God on the basis of the law.
This extended rebuke sets the stage for his initial request: Become like me. Of course this is a plea for reunion with Paul, for identification with him. But in light of all that Paul has said already in his letter, it is clear that he is asking for more than empathy; he is saying more than "Put yourselves in my place" (NEB). He is calling for the Galatians to imitate him in his loyalty to the truth of the gospel (see 2:5, 14). He is challenging them to die to the law so that they might live for God (see 2:19-20). He is pleading with them to be as free as he is from the tyranny of the law, and to enjoy with him all the benefits of the gospel (the Spirit, righteousness, blessing, adoption and inheritance of the promise) which are already available by faith in Christ (see 3:6--4:7). He is demanding that they resist the false teachers who are trying to bring them under the tyranny of the law.
The challenge--become like me--is needed precisely because they are not like Paul. They are giving into the persuasive teaching of the law teachers. Because they have been preoccupied with getting circumcised in order to belong to God's people and using Jewish law to guide their lives, they are drifting from their single-minded devotion to Christ. What they need is a renewal of their experience of union with Christ. The first step toward that renewal is the imitation of Paul.
To us it may seem presumptuous and risky for Paul to challenge people to imitate him in order to draw them back to Christ. Most of us would rather say, "Don't follow me, follow Christ!" We are too aware of our own inconsistencies and failures to set ourselves up as models for the Christian life. But this was Paul's way. He said to the Corinthians, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor 11:1). Paul was well aware that the imitation of Christ needs to be illustrated in the experience of our peers. Without mentors who show us what it means to follow Christ in the rough-and-tumble of our contemporary world, imitation of Christ often seems an otherworldly, unattainable ideal. But when someone like ourselves gives us a living model to follow, we have a tangible, realizable pattern to guide us.
After his command, Paul gives four reasons to follow his example.
The first reason Paul gives to his readers for following his example is his identification with them: for I became like you (v. 12). In his evangelism of the Galatians, Paul did not preach at them from a distance. He entered into their culture, adapted to their ways and became one with them. Even though he was a Jew, trained as a Pharisee to be totally separate from Gentiles, he lived like a Gentile in order to reach the Gentiles for Christ. His practice of identification illustrated the principle he enunciated in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: "I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. . . . To those not having the law I became like one not having the law . . . so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some."
The same practice of identification is necessary today, if we are going to communicate the gospel effectively to people. We must put ourselves in their place, eat what they eat, dress as they dress, talk their language, experience their joys and sorrows, and enter into their way of thinking. If we want people to become like us in our commitment to Christ, then we must become one with them.
One of the best examples of identification I've ever seen is a woman who lives in a country closed to all missionary activity. She lives with a large family. Except for participating in their religious practices, she has totally identified with the way this family lives. The government is sponsoring her to write the ancient legends of the people in a simple format for children to learn. As she has researched and written these stories, she has been able to enter into the mind of the people. They love the way she retells their favorite stories. In a quiet and very effective way she has been able to lead people to commit their lives to Christ because she first became one with them.
Paul's identification with the Galatians served as a compelling reason for them to stand with him in his commitment to Christ and freedom from the law. After all, if Paul as a Jewish Christian was willing and able to live like them, then it was clear that living like a Jew or a Gentile is not what matters. What matters is simply faith in Christ.
After reminding the Galatians of his identification with them, Paul recalls how they identified with him during his first visit. Their early enthusiastic response to him was a good reason for them to return to their "first love."
In the last phrase of 4:12, Paul reassures his readers: You have done me no wrong. Since he moves right on to remind them how well they treated him when he was with them the first time, Paul is probably telling them that he is still thankful for their kindness toward him, despite whatever may have happened during the recent crisis. Sometimes when a friendship is strained in a time of crisis, it is helpful to stir up memories of the initial warmth of the relationship. That is what Paul does here. And his description of the way he was received by the Galatians sets forth an admirable pattern for the way all true ministers of God ought to be received.
Paul recalls that it was because of an illness that he first preached the gospel to the Galatians (4:13). We often wonder what kind of illness Paul had. The suggestion that he had some kind of eye problem is supported by his statement in verse 15 that the Galatians were so concerned for him that they would have given him their own eyes if they could have done so. And Paul's use of "large letters" when he wrote (see 6:11) is also taken as evidence that he had eye trouble. Since I had eye surgery as a child and still struggle with poor eyesight, I've been encouraged by the thought that the great apostle was able to do so much even though he may have had eye trouble. But I must admit that there is insufficient evidence to be dogmatic about this theory. Paul's statement that the Galatians would have been willing even to give him their eyes is probably an idiomatic way of complimenting them for their compassion and generosity. And his use of large letters when he wrote was his way of emphasizing his point.
Of course there have been many other attempts to determine what illness Paul had. Some say he had malaria; others suggest epilepsy. If Paul had all the illnesses that our commentaries say he had, he was a very sick man indeed. The truth is, we have insufficient evidence to make an accurate diagnosis. But we should not let all the speculation about the nature of his illness distract us from Paul's perspective that even his illness was an opportunity to preach the gospel. It is common to view illness as a hindrance to preaching the gospel or an excuse not to do our duty. But Paul realized, as he says in a letter to the Corinthian church, that God's grace is sufficient for us in our weakness--in fact, that God's power is best expressed through our weakness.
Verse 14 indicates that Paul's illness was repulsive. It would have been understandable if the Galatians had turned away from him in disgust. But even though his illness was a trial for them to bear, they did not treat him with contempt or scorn. Instead, Paul exclaims with gratitude, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself (v. 14). Of course Paul does not mean that the Galatians actually regarded him as an angel of God or as Christ Jesus himself. The repeated as if introduces two exaggerated comparisons that compare how the Galatians initially welcomed Paul to the welcome they would have given an angel of God or Jesus Christ himself. And yet Paul was like an angel of God, since he was an apostle sent from God (1:1), so the Galatians were right to give him a welcome due to an angel of God. And Paul was so identified with Christ (2:20) that those who welcomed him also welcomed Christ himself.
In the Galatians' reception of Paul we see a wonderful example of the way to receive a messenger from God. In our day people want to listen to someone who has a good "TV image." If preachers' outward appearance is appealing, they get a big audience. But if they were ugly and sickly, as tradition tells us Paul was, then most people would switch channels to find a more attractive image. But the Galatians' reception of Paul was not based on outward appearances. If they had responded to Paul simply on the basis of his physical attractiveness, they would have rejected him with contempt. Instead they evaluated the messenger on the basis of his message and then welcomed him with open arms. For his message was the redemptive love of God expressed in Christ Jesus.
Verses 15 and 16 present a contrast: the Galatians had given Paul a royal welcome, but suddenly their attitude toward him changed drastically. What has happened to all your joy? he asks. The question looks back longingly to those joyful days when Paul first preached the gospel in Galatia. Paul reminds them that they would have gone to any extreme to help him during those days; they would have torn out their eyes for him if they could have done so. Since the eyes were considered the most precious parts of the body, this is a graphic, idiomatic description of the Galatians' devotion to Paul at the beginning of their relationship. But now their relationship has turned sour. The cause for the Galatians' change of attitude is given by Paul in verse 16. Although the NIV puts this verse in the form of a question, it should be taken as a statement of Paul's description of the Galatians' fickle change of heart: "So now I have become your enemy by telling you the truth!" No doubt the truth Paul refers to here is the truth contained in this letter: his rebuke for desertion from the true gospel (1:6) and foolishness about the gospel (3:1).
The dramatic shift from the Galatians' warm welcome to their cold rejection of Paul serves as a sober warning to both pastors and their churches. Pastors should not be so naive as to think they will always receive a warm welcome if they consistently teach the truth. In fact, teaching the truth will always run the risk of alienating some people. And people in the church need to be aware that their initial positive response to pastors who teach the truth will be severely tested when the truth cuts like a two-edged sword. During such a time of conviction, people need to maintain their loyalty to their pastors precisely because they have the courage to preach the truth even when it hurts.
The negative example of the rival teachers provides another reason for following Paul's example. They were exclusive and divisive in their relationships. They had launched an aggressive campaign to win the allegiance of the Galatian Christians--but, Paul declares, for no good. They were jealous leaders who envied the Galatian Christians' affectionate relationship with Paul. So they sought to alienate the Galatian believers from Paul. Literally, the verb alienate means "shut out" or "exclude." Although Paul does not actually say from whom this exclusion was desired, his focus here on his relationship with his readers indicates clearly that the rival teachers intended to alienate the Galatian Christians from Paul.
All too often leaders in the church seem to be more interested in the exclusive personal attachment of their followers to themselves than in the spiritual growth and unity of the entire body of Christ. Of course, as Paul admits in verse 18, it is not wrong to be zealous to win the affection of others, as long as it is for their welfare. But by the very way Paul states this general principle, he calls us to be careful lest we court the affections of others for our own selfish advantage or are courted in such a way ourselves.
In contrast to the selfish motive of the rival teachers, Paul expresses his own deep, heartfelt concern for his dear children. He portrays himself as a pregnant mother, again in the pains of childbirth. This rather shocking maternal image captures the extent of Paul's identification with these Christians. In his love for them, he has had to go through labor pains for them twice: when he preached the gospel to them the first time, and now again as he seeks to bring them back to the true gospel. This is more than any mother must go through for her child. But Paul tells his children in the faith that he is willing to endure labor pains for them not just twice but until Christ is formed in you.
Actually, there is a sudden shift of images here. Paul views himself as a pregnant mother delivering her children, but now he views the Galatians themselves as pregnant people bearing Christ as an unformed fetus in their wombs. Paul is enduring the pains of childbirth for them until Christ is fully formed within them. From a scientific point of view this may seem like a very strange conjunction of images, but Paul's point is clear: because he loves his converts with a sacrificial love, he will endure any pain until the full image of Christ is seen in them.
The contrast between Paul and the rival teachers is striking. Their selfish motive is to attach the Galatians to themselves so that they will be the center of attention; Paul labors to attach them to Christ so that the full moral character of Christ will be expressed in them. Paul's personal appeal, become like me, must be interpreted in the light of this contrast. It is not simply a demand for personal attachment to Paul. It expresses his longing for the Galatians to be able to declare wholeheartedly with him, "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me!"
It is not surprising that the image of Paul's maternal love for his children is followed by an expression of his wish to be with them and change his tone (v. 20). If he were with them, he would want to change from his tone of rebuke for their past foolishness and give them parental counsel for their future conduct. In fact, he does that in his letter, which is a substitute for his personal visit. Up to this point in his letter, his dominant tone has been one of rebuke. But now that he has called for a renewal of their friendship in this paragraph (vv. 12-20), he turns his attention to instructions. Yet still he has a heavy heart, for he is perplexed about them (v. 20). What will their foolishness lead them to do? What will be the outcome of their confusion? Such questions move Paul to give clear directions in the rest of his letter, to guide his readers out of their slavery to false teaching into the freedom of the true gospel of Christ.
We cannot help but be moved by Paul's passion for his people. He feels their pain; he identifies with their struggle. He has the heart of a good mother caring for her newborn. May God raise up evangelists and pastors like him in our generation.