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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.