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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.