STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 17
August 8, 1999
v.12 It has been a month and a Sunday since we last spent a Sunday evening making our way through Paul’s argument in his letter to the Galatians. If you remember, he spoke very sternly in the last paragraph, and ended, in v. 11, with a stinging rebuke. He feared that he had wasted his time on these Galatian converts, now that they had returned to their former legalisms, even if now in a outwardly Christian form. But, it is characteristic of Paul’s tact and insight as a pastor that he now balances that firm reproof he has given in the preceding verses with something more tender and affectionate. If vv. 8-11 were the stick, vv. 12-16 are the carrot. The prophets do this, the Lord himself did it in his dealings with men, and we are to take our cue from them. When we deal with sinners in the error of their ways we are likewise to mix and alternate warning and invitation, rebuke and affectionate appeal.
“become like me, for I became like you…” I take to mean “see yourself as those in need of the gift of Christ’s righteousness, as I did.” That is, Paul, the Jewish rabbi, the Pharisee of the Pharisee became in his own judgment just as needy of the grace of God, just as sure that he could not make himself righteous before God, as any pagan idolater, such as these folk were before they professed their faith in Christ.
“At one time, I, a proud Jew, imagined that I would be able to achieve my own righteousness before God. But I became as you Gentiles are, by nature [condemned] in [God’s] sight, with nothing of self to appeal to.” It is similar to the thought of 2:15.
“No wrong did you do me.” Paul has not taken their change in theological direction as an offense against him personally. He is holding no grudge.
v.13 The last thought reminds him of their former dealings with one another. The reference to his preaching to these folk in the first place “because of an illness” is very tantalizing and, as you can imagine, has produced an immense body of speculation. William Ramsay, the great classical scholar and defender of the historicity of the Book of Acts a century ago, suggested that Paul had contracted malaria in the lowlands of Pamphylia and had made his way into the drier, cooler highlands — where Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe were found — to recuperate. Pisidian Antioch, for example, is 3,600 feet above sea level. Paul’s remark in v. 15 to the effect that, had they been able, they would have torn out their eyes and given them to Paul, has been taken by others to suggest that Paul’s illness was some disease of the eyes, though it is not clear why this would have brought him to the Galatians. The fact is, no one knows precisely to what Paul is referring here. But, it is clear that when he came to Galatia, it was a man who had real weakness and needs of his own and the Galatians opened their arms to help him and care for him.
v.14 What is more, Paul’s illness did not diminish the regard in which they held him as a messenger from God. Sick though he was, they hung on his words as someone speaking to them from God himself. His sickness was a trial to them perhaps in the sense that it was disgusting and they had to put up with it in order to hear the gospel from him. Or perhaps Paul means that it was a trial in the true sense, a testing, whether they would love the truth sufficiently to receive it from a messenger so weak they had to care for him. Paul would later say to the Corinthians, in regard to his work as an evangelist, “we hold these treasures in earthen vessels.” Whatever was the case, the Galatians welcomed Paul, sick though he was, weak as he was, as the very messenger of God and Christ, as Christ himself in his spokesman.
v.15 The thrilling discovery of the good news of salvation in Christ had, if anything, made the Galatians so grateful to Paul, the man who had brought them the news, that in those days they would have done anything for him. There was a story in classical antiquity of two friends from Scythia (the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea), Dandamis and Amizoces. Dandamis sacrificed his eyes to ransom his friend Amizoces from captivity, and upon gaining his freedom Amizoces blinded himself because he could not bear to see his friend’s blindness. It is this extravagance of devotion that Paul remembers. [H.D. Betz in Bruce, NIGNTC, 211]
v.16 Paul ends this short section with a rhetorical question. Having loved me so deeply, do you now consider me your enemy because I have cared to tell you the truth once again? He obviously hopes to awaken in his Galatian friends both a new memory of their former devotion to Paul, the confidence and joy with which they first heard him, and, at the same time, a desire for things to be again between Paul and themselves as they were so happily once before. Obviously the judaizers had driven a wedge between the Galatian Christians and their father in the faith. They had cast doubt upon his teaching, perhaps as well upon his ethics and reputation. Paul, in turn, is here asserting his rights as the one who brought them into the joy of the Lord in the first place. Paul’s reference to “telling you the truth” — that is, the truth that hurts because it condemns what the Galatians have done in listening to the judaizers and modifying their views accordingly — is probably simply to what he has said already in this letter. Are you going to consider me your enemy because I have been so blunt with you. A real friend tells his friends the truth even when it hurts; especially if that truth is a matter of life and death.
There are passages in the Bible, and this is one of them, that greatly encourage me in a kind of backhanded way. I find, for example, great encouragement in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians because that letter describes a church that Paul the Apostle founded himself that was riddled with sins of various kinds. In that church people were at odds with one another, even refusing to give one another the time of day, they were proud and haughty, they had imbibed some really screwy ideas, and were, in some very public ways, profoundly worldly. That church was, in fact, a disgrace to the gospel. How do I get encouragement from that? Well, in this way. That if Paul could establish a church that would soon be like that, if real Christians could disfigure the gospel as those Christians did, if Paul could still consider a congregation that had as much wrong in it as that congregation did, a genuinely Christian congregation, then there is hope for me and hope for us!
It is akin to Alexander Whyte calling Romans 7:14-25 the most consoling passage in the Bible. In that passage Paul, in the maturity of his apostleship, admits how great a sinner he is. And I don’t suppose there is a Christian anywhere who has not taken great consolation from the fact that Paul thought about his life in the same way I think about mine and you think about yours. What we want to do we don’t; what we don’t want to do we do; we are bondslaves of sin! But if Paul was too, then there is hope for me. Paul’s tortured confession teaches me that I can still be a real Christian even though I know myself still to be a bondslave of sin!
We know the great evil that David did and we have learned in our study of the Bible the horrendous consequences of that evil. But, truth be told, there is a part of us, even a truly Christian part of us, that heaves a sigh of relief over the story of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite, precisely because, knowing ourselves to be inveterate sinners, and still inveterate sinners while Christians, David’s story gives us hope to believe we too can be true children of God, righteous with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, and still do terrible things.
We know how dangerous that truth is, how easily it can be turned into a damning indifference to our sin, but, like it or not, we need to know, we desperately need to know, that even sinners such as we are and continue to be can be real Christians and have an inheritance with the saints in light. And the more we feel and face our sin, the more important those biblical admissions come to be to us. Which is why only some preachers think to draw the comfort from these passages that there really is in them.
I never saw how much comfort there was in Romans 7:14-25 until I heard a man as great as Alexander Whyte say what he said about that painful confession of Paul about his still so great and miserable sinfulness.
“I would like you to tell me where I can find another chapter so full of the profoundest, surest, most spiritual, and most experimental, comfort. I have not found it. … no in its own wonderful way there is not a more comfortable and hopeful Scripture in all the Book of God than this. … As long as I am sold under sin I will continue to read continually this chapter… ‘Set beside the seventh of the Romans all your so-called great tragedies — your Macbeths, your Hamlets, your Lears, your Othellos, are all but so many stage plays; so much sound and fury, signifying next to nothing when set alongside this awful tragedy of sin in a soul under a supreme sanctification.” [Bible Characters, II, 257-258]
That was what Alexander Whyte took from Paul’s confession of his great sinfulness even as an apostle many years into his apostleship. Whyte was a man who knew sin and knew his own sin and, therefore, knew where to find true comfort for it.
You see, it is not enough to hear that Christ forgives sinners, that his grace is great enough to cover the mountain of sin that I am always piling up, sins of omission and sins of commission every day that I live, worse sins day by day because as a Christian so long I have so much less excuse for my disobedience, ingratitude and hardness of heart toward God and others. For the Bible also says that many think they have this forgiveness that do not and that many will not be saved at the end because they have not done the will of the Father in heaven. When I look at my sin and my habit of sinning and my love of sinning and my refusal to stop sinning, surely I must ask, is this simply too much for a real Christian? Is this the sin of someone who really has not embraced the gospel of God, upon whom the gospel, the life-changing gospel, the sin-eradicating gospel, has not come down with true power? Am I such a one as thinks himself saved when he is not because, at the last, I have not done the will of the Father in heaven?
And then comes the unequaled consolation and hope that David, who was a man after God’s own heart, sinned greatly and that Paul, perhaps the greatest Christian of the apostolic era, was a man who near the end of his life was still bemoaning his daily bondage to sin.
So, there is comfort in the failure of others; no mistake! Whether we are talking about individual Christians or whole churches, we learn in their falls that real believers, truly godly men and women, remain deeply flawed in this life.
Well, so here in Galatians 4:12-16. For what you have here are circumstances that are repeated a hundred times a day in today’s church. You have people who forget, as if it never happened, the kindnesses that others have shown to them. You have people who behave as if their previous history with a church, a minister, a family of saints, had been wiped out of their minds. You have people who forget days without number the joy that they had when first they came to new life in Christ. You have people who heard the Lord’s reproof, the Bible’s and the Holy Spirit’s severe and searching condemnation of their lives, and took it to heart, willingly to heart, at one time in their lives, but who take offense nowadays at the slightest suggestion that their behavior or their attitude is not in every part as it ought to be. (I heard, just the other day, of an older, experienced, long-serving Christian doing something positively disgraceful because his nose was bent out of joint about something going on in his church. But, I’m sure there was a day when the thought that he would have done such a thing would have been positively repulsive to him.) You have people in almost any church who at one time gave themselves to others, loving to make a sacrifice in Christ’s name, and who loved to point out and celebrate the kindness that other Christians showed to them; but who, now, are keeping count, a running total, of every perceived slight while, themselves, too aggrieved at what they take to be the failure of others toward them to find time and energy to show much kindness any more themselves, at least not real kindness, enthusiastic kindness, sacrificial, self-forgetful kindness, such as the Lord Christ showed us.
And because I find all of that in me and you find it in you, I find it a great encouragement to know that Paul found it in his churches too. It is the way sinners are, and we are all sinners. You see, these are, by and large, real Christians we are talking about here. They have been badly misled, and their faith has been shaken, but Paul will visit these same churches again, according to Acts, which reports the visit as routine and makes no comment, which I take to mean that these churches heeded Paul’s warning, or at least most Christians in them did and the churches went on chastened and wiser. Galatians, after all, does have a happy ending!
But we have the advantage of their experience. And we can take not only comfort from knowing that what ills we find in the church today have always been found in her, but find as well a challenge to surmount the pettiness that so easily besets the people of God.
We worship in a Southern Baptist church in Cripple Creek in our Colorado summers and we have made good friends of the pastor and his family. A wonderful man with a heart for the Lord and for the gospel, but a man who has, in the providence of the Lord, been given a very tough nut to crack in that small mountain town given over these days to casino gambling.
We talk each summer through a long walk about the year past and I do my best to encourage him in his difficult work, much more difficult than mine. And I was reminded again this summer on our walk that the real blows are not administered by the world, by the unbelieving folk in the town. They are disinterested in and sometimes overtly hostile to a faithful Christian witness concerning the town’s ways, but this good man isn’t overly bothered by that. He expects unbelievers to reject the message of the Bible until they are saved. What hurts and what hurt through this past year was the “friendly fire,” if you will, the shots that come from the rear. Christians who, at one time, were among his enthusiastic supporters, but who, for this reason or that, were offended and after troubling the church for a time left for this other church or that. This is a good man, who is quick to apologize for any offense he might have given; who wants to be a faithful pastor and preacher. You sometimes wonder if perhaps there is something wrong with a man whose ministry Christians desert, but, fact is, the most earnest Christians in the church love him and support him and stand behind him.
But, I can see the dismay and the confusion in his face as we talk. “They welcomed me so warmly at one time, and now they have left over so little that it seems to be nothing at all.” One of the great advantages the apostolic church had over the church of our day, of course, is that there was but one Christian church in each of these cities. You couldn’t leave it for a congregation of some other denomination. The church and individual believers saw all of this disagreement and disharmony, were forced to see it for what it was. And the spiritual among them could be challenged by what they saw and inspired to reach for something purer and higher in their loyalty to Christ and his church. When it is easy to move from one church to another, it is easy never to be forced to face the truth about oneself and to make the kind of sacrifices that Christ’s church and the body of Christ deserves from us.
[Now, I pause to assure you. I am not talking about anything or anyone here. I am simply pointing out that what Paul says here in these few verses is easily and immediately applicable to our lives, all our lives, and the life of the church today. I tell you straightaway, when I listened to my Baptist brother tell me of his difficulties in trying to hold his body together I thought all the while how grateful I ought to be to the Lord that the congregation I pastor has been so little like that through the years. But, we too can take this teaching, this description of a former zeal and a love grown cold, to our hearts. Surely, we can.]
We also had company at our Colorado cabin this summer. One family with whom we enjoyed a three day reunion Florence and I first met in Scotland. We have kept in contact with them through the years, seeing them from time to time. They are English and almost from the beginning of their Christian lives — they both became Christians in college — they have worshipped in churches in other countries: in Scotland, in Norway, and, for the most part, in the United States.
One thing has always impressed me about them as Christians. They have always been the most loyal and faithful church members. And that is not a small thing, because, truth be told — and as an American and a Reformed Christian in America I am embarrassed to have to admit this — several of the churches to which they came as Presbyterians moving to a new American city, left a great deal to be desired. One in which they remained for some years in the Bay area was doctrinally sound and spiritually asleep; another, in which they now worship, had vitality galore and with it every imaginable form of disorder and confusion, resulting in a good beginning being squandered and now a small number of people left to pick up the pieces. But they are there when the church doors open. They carry far more than their share of the load. And always they seem genuinely to care for those in their body.
They are the exact reverse of the American attitude of “what have you done for me lately!” and our preoccupation with the novel. And if others would criticize the ministry under which they sat or some of the people in nearby pews, they seemed to accept that everyone held these treasures in earthen vessels, there is nothing new about that! It wasn’t because Paul pleased everyone with his delivery that the gospel had power among the Galatians. They had to prop the poor man up, for goodness sake. It was the presence of the Lord and the truth of his love and forgiveness that drew these people to Paul, sick and perhaps disgusting as he was in his sickness, and then drew them to one another.
There are always judaizers ready to remind us how sick Paul was when he came, how hard it was to listen to him through all the wheezing, how thoughtless he was to spread his germs. And we are always so ready to forget how we loved him then and how we thrilled to the message he brought and with what joy we received what we then saw so clearly was nothing less than the way to God and heaven. Listen, that should be no great surprise. We forget God himself all the time! We forget what he has done for us and what he has promised to us days without number. We forget the joy he has given us in the past, the blessings he lavished on us, the way in which he has so faithfully met all our needs. It should be no surprise that we forget the kindnesses of others, the relationship we have had with others, the debts we owe to others, when we can so easily forget the debt we owe to God.
And, that, Paul says, is the real issue: do we forget or do we remember. Paul is here simply asking his Christian friends in Galatia to remember what had happened before, what God had done for them, how he had done it, and what they had felt about it then.
In the Bible, remembering and forgetting are spiritual things. It isn’t a matter of having a good memory or not, like some people who can remember the tiniest details about something that happened long ago, or what mark they got in arithmetic in third grade, or what she wore on her first date with the man she later married. In the Bible what matters is that one remembers the right things. Many of us can remember things that do us no particular good, some of you can tell us the Mariner’s starting line-up in 1987 — that have no bearing on our faith or our character. We remember slights and offenses as if they occurred yesterday. We can hold grudges for years.
But do we remember what God has shown us and taught us and with what joy we learned those lessons at one time and how deeply convicted we were about our walk with in one way or another? Do we remember God’s faithfulness to us so that when we are tempted to worry or despair that recollection comes in to calm our hearts? Do we remember the kindness that person showed us one time so that when he or she stumbles we are the quicker to forgive and forget because the memory of his kindness, of her compassion long ago warms our heart toward him or her?
An active memory, recollection of the right things, the important things of God and man is very important to godliness in the Bible. It is why God’s people always took steps, pains, to fix in their mind what they knew they ought not to forget, what they knew it would be to the advantage of their holiness to remember.
1. Samuel erecting “Ebenezer” at Mizpah.
2. Joseph naming his sons Ephraim and Manasseh.
3. The psalms enshrining God’s grace in the psalmist’s life.
You can’t live the Christian life, not biblically, not most faithfully, if you don’t remember, actively have in mind, what God has done in your past and what God has done through others in your past. The godly have always known that. That is why at certain times they drew up covenants (Boston) or preserved their own spiritual history in journals. However you do it, it must be done. In practical part, the Galatians went astray because they forgot their past, forgot what God had done, how he had done it and through whom he had done it! That is Paul’s point.
I want to be a faithful Christian, and I’m sure you want to be as well, who never forgets a kindness done to me; who forever honors the memory of those who have blessed me in the Lord’s name, whom the Lord has used to bless me. I want to be a Christian fiercely loyal to those with whom I have shared the experiences of grace. For those who taught me, those who corrected me, those who provided for me, those who bore with me, those who met my needs, I want there forever to be a sacred and active memory in my heart. If I must forget anything, let it be what I have done for others, never what they have done for me.
I remember being so impressed by John Calvin in this regard. As you remember, he was, as a young man, one of multitudes who were swept into salvation through the writings of Martin Luther, the German reformer, who had rediscovered the gospel which had been buried under the same mountain of legalistic and ritualistic debris that the judaizers wanted to pile up in Galatia. Later, as a major Reformer himself, Calvin was severely criticized on several occasions by the same Martin Luther, especially concerning his views on the Lord’s Supper. But Calvin replied, “I have often said that even though he were to call me a devil, I would nevertheless hold him in such honor that I would acknowledge him to be a distinguished servant of God.” [Bouwsma, 18, 241] And in Calvin’s only letter to Luther, who by this time was treating him as virtually an enemy, sent only a year before the great German reformer’s death, he wrote:
“Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever-honored father.” [Schaff, viii, 613]
That spirit would have protected the Galatians from much trouble and kept their hearts warm and tender to the influences of the Holy Spirit. But they forgot the rock from which they were hewn and the one who did all the hard digging. And look what happened to them!