Download Audio


Galatians 4:17-20

August 15, 1999

Text Comment

v.19     It is a powerful image. He had given birth to them once; now, is having to go through the whole painful experience again. Mothers, how would you like to give birth to the same child two or three times? The relief of giving birth is, in part, is it not, the knowledge that that, at least, is done and my child is now in the world? In 1 Corinthians 4:15 Paul speaks of being the father of his converts there; in 1 Thessalonians 2:7 of his being their nurse. These are all images that communicate the strength of the bond that Paul feels with these young Christians. It is a vivid way of communicating the intensity of his love and concern.

Now, to appreciate the full weight of the remarks that Paul makes here, imagine the reaction of the judaizers when, as must have happened, one of the Galatian church members showed them a copy of Paul’s letter or reported to them what he had said. People resent almost nothing so much as someone casting aspersion on their motives, which is as much as to accuse them of being hypocrites.

[I had that happen to me this past week. One of the church’s neighbors called to express her anger at our plans to purchase the homes behind the church with the intention of pulling them down to make room for a parking lot. It was all I could do to contain myself, not because she didn’t like our plans — that is easy enough to appreciate and even to discuss — but because she was constantly impugning our motives. We were seeking to take financial advantage of the weakness and old age of some of our neighbors; we were trying to pull the wool over the neighborhood’s eyes and deceive them about our plans; and the like. It is infuriating to have your motives impugned.]

I don’t doubt that among the reasons the Pharisees and Sadducees hated Jesus with such a passion was the fact that he so often and so directly called their motives into question.

Remember how often he said something like:

            “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them.”

            “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men.” [Matthew 7:1,5]

            “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” [Mark 12:38-40]

And, on one occasion, he said very much the same kind of thing about the Pharisees that Paul said here about the judaizers, viz. that, for all their undoubted zeal, they were doing much more harm than good. The Lord spoke with an even more acid tongue.

            “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” [Matthew 23:15]

The Lord was always going to the bottom of things, and at the bottom of things in the human heart are our motives. Men alone, of all God’s creatures on earth, have motives. Here is Alexander Whyte.

            “Our motives are the secret springs of our hearts. Our motives are those hidden things in our hearts that move us to speak and to act. Our lives all issue out from our hearts, like so many streams out of so many deep and hidden springs…. And thus it is that our Lord’s teaching is so full of all the matters of the heart; especially of the hidden motives of the heart.”

The judaizers would have been livid, but that is exactly what Paul was saying: the judaizers were zealous, one had to give them that, but their zeal was ill-motivated, selfish, self-centered. They were more interested in winning converts to themselves than to God and Christ. (If the principle of grace produces an other-centered life, the principle of legalism championed by the judaizers, produces and must produce at the last, a self-centered life.)

False and corrupt motives and the hypocrisy that conceals them, of course, are a problem for the orthodox Christian as well. You remember that in Philippians 1:15-16 Paul makes reference to some who preach the gospel out of envy and rivalry, while others he knew preached it from good will and love. The strange thing there is that Paul says about those who preach out of envy and selfish ambition, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

But there was a great difference between that situation and this in Galatians. In that former situation Paul describes in Philippians it was still the gospel that was being preached. Here not only were the motives false, but the gospel was too! Paul could bear with false motives at least to some degree if the gospel were accurately preached; but false motives made false doctrine even worse.

McCheyne says somewhere that envy is the besetting sin of ministers. The temptation is ever present to compare oneself with other ministers, the size of their church with your own, their reputations as preachers or theologians with your own, etc. And so it was in Galatia. Not, however, that any judaizer would have admitted this! There is the hypocrisy. They would never have admitted that they were seeking converts to themselves or that they were jealous of Paul’s success with these Galatian Christians. To themselves they were interested only in the truth, only in the welfare of these people whom Paul had led astray, only in the honor of God. There was nothing self-interested in their zeal to instruct the Galatian churches in this different way of thinking. But in this they were lying to themselves as well as to the Galatians themselves. Human beings are often blind to nothing so much as their own motives.

There is abroad in New Testament studies today a new way of thinking about first century Judaism. It is congenial to the ecumenical spirit that seemingly everyone is wanting to foster in the late 20th century relativist as it is. The new thinking is that Judaism wasn’t really legalistic after all. In fact, theologically, it was almost identical to the teaching of Paul except in one point, viz. that it did not recognize that Jesus was the Messiah. It was still, however, a religion of grace and not of works. Balderdash!

What that requires, of course, is for a lot of Jewish material to be read in an impossibly favorable light and for a lot of the New Testament to be read in a very unnatural way if not an actually skeptical way. The pioneer of this new thinking in NT scholarship, a scholar by the name of E.P. Sanders, is a man committed to fostering Jewish/Christian rapprochement and, not to put too fine a point on it, he does not himself embrace supernatural Christianity so it is no loss to him to part company with the teaching of the Bible at certain key points.

But one doesn’t have to come out and admit that he is or even know that he is in order to be a legalist in the same way that one doesn’t have to admit that his motives are selfish in order to be a hypocrite. We Christians have no problem believing that first century Judaism was profoundly legalistic because that is the direction to which all human religious thought tends, including Christianity. Indeed, for most of its history, among most of its adherents, Christianity has been a religion of legalism, no matter that no one admits this or teaches this, no matter that in church they may say the opposite. Legalism is the natural religion of man and it surfaces everywhere and always unless it is beaten back and kept at bay by powerful convictions in the heart produced by divine grace at work in the heart. You struggle with it; I struggle with it. The people of God, by the Bible’s express testimony, were, throughout the ages of the Israelite kings and prophets, time and again beguiled by legalistic ways of thinking and had to be called back to the gospel of grace. Admitting that first century Judaism, the Judaism that Jesus encountered, that Paul grew up in, was legalistic, is not only admitting the obvious and the inevitable, but a salutary warning about how easily the gospel is lost and buried under the principles of natural religion. Here it is happening again in Galatia in a Christian form. That legalism had swept over Judaism in the first century is no reason for Christians to despise Jews or to feel superior to them. It is, instead, a reason for Christians to watch themselves to take care they do not make the same mistake, as countless generations of Christians, alas, have done before them.

E.P. Sanders and those who have followed him do not accept that Judaism was legalistic. They don’t want that to be true because they think that such a view of Judaism fosters among Christians an antipathy for Judaism. Christians look down on Judaism because they regard it as a corruption of the true, evangelical religion of the Bible. And they think that the Jews killed Christ precisely because of their fundamental hostility to the entire notion of a Redeemer who would die for the sins of the world. Whereas if they learn that Judaism was a religion of grace just like Christianity, Christians will think better of it and the old animosities will disappear. In the opening pages of his influential book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Sanders suggests that the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jews was rooted in German biblical scholarship that, he thinks, demonized Judaism as a legalistic faith, the reverse of the true gospel of justification by faith alone. So he is setting out to prove that Judaism is much more like Christianity than it is different from it. That should bring Jews and Christians together, he thinks.

The problem with Sanders’ viewpoint is not simply the evidence of the NT itself and of Jewish materials. It is also that the same assessment of first-century Judaism to which Sanders objects is encountered in the New Testament at the level of motivation as at the level of theology. If first-century Judaism was really a religion of grace and not of works as Christians have thought these past 2,000 years, is it then the case that Jesus was crucified as a result of a tragic but altogether sincere mistake? Did we have champions of grace murdering the Prince of Life simply because of a failure to communicate?

That isn’t the New Testament’s viewpoint. The Jewish leadership hated Jesus, the Bible says, over and over again, because they envied him! Jesus was murdered to satisfy the selfish zeal of the Pharisees and Saduccees, the same kind of zeal that Paul is now encountering among judaizers in Galatia.

Even Pilate was astute enough to see this. We read in Mark 15:9-10:

            “‘Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.”

In John 11:48 we read that, even among themselves, they would admit that they were seeking to preserve their own places and their own authority by executing Jesus of Nazareth.

            “‘What are we accomplishing,’ they asked. Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.'”

How many times through church history has great evil been done, faithful men and women punished, all in the name of some high principle, when, at the bottom selfish men are at work preserving their own places! Jonathan Edwards, in his first book about the revival, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God (1741) wrote, “When the Spirit of God came to be poured out so wonderfully in the apostles’ days, many who had been in reputation for religion and piety had a great spite against the work because they saw it tended to diminish their honour and to reproach their formality and lukewarmness.” And he drew his readers attention to that fact precisely because he saw the very same thing happening again in his own day.

And, in John 12:43, we read that there were those among the Jewish leaders who were inclined to believe in Jesus, but kept their mouths shut for fear of retaliation.

            “Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.”

And the same envy surfaces after Pentecost over the resurgence of Christ’s movement and the influence of its leaders. After we read of the Apostles’ healing miracles, we have this in Acts 5:16.

            “Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented with evil spirits, and all of them were healed. Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail…”

Sanders won’t want to hear about this either. This is not the way to bring Christians to think well of Jews, he will think. But there is nothing to be gained by denying the obvious. We know those Jews were envious of Christ and of the Christian apostles. We know it, not only because the Bible says it, but precisely because we are always struggling with envy ourselves and are always observing it in others around us. Their envy ought to produce in us not haughty feelings of superiority, but pity and understanding, knowing as we do how prone we are to the same sin and how corrupted our hearts are by it. Envy drives our national life and leaves its mark on every office, every business, and every school and it produces the same results today it produced in the first century in Jerusalem and Galatia: the spirit of ill-will, competition, and fear, and a self-centered effort in word and deed to advance yourself at the expense of others.

Lying beneath all of this legalism, now and then, is the principle of self-love and the envy of others. Paul had no direct knowledge of their envy — they certainly never admitted that they were envious of Paul and desirous for a greater reputation themselves — but he knew it was there because of their legalism. Envy is legalism’s mother. Self and the worship of self and the protection of self is the motive lying beneath all legalism. In other words, motives are the key determinant, the true measure of behavior. The judaizers were not so much envious because they were legalists, as they were legalists because they were envious; and you can see the underlying envy through the legalism.

But, motives are the true measure of things in other ways as well. They can unmask real evangelicals as well as those who have departed from the gospel.

Robert Yarbrough, who taught recently in the NT department at Covenant Theological Seminary, and who now teaches at Trinity Evangelical in Chicago, contributed an article to a new book of essays dealing with 1 Timothy 2:9-15, the center of the storm of controversy over women’s ordination in evangelical churches. Bob’s article is fine piece of work and, in part, is a demonstration that evangelicals paid little attention to this text until the rise of feminism in the culture. He did the bibliographic search and charted the rise of interest in the text and the number of articles and books written about it and the number of articles and books rejecting the church’s historic understanding of that text and it neatly followed the curve of feminism’s growing impact on the culture.

The point was unmistakable. The church was taking its cue from the world, was thinking the world’s thoughts after it, and changed its view on men and women and 1 Timothy 2 in particular to bring it into conformity with the world’s new thinking about gender.

I read a review of the book in a prominent evangelical scholarly journal. The reviewer, an egalitarian himself, said some polite things about the book in general, but he hated Bob Yarbrough’s article. For that article, you see, called the motives of evangelicals who have changed their position on women elders and ministers into question. Of course, that meant that his own motives were being called into question. He, of course, believes that the only reason he changed his view on the interpretation of the Bible was that he was driven to it by the evidence. He would never admit that he was seeking to bring his views into conformity with what is acceptable in our culture. He would never admit, he would hotly deny, that his views of a text of Scripture were shaped by his desire to gain the world’s approval. How dare Robert Yarbrough suggest any such thing!

But, the fact is, the places where the church is capitulating to a large degree on its historic teaching are precisely those places where the world finds Christian truth most repugnant and unacceptable, most primitive, unsophisticated, unlearned, superstitious, and barbaric: the sinfulness of homosexuality; the real difference in calling between men and women; the absolute necessity of being a Christian in order to be saved in this world or the world to come; and the reality of eternal judgment.

It is no surprise that people will be offended by the suggestion that their motives are base and selfish, that they are motivated more by a desire to be accepted by the world than by a determination to be faithful to the Word of God. It was not a surprise that the judaizers were deeply offended by Paul’s suggestion that their work in Galatia was selfishly motivated and did not arise from a pure love for God and for his gospel.

But we know motives. And we know ourselves. We know how easily we ourselves do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing precisely because we are eaten up with impure and unworthy motives. No one should think it unlikely that, when the world says “jump” and we see whole sections of the evangelical church jumping like mad, that there is a connection between the one and the other.

Once again, motives are the key. They are the source and origin of behavior and determine the moral shape of that behavior, whether or not the behavior would itself, otherwise, be acceptable, even praiseworthy.

Now, what does all of this mean, but this. We have no true knowledge of ourselves, you and I, unless we know our motives, the reasons for our actions. We have no real sense of our faithfulness to God and Christ unless we are all the while judging our motives as well as our behavior, searching our motives as well as words and deeds. Our Lord frankly admitted that much of what the Pharisees did was right and proper. But it was all for nothing because their motives were selfish and impure. But, still today, we are far more ready to judge ourselves by our behavior than by our motives.

It is not enough to come to church if you come because you want to be seen there, or come to see other people there, or come because you think God will give you credit just for being there. It is not enough to show some kindness to others if you wish others to admire you for it or the person himself or herself to be indebted to you for it. It is not enough to show interest in your wife because she will nag you if you don’t or for your children to obey your parents because you want something from them.

But, as soon as we begin talking like this, if we are honest, we will be forced to recognize the whole universe of wrong that lies beneath the surface of our lives. We rarely do any thing that we ought to do with unmixed motives. And remember, God looks upon the heart! He knows the heart!

It is ours to remember, as the poet says,

            For I am [a]ware it is the seed of act

            God holds appraising in his hollow palm:

            Not act grown great thence as the world believes,

            Leafage and branchage vulgar eyes admire.

            [In Whyte, With Mercy and with Judgment, 47]

What I am in my motives, that is what I really am: that, just that; nothing more nor less. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “God weighs more with how much love a man works: He weighs the motive more than the actual work. He does much in God’s judgment who loves much.” And, then, we read what love is and does in 1 Corinthians 13 and we see at once how much love, true love, depends upon truly loving motives deep down, how easily love can be mimicked by us, and what sort of questions we have to ask of ourselves to find out whether there is true love beneath our actions: do we keep no record of wrongs, do we believe all the best things of other people, do we hope for all the best things for others, and the like.

Do you want to know where you are as a Christian: how far you have come and how far you have still to go? You make it your business to study your motives, the true reasons you do things. And be rigorously honest with yourself. Do you not want to see yourself what God is always seeing?

And, at the same time, if you know you need more humility I cannot do better than recommend that you study carefully your own motives. I guarantee you it will not be a pretty sight. And do you need more love for Christ. Do the same. Look to your motives. You will like yourself much less and you will think it much more amazing that Christ likes you and loves you, even though he sees and knows the whole terrible truth about your motives better than you do yourself.

And do you want to have more zeal, true burning zeal for Christ and the gospel and a life of true obedience and service? Do you want to have as much zeal as these judaizers did, but to have it flow from pure motives to accomplish holy ends in your life and in the life of others?

Well, then, look to your motives, for it all begins there. Make sure that what you are looking for in yourself and demanding of yourself and praying for yourself is just that holy love for God and man out of which nothing comes but what is pure and good and fruitful. Keep asking yourself why you did what you did, until you are conscious of nothing so much as the springs from which your life flows. Begin to ask yourself more often not what you ought to do, but what you ought to desire in this situation or that; what God wants you to want; and why he wants you to do this or that which he has commanded in his Word. Keep taking yourself down to the bottom of your words and actions until you see them always in terms of the motives from which they spring. Confess your false motives and plead with God for true and pure motives. Because if the tree is good, the fruit will be good also.

And remember this encouragement, while you are about that difficult and demanding and sometimes discouraging work:

            “You have it in your own hand to melt your heart of ice into one pool of holy love…. For the same Holy Spirit who gave Christ his hot heart, and Paul his hot heart, is given to you also” and lives in your now! [Whyte, Walk, Character, and Conversation, 153]