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Paul’s Appeal to His Children

I found this in my reading this morning. I love how God plans ahead even in what I’ll be reading for a particular day. It’s from Tom Wright’s Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians.

GALATIANS 4.12-20 Paul’s Appeal to His Children
Become like me! — because I became like you, my dear family. This is my plea to you. You didn’t wrong me: no, you know that it was through bodily weakness that I announced the gospel to you in the first place. You didn’t despise or ridicule me, even though my condition was quite a test for you, but you welcomed me as if I were God’s angel, as if I were the Messiah, Jesus! What’s happened to the blessing you had then? Yes, I can testify that you would have torn out your eyes, if you’d been able to, and given them to me. So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?
The other lot are eager for you, but it’s not in a good cause. They want to shut you out, so that you will then be eager for them. Well, it’s always good to be eager in a good cause, and not only when I’m there with you. My children — I seem to he in labour with you all over again, until the Messiah is fully formed in you! I wish I were there with you right now, and could change my tone of voice. I really am at a loss about you.

The French teacher was a strict disciplinarian. We weren’t allowed to speak a word of English during the classes, and neither did he. Everything, even trivial comments or requests, had to be made in French. He was determined that we would not only learn to read, write and speak in French, but come to think in it as well.

So we were all the more startled when one day he walked into the class, stood in front of us, and quietly spoke in English. We’d never heard him do that before. He was very angry. We had all done very badly in our examination the previous week. The only way he could make the point with sufficient shock value was to break his normal pattern and to talk in English, as though he were saying to us, “You’ve done so badly in French that maybe I can’t even speak to you in it any more.” It made a deep impression. Then, after a few minutes, he resumed the normal lesson.

This is the point in Galatians where Paul, as it were, stops talking theology, breaks off his train of thought, and speaks in quite a different way to his surprised hearers. Up until this point, at least since 2.15, he has been mounting a step-by-step argument, requiring his hearers (not to mention his readers 2,000 years later!) to follow it closely and think hard. Now, quite suddenly, like a teacher stopping the lesson, coming to the front of the class, taking off his spectacles and speaking to the pupils directly, he tells them what he’s thinking, how it feels, what sort of thoughts are rushing through his head at a more personal level. This is a heart-to-heart moment. Almost every line is an appeal to friendship, to family loyalty, to a mutual bond established by their common experience of what God has done for them together.

It all goes back to the time when Paul first arrived in Galatia. He was in bad shape. We don’t know what the problem was: some think he was sick, others that he had been badly beaten in a recent persecution. (If he was sick, we don’t know what sort of sickness it was, though there has been a lot of speculation on the matter.) In any case, his physical condition when he arrived was so bad that it was quite off-putting to the Galatians. But this didn’t stop them from welcoming him; in fact, as he announced the good news of Jesus, God worked so powerfully through him that they knew they were in the presence of someone extraordinary, and treated him accordingly. “As though I were an angel,” he says; “as though I were the Messiah himself, Jesus in person.”

The underlying point here seems to be that Paul is reminding them that his flesh, his physical condition, was no problem for them at that stage. Now, therefore, they ought not to suppose that their own flesh, their present condition (i.e. uncircumcision) will be any problem to him or to anyone else. Whether it be personality cults, fine clothes, physical circumcision, wealth, noble birth, social status — whatever it is, it’s all irrelevant when it comes to preaching the gospel, hearing the gospel, or living by the gospel. Paul wants them to see that just as he, a Jew, has been cheerfully prepared to suffer for the gospel, so they should be prepared to share his status, that of being defined simply and solely by their faith in Jesus Christ.

So, he asks, what has gone wrong? What happened to that blessing, that wonderful state of opening their hearts and lives to the word and power of the gospel, and finding it transform them from within? At the time they would have done anything for him (to speak of “plucking out your eyes for someone” was a regular way of saying “I would do anything for you”). Now, since all he’s done is tell them the truth, surely they aren’t going to turn away from him? This is a direct appeal to the loyalty of friendship. Theological argument is important; but unless it takes place within a context where people are bonded together in mutual trust and shared Christian experience, it will only reach the head, not the heart, and probably not the will.

The real reason for the break — or the potential break — in their relationship has been the other people who have come in. Paul here only speaks of them as “they,” but it’s clear what these people want to do. They want to shut the Galatians out. Remember chapter 2: they want to set up a two-level fellowship, an outer circle for Gentile Christians and an inner circle for Jewish Christians. That way they can present themselves to their Jewish friends or family as proper, law-abiding Jews; and they will then compel the Galatians to come, cap in hand, to seek circumcision as the price of admission to the inner circle.

But Paul knows that there can be no outer circle and inner circle within the grace of God. “They,” he says, “are eager for you”; the word he uses for “eager” is actually zealous, filled with the zeal that he himself had once had, zeal for God and the law, zeal to make converts to Judaism. But Paul is now using the word in a wider sense as well. Zeal in this wider sense is a good thing: it is fine to burn with eagerness for God’s work, but it must be on the right lines (compare Romans 10.2, where he describes his fellow Jews as having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge). Paul wants them to be on fire with love for God, for the gospel, for the fellowship of all other believers. The zeal that “they,” the opponents or agitators, are exhibiting is of another kind: they are aflame with eagerness to consolidate their view of God’s people as a family based principally on ethnic, physically marked membership.
Faced with this, Paul is almost in despair. What can he do? What can he say to make them change their minds? He feels like a mother who, after giving birth, finds herself going through labour pains all over again, watching her children struggle to become the mature adults they were supposed to be. Here he describes his aim for them very strikingly: “until the messiah is formed in you.” His goal is that the messianic life — the self-giving love which embraces all alike — should appear in their own community. If only he could be there in person and explain it all to them kindly, sympathetically, with the language of face and body that would tell them how much he loved them; that would win from them an answering love and trust! Letters are a poor substitute for personal presence, though they have spin-off value: if Paul hadn’t written Galatians, we wouldn’t have all this wealth of insight and teaching.

This little section, then, stands here in Galatians as witness to the marriage of head and heart in the teaching and pastoral work that belong to the gospel. We may convince people’s minds, but unless we can look them in the eye (or make them feel, through other types of communication, that that is what’s happening), we may have little effect. Paul, one of the greatest ever theologians, knew that what really mattered was the formation of the Messiah’s own life in this community, the life in which there was neither Jew nor Greek. He was determined to make the point by every available means. He now returns to theological argument, having reminded them that he is not just a brain with a mouth attached, but a warm-hearted human being with a primary claim on their love and loyalty.

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