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11. Paul Gets Personal (Galatians 4:12-20)


The verses which we are studying reveal a serious rift in the relationship which once existed between Paul and the Galatian saints. While Paul had taken the Galatian error seriously, the Galatians themselves had taken the matter personally. Their warmth and love for Paul had cooled to a chilling aloofness. There was a distance between these once intimate brothers and sisters which was not to be measured in miles.

There are at least three reasons for the widening gap between former friends. First, their relationship was affected by the influence of the Judaizers. They had actively undermined Paul’s apostleship, his message, and his ministry. It is evident that many had come to believe the apostle’s critics. Second, Paul’s austerity drained the relationship. Paul had been quite critical. We do not know all that had previously transpired, but the Book of Galatians itself gives adequate evidence of Paul’s strong reaction to the reports he had received about the Galatian churches. Chapter 1 began with Paul’s bewildered disappointment at the change in doctrine which had already occurred, but this bewilderment quickly changed to blunt severity. Paul subsequently condemned those who had taught such error. Paul was not as harsh to the Galatians, but he did make it clear that they were foolish to have believed such teaching (cf. 3:1). Because of Paul’s stern words the Galatians were rebuffed.

The third reason for the deteriorating relationship between Paul and the Galatians was to be found in the Galatians themselves. It is a part of man’s nature to take criticism or correction personally, especially when we are at fault. You will recall that Adam and Eve communed with God every evening, until they sinned by eating of the forbidden fruit. When they heard the sound of the Lord’s coming, they immediately sought to hide themselves from Him. God had done nothing wrong; the wrong was done by Adam and Eve. Their sin had resulted in a separation.

Whenever men depart from the truth, there is division. Division is frequently a symptom of sin. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul condemned the factionalism of the church, which was seen in the various little groups who identified themselves with particular leaders (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-17). The division which had become more and more pronounced between Paul and the Galatians is the occasion for the words of the apostle which we are studying. In these verses Paul reassures his readers that, while they have taken this matter personally, he has not. He seeks to heal their severed relationship by reminding them of the warmth and love they once shared and by revealing his tender feelings for them, as contrasted with the impure motivation of the Judaizers.

There is a distinct change of mood which occurs in this passage. Until now the most affectionate term Paul has used is that of “brothers” (cf. 1:11). However in these verses Paul refers to his readers using the term “my little children” (v. 19), an expression common with the Apostle John but used only here by Paul. Paul is not speaking as a prophet with scorching words, but as a parent, a mother in pain watching for the growth of her child while aware of some distressing signs of ill health. This is probably the warmest and tenderest passage Paul has written in this Galatian epistle. Let us approach it in light of this warm and tender mood seeking to catch a glimpse of the heart of this great apostle and, as he exhorts his readers, to be like him.

Faithful Friendship

12 I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You have done me no wrong; 13 but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; 14 and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.

Doctrinal deviation involves more than principles; it involves people. Paul is wiser than we, for he understands that while he has been dealing with principles, he must also deal with people. When the Galatians had chosen to follow the teachings of the Judaizers instead of the gospel which Paul preached, they turned away from Paul. Doctrinal deviation is disobedience, and it severs personal relationships, even deeply rooted ones. Paul realized that the error of the Galatians had put a strain on their relationship with him, so he deals very specifically with the personal factor, seeking to rekindle that flame of love which had once burned so brightly.

Paul begins verse 12 with a very significant appeal. He urged the Galatians to become like him.77 There are many ways in which men might imitate Paul, but our text focuses on one specific area in which the Galatians should be like him. They are to imitate Paul in that he was free from the Law like the Gentiles. Paul writes, “I beg of you, brethren, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Gal. 4:12a). Paul’s becoming like the Gentiles was a sensitive issue, especially to those Jewish saints who faithfully continued to observe Jewish ceremonial law:

And when they [the Jerusalem brethren] heard it [Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles] they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:20-21).

These accusations which the Jerusalem elders sought to prove false clearly can be traced to the Judaizers. There was enough substance to the charges that they were accepted by those who had already concluded that Paul was a traitor to Jewish Christianity. First, Paul, a devout Pharisee, had turned his back on legalistic Judaism when he was converted. This change is briefly described in chapter 1 (vv. 13-17), and in much fuller detail in Philippians, where he likens his works-righteousness to “dung.” Paul had become like the Gentiles in being saved like a Gentile—through faith in Christ.

A second bone of contention between Paul and the Jewish brethren was that Paul refused to distinguish between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. To him, there were only Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female (Gal. 3:28). To those who made much of their Jewishness, Paul’s preaching and teaching was offensive, bordering on heresy. The apostle’s advice to Paul (Acts 21) reveals the intensity of emotions of the Jerusalem Jewish saints toward Paul. The situation was volatile, as later events in the chapter reveal.

Third, Paul’s practice tended to give support to the accusations of those who opposed him. After all, Paul lived like a Gentile when he ministered to the Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). The fact that he lived like a Jew when among the Jews only made Paul look hypocritical to those who did not want to understand his teaching and practice. The allegation that Paul actually taught Jewish Christians to cease to live as Jews, not as a matter of concession to enhance their effectiveness in ministry but as a matter of consistent lifestyle, is the error of the accusations made against Paul in Acts 21.

In appealing to the Galatians to become like him, Paul was really urging them to be themselves—Gentiles, who had been saved by God’s grace and who did not need to change their identity. This is the thrust also of 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, where Paul urged the Corinthians to remain in the calling (not the moral condition) which they had when they were saved. Paul had become like the Gentiles in many respects, yet in following the Judaizers, the Galatians had sought to become like Paul before his conversion, intent on achieving a self-made righteousness.

There is a very important cultural subtlety underlying Paul’s becoming like the Gentile Galatians. Superiority is suggested when we insist that others conform to our culture and traditions. By refusing to fellowship with the Gentiles as “those from James” did (Gal. 2:12), and by insisting that the Gentiles live like Jews which the Judaizers did (Acts 15:1, 5), the Judaizers were very clearly claiming superiority as Jews. Such a claim is a virtual denial of the Gospel; therefore Paul reacted strongly against Peter’s error by rebuking him publicly (Gal. 2:14).

If an American who speaks French fluently converses in English during his travels to France, he will offend the French by subtly suggesting that his language is superior. Much damage has been done by Western missionaries who have forced those of a foreign culture to “bow the knee” to Western culture. Paul reminds his readers that he had become one of them, while the Judaizers had turned the tables insisting that the Gentiles must place themselves under the Law in order to be accepted by them.

When Paul writes, “You have done me no wrong” (v. 12b), he faces the strained relationship which exists as the result of the Galatians’ departure from the truth. He diffuses the issue by saying that he has not taken this as a matter of great personal offense. Paul clearly admits that he fears his labor has been in vain (cf. v. 11); but he does not take the failure of others as a personal offense. Paul quickly puts this possibility aside, assuring the Galatians that to him this is not a matter of personal injury.

Paul’s words, like the all too often used “I’m sorry,” may seem to be insincere, but underlying them is an attitude often missing among those who minister. It is very easy for those who invest their lives in others to measure their success in ministry by the success or failure of those to whom they have ministered. Because of this they often take the failures of people as offenses against themselves personally. Those who minister can be deeply offended by the sins of others, seeing them not only as sins against God, but against themselves. Paul assured the Galatians that he did not have this attitude. He was able to keep his ego detached even though his emotions were strong.

In verses 13 and 14, Paul seeks to rekindle the relationship he once had with the Galatians. He reminds them of the way they first met and the warmth of their love for him, in spite of the very adverse circumstances occasioned by his physical illness: “But you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself.”

Although there is a great deal of speculation concerning the nature of Paul’s “bodily illness,”78 there is no one ailment which can claim clear title to the truth. Indeed, it really does not matter, for Paul’s stress is not on the name of the malady but on its repulsive nature. His initial79 visit to the Galatians was a “trial” to them (v. 14) as it was a temptation for them to shun him in his condition. They could have “despised” or “loathed” him, but they did not.

The utter repulsiveness of Paul’s condition is conveyed by the strong expressions “despised” and “loathed.” “Despised” could mean to regard with utter contempt or at least to disregard. “Loathed” is the rendering of a graphic term which literally means to “spit out.” If you have ever swallowed a bug, you have had a “taste” of the nuance of this word. In the ancient Near East, people would spit after coming in contact with a disease or illness which was repulsive, apparently thinking that there was some therapeutic value in this act. The act of spitting was often associated with that which was repulsive. Paul’s point can hardly be missed: he was a mess, a sickening sight. There was no human attractiveness in his appearance.

Yet in spite of Paul’s pathetic physical appearance, the reception of the Galatians was exceedingly warm. Far from merely tolerating him, they received him warmly, as an angel—better still, as Christ Himself (v. 14). There is only one explanation for such a response. Their reception of Paul was not conditioned by his human appeal but was dependent upon the message which he brought, the truth of the gospel by which the Galatians were saved.

I am reminded of the Old Testament account of the four lepers in 2 Kings 7. They were starving, like their Israelite brethren, because of the siege of the Syrian army. They decided that it would be better to risk death at the edge of a Syrian sword than the slow and agonizing torture of death by starvation. So they slipped away to the enemy’s camp, only to discover that God had routed them, leaving all of their supplies behind. In spite of the loathsome disease of the lepers, their life-giving message was warmly received, for the message was of greater import than the messenger.

Faltering Friendship

15 Where then is that sense of blessing you had? For I bear you witness, that if possible, you would have plucked out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I therefore become your enemy by telling you the truth?

The warm and tender love which once bound Paul and the Galatians together had dissipated. Paul indicates that his feelings for the Galatians had not changed—he had not taken offense at the Galatians. Why then was the relationship between Paul and the Galatians strained? This question and its answers are found in verses 15 and 16.

Paul points out the irony of this situation. When Paul had been plagued with his physical infirmity, the Galatians had ignored his repulsive appearance and taken him in warmly. When Paul wrote the epistle, the relationship had cooled. Paul probes the reason for the faltering friendship in verse 15. They had once felt blessed by Paul’s presence, but no longer. They had once been willing to pluck out their very eyes, but sacrifice had turned to rejection. What could have brought about this dramatic change?

The answer is found in verse 16. Paul had become the Galatians’ enemy by telling them the truth. I assume this meant that Paul had spoken or written to the Galatian Christians after he had heard of the deception and disruption caused by the Judaizers. He informed them of the error of their ways when he learned of their allurement to the works-righteousness of the Judaizers. Here is true irony. Paul had been warmly received because of the truth; now he is given the cold shoulder because of the truth.

Verses 15 and 16 explain the reason for the waning relationship between Paul and the Galatian saints—Paul persisted in pursuing the Galatians with the truth, while the Galatians foolishly followed the Judaizers who denied the truth.

Factitious or Unfained Friendship

17 They eagerly seek you, not commendably, but they wish to shut you out, in order that you may seek them. 18 But it is good always to be eagerly sought in a commendable manner, and not only when I am present with you.

The Galatians were deceived into following the Judaizers because of their flattering words and subtle threats. The Judaizers sought to drive a wedge between Paul and the Galatian saints by turning them to another gospel. In verse 17 the pronoun “them” refers to the Judaizers who were pursuing the Galatians, although their pursuit was based upon impure motives and methods. At its roots, their desire to “convert” these Christians was evil.

You will remember that our Lord had strong words of rebuke for the scribes and Pharisees who were akin to the Judaizers: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel about on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15).

The zeal of the Judaizers in pursuit of the Galatian saints was flattering and must have played a significant part in “bewitching” (3:1) these naive neophytes. The appeal to the Galatians must have been somewhat like the flattery a church today feels when the National Council of Churches seeks its support. Was there some feeling of acceptance in this pursuit? Paul questions the veracity of the motives (and I suspect the methods) of the Judaizers as compared with his own. Paul invites others to seek out the Galatians but only if they have pure motives.

The motives of the Judaizers were not above reproach. As the spokesman and authorities of Judaizers they sought to subject Gentile Galatian Christians in order to exclude them from Judaism. The direct access to God which was provided through Christ was thus sacrificed for the mediatorial role of the Judaizers, a thinly veiled return to the priestly system of the old covenant.

Unfortunately, this same mentality is all too evident in Christian circles today. Some Christians seek leadership roles so that they can “lord it over” others, telling them what to do and how to do it, in the guise of biblical leadership. Some husbands abuse their biblical responsibility to be leaders in their homes and make virtual “pawns” of their wives. Others, under the label of “disciple-makers,” create dependency relationships in order to have others under their authority. Let us guard against this attitude. It is as prevalent in the church of our Lord as in the world, but more piously practiced.

Paul sought the Galatians as well, but for entirely different reasons. He desired to make them followers of Christ, not of men. He wanted them to be God-pleasers, not man-pleasers. Paul’s absence, I believe, was not just an unfortunate necessity but a matter of principle. He left so that these new believers could not become too dependent upon him. Unfortunately, in his absence, the Galatians sought other leaders and the Judaizers seized the opportunity to establish their authority.

One of the reasons the Galatians followed the Judaizers is the subtle but all-too-frequent fact of spiritual life: Christians not only want a visible evidence of our Lord’s presence, but also desire a visible manifestation of His leading. Power-hungry people like the Judaizers often seized leadership. Was it only coincidence that the golden calf was fashioned in the absence of Moses? Was it by chance that the Israelites demanded a king like all the other nations? I think not.

Paul implied by his statement at the end of verse 18 that he was still commendably seeking the Galatians by writing this epistle. He wished that the Galatians could grasp this. In his absence, the Judaizers had gained a foothold, offering what appeared to be a higher level of spirituality. They were thus qualified, in the minds of the gullible Galatians, to be spiritual leaders. Paul was not so troubled that the Galatians followed others than himself, but that the Judaizers’ motives and message were wrong. When the Galatians rejected only Paul, they also rejected the gospel he preached.

Fervent Friendship

19 My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you— 20 but I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Unlike other passages which Paul has written in this epistle, this section is not a tightly woven argument which is drawn to a precise conclusion. The mood is not argumentative, but rather is an appeal to the Galatians on the basis of a broken heart. His authority as an apostle does not underly this appeal, but rather the agony of a mother for her wayward child. “My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you—but I could wish to be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Gal. 4:19-20).

Paul has elsewhere described himself in motherly terms, emphasizing the tenderness and love which he had toward those to whom he ministered (1 Thes. 2:7). In this passage, however, it is the agony of the heart of a mother which Paul is seeking to convey to the wayward Galatians. Paul’s pain is as though he was once again giving spiritual birth to these, his children. Having begun verse 19 with an allusion to his readers as children, Paul continues with this image, using the analogy of the birth process and the pain which a mother undergoes to bring her child to life. Paul had once undergone such pain (Rom. 4:13-14, 2 Tim. 3:10-12; cp. 2 Cor. 6:1-10), but now the foolishness of the Galatians was needlessly causing him to suffer this pain again.

In verse 19 Paul changes the imagery slightly, employing an expression (“till Christ is formed in you”) which was used of the development of the fetus in the womb of the mother. Just as the child in the womb develops into what his particular endowment at conception determined him to be, so the Christian grows to become what Christ has saved and destined him to be. The Galatians had turned to another gospel, thus interrupting their growth process resulting in Paul’s pain. Let them return to the gospel, Paul preached, and let them become what grace alone can make them.

The last verse (v. 20) exposes Paul’s grief-stricken heart even more fully. He expresses his wish that he could be with his children and speak tenderly to them. However, he can only tell them in this letter how puzzled and pained he is at what has become of them. If they still possess the love which they once had toward Paul, his pain will stop them short. Then they must reassess their decision to follow other teachers whose message is contrary to that which saved them.


This passage provides us with several principles which should guide us in our response to those who, like the Galatians, have chosen to depart from the truth.

(1) Paul’s gentleness and graciousness makes it as easy as possible for the Galatians to repent and return to the faith they had once held dear. The gentleness and warmth which Paul manifests in Galatians is consistent with that which he called for in 2 Timothy:

But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will (2 Tim. 2:23-26).

By dealing so gently and graciously with these erring brethren, Paul seeks to make their return to the truth as easy as possible.

(2) Being gentle and gracious does not mean being soft on sin. While this particular passage is warm and affectionate, we must remember the context, which includes some very strong words of rebuke (for example, “You foolish Galatians,” in v. 3). Too often, in the name of graciousness, error in the life of another is either minimized or dealt with in a vague and fuzzy way. This was not Paul’s practice. The warmth and tenderness of this section is a kind of compensation for the toughness of the others. Tough and Tender is not merely the contemporary title of a book; it is the way Paul dealt with sin in the lives of those he loved.

(3) Paul was tough because he had a deep-seated love for the Galatians. Some Christians seem to think that love should never be tough, but only tender. I understand from our passage that Paul’s deep love for the Galatians provided much of his motivation for writing this epistle and for speaking candidly to the folly of their following the Judaizers. You will remember in the Book of Proverbs that a parent who does not discipline his child is said to “hate” that child (Prov. 13:24). Love disciplines. This is also the point of the writer to the Hebrews in chapter 12, where he informs his reader that chastening is an evidence of sonship and of God’s deep and abiding love in the life of His children. The reason the church so often fails to deal with sin is that it lacks the kind of love which acts decisively. The love which motivates discipline also makes chastening more easily received and endured.

(4) This passage reveals to us the power of personal relationships. We expect biblical doctrine to have a significant impact on the lives of those who have departed from the truth of God’s word, and rightly so. Galatians 3 and 4 are heavily doctrinal. Our particular passage serves to remind us of the powerful impact of personal relationships. Personal relationships tend to fragment in the face of serious doctrinal deviation, but Paul uses his personal relationships in seeking to restore wayward saints to the truth.

Our Lord instructed those who were aware of a problem to seek to set the matter straight in Matthew 18. Is it not most likely that those who would first confront the sinner are those who know him best, those whose relationship with him is the strongest? If personal relationships are a powerful force in the lives of other Christians, we can understand why fellowship is such a vital factor in the life of the church. Fellowship is that bond which provides the basis for rebuke and correction. Fellowship is an extremely strong cohesive bond, which makes it hard for the wayward saint to leave those whom he loves and who love him.

As I understand the Scriptures, the bond of fellowship between believers should not be broken unless a brother is guilty of a serious offense, and after having been rebuked, refuses to repent. Only then should we break fellowship with such a one. Church discipline is thus seen to be a very significant action, for it terminates the fellowship of Christians from the one who has chosen to act as an unbeliever.

This also helps me to understand why Paul reacted so strongly to Peter’s hypocrisy in the second chapter of Galatians. Church discipline ultimately results in the withdrawal of fellowship from the wayward saint, including the intimacy of sharing a meal together (cf. 1 Cor. 5:11). When Peter ceased to eat with the Gentiles, he was, in effect, refusing to relate to the Gentile Christians as believers and was thus denying the gospel. Personal relationships are extremely significant in the life of the church.

(5) Fifth, we are reminded of the power of the truth of God’s Word. It was the truth Paul preached which saved the Galatians and which led the Galatians to warmly receive Paul, even though his illness made him repulsive. It was the truth which bound Paul and the Galatians, Jews and Gentiles, into one body. Truth was the basis for real unity. Any unity which closes its eyes to the truth is humanly contrived and not divine.

The truth of the gospel is powerful and able to save men. In Romans 1:16 Paul spoke of the gospel as “the power of God for salvation.” To pervert the truth of the gospel is a most serious offense, and results in dire consequences. No wonder Paul had such strong words to say about the Judaizers (cf. 1:6-10). Men are not saved by a messenger, nor the persuasiveness of his methods but by the truth, the message (cf. 1 Cor. 1:17, 21; 2:3-5; 2 Cor 2:17). Frankly, there is too much emphasis on methods today and not enough on the message. Too much attention is given to the messenger and too little to the message.

What is your excuse for not sharing your faith? Are you, like Moses, excusing yourself because you do not speak powerfully and persuasively? The power is in the message, not the messenger. It is the truth that saves men. If Paul’s gospel could save men, even when Paul’s personal appearance was offensive and repulsive, will the gospel not save men today, in spite of the weaknesses of the messenger? This passage strips away all of our feeble excuses for not sharing our faith, for the power of God is inseparably intertwined with the truth.

The principle of the power of the proclamation of God’s truth applies to more than just evangelism. Unfortunately we have become so conscious of methods and men, we have minimized the power of the message of God’s Word. We have become so mesmerized by the glamour and glitter of television programs and preachers that we find it difficult to accept the message unless the messenger is appealing and glamorous. Let us learn to pay more heed to the message and less to the messenger.

77 I believe Cole completely misses the point of Paul’s words when he quotes the NEB’s rendering of them: “Put yourselves in my place … for I have put myself in yours.” R. A. Cole, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), pp. 120-121. Equally untenable is his suggested paraphrase, “Be as frank and loving with me as I have always been with you” (p. 121). To his credit, Cole begins with a literal rendering, “Be like me, as I too (have become) like you” (p. 120).

78 The “bodily illness” of which Paul speaks here has been the matter of a great deal of speculation. Some of the options considered are opthalmia (eye trouble), epilepsy, and malaria. I agree with F. F. Bruce, who concludes,

“The fact that such diverse ailments as malaria, epilepsy, opthalmia (to mention no others) have been suggested on the basis of this passage indicates that there can be no certain diagnosis. The infirmity may have been one of these three, or it may have been something quite different; it may have been identical with the ‘splinter’ of 2 Cor. 12:7, or it may not.” F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982), p. 209.

The nature of the ailment makes little difference today. The Galatians knew well what it was. What we know (which is all we need to know) is that this malady made Paul not only unattractive, but repulsive, so that the natural inclination of the Galatians would have been to reject him when he came to them.

79 When Paul spoke of his visit the “first time” in verse 13, the Greek expression which he employed could be taken in one of two ways: (a) a more technical and specific meaning, equivalent to “the first of two” visits; or (b) a more general “former,” without any particular reference to whether or not there were other visits. The reason why this matter is debated and discussed is that the rendering of the expression is debated because it affects the location of the Galatian churches, (the “north” or the “south” Galatian theories) as well as the dating of the epistle. In reality, rather than the rendering determining which view a scholar supports, the view held tends to determine the rendering.

Related Topics: Fellowship, Forgiveness

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