Pastor Rick Hogaboam: Galatians 4:12-20 “Anguishing for Spirit-filled, Christ-centered Formation”

Posted: October 19, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Biblical Studies, Galatians
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Galatians 4:12-20 “Anguishing for Spirit-filled, Christ-centered Formation”

Preached by Pastor Rick Hogaboam, Sovereign Grace Fellowship, 10-17-2010

Audio Link: Here

Galatians 4:12–20 (ESV) — 12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

If in our study thus far we have thought of Paul merely as a scholar with massive intellectual powers, all head and no heart, this paragraph will correct our first impression. For here Paul appeals to the Galatians with deep feeling and immense tenderness. First, he calls them his ‘brethren’ in verse 12; then at the end of the paragraph, in verse 19, his ‘little children’—a designation of which the apostle John was very fond. He even goes on to liken himself to their mother, who is ‘in labour’ over them until Christ is formed in them. In Galatians 1–3 we have been listening to Paul the apostle, Paul the theologian, Paul the defender of the faith; but now we are hearing Paul the man, Paul the pastor, Paul the passionate lover of souls.[1]

This passage contrasts the way Paul was accepted to the way he is now being rejected; as well as contrasting Paul’s intentions over against the false teachers’ intentions towards them.

v.12 – Brothers: familial term, Paul is appealing from his heart to theirs, they are on the brink of apostatizing, but he still considers them brothers, qualified they heed his word.

Entreat:  to ask, to seek.

Become as I am, for I also have become as you are: Some varying interpretations, but I think Paul is referring to the ministry he had to them, where he, a Jew, demonstrated the absolute freedom of the Gospel from the law. This is clear from his earlier mentioning of calling out Peter to his face for hypocrisy on this issue. Paul forsook the path of the law, when Jesus apprehended him on the road to Damascus. Paul is personally appealing to them to become as him because they have obviously strayed back into the law. It is ironic that Paul, a Jew, lived out the freedom of the Gospel as a Gentile to reach Gentiles, and that these same Gentiles are now straying into Judaic pride in works of the law. The Gentiles are becoming Jewish, whereas Paul the Jew has become a Gentile of sorts.

You did me no wrong: Paul is affirming the wonderful acceptance they had of him when he visited them and became as they were (Gentiles). This connects into verse 13 where he offers further commendation.

v.13 – You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first,

Lot’s of speculation on what exactly was going on here. Most tend to see the reference in v. 15, affirming their willingness to pluck out their eyes for him, as the point of reference here; however, Paul’s language here seems a bit strong to simply refer to a lack in eyesight as being the cause of his ministry to them at first. The word “ailment” can mean ‘weakness’ in a general way and sometimes is matched with ‘bodily’ (sarx) to refer to sin. Sin seems to be unlikely here as well. Acts doesn’t provide any details of a serious affliction that caused Paul to go of course, etc. If he was afflicted with Malaria, as some think, then he likely went to Northern Galatia to get into better weather, which would require an older date for book, which is fine even though I tentatively have supported early date.  

What is clear that Paul came to Galatia weak, and likely afflicted in the flesh, affecting his appearance. This is in addition to his poor eyesight. The Galatians couldn’t cure his Malaria, but their love was so great that Paul says they were willing to exchange their eyes. Of course this is hypothetical, but an affirmation of their great love for him in weakness.

v.14 – and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

More affirmation from Paul for their care of him. He was not shunned because of his ailment, whatever it was. “Trial” cold be understood as temptation…he was that bad that it would have been easy for them actually shun him, must have been hard to look at; but they received him.

v.15 – What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me

These folks are now starting to shun Paul because of the false teacher’s propaganda. This is not a case of Paul having his feeling hurt because they like the new Pastor, this is a case of the Gospel being threatened. The thought of laboring in ministry, leaving, and then finding out that a false teacher is leading your former folks astray has got to cause anger, pain, tears, etc.

v. 16 – Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Truth-telling is risky if you care more about being a people-pleaser than a God-pleaser. Paul would be unpopular by modern standards. He was fully aware of this earlier when he said: Galatians 1:10 (ESV) — 10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

 I can hear folks saying, “Paul, chill out, it’s just a minor theological difference and the Galatians are zealous for good works. It’s more about how we live than what we know anyways, why be so harsh with them? Why discourage them over this minor theological issue? They still believe in Jesus, what’s the big deal?

The “truth” that he has been sharing is that they must trust completely in Christ for their salvation and place no confidence whatsoever in the law. Jesus is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can trust in Jesus plus works of the law. Of course, Paul is not advocating anti-nomianism, as he deals later with how Christian ethics proceed from the life of the Spirit, which flows out of our faith as a new creation by grace through faith. This was no minor issue; the very heart of the Gospel was at stake.

I always aim to speak the truth in love, and I know that I will always run the risk of being viewed as unloving when I declare truth in a situation that might be highly personal and sensitive. Paul’s aim is for their eternal good, their eternal prospering, and that also is my aim and the aim of the elders who serve in this body.

I’ll tell you what’s not nice: letting someone believe a lie that will undermine their joy in Christ and/or send them to hell. That is not nice. We can’t control what others believe, but we must never confuse “niceness” with compromising the Gospel, ever.

I was touched this past men’s breakfast by my little prayer group, members of which I will leave unnamed, but both other men started to shed tears of anguish for people they work with, one a Mormon and the other a nominal Catholic. This other folks, I’m sure, are relatively nice, perhaps nicer than many of us (to our shame), but they are trusting in a lie and the truth must be told.

17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.

Complex grammar. I think Paul is speaking of how the false teachers have made much of the Galatians, but that their motives are not “good”. “Shut you out” is the intent of the false teachers. They want to take captive the Galatians and bring them under their persuasion and intimidation so that they will no longer listen to another voice. This are typical symptoms of cults that are intentionally loving, not because they sincerely love, but only to draw people in, and then once you are drawn in, they seek to shut you out from all other voices to speak into your lives. Once you are shut out, you are dependent upon the guru for your existence and sense of self. By being shut out from the world, you in turn must obey the guru for fear of your life.

18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you,

It’s debated whether Paul is speaking of their making much of him, or his making much of them; there are good arguments from both sides. It can go either way, but I’m inclined to understand Paul speaking of making much of them for a “good purpose”. Paul’s contrasting how he sought their well-being in his interest for them, unlike the false teachers who he said had “no good purpose” in v.17. The latter part of this verse speaks of how Paul continues to care for them even while he is away. Perhaps, the false teachers were undermining Paul by some sinister rhetoric, “If he really loved you, he would be here with you. See how we are here with you and not leaving like he did?”. Gangs, cults, kidnappers, and adulterers all use this rhetoric of tearing down, undermining, and questioning the love of another to then narrow the choice to themselves. Paul affirms how he feels for them in vs.19-20

19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Notice the poured out affection:

“my little children” – Paul has called them “bewitched”, “foolish”, then “brothers”, and now “children”. Paul moves from distancing language to intimate language as he progresses through the letter.

“anguish of childbirth” – “anguish” means “birth pangs, labor cries” . While they are already children, Paul is in anguish for further maturity. They are still in a critical stage of development that will prove crucial to what they become.

“until Christ is formed in you!” – Paul longs for their formation in Christ. Having spoken of their need to recognize doctrinal error, he goes on in the book to also speak of errors in their living:

Galatians 5:16–26 (ESV) — 16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

We see then this balance of right theology and right practice as the anguishing, laboring aim and desire of Paul for his people. It is not enough to behave rightly or think rightly, they must be coupled:

Galatians 1:6–9 (ESV) — 6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

So, in Galatians 5:21, when responding to those walking in the flesh, Paul says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Some of you might think that this doesn’t sound like salvation by grace that he earlier defended. It is wholly compatible with the doctrine of justification by faith that he earlier articulated. We must not just think a certain way…if we are truly a “new creation”, then our life will bear the fruit of this newness. This is Paul’s longing and it’s my longing. This is why SGF emphasizes right thinking about Scripture, as well as transformation in community. I encourage you to get into a Community Group if your schedule allows.

This is why we are bringing Bill Farley out this coming weekend, to offer counsel on parenting and relationships that is completely rooted in the Gospel.

We must depend upon Christ for this reality in our own lives. We must care for it in the lives of others.

Paul’s anguish is that these believers were struggling in both areas: thinking and acting rightly. I, like Paul, care for each of you, as do the elders in our Church. We want each of you to be growing in grace and knowledge and to live lives that increasingly display the fruit of the Spirit. I’m NOT advocating some type of legalism, where we get our act together; I’m advocating the truth of the Gospel in Christ, full of “grace and truth”.

John 1:15–17 (ESV) — 15 (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) 16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.


[1] Stott, J. R. W. (1986). The message of Galatians : Only one way (111). Leicester, England; Downer’s Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press.

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