Paul wrote his letter to the churches of Galatia in response to their being told by people whom we call Judaizers that to be saved they had to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in addition to believing in Jesus Christ. So far in this series of articles on the letter I’ve considered Galatians 1:1-4:11. In it, except for a brief greeting (1:1-6), Paul has argued that both Jews and Gentiles are justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law and that the Galatians’ listening to the Judaizers was actually a deserting of the gospel (and of Paul, who had presented it to them) rather than an assuring of it. He closed by lamenting, “I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain” (4:11, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).
This fear that he may have ministered in vain among the Galatians prompts Paul to reflect in a short passionate passage on his first experience with them and on the change that has taken place in their attitude toward him because of what the Judaizers have told them.
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.
In entreating the Galatians to “become as I am, for I also have become as you are,” Paul may be reminding them that when he was with them he had become like them by not following the law of Moses [compare 1 Corinthians 9:21] and asking them to become like him now by not following that law. On the other hand, he may just be asking them to, as F. F. Bruce puts it, “enjoy the same open feelings of friendship and confidence towards him as he cherishes for them” (Commentary on Galatians in The New International Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982, page 208; compare 2 Corinthians 6:11-13).
Paul goes on to remind the Galatians that when he was with them they had done him no wrong. He explains that although he’d had a bodily ailment which was a “trial” to them, they hadn’t looked down on him but had welcomed him as a messenger from God. “Because” indicates that the ailment had caused Paul either to go into Galatia or to stay there longer than he’d planned, leading to his preaching the gospel there. What the ailment was isn’t known, the commonest suggestions being malaria, epilepsy, and an eye problem. Most Bible scholars identify it with the “thorn…in the flesh” of 2 Corinthians 12:7 which Paul describes as “a messenger from Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.” Despite the repulsiveness of Paul’s appearance because of the ailment, the Galatians had been so blessed by him and his message that they would have done anything for him, even to gouging out their eyes and giving them to him if that would help him.
However it seems to Paul that, convinced by the Judaizers that he is proclaiming to them a defective gospel, the Galatians now view him as an “enemy.” But, he protests, what he is proclaiming to them is the same “truth” that he told them when he was first with them. What is that truth? Douglas J. Moo describes it thus: “The central component of this truth is not that the gospel has opened the way for Gentiles to be included (as important as that is), but that the gospel is offered freely by grace and is to be accepted and lived out by means of faith alone.” He continues, “Paul is fighting for that truth and is willing to jeopardize his close relationship with the Galatians for the sake of that truth–even if it means that he becomes their ‘enemy'” (Galatians in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Publishing Group, 2013, pages 286-87).
The “they” of verse 17 is the Judaizers. Paul claims that they are making much of the Galatians for a bad reason, to turn the Galatians away from Paul and his teaching and towards the Judaizers and their teaching. Further on in the letter (5:4) Paul says that the result of the Galatians’ accepting the teaching of the Judaizers and being circumcised would be their being severed from Christ himself (not just from Paul). Paul goes on in the next verse to express his appreciation to the Galatians for making much of him when he was with them and his wish that they’d do the same when he wasn’t with them. Together the verses convey two lessons for us: we should show zeal for only what is good, and we should be constant in showing our zeal. (I am indebted to Matthew Henry for the preceding application.)
Paul concludes his personal appeal to the Galatians by calling them his “little children” and expressing the wish that he could be with them and could speak to them with affection rather than with rebuke. His addressing them as his children leads him to describe his feelings for them when he first proclaimed the gospel to them as “anguish of childbirth” and to his confessing that he again feels the same pain and would continue to feel it until Christ was “formed” in them. Finally, just as he’d ended the previous paragraph in his letter with a lament (“I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain”), Paul closes this personal appeal by lamenting, “I am perplexed about you,” expressing the confusion that he felt over how ones who had seen signs and wonders and endured persecution from the Jews, as the Galatians had when he was with them, could turn aside to the false gospel presented by the Judaizers. I visualize this lament’s being accompanied by tears, demonstrating clearly that besides being a missionary and an apologist for the gospel Paul had the heart of a pastor.