Wednesday, November 8, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 4:11-31

Address 10
Paul the Passionate Apostle

I think the most remarkable book about St. Paul I have ever read is the little books titled Grace and Law by the German philosopher Heinz Cassirer. Heinz Cassirer was brought up as a skeptic. Like his father, Cassirer was a devoted disciple of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that Christianity was the same as morality and that morality was completely doable by the rational person. In his later years, however, Kant came to be more pessimistic about man’s ability to change his ways. He might well have echoed the question of the prophet: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23).

Cassirer, like his mentor, also went through a mid-life change of mind. At age 50, he read St. Paul for the first time, and in reading Paul’s account of faith, he abandoned his philosophy and converted to Christianity. He writes: “As for myself, I may explain here that, if I have come to embrace the Christian religion, this has been almost wholly due to the impression made upon me not only by St. Paul’s teaching about sin and grace but by his personality as it reveals itself in his epistles.” What fascinated Cassirer was how Paul discloses his own personality in the letters so that the personality that shines through is so obviously that of a changed man. Cassirer comments:

Although St. Paul’s nature was indeed a most unusual one, what strikes one particularly about it is this: he was the sort of man one would least expect to give up the control of his own life to another. This is how St. Paul himself felt about the matter, and he never ceased looking upon his liberation as having been due to a truly exceptional act of grace and condescension.

My theme today is that Paul was the passionate apostle, who appealed to the sorrows and joys of his own life to verify the truth of the Gospel, and he called on his congregation at Galatia to share with him in these sorrows and joys.

Thus he begins: Brethren, I beseech you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. (verse 20). Paul wears not only his teaching but his life on his sleeve. In the Church of England, pastors used to be called parson, which suggested that the pastor was to offer his life as a model “person” for his people. In the same way, Paul presents himself not only as a preacher and teacher, but as an ideal parson. In this little section, verses 12-20, he enters into a pastoral conversation with the Galatians, as if they were sitting with him in his study (or so he would wish).

You did me no wrong. Paul begins this exhortation by making clear that his frustration about their turning back to the law is nothing personal. They have not offended him, but God. This thought, however, leads him back to remember the days when the Galatians had had a very different attitude. He recalls the simplicity and eagerness with which they had welcomed him. Even though he was ill, they had listened to him as if he were an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.

We do not know what particular ailment brought Paul to them. Some think he may have had an affliction of the eyes. We might imagine how humiliating it would be for the great apostle and miracle worker, Paul, to be led in by the hand because he could not see straight. How easy it would have been to mock him: “You who claim to open the eyes of the spiritually blind, heal yourself!” But they did not say this. Instead they saw in his weakness a sign of grace, and they welcomed him as Abraham had welcomed the angels at the oaks of Mamre. They received him the wounded apostle, just as they were to receive the wounded Savior.

Where is your happiness? he asks (verse 15). What a blunt yet penetrating question from the pastor. Paul remembers the simple and beautiful way they turned to Christ in faith, and the happiness they felt soon after. Looking at their new concerns about keeping the Law, he detects a very different spirit. Not a happy but a troubled spirit. Not a generous spirit, ready to pluck out their eyes for him, but a pinched, negative attitude of “do this” and “don’t do this.” Accompanying this obsession with preciseness is a readiness to take offense, which cloaks a refusal to accept a rebuke. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? Paul asks (verse 15). Paul is deeply grieved that his own spiritual children think of him as their opponent because he confronts them with the truth about themselves.
Paul now pleads that his own passion for them is genuine, while his opponents’ apparent concern for them is self-serving. They are eager for you, but for no good purpose; they want to shut you out, that you may be eager for them (verse 17). The word I have translated “eager” is the word “zealous” that Paul had used earlier to describe his mistaken passion in Judaism (Galatians 1:14). This same misguided zeal is cropping up in the Judaizers: “They appear to take an earnest interest in you,” Paul says, “but it is misdirected. Their real goal is to deprive you of your joy in Christ so that you will be dependent on them for instruction in how to follow the Law.”
Paul grants the debating point that being “zealous” for the truth is a good thing that should be practiced at all times (verse 18). But he goes on to offer his own “zealousness,” his own deepest desires for them, as the true means to their happiness. He expresses this desire by a powerful analogy, that of the pangs of childbirth: My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! (verse 19). He likens himself to a mother who is experiencing the sudden and severe pains of delivery. Then, in a rhetorical change of metaphor, he says that the children he is giving birth to are themselves giving birth, giving birth to Christ!
This complex analogy leads us back to one of Paul’s frequent exhortations: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). Becoming a disciple, Paul says, involves “taking up the Cross,” willingness to endure suffering for Christ’s sake. And in Paul’s view, the primary reason the Galatians are turning back to the Law is that they want to avoid the pains and risks of the life of faith.
Paul the pastor’s last touching wish is that he could be present with you now and to change my tone, for I am perplexed about you (verse 20). I have always found that a key to conflict resolution is to speak to people face to face. Paul is denied that opportunity, but he seems convinced that if he could just see them, he could convey the genuineness of his concern in such a way that both his heart and their hearts would melt before each other.
In verses 21-31, Paul moves to an extended comparison of the two covenants: the Sinai covenant, which he likens to Hagar, Abraham’s concubine; and the new covenant of faith, which corresponds to Sarah, the type of the “the Jerusalem above, our mother.” As Paul turns to the story of Sarah, I think he still hears the echoes of the words from the previous section: happiness, zeal, birth pangs. How does he understand the story found in Genesis 21? The story begins with the miraculous birth of Isaac according to God’s promise. Sarah names the boy Isaac “Laughter” both as a reminder of her mocking laughter when she first heard (Genesis 18:12) and also of her joy in bearing a son in her old age.
Immediately a complication arises. Abraham is inclined to treat the young boy as one of the extended family – at least to the time of his maturity. He wants Isaac to eat and drink and play with the slave boy Ishmael, Hagar’s son. Sarah is adamantly opposed to this arrangement: “Get rid of the slave woman and her son,” she demands. Some may find Sarah’s attitude selfish and mean-spirited, but Paul perceives that Sarah’s passion comes from faith, faith in the promise. Sarah sees that even if the child of faith is not yet fully recognized, he must be treated separately from any earthly companions. Thus in her way, Sarah “pre-preached the Gospel” to Abraham and then to the Galatians.
In verse 27, Paul associates Sarah’s joy in the birth of the free son with the joy of the “Jerusalem that is above.” He does this by a citation from Isaiah 54, verse 1: “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married” (verse 27). This citation expresses a deeply rooted biblical principle: that when God is about to a new thing in history, a barren woman gives birth. This event constitutes the reversal of the usual fortunes, as the Virgin Mary puts it in her song, the Magnificat: “He has put down the haughty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:52).
In citing the passage from the Old Testament, Paul has undoubtedly noted that Isaiah’s little doxology follows directly after the chapter 53, which describes the Suffering Servant, who was numbered with the transgressors, on whom the Lord laid the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6,12). The joy of faith, Paul is saying, is the joy that comes from redemption, from knowing that you are saved by the atoning death of Jesus Christ, received as a free gift.
The moral of the story of Sarah and Hagar, Paul concludes, is that the freedom of faith and the bondage of law are incompatible. One cannot serve two masters. Therefore, he concludes: “Cast out the slave and her son” (verse 30) It is possible that Paul is asking the Galatians to expel his opponents, the Judaizers, for elsewhere in his letters he asks his congregations to disassociate themselves from false teachers. But here I think he is speaking to the inner soul. He is saying: “Don’t be half-hearted. Don’t say, I can have faith and I can have Law. No, cast out the desire to justify yourself through law-keeping and live by faith and joy and love alone. Be crucified with Christ, so that you may live!”
Now let us return for a brief moment to consider what I have called the passion of the apostle. In this passage we follow Paul’s intense love of the truth and love of his people. This creates great tension for him; indeed he imitates Christ in his willingness to identify fully with the people even in their fallenness. Paul will not let go of the Galatians; indeed he will be in the pains of childbirth until they emerge in the end as Christ’s own children, with Christ stamped in their hearts and lives. This is the passion of Paul, and he challenges us to have this same passion: “Become as I am, because I have become as you are.”

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.

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