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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997
Free from the law:
the example of the Galatians’ own conversion
The letter to the Galatians is an example of rapid and wide mood swings. Recall that this section of the letter opened with the almost angry question: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (3:1). The apostle then proceeded to a calm and reasoned appeal to their own experience of receiving God’s blessings by faith, just as Abraham did (3:2-9).
We have just heard Paul allow himself what might fairly be called an emotional outburst: “I’m afraid I’ve wasted my time on you!” In the interest of winning over the Galatians and bringing them to their senses, Paul immediately shifts to an entirely different tone. He calls them “brothers” and, in his warmest and most winsome voice, pleads with them and urges them to think back on how good things were for them when they first accepted his message of pure grace without the addition of any works.
Galatians Chapter 4, verses 12-16
I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Paul reminds the Galatians of the circumstances surrounding his first visit to them. He tells them, “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.” The Galatians knew all about that first visit—but we don’t. In the absence of solid information, a number of theories regarding Paul’s illness have been advanced. Because of the very short time spent in the coastal lowland region of Perga on Paul’s first missionary journey and his immediate departure to the higher, interior parts of Asia Minor (that is, Galatia), some have supposed that Paul suffered from malaria. On the strength of Paul’s remark that the Galatians would have been willing to tear their eyes out and give them to Paul, others have concluded that Paul may have had eye problems. In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul speaks of some disability, “a thorn in [the] flesh,” that hampered him. Perhaps that is what he is referring to here. We just don’t have that information.
Paul seems to imply that his disability made him unattractive and disgusting somehow and could have put people off. He was a “trial” to them, but they did not treat him with scorn or contempt. Instead, so overjoyed were they at the liberating message of God’s free grace in Christ, which gave them forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and the assurance of an open heaven, that they welcomed Paul as if he were “an angel of God.”
Sadly Paul now asks, “What has happened to all your joy?” We know the answer, of course. Their joy in the liberating message of the gospel had been spoiled by the arrival of the Judaizers, who
insisted that in addition to believing in Christ, the Galatians needed also to obey the Old Testament ceremonies.
The Judaizers had spoiled the message and slandered the messenger by saying that Paul was only a Johnny-come-lately, not a real apostle at all, and not in sync with what Christ’s true apostles were teaching and what God’s people in Jerusalem believed.
Confused and unsettled by the thought that they may have been duped by Paul, the Galatians’ initial joy in the gospel evaporated. Add to this the fact that Paul has had to say some rather sharp things to them in this letter, and we are not surprised at Paul’s question: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?”
Again, the answer is obvious. Is it a loveless act to take a sharp knife away from a toddler? Is the park ranger doing us a disservice by warning us back from a steep cliff? Was it wrong for Paul to alert the Galatians to the danger of listening to the faith-destroying error of people who were
interested in themselves rather than in the Galatians and their welfare?
Paul considers it a given that defending the truth and exposing error and perversity have not made him an enemy to the Galatians. So he resumes his sharp and direct criticism of error and the Judaistic errorists, a criticism that at the same time reflects his loving concern for the Galatians
and their spiritual welfare.
Galatians Chapter 4, verses 17-20
Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!
The term “zealous” is a key concept in this part of Paul’s presentation to the Galatians. “Those people,” the Judaizers, were zealous to win the Galatians over, but they were not doing it with a proper motive. They were not trying to be helpful to the Galatians; they were operating with
totally self-serving motives. “What they want,” Paul says, “is to alienate you [the Galatians] from us [Paul and his gospel coworkers], so that you may be zealous for them [the Judaizers].”
We need to remember that there was a difference between the Judaizers and the majority of the Jewish nation, who tenaciously held to the Old Testament because they didn’t accept Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah. The Judaizers were Christian in that they accepted Christ—but they insisted that wasn’t enough. In addition to believing in Christ, they taught that a person also had to accept the Old Testament ceremonies in general and circumcision in particular. In other words, one had to get into God’s good graces by going through Judaism; one had to become a proselyte. By thus maintaining a form of Judaism, the Judaizers hoped to avoid persecution from the orthodox Jews. In his summary at the end of the letter, Paul touches on that dishonorable motive of the Judaizers a bit more directly. He charges: “Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. . . . They want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (6:12,13).
Paul takes pains to point out that he is not jealous of the attention the Galatians were getting from the Judaizers. He explains the exact reason for his concerns. “It is fine to be zealous,” he says—or as the original Greek could also be translated, “It’s fine to be zealously sought—provided the purpose is good.” Paul’s complaint is not that the Galatians were zealous or that they were being zealously sought. That would be fine as long as the cause was a good one. But that was not the case here! The Judaizers’ zeal was selfish. They hoped to get ahead by being able to say they had won the Galatians away from Paul and converted them to their cause.
The thought of losing the Galatians, and on such shabby grounds, was breaking Paul’s heart—or, to use his picture, it was giving him pain as sharp as the labor pains of a woman in childbirth. He tells them, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”
It was stated earlier that this letter seems to have been written from Corinth on Paul’s second missionary journey, while he was fully occupied in trying to start a mission congregation in that important Greek city. Paul couldn’t drop everything and hurry back to Galatia, so he resorts to a
letter. But it’s a poor substitute. “If only I could be with you, and we could talk face-to-face,” Paul laments. “Then I would be able to assess your spiritual condition, and I could adjust the tone and intensity of my voice accordingly.”
Paul hadn’t given up on the Galatians, and he certainly didn’t want to think the worst about them, but their willingness to place themselves under the law once more after they had experienced God’s grace was thoroughly perplexing to Paul. Perhaps they didn’t fully realize the implications of accepting the law as a means of salvation, so he asks, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” (verse 21). And to help them see the full implication of the Judaizers’ legalism, he utilized another figure of speech, an allegory.
The example of Ishmael and Isaac (an allegory)
In connection with the discussion of the minor heir (4:1-11), we spoke of how it helps the learning process to illustrate something that is unfamiliar by comparing it with something that is familiar and well known. Such a comparison (simile) expanded into a descriptive little narrative is called a parable. A parable takes a common, everyday incident or occurrence that presents a general truth, puts generic people into it, and uses it to illustrate (is like) a spiritual truth the teacher wants to explain.
In the section of the letter presently under discussion, Paul resorts to a slightly different way of making a comparison between two things that illustrate a spiritual truth. The figure of speech employed here is called an allegory. Instead of taking a generic or general incident, Paul calls attention to a specific historical incident involving Abraham’s slave girl Hagar and his wife, Sarah. The actions of these real people in a real situation are an example or illustration of the spiritual principle under discussion.
But not only does the original incident illustrate the point under consideration—in this case the relationship of law and gospel, human performance and merit versus God’s gift and promise—it allows a broader application. It “says something else,” which is literally what allegory means. The same wrong principle of trying to accomplish something by human performance that caused the problem in the Hagar and Ishmael incident is also at work in the wrong approach being advocated by the Judaizers.
In both cases there is only one prudent thing to do. “Get rid of the slave woman [Hagar] and her son [Ishmael]” translates into this advice: “Avoid the Judaizers and their followers.”
As we read Paul’s allegory, let us keep in mind the lead-in question that the allegory is to illustrate and answer: “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” Note the three components of Paul’s allegorical answer:
1. The historical incident involving Abraham’s slave girl Hagar and his wife, Sarah (verses 22,23).
2. The figurative counterpart—the two women signify two covenants: Hagar and Ishmael are the Judaizers, enslaved to the law; Sarah and Isaac are the Christian church, enjoying the freedom that comes with the gospel(verses 24-27).
3. The lesson to be learned and the application to be made—distance yourself from a dependence on law and a reliance on human achievement; cherish your gospel freedom (verses 28-31).
Galatians Chapter 4, verses 21-23
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
God called Abraham at age 75 and promised that he would make of Abraham a great nation. Ten years later Abraham and Sarah still had no family. In desperation they devised the plan that Abraham should take their slave girl Hagar and have children by her. The result was the birth of Ishmael, as recounted in Genesis chapter 16. It was an ill-advised plan that attempted to help God fulfill his promise by adding a human contribution to the divine plan.
But God’s promise was that he would raise up a great nation from Abraham and Sarah. To make crystal clear that this family was the result of God’s promise and did not come into being because of any human contribution, God delayed the blessed event of Isaac’s birth for another 14 years, until a time when “his [Abraham’s] body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old-and . . . Sarah’s womb was also dead” (Romans 4:19; see also Genesis 17:15-17).
Ishmael was inseparably linked with human performance. Isaac, on the other hand, was purely the result of God’s promise, and he became the father of God’s chosen people Israel.
The contrast between Ishmael and Isaac is in itself proof of the superiority of people trusting God’s promise rather than trying to make things happen by their own contributions and accomplishments. But, as Paul tells us, this incident in the history of God’s people is an allegory. The account has another meaning. It “says something else.” Or as the NIV translates:
Galatians Chapter 4, verses 24-27
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
For it is written
“Be glad, O barren woman,
who bears no children;
break forth and cry aloud,
you who have no labor pains;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
Hagar, involved in an attempt to help make God’s plan succeed, finds a parallel in the activity of the Judaizers. These people, largely inhabitants of Jerusalem, have ranged out as far as Galatia. Taking their motivation from Mount Sinai, that is, from the Mosaic Law given on Sinai, they teach that in addition to believing in Christ, they must also keep the Old Testament rules and regulations. In this way they were putting people into bondage under the Mosaic Law. Like the slave girl Hagar who bore slave children, so Judaizing Jerusalem “is in slavery with her children.”
“But the Jerusalem that is above is free,” Paul tells the Galatians, “and she is our mother.” In contrast to the earthly Jerusalem, Paul directs the eyes of his readers to “the Jerusalem that is above.” That Jerusalem is the assembly of all who believe in God’s promise of a Savior. She is
the Christian church—brought to faith by the gospel in Word and sacrament, sustained in that faith during her pilgrimage here on earth, and eventually gathered around the throne of the Lamb to thank and praise him eternally for the free gift of salvation.
Resting on God’s grace alone, that Jerusalem does not require the keeping of any rules and regulations. She is truly “free” in that she makes no demands on her inhabitants but gives everything as a gift. And of that Jerusalem above Paul says, “She is our mother.”
Relying simply on God’s gospel promises might seem to be a slow and ineffective way to build the church. Hence we may be tempted to try and make the church more efficient by enlisting human help and participation. But that is mistaken and misplaced zeal. The tiny mustard seed will grow into a tree, as Jesus indicated in his parable. Or to stay with Paul’s picture, the Jerusalem above will be the mother of a large family, as foretold already in Isaiah 54:1: Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”
Paul’s allegory sets two vastly different cases side by side: Ishmael, born of the slave woman as the result of human planning and conniving; Isaac, the son of the free woman, born under circumstances that made it unmistakably clear that only God’s power and promise could have brought this miracle baby to a hundred-year-old father and a ninety-year-old mother.
As there was tension between these two quite different families in Abraham’s life, so there is bound to be tension also between the adherents of the two covenants this allegory figuratively represents. Paul tells the Galatians:
Galatians Chapter 4, verses 28-31
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Genesis 21:9 tells us that Ishmael, “the son born in the ordinary way,” bullied and teased his younger half-brother Isaac, “the son born by the power of the Spirit.” The mistreatment of young Isaac by the teenager Ishmael became so irksome to Sarah that she insisted to Abraham that Hagar and Ishmael had to go! Paul quotes Sarah’s demand of Abraham recorded in Genesis 21:10: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Although the matter distressed Abraham, God agreed with Sarah and advised Abraham, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21:12).
Paul earlier told the Galatians, “Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham” (3:7). Abraham’s true offspring are all believers in the Christ, who came from Isaac’s line—not from Ishmael’s. Paul makes the connection for the Galatians when he says, “Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”
Paul’s point obviously extends far beyond dealing only with Ishmael. Recall that allegorically Ishmael stands for the Judaizers, and expelling “Ishmael,” as Sarah did with God’s approval, is the only appropriate solution also in Galatia. One could paraphrase Paul’s implied advice: “Get rid of
the Judaizers and their followers, for these people enslaved to the law will never share in the inheritance that comes as a gift to those who trust in God’s gospel promises.”
End of Part Four
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