Brethren [brothers and sisters, fellows] created as I am, since I am just like you, I plead with you. It's not me you have wronged. [In fact I know] you know how it was through my own weakness that I initially came to proclaim the Gospel to you. And that trial of yours, which was [a part of] my [ailing] flesh, you did not despise, nor did you reject me. In fact you received me as God's messenger, even as [you received] Jesus Christ. So where now is that blessedness you then [so openly] spoke about? I know full well [as you do] that had it been possible you would have plucked out your eyes to give them to me. So have I now become your enemy by truth-speaking to you? These [others, these zealous one] would make you zealous, since they wish to have you excluded in order that you may be zealous towards them. Well, it is always good to be zealous for good, and not simply when I am with you in person. Children of mine, I am pregnant with pain until Christ be formed in you [your midst]. I do wish to be present with you so that my tone could change because I am perplexed about you. - Galatians 4:12-20/transliteration by Bruce C Wearne

St Paul statue

A statue of St Paul. POICTURE: Qwertzu111111 (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

IN A NUTSHELL

There is a change of tone in Paul's letter. He recalls his former life and is reminded of how He was taken in hand by the Almighty.

Paul's tone changes. He has proclaimed the Gospel to the Galatians once more, and here it is as if, while doing so, his own message has cut him to the quick. He recalls how he had met them. He recalls how he and Barnabas had been sent on their way by the church in Syrian Antioch and how he had first preached the Gospel in Pisidian Antioch.

They knew who he was. They knew the great legacy that he had to overcome. They had happily welcomed this herald of the Gospel, herald of the Messiah of Israel, and joined themselves to the sufferings and weakness of this apostle who proclaimed the good tidings of God's appointed ruler over all the Kings of all the earth.

Paul digs deep. He talks as one reconnecting with his own "children" at the deepest possible level. He confidently makes his case to win these wandering sheep back to the Spirit's path. He even notes that though their diversion might imply the deconstruction of his apostolic authority, they have not injured him at all. He knew Who had given him apostolic authority. He was not undermined by the Galatian turn to "zealous" paths.

But it is at this precise point where, with mention of their initial attitude toward him at an earlier time, that the discussion returns to "zeal". This "fellow traveller" explains to them how zealotry works - he has been there and done that, just like they are now proposing to do. This is also why this passage is so moving and heart-wrenching.

They knew Who he had proclaimed. It was from him that they had heard of the One who brought God's righteousness to all who had faith. They had even come to proclaim that they knew the One who had sent Paul to them! Such was their devotion.

Thus they shared with this man, turned around so dramatically by the Lord Jesus Himself, in his serious physical weaknesses and ailments (including, it seems, his poor vision). They would gladly have gone without to ensure that this servant of the Lord could continue in this work.

In other words, he had been a zealous advocate of the Gospel and they in their turn had been zealous in their assistance to Paul. But now, zeal for Jesus Christ was not the only zeal on display in these Galatian churches. Another zeal had arrived, threatening to take over. Paul is addressing this incursion. Those zealous to gain priority among the company of believers were obviously seeking to assign positions for themselves at the left and the right hand of the Lord Himself. We have already noted how Paul's announcement of his Gospel in this letter implies the teaching of Jesus about the service of authority. 

It is as if Paul realises that a loud denunciation from afar will give too much ground to the "tone" of zealotry; he lowers his voice, he maintains a shepherd's concern for his sheep. His tone is now pastoral: "How do I now win you back? How do I speak the truth without making you my enemy? [verse 16]. How can I assist in avoiding a miscarriage from this distance? [verse 19]. I will simply tell you that I'm in agony for you; please don't get offended by my tone! Consider the issues and remember this: the one who you referred to as the source of great blessing for you [verse 15], the one for whom you would have sacrificed so much on a previous occasion [verse 15], is the same one who has written this out of his great anxiety and perplexity [verse 20].

This is no legalistic appeal. Legalism is undermined. This is no complaint about a challenge to his status. Any hurt pride will be a diversion from the main game. This then is Paul the Apostle, called to carry the Good News about Jesus Christ, bearing with the heavy burdens this church community in their mistaken zeal had taken upon themselves. Paul takes this path in order that he might follow in the steps of Christ Himself, the One who carried His own cross to be crucified (6:2-3, 14). Paul seeks to have them hear again the Word of the Lord Himself, that pastoral word spoken to the two on the Road to Emmaus: "Oh how foolish you are, and so slow of heart to fully believe..."