April 07, 2005

Galatians VIII: They started out so well

One of the hottest stories in the music world in 1978 was the conversion of Bob Dylan from Judaism to Christianity. It wasn't long before he started releasing a series of blatant gospel albums, most notably Slow Train Coming, which in every respect is an excellent record. In fact, its first cut, "Gotta Serve Somebody," was Dylan's last top-40 hit. At the time, Dylan was so "on fire" for Jesus that he began alienating many of his fans, who weren't quite as enthusiastic about the subject as he was. I don't know exactly what happened to him after that. Maybe he got tired of being booed or the constant accusations of "selling out" yet again. Perhaps he was turned off by much of evangelicalism treating him as a new "scalp" hanging off their belt. Maybe it was something else entirely. But by 1982, Bob Dylan was recording more secular music again, took a highly publicized trip to Israel, and was lending his name to Jewish causes. By all appearances he had abandoned Christianity and returned to Judaism, prompting Steve Taylor, another prominent voice in Christian music, to ask in 1984: "Is it gonna take a miracle to make up his mind?"

Closer to home, I have a friend whom I have known for many years. Like me, he was raised in a strong Christian home. As a younger man he was a student at a prominent Bible college and when he attended university, he was the consummate "campus Christian," active in Campus Crusade and other such organizations. Then, suddenly, a few years ago he took everyone by surprise by announcing that he had been "received" by the Roman Catholic Church.

Steve Taylor was saying to Dylan, "I am perplexed about you," because Dylan started out so well. I am perplexed about my friend, because he started out so well. And Paul says to the Galatians, "I am perplexed about you" - "I stand in doubt of you," as the King James puts it - because they, too, started out so well.

Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.

Brethren, I beseech you, be as I am; for I am as ye are: ye have not injured me at all. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus. Where is then the blessedness ye spake of? for I bear you record, that, if it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me. Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth? They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them. But it is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice; for I stand in doubt of you. (Gal. 4:8-20)

Paul's passionate argument for sola fide - justification by faith alone - has climaxed in his slaves-to-sons analogy. Now, he sums up his confusion in a series of short then-and-now contrasts.

Back then, the Galatians were ignorant of the true God. They were slaves to false pagan gods which, Paul adds, are really no gods at all. They are the product of a corrupt imagination, like every other part of a person's being, affected and impaired by sin. This is what theologians mean by "total depravity": the total extent of the natural man's being is corrupt, including the reason. It's common in evangelical circles these days to assume this isn't the case. If you just throw enough evidence for the Resurrection and proofs for the existence of God in the skeptics' way, then eventually they will have to concede that Christianity is true. But this approach ignores the effects of sin on the human mind. For Paul, ignorance of God is not mere lack of knowledge. It is rebellion against what the unbeliever knows to be true. Scripture says that "[t]here is none that seeketh after God" (Rom. 3:11); they have willingly exchanged knowledge of the true God for an invention of their own imaginations (Rom. 1:23). The unbeliever is prejudiced against God and will accept any substitute. The philosopher and apologist Blaise Pascal put it this way:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. . . . What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself. He only is our true good, and since we have forsaken him, it is a strange thing that there is nothing in nature which has not been serviceable in taking His place; the stars, the heavens, earth, the elements, plants, cabbages, leeks, animals, insects, calves, serpents, fever, pestilence, war, famine, vices, adultery, incest. And since man has lost the true good, everything can appear equally good to him, even his own destruction, though so opposed to God, to reason, and to the whole course of nature. (Pensée 425)

But now, the Galatians are not slaves but sons, because they know God - or, as Paul is quick to correct himself and say, rather, they are known by God. Reason does not correct the prejudice of the unbeliever; the only effective remedy is a supernatural work by God to open his heart to the truth of the Gospel. Remember that when Paul recounted his salvation story back in Galatians 1, he said it was God "who separated me from my mother's womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen" (Gal. 1:15-16). Salvation is something that happens by God's initiative and in God's timing for God's purpose, and Paul realizes that though it is true that the Galatians know God, it is more fundamentally true that they are "known by" God. And thus the cause of Paul's perplexity: Formerly the Galatians did not know God, and they were enslaved to an invention of their own mind. But now God has revealed himself to them; he has taken the initiative to redeem them from their slavery and adopt them as his sons. Now that they have tasted the benefits of being an adopted son of the living God, why do they now wish to return to their former state of ignorance? They have returned, Paul says, to "weak and beggarly elements"; they have abandoned living by faith in favour of an external code of observances. When my friend told me he had converted to Romanism, he said the main attraction had been the weight of history and the significance of its traditions. Sad to say, the history and traditions of a human institution might be significant, but they are not eternally significant. Confessions and masses and Lent and rosaries - these are "weak and beggarly" things of no value when compared to the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. As Luther once said, poverty won't make you rich.

Give an inch . . .

Paul accuses the Galatians of the same thing: they "observe days, and months, and times, and years" (Gal. 4:16). This is simply a way of saying that they have begun observing the Jewish religious festivals: they had holy days, such as Sabbaths; monthly New Moon festivals; seasonal observances, such as the Passover; and even Sabbath years in which the land was not cultivated. The situation really goes beyond circumcision: the Galatians' departure from sola fide is serious enough to make Paul wonder whether all his work with the Galatians has been a waste of time.

I think it is interesting that Paul starts talking about observing holy days, when the original issue with the Galatians was circumcision. Paul must have realized that circumcision was nothing but the camel's nose in the tent, but the remainder of the Law was the whole camel. In our own day, the Seventh-day Adventist sect exists ostensibly to restore one commandment - Sabbath observance - to the worship of Christ, in the belief that the rest of Christendom has abandoned the Sabbath by gathering for worship on Sunday. If that were all the Adventists were about, I wouldn't have much of an issue with them. However, with my dealings with Adventist individuals, I have yet to find one who does not want to persuade me that true holiness consists of observing some other part of the Law as well, usually the dietary laws or holy days - "days, and months, and times, and years." Many go even farther, advocating such things as vegetarianism or "alternative medicine" as "God's way." The Sabbath issue is just the nose in the tent. There is nothing new under the sun.

What happened?

Finally in verse 12, we get what is actually the first command in the letter. All this time Paul has been making his case for his readers, but up to this point he hasn't actually encouraged them to do anything. His first command is, "be as I am." In other words: Be committed to the Lord Jesus, not this mechanical checklist of observances that is nothing more than a cheap substitute for genuine faith. He gives his reason: "for I am as ye are"; that is, he too was once zealous for the Law, "an Hebrew of the Hebrews" (Phil. 3:15) and a Pharisee, but in Christ he gave all that up as a way of earning God's favour. Paul is not an ivory-tower theologian, arguing theoretically about justification with people he has never met. He is their pastor and the founder of their church, and he has been exactly where they are.

Notice how careful Paul is to guard the Galatians' feelings: he is probably fully aware of how such a strong letter might be received. He takes some trouble to ensure that they see him as someone who is sympathetic and genuinely concerned for them, since he can relate to their situation.

At the end of this verse, Paul reassures them that he is not motivated by a personal grudge. On the contrary, "ye have not injured me at all" (Gal. 4:12), he says, he remembers that they had paid him a great kindness. "Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:13-14). Apparently Paul had arrived in Galatia suffering from some illness. Students of Paul have speculated for ages about what this might have been. Some say he contracted malaria from the swamps in the area, and sought relief in the higher ground where Galatia was situated. Others see the next verse, where Paul says the Galatians would even have offered him their eyes if he had asked, and conclude that he probably suffered from an eye condition such as glaucoma or conjunctivitis. Still others try to draw a parallel between this illness and Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (cf. 2 Cor. 12).

I don't think it matters, and it's beside the point in any case. It was sometimes believed that a disfiguring illness was a sign of divine displeasure. When Paul's illness, whatever it was, brought him into Galatia, the Galatians might have shunned him, but they didn't. Instead, they treated him with kindness. I believe that when Paul says they would have given him their eyes, he isn't necessarily talking about a specific solution to his specific problem. He's simply saying, in a graphic way, that he knows they would have gone to great lengths for his sake. His illness was a providential opportunity to preach Jesus to them. Again, they could have rejected him and the Gospel, but instead they received it willingly, and they received Paul as though he were the Lord himself.

The Galatians were blessed by Paul, and he by them. But now, where did that sense of blessing go? They treated him like a friend, and they received the truth from him eagerly. The truth didn't change, so obviously their attitude toward it had. Was Paul now their enemy for preaching the same truth they had previously received with gladness?

Now Paul stops questioning the Galatians' motives. Instead, he warns them about the true motives of the Judaizers. The KJV says: "They zealously affect you, but not well; yea, they would exclude you, that ye might affect them" (Gal. 4:17). This is confusing; the New International Version says it more clearly: "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." Paul hastens to add that being devoted to a good cause is perfectly commendable, but the implication is that the Judaizers are anything but a good cause. Here he can't resist getting in a sarcastic jab: "You don't need me there to do the right thing, either."

While I haven't had too many encounters with cult evangelists over the years, I have had a number of run-ins with the International Churches of Christ. Back in 1994 when I lived in Toronto, when I was in the mall or on the subway, I frequently had people from the Toronto Church of Christ accosting me to invite me to their church or a "Bible study." On one such occasion I told the recruiter that I was happily involved and active in a Bible-believing church, and I had no real interest in getting involved with any other groups. He actually became quite rude with me, trying to cast aspersions on my church for not teaching the Bible. (The funny thing was that I never told him even what church I attended, let alone anything else about it.) It seems to me that if his motives had been honourable, he would have been happy that I was active in a church already. But his real motive was to cut me off from my church, and persuade me to join his. There is nothing new under the sun.

A pastor's pain

"My little children," Paul continues, ". . . I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you" (Gal. 4:19). Back then, the Galatians had done Paul no harm. But now, because they had strayed so far from the truth after his back was turned, he was in such anguish for their sakes that it was like birth pangs. But again, we see how Paul's heart is a pastor's heart. He doesn't give up on his spiritual children. He is determined to bear his pain for however long it takes for Christ to form in them - again, curiously, a childbirth metaphor. It's as though Paul is saying he will carry the Galatians for as long as it takes for them to give birth to a mature Christianity.

Finally, Paul sums up: "I desire to be present with you now, and to change my voice [i.e. my tone of voice]; for I stand in doubt of you" (Gal. 4:20). Paul is well aware that he is writing some very forceful rhetoric. Maybe if he were with the Galatians in person, he would know the right words for the situation. But as it is, from such a long distance away, that is impossible. Hence the perplexity.

Paul takes a keen, personal, sometimes intense interest in those under his care. This is the mark of a good pastor. Over the years I have been under the authority of a number of pastors, and I don't believe that I have ever been let down in that respect. Pray for your pastors, that as they have charge of your soul they continue to show the same care and concern as Paul does.

I am sure many of you, like me, have had friends who have gone off the rails in their faith, or even walked away from it entirely. Don't give up hope for them. Paul could have written off the Galatians, but instead he agonized over them, reasoned with them, even pleaded with them to return to their first love. The Bible says this isn't easy. The author of Hebrews writes that it is impossible for someone who has tasted the benefits of Christ and turned from them to be renewed to repentance (Heb. 6:6). This is a powerful warning that such people are on the pathway to a final rejection of the faith. But while they are still on that path, there is still time for them to turn back. Don't write them off. With God, nothing is impossible.


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink