Galatians 04(12–20)


We’ve seen in previous weeks that Paul the Apostle has been contending for the gospel. He himself received the one, true gospel whenever the Lord Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. And he preached the one, true gospel in the cities of Galatia. And some who heard him believed and new churches were formed. But after Paul left the province of Galatia, other teachers came along and began to preach another gospel, which was really no gospel at all. These false teachers were saying that you have to keep the law in order to be justified or pardoned and accepted by God. You have to do what the law requires in order to be saved. And more specifically, they were saying to the Gentiles in Galatia that they needed to be circumcised, because isn’t that what the law requires? The law says you have to be circumcised. It also says you have to follow certain rules and regulations about what to eat and what to drink; and who you can eat with and who you can’t eat with. And the law says lots of other things. So, you have to observe the law and do what it says in order to be justified or pardoned and accepted by God. Your salvation is down to you and to what you do to keep the law.

But that’s not the gospel. The gospel is that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Jesus Christ. By trusting in him and in what he has done for sinners by his life and death and resurrection, sinners receive forgiveness and the free gift of eternal life. It’s not about what we do; it’s about what Christ has done for us. So, we’re to trust in him; we’re to rely on him, because Christ died for sinners. That’s the gospel.

So, Paul has been contending for the gospel; and he’s trying to persuade his readers to give up relying on the law, and to rely once again on Christ the Saviour for salvation. And we’ve seen how Paul has used different arguments. First, he appealed to their personal experience, because whenever Paul was with them, preaching about Jesus Christ, they believed the gospel and trusted in Christ. And having believed, they received the promised Holy Spirit. As Paul reminds them in verse 2 of chapter 3, they received the Spirit, not by observing the law, but by believing what they heard.

And then, Paul turned to the Old Testament Scriptures which make clear that Abraham was justified by faith and not by keeping the law. And all those who believe, as Abraham believed, are regarded by God as children of Abraham and members of God’s people.

And Paul then explained how God’s promise of eternal life in his presence, which he revealed to Abraham, takes precedence over the law which God revealed to Moses 430 years afterwards. The law does not annul the promise; and the promise of eternal life for all who believe still stands.

And after that, Paul went on to explain the purpose of the law, which is to convince us that we’re sinners who need a Saviour. The law reveals our sinfulness to us; and it shows us all the ways we fall short of doing God’s will. It convinces us that we’re lawbreakers, who need a Saviour to free us from the law’s condemnation. And do you remember the images Paul used? The law is like a prison which imprisons us as lawbreakers who deserve to be condemned. And the law is like a supervisor with the authority to rebuke us for our shortcomings. And the law is like guardian who orders us about and treats us like slaves. But, through faith in Christ, we’re adopted into God’s family, so that we becomes sons of God and heirs of the promise of eternal life. And the Holy Spirit, living inside us, enables us to call out to God as Father.

So, Paul has been using these different arguments to contend for the gospel and to explain to his readers that there has only ever been one way to be saved from the condemnation of the law; and that one way to be saved is by faith in Christ the Saviour. And in today’s passage, Paul continues to contend for the gospel and to call on his readers to return to the one, true gospel. But his approach in today’s passage is very different, isn’t it? He now makes a personal appeal to his readers and he reminds them of their past relationship and their previous attitude towards him. And he wants them to see that the false teachers who are misleading them are only interested in themselves, whereas he is only interested in their good.

Verse 12a

And so, the appeal is found there at the beginning of verse 12, where Paul writes: ‘I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.’ This is a personal plea from Paul to the members of the churches in Galatia, whom he regards as his brothers and sisters in the Lord. And he pleads with his brothers and sisters in the Lord to become like him, just as he became like them.

What does he mean? It’s not entirely clear, but he most likely means that he wants them to become like him in terms of his attitude to the law. Instead of living under the law — with the law bossing him around, and treating him as a slave, rebuking him for his shortcomings, and showing him his guilt — Paul come out from under the law and now rejoices in the freedom that Christ gives to all who trust in him. Instead of living as a slave under the law, Paul now rejoices in the knowledge that he’s a son of God and an heir of eternal life. Before Paul met the Risen Saviour, he relied on keeping the law. In those days, he believed that the only way to be justified, the only way to be saved, was by observing the law. And so, every day he tried his best to keep the law and to do everything written in the law. Whatever the law told him to do, he did. He was its slave. But, of course, he was unable to do everything written in the law, because none of us is able to keep the law perfectly. Who is able to love the Lord perfectly all of the time? Who is able to love their neighbour perfectly all of the time? And so, the law — which Paul once tried to keep — only condemned him. But through faith in Christ, the Risen Saviour, Paul was freed from the law’s condemnation; and he was able to rejoice in the knowledge that he was now a son of God and an heir of eternal life.

That’s what Paul had become; and he pleaded with his readers to become like him. And when he adds that he had become like them, he probably means that he had become like the Gentiles, who did not have the law.

So, there’s a certain irony here, isn’t there? Paul the Jew had become like the Gentiles who were free from the law. But the Gentiles in Galatia were trying to become like the Jews who were enslaved to the law. And so, Paul pleads with his readers to become like him and to come out from under their slavery to the law and into the freedom which Christ gives to all who trust in him.

Verses 12b to 14

From the end of verse 12 until verse 14, Paul reminisces about the time he first arrived in the province of Galatia. A better translation of the last words of verse 12 is: ‘You did me no wrong.’ He’s referring to the time he spent with them; at that time, they did him no wrong, but welcomed him and his message.

He then explains that he was able to preach the gospel to them because of an illness. The commentators discuss what kind of illness this was, but there’s really no way of telling. Indeed, some suggest that he’s not referring to an illness at all, but to the persecution he suffered at that time. In Acts 14, we read how he was stoned in Lystra, which was one of the cities in Galatia. Those who stoned him, dragged him out of the city, thinking he was dead. Because we know he was persecuted for the gospel, some commentators think he’s referring to that in verse 13. However, while he clearly suffered persecution in Galatia, it’s more likely he’s referring in these verses to an actual illness. And while the Galatians may have been tempted to despise him because of his illness — the word ‘trial’ in verse 14 should really be ‘temptation’ — they in fact did not treat him with contempt or with scorn. On the contrary, they welcomed him as if he were an angel from God, or as if he were the Lord Jesus himself. In other words, they welcomed him as a messenger from God. That means they believed his message and received it, not as the word of a man, but as the word of God.

Verse 15

And then Paul adds in verse 15: ‘What happened to all your joy?’ By translating what Paul said that way, the NIV translators are suggesting that when they first believed the gospel, they were filled with joy: the joy of knowing that God no longer counts our sins against us, but has forgiven us for the sake of Christ the Saviour. The joy of knowing we have peace with God and the hope of everlasting life. The gospel brings joy, overwhelming joy, because once we were lost, but now we’re found; once we were blind, but now we see; once we were dead, but now we have life, eternal life in the presence of God. But since they’ve turned from the gospel, and have made themselves slaves under the law, their joy has vanished. Slaves are not joyful. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, they cried out in their misery. Or slaves in America sang the blues. Slaves are not joyful; they’re miserable. And so, Paul might be referring to the way they’ve lost the joy of salvation by giving up their faith in Christ.

However, the Greek word which Paul uses and which the NIV translates as ‘joy’ is normally translated ‘blessing’. So, Paul is asking them: ‘What has happened to your blessing?’ And that’s significant, because back in chapter 3, Paul referred to God’s promise to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through him; therefore, Paul said, those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. And he then went on to explain that those who try to observe the law will be cursed, but by faith in Christ, we receive the blessing given to Abraham. And Paul explains that the blessing given to Abraham which we receive by faith is the promised Holy Spirit. The blessing is the Spirit. In that case, Paul is making the point in verse 15 that when the Galatians first believed, they received the Holy Spirit. But where is the Spirit now, now that you’ve turned away from the gospel?

Now in order to help you see the significance of that, I need to give you a preview of coming attractions, because in chapter 5, Paul will go on to write about the fruit of the Spirit. Remember? Love and joy and peace; and patience and kindness and goodness; and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. The promised Holy Spirit, who lives in all those who believe, produces his fruit in God’s people and enables them to display these qualities in their lives. He renews us inwardly; and therefore he helps us to do all the things the law requires.

However, the Galatians had turned from the gospel and were now relying on the law for salvation. But one of the things about the law is this: while it’s like a master which orders us about and tells us what to do, it won’t lift a finger to help us. The law tells us to obey, but it won’t help us to obey. It tells us what to do, but it won’t help us to do it. So, relying on the law is doubly foolish: it’s foolish because no one will be justified by observing the law; and it’s foolish because the law can’t help us to obey.

However, when we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, not only are we justified so that we’re pardoned and accepted by God, but we receive the Holy Spirit, who comes and lives in us. And the Holy Spirit is able to help us. He produces his fruit in our lives and helps us to love the Lord and to love the people around us as we should. He renews us inwardly and helps us to obey God’s commandments and to do his will.

But the Galatians had turned away from the gospel. So, ‘where is your blessing?’ Paul asked them. Where is the Spirit now, now that you have turned from the gospel and turned from Christ the Saviour? You’re trying to keep the law; but don’t you realise, don’t you realise, that the way to keep the law is by believing the gospel, because all who believe in Christ receive the Holy Spirit who helps us to do what the law requires?

Verses 16 to 20

When Paul came and preached the gospel to them, they received the message and believed. At that time, they would have done anything for Paul, because they so appreciated his ministry among them and because had brought them the good news. They would have done anything for him, such was their love and admiration and gratitude. In verse 15, Paul says they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him, if they could. Perhaps the illness he was suffering at that time was connected to his eyes. However, offering someone your eyes was a way of saying in those days that you’d do anything for that person. That’s how they once felt about Paul.

But what about now? Are they now treating Paul as an enemy? After all, he told them the truth, which means he preached to them the truth of the gospel about Jesus Christ, which they have now rejected. And since they’ve rejected the gospel, have they now rejected him? Do they no longer regard him as a friend, for whom they would do anything? Do they now regard him as their enemy? This is all part of his personal appeal to them. He’s appealing to them to think back and to remember that Paul is their friend and not their enemy.

And then, he contrasts his attitude towards them compared to the attitude of the false teachers in order to make the point that he really is their friend. Those people, he says in verse 17 — and he’s referring to the false teachers — are zealous to win you over. They want you to believe them and to accept what they’re saying about the law. They want you to become their followers. But the end result will be no good, because they want to alienate you, says Paul. More literally, they want to shut the Galatians out. It’s not clear what the Galatians are being shut out of, but perhaps Paul means they’ll be shut out of the church and out of membership of God’s people. They think that keeping the law is the way to become a member of God’s people. But it’s not, because the church is made up of all those who trust in Christ the Saviour.

And Paul goes on to suggest that the false teachers are only in the ministry for what they can get out of it. Paul says they want to shut the Galatians out, ‘so that you may be zealous for them.’ In other words, the false teachers want to be praised and honoured by the Galatians. They long for adulation, says one commentator.

By contrast, what does Paul want for them? Look at verse 19: he wants Christ to be formed in them. So, he pictures himself as an expectant mother, going through the pains of childbirth. In fact, he says he is again in the pains of childbirth. The first time he felt like this was when he came to Galatia and preached the gospel and suffered persecution for their sake. But after he suffered persecution for their sake, he — in a sense — gave birth to them and to their new life as Christians. However, now he’s suffering all over again, with worry and anxiety this time, because he wants them to return to Christ and to the gospel. They’ve turned from the gospel; and he’s anxious for them to return and to begin their life as Christians once again. So, he’s like an expectant mother once again.

But then he switches the picture, and he refers to the Lord Jesus being formed in them. So, just as a baby is formed in the womb of the mother, so he wants the Lord Jesus to be formed in them. And what he means is that he wants them to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.

So, the false teachers longed for adulation, but Paul longed for the Galatians to become like Christ.


Unlike the false teachers, Paul preached to the Galatians the one, true gospel message about Jesus Christ the Saviour. And his desire for them was that Christ would be formed in them, so that they would become like Christ.

That was Paul’s goal. That’s why he preached. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that they would believe. And by believing they were justified: pardoned and accepted by God. But by believing they also received the promised Holy Spirit. And the role of the Spirit in the life of the believer — as I’ve already mentioned — is to renew us in Christ’s image. In other words, he’s the one who forms Christ in us. The Holy Spirit transforms us into the likeness of Christ, so that we become more and more willing and able to do the will of our Father in heaven, just as Christ did when he was on the earth.

So, Paul preached the good news of Jesus Christ, so that the Galatians would be justified by faith and filled with the Holy Spirit who was able to transform them into the likeness of Christ. And, of course, that’s why preachers must still preach Christ today. That’s why, when you come to church on Sunday mornings, you hear sermons about him. That’s why, when you come to church on Sunday evenings, you hear sermons about him. That’s why on Wednesdays at the midweek, you hear sermons about him. Whether the sermon is from Galatians, or Deuteronomy, or from the Psalms, or wherever else we turn in the Bible, the message must be about Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world. Preachers must preach about him, so that those who hear will trust in him and will keep trusting in him, because sinners are justified by faith in Christ alone. And preachers must preach about him, so that those who hear will be transformed into Christ’s likeness by the Holy Spirit.

That’s why I preach Christ. I preach Christ, so that the Holy Spirit will form Christ in you, so that this church will be filled with men and women and children who are like Christ. That’s really what the church is for. Did you realise that? It’s about transforming men and women and boys and girls into little versions of Christ: walking and talking models of Christ. The aim of any preacher is for those who listen to him to become like Christ. And the aim of anyone who comes to church and listens to the preaching of God’s word is that you’ll become like Christ.

Do you remember how Paul puts it in his second letter to the Corinthians? He says that we, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. So, every week, as we hear about Christ, we’re — in a sense — beholding him. We’re looking at him with our mind’s eye. We’re beholding him and his excellent greatness. And the reason we’re to behold him like that, is so that we’ll be transformed bit by bit into his likeness. That’s what we’re doing here on Sundays. We listen to the good news about Jesus Christ; and as we behold his glory, the Spirit is at work to change us.

And so, listen. Will you make that your aim? And will you make that your prayer before you come to church? Will you ask the Lord to work through the preaching of the gospel, so that you will be filled with Christ’s Spirit and transformed into Christ’s likeness? It won’t happen all at once, because it happens bit by bit, from one degree of glory to another. But what each of us should be praying for is that you’ll become more like Christ every week and every month and every year, and every decade, because the Spirit of Christ is at work in us to shape us into the likeness of Christ.