Studies in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
by Bob Burridge ©2017
Lesson 12: Galatians 4:12-31
Illusions for Solutions
The forces of evil in our universe are good at offering substitutes for the real thing. To draw us away from what pleases God, sin gets dressed up to look very reasonable, excusable, and even appealing as an alternative to what’s right.
It substitutes telling small lies, or holding back a few facts to take the place of truth. When a child isn’t wanted, some substitute abortion for adoption. They say it’s not only for your good. They claim it’s for the good of the child. People make excuses to substitute sinful things for the moral principles God gave us. They make promises they don’t intend to keep. If they’re late getting somewhere, some break the traffic laws and hope they don’t get caught. If they don’t feel like getting up to go to Sunday School, or to worship on Sunday, it’s justified by saying Sunday is a day of rest. After all God is everywhere, you don’t need to be in church.
In each case, and in others like these, evil-substitutes replace God’s solutions. Fallen society offers it’s own rules and attitudes that make exceptions and seem reasonable. God created things to work by different standards and motivations than the world understands.
At the root of the deception is putting us creatures over our Creator. They see their own efforts as what makes things happen. The idea that God gets all the glory is an idea the lost can’t tolerate. They believe that the way of salvation is controlled by the sinner, not the Redeemer. God is imagined to wait for our permission to save us, for us to perform good deeds, or to take part in rituals.
That’s clearly not what the Bible teaches. These are inventions of the lost heart. It craves being the center and cause of it’s own good and success. They are illusions which are not solutions for the challenges and responsibilities we face.
That’s what was happening in Galatia not long after the Apostle Paul left there. Judaizers had come, and were confusing the new believers. They wanted the new Gentile Christians to be bound to the old ceremonies of Old Israel. They confused the Gospel message.
The ceremonial laws were never meant to continue past the coming of the Promised Messiah. They prepared us for what the Christ was going to accomplish. The sacrificial and ritual laws pointed to the work of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The moral laws never provided a way to be made right with God. They defined sin, and exposed us as lost and unworthy of God’s blessings. Obeying them is to show gratitude.
God’s law points out a path no one can follow or even understand until God by grace changes the heart. God’s promise all along, was to come as our Redeemer to die in the place of worthless, fallen sinners unable to do anything purely good, and to transform them into his people by grace alone through Christ alone. But the way of the Judaizers was to replace God’s promise with impossible human effort. They missed the law’s message completely. Paul deals with this issue from various angles in this letter.
Paul reminded the Galatians about his previous visit with them.
12. Brethren, I urge you to become like me, for I became like you. You have not injured me at all.
13. You know that because of physical infirmity I preached the gospel to you at the first.
14. And my trial which was in my flesh you did not despise or reject, but you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus.
15. What then was the blessing you enjoyed? For I bear you witness that, if possible, you would have plucked out your own eyes and given them to me.
16. Have I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?
While the Judaizers urged believers to trust in their own efforts by the law, Paul was resting in God’s grace and promises. He wanted them to be like him in that way. That was the message he brought to them on his previous visit there. They received him and his message gratefully, so he can call them is “brothers”.
Paul reminded them that he ministered to them in spite of some kind of infirmity. The word “physical” is added to “infirmity” here by the New King James translators. The word for “infirmity” in verse 13 is “astheneia” (ἀσθένεια) which means “feebleness, frailty, and sometimes disease”.
Some speculate that he might have had a disease of some sort, maybe an eye problem because of his comment in verse 15. That’s why some translators insert words like “physical” into the text.
There’s another way to understand what Paul’s saying here. In his Epistles, Paul uses this word “astheneia” ( ἀσθένεια) 12 times, and a related word 14 times. He often used these words to describe his own frailties as a man during his sufferings by persecutors. In verse 12 Paul implies that some were injuring him, but it wasn’t the Galatians. This attack on the gospel might have tempted believers to back away, and not stand with him — yet they did.
In spite of these persecutions, the Galatians didn’t reject Paul because of the threats which they might face too. They would have given their eyes for him – a common proverb for serious self sacrifice. That was the respect they had for him back when he visited before.
Now he was being portrayed as their enemy by those luring them away from God’s promises. Paul still cared for these believers, so he was lovingly writing to remind them about God’s truth. As it says in Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, But the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.”
Compassion goes out of it’s way to promote the truth – lovingly, humbly and carefully. The faithful persist to encourage God’s people to trust in God’s promises, and to avoid distortions.
These others were trying to win over the Galatians, turning them away from the gospel.
17. They zealously court you, but for no good; yes, they want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them.
18. But it is good to be zealous in a good thing always, and not only when I am present with you.
19. My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you,
20. I would like to be present with you now and to change my tone; for I have doubts about you.
Zeal can be good but it isn’t in itself a good thing. These enemies were zealous, highly motivated and dedicated to their errors. They were trying hard to recruit believers to their misguided cause. They wanted them to turn against Paul. They were pressuring them to abandon God’s true church.
Don’t leave zeal to the ungodly. We need to be zealous for the good things. We need to be highly motivated to live by, and to promote God’s promises and principles.
Our word “zeal” comes directly from this ancient Greek word Paul used here. The word is “zaelo-o” (ζηλόω), which means: to have a strong desire for something, to be passionately driven. Think of the examples in the Bible of people zealous for God’s truth and ways: people like Jeremiah, Moses, King David, Ruth, Daniel, Timothy, Priscila, Peter and Paul himself.
But if that zeal to kindly and faithfully stand up for God’s truth and ways is missing from your life, you should be very concerned and make it a matter of sincere prayer.
The issue being challenged in Galatia, was the meaning of the Gospel.
21. Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?
22. For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.
23. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise,
Notice how Paul refers to God’s law in two completely different ways in verse 21. Some wanted to be under the law, but Paul wanted them to hear the law. The religious Judaizers wanted to be under the rituals, rules, and regulations, but they were not hearing what God’s law was teaching through those outward forms. Far from condemning the law in any way, the Apostle appealed to God’s law. There was something in it they were missing. That’s why they were misusing it.
They took the message that pointed to Christ, then turn it around to point to themselves. Their efforts replaced God’s work of Grace with a religion of symbols, rituals, and rules.
So Paul goes back to a story they had all heard many times: the story of Abraham’s two sons. In Genesis 15 Abraham wondered how he would become a great nation when he had no sons. God told him in verse 5, ” ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ ”
After some time had gone by Abraham and his wife Sarah still had no children. They started to wonder about God’s promise. They impatiently decided to have a child another way. Sarah gave her female servant Hagar to her husband to have a child with her instead. By custom then the child would legally be the heir of Abraham and Sarah, not of Hagar. They tried to make things work out by their own efforts, rather than by trusting God’s promise.
Still more time had gone by when in Genesis 18, Jehovah appeared again to Abraham. He told him that his wife Sarah would now have the child God had promised. Sarah laughed at the idea. She was 89 years old and Abraham was 99. Nevertheless, God repeated his promise in verse 14, “Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Here in Galatians 4:22 & 23 Paul compares these two sons. The son born to Hagar was Ishmael — a child of a bondwoman, born according to the flesh. It was a son born by the sinful scheme of Abraham and Sarah. They were unwilling to wait by faith for the fulfillment of God’s word. The son born to Sarah was Isaac — the child of a freewoman born according to God’s promise.
Similarly, the Judaizers who came to Galatia replaced God’s promise with human efforts. They looked to the ceremonies and rituals of God’s law, but they missed the promise these laws pointed toward. Instead of seeing God’s promise in the rituals, they looked to their own human efforts to make themselves right with God.
This is the lesson here — as Paul directly points out in the next verses:
24. which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants:
the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar —
25. for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is,
and is in bondage with her children —
There aren’t two separate covenants of God here. There are two perceptions of God’s covenant: one view of it was wrong, and other one was right.
The one was just an illusion. It taught that human effort is the way to get right with God. They thought they could perfectly keep the law’s demands on their own, instead of trusting in a Savior who would keep the law in their place.
The other view of the covenant is the way God intended it: that we wait on the Lord.
26. but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.
27. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.”
28. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise.
29. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.
30. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.”
31. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
The Judaizers claimed to keep God’s law, and boasted that they were sons of Abraham. They only kept the law outwardly. They missed the whole point of it. And yes, they were sons of Abraham but only physically, like the son of Hagar. They descended from him, but were not children of the promise. They knew nothing of the faith of Abraham that learned to trust in all God says.
Sarah was barren for a time, but she was destined to become fruitful by God’s promise. She and Abraham were wrong to try to fulfill that promise by their sinful efforts.
God’s church and God’s people, no matter how barren things may seem at the time, should press on based on God’s promise, not resorting to alternatives which offend God.
Religion born of man’s efforts is an illusion. Those who believe they can earn God’s blessing, actually forfeit them. The contrast the Bible shows us here is between doubt and trust in God’s Promises. God honors the faithful, those who patiently rest in the ways revealed in Scripture.
This same principle guides us still today. God calls us to trust him and to do things his way. Until Christ changes our hearts we live under the impression that in some way our own efforts save us. But that’s exactly what Paul points out as wrong here. It’s the error Jesus taught against. It’s the opposite of the message of the Judaizers.
It’s the message of false religion all through history, and of most religious groups today. The price has been paid on that Cross. We are simply called to trust in that fact. Tell your struggling neighbors and friends the truth, as Paul lovingly told the Galatians.
The principle of faith goes beyond just this message of Salvation. God made a promise of a child to Abraham and to Sarah, but they were impatient. They tried something else, their own plan – but it was sinful and wrong.
Some people don’t trust God about how they should live in this world he made. They abandon God’s ways for substitutes . To deal with inner stress and problems, some turn to mind bending drugs. Legal or illegal they don’t deal with inner problem. They just help it to be ignored for awhile.
God tells us how we should provide for our material needs. To honor God we need to work diligently and honestly. We are to do all our work for God’s glory, not just for personal gain. We show disrespect for God when we substitute new definitions of marriage for the one he gave in his word. God expects us to make and keep our promises and vows as sacred pledges. We need to resist the temptations that look to substitutes for God’s promises and instructions.
The ways so popular in the lost world are not supposed to be our ways. The blessings of God’s promises are not found in substitutes. They’re not solutions, they’re really just illusions.
The lost soul is bound by the chains of sin, and isn’t even able to recognize the chains. He wants things that satisfy himself, and he wants to get them his own way. The bondage of his mind and heart to sin hold him captive, and he doesn’t even admit the problem.
Freedom isn’t the ability to believe whatever we want, or to do whatever we want. Real freedom is being loosed from those chains so we can again live for God’s glory and trust his promises.
When alternatives replace the one way that works, God’s way, the results are tragic. When God’s promises are trusted with patience and confidence, God will not fail us.
(The Bible quotations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise noted.)