|Series Theme: Meditations in Galatians|
Meditation No. 19
Meditation Title: Welcomed as an Angel
Gal 4:14 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.
Contrasts are useful and make clear that which is not so clear. Paul is a master of contrasts. Already in this letter he has made a number of contrasts (you might like to read it through looking for them). We have also commented on the logical continuity that we find in the flow of Paul's argument; one thing flows from another. We completed the last meditation noting Paul's sense of frustration, almost, as he wonders why he spent so much time and energy bringing the Gospel and its teaching to them, only for them to abandon it and revert back to some mix of Christian teaching plus Judaism: “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” (v.11). That's where we left him.
We now come to a very personal appeal that Paul makes, almost with a gentleness that contrasts his earlier strong words. “I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.” (v.12a). The first part is easy, for it is a simple and obvious plea to them; no strong command or rebuke here! The second part is not quite so clear. Become like me, he pleads, like I became like you. There has been a reversal. He had put aside his Judaism to become like a Gentile, no longer relying on the Law when he came with the Gospel, and now they have become like Jews taking on board the Law into their lives. Please, come back, come and be like me again, is what he is saying. He wants to take any personal sting away from this: “You have done me no wrong.” (v.12b). It's all right, he is saying, it's not me that you have wronged. The implication may be that they have wronged themselves.
He goes on to remind them of the circumstances when he first came to them: “As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.” (v.13). We don't know what his illness had been, but it had obviously meant that they had had to have grace to cope with Paul in whatever state he was in. He's mindful of that and grateful for the way they received him: “Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn.” (v.14a) He obviously came in great weakness but they did not reject him for it. Indeed, here comes the contrast: “Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” (v.14b). Now that is amazing.
Look at what it is saying. When he came to them, his natural state could easily have turned them off, they could easily have rejected him. That is what could have happened! It would have been perfectly natural if that is how they responded to him, but they hadn't! Oh no, they welcomed him and his message as if he was a wonderful heavenly messenger, as if he was the Son of God himself. In other words they gave him a great welcome; it was a brilliant welcome, a wonderful welcome, he couldn't have asked for more, is what he is implying.
Now behind all this is the subtle implication that he had not duped them, he hadn't come with great power and great oratory to win a reticent people over. Oh no, he had come with weakness and they had gladly welcomed him. All the emphasis is on the wonderful way they had responded to this weak ambassador of the Gospel. It was their decision, their choice. That is what is so important here, which is what makes their about-turn all the more strange. He can't believe it.
Listen to how he continues: “What has happened to all your joy?” (v.15a) He first reminds them of the emotion that flowed back at that time when he came to them. It had been a joyful time. They had heard what this weak, ill man had brought and they responded to it with great joy. It had been such a blessing. The implication is that they have now lost that wonderful joy. That is what becoming a law-keeper does to you. It robs you of the joy you had. I went through exactly the same experience in my early Christian life. I too reverted back to worrying about the rules and after a year of it found myself in a heavy, laden, burdened feeling. The Lord in His gracious way brought three Christians from my past across my path in one day, all full of the joy of the Lord and I suddenly realised what I had lost.
But it was more than just a joyful experience: “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” (v.15b). They had become so committed to him at that time, that they would have done anything for him. Whether this is a reference to an eye infection or limitation that was at the heart of Paul's ‘illness' we don't know, but it is certainly a strong picture of the commitment they had for him at that earlier time. Here comes another contrast: “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (v.16). That's what he feels now. It's almost as if their turnabout has made them his enemies. They appear to have completely rejected him and he can't understand it!
I have just commented how I have done the same thing myself. In a previous meditation I have commented on how crazy we are sometimes, the way we abandon the truth and get ourselves back into the bondage of guilt and shame. If you've allowed yourself to get into a ‘rules' mentality, and you too have lost the joy you once knew, can I join Paul in appealing to you? Remember what you once had; remember that it was all of God's free love, not keeping the rules. Get back to what you once had! Maturity doesn't mean we have to lose our joy and our freedom!