Paul’s Birthpangs: Galatians 4:12-5:1
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 17, 2009.
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcasting live from Home Church in Old Salem. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love. It was a loud week at the church. They have been cleaning out the air ducts in the building as part of our renovations, and it was a bit hard to concentrate at the church. So I wrote part of this at Panera bakery. This is a big weekend at Wake Forest culminating in commencement tomorrow morning. Last night we hooded the graduates in the Master of Divinity program. There were some who were not sure if Greek or Hebrew would prevent them from graduating, but they passed. I want to give a shout out to one graduate, Linda Osborne, who is a member of Home Church. Linda pursued a call to minister at an age when most people are pursuing a calling as grandparents. She graduated from Salem College as an adult student, and then she enrolled at Wake Forest Divinity School. It was not an easy road for Linda, but she persevered despite many obstacles, including a flood that left her temporarily homeless. Tomorrow she will receive her diploma, and next year she will be serving as a chaplain at Baptist Hospital. Hopefully, one day she will be called Rev. Osborne.
Last week we discussed Paul’s bold assertion that Jesus had fulfilled the law of Moses, and in doing so, had freed all people from the restrictions of the law. The Son of God had broken down the barriers between the Creator and humans and made it possible for all people to become sons and daughters of God. We are heirs of grace in the household of God rather than strangers and sojourners. The alienation between God and humans that is described in Genesis has been overcome through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our lesson for today, Paul hammers home this central point by personalizing his argument. The disagreements and conflicts in the Galatian church are not abstract theology; they affect Paul personally. He writes passionately to his brothers and sisters.
Become Like Me: So far in the Letter to the Galatians, the central figure has been Jesus Christ, but in verse 12 Paul urges his audience in Galatia to become like him. It is a statement that startles the reader. We would expect him to urge the Galatians to be like Christ, like he does in other letters. Imitating Christ would fit the argument Paul has been making about Christ leading his followers out of slavery into freedom, but Paul is shifting his argument here. He has already said that Christ lived under the law and fulfilled the law, and so he does not want the Galatians to imitate Christ in that way. Instead Paul lifts himself up as an example of someone who was born under the law but now lives by faith in God’s grace. Christ was the one who makes the new life possible, but Paul is an example of someone living in that new reality.
Some folks think Paul is being arrogant by holding himself up as a model, but isn’t that what motivational speakers in our day do? Just think about all those books and lectures by people who tell you that you can be a success just like them. Thousands of people promote themselves as models of how to be a good businessman, manager, mother, coach, leader, entertainer, and so on. People also offer themselves as models to follow if you want to lose weight, overcome addictions, or have better style. We love to have heroes to emulate, and we pay people large sums of money to brag to us about how wonderful they are. I’m tempted to write a book titled “How I Got Rich Writing Self-Help Books for People Like You to Buy.”
Even though we make celebrities of self-promoters in our age, we get offended when Paul urges the Galatians to become like him. We think he is lacking in Christian humility and is saying that he is better than anyone else. Perhaps we should read his story the way Paul intended. He told the Galatians that he was a living example of someone who overcame religious fanaticism, prejudice, and violence through a spiritual encounter with Jesus Christ. Paul fought hard to break through to a vision of a new human community where love and grace would be the primary values, and he wants the Galatians to be part of that new paradigm. Unlike our modern gurus calling for “paradigm shifts,” Paul is not doing this to make himself rich or famous. The Galatians knew that Paul had been physically scarred in the effort and was hanging out with slaves and poor people, with Gentiles and sinners.
Notice that Paul does not merely tell the Galatians to become like him; he reminds them that he became like them. He lived as one of them rather than separating himself because of his ethnicity and religion. He reminds the Galatians that he ate with them, prayed with them, worshiped with them, and shared their joys and sorrows. He reminds them that they were friends who did him no wrong. He reminds them of the relationship they once had with him and with each other.
Weakness Paul did not arrive in Galatia with advance publicity announcing his speaking tour and book signing. The Galatians did not pay Paul large sums of money to come and speak to them so they could become devotees of Paul’s “five steps to a better life.” Nor did Paul sell the Galatians a complete line of Pauline products guaranteed to bring them “apostolic success.” No, Paul first came to the Galatians because of an illness or infirmity. We do not know which city or town he came to; nor do we know who took Paul in and cared for him. All we know is that Paul was weak and suffering when he came to the Galatians, and they cared for him.
Paul doesn’t identify the nature of his infirmity, leaving later generations a mystery that has inspired all kinds of speculation. Many preachers have assumed that this illness was a manifestation of the famous “thorn in the flesh” that he mentions in 2 Corinthians 12:7, but no one knows what Paul actually meant by that phrase. Since Paul claims that the Galatians would have torn out their own eyes to give to him, many readers have suggested that Paul’s illness involved his eyes. Some have put this together with the account of his seeing a blinding light on the road to Damascus to indicate that Paul had persistent vision problems, which could have been very painful. But this is all speculation based on scanty evidence.
Paul makes a statement about his condition that may indicate it was something more than an eye problem. He reminds the Galatians that his physical ailment was a trial for them; it “put them to the test.” He doesn’t say what the test was, but he indicates that they passed the test by accepting him into their homes. They welcomed him as an angel rather than despising him or treating him with scorn. Whatever was wrong with Paul, it is clear that many ancient people would have despised him because of his suffering. They would have mocked him, rejected him, and left him homeless. Some scholars have speculated that Paul suffered from epilepsy, which was often viewed in ancient times as caused by evil spirits. Even in our day, those who have seizures are subjected to ridicule and derision. Others have speculated that Paul had some kind of skin illness that others found disgusting.
There is another intriguing possibility that makes sense in the context of Paul’s letters. We know that Paul was often beaten, abused, and even tortured because of his preaching. He calls his scars the “marks of Jesus” because he identified his own sufferings with the scourging Jesus endured. It is possible that Paul had fled to Galatia because of the wounds he had received elsewhere. Not only would his face and body have been disfigured and horrible to look at, he would have been identified as a trouble-maker or criminal. The trial faced by the Galatians may have included the social shame of caring for someone who had been publicly rejected and cast out. We are so accustomed to viewing Paul as the great apostle and missionary that we forget he was also a victim of religious violence. Paul spent much of his life as a homeless outcast who depended on the kindness of others. Sometimes he depended on strangers to nurse him back into health.
Paul does not dwell on his own sufferings in chapter 4. He is simply reminding the Galatians that they were the ones who took him in and showed him mercy. They were like the Good Samaritan in the parable. We do not know if they were Christian when they welcomed Paul “like an angel” or if they were merely the kind of good and compassionate people who would be open to hearing the gospel. In either case, Paul found that these pagans were righteous toward a suffering human being. Rather than despising him because of his suffering and weakness, they listened to the gospel he proclaimed to them. Paul was not eloquent or physically impressive. He was not the kind of person we think of as a hero or celebrity. His body was broken and his voice was weak, but the message he brought was powerful. It is the Gospel that had the power to transform lives and give strength.
Why the Change? Almost as soon as he reminds the Galatians of their kindness toward him, Paul shifts tone and accuses the Galatians viewing him as an enemy rather than a friend. He writes like a jealous man who fears that his lover is being seduced away from him. He tells the Galatians that his rivals who have come from Jerusalem are not really interested in the wellbeing of the Galatians. They are using flattery and deception to try to persuade the Galatians to follow them and abandon the Gospel that Paul brought to them in his weakness. We could interpret Paul’s words as evidence of a power struggle between two apostles. Paul feels that he is losing control over his people and that another will be taking his place. However, it sounds like what Paul most fears is not a loss of authority, but a loss of relationship with the Galatians. He senses that his rivals are turning the Galatians against him. By promoting circumcision and zealousness for the law, the new missionaries were telling the Galatians that Paul was unrighteous. Paul appears to have been the object of their attack precisely because Paul chose to live like the Galatians. Reading this letter centuries later, when Paul has been named a saint, we are apt to miss the point that it was Paul who was being excluded from the Galatian church. Of course he was angry and hurt and frightened. He had a vision of a new world where Jews and Gentiles could worship together and eat together, and he had suffered in body and soul to bring this about, and now it was in danger of falling apart because of some smooth-talking fellows from Jerusalem.
Paul will not give up his relationship to the Galatians without a struggle. He uses a rather odd analogy that indicates the depth of his concern. He says that he is like a woman in childbirth before epidurals and other ways of deadening the pain. Paul is says that he is screaming in agony as he is trying to bring a new thing into the world. Jewish apocalyptic literature often used the analogy of birth pangs to described the violent upheavals that would accompany the creation of a new world order when the Messiah comes. Jesus used such imagery in his preaching, but Paul takes that idea in a new way. He describes himself as a mother in childbirth. It is not the world that is suffering birth pangs of the in-breaking kingdom of God; it is an apostle trying to bring about a transformation of individuals and a community. This is personal and local.
Paul says that he, personally, will be in agony until Christ is formed in the Galatians. This is a mixed metaphor since it sounds like Paul is having a baby in someone else. The metaphor does not work out rationally, but the emotional impact of Paul’s statement is clear. He is laboring so that the Gentile Christians in Galatia may be formed into living images of Christ. He is telling them that his anger and distress are like those of a woman during delivery. He cares deeply about them and is afraid that the new covenant community will be still born. Paul admits to being angry and perplexed by this turn of events, and he uses yet another argument to try to persuade them to stand fast in the freedom of Christ.
Read: rest of chapter 4
Hagar and Sarah Although the whole point of this letter is to convince the Galatians not to adopt the Jewish law, Paul uses the Torah to support his argument for an expanded vision of God’s covenant. We’ve already discussed his use of Abraham as evidence that the grace precedes the giving of the law. Here in chapter 4 he uses the family of Abraham to illustrate his point about freedom and slavery. Hagar was an Egyptian slave who bore Ishmael, and Sarah was Abraham’s wife who bore Isaac.
Paul tells us up front that he is reading the Old Testament allegorically rather than literally. This should give modern Christians permission to do the same with the Old Testament. Paul was no fundamentalist, even though fundamentalists love to quote Paul. Allegory is a method of interpretation that allows a reader to go beyond the literal meaning of a text to discern deeper moral or spiritual truths. Paul is not interested in Hagar and Sarah themselves; he uses them as symbols of two types of relationship with God. Hagar was a slave, but Sarah was a free woman. Their sons were different, too. Paul’s colorful expression was that Ishmael was born according to the flesh, but Isaac was given miraculously to the elderly Sarah. Ishmael was born in slavery according to the will of the flesh, but Isaac was born in freedom according to the will of God’s spirit.
Paul makes the surprising claim that Hagar represents Mount Sinai, presumably because Mt. Sinai is in Egypt, the homeland of Hagar. Since Isaac was seen by Jews as the bearer of the covenant, we would expect that his mother would be associated with the mountain where Moses received the law, but Paul contradicts this idea. Sinai was only a stage on the way to freedom. Paul is acknowledging that the old covenant with Abraham led to Sinai and the giving of the law, but he denies that this was the final destination of Israel.
Paul extends his allegory further, claiming that Hagar represents the earthly Jerusalem, which was under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Paul doesn’t have a lot to say about Jerusalem, and it is doubtful he thought of it as the Holy Land or the Promised Land. Jerusalem was the city that handed Jesus over for crucifixion. For Paul, the earthly Jerusalem was a corrupt city, and its Temple was no longer the house of God. Paul was looking for a New Jerusalem, the true Zion, which would appear at the end of the age. He identifies Sarah with this heavenly Jerusalem, which he calls our mother city. This heavenly city would be a realm of perfect freedom and love, where the Messiah would rule in peace and justice. In this heavenly Jerusalem, there would be no need for a law because Christ would rule in all hearts.
Paul adds a quote from Isaiah 54 that associates Sarah with a restored Jerusalem. Interestingly, this prophecy from Isaiah follows almost immediately after the chapter on the suffering servant that Paul used to describe Jesus as the Messiah. He believed that the sufferings and death of Christ not only freed Jews and Gentiles from the slavery of the law; it also was step toward the true Jerusalem.
Conclusion: Paul’s argument about Hagar and Sarah may not be the most compelling in our day, but in this chapter we see Paul turning to the Torah for help in convincing people that the law of Moses was not binding for all time. He wants the Galatians to view themselves as children born of God’s promise rather than the will of the flesh. Even though they were not Jews by birth, they could be part of the new covenant through the sacrifice of the Son. As children of the promise, redeemed by Christ, the Galatians should get rid of the child of slavery. Paul repeatedly warns them not to adopt practices that divide people. Paul ends this section of Galatians with a watchword that all Christians should remember: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” This is the dramatic conclusion of his allegory of Hagar and Sarah, and it is the introduction to chapter 5, which we’ll discuss next week.