Don’t Turn Back
Sunday School lesson for June 29, 2003
Background Passage: Galatians 4:8-31
Focal Teaching Passage: Galatians 4:8-20
A Question About Turning Back (4:8-11)
Paul once again reminded his readers of their pagan past, and how they had lived in a state of spiritual slavery before being delivered to freedom through the Lord Jesus Christ. While they "did not know God" in a saving way, they were in fact living as "slaves to those which by nature are no gods." This statement reveals the basic nature of human idolatry. The tragic result of the fall of man into sin and rebellion against the Creator (Gen. 3) is the unbounded worship of that which is unworthy of such devotion. This point is made with explicit clarity in Romans 1:20-26 where Paul depicted the spiritual status of the pagan mindset. The rejection of the one true and living God leads to enslavement and the worship of anything and everything. It was from such a vicious cycle of idolatry, religious syncretism and spiritual futility that Paul’s Galatian brothers and sisters had been delivered. Having been redeemed by Christ (3:13-14; 4:4-7) there was no reason to even toy with any philosophical or theological system, no matter how appealing on the surface, that might lead them back into such a state of bondage.
Here Paul popped the logical question in order to arouse them from their spiritual slumber. How could they "turn back" to an inferior and powerless system of self-salvation in light of the fact that they had already been "known by God"? Once they had tasted of the freedom and sweetness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, how could they abandon grace as the foundation of their relationship to the Father and depend upon works again? Note the powerful contrast between "known by God" and the phrase "turn back." Here, being known by God is synonymous with salvation itself. The biblical word translated as know, as far as Scripture is concerned, "has a far deeper meaning than the superficial concept of intellectual knowledge alone. That is why it can be used of the relation of God and humanity, and also of the peculiarly intimate relation of husband and wife" [Cole, 164]. This fact made their behavior all the more tragic. Due to the persuasive influence of the Judaizers, they had retreated to a vastly inferior form of religious practice—to "weak and worthless elemental things"—that would only serve to enslave them again. They had exchanged their relationship with the Father, and the freedom and victory found only in Christ, for that which was powerless and impersonal—a system rather than a living faith.
The identity of the "weak and worthless" things is developed in verse 10. Here the apostle spoke of the observance of "days and months and seasons and years." This is apparently what the Judaizers insisted upon as the core and foundation of their false gospel. It seems that they promoted, in addition to circumcision, the strict observance of the "liturgical calendar of orthodox Judaism" as the ground of their standing before God [Cole, 165]. Compare this with similar language found in Romans 14:5 and Colossians 2:16-17 where Paul taught that the believer in Christ is free from such ceremonial obligations. Thus, to go back to the Law, and consequently, to fail to see Christ (the substance) as the fulfillment of the Law’s demands (the shadow), would define the ultimate act of spiritual defection (cf. 5:4).
The gravity of the situation among the churches of South Galatia is reflected in this simple sentence where Paul candidly spoke of his personal "fear" that his ministry among them was "in vain." If they had abandoned his gospel—the "gospel of Christ" (1:7)—and sought salvation and spiritual refuge in the Law, his laborious toil and ministerial service would have been for nothing.
A Confirmation of Love (4:12-20)
In this section of chapter four, Paul revealed in personal terms his great love for his Galatian brethren. Though he had indeed spoken to them in ways that some might characterize as harsh, the reality of his deep concern for their spiritual welfare and development is readily apparent. In verse 12, Paul appealed ("I beg of you") to the believers of Galatia to follow his example of Christian freedom and dependence upon the unmerited grace and mercy of God. To "become as I am" would also include the total abandonment of the Law as a means of salvation and the rejection of the false gospel of works-salvation propagated by the Judaizers. To strengthen his appeal, Paul reminded his "brethren" of the gracious reception he experienced among them when he first came and "preached the gospel" to them (v. 13). Though Paul had been seriously ill (an unspecified "bodily illness"), even to the point of manifesting unsightly symptoms that would have been despised or loathed by others, the Galatians had "received" the apostle "as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself" (v. 14). In other words, the Galatians did not succumb to the temptation to "judge the messenger, or the message that he bore, by outward appearances" [Cole, 171]. In verse 15 Paul spoke further of their initial willingness to make whatever sacrifices were necessary for his well-being, including the plucking out of "your eyes"—a common metaphor indicating a significant personal sacrifice.
Having prepared them emotionally by means of the recognition of the mutual love that existed between Paul and his brethren, the apostle implied that his honest concern for them, manifested by a loving, but direct, confrontation, was no reason for the Galatians to view him as an "enemy" (v. 16). Enemies do not sacrificially work for the welfare and good of others as Paul had done. That he cared enough to intercept them on their flight from the grace of God should be all the evidence needed to prove the case.
In verse 17, Paul contrasted his unselfish love with the duplicitous behavior of the Judaizers. Here the apostle spoke of the fact that the Judaizers "eagerly" pursued the Galatians for less then honorable intentions—"they wish to shut you out, in order that you may seek them." This apparently indicates that the ultimate aim of those preaching false doctrine was the dissolution of the relationship between Paul and the Christians of Galatia. In reality, the Judaizers envied both the freedom of the Galatians and their close relationship with Paul. Consequently, they desired to alienate them from both of these and "reduce the Galatians to the pitiable state of envying the religious position of the Judaizers themselves" [Cole, 173]. The point is clear enough—Paul genuinely loved his brethren, and the Judaizers did not. Therefore, Paul should not be considered an enemy and his warnings should be fully received and appreciated.
In verses 19-20, Paul’s pastoral care and heartfelt love for his brethren becomes even more evident by means of the intensity of his language. Note how Paul employed the terminology of motherhood to depict his feelings for them. He spoke of them as "My children," and described his "labor" on their behalf. Such language portrays a profound sense of love and responsibility. As the human instrument responsible for their spiritual birth, Paul was committed to the whole process of their growth and development as Christians—"until Christ is formed in you." That is, until their lives took on the very shape and character of Jesus Christ Paul could not rest. This, obviously, is the ultimate goal of Christian growth or sanctification and represented Paul’s most intense desire for his brethren.
Major Themes for Reflection and Application
One: You’ve got to serve somebody—Note how this passage (v. 8) highlights the fact that all people have a hunger or need for worship (remember the "God-shaped" vacuum analogy?). We will either worship and serve our Creator, or we will worship and serve the creature. Reflect upon how this fact is both good news and bad news. How can believers take advantage of this fact when presenting the gospel to others?
Two: Legalism or liberty—Why is legalism so often more attractive to us than the freedom found in the grace of God? Why do we so quickly retreat to a works-oriented conception of salvation? How does this affect the way we view and treat others (believers and non-believers alike)?
Three: Love and telling the truth—Often in our culture love is mischaracterized as the avoidance of controversy or confrontation. Does this square with Paul’s example here in the lesson passage? What are some other Scriptures that can assist you with your answer?
Four: The ultimate goal—Look carefully at 4:19. Think about the implications of Paul’s words—"until Christ is formed in you." How is Christ "formed" in us? What are some of the mechanisms employed by the Holy Spirit to conform us to the image of Christ? Is it legitimate to conclude that all things that God allows into our lives, both positive and negative, are designed to accomplish this end?