What can we learn from Paul’s emotional and relational appeal to the churches in Galatia? Here’s how Scot McKnight poses the question in his commentary on Galatians in the NIV Application Commentary. “What can we learn about pastoring, or caring for the spiritual welfare of others, from Paul’s own example?” He provides four examples from Paul’s appeal for us to consider.

Foundational Text

I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You did me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you, and 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. Where, then, is your blessing of me now? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

Galatians 4:12-20

(1) His goal and ours: to form Christ in others (v. 19).

Paul’s goal was not to have people say he was a great evangelist; not to have the approval of others; not to have the sanction of Jerusalem. His goal in working with people was to have Christ formed in them. In verse 12b we find that Paul was not “personally hurt” when the Galatians succumbed to the Judaizers, and in verse 16 he shows that he was willing to be an “enemy” if he had to be in telling them the truth. These two statements can only come from someone who sets out in ministry only to please God and not be bothered by human rejection. What does Paul want in others? As I outlined above, this would be a “Spirit-led life” and a “Christ-centered existence.” What is our goal?

We are, no doubt, as seduced as Paul was to gain the approval of others. We may begin with no desire but to serve God, but we find, after a few good experiences, that the approval of others is gratifying. The approval of others, I believe, can be cancerous. Before long we look forward to it and find, after even longer, that we are partially motivated by it. How do we see this? When we are disappointed when people do not approve of us.

At the same time, let me pause to remind us that our ministries are designed to help others. And I am not wrong, I think, in saying that it is both normal and acceptable to find a certain enjoyment in finding out that we have been helpful to others. The issue is simple: what is our motivation? Do we serve to be approved by others or do we seek God’s approval?

(2) His ground and ours: an identical personal experience (v. 12).

Paul could call the Galatians to become like him because he had become like them. That is, he had learned to live apart from the law; he wanted them to do this as well. Here is a fundamental principle in ministry. We will never be as effective with people as we should be until we have experienced what we are advocating. It is also the case that what we have experienced is frequently what we like to talk about.

Nonetheless, we will often find ourselves “in trouble” if what we are talking about is not something we have actually lived through. As it makes little sense for someone who has never mothered or fathered to stand on a pedestal and talk about childrearing, so it makes little sense for someone to talk about “living apart from the law” who has been living a life of legalism. This ground of experience for teaching and influencing is found in all disciplines of life. It forms the basis for a cherished idea throughout our churches: namely, we want experienced people ministering to us.

Can you imagine the looks on the faces of a nominating committee at a local church when they interview a young person for an opening who has never attended church regularly, never taught a Sunday school class, never led anyone to Christ, never been married and so never raised children, never been on a church committee, never led a song or prayed publicly, and also never preached a sermon in a church? When that young person says that attending seminary is qualification enough, a church board is more than justified in urging that person to “go out and get some experience.”

(3) His intensity and ours: the pain of childbirth (v. 19).

I don’t know what it is like to give birth, but I have been there for the birth of both our children. (The birth of our son, Lukas, was painful enough for me that a nurse had to attend to me to keep me from fainting!) What I know is that it is laborious (no pun intended!) and painful. A child sees the world only as the result of a great deal of effort.

Paul’s pastoral experience led him to see “nurturing others in spiritual things” as similar to giving birth. He knew it was laborious and painful; he knew it took a lot of worrying and trusting in God; and he knew it took a lot of attention to details and concern for people. In short, pastoring is much like mothering. While some church traditions call pastors “fathers,” and rightly so, it is surprising that more do not call them “mothers”! Giving birth and mothering are both very intense work.

Reading Galatians from cover to cover in one sitting may wear a person out when we recognize how intense Paul was in this letter. His letter is only a sketch of what he could be like (so he tells us in v. 20)! Here he talks not only about his theology, but also about his feelings for them, about his hopes for them, about his disappointments over them, and about his frustrations. For another example of Paul’s pastoral intensity, read Colossians 1:24-2:5.

Those who work with the spiritual lives of others know what Paul is talking about. It means laborious prayer for them—praying here to avert one sin and praying there to stave off another problem. It means intellectual discussions that seek to answer questions that young Christians seem always to have.

(4) His situation and perhaps ours: a repulsive illness (vv. 13-14).

Whatever Paul’s illness was, it was apparently repulsive. Paul writes “even though my illness was a trial to you”; this can only mean that they saw in his illness something difficult to live with. This created tension between Paul and the Galatians and made communication difficult. Nonetheless, God’s Spirit overcame the problem, and the Galatians were converted and taught the truth of the gospel.

We can apply this by finding an analogy: whatever impedes communication due to a shortfall on the part of the leader can be overcome through the Spirit. In my life I have seen God use all kinds of people: from preachers with speech impediments to athletes with physical handicaps to disciplers with problems in communicating. While we would not want to sanction “communication handicaps” as the surest way for God to use a person, we should also remind ourselves that God can use, and has used, some mighty weak vessels in communicating the gospel.

The problem then stares us in the face: we like tall, thin, handsome (male) pastors who have articulate speech and deep voices; we like them clean-shaven and well-dressed. In addition, we like it if they are compassionate and gentle and stimulating from the pulpit. Our exaltation of this “type” works itself down into our consciences, and individuals feel the call if they “fit the description,” while others feel decidedly unwelcome if they do not. Our perceptions of whom God uses can thus become a disgusting typification of cultural values rather than perceptions rooted in biblical values and traditions.

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