Dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to live as I do in freedom from these things” (Galatians 4:12).
I can see that Paul really loved the Galatians. He had concern for them like a father would for his children who had gone out partying and still hadn’t come home even though it was late. “I fear for you,” he told them (Gal 4:11). He was worried that they had gone astray. He wanted so much for them to have true freedom in Christ that he pleaded with them to go the way of grace rather than continue in bondage to the law. I can just imagine what Paul’s posture might be if he was there counseling the Galatians. He might be leaning over toward them with a pained expression on his face and gesturing with two outstretched hands, desperate for them to understand and know the truth. In his anguish over them, he said:
Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I am going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. How I wish I were there with you right now (Gal 4:19-20).
Paul clearly had a strong burden on his heart for the believers in Galatia. But what was it that was so wrong with the Galatians? In chapter 1, Paul asserts that the Galatians had turned away from the true gospel and were following a false gospel (v. 6-7). In chapter 3, we see that the problem is that Galatians had been duped into thinking they needed to become perfect by their own human effort (v. 3) rather than relying on the forgiveness and grace purchased for them on the cross by Christ (v. 14). For no one can be made righteous based on their obedience to the law (v. 11) because it is impossible for us to obey all of it and therefore we are cursed for failing to keep the law perfectly (v. 10). So the only way to be rescued from the curse is by faith in Christ (v. 13; Gal 2:16). But that all sounds so very theological. Surely it’s something that can I can just let go in one ear and out the other. Is it really all that important? Well, it was absolutely critical as far as Paul was concerned — so much so that he went as far as to compare himself to a pregnant woman suffering excruciating labor pains. And if it was of paramount importance to the Apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, it should make us really stop, open our hearts to the Holy Spirit and listen.
The main issue at hand was that the Galatians were being falsely taught that they needed to follow all of the Jewish customs, and specifically circumcision (Gal 5:2), in order to be saved. But Paul claimed that the “cross of Christ alone can save” (Gal 6:12). To illustrate, Paul draws an insightful parallel between salvation by works and salvation by grace with Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael, the son of the slave-wife, and Isaac, the child of the promise (Gal 4:21-31).
The son of the slave-wife was born in a human attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise. But the son of the freeborn wife was born as God’s own fulfillment of his promise (Gal 4:23).
God had made a promise to Abraham that He would give him and Sarah a son and that through that son they would have so many descendants that they would be uncountable, like the number of grains of sand on the seashore. God promised that the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham (Gal 3:8). But Sarah and Abraham were impatient. They wanted the son and they were not willing to wait for God’s perfect timing so Sarah gave her Hagar, her slave, to Abraham to produce a son for her. And she did: Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. We, too, have promises from God that we want to see fulfilled. And often we, too, are rebelliously unwilling to wait for God’s timing. So we circumvent God’s plan and try to fulfill God’s promise with our own human effort. But finally, God did give Sarah a son just as He promised and so Isaac was born. Praise God for that! But what was the result of the earlier human effort? Ishmael persecuted Isaac out of jealousy (Gal 4:29). And today we see the mutual hatred and violence between the Muslims who claim to be descendants of Ishmael and the Jews who are descendants of Isaac. The result of that single decision to have the child of the slave-wife so many years ago has caused thousands of years of strife between nations and continues to be a major source of international conflict in the world today.
There are terrible consequences when we try to accomplish what we think to be God’s will by our own human efforts. The same is true when we seek to be made righteous by our own works rather than by Christ’s blood. Paul goes as far as to warn: “If you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace” (Gal 5:4). That is a warning not to be taken lightly. This is an admonishment that should put the fear of God in a believer. There is no grace apart from Christ. There is no forgiveness apart from the sacrifice of God’s Son on the cross. It is impossible to please God without faith. There is without doubt absolutely only one single path for us to take: that is to be children of the promise, born of the Holy Spirit (Gal 4:28-29), walking by faith expressed in love (Gal 5:6).
The crux of the entire book of Galatian can be found, I believe, in Galatians 2:19-21:
I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ. I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So I live my life in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not one of those who treats the grace of God as meaningless. For if we could be saved by keeping the law, then there was no need for Christ to die.
Christ died for me. He took the punishment for my sins. He received the curse for my sins as he hung there on the “tree” (Gal 3:13). My sinful life has been crucified there on the cross with Christ. And though my sins were as scarlet, by His blood, I have been washed as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). So now, I am not my own. I was purchased and redeemed by Christ’s blood. Therefore I no longer live as the master of my life, but Christ reigns in me and lives His life through me.
Lord God, place the same burden that Paul had on my heart, both for my own walk with You and for that of others. Let me pray for and exhort those who have gone the way of the slave-wife. Christ Jesus, guide us all back to the promise, to the way of the Spirit, to the freedom of true faith in the healing power of Your blood. Never let us stray away from the straight and narrow path.