A Commentary by John Stott

Galatians 4:12b-16. 2). The Galatian’s attitude to Paul.

Verse 12b: *You did me no wrong*. Paul has no complaint about their former treatment of him. On the contrary, their behaviour then had been exemplary.

What had happened when he visited Galatia? He reminds them in verse 13 that he had first preached the gospel to them ‘through infirmity of the flesh’ (AV) or ‘because of a bodily ailment’ (RSV). We do not know for certain what he meant. Luke says nothing in the Acts about illness being the cause of Paul’s visit to the Galatian cities. But presumably, unless he had an attack of some chronic condition, he caught an infection on his way to Galatia, which detained him there. Probably this disease, whatever it was, is the same as the ‘thorn’ of 2 Corinthians 12:7, which was also ‘in the flesh’ (that is, in his body) and an *astheneia*, a physical weakness or infirmity. Some people have guessed that Paul caught malaria in the mosquito-invested swamps of coastal Pamphylia, at the time when John Mark lost his nerve and returned home (Acts 13:13). If so, he would quite naturally have headed north and climbed on to the invigorating mountainous plateau of Galatia. But when he arrived in Galatia, he was in the grip of a great fever. Whatever the disease was, it evidently had unpleasant and unsightly symptoms. It seems to have disfigured him in some way. Further, if we read verse 15 in its context, it appears that this illness affected his eyesight, so that, if it had been possible, the Galatians would have plucked out their own eyes and given them to him. And, indeed, there is other evidence in the New Testament to suggest that Paul may have suffered from some form of ophthalmia (E.g. Acts 23:1-5; Gal.6:11).

All this, Paul’s physical weakness and disfigurement, was a great trial to the Galatians. Verse 14 should read not ‘*my* temptation which was in my flesh’ (AV), but ‘*your* temptation…’. That is, ‘my condition was a trial to you’ (RSV). The Galatians had been tempted to despise and reject Paul, to treat him with what Bishop Lightfoot calls ‘contemptuous indifference’ and even ‘active loathing’. But, Paul says, ‘you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at the state of my poor body’ (NEB). Instead of rejecting him, they ‘received’ him. Indeed, he continues, *you…received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus* (verse 14).

This is an extraordinary expression. It is another plain indication of Paul’s self-conscious apostolic authority. He sees nothing incongruous about the Galatians receiving him as if he were one of God’s angels, or as if he were Christ Jesus, God’s Son. He does not rebuke the Galatians for paying an exaggerated deference to him, as he did when the crowd attempted to worship him in Lystra, one of the Galatian cities (Acts 14:8-18). On that occasion, after Paul had healed a congenital cripple, the pagan multitude cried out, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Priest and people tried to sacrifice oxen to Paul and Barnabas, until they rebuked and stopped them. Here, however, Paul does not rebuke them for receiving him as if he were God’s angel or God’s Christ. Although personally he knew that he was only their fellow-sinner, indeed, ‘the foremost of sinners’ (1 Tim. 1:15), yet officially he was an apostle of Jesus Christ, invested with the authority of Christ and sent on a mission by Christ. So they were quite right to receive him ‘as an angel of God’, since he was one of God’s messengers, and ‘as Christ Jesus’, since he came to them on the authority of Christ and with the message of Christ. The apostles of Christ were His personal delegates. Of such it was said in those days that ‘the one sent by a person is as the person himself’. Christ Himself had anticipated this. Sending out His apostles, He said: ‘He who receives you, receives me’ (Mt. 10:40). So, in receiving Paul, the Galatians quite rightly received him as Christ, for they recognized him as an apostle or delegate of Christ.

But that was some time ago. Now the situation had changed. Verse 15: *What has become of the satisfaction you felt?* They had been so pleased, so proud, to have Paul among them in those days. Verse 16: *Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?* A complete *volte-face* had taken place. The one they had received as God’s angel, as God’s Son, they now regarded as their enemy! Why? Simply because he had been telling them some painful home truths, rebuking them, scolding them, expostulating with them for deserting the gospel of grace and turning back again to bondage.

There is an important lesson here. When the Galatians recognized Paul’s apostolic authority, they treated him as an angel, as Christ Jesus. But when they did not like his message, he became their enemy. How fickle they were, and foolish! An apostle’s authority does not cease when he begins to teach unpopular truths. We cannot be selective in our reading of the apostle’s doctrine of the New Testament. We cannot, when we like what an apostle teaches, defer to him as an angel, and when we do not like what he teaches, hate him and reject him as an enemy. No, the apostles of Jesus Christ have authority in everything they teach, whether we happen to like it or not.

Tomorrow: Galatians 4:17-20. 3). Paul’s attitude to the Galatians.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Galatians. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.