How Can You Turn Back? : Galatians 4:8-20 (Sermon)
Hi, I am pastor Rob. I am so glad you are joining us. Welcome to those of you tuning in online. I hope you are doing well. I love this week, the week before Easter. In the church calendar, we call it Palm Sunday. This Sunday, we remember Jesus triumphantly coming into the city of Jerusalem during Passover on a donkey. People were shouting Hosanna in the Highest and laying palm branches and cloaks on the road for Jesus to travel on. Most people were pumped about Jesus. They were excited. The prophecies of a Messiah were coming true. They waved palm branches in worship and anticipation. What was about to happen? I imagine the air was eclectic with this parade of people and Jesus parting the masses along the road.
Before we explore what the Bible says, here is a question for us to consider. Do we have any obsessions? I mean, do we ever get locked in on something in such a way that it is all we talk about or think about? I do. It can happen in sports, at work, at school, with friends, and on the computer. It can happen in our hearts in a million ways throughout the day. It can grow from an excellent innocent fascination and joy into something that eclipses reason, erodes relationships, and endangers the soul.
CLASH OF CLANS
There was an app I got years ago that was so well built. It was a video game. I got hooked. I did it to stay up with my kids. We talked about it. I could see what they were doing and what their friends were doing. Then I couldn’t put it down. I brought it to the dinner table, the garage, and the car. Once I went into the attic to grab something or check something. (I never have to do that.) I had to check my app to see how my game was doing. Seriously, I was obsessed. That was not a religious obsession, but it made me happy, excited, and motivated. A part of me was living for it.
Today, we will hear what the Bible says about an obsession with following religious rules. We read this from the apostle Paul 2000 years ago in Galatians chapter 4 starting at verse 8. Paul appealed to his fellow believers. He wanted them to return to their faith and leave off a legalistic perspective on their relationship with God. This morning, I will retell the story, explain the text, and point out how we can use Paul’s advice today.
I am going to have D.S. read for us. I enjoy hearing the public reading of Scripture. Will you stand with me, if you can? We do this in honor of God’s Word.
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. 12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:8–20)
Thanks, D. Let’s pray. Dear God,
Thank you for your Word.
Thank you for our salvation.
Thank you for the freedom we have in Christ.
Thank you for reminding us of your truth.
Thank you for forming us more and more into your image.
Help us, protect us, encourage us, and equip us for your honor and our joy in Jesus’s name, AMEN.
You will remember that Paul wrote Galatians as a corrective to the church in an area now known as Turkey. Initially, he brought the gospel to the church, and they blessed him. They believed what he said. He left and planted and encouraged other churches around the Mediterranean. While away, other teachers came in and distorted his message. They taught people needed to do works of the Jewish law to be right with God. That contradicted Paul’s core teaching and the message God gave the Jewish people millennia before. The Jewish people were justified by faith, not works of the law, before Jesus came.
The law did have value. It was a guard and tutor for the soul, preparing people for Jesus. The law pointed hearts to the fact that they were not good or right with God by nature. People need a Savior. In conjunction with the Holy Spirit, the law convicted the conscience. It tilled the soil of the soul for the good news of God’s grace. Paul was calling the Galatians to Return to the Gospel of Grace so they can Walk in Freedom with the Spirit. We want to be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap of #gospeldrift.
In Galatians chapter 4, verses 8 through 20,
Paul reiterated the church’s history including their spiritual slavery and pleaded for them to return to the gospel.
That is the main idea of these verses as I see it. So let me say that again.
Paul reiterated the church’s history including their spiritual slavery and pleaded for them to return to the gospel.
If you take notes, I think the text has two sections, verses 8 through 11 and verses 12 through 20. The first questioned how they could turn back, and the second entreated them to be who they are.
HOW THEY COULD TURN BACK
Let’s look at these verses more closely. First, turn in your Bibles to chapter 4, verse 8.
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods” (Galatians 4:8).
Whom was Paul writing to? Were they Jews or Gentiles? If you recall any of our previous messages, they must have been familiar with the Old Testament. Paul has already quoted Genesis, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Habakkuk. He also has alluded to Isaiah and Joel. His audience was not all practicing Jews, or they would not have pressure to conform to Jewish law. Paul was a messenger of the gospel to the Gentiles; this was a Gentile region. The church was a mixed bag of enslaved people, freemen and women, Jews, and Gentiles. In light of this fact, what is interesting is that Paul’s statement in verse 8 is that they were “enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” If these were Gentiles, they would have a polytheistic background, worshiping many like Zeus, Apollo, and Athena. If they were Romans, they would worship Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. Could the law, which is good by nature, be something they obsessed over like a god if they were Jewish? Yes. Both law and the little gods can enslave and consume us. Keep listening, and I will explain more.
Paul continued his line of thinking in verse 9, asking the church a question. Go there.
“But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Galatians 4:9).
Notice the Galatians’ relationship with God. As we read and heard last week, their relationship with God was highly relational. They came to know the true and living God as their “Abba” Father by faith. They knew God. Paul pointed out that God was the one who “rather” knew them. Why? Paul wasn’t saying that God didn’t know them before. The Bible teaches us that God is all-knowing. What did he mean? God knew the Galatians in a broader sense of intimacy, relationship, and care. This knowledge was the difference between knowing about a person and knowing a person as a friend or even a child. It is different from knowing about a person through looking them up on social media and being a relative.
Verse 9 compares the intimacy with God to an alternative relationship of “weak, worthless, and elementary principles.” While God is omnipotent, worthy, and incomprehensible, he still wants a relationship with us as adopted children and heirs. The Galatian church began to drift back to a transactional one in its relationship with God. In such a view, the law enslaved them, demanding something that could not be attained.
In a sense, the law became an idol like Zeus. It ruled and dominated and called allegiance and perfection. It promised peace but offered a curse. Before coming to faith, the Jewish people needed a Savior. Their law could not save them. Sacrifices atoned in the past for guilt of sin at one time, but not since Christ died. There is no more need for sacrifice. He died to forgive sin once and for all. No one can get to heaven by good works or an alternative path. Thus, Paul asked, “How can you turn back?”
VERSE 10 - DAYS
What were they turning back to? Look at verse 10. It is interesting. We have talked about the laws they followed in connection to circumcision. However, that was not all they were going back to.
“You observe days and months and seasons and years!” (Galatians 4:10).
What was Paul getting at? I think the people in the church were turning back to obsessing about the calendar and circumcision. Perhaps, it was a Gentile calendar, but I guess it was a Jewish one.
The Jews had special days. For example, they also had a seven-day calendar, like us. However, their week ended on Saturday, not Sunday. They called it Sabbath. Today, the Hasidic Jews treat Sabbath with a rigor that surpasses, likely, all of us. For them, Sabbath begins on Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. They don’t work at all. Because of that, they can’t turn a light switch on, walk beyond ¾ of a mile, drive, write, erase, or tear. They can’t use a phone, garden, or mow. (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/95907/jewish/The-Shabbat-Laws.htm). Why? They believe it is what the Old Testament teaches. They see it as a demonstration of one’s allegiance to God, an opportunity to rest and express faith. In the same way, days meant something to these Galatian people.
Months and seasons mean, and meant, something to them as well. In the Jewish calendar, they have three holidays: Passover, the feast of weeks, and the feast of tabernacles. The Old Testament details strict instructions on how to observe each.
When it comes to years, the Jewish people also had a few rules. After six years, enslaved people were supposed to be set free. And after forty-nine years, all debts were canceled in what they called the Jubilee year.
Days, months, seasons, and years had significance to the Jewish people. They were good laws. Observed well, they offered grace. However, imposed legalistically, they became enslavers. Paul heard in the report he got from the Galatians that they were going back to the principles of slavery. The laws of the Bible and principles of life can be freeing or enslaving. It depends on the perspective and application.
The church had to wrestle with the confluence of Jewish and Gentile cultures and values, and traditions. Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about this same problem. Here is what he wrote:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16–17)
Jesus dealt with this legalistic perspective as well. He healed on Sunday, and the Pharisee flipped out numerous times. Once, he summed up his perspective on the Sabbath this way, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).
How do we handle the calendar? First, let us not be legalistic. I know in our church, we have different convictions on how we honor the Lord with regards to Sabbath. We must not be judgmental. Whatever we do, do it for God and in faith. So, if our conviction is that we need to not work from Friday sundown to Saturday, or we think we should not shop on Sunday, or we feel like we have the freedom to move our Sabbath to a different day of the week do so in faith. Let us not condemn one another but trust the Lord to lead us. We can talk about our different opinions, but let us not become divided or obsessed so that it enslaves us or we think that our calendaring makes us right with God.
ENTREATED THEM TO BE WHO THEY ARE
Turn now to verse 12, and hear more of Paul’s heart. This is the second section of these verses entreating them to return spiritually.
Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are (Galatians 4:12).
My version says brothers, footnoting it as brothers and sisters. As a side note, Paul wrote to the entire church, men and women. The Greeks often used the masculine singular and plural to refer to men and women. So the word “brothers” can legitimately be translated as “brothers and sisters” to get the idea behind what was said.
What was Paul asking the brothers and sisters? That they become as he is. What did that mean? Remember, we have read that God’s grace saved Paul, forgave him, justified him, made him righteous, free, delivered, filled him with the Spirit, and adopted him as a child of God. Thus he was an heir of the kingdom by faith. That was who they were too. He wanted the church to go back to that reality he preached to them years before. Paul knew they accepted it at one time and believed it; that is why he says he became what they are. He told them to stop living like a slave you are a child of God and an heir.
VERSE 13 THROUGH 15
Go back to verse 12. Paul reminded them of their conversion.
“You did me no wrong” (Galatians 4:12).
They blessed him. Keep reading. Verse 13.
You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. (Galatians 4:13–15)
Paul offered fascinating biographical details. What was his bodily ailment? What was his condition? Why might the Galatians have despised Paul? Why would they give him their eyes? Commentators have wondered about these verses. Later, in Galatians, Paul mentioned that he wrote in big letters (6:11). Why did he write that? Some conclude that he had vision problems. Some speculate that was his thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We don’t know. What we do know is that the church received him well. They blessed him.
But he left, and they blessed another set of teachers too.
VERSE 16 THROUGH 18
Read on, verse 16.
Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. (Galatians 4:16–17)
The false teachers came in with flattery, and the Galatians accepted them and their teaching jeopardizing their freedom and blessing, inheritance, and salvation. This was #gospeldrift and was deadly. Paul rhetorically asked if he was their enemy because he told them the truth. The answer is no. Real friends tell each other the truth when the stakes are high.
VERSES 19 THROUGH 20
Paul concluded with a soft tone of a parent in verses 18 through 20. Again, I picture a dad or mom gently looking a child in the eyes and communicating their heart.
It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you. My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:18–20)
Paul told them his heart. He wanted to be there with them. Christianity is about a relationship with God, not religious rule-keeping or calendars. It is about Jesus in us and being formed more and more in his image.
SUMMARY - CONFORMERS
This relates to us today. Is Christ being formed in you? For some of you, you are pressing in and worshiping God, listening to him, seeking him. This passage reminds us of the truth that Christianity is categorically about freedom and connection with our Creator as friend and Father.
SUMMARY - STRAYING
This passage also changes us who stray, who take a good thing and make it a little “g” god. Do you feel like you have lost your way? Do you feel like you have sidetracked your faith? This passage is a call to return to the gospel of grace. So quickly, good things can become worthless idols.
How does a good thing become an idol? Well, what does an idol do? It controls things, circumstances, and life. How do people relate to idols? They worship them. They sacrifice to them. They invest in them. They treasure them. They listen to them. They seek them. We can love the creation more than the Creator. We can make idols out of anything. John Calvin said our hearts are idol factories. We mass-produce them with efficiency.
So, if that is the case, what do we obsess over? What do we value, seek, treasure, and listen to more than God? Perhaps, we idolize something like “me time.” We can be more committed to getting time for ourselves than with God. Or we can idolize productivity. We are more concerned about getting our to-do lists done than enjoying and working through the interruptions God brings. Is it wrong to be passionate, single-minded, determined, and disciplined about one thing? Not always; however, we lose out if we neglect our relationship with God because of a misguided focus. Things can become out of balance. Therefore, we must fight off idolatry.
Here is a question to help you discern what might enslave you. What do you idolize? What do you obsess over? How might Christ be formed more in you? Let us take a moment to let the Holy Spirit search our hearts, convict us, and invite us to conform to him this week. Then, if you have paper, a pen, or something else to write with, let us be quiet and pray and listen to God and respond.
Pray with me. God, we need you. We are lost and enslaved without you. We are prone to wander. We feel it and see it. God help us not forsake you for vain idols. We need you and love you. Form Christ in us by your Holy Spirit. AMEN.