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“The Power of an Example”

Galatians 4:8-20
Bob DeGray
April 15, 2018

Key Sentence

It’s easy to follow bad examples, but God’s people imitate selflessness.


I. The example of the world’s ways (Galatians 4:8-11)
II. An example to Paul (Galatians 4:12-15)
III. The example of Paul (Galatians 4:16-20)


How do evil, sinful and hurtful things become common in culture? I think a big part of the answer is ‘by example.’ How then do godly, righteous and helpful things become common in a culture? Again, a huge part of the answer is ‘by example.’ Before we turn to our text, let me give just one example of each.

How do negative behaviors become normalized? By the power of examples. Last year there was a Netflix series called ‘13 Reasons Why,’ about a girl who had committed suicide, and left a series of tapes to people who had, by their behaviors, pushed her to it. The show more or less justified, even glorified suicide. There was an outcry, initially from school psychologists, but also many others, claiming the show was causing suicide attempts to go up. The research validated this concern. As CNN reported: “It turns out that following the show's premiere, online searches for terms related to suicide awareness and prevention increased, but search terms associated with committing suicide had a greater upsurge. According to a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the search phrase "how to commit suicide" rose 26% above what would normally have been expected. “The time for debate is over," said the paper’s author, “Our worst fears were confirmed. Thousands more people are searching online about ways to kill themselves."

Negative examples can lead to negative behaviors. But positive examples can do the opposite. We just completed a week of remembering the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. His example of nonviolent protest has had a huge impact. He was able to bring the systemic racism and prejudice of the United States into razor focus because he had powerful words. but even more because he created powerful and peaceful images that raised awareness of the injustice going on all around us to a whole generation of civil rights activists. It was this combination of words and examples and even his martyrdom that led to positive change. His example is still powerful today in addressing the areas where racism and oppression have not changed.

There are many examples of examples, and we’ll touch a few more, but our main focus is how examples are seen in Galatians 4:8-20. What Paul shows us is that it’s easy to follow bad examples, but God’s people imitate selflessness.

We’ll divide this section into three pieces. First, the example of the world’s ways, Galatians 4:8-11 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.

9But 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? 10You observe days and months, seasons and years! 11I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

Paul has been describing the interaction of a heart bent toward sinning and the presence of the law, or any system of human morality. In verses 1-7 he said the law is like guardians and managers to whom a child in the household is enslaved, though he or she might be the heir. But these push back on our more basic problem, slavery to the elementary principles of the world. People have always made idols of the basic components of creation, fabricating a sun god, a god of the underworld or the sea or the air and then worshipping these idols and becoming enslaved to them. In Western culture where we may not have idols of stone or wood we have idols like money, sex, and power, idols of comfort and self-satisfaction. We often call these things addictions, pleasures or selfish behaviors that become impossible to refuse, habits we can’t break.

Now Paul says that the Galatians are falling back into these things, influenced by really bad role models. Verse 8: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” The great contribution of the Old Testament to the salvation of the world was the revelation that there is one God. God revealed himself to Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets as the true God, who fashioned the universe and created mankind. By the time Jesus came the Jews had spread into the pagan world by exile and dispersion. Many people had heard of this God, but few believed. Paul says “you didn’t know God. You were enslaved to false gods who were by nature not gods”

“But now,” he says, “that you have come to know God, or rather 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?” The Galatians had been in bondage through ignorance of the true God. But when Christ was preached among them all that changed. The Galatians had responded to the preaching and came to know God. Or, as Paul goes on to say, they had become known by God. God takes the initiative in salvation with the result that we come to know him only because we are first known by him. It is a relationship, God’s big idea when he created people, now accomplished by faith in Christ.

Paul finds it astonishing, totally incomprehensible that they would return to their former bondage after having been delivered from slavery by God himself. The Galatians thought they were making progress in the Christian faith when they embraced the teaching of the Judaizers.

Paul saw them as essentially reverting to the lives they had led before they became Christians. The gospel taught that Christ's death took away all the sins of those who trusted him. The lives of believers are lived in response to what Christ has done for them and not as a way of acquiring merit in the sight of God. The Galatians had lost sight of this and saw the conformity to the law, what the Judaizers taught, as a wonderful advance in the Christian way. Paul saw it as walking straight back from freedom into slavery and defeat, into life lived by human effort rather than in the freedom of Christ and the power of the Spirit.

Verse 10 “You observe days and months and seasons and years!” There is no doubt that as pagans and idol worshippers the Galatians had observed the cycles of worship for their own idols. The thing is that when God instituted the law he gave cycles too. "Days" would be sabbath days, feast days. "Months" refers to monthly celebrations. The only one in Jewish law was a feast of the new moon. “Seasons" refers to God’s calendar of feasts “Years" points to the year of jubilee and the sabbath years. Paul implies that even though these things were given by God, when done as legalism they were no better than paganism.

Paul is bewildered by this attempt to conflate grace and law. Verse 11: “Brothers, I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” He’s worried that his labor which was meant to free them is being undone by this return to ritual slavery. It’s at this point that the power of a bad example comes into play. Is there any question that Paul’s opponents were making life under the law very attractive to these converts? No question. They were disguising the poison of legalism in the apple of God’s favor. The truth: eat this apple and you will die. The lie: eat this and you’ll be the apple of His eye. And they were eating it themselves, and nothing bad happened to them. In fact they may have seemed more godly than Paul. So it was not just their teaching but their example that was enticing.

Examples of this kind of bad example abound. In the larger culture we talked about “13 Reasons,” glorifying suicide. Another one that common sense and some reasearch would caution us against is violence. In recent decades Hollywood and video games have become increasingly gory. Violent murder abounds, but violence with no consequence. You turn off the movie, you shut down the video game and everythings fine. But can you kill and kill in a video game or glorify killing in a movie without out getting at least a little de-sensitized to killing? Isolated from the fact that any death in the real world is a tragedy? Violence is the shiny apple, whole generations being taught that that’s the way to win. The poison in the apple is that real violence destroys all kinds of lives. I’m not alone in being concerned with the power of this negative example, and I’m not going to go, today, into several other obvious examples, including the way whole generations have been sold the ‘be nice, we are’ LGBT agenda

But there are powerful negative examples in the Christian subculture as well. One that’s obvious is the law-keeping part of the Messianic Jewish movement, which is the closest counterpart to what Paul is denouncing. It’s the same model that Paul was criticizing in Galatia. Another that is both appealing and enslaving is the “word of faith” movement. Put simply these false teachers say that if you ask for something in faith, including both prosperity and healing, God must answer. That’s very appealing to many people around the world. But here’s the poison: If God doesn’t seem to answer it means your faith was defective. So and so on TV, so and so in the pulpit, so and so in your small group has this perfect faith and the problem is you’re not imitating it.

I remember years ago when Gail and I were in the process of adoption that a woman who was caring for a very medically needy child told us not to worry about the child’s needs. He was going to be miraculously healed. She said her pastor, a gifted miracle healer had just preached on the seven or thirteen things that you had to do to have healing faith. She was working hard to do all these thing so her faith would be able to heal this little boy. But this kind of seven-step program is cruel legalism. It is a false promise that miracles or prophetic insight or healing do not depend on God but on how well you follow the rules.

So we can follow the negative examples of our culture, the dangerous examples in our Christian sub-culture, or we can embrace the help that positive examples give. The key is that positive examples are never self-focused or self-serving. They are always selfless. Paul gives two examples of positive role models – the Galatians themselves who were an example to Paul and Paul himself who is an example to the Galatians and to us. He introduces both in verse 12: Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. Do you hear what he’s saying? Become as I am. Follow my example. For I also have become as you are. I followed your example.

Verses 12-15: You did me no wrong. 13You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14and 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. 15What 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. The initial response of the Galatians to Paul is a wonderful positive example that he now points at the Galatians themselves. He says he was received without contempt or scorn, as if he was a messenger from God.

This was more remarkable because he had been ill while with them. It was only as a result of his illness that he had visited Galatia in the first place. The Galatians could have despised and rejected him because of this illness, but they did not.

Many attempts have been made to identify Paul's illness. Some have guessed that he is referring to the physical abuse and resulting weakness he had suffered at Lystra. Others link Paul’s illness to his comment in verse 15 that they were willing to give him their eyes. Was Paul suffering from an eye disorder? Some have speculated that this is the “thorn in his flesh” he talks about in 2nd Corinthians and the reason he writes with such a large hand in Galatians 6:11. That’s possible. Whatever it was, we know the Galatians could have despised him for his appearance or weakness, but they did not. Instead, received him.

Verse14. Though Paul’s condition was a burden on them, they actually received him as "an angel of God," that is, "as if I were Christ Jesus himself." Paul was well aware, of course, that he, like the Galatians, was a sinner. He was careful, as a missionary, to not allow any hint of worship for him from those he met. Yet he never says that their respect for him as a messenger of God was in error. On the contrary they were quite right to receive him, not only because he came to them as the approved messenger of the Lord Jesus Christ, but because this simple kindness, loving our neighbors as ourselves, is God’s heart for all people, revealed in the Old Testament, then by Jesus and the New Testament.

Verse15. The Galatians had once had this attitude toward Paul and he treasured it. But now “what has become of your blessedness?” He uses a word ‘makarious’ which is the word Jesus uses in the beatitudes, ‘blessed are the poor in spirit,” etc. But it means more than blessing. It implies joy and happiness. The saying of Jesus Paul might have in mind here is one he quotes in Acts 20. It isn’t in any of the Gospels, but he knows that Jesus said “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” That’s blessedness the Galatians modeled when they cared for Paul, and he wonders where it has gone. He reminds them that their selflessness, their other-centeredness was so strong that they would have gouged their eyes out for him if they could. If Paul did have an eye disease then this image of their love for him is particularly vivid.

The Galatians were an example to Paul then, an example that blessed him, and they are an example to themselves now: where is this joy and happiness in selfless serving that once characterized you? As I think of powerful, positive examples of joy in serving I can’t help but think of the Harvey response.

In every direction the impact of caring has been felt and noted. Homeowners have been shown that the church is about love, that God still extends his love in practical ways. And homeowners have shown love to teams and staff, finding joy in providing a meal or gifts or hugs. Teams have shown love in their selfless service, but have also been blessed by the selfless service that Crisis Response staff and Trinity Fellowship have poured out toward them.

Trinity has been blessed by the countless hours of love that have we see in our rebuilt building, but we have also been a blessing by our hospitality, our prayer and the endless succession of meals y’all have served. It is this selfless caring that is the kind of example we are to follow and that we can model.

But now, Paul says to the Galatians, you need to see the positive example of my care for you. In verse 12 he said “become as I am.” He may be referring to his dependence on grace alone, but it’s more likely he’s referring to his care for them which they are now rejecting. Verses 16-20. I normally use the English Standard Version, but I’m modifying it slightly to restore the word ‘zealous’ which is much more clear than the phrase ‘making much of.’ Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17They are zealous for you, but for no good purpose. They want to isolate you, that you may be zealous for them. 18It is always good to be zealous for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Paul truly cares about the Galatians, especially about their spiritual health. Like his opponents, he is zealous for them, but in Paul’s case this is an unselfish desire that they be blessed by the truth. His opponents want to isolate the Galatians from Paul so all their attention can be placed on pursuing the works of the law. Paul wants them, instead, to focus on the truth which he had preached to them in the early days and which he is reinforcing in this letter. He has only their good in mind, but the Galatians don’t see it. It’s common for Christians to be criticized and even disdained when they share the truth of the Gospel.

In verse 17 Paul turns his attention back, briefly, to the false teachers. They are zealous for you, zealous to win you to their way of thinking. One translation says 'they court you.’ But zeal is not enough. Throughout history there have been many earnest people whose zeal for their cause has caused great harm, or at least stife and division. The false teachers were certainly zealous, but in no good way; what they were trying to do would result not in helping the Galatians but in harming them. To accomplish this the false teachers needed to isolate the Galatians from Paul’s teaching, and probably from the other churches and teaching in the region who were defending the truth.

In verse 18 Paul begins to reveal, as an example, his own attitude. “It is always good to be zealous.” Zeal is a necessary ingredient in the Christian life. Paul, of all people, models this, and his letters show that he expects wholehearted faith and transformed life and zeal for Jesus from every believer. The Galatians would know this.

But the zeal Paul commends is zeal for what is good, and the apostle’s complaint is that the Galatians had been led into a misplaced zeal. While he was among them they had shared his zeal for authentic Christianity. But their zeal had lasted only while he had been with them.

Verse 19 is the emotional heart of this section and maybe of the whole letter: “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” The apostle's concern and anguish find expression in his cry. It’s not even a sentence, just a cry. It’s also the only place in his letters that Paul says to his converts “you are my children.” Through him they had been born into the Christian faith. He was used by God to lead them out of their false religion. But his little children had now accepted ideas that the apostle couldn’t reconcile with genuine Christianity and that, coupled with his earnest desire that they would be true Christians, leads him to say that he finds himself once more in pains of childbirth. Birth pains are supposed to be over when the child is born; it’s not right that the mother should have them all over again.

Or is it? Ask any mother. She’ll agree that the physical pain is overwhelming but is hardly the only pain and anguish associated with raising children. Mothers, and fathers too, feel the pain of their child’s sickness and injuries, their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual development, the challenges they face. All of these are part of the burden of parenting, and our goal in parenting is the maturity to walk though the challenges of life with Jesus. That’s quite simply Paul’s goal. I’m in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you. Until our spiritual or natural children reach the place where Christlikeness in attitudes, behaviors and choices are dominant, we are going to be in anguish. Paul is saying to the Galatians “here is a snapshot of my heart, how I prioritize the world.” If verse 12 is still in view, then he’s saying “be imitators of me. I’m a better model than the Judaizers. They’re in it for conformity to some external standard. I’m in it for the heart.”

Finally, verse 20 “I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.” It’s been a hard letter. But Paul’s heart is soft. He wishes he could communicate face-to-face, which is by far the best way of handling stresses or tensions between people, because you communicate on so many more levels – body language, facial expression, tone of voice, which is what Paul mentions here. As it is, far away and getting second hand reports, he admits he’s perplexed, and so he’s spoken strongly and tenderly and just wants them to embrace the Gospel.

So do you see the selflessness there? That’s the kind of example we look for in life, that’s the kind of example we want to be. Like the Galatians in those early days, being people who receive others and care for others. Like Paul who is heart zealous for the Galatians because he wants Christ formed in them.

Do you have people in your life who are examples like this? People who receive others and care for others without judging, yet earnestly desire that Christlikeness be found in each person? I have such examples. I call them my heroes. I’ve mentioned most of them over the years. Pete Fosberg who led me and many others to Christ. Varoujan Mazmanian, who discipled me in college and more than anyone else I’ve known had a heart like Paul’s for all those around him. Gary Stubblefield, who modeled exegetical and expository preaching in a way that made me want to do it. Virginia Milligan who was in some ways the most Christlike person I’ve known. Novella Denny, who is close, who models what receiving and caring looks like. The Galatians could take lessons from her. Clay Thomas, who some of the men met on a retreat a couple years ago, who is just a great guy and a friend and concerned that Christ be formed in me. And a bunch of you folks here. And, my wife.

I am so thankful to God for all the positive examples I’ve gotten to follow. I’m thankful to those who have faithfully pointed out the negative examples and influencers that I need even now to be avoiding. And the big lesson that I’m still learning is that the common factor among all the positive examples in my life, and I think in all our lives, is selflessness, that heart for God and for others that is ultimately Christlikeness. That’s who we want to be when we grow up, isn’t it?