On a Friday afternoon you get your pay-cheque, but it does not fill you with joy. For you have been paid what you have earned through all your hard work. So you don’t jump up and down with amazement at how gracious your employer is. You don’t run out onto the street and tell people that she is unexplainably kind. You might not even feel the need to say thanks.
Getting what you have earned does not produce joy! But the gospel is not about getting what you earned. The gospel is about the free gift of God. The gospel is about grace being poured on wicked rebels like us. Understanding the gospel should fill us with joy. Paul asks the Galatians, ‘what has happened to all your joy?’ They have begun to forget the gospel of grace!
The message of grace had brought the Galatians joy
Paul brings them back to their first encounter with him. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you (13). We are not told what this illness was. Some think that he may have contracted malaria on the coast of what is now Turkey, and had gone to the hilly region of Galatia to recover. Others think that he may have had an ailment of the eye—which is why he uses the picture of them giving an eye, if they could have, as an expression of devotion to him (15b).
Whatever the source of his illness it had caused a diversion in his travels and had resulted in him bringing the gospel to them! Despite what the ‘health and wealth’ people teach it can be God’s will for his people to be ill. Paul’s illness was part of God’s plan to reach the Galatians.
An ill man came to the Galatians in vulnerability and God spoke through him with power. That is consistent with the way God works. The Christians in Corinth loved impressive people, but Paul would teach them, ‘when I am weak I am strong’ (2 Cor. 12:10). Whatever your circumstances, your lack of gifting, your shy temperament, your shortness of energy, the limits to you knowledge and experience or your family circumstances, God can use you with your weaknesses and where you are. As you know I have struggled with a psychiatric illness. God has used that experience to help me minister to others. One person said to me, ‘I knew I could share this with you because you have been through it to.’ I got into the car and spontaneously gave thanks that he let me pass through the pain I experienced.
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 Jesus Christ himself (14). He was a burden to them, but his message was a delight to them. The gospel of grace caused them to look beyond their circumstances. So one Christian, in a year when his wife had undergone five operations for cancer and terrible problems at work, said that when ‘I had every reason to feel beaten, I felt joy. In spite of everything, God gave me the conviction of being loved … it was not happiness, gush or jolliness … but I knew that he … would give me and my family enough courage and grace for each day.’
Joy is not the opposite of sadness. We know this because the Bible speaks of joy and sadness existing together. The apostle Paul can speak of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). I believe that no one has ever displayed as much holy joy as Jesus, yet he is described as a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3). One day God will wipe away ever tear from your eyes, but that day is not in this life. Your first prayer for your hurting Christian sister or brother should be that they won’t forget the infinite love of the God who gave his Son in order to make them one of his dearly loved children.
The message of merit robbed the Galatians of joy
Paul notices that something has changed in the Galatians since those early days of delighting in the gospel of free grace. ‘What has happened to all your joy (15a)?’ What had happened was that false-teachers had come to the region of Galatia and muddied the waters. These false-teachers agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they claimed that you had to obey all the laws of the Old Testament to be a Christian. The false-teachers preached a gospel that depended partly on God and partly on self. Many of the Galatian Christians were been taken in by it, and it robbed them of their joy.
How could you be joyful if you have to earn God’s acceptance? How could you know if you had done enough to buy a place in his family? Your friend thinks, ‘God will accept me because I am sincere and I tried my best.’ But the truth is that our best is not good enough for a perfectly holy God, that none of us has actually done our best, that our best was always a pretty self-absorbed and proud form of self-righteousness, and that we are not at all sincere.
We go into the world with a message of joy! It is not a message that says you will never be sick; remember Paul’s illness. It is not a message that says you will never be sad; we follow of a man of sorrows familiar with grief. We are not promising that life will be easy; Jesus warned that we will have trouble in this world. We are sharing something far greater. We are telling them that when the right time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (4:4-5).
The message of grace changes you from within
In his book on delighting in our heavenly Father’s love, Sinclair Ferguson explains, ‘Knowing in the very depths of my being who I am, as I come increasingly to appreciate what it means to be a child of God, has a tremendously powerful effect. It sets me free from the world’s anxious quest to “be somebody”’.
The false-teachers weren’t free from the need to be somebody. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them (17b). They were absorbed in their egos. Then want applause and a following. That pride seems to have rubbed off on the Galatians who are tempted to put on a show for Paul. He has to remind them that they shouldn’t simply be zealous for good when I am with you (18b). I know so well that insecurity makes us crave people’s approval.
But the apostle Paul is secure in God’s grace. He doesn’t minister to them to win their applause. Grace has transformed his heart, so that he is genuinely concerned for their spiritual well-being. ‘My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you [he is talking of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, who makes us more like Jesus], how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you (19-20).
Charles Simeon was one of the most influential pastors of the early part of the nineteenth century. Yet when he was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge he faced great opposition. The people of that church did not want him, and the regulars refused to turn up. The church wardens locked all the pews so that those people who did attend church could not sit down. People refused to say ‘good morning’ to him and spat on him in the street. Some even threw dead cats at him as he preached in open air. But he laboured away for years with passionate love and commitment to the truth. As it turned out he did eventually win the affection of the people. It has been said of him, ‘His method was to tell the truth. His mind-set was love for his people. His motive was to see Christ formed in them. And he did those things despite the cost.’ The same was true of the apostle Paul.
May the beauty of grace fill our hearts with joy, even when our circumstances fill our lives with sorrow! May the security of knowing that God is a good parent, who loves us, even when we let him down, make us free from seeking our significance from the applause of people! May the Holy Spirit’s transforming grace free us from the tyranny of living for our egos!
Paul asked the Galatians, ‘what has happened to all your joy?’ I hope that studying Galatians is bringing you joy—the joy of knowing that God has not treated us as our sins deserve, but according to his loving kindness. While getting your pay-cheque after a hard weeks work doesn’t fill you with amazement, grace causes us to sing.
‘And can it be that I [even me, with all my failures and sin, both in the past and the present] should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood? Died he for me who caused his pain [his perfect life for my guilt one!]? For me who him to death pursued [me, a natural born rebel who was hostile to his holiness and has let him down more times than can be counted]? Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?’