Summary: There’s no joy in religious legalism. Joyless religion is like going into a nice restaurant and eating the paper menu instead of enjoying the food.
We’ve all seen special-occasion cakes that have a message spelled out in the frosting. There’s a collection of pictures of funny messages called Cake Wrecks. Apparently, some of these cake decorators had someone order a cake over the phone and they took their verbal instructions literally. There’s one that says, “Best Wishes, Suzanne.” The frosting says, “Under neat that We will miss you.” Another funny cake says, “Comguadulations Under neat that on your weeding (in green).” Obviously, there’s no spell-check for frosting. Another one says, “Write ‘welcome’ on it.” A graduation cake says, “I want sprinkles.” I like the one that says, “CC Just like that no periods.” Another favorite of mine is from Canada and says, “Shools out!” Maybe it shouldn’t be out for the person that spelled that! One of my favorites announces a birth and says, “It a gril.” And finally, there’s one where the person must have said, “I want NOTHING on it.” That’s what they got!
Obviously, these cake decorators misunderstood the instructions of those ordering the cakes. That was the problem in the churches in Galatia—they misunderstood the message of grace. They tried to add to the simple message of salvation by grace. Instead of cake wrecks, the result was church wrecks, Christians going back into religious legalism.
Remember, this was a personal letter Paul sent to the people he considered to be his spiritual children. In this passage we learn some personal details about Paul and how he first met the people in Galatia.
Galatians 4:12-20. “I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong. As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. 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 Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always and not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!”
I mentioned in the last message that Paul’s desire for his spiritual children is the same desire I have for you—that Christ be formed in you. When Jesus comes into your heart you don’t become Christ-like overnight. It’s a gradual process. Paul wrote about this ongoing process to the believers at Philippi. “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
As the Christians in Galatia strayed from the grace-way back into legalism, this process was reversed: They weren’t becoming more like Christ; they were becoming less and less like Christ. The harshest words ever recorded from the lips of Jesus were His remarks to the Jewish Pharisees, they were the super-legalists of the day. They believed the only way to please God was to keep every single law and command God had given; they even added to God’s laws. We have Pharisees with us today. They feel good by keeping rules, and they even want to enforce those rules on others. As a result, there’s no joy, only obligation. Let’s dig a little deeper into these verses to uncover three powerful principles.
1. When we help hurting people, it’s like helping Jesus
As Paul recalled how the believers welcomed him he wrote, “You welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.” Acts 13-14 records the account of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. This is when he first visited Galatia, but Acts doesn’t tell us anything about his illness. It’s only in this letter that we discover that Paul visited Galatia because of an illness that plagued him. Some scholars suggest Paul suffered from an eye disease that rendered his appearance revolting. The word “illness” literally means a physical infirmity, and it could refer to a disease or an injury. In Acts 14 we know Paul had been stoned in Lystra. The Bible says, “Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe [which was part of Galatia].” (Acts 14:19-20)