Adam Robinson is an educator, author, and co-founder of The Princeton Review. He is also a US Chess Federation life master. When he was 17, he played Bobby Fischer in hundreds of what is known as "blitz chess" matches. This is where you only get five minutes per game. He did this to prepare for the world chess championship. Remember, he was only 17 at the time.
If Fischer had an edge, Robinson would resign. Fischer was, by most estimations, the greatest chess champion of all time. You might say he was the Tom Brady of chess. Anyway, after resigning another match, Fischer said to Robinson, "Adam, don't resign so quickly. You have to learn to play lost positions."
One of the reasons we have this wonderful letter to the Galatians is that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, trusting in the sovereignty of God, Paul never gave up and he never gave in. His work among the Galatians was being undermined. The foundation of the gospel of grace and mercy he had established was being eroded. False teachers were telling lies about him. And many of the Galatian believers were turning away from the one true gospel. The situation was growing in toxicity.
But Paul neither gave up nor gave in. He learned to play what appeared to be lost positions.
Here's one of the positions Paul was up against. While the gospel of grace and mercy must be received by humble hearts, the false teachers appealed to the sinful human desire to prove ourselves. To be in charge. To be in control. It's in our fallen nature to gravitate toward ideas and actions which make us look good…make us feel great…make us feel like we are somebody. Pride is very big with us, because almost nobody wants to look small.
That's the mindset the false teachers tapped into. They pushed the idea that performance led you to be closer with God. God was won over by what you did, and it was important for what you did to be seen and known by others. You earned your position with God. Religion was performative.
That's the mindset Paul had initially helped them overcome. He shared with them how God's grace overcomes our natural bent toward pride…self-satisfaction…the need to be applauded. Paul knew such pride was a stumbling block for many to accepting the gift of salvation, received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But people still want some control. They want something to boast in. They want something to point to and say, "I did this. I made this happen. I was a part of this. God couldn't have done this without me."
Here's something you might want to write down:
It is against our nature to give God credit for all the good we do.
But when you are transformed by Christ, that's what happens. Anything positive coming out of our relationship with Jesus Christ is all because of him. Paul emphasized that over and over with the Galatians. It is all about what Jesus is doing in your life. Everything you have…everything you are…everything you do is because of what Jesus has done. It's all grace -
unearned, undeserved, un-worked-for.
So, persevering with the gospel of grace, Paul went over ground they had previously covered. Let's pick things up at 4:12-20…
Before we examine the key points Paul made, we need to keep something important in mind. The Galatians share a mindset with all sinful, fallen people throughout the history of the Christian church. They are no worse than us and we are no better than them. The threat is there for most of us, at any given time. It is not hard for false teaching to gain a foothold in the hearts of recent Christian converts. It even happens to those who thought they were more mature in the faith. I could throw out dozens of names whose books and/or churches are quite popular right now. All kinds of fads and Bible-twisting teachings easily gain a foothold in the church today. The appeal to the ego is usually a winning strategy. Pride is hard to overcome, as the flesh is weak. The slide from faith to works was an easy one for the Galatians to make. And, if we're not careful, it could happen to us.
Paul's teaching was radical in that it was rooted in humility. True faith is
allowing oneself to become like putty in the hands of God.
So, the first thing Paul reminded them was how he allowed God to use him, to become like them, so they would be receptive to the gospel. And this was a genuine movement for Paul. He became like the Galatians in that he let go of all claims to title and position in the Jewish faith. His accomplishments didn't matter. He didn't use any of that to impress them. His credentials were like dust in the wind. He said to the Galatians that they all started from the same position, and they ended up where they were, as saved sinners, through the grace of God. They all got there through no effort of their own. Only by grace alone. Through faith alone. In Christ alone.
Paul then went on to say how an ailment he had caused him to be in Galatia. While we don't know what kind of ailment it was, we know it was quite gross, symptomatically speaking. Some speculate that it could have been a problem with his eyes. See there in verse 15 where he said, "you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me." That's why some speculate that it might have been some sort of eye disease. Although we shouldn't be too swayed by that, because that was a common phrase meaning I will do anything I can to help you.
The bottom line was, Paul had some kind of condition that, before the negative influence of the false teachers, the Galatians would have gone to extreme lengths to help him. They didn't scorn him or mock him. It wasn't uncommon back then for visibly diseased or infirm people to be mocked or ridiculed. The phrase, "despise me" from verse 14, literally means "to spit on." We get expectorate from the word used there. This is powerful stuff. There was substance to their relationship. Then Paul asked, "What then has become of your blessedness?" In other words, how did things go off the rails?
We get a huge Biblical lesson from that initial exchange. Paul was hurting physically. He was not doing well. Yet it was that exact serious struggle which put Paul there with the Galatians. In His sovereignty, God used Paul's infirmity bring glory to His gospel. As Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:9, "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me." Remember that, if you are going through a difficulty right now. Remember that the next time trouble strikes. God uses our problems to achieve His purpose. Think about
it this way. We have two choices when problems arise. We can complain and feel victimized by our circumstances or we can watch God be glorified in and through our trials. Which way have you chosen? Which way would you choose?
This weekend, for many of us, our thoughts turned to September 11, 2001. I was reading a description of Todd Beamer's call to a 911 operator. He was aboard flight #93, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. This call happened right before many of the passengers fought back against the terrorists:
Before ending his call with Ms. Jefferson, Beamer asked, "Would you do one last thing for me?"
"Yes. What is it?" she answered.
"Would you pray with me?"
They said the Lord's Prayer together in full, and other passengers joined in. Beamer then recited Psalm 23, concluding, "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me."
Immediately after, he turned to his co-conspirators and asked, "Are you guys ready? OK, let's roll."
Even in the most difficult circumstances, we understand this observation by Costi Hinn:
God is not good because of what He does, He is good because of who He is. His goodness is defined by His nature, not by your circumstances.
When you can stand in the midst of a storm and affirm, "God is good all the time," He is glorified.
After maintaining the focus on grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, Paul then pivoted back to the false teachers. Here's what he said in verse 17:
They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them.
What the false teachers were after was the exact opposite of the gospel of grace. What verse 17 means is they were motivated by the love for human praise. They wanted to be made much of, to be sought out, to be depended on. And so it became this huge ego thing. And the Galatians were tilting toward that huge ego thing because of the reflected glory; you listen to us, you follow us, you do what we do, then you can be like us. If you try hard enough and work hard enough, what we have can be yours.
Does that sound familiar? That's exactly what's at the root of not only the prosperity gospel, but also many of its offshoots expressed in American Christianity. Did you know there's a Twitter feed called "PreachersN Sneakers"? It chronicles the preachers out there who invest heavily in shoes and overall wardrobe in order to project a certain image and attract a crowd. Juxtapose that with this timely observation from a pastor in California:
90% of pastoral ministry is trying to persuade Christians that the aspirations of the ordinary Christian life are not identical to those of the middle-class American life.
The whole point was that there was more of Christ and less of Paul. As we remember from Galatians 1:10, "For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." While the false teachers put the spotlight of themselves, Paul kept the spotlight on Christ. Always. On. Christ.
And so Paul ended this section with a frank statement. "For I am perplexed about you." He prefaced that with the vivid observation that working to get them to reflect the glory of Christ had been hard. It was like a woman in labor. And now look what they've done. They've made foolish choices and alliances. The word translated as "perplexed" literally means "to be at wits end."
But don't misunderstand. None of that meant Paul had given up on them or didn't love them. Remember, at one point he called them fools. And now they've gotten him all perplexed. I think what that means is if Paul could remind them of how beautiful and powerful the gospel was when they first heard it, they would run from the false teachers. That's why, in verse 15, he brought up their blessedness. The word he used literally means their self-expression of joy. Remember, Paul reminded them, when you couldn't contain your joy over hearing the gospel of grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. If they could remember that, then they wouldn't be fooled by the false teachers.
And so, as we prepare to close out chapter 4 next week, I leave you with this:
PAUL WOULD NOT HAVE WRITTEN THIS LETTER IF THERE WERE NO HOPE FOR THE GALATIANS.
If we ever feel the drift of the Galatians in our lives, may we take our sinful, fallen hands off the clay of our lives and return to the sovereign hands of God. May we never look to the praise of others. As we turn our hearts toward Christ, let us affirm with Psalm 115:1:
Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!