by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



The zeal expressed by the Judaizers was meant to alienate, to divide, and to cause dissension. The Judaizers seemed to be doing what was right in their eyes, when, in fact, what they did was wrong in Paul’s eyes. So, Paul tells the Galatians, I know what they are up to, and it is not suitable for you; how can it be what’s best when in order for them to accomplish their will for you, they insist on excluding me; your best friend?  Sometimes, parents need to point out to their children that what their friends insist on them doing does not make their relationship with Mom and Dad any better. So, they must decide who they are going to please first.

Paul does not condemn people being zealous for what they believe as long as it serves to promote a good cause for God’s love and the kingdom of the Anointed One; for the Gospel and the ordinances it offers, and promoting discipline in God’s house; against immorality and profaneness, exposing errors and heresies: and not changing with the times or adopting new fads and fashions to excuse misconduct or behavior as believers. There is nothing wrong with devotion and commitment to the Gospel of Jesus the Anointed One; to His calling; to His divine will and His purpose for our lives. One thing about true zeal for God the Father, the Anointed One His Son, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and doing God’s will, is that it will be practiced even though no one is looking.

As early church writer Ambrosiaster says, “The better gifts are spiritual ones, and those who seek to imitate them will make an impression on God.”[1] Paul wants the Galatians to imitate these good and spiritual things all the time, and not just on occasion or when he is with them. After his departure, they turned away to other things, but he wanted them to go on persevering in what is good.

Chrysostom sees Paul hinting here in verse eighteen that his absence and lack of continued correspondence may be a factor in causing these troubles. But he seems to be covering over his mistake by telling them that it is a good thing when people try to help others without an interior motive on seeing how they can benefit from it. But why wasn’t that done constantly, not just when he was with them in person? In other words, Paul started them out on the right path but didn’t stick around, or leave behind a member of his team, to make sure they continued on that path.[2] At least it seems that Paul took some responsibility for his part in this fiasco.

Jerome speaks to conditions in his time (347-420 AD) that we can certainly relate to our day. He notes that as soon as the Apostle Paul left, the Galatians changed their attitude and mindset. He says that he witnessed the same occurrence in the early Church. As long as there is a teacher in the Church who is very distinguished in speech and a living example, the people remain busy with urgency and fervor about collecting donations, prayer, fasting, sexual abstinence, relief of the poor, taking care of graves, etc. But when such a mentor departs, they seem to grow lazy and waste away from the lack of food due to excessive fasting, they grow thin, pale, and lethargic. Then everything they tried to do with their dedication ends up coming to an end, and everything they were striving for is lost.[3]

John Wesley (1703-1791), was struck by what Paul said to the Galatians here in verse eighteen that it was right to be zealous as long as the purpose is useful. Wesley says there are few subjects affecting all the world’s religions that are of greater importance than being zealous for a cause. For without zeal, it is impossible, either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves or to do any considerable service to our neighbor, whether in temporal or spiritual things. And yet nothing does more disservice to religion, or more mischief to mankind, than a sort of zeal which for several ages prevailed, both in Pagan, Muslim, and the Christian nations. It wreaked havoc in both undeveloped countries as well as highly industrialized nations.

Wesley says that as believers, we must examine closely whether Christian zeal is good for the Church. If so, then what is its true nature. Just taking a cue from the original word it implies the intensity of heat, such as in boiling water. When taken figuratively and applied to the mind, it stands for intense emotion and fervent affection. However, so often, “love” is not attached to zeal. The Christian’s zeal is love at a high degree. Therefore, Christian zeal is none other than the burning flame of love. But, says Wesley, one of the chief properties of love is “humility.” That’s why some of Christendom’s most fearless and tireless warriors were people of great dignity and humility.

Not only humility, but another property of love is “meekness.” What else can demonstrate this more than the mighty Son of God washing the disciples’ feet?[4] Added to humility and meekness is “patience.” How else is love able to endure all things if it lacks patience.[5] Then Wesley points to verse eighteen here in this chapter that zeal must be aimed at doing good in order to be appropriate. Otherwise, God is not pleased with what we do in His name. As Wesley puts it: “In a Christian believer love sits upon the throne which is erected in the inmost soul; namely, love of God and man, which fills the whole heart, and reigns without a rival.”[6]

In light of the zeal with which the Jews pursued the works of the Law in order to please those around them – pleasing God was only a part of their self-righteousness, Charles Simeon (1759-1836) had a sermon for the ministers and workers of his day which is relevant for us today. He points out that the nature of the Christian’s zeal is a strong affection of the mind; and is good or evil, according to the object towards which it is directed, and the manner in which it is exercised.[7]

But there is also a Christian zeal, says Simeon, which is distinguished by two things: First, it is the right thing for its object. Some spend their zeal on things that are in themselves sinful,[8] and others on things indifferent,[9] and those who raise fierce disputes about human ordinances. But Christian’s zeal must be directed to what is good; maintained with the steadfastness of faith in the Gospel,[10] and engages energetically in the practice of its teachings.[11]

Second, it is uniform in its operation. The zeal of many is only occasional and partial, but the Christian’s is uniform and universal; it shows respect to every duty; stimulating to both personal and communal, as well as public and official duties. It does not, however, lay the same stress on trivialities, as much as on the weightier matters of the law, but proportions its exercise to the importance of the things about which it is engaged.[12] In other words, our zeal for the Anointed One and the Gospel can either be constructive or destructive. It all depends on whether we are in it for God, or in it for ourselves.

English theologian J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889) examines the complaint by the Apostle Paul in verses seventeen and eighteen against the Judaizers who were trying to woo the Galatians away from him. Paul tells them that he knows those false teachers are working hard to persuade you to make this critical decision, which is not good for you or for me. They want to persuade you to turn against our team so you can work hard for them. It is good for you to work hard, of course, if it is for something good. That’s something you should do, whether I am there or not.

Lightfoot also notes that with these limitations, only two interpretations present themselves, which deserve our consideration. First, Lightfoot hears Paul saying: I’m not begrudging the courting and attention being paid to you by these distracters. I’m not interested in monopolizing all of your attention or time. I’m all for someone looking after your interests while I’m gone. I ask only that they do it for an honorable cause. Secondly, Lightfoot hears Paul telling them: I’m not complaining that they desire your attention, or that you give attention to them. These things are good in themselves. I myself am not insensible to such relationships. I remember how warm your feelings were towards me when I was with you. I only wish that hadn’t grown so cold during my absence.

Then Lightfoot explains that the difference between the two consists mainly in the emphasis given to how it would affect him. This seems to put too much importance to his feelings, not theirs. But this abrupt and fragmentary mode of expression is characteristic of the Apostle Paul when he is deeply moved, and this interpretation suits the general context so much better – especially the tender appeal which follows immediately, “my little children.[13] So Paul is not ranting and raving here about being jilted for a less important and proven suitor with a corrupt message designed to misguide them into a doomed relationship. Yes, he is scolding them, but out of love, not out of hate or jealousy.

4:19-20 I love you like children, and I feel like a woman going through labor pains again.  I’m sure this will continue until I see you looking more like the Anointed One. Oh, how I long to be with you in order to feel different about this. I’m so worried about you.

 Paul’s pleading and admonishment of the Galatians now reaches a point of desperation. He likens his heartache and sorry too that of the pain experienced by women in childbirth. And like any parent who finds their child in dire need of encouragement and comfort, wanted to be there with them at this critical hour. But perhaps the most troubling emotion that Paul feels is the head-shaking, eye-brow lifting, rolling of the eyes, deep breath sigh of complete and utter disbelief that this is happening to those he calls, “My dear children.” Paul struggled to make sense of the situation; it just didn’t add up. Maybe if he saw them and put his arms around them and they prayed together, then his tone of voice might change to that of a loving spiritual father instead of a chastising religious parent. However, that seemed like a remote, if not impossible, hope. So, he tried to put as much loving tender care in his letter as possible, like a parent attending to a little child who has fallen even though they were told not to run.

[1] Ambrosiaster, op. cit., p. 24

[2] Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). On Galatians, op. cit., p. 64

[3] Ibid.

[4] John 13:5

[5] 1 Corinthians 13:7

[6] The Works of John Wesley, op. cit., Vol. 7, Sermon 92, On Zeal, p. 68-78

[7] Simeon says make a note of: Acts of the Apostles 5:17-18; 13:45; 17:5

[8] Ibid: Philippians 3:6. John 16:2

[9] Ibid: Mark 7:3-4

[10] Ibid: He follows the injunctions and examples of the Apostles, in opposition to what is improperly called candor. Jude, ver. 3. Galatians 1:8-9. 2 John, ver. 10

[11] Ibid: Titus 2:11-12; Titus 2:14)

[12] The Works of Charles Simeon, op. cit., On Galatians, Discourse (#2073), Text: Galatians 4:18, “The Nature and Importance of Christian Zeal,” pp. 172-173

[13] J. B. Lightfoot: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 275-276

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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