Paul’s letter to the churches in the region of Galatia is one of his most autobiographical, perhaps second only to 2 Corinthians. His deep concern for the spiritual maturing of those he introduced to the Messiah breaths through every sentence. When he hears that some are proclaiming "another Gospel that is not another" among these churches and influencing them to abandon "the truth of the Gospel", he becomes greatly agitated. The harsh language of this letter reveals his immense concern for them.
In Galatians 4:12-20 Paul takes them back in memory to his initial visit and their emotional, passionate response to the Gospel as he proclaimed it. In the light of their previous reception of God’s Holy Spirit, he is utterly astonished at their current behaviour. Why do they think it is necessary to add anything to the work of the Messiah at the cross so that might become more fully "sons of Abraham"? He warns them in the strongest possible terms that if they go down that road and accept circumcision as necessary to become part of God’s new covenant, then they will become enslaved all over again to "the weak and bankrupt elements of the world" (Galatians 4:9).
To communicate his fear for these believers he employs a rather daring metaphor (4:19). In his role as their evangelist and discipler, Paul speaks of himself as a pregnant woman, experiencing the pains of giving birth. His struggle with them in this controversy makes him feel as if he has to go through this spiritual pregnancy all over again. The very idea that a woman who has gone through the painful ordeal of childbirth might have to repeat the process for the same child is both appalling and somewhat absurd. Perhaps these are the motivations that Paul desires to instill within the Galatian believers by using such language. They are his ‘little children’ in the faith (Galatians 4:19).
But Paul goes even further as he thinks of this rebirthing process as continuing "until Messiah might be formed in you" (Galatians 4:19). At this point the illustration seems to break the bounds of normalcy. A woman’s pregnancy does not "form" a being in another person. But Paul wants these Christians to appreciate that his pain, suffering and efforts to bring the Gospel to them should result in them becoming pregnant with the Messiah. The Messiah becomes embodied within their lives. Paul’s ‘birth pains’ result in the Messiah’s embryonic conception in their lives. This verb "formed" (morphoun) is used in medical treatises to describe the development of an embryo. Perhaps Paul sees his suffering for their blessing as carrying forward the mission of the Messiah who died sacrificially so that Paul might experience new life in God.
The birthing of the Messiah in a person’s life is a powerful image to illustrate salvation and kingdom living. Paul has claimed that "I am no longer living, but Messiah lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). As a result of this divine action, he is a ‘new creation’ (Galatians 6:15). There seems to be a linkage among these various images that Paul uses to help the Galatians appreciate what God has done to bring them "the blessing of Abraham."
Theses images of double pregnancy – Paul pregnant with their birthing as believers and the Galatians pregnant with the embryonic Messiah – are startling. As we reflect upon them we are confronted with the reality of the hard work we experience in Gospel proclamation. A person’s response to this Gospel takes time to come to birth, it requires care and nurture, and it will involve some pain and sacrifice on the part of the proclaimer. We sometimes think that evangelism should occur quickly and easily, but Paul has no such illusions. It requires commitment, persistence, hard work, painful endurance – and in the end the joy of new birth! Perhaps the experience of conversion in a person’s life is no less painful for them in some respects! How much change has to occur before this decision becomes a reality. And then once they have put their confidence in the Messiah Jesus for life, the change process continues, sometimes with even more pain!
Paul is a realist. The images he chooses to use in Galatians 4:20 cause us to pause and reflect carefully on the calling of God within us to share the truth of the Gospel. We must count the cost and go forward with a trusting determination.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- consider the degree to which you experience the kind of pain Paul describes as he struggles to bring people to trust in Jesus. How do you deal with this pain? What does this pain suggest about the role of spiritual leader?
- review in your mind two or three people whose struggle to acknowledge Jesus as Lord you know in detail. What were some of the painful episodes that they experienced? Why? How does the birthing of the Messiah within them still bring them challenge?
- is there anything we can or should do to ease this process?