Love That Won't Let Go

Galatians 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. 12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Every follower of Jesus Christ needs a friend who has the kind of enduring love for them that Paul shows here for the Galatians. We all need a friend who cares so deeply for us that they will love us even if it fills them with anguish. Even when we respond in hostility, they won't return evil for evil. They will not turn away from us, but instead, their love will endure. We all need this kind of friend, because we all face the danger of becoming like the Galatians here. We all face the danger of forgetting our desperate need for God. We face the danger of turning on the one who has freed us from slavery, and choosing to return to that slavery again. That's what the Galatian people were doing.

They had, at one time, seen their own weakness, their own sinfulness. They had seen how their own ways of living would lead to death. Their eyes had been opened to the glory of God, to the beauty of the gospel. Their faith had been removed from themselves and placed on Jesus Christ. But then, something happened. Something changed. They heard a message that centered not on God, but on themselves. They believed the lie that they could, by their works, earn their acceptance before God. They were deceived. Their eyes were darkened, so they could not see truth as truth. And they were led astray.

The story of the Galatians is a tragedy. But it's a tragedy that could easily become our own. We may not be in danger of believing the exact same message they did, of following the Jewish rituals and practices of the Law. But we can get to the same place they were by traveling a different path.

Some of my favorite hymn lyrics are also among the most tragic of hymn lyrics: "Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." I love those words, not because they express a positive message in any sense, but because they're real! I've experienced what those words describe, I continue to experience it. Every Christian still has remnants of the old self in us. Our sinful flesh is opposed to God and wants to destroy our faith in Him. We have a bent toward being deceived. Ephesians 4:22 says we have deceitful desires. Even our very desires try to deceive us! Try to lead us astray.

We need the Word of God, and the Spirit of God, to continually open our eyes to see things clearly. To see things as they truly are. We need the Word and the Spirit to shine light upon the dark spaces that still exist in our hearts and minds. We need the Word, and the Spirit...but we also need each other. We need each other – the church.

Ecclesiastes 4:9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

We are given to each other, by God, as gifts from God. We need others to lift us up when we fall. We need others who will help us see those things that are in our blind spots. But this message of needing others goes against the main message we're so often inundated with, which is a message not of dependence, but independence. In our culture, we think more in terms of the individual than the community. Needing others is seen as a weakness, a sign of deficiency – as if we were made to be self-sufficient, independent. But the truth is none of us were made for that. We were made to need God first and foremost, to be dependent on God. And we were made to need one another.

The Galatian people were abandoning God. And now, they were beginning to abandon Paul, the one whom God had given them as a gift to help them.

Galatians 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. 12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are.

The Galatians were turning from God and turning to works-based slavery. They were turning to weak, worthless rituals and practices that had no power to save. Paul wants them to realize just what they're doing. In verse 12 he says, "I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are."

Paul had once been a Pharisee, a strict follower of all the law's practices, but in Christ he turned from that slavery and became like a Gentile, became free from those burdens. He "became as they were," in that sense. And he wants the Galatians, these Gentile people, to be like that again. He's saying, "I became like you were, free from the heavy burden of the Law. But you changed. So turn back, become like I am."

They were taking on this heavy burden they could not carry, and in doing that, they thought they were being hyper-spiritual; they thought they were earning God's favor by their obedience. But what they were actually doing was sacrificing God. They were merely going through the motions of religious obedience. They were checking off a list. And in going through the motions, they were sacrificing God. In checking off a list, they were giving up a real relationship with God. And Paul rightly responds, "How?" "How can you do this when you know God – when you have been known by God?"

We may not sacrifice God by pursuing Jewish rituals. But we can, and do, do it in other ways. For example, we can often let the busyness of life crowd out those quiet moments with our Father, crowd out that relationship with Him. Sometimes there are things we simply choose over Him, like social media or entertainment. But it can also happen in more subtle ways. We can even crowd out a true relationship with Him just in our busy efforts to live in line with His Word. There are always so many things to do, so many needs to meet. Like Martha, we can be so busy doing good things that we miss out on the best thing. And when we miss out on the best thing, we can easily forget that our identity rests not in our works, but in the finished work of Jesus. We can forget our dependence on Jesus, and thus, we miss out on the sweet joy of knowing God, knowing Him personally, knowing Him as the love of our lives.

Like the Galatians, we will have those times when we're beginning to wander. Sometimes, we'll know that wandering’s happening. Sometimes it will be very intentional. Other times, it will be more unintentional, a slow, subtle drift. We just slowly lose sight of the glory, the beauty of God. And in those times we will need a friend whose enduring love will help us see what we're missing.

Paul here was put in a very difficult situation. These people he loved, who once loved him back, and who once appreciated his friendship, were now rejecting him and rejecting the gospel. And yet, Paul's love for the Galatians did not fail. It would not let go. We see in verses 12-20 three characteristics of love that won't let go, of enduring love. First, we see that this love is a sacrificial love, second, it is a truth-speaking love, and third, it is an others-focused love.

Galatians 4:12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.

Paul is speaking as a friend here. He's speaking as a friend much more than as an apostle or a teacher. In this whole passage, verses 12-20, he's making a personal appeal, not a theological one. And he does that first by pointing back to a time when his friendship with the Galatians thrived, when love flowed both ways.

Sacrificial love is seen in these verses through two examples. We see it in the way Paul had preached to the Galatians despite a bodily ailment. I don't know about you, but when I'm dealing with a physical ailment, I'm far less likely to focus on serving others in those times. But Paul demonstrates sacrificial love to the Galatians despite his own suffering.

That's one example. But the primary example of sacrificial love here is in the Galatians' former love for Paul. Paul's physical condition, at the time he arrived in Galatia, had been a trial to the Galatian people. We don't know what that condition was, what his ailment was. But apparently, he was in such a poor state that he needed some caretaking. Paul was a burden to them, an inconvenience, yet they did not treat him as such. As he says, they received him "as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus." They would have gouged out their eyes for him if they could. In other words, they would have sacrificed anything, because they had true love for their brother Paul.

It's one thing to love others when it's of clear benefit to you, but what about when it's inconvenient? What about when it's burdensome? Paul once needed that kind of love from the Galatians, and they gave it freely. Now, at the time of this letter, the Galatians need that kind of love from Paul, and he was being faithful to give it. The main way we see Paul express his love here is through sharing truth.

Galatians 4:16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?

The kind of love we need from one another is sacrificial, and it's also truth-speaking. Now like I said, this passage in particular isn't really meant to be about theological arguments or doctrinal truth. The bulk of this letter has been theological. It's been sharing lots of doctrine. But I don't want us to miss that doctrinal truth is not the only truth Paul's sharing here. He's also sharing the truth of just how dearly he loves these people. He's sharing his heart with them. He's being real with the Galatians – personal, transparent. And so should we be with one another. We should not cease to tell each other how much we love one another.

Paul does this all the time in his letters, calling people his beloved, his brothers and sisters. In just one verse, Philippians 4:1, Paul calls the Philippians "my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown...my beloved." That's one verse!

When a loved one is walking down a dangerous road, love compels us to share truth, both doctrinal truth and the truth of just how dear they are to us. How we long for their good. But let's not wait. Let's not wait until that day comes before we share our affection for each other.

Love is sacrificial, it is truth-speaking, and finally, here, it is others-focused.

Galatians 4:17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Put simply, love is about the other person's good. It's about them, not about you. Paul affirms here that it's a good thing to be given attention by others, to be recognized. The Greek phrase used in verse 18 has a lot of meaning to it, which has led to a rich variety of English translations. The ESV says it is a good thing to "be made much of," the NASB speaks of being "eagerly sought," and the NKJV says "zealously courted." This kind of desire for one another, building up of another, it's not at all a bad thing in itself. It's a good thing! The problem is when it's not done out of love for others but instead love of self. For example: Flattering someone so they'll like you or eagerly pursuing a friendship with someone so you can use them for your own benefit. This is not love. By outward appearance it may seem like love, but it isn't. It's self-focused rather than others-focused.

Paul shows us something different, something better. He shares his heart, and speaks commendably as fits the occasion, but he doesn't have a selfish agenda in doing so. He wants what's best for these people he loves. His agenda, his desire, is that Christ would be formed in them. His heart is for their everlasting, overflowing joy in Jesus Christ.

Paul wants that joy for his friends, because he has experienced it himself. He has experienced fullness of joy in Jesus. And this is where the secret to Paul's love can be found. Paul could only love in these radical ways we've seen because he was actively being loved in these ways. By the Galatians? No. By other people? Maybe. But whether he was or not, Paul did have one friend who faithfully loved him through thick and thin, one friend whose love would not let go. That friend of Paul is a friend of mine too. For many here, He's your friend.

We have a friend whose love is sacrificial – so much so that He gave His life. Whose love is truth-speaking – who gave us a book, that isn't always full of what we want to hear. Sometimes it's challenging or confusing. But it's what we need to hear. He tells us doctrinal truth and He shares His heart for us in it. We have a friend whose love is not driven in any way by selfishness. That friend's name is Jesus Christ, King of kings and Lord of lords. He is our friend.

Jesus' love is perfect; it is full; it is everlasting. We know that His love can't fail, because if it could fail, we have put it to the test enough times that it would have failed by now. We all once were completely against Him. We had hearts like the people who cried out "Crucify Him!" People who wanted this innocent, holy man, Son of God, to be slain, to be broken, to be hung on a cross as a criminal. We are those who, like the apostles, would have abandoned Him, denied Him even at His greatest hour of need. That's who we were. That's who we still are sometimes. And yet, despite that being who we were, His love did not, does not, waver. His love endures.

Friends may fail us. We may fail our friends. But Jesus' love cannot fail. He is our lover who won't let go. He is the ultimate friend who would not, and will not, let us go.