Editors’ note: 

This excerpt is adapted from Tim Keller’s new resource, Galatians For You: For Reading, For Feeding, For Leading (The Good Book Company, 2013). Keller has also written an accompanying Bible-study curriculum, Gospel Matters: The Good Book Guide to Galatians.

Paul was a man who poured himself into ministry. In Galatians 4:12-20, we’re given an insight into how he planted a church. There is much for us to learn here about gospel ministry and relationships in our settings today.

First, gospel ministry is culturally flexible: “I became like you” (v. 12). A ministry energized by the gospel is flexible and adaptable with everything apart from the gospel. It’s not tied to every specific of culture and custom. Its leaders can come and truly live among the people they are seeking to reach and adopt their ways and love them. Paul is a model of someone who truly comes close to and enters into the lives of the people he seeks to reach—just as Christ did in his incarnation.

Second, gospel ministry is transparent: “Become like me” (v. 12). Paul has been so open about his own heart and so consistent in his own life that he can invite the Galatians to imitate him.

Our words are not sufficient for persuading others about the truth of Christ. People have to be able to look into our hearts and lives, to assess how we handle trouble, how we deal with disappointment and interruptions, how we conduct our relationships, how we feel and act, so they can see whether Christ is real and how the gospel affects a day-to-day human life.

Third, gospel ministry looks for opportunities in hardship. Problems become possibilities. “It was because of an illness,” he reminds the Galatians, “that I first preached the gospel to you” (v. 13). That most likely means he was in Galatia either because of a detour from his planned itinerary or because of a delay in his planned schedule. Either way, he wasn’t planning on preaching the gospel to them. But the illness caused it to happen.

Two Ministries, Two Goals, Two Means

The Galatians had received Paul very warmly (v. 14); but now (v. 15) they’re treating him as though he were an adversary. Why? Not because Paul has changed his message or ministry, but because their response to that message and ministry has changed. They’re now under the influence of men who have a very different message, because they have very different goals.

The false teachers’ goal is “that you may be zealous for them” (v. 17). The NIV misses some of the nuances of Paul’s sentence. The phrase “zealous to win you over” renders a word that means literally “to build up” or even “puff up.” It translates better as, “They are flattering and making much of you, so that you will flatter and make much of them.”

A gospel-energized ministry does not need to have fans who are emotionally dependent on the leaders. It seeks to please God, assured of salvation through faith. These false teachers, on the other hand, are ministering not because they are sure of their salvation but in order to be sure of and win their salvation. Just as they are calling the Galatians to earn their salvation through works, so they are earning their salvation through works—it is salvation-by-ministry.

This means they need, emotionally, to have people who emotionally need them. They need their converts and their disciples to be wrapped up in their leaders, obeying and adoring them.

This goal affects the means they use. They are “zealous to win you over” (v. 17). This is a way of saying, “They are telling you what you want to hear; they are tickling your ears, pandering to you in order to get your loyalty.” There is nothing wrong with zeal (v. 18) in itself; what dictates whether zeal is good or bad is whether “the purpose is good.” The false teachers simply want to be built up by building the Galatians up—not in the gospel, but in pride and self-righteousness.

By contrast, Paul’s goal is in verse 19: he is in agony “until Christ be formed in you.” This is critical. Despite Paul’s appeal in verse 12 to “become like me,” Paul is only being an example to the Galatians in order for them to be changed into the likeness of Christ. Paul doesn’t say “like me,” but “become like me.” He isn’t trying to get fans but to get people to follow Christ as he does. Paul wants people not to become dependent on him, but on Christ.

This is why Paul uses the image of labor. He is like a mother, laboring “in the pains of childbirth” over his disciples. A mother in labor desperately wants her child to get out and be independently alive! A child grows inside the mother. The mother must suffer in order to give life to the child, but that does not mean she wants the child to stay in the womb. It’s a remarkable image for healthy, gospel-based ministry.

The false teachers want followers who glorify them; Paul wants partners who glorify Christ. And that directs the means to his goal. Unlike his opponents, Paul is not telling the Galatians what they would like to hear. He is telling them “the truth” (v. 16), and he is being vilified for it. Paul would love to be affirming and gentle, to “change my tone” (v. 20). But he would rather hold out the gospel than receive the praise. After all, the gospel brings people to Christ-dependence, shapes people in Christ-likeness, and provokes people to Christ-praise.

This kind of gospel ministry is costly to the minister. It’s not always easy for those they are ministering to. But it is based on the truth; it is pointing to Christ; and it is eternally worthwhile. We would do well to imitate Paul in our ministry to others; and to love and thank those who love us enough to minister to us as he did to the Galatians.