Having laid out his sweeping argument based on God’s plan of salvation in history, Paul now turns to a more personal, emotional appeal.
8 Formerly, when you did not know God,
See Eph. 2:12. God was in covenant relationship with Israel but not the other nations, and in fact they had degenerated into pagan idolatry and were not in covenant relationship with God.
you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.
“Those that by nature are not gods” is Paul’s way of describing idol worship (see 1 Cor. 8:4-6). However, while Paul did not believe the pagan gods were real gods, he did believe there were real powers at work in idolatry – demons (1 Cor. 10:19-20).
9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God,
The Galatians escaped the slavery of paganism by knowing (experiencing salvation from) the true God, by His power and initiative (“to be known by God” - see 1 Cor. 8:3).
how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world,
Here Paul uses the same language he did of the Law when speaking about the Jews in 4:3, elementary principles. Remember that this could refer to the rudimentary principles (ABCs), or to the elements (and more broadly the planets, sun, moon, etc), or to the founding principles. Since he is talking about pagans here, it seems to me that the best option is the sun, moon, and stars. Pagans believe that those bodies controlled events and so paid great attention to them (like modern day astrology). And since those bodies also dictated the calendar, this connects with Paul’s statement in the next verse about observing days, seasons and years.
The great irony of this verse is that by turning toward the Law, these Gentiles were turning back from Christ to the weak (unable to provide justification to sinners) and worthless (“in contrast to the richness of divine reality,” Dunn p. 226) principles! The verb here is present tense (“turn”), indicating the departure is in process but not complete.
whose slaves you want to be once more?
As Paul has argued earlier (2:4) and will argue later (4:25), clinging to the Law of Moses led to slavery.
10 You observe days and months and seasons and years!
The Judaizers are trying to force these Gentiles to wear the “yoke” of the Law (Acts 15:10), by insisting on the observance of days (Sabbath), months (the new moon festival - Num. 10:10); and years (the yearly festivals - 1 Chron. 23:31). See Col. 2:16-17).
Proper observance of these days was an important part of orthodox Jewish practice (“And if any one were accused by those of Jerusalem of having eaten things common or of having broken the sabbath, or of any other crime of the like nature, he fled away…” - Josephus, Antiquities 11.346).
They even attracted curious Gentiles (“We have already demonstrated that our laws have been such as have always inspired admiration and imitation into all other men; nay, the earliest Grecian philosophers, though in appearance they observed the laws of their own countries, yet did they, in their actions, and their philosophic doctrines, follow our legislator, and instructed men to live sparingly, and to have friendly communication one with another. Nay, further, the multitude of mankind itself have had a great inclination of a long time to follow our religious observances; for there is not any city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day hath not come, and by which our fasts and lighting up lamps, and many of our prohibitions as to our food, are not observed,” Josephus, Against Apion 2.282).
“Against such a background Paul’s association of the Torah with ‘the elemental forces of the world’ becomes a natural rejoinder on his part: ‘under the law’ = too dependent on the movements of the heavenly bodies” (Dunn, p. 229).
11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
Paul often expressed concern about laboring in vain (as in 1 Thess. 3:5).
12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are.
Paul often asks his churches to follow his example, as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1 etc). But there is a specific sense in which Paul wants the Galatians to follow him. “I also have become as you are.” In 1 Cor. 9:19-20 Paul said that he “became as one outside the law” to win those outside the Law. And in 2:19 he said he died to the Law. So here in Gal. 4:12 he is asking his readers to do as he has, to rely on Christ rather than the Law for standing before God. Peter had done this as well until the men from James caused him to play the hypocrite (2:14).
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,
In what sense did he preach there because of an ailment? Perhaps it was because he ended up there because his plans to go elsewhere were changed due to his ailment, or perhaps there was specific treatment available in the region that he needed. The nature of the “ailment” is unclear. It may have been an illness or an injury. Some has speculated on the basis of passages like 4:15 and 6:11 that Paul had eye problems. And even though Paul was in a weak condition, and a burden to the Galatians, they received him (4:14-15). Contrast this to some in Corinth who disdained Paul because of his weaknesses (2 Cor. 10:10).
but received me as an angel of God,
Angelos means “messenger,” and they Galatians accepted Paul as a genuine messenger of God (compare Acts 14:11-12). Yet Paul’s message should have been rejected if not in line with the original truth he gave (1:8-9).
as Christ Jesus.
“As Christ Jesus” reflects Jesus’ teaching that the one who receives His messengers receives Him (Matt. 10:40; John 13:20).
15 What then has become of your blessedness?
This may refer back to the promise to Abraham that included a blessing by faith. They have moved from the blessedness that came through faith like Abraham’s (3:9).
For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.
This may be a general way of describing sacrificial love, or a specific allusion to Paul’s ailment.
16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?
This is a very emotional question. Paul cannot believe they could now consider him an enemy when they have had such a wonderful relationship, all because he is now telling 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.
By threatening to shut off the Gentiles, these false teachers wanted to make the Gentiles eager to please them to be accepted by them (see 6:13). An alternative interpretation is that the Judaizers were “zealous” for the Galatians to keep the Law, hoping to make them zealous for the Law as well.
18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose,
Again, an alternative interpretation would be that it is good to be “zealous” for a good purpose, but the zeal for the Law was not such a purpose (as in the NIV: “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good”).
and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth
While this letter contains sharp disapproval, it also contains affectionate language such as Paul uses in other letters, like 1 Thess. 2:7, 11. He considers the Galatians his “little children.” In a way, Paul says he is going through labor pains with them! That is, this challenge to their spiritual development is as painful for him as a baby’s development (in the womb) is for a mother. The language of child development also fits into Paul’s overall theme of Israel’s immaturity under the Law (4:1-3).
until Christ is formed in you!
This is the chief goal of Paul’s ministry, and God’s purpose - Christlikeness (cf. 2:20; Col. 1:27; Rom. 8:29).
20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
Like any concerned parent, Paul wishes he could be with them, since he is so perplexed as to how they could have gotten into such a mess so quickly (1:6). Notice, however, his optimism in 5:10.