NT, Part 10. Part 3 in our discussion of Galatians.
One of the most intriguing mysteries of the New Testament is the determination of Paul’s “bodily ailment.” We find the most information about this problem in The Letter to the Galatians, but also in 2 Corinthians as well.
When Paul and Barnabas made their first trip across Anatolia, in The Acts of the Apostles, Luke does not mention that Paul was suffering, not only from being stoned and left for dead, but also because of a physical ailment.
Luke was a physician. Perhaps he was overseeing Paul’s treatment, rather than writing about it, preserving doctor – patient confidentiality. The Hippocratic Oath had been in place for centuries and is still held sacred by physicians: to treat the ill to the best of one’s ability, to preserve a patient’s privacy, to teach the secrets of medicine to the next generation, and so on.
In The Letter to the Galatians, which Paul dictated upon his return from the first missionary trip across Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), he stated this about the reality of this “bodily ailment” and how it had impacted that missionary trip. The ailment appeared to involve his eyes and, therefore, his eyesight.
“You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 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. 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” (Galatians 4:13-15 ESV).
The ESV Study Bible note on Galatians 4:13 says: “Because of a bodily ailment . . . I preached the gospel to you. The exact nature of this illness is not known. ‘Because’ apparently means that Paul was detained in Galatia by this illness and therefore took the opportunity to preach to them.” 1
However, there are other possible interpretations, for we know this occurred during a planned missions trip.
The Holman Concise Bible Commentary via Logos states: “He wanted them to know he was concerned for them in their time of spiritual weakness just as they had shown great concern for Paul in HIS EARLIER TIME of physical infirmity. The apostle reminded them how, in initially receiving the gospel from him, the Galatians had honored him and nursed him back to health” 2.
Paul’s First Letters: Galatians and I & II Thessalonians states: “4:13 ‘it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time‘ The mention of a ‘first time’ implies a second time before the letter was written. However, the phrase may idiomatically mean ‘formally’ as in 1 Tim. 1:13. Paul went to the churches of Galatia: (1) for a time of recuperation from some illness, or (2) because of an illness he had to stop and stay a while.”
West of Galatia, a major medical school at Laodicea produced an eye salve called Phyrigian powder. Obtaining this medical treatment, especially since Luke was present, could possibly be how they treated Paul’s eye issue.
Paul and Barnabas went to each of the Galatian churches twice, the first visit when they shared the gospel, and then when they doubled back for a second visit to strengthen, encourage, build up, and appoint elders in the each town. After both visits had occurred and Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch, The Letter to the Galatians was written. Therefore, either 1 & 2 above could apply to that first visit. But #2 seems most likely.
Paul’s First Letters… commentary continues: “I personally believe Paul is alluding to his “thorn in the flesh,” a physical ailment. With the combination of these verses it seems to me that it was some type of eye problem which possibly began with his Damascus Road experience (cf. Acts 9) and was made worse by the diseases of the first century. Paul’s partial blindness may have been caused by the repulsive eye disorder, ophthalmia.”
A Google search revealed that Ophthalmia means “inflammation of the eye”; this is appropriate because it is the total lifelong load of chronic inflammation with acute exacerbations that yields the progressive harvest of needless blindness. (Pictures reveal how bad this is.)
What are the signs and symptoms?
- swelling of lids (may be severe)
- symptoms usually bilateral
- Conjunctival scarring
- Superior corneal pannus
- Permanent visual impairment
If this is how Paul suffered, this was a significant illness that could have been off putting because of the appearance of the illness and the unpleasantness of the treatments. The people in the towns he came to evangelize, meeting him for the first time ever, would have voluntarily helped to care for this man they had just met, who preached the gospel to them, and who stayed a while in their homes. This occurred at a time when sickness was often blamed on evil spirits, so for the Gentile believers to care for Paul showed great faith.The people Paul evangelized in Galatia voluntarily helped to care for this man they had just met, who preached the gospel to them, and who stayed a while in their homes. What does this tell us about their faith? Click To Tweet
Paul testifies to their care in his letter, using their gracious help as a springboard to discuss the issue of their turn toward legalism and away from the faith. The Judaizers who were constantly attempting to convince the Galatians that they needed to keep the Biblical Law of food restrictions and circumcision.
“You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 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. [High praise indeed from Paul!] 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… (Galatians 4:13-15 ESV).
Within the Strong’s definition of “blessedness,” the Koine Greek word makarismós, this note is included about this very situation: “Here Paul is speaking about how in the infirmity of the flesh (probably referring to his poor eyesight) he preached the gospel to the Galatians. That they joyfully received him in that physically weak state is what Paul meant with the word makarismós. Neither their joy nor his was the result of perfect health but in spite of physical weakness and sickness. Makários means to be indwelt by God through the Holy Spirit and, therefore, because of His indwelling to be fully satisfied in spite of the afflictions of life.”
Given all of that and the blessings both bestowed and gained from their service, which carried Paul through a difficult time, he brings up his original topic — his astonishment that they have been so quickly deceived by the Judaizers.
“Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They [the Judaizers] make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you” (Galatians 4:16-20 ESV).
Their relationship was particularly strong, because of the care they had given to Paul. Of course, this makes his astonishment more personal. The fact that they were so easily deceived was hard for Paul to fathom. Within this letter, we see the personal nature and affection that Paul has in his heart for the Galatians. Paul is a precise theologian, but he is also a man of deep affection for those he has introduced to Jesus.
In one portion of the letter Paul himself wrote in large handwriting, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). In this way he made clear that he had authored the letter, even if his scribe had recorded Paul’s dictation of the rest. Large letters seem to confirm Paul’s eye ailment.
The Gospel had shone through the darkness of even Paul’s difficult physical impediment and all that went into caring for him, and yet, the Galatians had displayed genuine love, evidence of their newfound love for Jesus Christ.
All of the churches had been solidly anchored in Christ before the Judaizers arrived to shatter their faith. Paul writes to urge them to return to their first love, to the grace and the joy they felt when first relieved of their weight of sin.
Nothing more needs to be added to our faith. Good works don’t save us. Legalism doesn’t save us. The Holy Spirit works out our transformation with tenderness and grace, guiding us toward faith in Christ, not toward rigidly applied rules.Good works don't save us. Legalism doesn't save us. The Holy Spirit works out our transformation with tenderness and grace, guiding us toward faith in Christ, not toward rigidly applied rules. Click To Tweet
Have you ever been affiliated with rigid legalists? Have you been led by them? Have you created your own legalism? If so, how did this impact your faith? Did you ever suffer a period of physical illness or impediment that caused you to doubt your faith? Or have you faced a period of physical trial that caused your faith to grow?Have you ever been affiliated with rigid legalists? Have you been led by them? Have you created your own legalism? If so, how did these impact your faith? Click To Tweet
What application to your own life do you see in this account? Have you suffered and required the help of other believers? How did they respond?
 ESV Study Bible, Galatians 4:13 note, Crossway Bibles, Wheaton, Illinois. 2008.
 Dockery, D. S. (1998). The Pauline Letters. In D. S. Dockery (Ed.), Holman concise Bible commentary (pp. 571–572). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Utley, R. J. (1997). Paul’s First Letters: Galatians and I & II Thessalonians (Vol. Volume 11, p. 47). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.