“I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Galatians 1:11, 12
Have you ever had to defend yourself against those who wished to discredit your account of your life experiences? Have you ever had to defend the testimony of faith from those who believed differently from you? Paul found himself in this situation many times. In this instance, Paul is not defending his testimony so much as he is declaring how he received it. He is assuring the recipients of this letter that his word, his testimony, is trustworthy. They are his faith family and he makes an appeal to them by addressing them very personally as brothers. Paul didn’t receive the message from a person or from a church. He wasn’t taught by one of the apostles or commissioned by the Jerusalem church. Paul received the gospel he preached to them by direct revelation from Jesus himself. That revelation was divine in origin.
Paul, previously known as Saul and a persecutor of followers of the Way, had an encounter with the Lord Jesus on his way to Damascus. Paul was traveling with companions when he heard a voice from heaven call his name. Paul came to the realization that he had encountered the Lord’s Christ. (A retelling of his conversion story is found in Acts 9.) From that moment forward, Paul’s life was radically transformed. Implicit within Paul’s reiteration about how he received the gospel message is that no human would have ever conceived of bringing everyone, Jew and Gentile, into right standing before God. This unique message could only have come from God.
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.” Galatians 1:13-17
When Paul had visited this area previously and shared the gospel message, the Galatians had readily accepted what they heard. He shared with them parts of his testimony of how he became a believer in Jesus Christ. I think by his dramatic testimony he must have inspired others to do the same. In this letter to his converts, Paul reiterates his experience in addition to adding a few extra details. These details concern his early years as a Christian following his conversion on the Damascus road.
Since the earliest converts were originally Jewish ( the Twelve Apostles along with additional male and female followers of Jesus), a line of thinking arose among Jews at large that this burgeoning faith community was just another offshoot sect of Judaism. Christianity, in Paul’s mind, was not an offshoot sect but totally distinct and set apart comprised of Jew and Gentile members by faith.
Paul also wrote of advancing and being zealous for the traditions of his fathers in Galatians 1:14. The verbs that he has chosen are political terms and are very strong in character. “[T]he latter regularly used to refer to “the sacking or destroying or devastating of a city, and the former in this sort of context referring to persecution, not mere pursuit.” When Paul wrote of his actions prior to his conversion, Paul wanted them to understand and see the glorious working of Christ in him after his conversion. He wanted them to see his commitment and devotion to God and how the gospel that he brought to them was truth. “As Hengel says, when one takes these two verbs together one must conclude that Paul used violence or brute force against some Christians. The adverbial phrase may even suggest the use of excessive force leading to the death of some Christians through the zealous taking of the law into his own hands.” Some scholars suggest that Paul, unlike his “mentor Gamaliel (at least as portrayed in Acts 5.33-42 cf. Acts 22.3), was in fact part of the extreme faction of Pharisees.” Before his conversion, Paul was zealous of protecting and maintaining Judaism. He went to extreme lengths to protect the things he believed and held dear. Now, he has become zealous to protect and maintain the faith and gospel of Christ along with his fellow brothers and sisters of the faith.
Paul states that he was set apart from birth for the service of God as a missionary to the Gentiles. This statement might be a play on words by Paul when considering that the word ‘Pharisee’ means a “set apart one.” By stating that he was set apart since birth, Paul underscores that God’s purpose and will has always been for him to serve as preacher to the Gentiles when all else spoke to the contrary. We tend to only look and judge the moment and what is seen before us. Imagine if we had the eyes of God and saw the purpose of someone’s life or our own?
Rather than remain in Damascus following his conversion (Acts 9), Paul tells the Galatians that he left and went to Arabia. Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian during the beginning of the first century A.D., “says that in his day the Nabateans, like the Syrians, were subject to the Romans… , which means this territory was part of a Roman province. This refers to the state of affairs at about the turn of the era, and we know that between about 8 B.C. and somewhere around or shortly before A.D. 37-38 Aretas IV ruled the kingdom of the Nabateans. This territory sometime in the late 30s would seem to have included Damascus, in view of 2 Corinthians 11.32-33…. J. Murphy-O’Connor rightly points to Josephus who makes clear enough that Nabatea was included in Arabia, as is shown by the fact that Petra was called Arabia Petrea (cf. War 5.4.3.; Ant. 18.5.1).” Some suggest Paul went to Arabia to contemplate what had happened to him on the Damascus road and to spend time in prayer and meditation with God. Other scholars suggest that he spent time honing his talent and preaching the gospel to the Gentiles there. Regardless the reason for Paul’s journey and time spent in Arabia, most likely he would have undergone “a thorough resocialization. His symbolic universe was not merely altered, in some respects it was turned upside down.” Dr. Ben Witherington states that “[i]t is impossible to believe that Paul the zealot for the Law and persecutor of the church could ever have taken the attitude that ‘neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters’ without as radical a change in his life as conversion connotes. … The change in Paul’s life involved a fundamental paradigm shift in the life and in the semantic universe of Paul whereby Law is replaced by Christ as the determinative prism through which all must be viewed.”
Paul explained that following his time in Arabia that he returned to Damascus. For Paul, the return to Damascus was the confronting of his past as a persecutor. He had been on his way to persecute the church there when Jesus intervened. Now, he returned to the very people who knew him as persecutor and as the man humbled by Jesus. Paul’s explanation of where he spent his time following his encounter with Jesus only reinforces that his message was true.“Paul’s Gospel of grace is bound up with Paul’s experience of grace and is grounded in the content of God’s revelation of his Son in Paul,”.
“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.” Galatians 1:18-24
The city of Jerusalem is located in the Judaean hills so one must ‘go up’ to arrive in Jerusalem. Once again, Paul would face those he had persecuted and those who would consider him a betrayer of the faith. I can’t imagine the courage and the strength Paul would have needed to place himself in that dangerous situation. He went to visit with Peter who at this time was considered the leader of the Jerusalem church. What did they discuss for fifteen days? Oh, to have been a fly on the wall! We shouldn’t gloss over the fact that Peter offered Paul hospitality. The enemy had become the brother.
James was not one of the original twelve apostles but he is the James mentioned first among Jesus siblings in Mark 6.3. He was not a disciple of Jesus during his earthly ministry but is counted as being a part of the group in the upper room following Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1.12-14). When Peter left Jerusalem to do missionary work, the leadership role of the Jerusalem church fell to James. The references to James in the New Testament suggest that he was the brother of Jesus. Tertullian “the earliest post-canonical writer to commentate on the situation to any degree … he speaks of James and the other brothers as other children of Joseph and Mary.” Other viewpoints regarding the biological background of James are that he was a “son[s] of Joseph by a previous marriage” or a “first cousin” as a child of Alphaeus and Mary of Clopas. J.D.G. Dunn comments that “in the Middle East, the line of inheritance passe[d] horizontally from one brother to another, and so it is quite understandable how after the death of Jesus, the Jerusalem church might look to James for leadership.”
Paul, eventually, traveled to Syria and Cilicia. His hometown of Tarsus was in this region as was the church at Antioch. Antioch served as the capital city of the region. Paul relayed to the Galatians that at that time he had heard reports that his reputation had preceded him. Praise be to God!, this report had been to further illustrate God’s miraculous work in Paul and how the people had embraced him and the gospel. The very goal Paul hoped to accomplish through this letter to the Galatians.