Epistles: Paul Describes His Conversion (Galatians 1:11-24)


Paul’s commission from God

To support his point, and to show that the opponents were not telling the truth, Paul tells his story, particularly his relationship with the apostles. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us many more details, but this is Paul’s own description of what happened.[6] “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel” (v. 11). Paul is here responding to his opponents.

“For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12). It was not just a revelation from Christ — it was Christ being revealed to Paul (v. 16). Paul saw Christ, and that required a re-evaluation of everything that Paul had believed. Based simply on that appearance of Jesus, Paul could have understood quite a bit:

Jesus has been resurrected into glory, so he must be God’s Anointed, the Messiah. But I was persecuting his people! If zeal for the law caused me to persecute God’s people, something must be seriously wrong in my use of the law. Not only that, I was an enemy of God, and yet God spared me — I was accepted by grace, not by careful observance of the law.[7] And the Messiah did not bring political blessings, so the salvation that he brought was a spiritual one — one available to Gentiles as well as Jews.

But this is getting ahead of the story. Here’s the way Paul tells it: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (v. 13). They already knew the story, but Paul tells it here to highlight certain facts, and to present himself as a model they could imitate. If someone had been there, done that, and found it deficient, then maybe it would not be wise for the Galatians to adopt a law-based approach to religion.

“I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers” (v. 14). Paul had viewed Judaism as a “performance” religion, in which some people did better than others, and he did particularly well. Following the example of Phineas, Elijah, and Mattathias, his zeal for the law caused him to persecute people who were leading others astray (see Numbers 25:6-18; 1 Kings 19:10; and 1 Maccabees 2:23-26, 58).[8] This is one of the ways in which he worked harder than other people his age. According to their standards, he had everything going for him (see Philippians 3:4-6). But he gave it up:

“But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” (Galatians 1:15-16). The basic components of Paul’s calling are God’s grace, Jesus Christ the Son of God in him[9], and the mission to the Gentiles.

Received through a revelation

Paul’s message had its origin in God, not in the apostles. “I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (vv. 16-17). Paul spent several days with Ananias and the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9:19), and they no doubt told him what they knew about Jesus.

Paul’s point is not that he didn’t talk to anyone, but that he did not ask anyone to tell him what to preach. The opponents in Galatia may have been trained by apostles, but Paul was not. And that’s good — the apostles did not yet know that God was calling Gentiles into his family, and if they had heard Paul talk about a Gentile mission, they probably would have tried to talk him out of it!

Paul does not tell us where in Arabia he went, or what he did there. If he began to preach in Damascus, then he may have preached in Arabia, too, perhaps in Nabatea, southeast of Judea. Jesus told him to preach to the Gentiles, so he probably did.

“Then after three years,[10] I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter’s Aramaic name] and remained with him fifteen days” (Galatians 1:18). Peter no doubt told him as much as he could about Jesus, but it was not a training session in which Peter told Paul what he should preach. Paul is stressing his independence.

“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)” (vv. 19-20). Paul’s insistence that he is not lying indicates that he is responding to accusations — that he was an agent of the apostles. Paul’s opponents claimed an equal authority, so they tried to “flesh out” Paul’s message with more details. They have my story wrong, Paul says, and they have the gospel wrong, too.

Paul explained that he left the area: “Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (vv. 21-22). Antioch is the most likely location in Syria, and Tarsus in Cilicia. Paul’s main point is that he did not stay in Judea. Jesus had not sent him to Judea either to preach or to put himself under the apostles’ authority.

Paul’s only relationship with the Judean churches was that they heard about him: “They only were hearing it said, ‘He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God because of me” (vv. 23-24). So Paul abandoned his pursuit of Jewish traditions, and began to preach another faith, the one we call Christianity. The Judean Jewish Christians had not brought this about, but they were in substantial agreement with Paul’s conversion and the faith that he preached.

Things to think about

  • Was there ever a point in my life when I persecuted or belittled the gospel? (v. 13)
  • Does God reveal his Son in me? (v. 16)
  • Have I turned away from a law-based religion to trust the grace of Christ?

Endnotes:

[6]Historians generally prefer first-person accounts, and some biblical scholars are skeptical of Luke’s accuracy, but we would scarcely be able to reconstruct a history of Paul’s travels from the letters alone. Luke tells us several important facts that Paul does not: that he was from Tarsus, that he was a Roman citizen, and that he was converted while on his way to Damascus.

[7] Three further lines of thought could have told Paul that the laws of Moses had come to the end of their validity. First, the resurrection of Jesus into glory indicated that the end of the age had come, and the law of Moses was not designed for the new age. 2) Since forgiveness is available without temple rituals, a large chunk of the Mosaic covenant had no purpose, calling into question the entire package. 3) The laws of Moses were not given to Gentiles, and never applied to Gentiles, and it would not make sense for salvation to be more difficult for Jews than it would be for Gentiles.

[8] What caused Paul to persecute the early Christians? Several Jews claimed to be the Messiah, both before and after Jesus, and that was apparently not considered blasphemous in itself. Three things may have angered Paul: 1) the claim that a crucified person was honored by God, when the law says such a person is accursed, 2) at least some of the Christians were perceived as being against the law (cf. Acts 6:11), and 3) the Christians were giving Jesus honors that belonged only to God. The biblical connection between violence and zeal for the law suggests that Paul saw the Jesus-disciples as violators of the law and a threat to the nation’s covenant relationship with God. 

[9] Paul does not say that God revealed his Son to Paul, but in Paul. In Paul’s work and sufferings, God continued to reveal his Son in Paul.

[10] The chronology isn’t clear. Did Paul stay in Arabia for three years, then go to Jerusalem by way of Damascus — or did he have a short stay in Arabia and then lived in Damascus three years? N.T. Wright suggests that he went to Mt. Sinai, then to Damascus, following the example of Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-15). The book of Acts says nothing about this three years.

Author: Michael Morrison

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