Galatians 1:13-14 – For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And 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.
Paul planted several churches in the region of Galatia, preaching the gospel message of justification by faith in the shed blood of Christ.
But after he moved on to strengthen the other churches, false teachers came and began to teach/preach a false gospel to the Galatians. These Pharisees insisted that grace was not complete in itself; that a combination of works (circumcision, food laws, observing the Sabbath, etc) and the blood of Christ were required for salvation.
The Galatians are now faced with a dilemma – who is teaching the truth?
The Pharisees insisted they were teaching correct doctrine. They went so far as to cast aspersions on the apostleship of Paul by saying that his position was given to him by church leaders and therefore he had no real authority. If that were true, then his doctrine was false.
Paul refutes those claims proving to the Galatians that his commission to preach the gospel and the gospel itself were not given to him by man, but by Jesus himself.
His first proof is his former conduct as a Jewish religious leader, and his hatred of Christians.
When Paul mentions his ‘former life in Judaism’, he was referring to publicly known facts: He was a Jew with a provable lineage in the tribe of Benjamin. In other words, he was not a Samaritan (half Jew), or a proselyte. He spent his life observing the Mosaic Law to the best of his ability. He had decided to become a Pharisee. He vigorously pursued this office, and he was on the fast track to be a high-ranking religious leader.
Notice that Paul makes a special point that he is ‘zealous for the traditions’ of his fathers. What does that mean?
The Jews believed that the Law of God as given to them by Moses was sacred. This Law was contained within the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Pentateuch. When the Jews broke or disregarded the Law and turned away from God they were sent into exile. Obviously, they didn’t want that to happen again.
So when they returned from the exile, the leading men of the nation began to make a series of rules and regulations that were originally meant to create a hedge around the law. The theory was that if you kept the rules, you would never be in danger of breaking the law.
That sounds like a good idea, but it didn’t work. The traditions of the elders eventually wound up contradicting the very laws of God they were originally meant to protect!
Matthew 15:2-6 – Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he [Jesus] answered and said unto them [the Pharisees], Why do you also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? But you say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift devoted to God, whatsoever you might have received from me; and honors not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have you made the commandment of God void by your tradition.
There were literally hundreds of these traditions/rules. In the beginning, they were largely oral in nature. They would have been passed down from father to son, and from the older Pharisees to newer recruits (like Paul). To learn all of these largely oral rules would have taken a great amount of time and study. You would have to be really, really dedicated to the law to take the time to learn and practice them. (Later, around 200 AD these rules were eventually written down and became a Jewish book called the Mishnah.)
Being ‘zealous for the traditions of his fathers’ is further proof of how dedicated and committed Paul was to the Jewish law. It is easy to see that Paul had fully and completely invested his entire life in Judaism.
A further proof of his dedication to Judaism was his persecution of Christians. He was relentless in his pursuit of those he judged to be blaspheming the Law. His goal was to waste away or totally annihilate the church of Jesus.
Acts 8:3 – But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
What kind of an event could possible make a man like Paul suddenly abandon Judaism for Christianity? What could change him from a persecutor to the one who endured persecution himself? What could make him give up his position as a rising star in the Jewish religious hierarchy (along with all of its political, social and financial benefits) and become a man hated by his fellow Jews?
A sudden, dramatic change like that would only occur if God had intervened to cause the change.
Galatians 1:15-16 – 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, I did not immediately consult with anyone;
Paul recognizes that God had called him for an important kingdom role (to be an apostle), before he was even born! I believe this is true of every Christian. God has plans and purposes for each one of us from our very birth.
Because Paul was so steeped in the practice of the law and knew so much about the traditions of the Jews, he was uniquely qualified to argue for grace as the fulfillment of the law. In like manner God equips and trains us too. He gives us the right talents and the exact amount of intelligence we will need to fulfill our purpose. He allows circumstances into our lives which will further be used to train or shape us.
There is a very important point to be made here. Even though a person is a vile sinner today, blaspheming God and persecuting the church, it does NOT mean that God has not called him/her to an important work for his service. Once they allow Jesus into their lives, anything is possible!
Jeremiah 1:5 – Before I [God] formed you [Jeremiah] in the womb I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb I sanctified you, and I ordained you a prophet unto the nations.
This also means that we should pray for the lost all the more, so that they too will have an encounter with Christ and be totally changed just as Paul was.
The second important point to be made is that this conversion experience occurs according to God’s perfect time. God did not call Paul until after he spent years attaining the knowledge he needed. God did not call Moses until he had been educated and equipped by the best minds in Egypt. God didn’t call Peter to fish for men until he had learned to fish for fish! So don’t give up praying for your loved one. Even though they seem far from God, they may just be getting ready for service!
Galatians 1:17 – 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.
Paul’s third point regarding his calling as a true apostle is his actual conversion experience. On the way to Damascus to further persecute the church, God spoke to Paul and revealed to him that Jesus was the true Messiah. During that encounter, Jesus himself called Paul to the office of apostle and qualified him to preach the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.
The significant thing is what Paul did NOT do after his conversion. He did NOT go up to Jerusalem to consult with the other 12 disciples. He did NOT go to them to be trained in the gospel message. In other words, he did NOT receive his authority or his doctrine from these men.
Instead, Paul withdrew from public scrutiny to the region of Arabia/Damascus for three years. It is generally agreed that Holy Spirit further revealed the wisdom and truth of the gospel message to him during that time. And again, because Paul knew so much about the law, he was especially prepared to argue the finer points of the law with his fellow Jews. He was able to debate in a manner that uneducated fisherman could not.
It should be noted that no disrespect is intended towards the other apostles; Paul was appointed to his office by the same authority that appointed the other twelve. Paul’s point is merely that they were not his teachers.
Galatians 1:18-19 – Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.
Let’s talk about the time frame for a moment. As we learned in our study of the book of Matthew, the Jews reckoned time in a slightly different manner than we do.
Let’s suppose that a Jewish person began a task in December 2020, the last month of our year. The task was completed in seven months – it was over the final day of June, 2021. In our culture, we would say the task took 7 months.
But in the Jewish culture, if the task began in December of one year (2020) and continued on through June of the next year (2021), then technically it happened in two separate years. They would commonly have said the task took two years.
There’s a pretty big difference between 7 months and two years, yet both calculations are accepted ways of marking time. So when Paul says he was away from Jerusalem for three years, it could have been much less than 36 full months.
Regardless of the actual time frame, we know that Paul began to preach Jesus in the synagogues. He confounded the reasoning of the Jews, proving through the law that Jesus was the Messiah.
Acts 9:22 – But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who dwelt at Damascus, proving that this one is the very Christ.
In fact, his message was so logical and irrefutable that the Pharisees decided to kill him, just to shut him up. His followers resorted to lowering him over the city wall in a basket so he could escape (Acts 9:22-25).
Only after this period of learning from Holy Spirit and functioning in his apostolic office, did Paul go to Jerusalem to meet/visit Peter. The root meaning of the Greek word for ‘visit’ is ‘to become personally acquainted’, which is consistent with a visit of 15 days. Clearly, Paul was not there to receive religious training from Peter. In truth, Paul knew as much about the Jewish religion as Peter did (if not more), and he had received the doctrine of grace from the same source as Peter – Jesus Christ.
Paul also admits to meeting another apostle in Jerusalem – James. As we know, there were two apostles named James (Matthew 10:2-3). There was James, son of Zebedee and brother of John. This James was the first of the 12 to be martyred. He was killed by Herod (Acts 12:2).
There was also James son of Alphaeus who was a cousin/kinsman of Jesus. The majority believe it is James son of Alphaeus, who is referred to in this passage of scripture. He is also sometimes referred to as ‘James the less’ probably because he was younger than James son of Zebedee.
Galatians 1:20 – (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)
Here Paul is making an oath before God that the facts he has relayed to the Galatians are true.
Oaths are not something that should be generally used by Christians. Jesus advises us to let our ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and our ‘no’ simply be ‘no’, because anything else stems from evil (Matthew 5:37).
However, in this particular case, it is needful. Paul has asserted that he had a direct encounter with Jesus in which he received his apostleship. He also says that he spent time in Arabia/Damascus being taught by Holy Spirit and operating in his apostolic ministry. He further claims that he spent only 15 days with Peter and James.
Do you see the problem? There were no witnesses to what had transpired between God and Paul. The witness of Peter or James (or any of the believers in Damascus) would also be somewhat difficult to acquire, because in those days you would have to travel from Galatia to Jerusalem (or Damascus), find the person/witness and have him either write a letter or travel back with you to Galatia. That was not likely to happen.
So appealing to God (or making an oath) was the only way for Paul to affirm the truth of what he was telling the Galatians.
Further, the importance of the truth Paul was affirming (his authority and doctrine) was critical to the message he was preaching. So in this particular case, the oath was necessary.
Galatians 1:21-22 –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.
Paul traveled from Arabia/Damascus to Jerusalem. At first the believers were afraid of him, but Barnabas vouched for his true conversion and he then went about freely in Jerusalem preaching the message of the gospel.
But he quickly encountered resistance to the gospel message – once again some Jews rejected his message and eventually tried to kill him. When the church found out, they sent him to Tarsus of Cilicia to preach the word in that city (Acts 9:22-30 and Acts 1:25-26).
The end result was that he was virtually unknown to the churches in Judea (the region around Jerusalem). This shows that his gospel message was not influenced by any teachings of these churches either; the gospel was given to him directly via Holy Spirit.
Galatians 1:23-24 – 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.
Paul didn’t just reject Christianity and walk away. He diligently and purposefully worked to destroy the Christian faith by persecuting anyone he could find that professed belief in Jesus as Messiah. It is clearly evident that the change in his life (from persecutor to apostle) could only have been made by the grace of God.
This indeed is cause for rejoicing and giving praise to God for his mercy and grace. If a sinner like Paul can be saved, then we have hope that our loved ones can be also be changed by that same grace. As the old hymn says, the blood will never lose its power!
Let me offer you some encouragement:
Do you have a friend or loved one that seems diametrically opposed to the gospel message? Besides rejecting the gospel, do they also persecute or mock Christianity/Christians?
If so, don’t give up hope. If the gospel can change Paul, the ‘chief sinner’ of his day, it can also change your loved one. Sometimes we pray and pray for an individual and it looks like nothing is happening, but we can be assured that God wants to save them. With his infinite wisdom, Holy Spirit will bring godly conviction upon them at the exact right time.
Let me offer you some relief and some strength:
Paul acknowledges that God had called him to be an apostle from birth. What has God called you to do?
Sometimes, we think that we must be involved in religious ministry in order to be used of God, but that isn’t true. God has ordained Christians to excel in all walks of life, like teaching, science, politics, art, music, sports, etc. So find the talents God has given you, and use them for his glory, no matter what category they fall into!