By Peter Amsterdam
August 1, 2023
In verse 10 of Galatians chapter 1, Paul posed the question of whether he was seeking the approval of man or of God, and stated that if he were trying to please men, he wouldn’t be a servant of Christ. He continued with:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.1
Paul’s teaching wasn’t merely human, but rather had a divine origin. He was probably responding to accusations made about him by his Jewish Christian opponents. They believed that Paul’s gospel was human in nature, that it had no authority or validity; that it was a gospel which pleased people by leaving out some important and essential elements—such as the need to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law.
For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.2
While Paul emphasized that his teaching did not come from human beings, this doesn’t mean that no other believers ever taught Paul anything about Christian belief. His point here is that the central teaching of the gospel was given to him by Jesus on the Damascus road (see Acts 9:1–22). It is likely that he had some understanding of what Christians believed when he was persecuting the church before his conversion. But as an unbeliever, he didn’t understand the message being preached by the Christians and was convinced that the Christian faith endangered the importance of the Mosaic law. It was only after becoming a believer that he understood that belief in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God didn’t threaten Old Testament teaching, but rather fulfilled what the Old Testament taught.
For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.3
Paul refers to his “former life in Judaism” before he met Christ on the road to Damascus, and contrasts this with his life after conversion. He was both called and converted when Christ appeared to him. During his former life, he held to Jewish beliefs and followed its practices as they were codified in the Mosaic law and the Torah. After his conversion, he remained Jewish ethnically, but he no longer took part in Judaism. Some of his Christian opponents believed that faith in Christ included adherence to the Mosaic law; however, Paul vehemently disagreed with this view.4
Paul’s statement about persecuting the church reflects what is written in the book of Acts,5 and elsewhere in his letters.6 This gives further evidence that Paul was both called and converted on the Damascus road.
Before Paul was converted, he believed that persecuting Christians showed his zeal for God.7 He was convinced that Jesus was not the Messiah, and that those who believed that He was were wrong. Therefore, when God revealed Jesus to him while he was traveling to Damascus, he was astonished that his passion had been misdirected and he had been completely wrong about Jesus and His followers.
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.8
Paul was a young and upcoming star in Judaism who was advancing beyond his fellow students. He was a pupil of Gamaliel, who was an influential Pharisee and a member of the highest Jewish council, called the Sanhedrin. (In Acts 5:34 we read of Gamaliel defending Peter and other apostles before the Jewish council that intended to kill them.) As a Pharisee, Paul sought to please God in every area of his life. He was zealous for the Jewish traditions, which meant that he followed the way of life of the Pharisees. He believed that his persecution of Christians showed his commitment to Judaism.
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.9
The change in Paul’s life as he turned from being a persecutor of believers in Christ to being an apostle of Christ came about by the hand of God. There is no reason why he, an active opponent of Jesus and those who believed in Him, would suddenly embrace Him as Lord. Paul refers to Jesus as God’s Son here, as he does seventeen times throughout his letters. Jesus’ sonship implies His preexistence, as well as points to His unique and special relationship to God.
Paul continues to emphasize that his transformation was the work of God, who had destined him from his mother’s womb to be an apostle and who had called him at such a particular time in history. His language here echoes the calling of Isaiah and Jeremiah as prophets. In Isaiah 49 we read: The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name.10 In the book of Jeremiah we read that God said to Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.11
God called Paul by his grace, and that call was effective, as Paul responded. He didn’t volunteer to be an apostle; rather he was summoned by God. His ministry as an apostle was due to the grace of God, who forgave the sins he committed prior to his conversion.
God had called Paul so that he could preach the gospel. He was very conscious of his commission to go to the Gentiles. In the book of Acts we read that a disciple named Ananias received instructions from the Lord, telling him to lay his hands on Paul, who had been struck blind. Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.12 Paul had been persecuting Christians, but that changed when Ananias laid hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized.13
When God called Paul as an apostle and revealed the gospel to him, he did not immediately consult with anyone. He didn’t rush off to ask others about the legitimacy of the revelation. While the false teachers in Galatia questioned the legitimacy of his apostleship, from the onset Paul knew without a doubt that he was called to be an apostle and that he was to preach among the Gentiles.
…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.14
Besides not consulting with anyone, Paul also didn’t rush off to Jerusalem to check the legitimacy of the revelation God had given him by seeking the apostles’ validation. Since he had received his gospel by a revelation from Jesus Christ, he didn’t need others to validate its truth. After spending some time in Damascus, Paul went to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus. Although the book of Acts doesn’t mention Paul’s travels to Arabia, Paul’s letter to the Galatians includes this information.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days.15
Paul preached his gospel for three years before traveling to Jerusalem to meet with the apostle Peter, also known as Cephas, for the first time. With only two exceptions (Galatians 2:7–8), Paul refers to Peter as Cephas, which was his Aramaic name.16
The gospel that Paul taught was not dependent on the apostles, as he had already been proclaiming the good news to the Gentiles in Arabia and Damascus. The three years Paul refers to likely means the years since his conversion, which aligns with the account in Acts 9:26–30 of Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, when Barnabas presented him to the apostles.
Commentators have differing views as to why Paul went to Jerusalem to see Peter. Some say Paul was seeking information from him. Others believe that he went to become acquainted with Peter, with no thought of acquiring information. Either way, the main point is Paul’s independence from Peter in proclaiming the gospel. Paul didn’t go to Peter with the goal of acquiring information about the gospel, as he had received it independently on the road to Damascus.17 However, he probably asked Peter for information about Jesus and was thankful to learn more about His teachings and actions. It’s likely that Peter also learned from Paul regarding what Jesus had taught him on the road to Damascus.
But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.18
Not only did Paul have very limited time with Peter (15 days), he also didn’t see the other apostles, except for Jesus’ brother James. Before Jesus’ death, James and his other brothers Joseph, Simon, and Judas didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. For not even his brothers believed in him.19 When his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”20 However, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, they believed and James became the leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.21 We’re told that Jesus appeared to James after His resurrection.22
Paul goes on to say,
(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)23
This oath, swearing that he is telling the truth, shows the importance of this discussion to Paul. It also shows that the Judaizers were questioning his apostolic authority. Paul uses oaths elsewhere when he wants to point out the importance of what he says or when he thinks the listeners will dispute or doubt what he says.24
Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.25
Paul explained his itinerary to defend the independence of his gospel. He was only in Jerusalem for a short period of time, and he went there three years after his conversion. After this short visit in Jerusalem, he left Palestine and went to Syria and Cilicia. These two regions were a single Roman province at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians. Paul’s travels to Syria and Cilicia align with Acts 9:30. When the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.26 Tarsus was in the region of Cilicia.
And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.27
Paul included this line to emphasize the short time he spent in Jerusalem, and in Palestine in general. He didn’t spend time seeking out others. Most of the believers in Judea didn’t meet or know Paul personally.
They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”28
While not many of the Judean churches saw Paul, they did hear of him, as the report about him went throughout Judea. They had heard that Paul had a dramatic change in his life, going from being a persecutor of Christians to one who proclaimed the gospel.
We’re told that Paul was now preaching the faith, meaning in this context that he was teaching the Christian faith, the “body of doctrine.”
And they glorified God because of me.29
The Judean churches were witnesses to the transformation Paul experienced, even though they didn’t know him personally. They didn’t doubt his conversion or call, nor did they question his experience on the road to Damascus. Rather they praised God for Paul’s conversion. They understood that God deserved the glory, as He was the one who had rescued Paul from the “present evil age.”30
(To be continued.)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Galatians 1:11.
2 Galatians 1:12.
3 Galatians 1:13.
4 Galatians 1:8–9.
5 Acts 7:58–8:3; 9:1–2, 13–14, 21; 22:3–5, 19–20; 26:4–5, 9–11, 14–15.
6 1 Corinthians 15:9; Philippians 3:6; 1 Timothy 1:13–16.
7 Philippians 3:6.
8 Galatians 1:14.
9 Galatians 1:15–16.
10 Isaiah 49:1.
11 Jeremiah 1:5.
12 Acts 9:15.
13 Acts 9:17–18.
14 Galatians 1:16–17.
15 Galatians 1:18.
161 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5, Galatians 2:9, 11, 14.
17 Acts 9:3–19.
18 Galatians 1:19.
19 John 7:5.
20 Mark 3:21.
21 Acts 12:17; 15:13–21; 21:18–25.
22 1 Corinthians 15:7.
23 Galatians 1:20.
24 Romans 1:9; 9:1; 2 Corinthians 1:23; 11:10; 1 Timothy 2:7.
25 Galatians 1:21.
26 Acts 9:30.
27 Galatians 1:22.
28 Galatians 1:23.
29 Galatians 1:24.
30 Galatians 1:4–5.