Around 40 CE, as the good news of Jesus spread and was being preached and welcomed among people who were not Jews, the question arose as to whether a person must obey the Law of Moses in order to be a true Christian. Paul, who had already established a Christian church in Galatia, argued that this was not necessary—that in fact, the only sound basis for life in Christ was faith, by which all are put right with God. But, among the churches of Galatia, a Roman province in Asia Minor, there arrived a group of Jewish Christians from Jerusalem who went about persuading Paul’s male converts that they needed to be circumcised as Jews in order to become full members of the Christian Church. They opposed Paul, and claimed that one must also observe the Law of Moses in order to be right with God.
Paul was incensed by this turn of events and immediately took decisive action. His letter to the Galatians was written in order to bring back to true faith and practice to those people who were being misled by this false teaching. Paul begins by defending his right to be called an apostle of Jesus Christ, and he insists that his call to be an apostle came from God, not from any human authority, and that his mission was especially to non-Jews, referred to as Gentiles.
(13) “You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it…” here Paul refers to his earlier devotion to the Jewish religion, when he mercilessly persecuted the church of God and did his best to destroy it. In Paul’s well known public defence, before a violent multitude in Jerusalem (Acts 22), and before Agrippa (Acts 26), it is more than likely the Galatians already heard of his former behaviour directly from his own lips.
“Of my earlier life…” It is important for Paul to again stress his previous experience and in particular his behaviour. And the reason for him to have made such a substantive behavioural change, as outlined in his “defence” (Acts 22:1-5), and his “conversion” on the road to Damascus where Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him directly (Acts 22: 6-16). Paul is well known for the potency and forcefulness of his arguments, and here he wants to make it perfectly clear he is no lightweight and one to be taken seriously.
(14) “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” His zeal resulted in him being superior to most of fellow Jews his age, and he was forceful in the practice of the Jewish religion. In the beginning of his letter, he leaves no doubts about his past, and no doubt about his superior performance as a devout Jew. Paul’s loyalty demonstrated itself in his attempts to destroy the Christian church, “For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9; Phil 3:6).
Paul claimed “I advanced in Judaism,” whilst known as Saul, and he saw his contemporaries as competitors to his own objectives, and that he was more willing to pay the price than they were for success. Studying under the well-respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), Saul (later Paul) mastered the Torah and the entire Jewish law, taking his place as a Pharisee. Saul, like many others, was exceedingly zealous in the practice of his Jewish religion.
(15) “But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased…” From his hardliner position in Judaism, there is an abrupt turnabout, Paul is called through God’s grace to his new vocation, as proclaimer of the gospel of Christ (Rom 10:2).
Set me apart before I was born… Paul claimed he had been destined for the call by God that antedated his very existence. OT Scriptures record similar language
“…the Lord called me before I was born…” (Isa 49:1), and “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…” (Jer 1:5). Paul claims, like these two earlier prophets, he was summoned by the grace of God, and assigned as an apostle of Christ.
Paul’s experience and testimony was that he alone, of all the Pharisees in Israel in his day, was given the call on the road to Damascus, and the divine rationale “…he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…” (Acts 9:15). “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:16). While Paul’s appointment was through God’s grace, the existence of grace did not imply existence without obligation, and Paul manfully embraced this substantive change in his life, and attendant obligations.
(16) “… to reveal his son to me so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being.” Paul’s is already an apostle by virtue of having “seen Jesus our Lord” (1Cor 9:1). Furthermore, the phrase “…to reveal his son…” implies that a divine decision was made for Paul to be an apostle. As well, Paul already believed the Spirit of Christ was within him, and that God was ready to reveal it. The indwelling of the Spirit of Christ is a phenomenon that Paul taught, and he maintains is shared by everyone who believes (Romans 8:9).
“I did not confer…” As Paul’s calling was directly from God, he had no need to consult with human agents on the tasks of apostleship. He is explicit in saying, “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin” (Gal 1:11-12). Other references of divine inspiration coming directly from God, and not from “flesh and blood” are noted in Mat 16:17; John 1:12-13; 1 Cor 15:50; Eph 6:12.
(17) “…nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once to Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” On receiving the divine summons, Paul did not feel compelled to go up to Jerusalem, as he was already able to preach Christianity. Other than the public disagreement over Gentiles required to comply with Jewish law, Paul felt in harmony with the traditional apostles of Jesus. These apostles had had extensive exposure to Jesus of Nazareth over several years, and Paul states “…for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:12). And Paul was mindful of the impact and critical importance of such a statement “… In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie” (Gal 1:20).
“I went away at once…” One can speculate on Paul’s need to go away, maybe somewhere for quiet and solitude, to reflect on the magnitude of his summons, a retreat, or for time to formulate a plan of action.
Paul outlines his background as a devout Jew, and a Pharisee who mercilessly persecuted Christians and worked toward destroying the church of God. His zeal and devotion to Judaism, resulted in him advancing ahead of his contemporaries, and that he was a staunch supporter and adherent to the long- established practices and traditions of the Jewish leaders.
His early behaviour sets the stage for a complete turnabout in his life, when on the road to Damascus, he experienced a “conversion” wherein Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him directly. As Paul’s calling was directly from God, he had no sense of need to consult with fellow humans on the tasks of apostleship, as he received it all in the ‘revelation’ from Jesus Christ. While his appointment as an apostle was through God’s grace, the existence of grace did not imply existence without obligation. And Paul diligently and forcefully embraced this new obligation.