I said it before and I’m saying it again. When we study a book in the Bible, just like Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we must let the author tell us what he wants us to know about himself. The author will decide what is necessary to know. Paul’s conversion testimony in verses 15-16 is one indication that he wants us to know about how it happened and how he received from the Lord Jesus Christ the gospel message that he’s now proclaiming. So it is only natural to look for when was Paul converted and from whom did he actually received the revelation he’s referring to in verse 12 somewhere else(Acts 9:4-6 and Acts 26:14-18).
Now, ch. 1:17-24 and ch. 2:1-21, similarly, point us back to the book of Acts in order for us to have an understanding of the historical context. As we can see that most of his arguments from here forward hangs on a sequence of events. So it’s crucial to know what happened after Paul was converted because he said in verse 17 that “immediately I went away into Arabia and returned again to Damascus”.
Here’s a helpful time-table of his ministry starting from his conversion.
Having these historical context in mind we come now to our passage in Galatians 1:18-24 and ask how does it give support to his primary contention that he was a slave of Christ and therefore he was not trying to please men by preaching a man made gospel. To put it another way; how does it help Paul in arguing for his apostolic authority.
We saw from verses 10 that to be a true slave of Christ, you must seek to please God and not men and what pleases God according to verses 15-16 is to reveal Christ to Paul so that he might preach him among the gentiles.
We also saw from verse 12 that his gospel came not from human agency or origin but by a direct revelation from Christ.
So my aim is to answer the following questions:
1) How did Paul demonstrate his fellowship with the other apostles and still maintain that his message came from Christ?
2) How did Paul demonstrate the correlation between the preaching of the Gospel and the pleasure of God?
Paul painstakingly stressed in verse 10 that his gospel did not come from men but a direct revelation from Jesus Christ. But how does verses 18-20 support that claim?
After three years
Verse 18 starts off with an adverb “then” or “afterwards”, connecting it to what was said before. Paul had just been converted and immediately he preached for a time in Damascus then went away to Arabia and returned for a second time to Damascus to minister there(Galatians 1:17, Acts 9:19-23). But only after three years from his conversion did he went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, one of the original twelve apostles. Now the purpose of that visit was to get acquainted with the apostles. The greek verb for “visit” in this passage means not only to become acquainted with but also to get information from someone(NET). Some have translated the word as merely “to visit”(ESV) or “to become acquainted”(NASB). Perhaps because it would seem to undermine Paul’s argument that he did not receive the gospel from any man, not even from the original apostles if he indeed went to get some information from them. But it is inconceivable as C.H. Dodd has rightly put it, that Paul and Cephas spent fifteen days discussing the weather. Paul’s argument does not hang on whether he received some information from them or not. Rather he already made it clear from verses 17-18 that he had been preaching about the gospel long before he met the apostles.
So what was Paul’s intention in giving this account then?
I assure you that before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you
If Paul was to tell the story of his conversion and ministry, he must do so with complete honesty. He gave them a truthful account even though it might be misinterpreted to mean that he went to Jerusalem in order to receive and learn the gospel from the apostles. He did visit Peter to get some information from him, but which information we are not told. So one of his enemies then might say that he learned the gospel from them after all and that he was just a second hand apostle.
But Paul already established in verses 18-19 that it’s highly improbable given that he only stayed there for fifteen days and that he only met Peter and James the brother of our Lord. In fact we can see from Acts 9:26-30 that in the span of fifteen days he doesn’t have enough time to be trained. Instead he only preached boldly about the Lord immediately and debated some of the Hellenist in Jerusalem.
So he said in verse 20 that he’s not lying about what he’s writing to them. Meaning, yes it is true that Paul went to Peter in order to get some information, but it doesn’t negate his claim for independence from the other apostles. We can see his sincerity from his unmodified narration of events.
Many of us would lie even just a little bit for the sake of the “greater good”, but Paul would have none of it. If he was to be trusted about the gospel, he must always tell the truth, and he did just that. Even if the truth might in the mind of others discredit him. In the final analysis he only have God as his witness.
One commentary said; Paul’s description of his own life is honest and even potentially damaging. Paul knew that the Judaizers would get to read this letter and that they would scrutinize every detail about his description of his relationship to Jerusalem. If Paul distorted the facts, they would pounce on them and pronounce him a liar; and that distortion would forever jeopardize the integrity of Paul’s gospel. Paul knew he had to be honest. And that is why he brings up the matter of having been in Jerusalem and having consulted with Peter and James. We can imagine that at that very point in his letter the Judaizers would have jumped up and said, “That is the information we need. Paul was in Jerusalem and at that point he got his gospel from the leaders.” It would have been best for Paul if he had never even been to Jerusalem and if he had never met any of the apostles. But Paul will tell the story truthfully, even if he has to work hard to get the Galatians to realize that, though he did visit Jerusalem, he did not get his gospel from the leaders there.
Since being a God pleaser was one of the qualifications for servitude under Chirst according to verse 10, and what pleases God was the revelation of his Son to an undeserving sinner like Paul in order that he might preach Christ based on verses 15-16, therefore how does then the pleasure of God and the fulfillment of his purpose correlate? How does God get pleasure from the preaching of Christ? Let’s see how Paul pleased God.
then I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia
After his short visit in Jerusalem Paul went to Syria and Cilicia, that is, to Tarsus, his hometown. Tarsus was where Paul’s family lived. He stayed there for the next nine to eleven years, preaching the Gospel in season and out of season. Now remember that he’s not yet known in person to many and was not yet able to meet the rest of the apostles. He moved to these areas due to attempts on his life (Acts 9:26-30). Therefore we can conclude that he had no further contact with apostles and other church leaders.
Unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ
What is remarkable though in his rehearsal of events following his Jerusalem visit was his focused on what’s being said about him not from Tarsus but from Judea. He’s unknown to them personally but the transformation God did to him was already known to them.
They were only hearing that the one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.
Paul’s mention of his previous life as persecutor highlights God’s grace and power to transform sinners into God appointed means to fulfill God appointed purposes. Namely the preaching of the Gospel. And because of that, the people were glorifying God through him or because of him.
So how did Paul pleased God? Or how does the fulfillment of God’s purposes please God? Answer:
1) He pleased God in so far as he proclaim the gospel that highlights the glorious grace of God. That’s the only kind that would bring glory to God and so pleases Him.
2) Paul was so transformed by God that other people were glorifying God because of him. This of course does not mean that they were praising God for something that is inherent to Paul. Instead it means that because of God’s transforming work in the life of Paul, they have an occasion to glorify God.
3) When God’s purposes comes to pass it brings glory and pleasure to him. Therefore preaching another gospel, namely a gospel of works cannot please God because it robs Him of His glory. God’s purpose is that the Son and his salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works of the law might be preached. And when we deviate from that, we are not pleasing God.
How does then these two supporting arguments for Paul’s apostolic authority apply to us?
The common error in making applications of any passages from scriptures, most specifically narratives was to jump immediately to secondary applications. It is true that as Christians we should imitate Paul in his honesty when giving an autobiography, but that’s not the primary application from verses 18-20.
It is also true that we, like Paul, share some similarities in our conversion stories and that we should worship God for his grace in us, but again that’s just a secondary application.
Remember that this serves as an argument for Paul’s contention in verse 10, that he’s not a man pleaser and therefore a slave of Christ and as result he doesn’t have any motive to please men because his message came as a direct revelation from Christ and therefore independent from the other apostles.
So before we see ourselves in the shoes of Paul, we must look through the perspective of the Galatian believers first and ask ourselves; “Do we really trust this man and his gospel, and do we really believe that he speaks on behalf of our Lord?”
Therefore his claim for independence implies that we are to believe and trust what Paul wrote in his letters just as we believe Peter’s or James’. His words are the very words of Christ. Yes including both simple passages and the hard to understand ones as Peter would put it in 2 Peter 3:16. Many today, even though they would affirm Paul’s authority, they seem to deny it by (1)not giving equal diligence in studying such hard passages, and (2)that we deny it by not letting the authoritative apostle speak for himself.
Lastly, we can now look through Paul’s perspective. Do we live our lives in such a way that it serves as a means to highlight God’s transforming grace and cause others to glorify Him? What should be our primary concern, our renown or God’s fame?
If you are looking to establish a name for yourself, and so be known to many, you will always seek for the approval of men. But if you are seeking to glorify God, even if it means anonymity, then you are indeed seeking the approval of God