Salutation, 1-5

1:1 From Paul, an apostle (not from men, nor by human agency, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead) 1:2 and all the brothers with me, to the churches of Galatia. 1:3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 1:4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father, 1:5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen.

An Apostle – sent not from men not by man – Already, in this unusual introduction, we sense that something is wrong. This is confirmed by the time we reach v6. So, he is here concerned to establish his authority as a divinely-appointed apostle.

But by Jesus Christ and God the Father – On Paul’s commissioning to be an apostle, cf. Acts 9:1-18; 1 Cor 9:1.

More than a salutation

As John Stott points out in The Cross of Christ (p340f), vv3-5 contain not merely a salutation, but a carefully-balanced statement about the cross and salvation.  Here we learn that

  1. The death of Jesus was both voluntary and determined.  He freely ‘gave himself for our sins’, and yet this self-giving was ‘according to the will of our God and Father’.  The Father had willed it, and the Son freely embraced it.
  2. The death of Jesus was for our sins.  Throughout Scripture, sin and death are integrally related.  But here, however, although the sins are our, the death is Christ’s.  He died for our sins, bearing their penalty in our place.
  3. The purpose of Jesus’ death was to rescue us.  ‘Salvation is a rescue operation, undertaken for people whose plight is so desperate that they cannot save themselves.’  Specifically, he died to rescue us ‘from this present age’, and to transfer us into the new age which he has inaugurated.
  4. The present result of Jesus’ death is grace and peace.  ‘Grace’ is unmerited favour’, and ‘peace’ is the reconciliation with God and one another that grace brings.
  5. The eternal result of Jesus’ death is that God will be glorified.  ‘Grace comes from God; glory is due to God: the whole of Christian theology is encapsulated in that epigram.’

All the brothers with me – Carolyn Osiek (Women’s Bible Commentary) regards this address as ‘a good illustration of the male-centered worldview of the New Testament writers.’  This worldview is compounded, she says, by non-inclusive translations.  But she thinks that Paul actually means ‘brothers’ here.  She finds such terminology ‘pervasive’ in places such as Gal. 1:11; 2:4; 4:12, 31; 5:11, 13; 6:1.  Osiek judges that ‘in the minds of the male writers and readers, including Paul, women are simply marginal to social communication and interaction and therefore need not be specifically addressed. The grammatical practice was that masculine language applied to women as well as to men because most women belonged to the social group solely as extensions of their male protective figures (e.g., fathers or husbands). Including women on such terms was generally the practice in the New Testament world and continues to be so in more traditional societies. Although in other settings Paul demonstrates awareness and even appreciation of individual women (e.g., Phil. 4:2–3; Rom. 16:1–7, 12, 15), this does not change his habitual language or his habitual social perceptions.’

To rescue us from the present evil age – ‘Such as are redeemed by Christ are risen with Christ, Col 3:1:As birds that light upon the ground to pick up a little seed, immediately fly up to heaven again; so the redeemed of the Lord use the world, and take the lawful comforts of it, but their hearts are presently off these things, and they ascend to heaven. They live here, and trade above. Such as Christ has died for are ‘dead to the world;’ to its honours, profits, and preferments. What shall we think of those who say they are redeemed of the Lord, and yet are lovers of the world? They are like the tribes who desired to have their portion on this side Canaan. ‘Who mind earthly things.’ Php 3:19. They pull down their souls to build up an estate. They are not redeemed by Christ, who are not redeemed from the world.’ (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity)

Jesus rescues us from the powers of the present age

‘In giving himself “for our sins,” Christ rescues us from the powers of “the present evil age.” (Gal 1:4) he “disarmed the powers and authorities” by snatching from them the record of lawbreakers’ guilt and “nailing it to the cross.” (Col 2:13-15; see Triumph) Moreover Christ saves persons from the powers’ destructive use (through human agencies) of the Law itself, and summons them to purposeful lawkeeping under his headship. (Gal 4:3,8-9 Col 2:16-23) Persons “raised with Christ” are rescued from “the ruler of the kingdom of the air” and the “spiritual forces of evil” at his command. (Eph 2:1-10 6:10-18) The ascended Christ takes the hostile powers captive and liberates their former victims for effective service.’ (Eph 4:7-13 1:21) (DPL)

Occasion of the Letter, 6-10

1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are following a different gospel—1:7 not that there really is another gospel, but there are some who are disturbing you and wanting to distort the gospel of Christ.

I am astonished – we would expect to see a typical Pauline thanksgiving here, but it is replaced by a stinging rebuke. The letter is occasioned by a serious and urgent problem within the Galatian church.

A related reason why Paul omits any any thanksgiving here is that his opponents have obviously been accusing him of being a ‘man-pleaser’, v10.  Consequently, he avoids any risk of being thought a flatterer.

You are so quickly deserting the one who called you – This is the language of military desertion. Notice that they are not accused merely of deserting a principle, or an idea, but a person. In what ways might professing Christians be deserting the faith today?

A different gospel – Some years ago, several babies in a certain maternity ward died suddenly of unknown causes. It was later discovered that, in mixing the babies’ formula, salt had been substituted for sugar. Though the resulting mixture looked the same, it was in fact deadly. The gospel, too can be counterfeited today, just as it was in Paul’s day. Though the false gospel may sound similar and remain undetected as a fake, it lacks the life-giving power of the real thing and is deadly.

One gospel – many approaches

‘There is of course only one apostolic gospel, as Paul emphasised, so that he could call down God’s judgment on anybody (NB himself included) who preaches “a different gospel”.  Yet the apostles presented it in a wide variety of ways – now sacrificial (the shedding and sprinkling of Christ’s blood), now messianic (the breaking in of the new age or of God’s promised rule), now mystic (receiving and enjoying eternal life, being “in Christ”), now legal (the righteous Judge pronouncing the unrighteous righteous), now personal (the Father reconciling his wayward children), now salvific (the heavenly liberator coming to the rescue of his oppressed people, and leading them out in a new exodus) and now cosmic (the universal Lord claiming universal dominion over the powers).  And these seven are only a selection!’ (Stott, Essentials, 330)

A different gospel which is really no gospel at all – ‘If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgement on it, we cannot present Christ as a Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are, in effect, bearing false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is “another gospel, which is not another.” Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Saviour from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else. An imaginary Christ will not bring a real salvation.’ (J.I Packer, Among God’s Giants, 217)

‘Messengers who distorted the contents of their message were subject to legal penalties. Those familiar with the Old Testament would think of those who distorted the divine message in terms of false prophets, (e.g., Jer 23:16) for whom the penalty was death.’ (Deut 13:5; 18:20) (NT Background Commentary)

Some people – Who were Paul’s opponents? ‘Paul refers to “certain people who are troubling (the Galatian churches) and wanting to alter the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7; cf. Gal 5:10, 12). The hold these new people have on the Galatians is almost like a spell, a bewitching (Gal 3:1). These troublers are zealous to win over the Galatians but their zeal is not for the good of the churches but for their own good (Gal 4:17). They want to “shut off” the Galatian Christians-evidently from Paul (Gal 4:17). The newcomers are “wanting to make a good impression in the flesh” only to coax the Galatians into being circumcised (Gal 6:12). Paul alleges that the errorists hope to avoid persecution because of the cross by leading the new Christians in Galatia to circumcision (Gal Gal 6:12). The troublemakers themselves do not keep the entire law, says Paul, but wish to shackle the Galatians with it in order that they may boast about their victories (Gal 6:13). Finally, the opponents of Paul in Galatia evidently put the Jerusalem apostles, especially Peter and James the brother of Jesus, on a pedestal (Gal 1:18; 2:7, 9, 11-12) and compared Paul unfavorably with them.’ (College Press). It is likely that these people were similar to, or even identical with those mentioned in Acts 15:1, who taught that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”

The gospel of Christ – ‘This phrase “the gospel of Christ” could be understood as “the gospel that comes from Christ” or “the gospel of which Christ is the content.” The difference is significant, and a clue to Paul’s meaning is found within the immediate context when Paul says that “God…was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” (Gal 1:15-16) Paul appeals to a revelation, the content of which was the “Son of God.” This is likely the meaning of “gospel of Christ” in Gal 1:7 as well.’ (DPL)

1:8 But even if we (or an angel from heaven) should preach a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be condemned to hell! 1:9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell!

Eternally condemned cf. Rom 9:3; 1 Cor 12:3; compare 1 Cor 16:22. No harsher words than these (and they are repeated in v9) can be found in Paul’s writings: this is a measure of the importance of the purity of the gospel and the seriousness of perverting it.

Paul not indifferent to doctrine

‘Paul certainly was not indifferent to doctrine; on the contrary, doctrine was the very basis of his life. His devotion to doctrine did not, it is true, make him incapable of a magnificent tolerance. One notable example of such tolerance is to be found during his imprisonment at Rome, as attested by the Epistle to the Philippians. Apparently certain Christian teachers at Rome had been jealous of Paul’s greatness. As long as he had been at liberty they had been obliged to take a secondary place; but now that he was in prison, they seized the supremacy. They sought to raise up affliction for Paul in his bonds; they preached Christ even of envy and strife. In short, the rival preachers made of the preaching of the gospel a means to the gratification of low personal ambition; it seems to have been about as mean a piece of business as could well be conceived. But Paul was not disturbed. “Whether in presence, or in truth,” he said, “Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” (Php 1:18) The way in which the preaching was being carried on was wrong, but the message itself was true; and Paul was far more interested in the content of the message than in the manner of its presentation. It is impossible to conceive a finer piece of broad-minded tolerance.

‘But the tolerance of Paul was not indiscriminate. He displayed no tolerance, for example, in Galatia. There, too, there were rival preachers. But Paul had no tolerance for them. “But though we,” he said, “or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:8) What is the reason for the difference in the apostle’s attitude in the two cases? What is the reason for the broad tolerance in Rome, and the fierce anathemas in Galatia? The answer is perfectly plain. In Rome, Paul was tolerant, because there the content of the message that was being proclaimed by the rival teachers was true; in Galatia he was intolerant, because there the content of the rival message was false. In neither case did personalities have anything to do with Paul’s attitude. No doubt the motives of the Judaizers in Galatia were far from pure, and in an incidental way Paul does point out their impurity. But that was not the ground of his opposition. The Judaizers no doubt were morally far from perfect, but Paul’s opposition to them would have been exactly the same if they had all been angels from heaven. His opposition was based altogether upon the falsity of their teaching; they were substituting for the one true gospel a false gospel which was no gospel at all. It never occurred to Paul that a gospel might be true for one man and not for another; the blight of pragmatism had never fallen upon his soul. Paul was convinced of the objective truth of the gospel message, and devotion to that truth was the great passion of his life. Christianity for Paul was not only a life, but also a doctrine, and logically the doctrine came first.’ (J.G. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism)

1:10 Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ!

Am I now trying to win the approval of men? – Paul’s opponents evidently had been asserting that he was making religion too easy (by not insisting on circumcision and other aspects of Torah) and was doing so to ingratiate himself with men.

Preach so as to profit

‘Do not preach so much to please as to profit. Choose rather to discover men’s sins than to show your own eloquence. That is the best looking-glass, not which is most gilded but which shows the truest face.’ (Thomas Watson)

Paul’s Vindication of His Apostleship, 11-24

1:11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 1:12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ.

I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it– At first sight, this appears to contradict what Paul says in 1 Cor 15:3, where he insists that what in preaching the gospel he had simply passed on what he had received.  The problem is more apparent than real.  Whereas in Gal 1 Paul affirms that he received the gospel by a direct revelation of Jesus Christ, in Gal 2 he states that this was entirely consistent with the teaching of the other apostles.  Moreover, the passage in 1 Cor is particularly concerned with the historical details of gospel, particularly as they pertain to Christ’s resurrection.  In Gal 1, on the other hand, he is occupied with the theology of grace.  A parallel may be found in Mt 16:16f; of course, Peter knew the bare facts about Jesus and his ministry.  But it took a divine disclosure for him to be able to confess who Jesus was was (and is).  ‘From this we learn that only God can truly reveal himself. We may preach, teach, and share the good news of Christ with others; but only God can soften a hardened heart and bring the light of divine truth to a darkened mind.’ (George, NAC)

Revelation from Jesus Christ – In the light of v16, the objective genitive is probably to be preferred (revelation of Jesus Christ’).  It was, after all, Jesus Christ himself who was revealed to Paul on the Damascus Road.

‘In an important sense the inspiration of St. Paul is the highest in Holy Scripture; for while Moses laid a foundation, and prophets brought together the Divine materials, and evangelists built up the walls of the glorious temple of God’s truth, it was reserved for Paul to complete the structure and bring out its beauties to be seen of the whole earth…The ablest theologians have gone to Paul for the choicest stones of their goodly structures, and still the temple he was commissioned to complete looks down on them all, not a ruin but perfect as at the first. His Epistles form the crowning glory of that Word of God that abideth for ever.’ (M. Laurie, D. D.)

1:13 For you have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I was savagely persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. 1:14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 1:15 But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased 1:16 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles, I did not go to ask advice from any human being, 1:17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before me, but right away I departed to Arabia, and then returned to Damascus.

‘Paul’s main point in vv. 13–14 was to show that there was nothing in his religious background and preconversion life that could have in any way prepared him for a positive response to the gospel. Quite the contrary. His early career and lifestyle were shaped by a confident attachment to the strictest traditions of Judaism, which in turn had led him to take up arms against the believers in Jesus.’ (George)

For… – Paul now begins to substantiate his claim that he did not receive his message from man, but from Jesus Christ himself.  He will explain how he had had little to do with the original apostles, and had not been trained by them.

You have heard – What he is telling them is nothing new; still less anything that he had fabricated as an excuse.

My previous way of life in Judaism – i.e. as a practising Jew.  He mentions two aspects of this: his intense persecution of the church, and extreme zealousness for ‘the traditions of [his] fathers’, v14.

Paul certainly regards Judaism as he had practised it as a completely different religion from Christianity.  It was so in a double sense: first, pharisaic legalism had preserved the shell of the Mosaic faith but robbed it of its heart; and second, Judaism in general had rejected Jesus as Messiah.  ‘The rejection of their promised Messiah had turned Judaism from the main stream of God’s plan and purpose to a stagnant backwater’ (Cole).  To say this is not, however, to give any credence at all to the anti-Semitism of which the Christian church has been guilty from time to time.

It follows (contra Stendahl and others) that Paul was both converted and called on the Damascus Road.  Stendahl argued that Paul had a perfectly clear conscience at that time, and that he read back a sense of sin and guilt afterwards (‘from solution to plight’).

How intensely I persecuted the church of God – The word for ‘persecuted’ is precisely the word used by the risen Lord in Acts 9:4.

‘The phrase seems to indicate the violence, even the savagery, with which he set about this grim work. What he tells us here we can supplement from the book of Acts. He went from house to house in Jerusalem, seized any Christians he could find, men and women, and dragged them off to prison (Acts 8:3). When these Christians were put to death, he cast his vote against them (Acts 26:10). Not satisfied with persecuting the church, he was actually bent on destroying it (verse 13). He was determined to stamp it out.’ (Stott)

‘Paul gave this witness not to brag on the misdeeds of his pre-Christian life, as some converts are wont to magnify their sinful past more than their rescue from it, but in order to hold high the sovereign initiative of God in reversing the murderous track of his career. Paul always spoke of this part of his life with great sorrow and shame, considering himself the “least of the apostles” (1 Cor 15:9) because he had “persecuted the church of God” (Gal 1:13).’ (George)

The church of God – Paul has earlier (Gal 1:2) referred to the churches in Galatia’.  But now he has in mind the entire Christian community; the worldwide church.  Paul’s use of this expression indicates that even at this early stage he regarded the entire body of believers as constituting the people of God.  Moveover, it indicates ‘how fully, in his thought, the Christian church had succeeded to the position once occupied by Israel.’ (Burton, cited by Wilson).

‘Paul elsewhere uses the phrase “church of God” (e.g., 1 Cor 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 2 Cor 1:1; 1 Thess 2:14), suggesting that he conceived of the church as the true Israel, the new people of God, and the fulfillment of what God intended with Israel.’ (Schreiner)

As Cole remarks, Paul would have previously viewed Christianity as blasphemous, just as a pious Moslem would today.

‘What Paul came to realize through his encounter with the risen Christ was that the despised Christians he had been pursuing with such ardor were none other than the special people of the Holy One of Israel, “the community of God.” This expression was used in the Old Testament to describe the children of Israel who stood in a special covenantal relationship to God. Paul’s persecution of the Christians was designed to safeguard the purity of that very community. Now he suddenly saw that the crux of his life’s work had been directed against the very “company of God” he had intended to protect: God’s called-out ones.’ (George)

‘A minister once preaching a charity sermon in the west of England, began as follows: “Many years have elapsed since I was within these walls. On that occasion there came three young men with the intention not only of scoffing at the minister, but with stones in their pockets for the purpose of assaulting him. After a few words one of them said with an oath, ‘Let us be at him now;’ but the second replied, ‘No; stop till we hear what he makes of this point.’ The minister went on, when the second said, ‘We have heard enough; now throw,’ But the third interfered, remarking, ‘He is not so foolish as I expected; let us hear him out.’ The preacher concluded without having been interrupted. Now mark me — of these three young men one was executed for forgery; the second lies under sentence of death for murder; the third, through the infinite mercy of God, now addresses you. Listen to him.”’ (Biblical Illustrator)

‘The church of God may expect to meet with persecution and sufferings, not only from men avowedly wicked and openly flagitious, but also from others, whose carriage is smooth, free from scandal, and in all things, accordingly to that false way of religion which they profess, blameless.’ (Ferguson)

Tried to destroy it – How Paul must have flinched, even as he wrote (or dictated) these words!  The word for ‘destroy’ is very strong, and is used for the sacking of a city.

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age – He had been brought up as a Pharisee – a member of the strictest party of the Jews, Acts 26:5.

Extremely zealous – Paul would have seen himself as within the tradition of Phinehas, when he slew an Israelite man and Midianite woman for engaging in sexual relations (Num 25:11), and Elijah, when he slew the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19:10,14) (Schreiner).

The traditions of my fathers – ‘probably refers not only to the general teachings of Judaism but more specifically to what is otherwise known as the oral law, an extensive set of regulations that distinguished the Pharisees from other Jewish groups (cf. also Mk. 7:1–13; Phil. 3:4–6).’ (NBC)

‘These traditions were those rules and regulations which purported to interpret the law of God, but which had really corrupted it into a crippling system of moral casuistry (cf. Mt 5:21ff; 15:3,6; 23:2ff).  Thus for as long as he followed the traditions of his fathers, he remained a stranger to Israel’s ancestral faith and the avowed enemy of the Deliverer upon whom it was centred, Gal 4:4f.  When therefore conversion to Christ made so ardent a Jew as Paul break with this religion, how could the Gentile Galatians imagine that submission to its demands was necessary to complete the gospel?’ (Wilson)

All of this helps us to understand the violence of Paul’s reaction when he encountered ‘a sect within Judaism that, because of their devotion to Messiah Jesus, was redefining the boundaries of the community of Israel in ways that were profoundly disturbing to such a strict Pharisaic leader as Paul.’ (George)

George says that what Paul the Pharisee would have found particularly would have been ‘not merely the claim that Jesus was the Messiah, but the triple assertion that this Messiah had been publicly condemned and crucified, then raised from the dead, and now exalted to heaven with the status of deity, which demanded the kind of worship only properly given to God—all of this amounted to the perpetuation of the same “blasphemy” that had led to Jesus’ death in the first place (John 10:33). What Paul later called the “stumbling block” of the cross was offensive in the highest degree: to be crucified was to come under the curse of God, an unthinkable condition for God’s anointed one from the perspective of strict Pharisaic Judaism.’

Paul mentions his former life in Judaism mainly as background to what he is about to say about his decisive conversion to Christ.  ‘his previous life demonstrates the need he had for a drastic conversion. Only a divine, gracious intervention can explain the change that came over him.’ (NBC)

‘A man in that mental and emotional state is in no mood to change his mind, or even to have it changed for him by men. No conditioned reflex or other psychological device could convert a man in that state. Only God could reach him—and God did!’ (Stott)

‘The implied contrast between his former practice and his present faith is significant because it shows that Christianity is no offshoot of Judaism.  The gospel he presented to the Galatians could not have spring from the religion of petrified legalism he had renounced; it was the proper development of that Old Testament hope which was fulfilled in the Messiah whom Judaism had seen fit to reject.’ (Wilson)

Note, religious zeal, however sincere it may be, is not a good thing in itself.  It may be self-deceptive (as in the case of George Whitefield prior to his conversion) or, as in the case of Paul, potentially murderous.

‘Paul’s persecuting activity, carried out with great energy and dispatch, arose out of sincere religious convictions and high moral expectations. Paul was no second-rate thug or mafioso bent on vandalism and violence for its own sake. There is no evidence that he carried out his work with a guilty conscience burdened by self-doubt or hindered by second thoughts. He was a happy and successful Jew who could put on his résumé, as he later reconstructed it for the Philippians, his persecution of the church alongside his other virtues and achievements—his circumcision, his rootage in the tribe of Benjamin, his membership in the Pharisaic party, his blameless devotion to the law. All of these, including the persecutions, he counted as “profit” before he met Christ (Phil 3:4–6). Thus all the greater his shame and remorse when he realized that in seeking to please God he had actually been striving against God; in aiming for the best he had sunk to the worst. Those things he had called “profit” he now realized were “loss,” refuse, trash, skubala, human excrement fit only to be hurled onto the dung heap of his life.’ (George)

‘When Paul came to Christ he ceased to be a “zealot” for the “traditions of the fathers.” The Galatians, on the other hand, having come to Christ, want to become such zealots as Paul was!’ (Garlington)

‘The Jews, once right in the point of religion, Hos 11:12, had now, in Paul’s time, so far corrupted religion in the doctrine of justification, Rom 10:3, of the Trinity, Jn 8:9, of manners, or use of the moral law, as if it required nothing but external obedience, Mt 5-7, in asserting the authority of unwritten traditions, and in worshipping God according to those, Mt 15:3-9, and rejecting Jesus Christ the promised Messias, 1 Thess 2:15, that Paul seeth a necessity to quit that religion, calling it theirs, not God’s.’ (Ferguson)

‘The resolution of election and free will has troubled theologians for centuries. One found an explanation in a picture of the door to heaven. On the side of the door facing the one who was about to enter heaven were written the words “Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Rom 10:13) On the side of the door facing those who were already in heaven were written the words “called through his grace”.’ (Gal 1:15) (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching)

In verse 13f Paul has been speaking about himself: ‘I persecuted the church of God … I tried to destroy it … I advanced in Judaism …, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.’  But now, note the strong emphasis in v15f on God’s sovereign activity in Paul’s life: ‘God…set me apart from birth…call me by his grace…was pleased to reveal his Son in me.’  There is no doubt as to the divine origin of Paul’s gospel, or the divine authority of his apostleship.

George favours the following paraphrase: “God, who set me apart, devoted me to a special purpose from before my birth, and before I had any impulses or principles of my own.”

Note the sequence: pre-natal choice; historical call; personal revelation.

Who set me apart from birth – This has nothing to do with prganancy and birth, of course, but everything to do with the conviction that God chose Paul long before Paul could have had any awareness of it.  There is an allusion here to Isa 49:1 and Jer 1:5.  ‘There is little doubt that Paul saw his own ministry, not merely as comparable with Jeremiah’s, but more than that, as integrally related to the work of the OT prophets, and in some sense even as its culmination. Now at last the message of salvation is breaking all national barriers. Light has fallen on the lands of the Gentiles, of whom the Galatians are part.’ (NBC)

George points out that the doctrine of election, which is touched on here, has been variously abused and misunderstood.  Some have denied it altogether, preferring to think that our standing before God is wholly dependent on our own efforts and activities.  Others have used the doctrine as an excuse for inactivity: after all, if God has already chosen those who are to be saved, what can any of us do about it?  But Scripture everywhere attests that ‘the God who calls to salvation by his sovereign grace also ordains the means, including the preaching of the gospel to all peoples everywhere, which will lead his chosen ones to repentance and faith. Seen in the wider context of biblical revelation, the doctrine of election is no cause for either presumption or laziness. It is neither a steeple from which to view the human landscape nor a pillow to sleep on. It is rather a stronghold in times of temptation and trials and a confession of praise to God’s grace and to his glory.’

Called me by his grace – Given the chain of events (eternal election and set apart from birth), this calling must be, not merely an invitation, but an effectual calling.  It is a summons which, as in Paul’s case, overcomes his ‘kicking against the goads’.  It is a being called from death to life, as when Jesus called to Lazarus, “Lazarus, come forth!”

God…was pleased to reveal his Son in me – Or, ‘to me’, which would be consistent with v12 where it is clear that God revealed Jesus Christ to Paul.  See also 1 Cor 9:1.  In any case, Paul had already known about Jesus Christ, but now he was made to see the truth and significance of this knowledge.

Although George expresses a slight preference for ‘through me’, he says, ‘to interpret Paul’s encounter with Christ as something less than an actual historical event that took place in space and time as the scriptural text indicates is to opt for a docetic version of Christianity, which is far removed from the particularist, incarnational religion of the New Testament.’

George states that ‘while we have no reason to expect the precise duplication of Paul’s experience, a one-time resurrection appearance of Jesus (1 Cor 15:8), in another, very important sense everyone who stands to proclaim the good news of Christ must do so only because God has revealed his Son to them.’  He quotes William Perkins:-

‘Ministers of the gospel must learn Christ as Paul learned him. They may not content themselves with that learning which they find in schools; but they must proceed further to a real learning of Christ. They that must convert others, it is meet that they should be effectually converted. John must eat the book, and then prophesy; and they who would be fit ministers of the gospel, must first themselves eat the book of God. And this book is indeed eaten, when they are not only in their minds enlightened, but in their hearts are mortified, and brought in subjection to the word of Christ, unless Christ be thus learned spiritually and really, divines shall speak of the Word of God as men speak of riddles, and as priests in former times said their matins, when they hardly knew what they said.’

So that I might preach him among the Gentiles– ‘God revealed Christ in Paul in order to reveal him through Paul’ (George).  Although the revelation of Christ to Paul was private, its meaning and purpose were public.  And whereas Paul had previously been committed to promulgating the Law, now he preaches the person of Christ.

On Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles, see also Acts 9:15; 22:17-21; Gal 2:7; Rom 11:13; 1 Tim 2:7.

‘The Christ who was privately revealed to Paul now had to be publicly proclaimed by him aamong the Gentiles.  There is no preaching that is worthy of the name unless Christ is set forth in all the glory of his Person and all the fulness of his saving power.’ (Wilson)

‘In this encounter with the person of the exalted Christ is to be found the starting point of Paul’s apostolic preaching, as well as the real significance of his conversion, and it is this confrontation to which he appeals again and again to justify his preaching of Christ.’ (Ridderbos)

Of course, Paul’s preaching brought him into great hardship and danger.  This is implied in the very itinerary he is about to outline, especially when supplemented by the additional material from Acts.  ‘He thought of himself as chosen not for honour but for service, not for ease but for battles. It is for the hardest campaigns that the general chooses his best soldiers and for the hardest studies that the teacher chooses his best students. Paul knew that he had been saved to serve.’ (DSB)

Both Paul’s message and his mission came from God, and not from men.

‘The apostle’s argument is not yet complete. Granted that his conversion was a work of God, as is plain from how it happened and what preceded it, did he not receive instruction after his conversion, so that his message was, after all, from men? No. This too Paul denies.’ (Stott)

God…was pleased – ‘The good pleasure of God is the farthest point which a man can reach, when inquiring as to the causes of his salvation.’ (Bengel)

I did not consult any man – Lit. ‘did not consult flesh and blood’ – emphasising human frailty and fallibility (‘whose intelligence is limited and their counsel moulded by the constitution of their material clothing’ – J.A. Beet) .  Paul now goes on to stress how little contact he had with the apostles after his conversion.

‘Indeed, so far was he from acknowledging any dependence upon the authority of the Jerusalem church that he did not even to to visit those who were, in point of time but not of standing, apostles before him.  For what Paul needed was not conference with men but communion with God.’ (Wilson)

Paul presents three ‘alibis’ (Stott) to demonstrate that he did not stay in Jerusalem, and that his message cannot therefore have been shaped by the apostles.

Acts 9:20 informs us that the gospel was already clear enough to Paul for him to be able to proclaim it.  This must have been immediately before he went to Arabia.

I went immediately into Arabia – This appears to be in conflict with Acts 9:19-22, where Paul is said to have ‘immediately’ preached in Damascus.  We may regard the difference is being merely verbal: that he does not mean here that he did not do anything in Damascus, but rather that he did not go to Jerusalem or consult with any of the disciples (George).

Finding contradictions where there are none
Ehrman (Jesus, Interrupted) elaborates on the apparent discrepancy between what Paul writes here and what is recorded in Acts:

He is completely clear. He did not consult with others after his conversion, did not see any of the apostles for three years, and even then he did not see any except Cephas (Peter) and Jesus’ brother James.

[But] according to Acts 9, immediately after Paul converted he spent some time in Damascus “with the disciples,” and when he left the city, he headed directly to Jerusalem, where he met with the apostles of Jesus (Acts 9:19–30). On all counts Acts seems to be at odds with Paul. Did he spend time with other Christians immediately (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he go straight to Jerusalem (Acts) or not (Paul)? Did he meet with the group of apostles (Acts) or just with Peter and James (Paul)?

Ehrman explains the ‘discrepancy’ in terms of the different interests of Paul and the author of Acts.  The former wishes to stress that his message is God-given, and that he did not rely on any of the other apostles.  The latter, on the other hand, wishes to stress the continuity (and, indeed, partnership) between Paul and the other apostles.  And so they tell different stories.  (Ehrman is inclined to accept Paul’s version).

As Jonathan McLatchie writes: ‘This, however, does not seem to me to be a great difficulty at all. Acts 8:1-3 indicates that Paul had been involved in persecuting the church in Jerusalem, to be distinguished from the whole region of Judea. Acts 8:1 in fact indicates that the believers in Jerusalem “were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” They no doubt would have told other believers with whom they came into contact of the persecution they had experienced under Saul of Tarsus, but it does not follow that the churches in Judea would have known him by sight, although they would doubtless have known him by reputation.’

Arabia – The border may have been quite close to Damascus, since the whole area was under Arabian rule at the time.  In Paul’s day the word referred to the whole of the Nabatean Kingdom, which spread southwards from Damascus towards the Arabian peninsula.

Why did Paul go to Arabia?  What did he do there?  If, as is quite possible, he did not venture far from Damascus, we may surmise, with Schreiner, that he went there principally to proclaim the gospel.  George adduces, as a small piece of positive evidence in favour of this, 2 Cor 11:32f (cf. Acts 9:23-25), where he refers to a plot against him engineered by King Aretas.

But Gal 4:25 associates ‘Arabia’ with Mount Sinai.  It is possible that, as a Jew devoted to Torah, Paul went to the Sinai area.  Elijah had done the same, centuries before, when he came to a cross-roads in his own spiritual life.  Stott, along with many others, thinks it probable that he went there for a time of solitude and reflection (note the apposition: ‘I did not consult any man…but I went immediately into Arabia.’  He had to be alone with himself and with God: ‘First, he had to think out this tremendous thing that had happened to him. Second, he had to speak with God before he spoke to men.’ (DSB)

As a former persecutor of the church who had now become its apostle to the Gentiles, Paul would have had a number of questions to resolve in his mind: ‘How was the good news of salvation through Christ related to the divinely given Torah? Have God’s promises to Israel been annulled or abridged by the coming of the Messiah? What role does circumcision have in the new community (ekklesia) God was now calling forth? As one who had persecuted the first Christians in Jerusalem, Paul doubtless knew a great deal about the structure and leadership of the church there. How should he relate to them now? The resolution of these and other questions would require extensive time alone with God, a time for prayer and searching the Scriptures, a coming apart to be prepared for being sent back forth.’

Returned to Damascus – ‘That was a courageous thing to do. He had been on the way to Damascus to wipe out the Church when God arrested him and all Damascus knew that. He went back at once to bear his testimony to the people who knew best what he had been.’ (DSB)

1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and get information from him, and I stayed with him fifteen days. 1:19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 1:20 I assure you that, before God, I am not lying about what I am writing to you! 1:21 Afterward I went to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 1:22 But I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 1:23 They were only hearing, “The one who once persecuted us is now proclaiming the good news of the faith he once tried to destroy.” 1:24 So they glorified God because of me.

After three years – implying that he was in Arabia for that length of time.

I went up to Jerusalem – See Acts 9:26, which tells of Paul being smuggled out of Damascus.

‘Again he took his life in his hands. His former friends, the Jews, would be out for his blood, because to them he was a renegade. His former victims, the Christians, might well ostracize him, unable to believe that he was a changed man.’ (DSB)

Paul minimises what happened in Jerusalem as regards his formation as a Christian teacher: (a) he had already spend 3 years in Arabia, during which time his message would have crystalised; (b) he saw only two apostles – Peter and James – and that of his own accord in order to get acquainted with them (not to sit at their feet as a learner); (c) he stayed only 15 days, a limited period of time during which he also spent time preaching, Acts 9:28f.  ‘It was, therefore, ludicrous to suggest that he obtained his gospel from the Jerusalem apostles.’ (Stott)

‘Paul’s point is that he did not undergo a period of instruction under the Jerusalem apostles. When he did finally return to Jerusalem, his contact with Peter was very limited, and the only other important figure he met was James, the Lord’s brother. How restricted his exposure to the early Christian church in Judea was is confirmed by the fact that hardly anyone knew him personally—though they were very much aware of his conversion, a cause for glorifying God.’ (NBC)

‘After having exercised an independent commission for three years his his visit was too late to seek Jerusalem’s recognition of his calling, and it was too short for him to be looked upon as Peter’s disciple.’ (Wilson)  Chapter 2 records that when he did visit Jerusalem, he found himself in complete agreement with the other apostles (save for a lapse involving Peter, which was soon rectified).

Paul’s argument is that ‘he enjoys the same apostolic authority as those who were apostles before him (Gal 1:17), because he, like them, received his commission and his gospel directly from the Lord.’ (G.E. Ladd)

‘The independence of Paul’s gospel is important because the Judaizers likely charged that Paul got his gospel from the Jerusalem apostles (he was dependent on them), and that he subsequently distorted what he received from them.’ (Schreiner)

I saw none of the other apostles – They may have given him a wide berth, knowing his reputation as a persecutor of the church.  Acts 9:26-30 confirms this, informing us that it was Barnabas who introduced Paul to the apostles.

James, the Lord’s brother – He was the Lord’s younger brother (cf. Mk 6:3).  Although not a believer during our Lord’s earthly ministry, Jn 7:5, he had become so following a resurrection appearance, 1 Cor 15:7, and was now one of the ‘pillars’ of the church, Gal 2:9.

Robert M. Price, as part of his attempt to make as little as possible of the evidence for the historical Jesus, says that the present expression (and the similar one in 1 Cor 9:5) may only refer to a ‘missionary brotherhood’.  ‘After all,’ says Price, ‘Paul does not say “James the brother of Jesus,”’ but “the brother of the Lord”.  Price concedes that the usual reading of these verse is ‘a natural one’, but fails to take account of the other references to James, just itemised, all of which point in the direction of a James who was actually a sibling of the historical Jesus.

‘This oath formula demonstrates the importance of this discussion to Paul and supports the idea that the Judaizers were disputing the legitimacy of his apostolic authority.’ (Schreiner)

The solemnity of this statement strongly implies ‘a totally different account of his visits to Jerusalem after his conversion, and of the relation he sustained to the elder apostles, had been in use among the Judaists, to undermine his independent authority and neutralise his teaching.’ (Eadie)

‘It is important to note the gravity of Paul’s argument. In v 20 he goes so far as to give an oath (before God) that his testimony is true. This is a clear indication that Paul was responding to some very specific accusations. No doubt, the Judaizers were spreading stories to the effect that he had sat under the drawn-out instruction of the Jerusalem apostles as a disciple would normally do under a rabbi.’ (NBC)

I went to Syria and Cilicia – Together, these constituted a single Roman province at the time.   This was the journey to the far north, recorded in Acts 9:30.  Paul, in danger for his life, had been brought to Caesarea, and was then sent to Tarsus, which is in Cilicia.  The point, once again, is that he was nowhere near Jerusalem.

‘It was there that Tarsus was. It was there that he had been brought up. There were the friends of his boyhood and his youth. Again he chose the hard way. They would no doubt regard him as quite mad; they would meet him with anger, and, worse, with mockery. But he was quite prepared to be regarded as a fool for the sake of Christ.’ (DSB)

Paul had spent so little time in and around Jerusalem that he was not known by sight to the Christians in that area.  They knew him only by reputation.

I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea – In Acts 9:26-30 it is implied that Paul preached in and around Jerusalem.  We do not need to assume a contradiction between the two: evidently, Paul was not well enough known in the area for people to readily recognise him.

Preaching the faith – It is striking that at such an early stage the Christian message has sufficient definition and coherence that it can be referred to as ‘the faith’.

‘Usually in Galatians the word “faith” means “trust in God,” but that meaning does not fit here. Instead, the term is perhaps best defined as “the Christian religion” or “body of doctrine,” referring to the Christian faith as a whole. If we compare the construction to Gal 1:11, where Paul also uses a verbal form of the word “preach the gospel” (εὐαγγελίζω), there the thing preached is the “gospel” (τὸ εὐαγγέλιον) itself (cf. 1 Cor 15:1; 2 Cor 11:7). It seems, then, that “faith” here falls into the same semantic range so that it refers to the gospel in terms of what one believes in.’ (Schreiner)

Schreiner draws attention to the interesting parallel in Phil 1:27, which refers to ‘the faith of the gospel’.

They praised God because of me

We need to listen to Paul today

Paul had a particular reason for defending the divine authority of his message to the Galatian Christians.  But his teaching is under threat today, and so we ourselves need to listen to his argument.  Paul is often thought dull and dry, or harsh and stern, compared with the open-air freshness and loving compassion of the Jesus of the Gospels.  Thus they drive a wedge between the two.

A generation ago, Lord Beaverbrook claimed that Paul was ‘‘incapable by nature of understanding the spirit of the Master’. He “did damage to Christianity and left his imprint by wiping out many of the traces of the footsteps of his Master”.’ (Cited by Stott, who adds, ‘but Paul cannot have misrepresented Christ if he was communicating a special revelation of Christ, which is what he claims in Galatians 1.’)

A slightly more sympathetic view would be to say that Paul offered useful ‘insights’, but that he knew no more than the rest of us.  But we have to reckon with his claim that his message was not from man but from Christ.

Another approach would be to say that Paul was simply representing the views of the Christian community at the time.  But, again, that cannot be the case if his views were developed independent of the church leaders.

The question for us today is whether we will accept Paul’s account, supported as it is by solid historical evidence, or our own guesses and assumptions.  (The preceding paragraph relies heavily on Stott).

In Gal 2:1 Paul will go on to say that it was not until 14 years laters (14 years, presumably, after his conversion) that he returned to Jerusalem and have more in-depth interraction with the apostles.  ‘But during the fourteen-year period between his conversion and this consultation he had paid only one brief and insignificant visit to Jerusalem. The rest of the time he had spent in distant Arabia, Syria and Cilicia. His alibis proved the independence of his gospel.’ (Stott)

In summary, in vv13-24 Paul is stating that: ‘the fanaticism of his pre-conversion career, the divine initiative in his conversion, and his almost total isolation from the Jerusalem church leaders afterwards together combined to demonstrate that his message was not from man but from God.’ (Stott)