Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, established churches in Galatia composed primarily of Gentiles who received the Gospel eagerly (4:14-15). He believed that they were “running well” (5:7).
But after he left Galatia, he learned that Judaizers (Greek: Ioudizo—those who live by Jewish practices, 2:14) had persuaded the Galatians to adopt Jewish practices—circumcision in particular. These Judaizers were Christians who believed that it was essential for Christians to adopt particular Jewish practices. They were not trying to persuade Christians to abandon the Christian faith in favor of Judaism.
In this letter to the Galatians, Paul has criticized the Galatians for their fickle turn away from the Gospel which they have been taught—and has pronounced a curse on those who have seduced them to observe Jewish practices (1:6-9)
Now he defends both his apostleship and the Gospel he preaches in the hope that what he writes will persuade the Galatians to forego the practice of observing Jewish law.
GALATIANS 1:11-24. NOT BY MAN, BUT BY REVELATION
11 But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man. 12 For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.
“But I make known to you, brothers, concerning the Good News which was preached by me, that it is not according to man” (v. 11). Paul wants to make it clear that the Gospel preached by him was not “according to man”—wasn’t the product of human thought or human instruction.
“For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it” (v. 12a). There were, of course, people involved in Paul’s conversion and maturing in the faith. After Jesus appeared to Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) on the road to Damascus, Jesus called Ananias to lay hands on Saul so that Saul could regain his sight and receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:12-19). When Jews tried to kill Saul, disciples lowered him in a basket through a hole in the wall so that he might escape (Acts 9:23-25). In Jerusalem, where the disciples knew Saul’s reputation and were afraid of him, Barnabas served as Saul’s advocate so that Saul could proclaim the Gospel there (Acts 9:26-30).
“but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ” (v. 12b). The content of Saul’s preaching came “through revelation of Jesus Christ.” This revelation began on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, and continued thereafter. Paul had not learned his theology by sitting at the feet of more experienced apostles.
GALATIANS 1:13-14. EXCEEDINGLY ZEALOUS
13 For you have heard of my way of living in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the assembly (church) of God, and ravaged it. 14 I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
“For you have heard of my way of living in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the assembly (Greek: ekklesia—church) of God, and ravaged it” (v. 13). Saul (Paul’s pre-Christian name) had been a persecutor of the church prior to seeing a vision of Jesus on the Damascus road. He had been present at the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He might or might not have been one of those throwing stones to kill Stephen, but he clearly approved of that action (Acts 8:1).
Saul soon became an active persecutor. He “ravaged the assembly (church), entering into every house, and dragged both men and women off to prison” (Acts 8:3) and, “still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
Saul’s reputation as a persecutor traveled quickly, and Jesus’ disciples feared him:
• When Jesus called Ananias to go to Saul, Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he did to your saints at Jerusalem. Here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But being reassured by Jesus, Ananias went to Saul and laid hands on him so that he would receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:13-17).
• “When Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join himself to the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26). It was only by virtue of Barnabas’ sponsorship that the Jerusalem disciples were able to accept Saul (Acts 9:27-31).
AN INTERESTING FACT: Peter was the leading apostle in the Gospels and through Acts 12, but we hear nothing further from Peter. Paul became the leading apostle in the rest of the book of Acts. Peter had insisted on observing Jewish dietary laws (and perhaps other Jewish laws as well) until he saw a vision that commanded him to do otherwise. He soon found himself baptizing Gentiles—Roman soldiers (Acts 10). But Paul had been an apostle to the Gentiles almost from the beginning of his Christian walk.
“I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen” (v. 14a). Saul had been a young man when he participated, either actively or approvingly, in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58). He quickly became a major persecutor of the church.
“being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (v. 14b). Jewish tradition was codified in the Mishnah, the Gemara, and the Talmud (which combined the Mishnah and Gemara).
The traditions grew out of a desire to provide detailed guidance for the keeping of the law. For instance, when the Torah banned work on the Sabbath, Jewish scholars tried to determine in great detail what constituted work. Could a woman cook for her family on the Sabbath? Could a man feed livestock? How far could a person walk on the Sabbath? Answers to questions like these were codified in the Mishnah, Gemara, and Talmud—commentaries on the law. This was a commendable effort to be faithful to the requirements of the law.
But the problems growing out of this effort were threefold. First, the traditions grew to enormous proportions—many thousands of pages—too much for the average person to understand. Second, the traditions often degenerated into legalism—an emphasis on the fine points of the law rather than the spirit behind it. Third, the scribes and Pharisees began to treat these traditions as if they were as binding as Torah law. Therefore, Jesus was highly critical of the way that Jews treated these traditions (Matthew 15:7-9; Mark 7:1-13).
GALATIANS 1:15-17. CALLED BY GRACE
15 But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace, 16 to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I didn’t immediately confer with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia. Then I returned to Damascus.
“But when it was the good pleasure of God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace to reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the Gentiles”(vv. 15-16a). Paul makes several important points here:
• It was God’s good pleasure to call Saul. It wasn’t Saul’s idea—not at all.
• It was by God’s grace that he revealed his Son to Saul. No one who knew Saul’s history could believe anything else to be true.
• God called Paul to preach Christ among the Gentiles
“I didn’t immediately confer with flesh and blood” (v. 16b). Paul is interested here in establishing that the Gospel that he preached was the product of direct revelation rather than by sitting at the feet of more established Christian leaders.
“nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me” (v. 17a). Jerusalem was, for a time, the chief city for Christian disciples. It was where the church was established at Pentecost (Acts 2)—was where the Jerusalem Council met (Acts 15:1-35)—and was a gathering place for the church’s leadership.
Note that Paul speaks of “those who were apostles before me”—not “the senior apostles.” He doesn’t speak of them disrespectfully, but neither does he speak of them deferentially. They have their place in the church, and Paul has his. He felt no need to seek out their guidance and counsel, because he had learned what he needed to know through divine revelation.
“but I went away into Arabia. Then I returned to Damascus” (v. 17b). In the past, when I read this verse, I thought of Arabia as the entire Arabian Peninsula—a huge expanse of desert east and south of Israel—between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. I couldn’t imagine why Paul would have gone there, because it is inhospitable and has few connections with the Biblical narrative.
However, in my study for the commentary on this passage, I learned that the Arabia of Paul’s day was much smaller than the Arabian Peninsula—and was located to the east and south of Damascus. That makes sense. Paul was seeking solitude to pray and to consider how he might proclaim the Gospel. Arabia would have provided that solitude, but was near Damascus. Keep in mind that Saul saw his vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus—and was baptized there (Acts 9:18). After his stint in Arabia, he returned to Damascus.
GALATIANS 1:18-24. AFTER THREE YEARS
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But of the other apostles I saw no one, except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 Now about the things which I write to you, behold, before God, I’m not lying. 21 Then I came to the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was still unknown by face to the assemblies of Judea which were in Christ, 23 but they only heard: “He who once persecuted us now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God in me.
“Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days” (v. 18). We don’t know what the three years measures. It could begin with his conversion and baptism in Damascus. He could have spent three years in Damascus. We don’t know—but that is a minor point in this story.
Paul went to Jerusalem to visit Peter, who was the leading disciple/apostle from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry through Acts 12. Paul’s point in telling of his visit to Arabia and the three year time period was to tell his readers that he had been active in considering the revelation that God had given him—and what he would do with it. In other words, he didn’t visit Peter until his faith and understanding had matured.
But Paul could nevertheless profit from the time he spent with Peter. Peter had been one of Jesus’ first disciples (Matthew 4:18)—and remained with Jesus until Jesus’ ascension. Paul had not seen Jesus until after Jesus’ ascension, so Peter could relate details from his day-to-day walk with Jesus throughout Jesus’ ministry on earth.
“But of the other apostles I saw no one, except James, the Lord’s brother” (v. 19). There were several men named James in the Gospels. James the son of Zebedee was most prominent, being one of the first of Jesus’ disciples—and one of the three members of Jesus’ inner circle (Peter, James, and John).
But this is James, the Lord’s brother. Protestants believe that James was the son of Joseph and Mary, and given Mary’s virginal conception was Jesus’ half-brother. Most Catholics, because of their emphasis on Mary’s perpetual virginity, believe that James and the other brothers that are mentioned (Matthew 12:46-47; 13:53; 1 Corinthians 9:5) are Jesus’ cousins or kinsmen rather than his brothers.
James was not a disciple of Jesus prior to the crucifixion and resurrection, but became a disciple and a leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus’ ascension. As a measure of his importance, he was a decision-maker at the Jerusalem Council, and gave the final report of the Council’s findings (Acts 15:12-21). Paul refers to him as an apostle (Galatians 1:19).
Again, Paul can learn new things about Jesus from James, but comes to him with his theology fully formed.
The central point of verses 18-19 is that Paul finally visited these two apostles, but not to learn the basics of the Christian faith.
“Now about the things which I write to you, behold, before God, (Greek: enopian ho theos—God is my witness) I’m not lying” (v. 20). Paul knows that his opponents will challenge his account, so he adds this note about his truthfulness.
Paul’s statement skirts on the edge of violating of Jesus’ injunction against oaths and vows (Matthew 5:33-37)—but it also shows Paul’s seriousness in defending himself. He and his readers understand that it would be a gross sin to make this kind of statement if it were not true.
“Then I came to the regions of Syria and Cilicia” (v. 21). Syria was the nation directly north of Palestine. Damascus was its most prominent city. Cilicia was a region in southeast Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). It provided the most direct trade route from Syria to central Asia Minor. Its capital city was Tarsus, Paul’s hometown.
Paul would have preached the Gospel on these visits, still depending on the revelation given him by God rather than other apostolic influence.
“I was still unknown by face to the assemblies (churches) of Judea which were in Christ” (v. 22). Paul had met with Peter and James, but was unknown to the disciples of Judean churches.
“but they only heard: ‘He who once persecuted us now preaches the faith that he once tried to destroy.’ And they glorified God in me” (vv. 23-24). The disciples didn’t know Paul by sight (v. 22), but were aware of his reputation as a persecutor of the church. They glorified God for transforming the former persecutor into a disciple and an apostle.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1965)
Cousar, Charles, Interpretation: Galatians (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982)
Fung, Ronald Y.K. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988)
George, Timothy, New American Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1994)
Hays, Richard B., The New Interpreter’s Bible: 2 Corinthians to Philemon, Vol. XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Longenecker, Richard N., Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians, Vol. 41 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
MacArthur, John, Jr., The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians (Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, 1987)
Soards, Marion L., and Pursiful, Darrell J., Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Galatians (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys, Inc., 2015)
Williams, Sam K., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Galatians (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997)
Cole, R. Alan, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Galatians, Vol. 9 (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
Copyright 2016, Richard Niell Donovan