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Galatians 1:11-24

March 21, 2016

This remarkable section of Paul’s letter gives us some enticing glimpses into how he became a missionary for Jesus Christ. We only wish he had said much more!

Paul’s main point is that the message he preaches (the “gospel” or “good news”) was not given to him by any human authorities. It was given to him directly through a special revelation from God. What did God reveal to him? Jesus Christ. (The NIV says Paul was given a revelation “from” Jesus Christ, but the Greek construction and the context make it more likely that he was given a revelation “of” or about Jesus Christ.) For Paul, this is what makes him an apostle with authority equal to the original disciples of Jesus. God revealed Jesus to him–the meaning and relevance of Jesus. Based on what he says elsewhere in this letter, we may infer that this revelation conferred a message or insight to him that was something like this: that Jesus Christ is risen, that he is the messiah, that he is lord of all, and that the gentiles must be told that anyone who trusts in God through Jesus Christ becomes a part of God’s family, saved from the power of sin and death.

I think it is strange that Paul doesn’t say more about this “revelation” experience. Surely the more he says about it, the more he would be solidifying his credentials as an apostle. But Paul doesn’t. Is it perhaps too sacred for him to say more about it? Consider his reticence to speak about another revelatory experience in 2 Corinthians 12.

The Acts of the Apostles tells a dramatic story (three times!) of Paul seeing a blinding light and hearing the voice of the risen Jesus. But Paul, in his own words, never gives any details, and we should be cautious about importing the account in Acts into Paul’s words. For Paul it was a revelation that changed his life–a divine reality that broke into his ordinary reality and permitted him to see reality in a whole new way. At the center of that experience was a whole new way of understanding Jesus, and a conviction that he was chosen by God–even while he was still in the womb–to take this message to the gentiles. We often call this Paul’s “conversion,” but it might be more accurate to call this his “calling.” The language he uses is the language of Jeremiah and Isaiah receiving visions that called them to become special messengers of God. Paul never saw himself as converting from his religion to another religion; rather, he saw himself as understanding his religion in a radically fulfilled way.

Paul takes a certain pride in telling us here (and in 2 Corinthians 11) that he excelled in his religion of observing the laws of Moses. Far from having a guilty conscience because he could never fulfill all the commands of God (like Luther felt), Paul saw himself as a great religious success. Not only did he fulfill the law, but he also defended it with zeal–violently, if necessary. Like Phineas and Elijah in the Old Testament, he was willing to resort to violence to keep people faithful to the law and uncorrupted by false religion and worship. It is unlikely Paul killed Christians, but he did try to destroy the “Jesus Christ/Messiah movement.” Perhaps he whipped or beat followers of Jesus in the synagogues (as happened to him–see 2 Corinthians 11). But then God gave him a revelation of Jesus Christ, and everything changed. His very success at following the law, out-competing others, was now exactly opposite of what he discovered true religion to be. The true religion of God is based on grace and trust, not competition and achievement.

Paul says that after his revelation, he went immediately to Arabia. Some scholars think this means he went to the area around Damascus and began preaching; but perhaps more likely is the suggestion that “Arabia” refers to Sinai, and that Paul, like Elijah before him, went to Mount Horeb to retreat and be with God. This makes sense to me. After the reality-smashing revelation, Paul would have needed time alone to figure out what it all meant and what he should do. Perhaps Jesus was doing something of the same thing after his dramatic experience/revelation at his baptism–retreating to the desert to sort out what it all means (“If you are the Son of God . . .”).

After spending some time in the wilderness, Paul then returned to Damascus (the place where he first had his revelation?). Three years after his revelation, he then went to Jerusalem and, for the first time, met Peter (Cephas), as well as Jesus’ brother, James. Paul emphasizes that these are the only apostles he met, and was with Peter for only two weeks. Why does he emphasize that he is not lying? Presumably, his opponents (missionaries that have come to his churches in Galatia after he has left) are claiming that Paul is not an apostle, but a person under the authority of (and commissioned by) the Jerusalem church. Paul is denying this. He did not get his message from other apostles, and he had no connection to the church in Jerusalem; indeed he claims that at this time no church in Judea even knew him by sight.

But he has to admit that he did meet Peter and James, and it seems obvious to me that he must have learned a few things from them, such as: the last supper story (1 Corinthians 11), Jesus’ teachings on marriage (1 Corinthians 7), Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence (Romans 12), Jesus’ teachings on humility as the basis for God’s acceptance, and the tradition of who saw the risen Jesus, what it meant, and how it fulfilled scripture (1 Corinthians 15). So Paul did, indeed, get some important aspects of his message from the other apostles and the tradition of the church! Nevertheless, his core message–being made right by trust in God’s grace, living by the Spirit instead of by the law–was given to him by direct revelation from God.

People having direct revelations from God are often a problem for the church today. How can we tell whether what they experienced was legitimate or delusional (or even deceitful)? Of course, we use scripture (and our own sense of Christ’s Spirit) to test the claims of those who share a revelation, but there is often a split between those who accept and those who reject. I can well imagine that Paul caused equal or more consternation and splits in his own time. But the test of time has favored Paul. The reality God gave him to see was so powerful it fundamentally shaped the message of the church.

Paul ends this part of his letter by implying that the Judean churches were in harmony with him at this point in time. But then the big conflict came–and that becomes the focus of the next part of his letter.


From → Galatians

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