Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians
This is the third message in a series of studies by pastor Murray McClellan.
It is our prayer that you are blessed through his labors in God’s Word.
Paul’s Conversion Authenticates the Gospel (1:11-24)
“But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased 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, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him 15 days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. But they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God in me.”
Paul’s gospel received through revelation (v. 11-12)
v. 11 “But I make known to you”
This phrase is from a strong verb that means to certify or to make something known with absolute certainty.
“brethren” Those who truly believe are the ones who will understand and submit to the reality of the truth that Paul is presenting. Peter warned, too in the second chapter his 2nd epistle, in which he writes:. “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber.”
Paul warns the Galatians to not be found among this “many” who follow these “wells without water, clouds carried by a tempest, for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever. For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error.” It is to these allured “brethren” that Paul speaks. “While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage. For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.'” (2 Peter 2:17-22) It is certainly possible to know the way of righteousness without truly trusting in that gospel!
Oh, brethren, “‘come out from among them and be separate,’ says the Lord.” (2 Cor. 6:17)
How do we determine who we should listen to and who is a false teacher? First and foremost, it is by what “gospel” they proclaim. We are not to embrace the message of those whom we respect or like because of who they are. But rather all men need to be judged by the gospel they preach.
“that the gospel which was preached by me”
Notice that Paul’s focus is on the gospel preached. They were well aware of the gospel preached by Paul, for it was he that had first come declaring the gospel throughout Galatia. Paul’s gospel centered around Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Paul’s gospel declared Christ’s perfect person and finished work. Paul’s gospel proclaimed the risen Jesus as Lord – seated at the right hand of the Father, with all authority to save sinners to the uttermost who come to God through Him. Paul’s gospel announced that Christ’s full atonement for His sheep, satisfied the holy and righteous demands against sin, and grants “boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new a living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is His flesh.” What a complete Savior who has fully cleansed and sanctified us; fitting us for His heaven!
The gospel preached by Paul is an amazing message. It transforms lowly sinners into the Kingdom of the Son of His love. It transforms God-haters into God-lovers. Dead sinners are raised to life in the proclamation of this good news. Deaf sinners hear the Good Shepherd’s voice in the gospel. Blind ones see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Where the Spirit of God attends the proclaimed Word of God, and sovereignly acts in accordance with the Divine decree, dead bones suddenly come together and sinews and flesh come upon them, and skin covers over them. Then breath from the Spirit of God causes them to live and to be added to the exceedingly great army of the Living God! (See Ezek. 37) Truly this gospel is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes! (Rom. 1:16)
“is not according to man”
Paul did not create this gospel like some supposed great philosopher. This gospel was not something that Paul thought up or devised. The gospel preached by Paul is not his own, but God’s gospel. His words are not his own words, but God’s Word. Thus what he says carries authority. Oh, how we all need to cast aside the traditions of our fathers and cling to the words of Christ alone!
v. 12 “For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul did not receive this message from man, not even the 11 apostles. The gospel had been uniquely revealed to him.
In a similar way, all we who believe have as a testimony that it was God Himself who truly “taught” us the gospel. Clearly blessed are we, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to us but God Himself (Mt. 16:17). The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But God has revealed these things to us through His Spirit (See 1 Cor. 2:9-16).
The Judaizers accused Paul of being a man pleaser (Gal. 1:10) who watered down the message so that it would be more acceptable to the Gentiles. They said that he took out all law so that the sinners of the Gentiles would embrace this message which, they claimed, would give an individual license to sin. They said that this was the reason that Paul didn’t preach law.
However, that is not true. He did not preach the works of the law because that would be another “gospel” which is not in any way connected to the gospel of Christ – the gospel that really saves. To add to Christ’s perfect work is to totally pervert the gospel.
Paul knew that there was no true spiritual power in a distorted or watered down message. That is why when he preached in Galatia, he came as he did in Corinth “…not with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:1-5)
In 2 Cor. 2, Paul uses a picture of the Roman “triumph” to illustrate his goal. “Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ.” (2 Cor. 2:14-17)
The “triumph” was the great victory parade to honor a commander who had achieved a great and decisive victory. In the triumph, marching through the streets, would come the soldiers of this commander, the spoils of the war – including the defeated enemy captives bound in chains and fetters, and then in a chariot pulled by four horses would come the victorious commander with a laurel on his head and a sceptor in his hand. Flowers were tossed in the way so that they were crushed beneath the hooves of the horses. A sweet fragrance would be carried through the air. Incense was also lit to add to the aroma that would be sweet to the emperor himself and all his loyal citizens, for it declared victory and safety and prosperity. However, that smell was the smell of defeat, and death for the captive enemies. If you have ever watched the movie “Ben-Hur” you will have seen an enactment of a “triumph”.
If you read again Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 2:14-17, you will see that his goal was to diffuse the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. He did not try to find or make a fragrance that would be more pleasing to unbelievers. He sought to diffuse the fragrance of Christ – first and foremost for God’s own pleasure and delight. He sought to deliver a pleasing fragrance “to God” (v. 15). Paul knew that this aroma would be an aroma of life to the sheep and death to the goats. However, despite the hatred of this truth of the Lordship of Jesus Christ, by those who are perishing, Paul refused to “peddle” the Word of God. (The word peddle means to huckster or try to make a sale by peddling inferior goods). He was not as others who were just out to “make a sale”. His main focus was pleasing His Lord and for His glory, diffusing a clear and pure fragrance of Christ. The word translated “sincerity” in the NKJV comes from a word which means genuine. In other words, Paul refused to preach a watered down product. He preached the gospel as revealed by His Lord.
Every time we preach the truth of God and diffuse His knowledge and proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are diffusing an aroma. When we proclaim Jesus as Lord it is to the one death leading to death and to another life leading to life and to God it is the fragrance of His Own beloved Son.
Think of it, all you to whom the glorious gospel of Christ is an aroma of life. We were enemies of the God and Ruler of this universe. Jesus Christ gained the total and decisive victory over sin, Satan, and death. He is the victorious Commander exalted and given the name which is above every name. The crown is placed upon His head and a sceptor is placed in His hand. We were among the enemy – rebels in His kingdom. We deserved to die as such. But behold, what does the Lord do? He could have crushed us as rebels, but no – He breaks the bonds of our chains and He graciously pulls us up to His side, up in the chariot with Him. And He robes us with His own righteousness and makes us co-conquerors with Him! Oh, what grace! We share in His inheritance as joint-heirs!
Why would anyone ever want to change such a gospel?
This is the gospel of grace that He received from the risen Lord Jesus Himself. “The Lord said to him, “Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) Jesus spoke directly to Paul telling him to “rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
And Paul was not disobedient to this heavenly vision, for which the Galatians should be eternally grateful. Who would abandon this gospel? Who would get out of the chariot and return to his chains? Only one who has never truly had the truth of this gospel revealed by the Spirit of God.
Paul’s life transformed through the gospel (v. 13-16b)
Paul shows clearly in this passage that his conversion and commission as an apostle of Jesus Christ demonstrate that he received the gospel he preached by revelation. He did not learn the truth he proclaimed from men.
v. 13 “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it.”
As far as Judaism is concerned, Paul’s “been there and done that!” To show it is a different gospel – contrary to the true gospel – Paul reveals that when he was walking in the religion of Judaism, he persecuted and tried to destroy the church of God. In so doing, he was persecuting the Lord Jesus Himself! (Acts 9:5) This was not because he was a poor follower of Judaism, but rather, he was zealous for the traditions of Judaism.
v. 14 “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
How totally opposite is faith in Jesus Christ from Judaism with its works and self-righteousness. They are totally opposed to one another (Rom. 11:6; Gal. 5:1-4). How clear this reveals to us that sincerity does not count for anything. In fact, it may count against you, if you are sincerely zealous in opposition to God. If there ever was a man who sincerely lived out his beliefs, it was Saul of Tarsus (now known as the apostle Paul).
A man as Paul was – so steeped in the religion and traditions of men, so exceedingly zealous, having advanced to a place of honor above many of his contemporaries – could not be changed by mere arguments of men. He had it all. No one but God Himself could have wrought such an instantaneous and complete transformation in this enemy of Jesus Christ. Who but God could take this man – this Hebrew of the Hebrews who was esteemed so highly by men, who had so much confidence in his flesh – and cause him to count all that he was and did as a pile of dung? (See Phil. 3:4-9) Paul did not just “decide” to change to Christianity because he was dissatisfied with Judaism. It was God Himself who, according to His own good pleasure and for His glory, called Paul, revealing His incredible grace as He opened Paul’s mind and heart to God’s righteousness through faith in Christ.
v. 15-16a “But when it pleased 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,”
Not only was Paul forgiven, but in God’s grace, he became a chosen vessel to bear the name of Christ to the Gentiles. He was to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ; a mouthpiece for His Lord; an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. It pleased God to diffuse the fragrance of His knowledge among the Gentiles through Paul. God shone light into his heart that it might be diffused (2 Cor. 2:12-4:15). To think that Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, was revealed in and through this one time rebel leader, truly causes us to be amazed at the glory of His grace. It also encourages us, that we too, once willing participants in the enemy’s ranks, can be to the praise of the glory of His manifold grace! (1 Tim. 1:15-16)
Paul, as Moses, chose to suffer affliction with the people of God rather than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin – esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Judaism, for he looked to the reward (see Heb. 11:24-26). The one who had mercilessly persecuted the church of God now became the object of great persecution. This was no mere decision to change doctrine! This was the work of God that tore the veil, that had blinded this man’s mind, in two from top to bottom.
It was the “new” Paul who proclaimed in 2 Cor. 4, “We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.”
In verses 13-14, associated with Paul’s past in the Jew’s religion, it is all “I”. Paul talked of “my” conduct…”I” persecuted…”I” advanced…”I” was more zealous. But oh what a change in verse 15! “God” separated me…”God” called me. This is the God-centered and God-glorifying heart of the one called by God unto spiritual life. The gospel preached by Paul is not according to man – not in its message, not in its power, and not in its application and timing.
Paul was not saved when he decided to. No, but when it pleased God to call him. God is sovereign in the salvation of sinners. I am so glad for that! Left to myself, I’d still be seeking “self-esteem”. But God, in His grace and power overcame and transformed my nature and freed by will. Now I esteem Christ, for I now see how glorious and worthy He is.
Paul understood his experience rightly. Thus, you’ll never read of him stating that he is glad that he made a decision for Christ. Paul never patted himself on the back. No, and neither will anyone who is truly a child of God. No flesh should glory in His presence. Paul was a far from God as anyone, in his heart. Yet, he who was a far off was brought near by the blood of Christ. No wonder this reconciled “chief of sinners” was a fitting vessel to call the Gentiles to salvation! (See Eph. 2:11-13 and 1 Tim. 1:15-16).
God set Paul apart, even before he was born – before he had done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him who calls. After it pleased God to call Paul, then it pleased Paul! He stopped kicking at the goads. He stopped kicking because the Lord Jesus opened his eyes (even as He closed his physical ones) and Paul saw, for the first time, the Lord in whose sovereign hands he was “reigned”. Now he willingly submitted to be led, for this proud man was humbled under the mighty hand of God. He now saw in truth that Jesus was the fountain of wisdom. He was altogether lovely. Indeed, He does all things well.
That is why Paul preached “Him”. Paul preached Jesus Christ – not Moses – not the law. God did not call Paul to preach rules and regulations and ceremonies and external rituals. He called him to preach the grace of Christ to the heathen.
Paul’s preaching – a result of the gospel (v. 16b-24)
v. 16b-17a ” I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; ”
Paul says, “I did not seek instruction from any man. I asked no man what I was to preach. I gave myself entirely over to Divine guidance.” Paul did not consult with any human authority, not even the apostles at Jerusalem. Neither his gospel message nor his call to preach came from men. He was commissioned by Jesus Christ alone.
Even today, the Spirit of God distributes giftedness to each one individually as He wills (1 Cor. 12:11). God appoints individuals into various roles by virtue of giftedness and biblical qualifications. It is Christ Himself, the Head the church, mediated through the Spirit, that “gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry.” (Eph. 4:7-12) I’m not sure where the idea came from that a man needs a degree from a recognized college that qualifies him to “pastor the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2).
I can not help but be a little disturbed at seeing so many elders in churches “imported” into the role based on a degree. How seldom is one united to an assembly, growing in grace and love in the body, and then, having proven themselves in accordance with God’s Word, appointed as an elder in accordance with God’s divine appointment. This should not be some “career” choice, where, too often, we see pastors move from one already established local assembly to another already established local assembly, like public school teachers or corporate executives. The Christian ministry is not a profession, but a stewardship given by the grace of God (Eph. 3:2,7; 1 Cor. 4:1; 2 Cor. 3:6).
Paul stated that he was destined from his birth, and indeed from all eternity, to the office that he now fills. It was not a matter of Paul deciding to be an apostle when he “grew up”. This was not his “occupation” or his “job”. His calling by God and subsequent sending was not about career choice. Paul was not a “professional”, for how does one become a “professional worshipper” who seeks to move up the spiritual corporate ladder. No, he came “in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.” (1 Cor. 2:3) No college or school (not even one run by the Jerusalem apostles) can “teach” you to tremble. God made Paul into a man of faith, not “in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:5). May we come out of the world’s ways and pursue God’s glory in humble, dependent prayer, study, preaching, and sacrificial deeds of loving service. Let us be found faithful as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
v. 17b -18 “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him 15 days.”
After Paul’s calling in time, he spent some three years in Arabia. We really don’t know much about Paul’s time in that desert region. Many believe that for those 3 years (even as the other apostles were with the Lord for 3 years), Paul was alone with nothing but the Old Testament Scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and the Son of God. When he came back, he had the epistles to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Romans etc. in his heart.
It was only then that Paul went up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter. He fellowshipped with him for a couple of weeks. This was not to receive some sort of official sanction, nor was it enough time to receive all his doctrinal training.
v. 19-23 “But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. (Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. But they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.”
The apostles were not Paul’s teachers. He had next to no contact with even the churches of Judea. Paul was no “second-hand” apostle. However, the churches of Judea affirmed His conversion and the message he preached, and they glorified God for it! Verse 23 shows that they recognized the gospel that Paul preached as the same as that taught by the Jerusalem apostles.
v. 24 “And they glorified God in me. ”
“in me” or on account of me. They glorified God on account of what God had done in Paul and on account of what God was doing through Paul.
Paul did know Jesus. Paul did walk with Jesus. Paul was taught by Jesus. Paul was sent out preaching and teaching that which Christ revealed to him. He is a true “apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised Him from the dead)” (Gal. 1:1). To reject Paul’s teaching is to reject God’s Word. To reject the truth of Paul’s gospel is to reject God.
Murray is the lead church planter and Bible teacher at Grace Fellowship Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife Cheryl have labored in the Gospel for many years despite the many discouragements along the way. Our brother is associated with “InDepth Studies”, the Acts 29 network of church planters, and more recently the uniquely Canadian C2C church planting network. In new covenant circles Murray is a long time contributor to new covenant thought and discussion.