Paul begins a defense of his apostleship and teaching. Apparently the false teachers have not only questioned his status as an apostle but have cast doubt on the origins of his teaching. They have said he is just a weak imitation of the Jerusalem apostles – Peter, James, John – and that his gospel message is a distorted version of what he heard in Judea. Paul responds with an explanation of his conversion and early life as a Christian to show that his gospel is from Christ alone and that his words are those of a true apostle.
Verse 11 is very similar to 1:1 where Paul stated his credentials as an apostle. Here he states the credentials of his message. In both cases the basis of the credibility is the same – he is an apostle not sent from men and his message is not according to man. In verse 12 he completes the thought by saying he did not receive the gospel from man and was not taught it by man but received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
He is defending himself against the accusation that his gospel is a distorted copy of what the true Jewish apostles teach. The false teachers have apparently said he is a phony apostle who simply passes on what he has been taught by others. He cannot be a true apostle because the true apostles would never desert the Law as Paul obviously has. Therefore his message must be a corrupted version of what he has heard. Paul answers the charges against him by making it clear that his message comes directly from God.
This gives incredible weight to his teaching. He is not merely passing along another’s gospel – he is speaking the actual words of God. He is Christ’s apostle speaking Christ’s words – words that he heard directly from the risen Son. Just like in 1:1, this claim separates him from the false teachers in a major way. It also directly contradicts their belittling of his teaching.
Paul offers as more proof his life before conversion. He reminds them of what they apparently already know about him (For you have heard…). He tells them he persecuted the church beyond measure and tried to destroy it. The destruction of the church was his life’s work and he poured himself into it. We know from other passages that he pursued Christians to their deaths and went house to house hunting them down. He was so zealous that he advanced in Judaism beyond his countrymen. His motivations for destroying the church were his ancestral traditions and possibly his own ambition (if I were still trying to please men – 1:10).
Paul’s reason for restating his prior life is likely twofold. First it shows there is no human explanation for his conversion. A man like he was would never have converted to the very movement he was trying to extinguish. He hated Christians and wanted them dead or banished. There is no explanation for his conversion outside of the direct intervention of God.
Such was the state of Saul of Tarsus before his conversion. He was a bigot and a fanatic, whole-hearted in his devotion to Judaism and in his persecution of Christ and the church. Now 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! – John Stott
Secondly it shows he was committed to the Law. The criticism that he does not teach the Law so he can curry the favor of men holds no water when his prior life is exposed. He was more zealous for the Law than many of his countrymen – likely more than the false teachers who accuse him of deserting it for his own gain (he also fully understands what it means to serve it). Teaching grace and freedom is completely at odds with his prior life. Since the Galatians know of his former manner of life in Judaism they should realize that his current life and teaching cannot be explained apart from direct revelation from God. (See Acts 26:2-18 for further details of Paul’s testimony.)
Paul explains his conversion and call as an apostle. He states three facts about his call: God set him apart from his mother’s womb; God called him through His grace; God revealed His Son in him. Note who does the acting – everything about his conversion is of God. Contrast this with verses 13-14 where the actor is Paul. Pre-conversion is all about Paul – conversion (and post-conversion) is all about God.
Thought: This is really the test of true conversion. A Christian’s life is radically realigned in its focus. He becomes all about the One who saved him. Christ died, Christ paid, Christ arose, Christ called, Christ covers with grace, Christ sustains, Christ loves. It is all about Christ and no longer about the one converted.
God called him and revealed Jesus to him on the Damascus Road but Paul says He also revealed Jesus IN me. He not only saw the risen Christ physically but his soul was changed and Christ became a part of him. The reason for this revelation was so Paul might preach Him among the Gentiles. Christ became such a part of Paul that Paul could speak His words to the world.
This is further proof of his calling. That Paul – a Pharisee zealous for his ancestral traditions – would bring the gospel to the Gentiles – people with whom he normally would not even speak – bears witness to the radical nature of his conversion.
Thought: Paul’s words in verse 16 give us further understanding of what constitutes true conversion. We become God’s children when He reveals His Son IN us. When we comprehend Jesus and are filled with His Spirit we are truly His. When our lives become all about Him and He actually becomes a part of us we can be called by His name.
Paul now responds to criticism that his teaching is simply a bad parroting of what he heard from other apostles.
After his conversion he did not seek out any of the other apostles – or really any other Christian at all. He did not immediately consult with flesh and blood and did not go up to Jerusalem. He instead went away to Arabia (desert area around Damascus), perhaps to meditate and pray, and then back to Damascus. It was not until three years later that he went to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem he spent only 15 days with Peter – and did not see any other apostle except for James (James is apparently called an apostle – see I Cor 15:7). His point here is that his message is completely God-centered and God-sourced – he did not even SEE another apostle until three years after his conversion and then only for 15 days. Fifteen days compared to three years is certainly not grounds for accusing him of being a second-rate disciple simply passing on what he heard in Jerusalem.
His claims about not going to Jerusalem for three years and even then not seeing any other apostles are so at odds with what the Galatians have heard (and likely so at odds with what they would expect a new convert to do) that in verse 20 he feels the need to reassure them that he is not lying. He pledges before God that he is telling the truth. “This is the real story and I swear it is the truth.” This shows some of the emotion behind Paul’s writing and his passion for making sure the Galatians do not fall away. He knows what is at stake with their eternity if they believe the false teachers. He also knows how convincing the accusations against him have been. So it makes sense to swear to them that he tells the truth and reassure them they are getting the whole story and he is not just twisting the truth to make it sound like he is someone he is not.
He wraps up this section of his defense by telling them that after Jerusalem he left Judea and went to Syria and Cilicia – the area around his hometown of Tarsus. He was so far outside of Judea that the churches of Judea did not know what he looked like. They only knew of his conversion and that instead of persecuting Christians he was now actually teaching the faith. For this they thanked and glorified God. (Even churches as Jewish Christian as the Judean churches could praise God for Paul, and yet the Judaizers at Galatia were critical of him – Donald Guthrie).
His point is that he could not be a trainee of the Judean churches (something else the false teaches apparently said about him) if he never went there until long after his conversion. If he was so unknown that they did not even know what he looked like, then he obviously could not have been taught there. Again, his gospel is his own – revealed to him directly by the risen Jesus.
By a simple recounting of the historical facts Paul sets before the Galatians what they should never have allowed anyone to make them doubt: he had his gospel directly from God and Christ, by revelation and not at secondhand, the identical gospel of all the other apostles, of all the churches in Judea – R.C.H. Lenski.
Thought #1: This portion of Galatians shows that the book is clearly a letter and illustrates one of the really neat things about the Bible. Paul has a very human reason for defending himself and establishing that he is not just a puppet of the Judean apostles. But in detailing his credentials he also gives us application for our current lives. This is a wonderful picture of how the Bible was written. Human authors with human concerns and personalities wrote in very human terms, yet their words were Spirit-inspired and apply to people in every age. Paul writes to the Galatians in his own way to address real problems with real people and yet the letter is worthy of our study thousands of years later because the Spirit makes it alive. When someone says the Bible is not the literal word of God, they show they do not know it – how else to explain its humanness and timeliness for the age it was written AND its applicability and life 2000 years later?
Thought #2: Paul’s retelling of his pre-conversion life is completely without pride. He tells the Galatians what kind of person he was and that he was rising in the ranks of Judaism only to show the radical nature of his conversion. His prior life is significant only in how it is now a testament to the saving work of Christ. This is the mark of a convert. The believer is one who restates his life story in terms of how it led him to Christ. Nothing else matters. A Christian’s life is all about his Savior and thus he emphasizes his past only to the extent that it glorifies the One who saved him from it. The first thing a convert does is tell his or her own biography in a new way. A basic reorientation is like this: what mattered most before no longer matters; what did not matter before is now central. The convert to Jesus Christ now perceives himself or herself entirely within the categories of a relationship to Jesus Christ – Scot McKnight.
Thought #3: While verses 15-16 recount Paul’s calling as an apostle they really recount the conversion of any believer. God sets us apart, God calls us through His grace, God reveals His Son in us through His Spirit. All of Him and all of grace. These verses summarize conversion and along with 1:3-5 give a wonderful synopsis of the gospel.