The book of Galatians is Paul’s defense of his ministry and message. The gospel was hijacked by false teachers who twisted God’s word and presented a different message as if it was the true gospel. Paul’s righteous anger drives him to write this letter to the churches he planted in Galatia. 1:1-10 set the tone. 1:11-24 continues the defense.
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
There were some in Galatia who said Paul got his gospel from the apostles, and like a game of “Password,” Paul had slightly changed the message along the way. We’re not really saved by grace alone. Obedience to the law justifies us along with God’s grace. Paul wants to make something crystal clear. He uses the phrase “For I would have you know.” This is a rhetorical device that recurs throughout Paul’s letters when he wants to stress a point. The point here is that the gospel he preached was not man’s invention but God’s revelation. The message came down from heaven in the person of Jesus Christ and was given as a revelation of his grace to Paul and to the Galatians.
Why does this matter? Because if it was man’s gospel, changing the message makes sense. More information, more insight, more time to think it over may provide valid reasons for altering the message. But Paul got his message from Jesus, not from man. Therefore, it is unchangeable because God is unchangeable. As John Frame says, “If God sets the standards, we may not argue with him. For us to debate with God is as ridiculous as for clay to debate with its potter (Isa. 45:9-11).” And arguing is exactly what these Galatian false teachers were doing. They were arguing not with Paul, but with God.
After all, Paul was a zealous Jew. If anyone was unwilling to bend the law at any point, it was Paul. He would have loved a gospel that came alongside the law, helping the law justify a sinner. But that’s not what the gospel does. It doesn’t sidle up to the law like a friend in an AA meeting. It comes in like a doctor to a patient on the operating table. Paul’s message was that radical, and his radical life-change gave credence to his message.
There was nothing in Paul’s past that set him up for a favorable reception of the gospel. He includes part of his story in verses 13-17 to show us the shift in his life. He was sincere in his Jewish faith but sincerely wrong in his conclusions. Rather than covering those sins, Paul writes them down for everyone throughout history to see! That’s the kind of change Jesus creates in the gospel. We become people willing to share our shameful past because of the bright future Jesus has given to us. When God reveals his gospel to us, we become honest about our past and use our story to help others understand God’s story. Only freedom in Christ can create such honesty.
Paul’s Judaism led him to persecute the church of God. What Paul was doing was an attack on the people he thought he was protecting: God’s elect. His desire for the purity of God’s word drove him to approve the killing of God’s people because he believed they were redefining the boundaries of Israel by following Jesus. He had no idea that Jesus had redefined the boundaries for them. It wasn’t their message. It was God’s. Paul just hadn’t heard it yet. When Paul did hear the gospel, he experienced a complete life change.
First, God set Paul apart from birth to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Martin Luther comments.
God has sanctified, ordained, and prepared him. God has appointed, when Paul was still in his mother’s womb, that he who raged against his church would afterwards by God’s grace alone be mercifully recalled from this cruelty and blasphemy into the way of truth and salvation. In short, when Paul was not yet born, he was an apostle in God’s sight; and when the time came, he was declared an apostle before the whole word.
Thus Paul removes all thought of merit and gives glory to God alone, and to himself only shame and confusion. This is like saying, “All the gifts, both small and great, both spiritual and physical, that God intended to give me, and all the good things that at any time in all my life I would do, God himself had already arranged when I was still in my mother’s womb, where I could neither wish, think, nor do any good thing. Therefore, this gift came to me by the predestination and free mercy of God before I was born. After I was born, he reached out to me who was loaded with innumerable and most horrible iniquities. And in order to make very plain the unutterable and inestimable greatness of his mercy to me, he solely by grace forgave my abominable and infinite sins and moreover replenished me with such abundant grace that I not only knew what was given to us in Christ but also preach it to others.”
Our faith is not some divine accident. It is God’s predestined plan.
Second, Paul was called by God in his grace. Because Paul was set apart before birth to the gospel cause, in due course, Paul was called by God’s grace to believe the gospel. There are thousands of pounds of theological weight here. It was God’s electing grace that saved Paul, not Paul’s ability to achieve salvation on his own. If we boil the gospel down to the basic ingredients, this is one of them. We are called by God to repent and believe. How does this happen? By God’s gift of repentance and faith through his divine call. God overcomes our resistance to him by wooing us to himself and causing love to rise from our heart to him because his love has come into us and transformed us from God-haters into God-lovers.
Third, God was pleased to reveal his Son. This language shows us the beauty of God’s love. It’s not that God is compelled by Jesus’ sacrifice to now do something for his people that he wouldn’t otherwise desire to do. No, God the Father is pleased to reveal his Son, Jesus Christ. This shows us that the gospel is, at the foundational level, a story of God’s love. It is an exaltation of love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Like a Father who has a surprise for his child hidden behind the couch, God the Father cannot wait to reveal his Son to Paul. He ushers him into the room, turns on the lights, and with a smile, brings Jesus out from the shadows. And Paul’s heart grows three sizes that day, as he beholds the Son in his glory. God is pleased to give us himself. And when he gives himself to us, he gives our joy to others as we share the gospel.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
In these verses, Paul continues his defense of the origins of his ministry. As Timothy George says, “The whole argument in this passage hinges on the threefold use of the adverb then (1:18, 21; 2:1). In the previous sentence, Paul informed us of his immediate whereabouts following his conversion, an itinerary that involved preaching in Damascus and a sojourn in Arabia, but not a trip to Jerusalem. Now, extending that clarification, he wanted to specify precisely when he did go to Jerusalem and what the nature of his visit there was. Each of the three “then” clauses forms a crucial link in his alibi against the false charges of his Galatian adversaries.”
Paul went to Jerusalem after three years to visit Peter. The grammar Paul uses indicates he went to get to know Peter, not to get to know Peter’s message. They already both received the same message. He didn’t seek any kind of authorization or validation. He already had that from Jesus himself. While there, he didn’t see anyone else other than James. Once again, his message came from God, not man.
Paul then swears that what he’s saying is true. He does this because his opponents in Galatia had done so much damage to his reputation that he must use the strongest terms possible to prove his truthfulness. He is no rogue disciple. He is in accordance with all the apostles of Jesus, with one message of God’s grace. What he preached is not some derived gospel message. It is the only gospel message. God justifies us by grace alone through faith alone apart from all our works in the person of Jesus Christ alone.
Paul then went from Jerusalem into Syria and Cilicia. He includes this because it shows Paul’s ministry began. He didn’t sit and wait for any kind of commissioning. He had already received it from the Lord Jesus. So, he got to work. But where he worked was not where the big shots of his day would have worked. God often calls his people to labor in obscurity for a long time. Timothy George comments, “God sometimes calls his servants to labor in obscure places and under difficult circumstances in order to make them ready for some particular task or assignment unknown to them at the time. It may well be that Paul would not have had the wisdom to write Romans, or the equanimity to deal with the fractious Corinthians, or the courage to withstand the false teachers of Galatia, or the endurance to face arrest in Jerusalem and martyrdom in Rome had it not been for the ten years or so he spent laboring in little-known places with results difficult to quantify.”
But Paul’s life change was a news story. Though they didn’t know all the details, people did hear about the man who once persecuted the church now preaching and laboring on behalf of the church. Paul’s conversion had an effect. It showed the world something of God’s glory: “And they glorified God because of me.”
Paul’s desire was to glorify God. It was always his desire, even in his Judaism. But to glorify God, Paul had to be destroyed. His righteousness had to be slain and replaced with Jesus’ righteousness. Paul thought he could glorify God by obeying the law and rising the ranks of the Judaism of his day. He thought he could glorify God by persecuting and destroying the sect of Judaism following Jesus, whom they labeled as the Messiah. But Paul was wrong. It was not in his exaltation or good works that he would glorify God, but in his humility. It was in his death to Judaism and life to Christ that Paul was to bring God’s glory to the forefront.
How does God glorify himself in your life? Much the same way. Let me use myself as an example. I came awake to the gospel in a college dorm room in 2003. I had said the “sinner’s prayer” a long time ago on my couch in my parent’s house, but it wasn’t until a winter day in Lexington, Kentucky that I realized I was a hopeless sinner in need of God’s grace. When I saw that, I finally saw Jesus.
I had arrived on the fuel of my own hopes and desires. I departed a few months later in the arms of Jesus. I had no great fall that brought me down. I simply found Christian friends that followed Jesus as Lord and God used them to change my life. I saw that Jesus was real. God was pleased to reveal his Son to me, and I believed.
My former life was filled with sinfulness, much of it unspeakable. It wasn’t only my actions, it was my thoughts and desires. I was ungodly in every sense of the word. I wanted nothing of what God wanted. I wanted what I wanted, and mainly, that was to feel as good as possible. I wanted to be desired, but not by God. I wanted to be loved, but not by Jesus. I wanted to be meaningful, but not in humility.
So, here I was: a college freshman with an out of control sexual lust but with no physical outlet. So, the internet became my gateway into fantasy. I lived there for longer than I wanted to but I couldn’t get out. I sought relief in things that could never relieve any true desire. I pursued pleasure in unpleasurable things. Such is the life without God.
Then, something happened. God broke through and revealed his Son to me. It was primarily through a sermon on Romans 5:1-5. I have no idea who preached the sermon, and I have no idea why it was so meaningful, but God used it as a cataclysmic shift in my heart. I went back to my dorm and I read the Bible. I skipped classes to read the New Testament. I found Jesus in those pages. I found joy. I found life. My heart was changed, but it took a long time for my actions to change. Sinfulness doesn’t fall off like hair does during a haircut. It’s not that simple. It lingers like a bad cold—better some days, worse on others. It sticks around until the power of grace has gotten into the bloodstream. And even then, it never fully dies. It’s always there, rising to the surface, keeping us in constant need of Jesus.
Here’s my point. God saved me. He didn’t then use me in some world-changing way. In fact, this story isn’t about me at all. It’s about God. It’s about that preacher whose name I don’t know, in a city I lived in for only eight months, in a dorm room of which I can’t even remember the name. God saves people. We don’t save ourselves. And when we are saved, he gives us himself in totality. The same message that Paul received as a revelation from God is the message that we receive as a revelation from God through the Scriptures.
What glorifies God? A changed heart. When God is pleased to reveal his Son, he changes a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. He saves a sinner from his wrath. He transfers those dwelling in the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Saving sinners glorifies God because it’s all his work for people who work against him. He overcomes our heart with his grace so that from the heart we praise his grace. We become what we could never achieve so that we can see what only God can do.
So, how were you saved? What gospel did you believe?