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You might expect that after Paul rebuked the Galatians for desertion he would challenge them to recommit themselves to Christ. Eventually he does command them to "stand firm" (5:1). But before he challenges them, he prepares the way for his imperatives by telling his own story. He does not call for his readers to do anything that he has not done himself. He does not simply point to the way; he has lived out the way of faithfulness to the gospel of Christ. We might do well to learn from Paul that the best way to challenge others to live for Christ is by our own example.
The key to understanding Paul's life story is his encounter with Christ. Paul gives us that key right at the beginning of his autobiography. He wants his dear brothers and sisters to know that the gospel he preached was not made up by human beings, received from human beings or taught to him by human beings; rather, it was received by revelation from Jesus Christ. Note how the not . . . nor . . . rather structure of this claim is parallel to the structure of his affirmation of his apostolic authority in verse 1. Just as he vigorously denied any human origin of his apostleship, so now he denies any human origin for the gospel he preached.
Perhaps these strong denials are Paul's refutation of accusations that he got his message secondhand from the original apostles. Perhaps the troublemakers in the Galatian churches were suggesting that they had a more complete version of the gospel from the original apostles and that the gospel Paul had preached was abbreviated or truncated. But we have little clear evidence to support any theory about the teaching of Paul's opponents. Whatever may have been said about him or his message, Paul wants to make sure that everyone will clearly understand the gospel he preaches. So he affirms in the strongest terms possible that the essential nature of the gospel is God-made, not man-made, because the origin of the gospel he preaches is the revelation from Jesus Christ, not human tradition. The rest of his autobiographical account is constructed to support his claim for the revelatory origin and nature of the gospel.
Before we continue our study of Paul's autobiography, however, we must address a question that is raised by his claim in this passage that he did not receive the gospel from any human being. This claim seems to be contradicted by his assertion in 1 Corinthians that he had received the gospel from others (1 Cor 15:3-11: "For what I received I passed on to you"). It is helpful to understand the different contexts for these statements. The Corinthians were in danger of subtracting from the central content of the gospel by denying the resurrection of Christ. They were probably influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, which affirmed the immortality of the soul but denied the resurrection of the body. In that context Paul emphasized that from the very beginning of the gospel tradition everyone agreed that the bodily resurrection of Christ was central to the gospel. Paul's gospel did not differ from the early Christian tradition in its basic content. Thus he was eager to affirm that the gospel he had passed on to the Corinthian church was the same as he himself had received from the early church.
The Galatians, however, were in danger of adding to the central content of the gospel by requiring Gentile Christians to maintain a Jewish lifestyle. They may have been influenced by the law-observant Jerusalem church. In this context Paul could not appeal to early church tradition or practice for support. But he could and did appeal to his revelatory encounter with the risen Christ when he was commissioned to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. His mission to the Gentiles was part of his gospel; it was a gospel for Gentiles. Paul understood his Gentile mission to imply that Gentiles would be justified by faith in Christ apart from observance of the Mosaic law. So when he claims that his gospel was not received from any human being (1:12), his focus is not so much the central facts of the gospel as it is the meaning of those facts for Gentiles which was given to him by revelation from Jesus Christ. In fact, as we see in the rest of his autobiography, it is the gospel for Gentiles that is Paul's primary concern.
We may illustrate Paul's unique understanding of the gospel in the light of his Gentile mission by recognizing that every Christian is uniquely gifted by God for a special mission in life. This does not mean that every Christian can claim to have received special revelation as Paul did. But because each Christian is uniquely gifted by the Spirit and called to serve God in some special way, each Christian has a very personal understanding of the gospel message. For example, as I have attempted to contextualize the gospel for the Chinese people in Singapore, where I teach, I have developed a fresh understanding of the meaning of the gospel for Singaporeans: Buddhism's aim to set us free from destructive desires and Confucianism's aim to achieve harmony in our families are both fulfilled when Christ rules in our hearts and homes. All true Christians agree on the basic content of the gospel as Paul defines it in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, but each Christian sees the gospel in a unique way through the lens of his or her distinctive God-given mission in life.