Bible Book List
Galatians 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Conversion and Call

The best evidence for Paul's claim to have received his gospel by revelation from Jesus Christ is his conversion. The dramatic change in his life demands some explanation. How could such a fanatical opponent of the followers of Christ become such a devoted preacher of the gospel of Christ? Paul explains that the cause of such a radical change was God's gracious revelation of his Son to him. To appreciate the impact of God's intervention in Paul's life we need to look more closely at three pictures Paul gives of himself: (1) the picture of himself before his conversion; (2) the picture of his encounter with Christ; (3) the picture of himself after God called him.

1. Paul reviews the record of his pre-Christian life in order to show the wonder of God's grace. Twice he refers to his past as his life in Judaism. Although he never ceased to identify himself as a Jew ("I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin"--Rom 11:1), he only used in Judaism as a way of describing his life before he became a new creation "in Christ." The term Judaism was used in Jewish literature for "the Jewish way of belief and life" as contrasted to the way of life in Hellenism. In other words, the distinctive Jewish beliefs and customs which established the boundaries between the Jewish people and the rest of the Hellenistic world were of supreme importance to Paul before his conversion, but they were of no importance after his conversion. Jewish identity markers such as circumcision, kosher food and sabbath observance were Paul's primary concern before his conversion; but they were no longer significant for Paul after he found his new identity in Christ. As he declares at the end of his letter: "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation" (6:15).

The contrast between Paul and the Galatian believers stands out in bold relief here. As a Jew, he had turned from his preoccupation with the distinctive Jewish way of life to serve the risen Christ; as Gentiles, they were turning from their focus on Christ to a preoccupation with the distinctive Jewish way of life. No wonder Paul calls them "foolish Galatians" (3:1).

Paul draws attention to two characteristics of his previous way of life in Judaism: his intense persecution of the church (1:13) and his zealous devotion to Jewish traditions (1:14). The two are connected. The message of the church, that a crucified Messiah provides salvation for all, contradicted the traditions of Judaism. Certainly a Messiah on a Roman cross contradicted the Jewish expectation of a Messiah on David's throne. And Jews believed that salvation was to be found only in the law-observant Jewish nation. No wonder then that Paul's zeal for the Jewish traditions made him a fanatical persecutor of the church.

This description of his former life has direct application in the development of his argument. The Galatian believers' preoccupation with Judaism is challenged by this alarming picture of the consequences of devotion to Judaism in his own life. And his point that the gospel he received was not from human beings but by revelation from Jesus Christ is confirmed by this picture of a fanatic who was so opposed to the gospel that no one could have changed his mind except God himself.

2. In his description of his former life, Paul himself is the subject of all the verbs: I persecuted . . . tried to destroy . . . I was advancing . . . and was extremely zealous. In contrast to Paul's ego-centered former life, God himself is the central subject in Paul's conversion. God is the subject of all the verbs: God, who set me apart . . . called . . . was pleased to reveal. God abruptly interrupted Paul's life and turned him around.

As we study Paul's account of his conversion, we can observe four dimensions of God's work in conversion. Of course, Paul's experience of conversion was unique and cannot be used as a model for all to follow. God works in unique ways with each individual. But Paul's account does shed light on the nature of God's gracious work in conversion.

First, God's choice precedes conversion. Like the prophets, Paul sees himself as set apart by God from his birth for his prophetic role (see Is 49:1 and Jer 1:4-5). Although he recognizes that his former life was lived in opposition to God's will, he still claims that his entire life is part of the sovereign plan of God. We may not be able to explain this apparent contradiction, but we can learn from Paul that the sovereignty of God is never an excuse for rebellion against God; it is a basis for trust in God's wisdom and love. As an old hymn puts it, "We'll praise Him for all that is past / And trust Him for all that's to come."

Second, God's decision to set Paul apart from birth led to the life-transforming event of God's gracious call. The two parallel phrases (set me apart . . . called me) teach us that conversion is based on God's loving initiative. Before Paul was born, God chose him. While Paul was trying to destroy the people of God, God called him. That is the meaning of grace: undeserved love. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!"

Third, God's gracious call led to revelation: God was pleased to reveal his Son in me. The inwardness of God's revelation stressed here by the phrase in me should not be taken as a contradiction of Paul's claims elsewhere to have seen the risen Christ (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8; see also Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:12-18). Paul strongly affirmed the external, objective nature of his encounter with Christ on the Damascus Road. But in that encounter, Paul says, God "made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor 4:6). God's revelation of his Son in Paul illuminated his mind and heart so that he saw and knew Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul's exclamation "Christ lives in me" (2:20) expresses the lasting result of this inward encounter with the living Christ. The danger of substituting external observance of the law for this intimate relationship with Christ is the central burden of Paul's message to the Galatian believers. His lengthy arguments lead to this point: "God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts" (4:6). His severe warnings alert them to this danger: "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ" (5:4).

Fourth, Paul says that revelation was given so that I might preach him among the Gentiles (1:16). Paul's conversion included his commission to preach the gospel. He did not have a two-stage experience: first conversion, sometime later a commission to preach. His mission to the Gentiles was given to him in the initial experience of conversion. Christ met him on the road to Damascus in order to send him on his mission to the world. As a result Paul interpreted the gospel itself in the light of his mission to the Gentiles. He called his gospel "the gospel to the Gentiles" (2:7).

God's revelation of his Son is a personal, inward experience of the heart, but it was not meant to be kept private. The purpose of revelation is evangelism. The fruit of true conversion is mission. Evangelism is not some optional extra, an elective course that may or may not be taken. It is the inevitable result of real conversion. There is a centrifugal force released in the experience of conversion which compels the truly converted to participate in God's mission to the world. Too often in testimonies the only results of conversion we hear about are the personal benefits: my peace, my fulfillment, my freedom. But we learn from Paul that God's primary purpose for our conversion is to send us out into the world with the good news about Christ. Our involvement in God's mission in the world is the best testimony to God's gracious work of conversion in our lives.

3. The conclusion of Paul's conversion story is that after his conversion he did not consult any man. The phrase any man in the NIV is a paraphrase for "flesh and blood." When Peter affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood [by man--NIV], but by my Father in heaven" (Mt 16:17). Now Paul claims that the same thing is true for his revelation from God.

We can catch the flow of his argument so far by summarizing it this way. The thesis that I did not receive the gospel from any human being but by revelation from Jesus Christ (1:11-12) is demonstrated by the following facts: I was opposed to the church before my conversion (vv. 13-14); in my conversion, God himself revealed his Son in me; and I did not consult with the church after my conversion (vv. 15-17). Paul's argument is designed to show that he is not dependent on or subordinate to any other church leaders for his authority to preach his gospel to the Gentiles. His authority is derived from the gospel that had been revealed to him by God. Therefore when the Galatians turn away from the gospel preached by Paul, they are turning away from God.

Paul is especially concerned to prove that he was not dependent on the original apostles in Jerusalem. He denies that he visited them immediately after his conversion (v. 17). Perhaps Paul is responding here to an accusation that his failure to require circumcision was a departure from the true gospel that he had been commissioned to preach by the original apostles in Jerusalem. It's difficult to know what accusations, if any, Paul is responding to in this part of his argument. But we can be sure that whether Paul is on the defensive or on the offensive, he is determined to prove that his gospel was given by divine revelation, not human tradition, and that his commission to preach this gospel to the Gentiles was part of that divine revelation. He did not receive his commission from the original apostles. While he recognizes the original apostles' priority in time, he adamantly denies that they or their messengers have any authority to change his gospel to the Gentiles, since they are not the source of that gospel--God is.

Instead of visiting the original apostles in Jerusalem after his conversion, Paul went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus (v. 17). It seems clear from the context that Paul is setting up a contrast between going to Jerusalem to receive teaching from the apostles and going to Arabia. Does this contrast imply that during his time in Arabia he received teaching from the Lord? Many commentators have thought so, and it seems a reasonable inference to draw from the context. But we must admit that Paul does not disclose what happened during the time in Arabia. Those were hidden years, at least hidden from any public, historical record.

In our day, when celebrities are converted, the religious media rush to publicize their conversions for the widest possible audience. Put them on TV; feature them in prime-time talk shows. But this immediate publicity can be dangerous to the spiritual health of new converts. Under the harsh, glaring lights of the media they have no space to think through the implications of their new faith, to work through their inconsistencies and to listen to the Lord. They sometimes feel used and abused. They need time, as we all do, to be hidden from the public eye in order to grow and deepen in their faith. Hidden years seem to be part of God's plan for his servants. Moses spent forty years in the desert before his day of fame in Pharaoh's court.

Previous commentary:
Thesis Statement

Next commentary:
Paul's First Visit with Peter in Jerusalem

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.