Last week we talked about how there is only one gospel, and to add or to take away from it is to invite God’s curse. This gospel is about how we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone without any good works.
Relationship between faith and good works
So a question came up about why Jesus condemns people in Matthew chapter 25 based on their absence of good works: “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matt 25:42-43).
Here is an illustration to help us understand the point.
We will be seeing from Paul’s letter to the Galatians that the gospel has a very strong foundation that goes all the way back to a promise God made to Abraham. The entire gospel is God’s outworking of that promise, that reached its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Gentiles (and that includes us) became “grafted” into faith because the Jews rejected Jesus and were “cut-off”. The universal church has grown out of that solid foundation of the apostles and the prophets and we are a part of it. There is no other gospel that can save us.
Our faith is the instrument of our salvation, and the outworking of our salvation is the “fruit of the spirit” as we will see later in this book, and “good works” that glorify Christ. Without new life through faith in Christ, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa 64:6). If there is genuine faith, the works will follow. Thus James says “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17) i.e., it was not faith at all. So Jesus can look at our lives for fruit. If he does not see any, He can say “Depart from me, I never knew you” (Matt 25:41). If there is no fruit, we are not part of the tree that comes from the one true gospel, and we will justly fall under Christ’s condemnation at the final judgment.
Early Life of Paul After his Conversion
In today’s passage, Paul is going to show us how he was taught by God Himself. Let us now turn to Gal 1:11-24. Paul says three things about himself here.
People were questioning his authority, and the source of Paul’s teaching. They were accusing him of not preaching the same gospel as was preached by the apostles in Jerusalem. There were trouble-makers following Paul and discrediting Paul’s teaching, and saying Gentiles needed to be circumcised. So Paul explains why his teaching is from God, and also consistent with that of the other apostles.
Paul Was a Persecutor
Paul was a very learned “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee … as for righteousness based on the law, faultless” (Phil 3:5-6). He was “brought up … at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God” (Acts 22:3).
Paul approved of the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1) and was “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). Luke says that during this time he was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), and at this time he “went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2).
Then something unbelievable happened! Saul of Tarsus the persecutor of the church became Paul the Apostle, the preacher of the gospel. This change was not gradual. While he was on the way to Damascus, He met Jesus who stopped him in his tracks (Acts 9:3-6). The glory of Jesus blinded him temporarily, and his heart made a full turn. The man who was so zealous in persecuting the church was instantly transformed into a man who would expend his life teaching and building up the church, undergoing much suffering, and paying the ultimate price for doing so.
How did this change come about? Could his fellow jews have caused it? No, they were the ones encouraging him in his rampage. Was it caused by the Christians he was persecuting? No! They were terrified to come near Paul when he went to Damascus. So if it was neither the Jews nor the Christians, who caused it? It had to have come about by God!
Paul Became a Believer
Thus Paul became a believer in Jesus. In Galatians he says several key facts about his conversion.
- God did it (Gal 1:15)
- Personally to Paul (Gal 1:16). God had “set Paul apart before he was born (Gal 1:15). God set His love on Paul and set Paul apart. God does this for each one of us as well. His love to us is not general but personal.
- By grace (Gal 1:15). Paul did not deserve this revelation, but God gave it to him by His grace. Out of that grace, God “called” Paul. The effective call of God always comes because of the grace of God. The two go together.
- Through Christ (Gal 1:16). Paul was changed because God “was pleased to reveal His Son in me”. To accept the gospel is to see Jesus clearly. Paul saw Jesus by physical revelation. We see Jesus with clarity in His Word through the illumination of the Holy Spirit by disciplined study.
- For the sake of others (Gal 1:16). God did not change Paul just to save Paul, but also that he would be God’s instrument in saving others.
- For God’s glory (Gal 1:24). Any true work of God will result not in praise of a person but in God being given glory.
Let us now ask a different question. Paul was an ardent student of the Old Testament, as we know. How had he completely missed the boat regarding Jesus until Jesus appeared to him?
Paul, just like all unbelieving Jews, had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom 10:2). He says in 2 Cor 3:14 of all unbelieving Jews including himself, that whenever he read the Old Testament there was a veil over his face that blinded him from seeing the truth.
The veil that prevented Paul from seeing the truth was instantly stripped away from his heart. Suddenly the Bible of his day came alive to him in a way that it had never been before. So what do you think Paul did? He went away to Arabia for 3 years (Gal 1:17). Why? He wanted to sit at the feet of Jesus. Jesus told Paul on that Damascus road that he was to “witness to the things in which [he] had seen [Jesus] and to those in which [Jesus] would appear to [him]” (Acts 26:16). Did Jesus physically appear to him and teach him as is possibly indicated from Acts 26:16? We do not know for sure. However, that is not necessary for what followed. Do you remember one of the last things Jesus said to his disciples? “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:12-13). So in Arabia, Paul unlearned all that he had learned, and relearned the truth through the Holy Spirit, along with some new revelations. And boy! Learn he did! And you know what? None of this came from any human being, but directly from God Himself (Gal 1:16-17).
God used Paul’s brilliant mind as well as his intimate knowledge of the Old Testament to help him understand and clearly formulate what it really meant. Remember, Jesus said the Pharisees had failed to recognize Jesus even though a proper reading of the Old Testament should have made it obvious? “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me” (John 5:46). Paul gets to clearly understand God’s grand plan of redemption spanning the history of humanity, completely harmonizing with the Old Testament. This is the wealth that we get when we study Paul’s writings in the New Testament, as we are doing now.
Paul is Now a Preacher
Let us now create a brief timeline of the initial 15 odd years of Paul’s life after his conversion.
- Initial preaching in Damascus (Acts 9:20-22).
- Deep private study in Arabia for 3 years (Gal 1:17).
- Brief visit to Damascus, then Jerusalem. He spent only 15 days in Jerusalem meeting Peter and James, being introduced by Barnabas. Likely the other apostles were too afraid of him to meet him. During these 15 days, he also did a lot of preaching (Gal 1:18-20, Acts 9:26-28). He did not have much time with Peter and James for them to have been able to teach him the “whole counsel of God”.
- Back to Syria and Cicilia. He may have preached on the way there. Tarsus is in Cicilia. He remained in Tarsus for 7 years working privately and not preaching much. He apparently did not want to impose himself, but to allow God to confirm his calling through others. Being so far from Jerusalem, not many Christians knew him, other than rumors “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal 1:23).
- Persecution drove Christians out of Jerusalem, and some of them witnessed in Antioch, and many people became Christians (Acts 11:20). The church in Jerusalem sends Barnabas to pastor the new church in Antioch. Barnabas remembered Paul, and went to Tarsus looking for him and brought him to Antioch as its co-pastor (Acts 11:25-26). This is when Paul’s ministry as an Apostle officially began.
- Paul and Barnabas collect relief to the poor in Jerusalem due to their losses after the famine and persecution (Acts 11:30).
- Antioch church commissions him and Barnabas on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:2).
- Paul and Barnabas visit southern Galatia in his first missionary journey founding these churches in Southern Galatia – Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:13-52), Iconium (Acts 14:1-7), Lystra (Acts 14:8-19) and Derbe (Acts 14:20-23).
- Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch and give a report of their journey (Acts 14:24-26).
Paul Endorsed by the Apostles (Gal 2:1-10)
So Paul and Barnabas are back in their local church Antioch. However, some of the Judaizers go there and cause trouble, saying that Gentiles must be circumcised (Acts 15:1). There is a big conflict and debate between them and also Paul and Barnabas, and they are sent to Jerusalem to figure it out. They take Titus, a gentile Christian with them (Gal 2:1).
Paul meets the apostles privately to make sure they were all on the same page (Gal 2:2). There was some conflict because of “false brothers” who infiltrated the meeting (Gal 2:4), but Paul and Barnabas did not “did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved” (Gal 2:5). The results were huge. Titus was not forced to be circumcised (Gal 2:3). The apostles found nothing lacking or wrong in Paul’s teaching (Gal 2:6-8), and extended fellowship to them. Even more than that, they endorse Paul going to the Gentiles. The only thing they asked was that Paul was not just about theology but also about compassion (Gal 2:10), and that was exactly what Paul and Barnabas were already doing in Antioch (Acts 11:30).
Zeal is Not Sufficient for Salvation. Paul said that Jews are lost apart from Christ, even though they have “zeal without knowledge”. Let us note that if this was true for Jews, it is also true for every non-Christian friend we have, even the most sincere, zealous ones. It is possible to be very sincere and very zealous and not be saved. Every one of our friends needs the gospel, or they will be eternally lost.
The entire Bible is the Word of God. Let us not think that the “red letters” in our Bible, which are the words of Jesus have more value than the rest of the Bible. Paul makes it clear that everything he has said came directly from God Himself. His words are no less inspired than the words of Jesus. What we have in the books of the New Testament after the four gospels, are the things Jesus knew His disciples could not bear at the time they were with Him, and promised that the Holy Spirit would remind them of his words (John 14:26). He would also reveal to them the things Jesus could not tell them yet (John 16:12-13). This covers Acts and all the epistles. The Holy Spirit would also reveal to them things to come (John 16:13). This includes the Book of Revelation. So if you have had questions about how we know that the New Testament is inspired, here it is!
The miracle that happened to Paul happens to everyone who becomes a Christian. All of us were spiritually blind before we knew Christ. The Bible says the gospel “is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:3-4). However, the Bible says: “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:16). This is what Jesus calls being born again. It is a supernatural miracle that God performs in our hearts. So suddenly it is as if the lights are turned on. Paul likens this miracle to that when God said “Let there be light” during creation. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
We See God’s Glory in Scripture With “Unveiled Faces”. Once this miracle happens in our hearts, Paul says “we all, with unveiled faces” are “beholding the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor 2:18), through the illumination of God the Holy Spirit. This is why you are all here in this Bible Study. The Holy Spirit is giving you glimpses of the glory of God and you are hungry for more. And as He satisfies that hunger while you gaze at the picture of the glory of Christ as revealed in Scripture, each of you “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18) through the power of the Holy Spirit! What a privilege each of us have to encounter God in this way!
I would like to encourage each of you who are not seeing these glimpses of the glory of God from His Word, the way I have just described. The indwelling Holy Spirit makes His Word alive to all whose hearts have been touched by Jesus Christ. So if you find the Bible to be a dry book, ask God to open your eyes, and to touch your heart. What happened to Paul happens to us – just as miraculously if not as dramatically! Jesus can really reveal Himself to you from his Word, and this is the most precious gift He gives us as believers – the unspeakable privilege of being taught the meaning of the Word of God by the Holy Spirit to enable us to grow in our knowledge and love of God.