22 Jul 2021
A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 1:20-24. Alibi 3. Paul went off to Syria and Cilicia.
This visit to the extreme north corresponds to Acts 9:30 where we are told that Paul, who was already in danger for his life, was brought by the brethren to Caesarea, where they ‘sent him off to Tarsus’, which is in Cilicia. Since he says here that he ‘went into the regions of Syria’ as well, he may have revisited Damascus and called at Antioch on his way to Tarsus. Be that as it may, the point Paul is making is that he was up in the far north, nowhere near Jerusalem.
As a result, he ‘was still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea’ (verse 22). They only knew him by hearsay, and the rumour they had heard was that their erstwhile persecutor had turned preacher (verse 23). Indeed, he had become a preacher of ‘the faith’ which they had accepted and which previously he had ‘tried to destroy’. Learning this ‘they glorified God because of me’. They did not glorify Paul, but God in Paul, recognizing that Paul was a signal trophy of God’s grace.
Not until fourteen years later (2:1), presumably meaning fourteen years after his conversion, did Paul revisit Jerusalem and have a more prolonged consultation with the other apostles. By that time his gospel was fully developed. But during the fourteen year period between his conversion and this consultation he had paid only one brief and insignificant visit to Jerusalem. The rest of the time he had spent in distant Arabia, Syria and Cilicia. His alibis proved the independence of his gospel.
What Paul has been saying in verses 13 to 24 may be summarized thus: The fanaticism of his pre-conversion career, the divine initiative in his conversion, and his almost total isolation from the Jerusalem church leaders afterwards together combined to demonstrate that his message was not from man but from God. Further, this historical, circumstantial evidence could not be gainsaid. The apostle is able to confirm and guarantee it by a solemn affirmation: ‘In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!’ (verse 20).
We return, in conclusion, to the assertion which these autobiographical details have been marshalled to establish. Verses 11 and 12: *For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ*. Having considered Paul’s lack of contact with the Jerusalem apostles during the first fourteen years of his apostolate, can we accept the divine origin of his message? Many do not.
Some people admire Paul’s massive intellect, but find his teaching harsh, dry and complicated; so they reject it.
Others say that Paul was responsible for corrupting the simple Christianity of Jesus Christ. It was fashionable about a century ago to drive a wedge between Jesus and Paul. It is generally recognized nowadays, however, that you cannot do this, for all the seeds of Paul’s theology are to be found in the teaching of Jesus. Nevertheless the ‘wedge theory’ still has its advocates. For example, Lord Beaverbrook wrote a little life of Christ which he called *The divine Propagandist*. He tells us that he wrote it ‘as a man of affairs’, and that he was ‘trying to understand Jesus in the flickering light of a limited intelligence and certainly restricted research’. ‘I have searched the gospels and neglected theology,’ he says. His theme is that the church has much misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus Christ. As for the apostle Paul, Lord Beaverbrook’s opinion is that he was ‘incapable by nature of understanding the spirit of the Master’. He ‘did damage to Christianity and left his imprint by wiping out many of the traces of the footsteps of his Master’. But Paul cannot have misrepresented Christ if he was communicating a special revelation of Christ, which is what he claims in Galatians 1.
Other people take the view that Paul was just an ordinary man, sharing our passions and our fallibility, so that his opinion is no better than anybody else’s. But Paul says his message is not according to man but from Jesus Christ.
Yet others say that Paul simply reflected the view of the first-century Christian community. But Paul is at pains in this passage to show that his authorization was not ecclesiastical. He was totally independent of the church leaders. He got his views from Christ, not from the church.
This, then, is our dilemma. Are we to accept Paul’s account of the origin of his message, supported as it is by solid historical evidence? Or shall we prefer our own theory, although supported by no historical evidence? If Paul was right in asserting that his gospel was not man’s but God’s (cf. Rom.1:1), then to reject Paul is to reject God.
Tomorrow: Galatians 2:1-10 Only one Gospel.