Please accept the challenge to view Paul’s circumstances and experiences through Paul’s eyes! The issue is not, “How do you look at what happened to Paul?” The issue is, “How did Paul see what happened to him?”
In his pre-Christian life, this man absolutely was convinced he was right. He correctly understood religious teaching. He correctly understood the spiritual thrust of faithfulness. He knew God’s intent in the Messiah. He had the correct focus on God’s will in his personal understanding and commitment. It was right to learn and defend ancient Jewish traditions (Galatians 1:14). It was right to kill Stephen for his views about Israel, the Messiah, and the temple (Acts 8:1). It was right to despise, humiliate, and imprison Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah that God promised Israel (Acts 8:3). It was right to use physical force in synagogues against Christian Jewish men and women in his attempt to get them to declare Jesus was not the Christ (Acts 26:9-11). It was right to go to Damascus, Syria to arrest Christian Jewish men and women in the synagogues and return them to Palestine for trial (Acts 9:1, 2). It was so right, so true to God’s will, so true to God’s intent in the nation of Israel, and so protective of what God revealed about Israel in scripture that he willingly arrested Christian Jews, he willingly imprisoned Christian Jews, and he willingly voted for the death of Christian Jews. When a person believes he is right with such conviction that he kills for his beliefs, he is totally devoted to the ‘rightness’ of his convictions with zero doubt!
In the midst of carrying out the logical conclusion of his conviction, in a blinding instant, in a sudden flash, he knew beyond doubt that he was wrong (Acts 9:5). The person he said could not possibly be the Messiah was the Messiah! The resurrection he declared to be a fraud actually happened! Jesus was God’s son! Every Christian Jewish man and woman who suffered because of Paul’s zeal, every family who suffered as a result of Paul’s zeal wrongfully experienced persecution and pain!
As a result, this successful man who was certain he was right about Judaism [he was powerful and successful though his views were erroneous!] endured ineffectiveness when he actually was right about Jesus’ identity. When he wrongly declared Jesus to be a fraud, he was powerful. When he correctly declared that Jesus truly was the Christ, he was ineffective among Jewish people. Though he cared for his people deeply, he could not lead them to Christ (Romans 10:1-3). In his opposition to Jesus as the Messiah, his people found him quite credible. In championing Jesus as the Messiah, his people viewed him as a despised traitor.
Paul’s Failure Multiplied
Consider how Paul’s life seemed to go from one failure to another. He was wrong when he concluded Jesus was a fraud. Yet, when he correctly understood that Jesus was the Christ, the Jewish people who celebrated his commitment began to curse his existence. The Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah were horrified when Paul stopped opposing Jesus and began defending Jesus. They did not view him as ‘better informed’! They classified him as a traitor to Israel! As a traitor, they wanted to kill him, and they made serious attempts to kill him (Acts 9:23-25).
When Paul returned to Jerusalem on his first visit as a Christian, Jewish Christians reacted to his presence with fear or with contempt. Christian Jews were afraid of him. Before Paul was a Christian, some Jewish Christians suffered some horrible things as a result of Paul’s actions. Therefore, the majority of Jewish Christians did not believe Paul was Jesus’ disciple. With Paul’s past in the Jerusalem area, his following Jesus seemed unbelievable and impossible! Perhaps he simply was trying to penetrate the Jewish Christian community as a spy! Had it not been for Barnabas taking Paul to the apostles and vouching for Paul’s conversion, Paul may have been shunned by Jewish Christians (Acts 9:27).
The Jewish community that rejected Jesus as the Messiah resented Paul. Paul was bold as he talked and argued with the Hellenistic Jews about the identity of Jesus. These Jews held such resentment toward Paul that they wanted to kill him [they succeeded in having Stephen executed]. When Jewish Christians learned of their plot, they sent Paul home to Tarsus (Acts 9:29-30). Thus the man who came to Jerusalem as a youth (Acts 26:4-5) and became a leading student in Judaism (Galatians 1:14) returned home as a rejected Jew, not a prominent Israelite.
The Road Forked
Later, it was Barnabas [the man who introduced Paul to the apostles and affirmed the genuineness of Paul’s conversion] who realized Paul would be effective and useful in the gentile work at Antioch, Syria (Acts 11:25, 26). There Paul and Barnabas worked together for a year. He and Barnabas also served as trusted emissaries for the Antioch congregation [predominantly gentile Christians]. This congregation sent a gift to the elders to financially assist Jewish Christians in Judea who suffered from the worldwide famine (Acts 11:28-30). It was from the Antioch congregation that Paul and Barnabas, at the Spirit’s request, launched their team mission effort into the gentile world (Acts 13:2-3).
Paul’s Shock Continued
When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch from their thrust into the gentile world, they found Jewish Christians telling gentile Christians that gentile Christians could not be saved unless they were circumcised (Acts 15:1). In our words, unless gentile Christians became Jewish proselytes, they could not be Christians. Faith in and baptism into Jesus in the confidence that Jesus was [is] the resurrected Christ were not enough! Paul and Barnabas vehemently opposed this view! (Acts 15:2) They just returned from calling gentiles to Christ! However, once again, Paul lost! Though Paul and Barnabas just had returned from converting gentiles, though Antioch was primarily a gentile congregation, though the Spirit sent Paul and Barnabas to convert gentiles, Paul and Barnabas’ declarations and affirmations were regarded inadequate. The matter must be referred to the apostles and elders at Jerusalem, not settled by Paul and Barnabas! The reports Paul and Barnabas made in route to Jerusalem as they passed through gentile areas [Phoenicia and Samaria] were not an attempt to exalt themselves for what they had done, but were about exalting God for His work among the gentiles (Acts 15:3).
The apostles and elders at Jerusalem declared that gentile converts in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia did not have to be circumcised to be saved. However, this apparent victory was short lived. At some point Paul evangelized in the area of Galatia and established several gentile congregations. [If you wish to study whether Galatia is an ethnic or geographical term, the precise date that the letter to the Galatians was written, etc., consult an introduction to the New Testament.]
After Paul departed from the Galatian congregations and was no longer in the area, some Judaizing teachers [Jewish Christians] came to these gentile congregations saying, “We have come to teach what Paul failed to teach you.” Their message contained the same perspective declared in Acts 11:1-3; 15:1; and 15:5.
Some of the gentile Christians in these Galatian congregations accepted the Judaizing teachers’ declarations. These teachers could make a convincing argument: (1) God Himself established circumcision with our forefather, Abraham, as the continuing sign of His covenant with His people. (2) If you gentile Christians are to be saved, you must be part of God’s covenant people. (3) The Messiah was promised to us, the Jewish people. (4) The Messiah was Jewish. (5) The scriptures were given to us. (6) We are the authorities who come from Palestine; we are not some diaspora Jew from Tarsus. (7) You better listen to us; we know what the scriptures declare.
[The issue between Paul’s outreach to gentiles and the Judaizing teachers outreach to gentiles was intense. The issue was NOT may gentiles be evangelized. In Judaism, evangelization of gentiles was older than Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 23:15). The issue was how do gentiles ‘get in’, and how to gentiles ‘stay in’. Paul responded by appealing basically to Genesis. The Judaizing teachers responded by appealing basically to Deuteronomy. Paul declared gentiles ‘got in’ by faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, just as faith placed Abraham ‘in’ (see Romans 4:1-12). Gentiles ‘stayed in’ by faith in Jesus, just as faith allowed Abraham to show his confidence in God (see Genesis 22:1-19). The Judaizing teachers said gentiles ‘got in’ by circumcision and ‘stayed in’ by obeying the teachings of the law. Both affirmed that responding to God by ‘doing’ was necessary, but their disagreements on the ‘hows’ of responding were vast. Their differences in their concepts of ‘how to get in’ and ‘how to stay in’ were extremely emotional and deeply intense.]
Sometime after the Judaizing teachers’ visit, Paul learned what they did in the gentile congregations of Galatia. Shortly after he received the report of what happened, he wrote Galatian Christians the letter of Galatians. The letter was sent to more than one congregation. It is the earliest letter we have from Paul. To say Paul was upset is to put it mildly. There was no statement of encouragement typically found in the opening of Paul’s letters. He quickly moved to and focused on the problem. He quickly declared his amazement at these gentile Christians’ actions.
It is as if we can hear Paul say, “I lost in Damascus when the Jews who rejected Jesus tried to kill me. I lost in Jerusalem and was sent home for my own safety. I lost in Antioch when they referred this same question to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. Though the church in Jerusalem ruled in the gentiles’ favor, there still are Jewish Christians who refuse to let this matter die. Now they invade my gentile congregations with the same insidious teaching. Here we go again! Is there no end to this problem?”
Paul’s Frustration Continued
In Galatians, the continuing problem was the core question: do gentiles have to convert to Judaism [be circumcised] in order to be Christians? It was a Jewish Christian versus a gentile Christian problem. To Paul, it was a frustrating matter in the Christian community that simply would not go away.
Paul as a Jewish Christian teacher to the gentiles was at a distinct disadvantage in functioning as an authoritative voice. It is bad [and quite frustrating] when a teacher presents a different message which some of his own people regard unthinkable. It is worse [a compounded, vulnerable disaster] when those who are accepted as the authorities declare the teacher lacks the credentials to be trusted.
The best way to neutralize Paul’s credibility was to minimize his spiritual credentials. (1) Numerous Jews declared Paul’s message was unthinkable. Salvation to idolaters could not be extended through God’s grace made available in His resurrection of Jesus! Gentiles certainly could be saved through Jesus Christ, but only if they came to Christ through coming to Israel. (2) Paul arrived late on the Christian scene. (3) Paul did not see the resurrected Jesus prior to Jesus’ ascension. (4) Paul was not one of the twelve. (5) Paul was not a disciple during Jesus’ earthly ministry. (6) Paul did not meet the qualifications declared by Peter when Matthias was selected to replace Judas (Acts 1:21-22). The Judaizing teachers’ convincing argument: “You gentile Christians are going to take his word over ours? We come from the first congregation! We represent James, the Lord’s brother!” [Note Acts 15:24—the problem was produced and sustained by Jewish Christians who claimed to represent the leadership in the Jerusalem congregation.]
Paul Stated The Incredible Problem
In Galatians 1:6-10 Paul declared his amazement. “I cannot believe that you gentile Christians moved quickly to a distorted gospel. These disturbers have deceived you! You heard the genuine good news from me! Anyone who teaches you a different message does not represent or speak for God!”
The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. To be taught that a person, regardless of ancestry or past, could come to God directly through the resurrected Jesus who was [is] the Christ was good news. A Christian was not called to abandon culture or ethnic identity, but to abandon evil. A Christian was not called to grieve over the fact he did not have the right ancestors; he was called to be a member of God’s family. A Christian was not called to a physical circumcision, but to a circumcision of the heart. (See Romans 2:26-29.)
A gentile Christian was called out of idolatry, out of an immoral and unethical lifestyle to worship the living God and live a godly lifestyle. For this to happen, all that was necessary was (1) to trust what God accomplished in Jesus’ death and resurrection and (2) to submit one’s existence to Jesus Christ. That was good news! The abandonment of one’s culture and his submission to circumcision [that involved social and physical ordeals] were unnecessary for God’s acceptance—that was good news!
The Jewish Christians who came to them with increased requirements did not bring them good news! They did not bring them a different good news! The savior was the same—Jesus Christ! The resurrection was the same! The God and the son of God were the same. The forgiveness was the same. The hope was the same. All the Judaizing teachers did was nullify the gentile Christians’ place in God’s family unless gentile Christians converted to Judaism.
How could these gentile Christians accept the message of Judaizing teachers as good news? How was a forfeiture of salvation and becoming enslaved to previously unknown requirements and traditions good news? Why would these gentile Christians give up freedom in Christ for enslavement to Judaism’s ways? Paul’s frustration was enormous! It was one thing to make his life miserable, but it was quite another for Judaizing Christians to invade and distress gentile congregations Paul brought to Jesus Christ!
The following material is not a detailed study of Galatians. The intent is to focus your attention on some things Paul did in this letter.
Paul Verified His Right To Teach
Because the Judaizing teachers called Paul’s credentials into question as an authoritative spokesman for Christ and God, it was necessary for Paul to affirm his credentials that gave him the right to present the gentiles the gospel. Paul devoted the first part of the letter to affirming his credentials.
Note the elements of Paul’s affirmation:
My message is God revealed, not human taught. (Galatians 1:11-12)
My past as an opponent of Christianity destroyed [in that period] any opportunity to learn [correctly] the gospel. (Galatians l:13-14)
I turned because of God’s act, not because of a human teacher. (Galatians 1:15-16)
I received no indoctrination, no preparatory teaching when I turned to Christ. (Galatians 1:16-17)
My first visit to Jerusalem was an ‘introduction’ visit, not an ‘instruct me’ visit. (Galatians 1:18-20)
My early work was in Syria and Cilicia. Christians in the Jerusalem area did not know me by sight. They merely were happy to learn I turned to Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:20-24)
When Titus [a gentile] visited the Jerusalem church with me, (a) we went by revelation (Galatians 2:1-2). (b) On that visit I shared with the Jerusalem leaders the gospel I presented to the gentiles (Galatians 2:2). (c) The Jerusalem church leaders did not insist that Titus be circumcised (Galatians 2:3). (d) The Judaizing teachers assaulted my message (Galatians 2:4-6). (e) In spite of their assault on my message, the leaders of the Jerusalem church validated my message (Galatians 2:7-10).
I publicly confronted Peter in Antioch, Syria for his hypocrisy in this
question [the relationship between Jewish Christians and gentile Christians]
Please take special note of three things: (1) the apostles confirmed Paul’s message to gentiles without changing his message. (2) The Jerusalem leaders of Jewish Christians did not compel Titus, a gentile, to be circumcised. (3) Paul publicly confronted and condemned an apostle.
Paul Stressed Gentile Christians Should Not Consider Themselves To Be ‘Second Class Christians’
Among the most revealing information in Galatians was Paul’s affirmation of how uncircumcised gentile Christians should view themselves. Often the critical concern is not how others look at us, but how we look at ourselves. For any Christian, the primary issue is, “How does my mercy filled God look at me?” Paul was more concerned with how these gentile Christians looked at themselves than how the Judaizing teachers looked at them. Only when they looked at themselves as God looked at them would they be free from the Judaizing teachers’ condemnation.
Consider Paul’s declarations regarding how these gentile Christians should see themselves.
Jesus Christ is God’s intent (Galatians 3:16-18). Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. God gave that promise to Abraham long before God revealed the law through Moses. The law does not define God’s intent. God’s promise defines God’s intent. The question is not where do you gentile Christians stand in regard to the law. The question is where you gentiles stand in regard to the promise. The promise brought a blessing to “all families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3).
The purpose of the law was to lead people to Christ (Galatians 3:23-25). Thus God’s promise revealed God’s intent, and the law served that intent. The law served the promise, not the promise served the law. These gentile Christian needed to focus on the promise, not the law.
Galatian gentile Christians are sons of God, not inferior members of God’s household to be tolerated (Galatians 3:25-26).
Galatian gentile Christian are heirs of Abraham (Galatians 3:29). They rightfully inherit the blessing of God’s promise to Abraham! God had gentiles in mind when He promised the gift of the blessing!
Galatian gentile Christians were ‘full sons’ of God (Galatians 4:1-7). They were not God’s ‘afterthought’ who were merely ‘tolerated’ in Jesus Christ. Jewish Christians had no spiritual advantages over them in a relationship with God! God did [does] no more for Jewish Christians than He did [does] for gentile Christians!
There was a time when they were slaves and did not know it. Coming to Christ released them from that slavery. Following the demands of the Judaizing teachers merely returned them to another form of slavery (Galatians 4:8-11).
Gentile Christians were the true descendants of Isaac (Galatians 4:21-31). Judaizing teachers were the descendants of Hagar. Gentile Christians were the descendants of Sarah. The true descendants of Sarah were [are] those who exist as a result of God’s promise.
Do not abandon the freedom granted gentile Christians in Christ (Galatians 5:1-6). If you turn to circumcision as a religious rite to validate your salvation, you abandon your freedom. Freedom was found and accepted by trusting what Christ does for you, not by being proselytes.
Given the emotional content of this matter and given the magnitude of this matter to most Jewish Christians, these are incredible declarations from a Jew to gentiles. They also were costly views to hold!
Do not view this letter as Paul’s victory over Judaizing teachers. The letter was a plea for the gentile Christians in Galatia to (1) realize the blessings granted gentiles in Christ, and to (2) cherish and preserve their freedom in Christ. The fact that fear placed Peter in a situation to invite Paul’s public censor illustrates that this was a deep, emotional question with powerful overtones. Even Barnabas, the Christian who introduced Paul to the apostles, the Christian who traveled to Tarsus to invite Paul to be part of the work in Antioch, the Christian who converted gentiles to Christ as a team member, the Christian who opposed the Judaizing teachers in Acts 15:2, even this man who was Paul’s companion for years was caught up in Peter’s hypocrisy (Galatians 2:13).
Paul paid enormous personal prices for declaring Jesus Christ’s total adequacy for gentile believers. It is unlikely that many 21st century American Christians are able to identify with Paul’s heartache and pain. The heartache and pain were the result of understanding God’s purposes in Jesus Christ! He was correct, and he suffered for being correct. In this matter, being correct in the first century church was painful!
Chapter Nine Chapter Eleven