The Conversion of St Paul

January 25, 2015


It’s always only ever about the Gospel

If Paul’s letter to the Galatians was an email it would have been typed in capital letters. This is a passionate reaction to bad news. Paul has completed his work in the region of Galatia – think central western Turkey – and has heard that other people have now been through the region ‘updating’ the gospel, in effect telling people that Paul had not got things quite right when he spoke about Jesus – that he ‘missed a step’ when he taught about coming to faith in Jesus by not remembering that the first followers of Jesus were Jews who followed the law of Moses and hence for people to be followers of Jesus they would have to first be followers of Moses. The key point here, the cutting edge so to speak, was circumcision – the sign that these Judaisers claimed showed the proper steps to and of faith. This was the ‘updated’ Gospel the Galatians had received – versions of which plagued and challenged the early Church – and Paul simply is hopping map, angry, frustrated, exasperated, concerned, and worried – because this new Gospel, as far as he is concerned, is no Gospel at all. It is law dressed up with Jesus but law nonetheless and the law kills – that’s its job. And I suppose Paul is one person who knows that truth maybe better than most and so he writes his letter and his feelings are not too far from the surface – he doesn’t mince words – just before our text he writes:

8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:8,9 ESV)
And later in the letter:
20I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. (Galatians 4:20 ESV))
And still later:
7You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? 8This persuasion is not from him who calls you. 9A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. 12I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! (Gal 5:7-10 ESV)
With the Gospel at stake, their lives are at stake. For Paul, this is a life or death matter. And our text this morning is part of his explanation of how he received the Gospel. If we read into Chapter 2 we read how his teaching was supported in Jerusalem and later how he defended the gospel even against Peter himself who had slipped into giving credence to the Judaisers’ argument. Our text – the 2nd reading – is the point in the argument when he could talk about how Jesus met him and it’s interesting that he gives no details of the experience on the Damascus Road but rather a description of the consequence of Jesus coming to him and flooring him – in more ways than one.
11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy”. 24And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11-24 ESV)

Without clouding the issue or sidetracking the Galatians, Paul wants to make it very clear to the readers that he hasn’t made a mistake – missed a step in salvation – misrepresented Jesus – his point is simply that his revelation has come directly from God – not from the traditions of men; not from the apostles of Jesus – in other words he hasn’t heard from people and made a mistake but rather he has received a revelation from
God, in the person of his Son Jesus and he hasn’t made a mistake. His evidence is his lack of contact with the apostles – his itinerary of preaching and teaching – Arabia, Damascus, Syria, and Cilicia – and how while he was unknown by face, the story of him spread – he who persecuted the church is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy and God is glorified.
Our text is part of the argumentation Paul uses to emphasise grace over works when it comes to salvation. And looking back Paul has great reason to recognise God’s grace and again when he has opportunity to tell the dramatic story of his conversion he simply bypasses it – because he doesn’t want God’s grace to be ‘out-shone’ – but points to God’s grace by saying ‘You know I was a good, religious, pious Jew – better than most in keeping the law – and in terms of Christians – excessively virulent in attacking them but God was gracious towards me by revealing my error, my sin, my dependence on the law, and showing me salvation in his Son. Anything else apart from Jesus in terms of salvation is death.’ This sort of point Paul makes in other letters and his emphasis on God’s grace is uncompromising. The way I see it, Paul can see himself in the Judaisers; he can understand their arguments so well because he knows what the power of the law is on people – how we crave it and fear it – how we try and dodge and minimise and rationalise it when it comes to ourselves but use it as a club on others – and Paul can see how it ends up in one of two dead ends – pride or despair. But for all his understanding and his sympathy – think Romans 9-11 – that doesn’t alter the fact that the law kills and this alleged new teaching is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it is poison.

Paul’s other example of God’s grace in his life as he sees it was the fact that God had set him apart before his birth to know his Son. He is speaking from ‘inside Christianity’ as one who now looks at life and realises that God’s gracious care has extended over him, even before his conversion, for he can now see his life as part of God’s plan. His errors and wrongs are not what God ever wanted – he wouldn’t say that God had programmed him – but he would say that once saved he can look over his life and realise that God is gracious in so many ways. I think that his mention ‘before his birth’ is a bit of a code – a reference – and a two edged sword to his hearers – to another prophet who was chosen before his birth, Jeremiah. Jeremiah was the wailing prophet, the prophet who had the hard message to give – a message of judgement against Jerusalem. Paul’s confronting of his Jewish past and the present Judaisers is his Jeremiah time – preaching to the family so to speak – if you stay in this religion, you will die. If you try and change Jesus to fit your religion, you will die. And if you recognise his reference, then think very carefully for Jeremiah was right after all.

We sit here nearly 2000 years later and Paul is regarded variously – grace centred, power mad, woman hater, a bit neurotic, etc. I suspect he wouldn’t care. All he ever wanted people to know was Jesus and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2) and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38,39). This Gospel, this good news, is all about Jesus and Jesus’ interaction with people. ‘Christ alone’ Luther later would say. By nature we don’t like alones – we don’t like being alone – and the thought of Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone is really risky. For the world this Gospel is too good to be true and therefore it isn’t and so people still today want to add to the Gospel – add something we can do, should do, must do – or we put the focus on us and our feelings and experiences – both take the salvation focus away from Jesus.

We can appreciate Paul’s emphasis – his Christocentric focus – often because at some point we note what happened on the road to Damascus. Paul met Jesus. And deep down we often say, ‘And I want to too’. We want the experience to be other-worldly, ecstatic, or supernatural somehow. Such a hankering however can in fact blind us. Paul wasn’t expecting to meet Jesus on the road to Damascus. It is interesting to note that the encounter left Paul blind and it is only when Ananias comes and speaks and baptises Paul that he sees. And then all the Scripture Paul knew is reoriented into the face, the life and the death of God’s Messiah, no longer in the future but who has come into the world and whose Messianic kingdom had begun. Our senses tell us that all we encounter in this place are people and their words – some we know, some we don’t. And we see water in use and bread and wine also. Our senses don’t expect to meet Jesus but the Holy Spirit works mightily and through such means we are oriented, focused towards the cross and the man there – and we discover we’re not alone for God’s message through his Son is clear: I love you; I forgive you; I am with you always. Only this grace truly changes us we as we go back out into the world to live – following Jesus.





Bible References

  • Galatians 1:11 - 24