Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24
“God called me through his grace.”
If the apostle Paul had possessed a Twitter account, he might have wished for that as a trending message on social media. Not in order to brag (although some people might read it that way), but rather because the assertion characterizes the heart of his identity: he has been called by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:1).
It is not a job for which he applied, nor was he looking to make a substantial change in his life’s direction.
Nevertheless, “God called me through his grace” is shorthand for Paul’s spiritual autobiography. It stands for a dramatic transformation — from persecutor to preacher — and gives evidence of the hand of God at work in his life.
This fundamental conviction, that he has been called by God, anchors Paul’s faith story. He tells that story in order to remind the Galatians of their own experience of “the one who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6; cf. 5:7, 5:13).
What is at stake?
Our pericope stands between Paul’s opening words of dismay at the situation in Galatia, and his extended description of encounters with the apostolic leaders in Jerusalem and Antioch. Most of the rest of the letter hinges on Paul’s interpretation of the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar story and its implications for his arguments about Torah.
His purpose in writing is to dissuade the Galatians from turning away from the freedom of the gospel that he preached. Paul fears they are being led astray by believers who have twisted the gospel for their own ends, “to make a good showing in the flesh, so that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:12).
Presumably, one group of Jesus-followers (Jewish) is telling another group of Jesus-followers (Gentile) that they are not fully members of the family of God unless they adhere to the same practices; in this case, circumcision (for the men). They make this claim, Paul accuses, in order to look good in the eyes of their compatriots.
The question at stake is this: do the Gentile Galatians have to become Jewish (as were Jesus, the first disciples, Paul, the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, etc.) in order to be part of the family of God? Absolutely not, says Paul. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6).
It’s a God thing
Paul asserts a three-fold “proof” that the gospel is from God: (1) he did not receive it from any other person; (2) nobody taught it to him; (3) he received it through a revelation (apocalypsis) of Jesus Christ.
Lest the Galatians remain unconvinced, Paul offers his curricula vitae of Jewish credentials.
If anyone knows how to interpret Torah, it would be Paul. Before he knew Christ he exceeded his peers as an exemplary Jew. His was a fanatic for his faith. Today, in terms of his “pre-Christ” days, he might be called a “religious terrorist,” one who seeks to destroy people whom he believes to be opposed to the ways of God (Galatians 1:13-14; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-10).1
Everything changed when God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:16. Greek is en emoi = “in me.”) The change was dramatic, and Paul now proclaims the faith he once tried to destroy (Galatians 1:22).
A high(er) authority
Paul’s claims can sound a little over the top, even arrogant or egotistical. It may be helpful to recall, however, that Paul’s self-presentation was conventional in his day. It reassured his listeners (they heard the letter being read aloud) that he had the credentials to speak with authority.
One could compare the remarks made in introducing a public speaker, or the laudatory comments on the back cover of a book. In the right context, these are designed to persuade listeners and readers that this is a person worthy of their regard.
Going everywhere to see nobody
The second part of our pericope (Galatians 1:16b-24) comprises a summary of Paul’s travels after his revelation of Jesus. One might expect a list of friends in high places, or evidence of his spreading fame as further proof that the Galatians should listen to him. Instead Paul offers a somewhat rambling itinerary of encounters (or non-encounters!) with the leading apostles and churches of Judea.
He conferred with none of them initially, waiting more than three years before visiting with Cephas for a couple of weeks and meeting James. Nobody recognized him; he was “unknown by sight to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:22).
The vow in verse 20 (“In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!”) suggests perhaps that somebody has accused him of disregarding rules established by the apostolic leaders of predominantly Jewish churches in Judea. Paul’s point seems to be that he does not answer to other apostles, nor to any other human authority. He cannot disregard their instructions, because he never met with them. (And even when he eventually does meet with the leaders, he reports, they added nothing to his message (Galatians 2:6).)
God’s call was for him to share the good news. So that is what he did.
Points of connection
Paul was arguably the most influential Christ-follower who never laid eyes on the earthly Jesus. He shares his faith story in order to encourage the Galatians to examine their own experiences for signs of God’s call. Indeed, later in the letter he offers a few examples: they heard the good news, and experienced the Spirit in their midst and the working of miracles (Galatians 3:1-5).
Preachers of this text might open up the stories of the congregation and encourage listeners to consider in their own lives the ways that God has called them. Undoubtedly, some of those will be dramatic, life-altering experiences, while others will be much more mundane. Where are moments of transformation? When did a life change direction? How might God be calling these particular Jesus-followers for the purpose of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ?
1 I first heard the earlier Paul described as a “religious terrorist” in A. Katherine Grieb, “The One who Called you … ”: Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature,” in Interpretation, April 2005, 157.