NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XLVI)
Alvah Hovey (1820-1903) focuses on what Paul wanted to say about his being set apart by God for this ministry to the Gentiles. For Hovey, this is to be understood as Paul being assigned or devoted to a special work, even the preaching of the Anointed One to the Gentiles. The word separated in the King James and the Revised Versions is ambiguous. Paul represents himself as singled out and set apart by the will of God from his very birth to become an Apostle. And the next clause, “called me by His grace,” directs attention to another act of God – namely, the divine authority in his conversion. The same verb is used in Romans 8:30: “And whom He foreordained, them He also called.” This divine calling encompasses all that God does to bring conviction to the moral nature of sinners and directs them to repentance. In Paul’s case, it was the supernatural radiance and the voice of the Anointed One, together with the work of the Holy Spirit in his soul that made a powerful impact on his moral nature which led him so quickly into the new life.
J. B. Lightfoot (1828-1889), feels that verse fifteen could be condensed to make Paul’s point about his calling, selection, and appointment this way: God did it, not me! Also English theologian William Sanday (1843-1920), Professor of Exegesis on Holy Scripture says of Paul’s selection, calling, and struggle to become an Apostle to the Gentiles, that this was such a crisis that no other being dare interfere, “the soul must wrestle out its own problems between itself and God.”
Charles Spurgeon thinks that all this points to something to often overlooked when it comes to what happens before regeneration and conversion. He calls it, PRECEDING GRACE. Spurgeon laments that we do not attach enough importance to the Grace of God in its dealings with people before He actually brings them to Himself. Paul says that God designed a way to love him before He called him out of the dead world into spiritual life. To put it another way, most of us are totally unaware of all that God did before He ever sent His Holy Spirit to call us to repentance.
British Baptist Bible scholar A. F. Barfield (1869) explained what his concept was of how God’s preceding grace worked. He said that as he looked at this earth in which we live, he finds it captured and clothed by God’s all-embracing laws, just like gravity influences the ebb and flow of the tides, of light, of the procession of the seasons – all utterly and absolutely beyond any human control. They reach above, beneath, around, and within; we cannot touch them. There they are; unalterable, unswerving, and necessary – in its most profound sense, predestinated. The same is true of God’s spiritual realm. There are powers and forces at work over which humankind has no control. Anything that moves or comes into being is all done by God’s will and grace. Those who are called and converted owe nothing to themselves for who they are or what they may become. As Lightfoot indicated, God did it, not us!
Canadian George W. Ridout (1870-1954), who accepted the Chair of Theology at Asbury College (now Asbury University), in Wilmore, Kentucky, where he remained until 1927, before going out to do missionary work in Asia and South America, noted from his experience that God commences His work in a soul by causing it to feel alienated from Him. As the old hymn goes, “I’ve wandered far away from God.” It causes the sinner to experience true grief and sorrow over their sins and knows it may be a long way back to God. But this is a good thing, because it redoubles their restlessness, and increases their desire to reach out to Him.
However, at first, some try to clean up their lives on their own. But it’s only on the outside and does not make any difference on the inside. The wounds that need healing are on the heart, not just the body. When they become unsatisfied with their progress, some give up but others become more eager and struggle with all their energy and resolve to make even bigger changes. But it’s like taking two steps forward and then three steps backward. Now they feel even more helpless. It’s only when the mercy of God is explained to them and they are instructed to seek inwardly for what they’re looking for outwardly. By God’s grace, they are then made aware of the treasure the Holy Spirit helps them to discover in their heart and soul. They went far and wide looking for an answer when all the time it was near to their heart. For Ridout, this is the message Paul is reminding the Galatians of here in verse sixteen.
Theologian Robert Gundry sees Paul being set apart while in his mother’s womb and then called while on the road to Damascus. This came while he was persecuting the assembly of believers and wreaking havoc on them. This testifies dramatically to God’s absolute sovereign grace, so dramatically, in fact, that the Galatians should retrace their steps back to the Gospel that features this grace undistorted and unappended. And the fact that God was actually “pleased” or “delighted,” as Paul’s Greek verb eudokeō could equally be translated – to reveal His Son in Paul. Nothing need be added to it, Paul wants the Galatians (and us) to know. “In me” doesn’t define the manifestation of God’s Son as an interior revelation that took place only in his mind, although the manifestation certainly did change his mind. For in another place he says that he actually saw the risen Jesus and that the risen Jesus actually appeared to him. So “in me” means “in my case.” However, Gundry thinks it only fair to consider that Paul’s revelation that he was called while still in his mother’s womb did not come to him until he was converted and became a follower of the Anointed One.
Based on Jewish tradition of his day, at the age of five Paul began to memorize scripture and study the Torah, along with writing and arithmetic. Then at age ten he listened to a teacher recite a compilation of all the teachings of great rabbis down through the ages, later compiled in the Mishnah, which means “to repeat.” All of this while growing up in the city of Tarsus until he reached age thirteen, when he qualified to be a Bar Mitzvah, which means, “son of the commandment.” Then at age fifteen, his parents sent him to Jerusalem to study all the cultural laws and traditions of Judaism at the feet of the highly revered Rabbi Gamaliel. These would later become part of the Talmud, which combines the Mishnah and the Rabbi’s commentary called the Gemara, which means “to complete.” This section of discussions, debates, interpretations, and commentary on the Mishnah begin in 350 BC, and presented in a question and answer style, so the students could memorize them.
Messianic writer Tim Hegg gives us a picture here from a Jewish perspective of Paul’s calling. Paul speaks of “being set apart from my mother’s womb.” This seems too close a parallel to Jeremiah’s calling to be coincidental, and we should most likely presume that Paul considered his own calling (and thus his authority) to be like that of Jeremiah’s. Even more so, since the meaning of “Pharisee” is (as many believe) derived from the Hebrew root, parash, “to separate,” then Paul’s claim to have been “separated” to the Lord from the time of birth would be speaking directly to the Judaizers. Paul’s association with the Pharisees (of which they may have belonged to or sympathetic of) came to an end when he recognized his true “separation” being unto God through Yeshua, and his life’s mission for which he was separated from the “separated ones” – Pharisees. But the fact that this separation was from birth would mean that his time within the strict sect of Pharisees of which he was a part, was not wasted but something necessary for his ultimate calling.
Nevertheless, some of his critics questioned why Paul thought he was so special that Jesus needed to confront him personally to explain the truth. In their minds, it wasn’t because he was exceptional, but that Paul was such a stubborn and hardheaded person that if anyone possessed the persuasive powers to convinced them they needed to change their ways, it would take the Anointed One to do it. Paul did not argue, he openly admitted that he did not deserve God’s mercy and kindness; he knew God selected a special job for him to do. But just in case any of these Judaizers or Gentiles felt that Paul might become bigheaded, he assures them it was all by God’s grace. So it wasn’t that he felt he earned it, but that God deserved all the credit for being so loving and kind to such an undeserving person.
Perhaps the Galatians, and even those who read this passage today, may wonder if Paul is introducing the doctrine of predestination by believing he was picked out for this ministry before he was born, and, therefore, had little if anything to do with how it came into being. In exploring this, let’s first ask these questions: was Abraham just lucky to be in the right place at the right time, or was he called because God made a plan for his life? Was Moses simply fortunate to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter or was it part of God’s grand design? Or was Jeremiah picked by some divine lottery to be “the prophet of the hour” to the Israelites, or did God already factor him in as part of Israel’s future?
Needless to say, we can go on and on with Joshua, Daniel, Jeremiah, David, and the disciples, etc. Most Christians accept that God possesses the authority, power, and intellect to do such things without anyone’s permission. But how does it fit into His plan of Divine Will and also human will? Predestination, as it is understood by some, indicates that neither man’s will nor obedience to God’s will plays any role in how they live out their lives. It is preset, and will happen as planned no matter what. But for others, predestination actually refers to predetermination. It’s all part of God’s plan, purpose, and will, but whether or not we participate depends on our willingness and obedience, as Jonah learned the hard way.
But now we need to ask further, even if it is part of God’s plan from the beginning, does it mean that all these people were called and then forced to do what God wanted them to do unwillingly? Moses found out the cost of disobedience when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it as God directed. What if he did what God asked him to do? He would have no doubt entered the Promised Land with everyone else. Judas Iscariot was certainly called, but he gave up his position in the ranks of the disciples because he took things into his own hands. So every believer should strive to syncronize their will with God’s will, and this is done by following God’s Word.