NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XL)
But let me illustrate, says Bunyan, one reason why the Anointed One, Jesus, shows mercy to sinners is so that they will love Him more. That way, they will start loving Him instead of the things of this world. Now, if He loves to be loved a little, certainly He loves to be loved a lot. Yet, there are few capable of loving Him that much except those that were forgiven much.1 But the Apostle Paul confessed, that of all the sinners the Anointed One came into the world to save, he was the worst..2 That’s why he labored more for the Anointed One than many others because he sinned against God more than others..3 But Paul let people know that wasn’t because of anything that he did that caused him to love the Anointed One, it was because of the grace of God shown to him. That’s why Paul here in verse fifteen reminded the Galatians that they heard all about his former life as a persecutor of Jesus and His followers, but now they’re hearing of him as a preacher for Jesus the Anointed One.
Bunyan could almost hear Paul saying to the Galatians: You talk about grace! You don’t know how much grace it took to save me! It required the marvelous grace of God to look down from heaven on me and rescue me from the terrible end I was headed for. To say that I am now captivated with the sense of the riches of His grace would be an understatement. That’s why I work so hard for Him; for how could I do otherwise since God not only separated me from my sins and from sinners but sanctified all the talents and abilities I have for His royal service? Oh! I’ll never forget His love, nor the circumstances under which I came into contact with that love. When His love took hold of me. I was on my way to Damascus with letters from the high-priest to wreak havoc on God’s people there. That was until that wonderful man of God named Ananias made intercession for me to the Lord that He would have mercy on me. That’s when I became a monument of grace. It made a saint out of me because I was fully persuaded that my transgressions were forgiven and that I now knew I was right with God.4
John Edmunds (1801-1874) gives us some insight into why, after Paul’s conversion and the laying on of hands by Ananias in Damascus, he headed for the Arabian Desert instead of for Jerusalem to receive his ordination from the Apostles. The only prior communication between Paul and them was when he helped to hold the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. From there on out he was infamous as the raging persecutor of Christians, causing many of them, men and women, to be dragged off to prison.5 It would be like inviting the fox back to apologize to the farmer for killing so many of his chickens. There were plenty of reasons for the Apostles back in Jerusalem to doubt his story and suspect him of being a wolf wearing a sheepskin costume. In fact, after things quieted down, he still would not have gone to the holy city were it not for Barnabas taking him there and vouching for him as being a genuine dedicated believer in Jesus.6
Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), a theology professor at the University of Oxford, gives a similar paraphrase of Paul’s words by having the Apostle say: All of you who know about my former life will totally agree that it was nothing short of a miracle, that I was converted. After I tell you the whole story you will also see how impossible it was that I received the Gospel message I preach, from anyone other than Jesus the Anointed One.7 What Jowett is trying to communicate, I believe, is that because of Paul’s stringent persecution of the assembly of believers, he was considered so dangerous that none of the Apostles in Jerusalem would even venture to invite him there, nor come to Damascus to train him. In fact, if it had not been for Barnabas’ intervention, he may have never met Peter, James, and John..8
Looking at Paul’s conversion from a Jewish perspective, one Jewish writer notes that it is critical that we recognize the sentence structure of the Greek sentence in this verse to gain a proper understanding of Paul’s confession. His rendition of verse thirteen reads: “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I violently persecuted the assembly of believers and tried to destroy it.” The word order shows that the Greek particle pote – “former,” (“in time past” – KJV; “my previous way” – NIV), modifies the Greek noun Ioudaïsmos – “life in Judaism.” (“the Jews religion” – KJV). This careful observation is made to show a shift within the makeup of Judaism and not outside of it. Paul did not leave Judaism for a new religion called Christianity. What he did do was switch party lines, from an unbelieving Jewish Pharisee to a believing Yeshua Pharisee, all within the confines of 1st-century Judaism.9
Jewish writer Avi ben Mordechai reminds us of how significant Paul’s background was in understanding why he was so persecuted by the Jews no matter which Synagogue he went into during his missionary journeys. After all, he studied under Gamaliel,10 one of the most highly respected members of the Sanhedrin of that era. But there were other things that made this significant. Gamaliel and those who served before him worked with the chief priests who were aligned with Rome and the Sadducees. Together, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes enforced Rome’s political policies and Judaism’s rabbinical oral laws above the Law of Moses. This is what Paul bought into when he was a Pharisee and a fanatical persecutor of this new group of dissenters who followed the Nazarene called Yeshua, and referred to their teachings as “The Way.”11 And why not, Yeshua said He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.12 So Paul was not some ragtag individual who wanted to get attention by persecuting these followers of Yeshua. He was part of the establishment and given their backing in his endeavors to jail and even kill them.13 Paul shares how he felt about this in the next verse.
Tim Hegg, another Jewish writer, echoes the same thing. He suggests that we should note that the word “former,” which, when functioning as a particle means “once upon a time,” in modifying the word “manner of life” or “lifestyle.”14 It does not imply that Paul formerly lived within Judaism but at the time he wrote the Galatians, he was no longer living within Judaism. What he is contrasting is his personal adherence to Jewish Law before and after his faith in Yeshua as the Anointed One, not his former life in Judaism as opposed to his present life apart from Judaism. We might compare his words to what Paul told the Ephesians, “So far as your former way of life is concerned, you must strip off your old nature because your old nature is thoroughly rotted by its deceptive desires.15”16
In Andrew Roth’s translation of the Aramaic text of verse thirteen, it gives us the same impression. It reads: “You have heard then, regarding my previous conduct in Judaism, especially about how I followed (pursued) the congregation of Elohim and greatly devastated it.” Ronald Fung also sees Paul’s purpose here is to offer evidence of the divine origin of his Gospel and thereby also for his claim to be an apostle by direct revelation. That’s because “Gospel” and “Apostleship” are for him “quite inseparable: they form the two sides of the one coin bearing the impress of the authority of God’s divine will. So Paul appeals first to his non-Christian past, representing it as something that the Galatians already heard of.17
Grant Osborne does not believe that Paul stopped being Jewish and became a Gentile. In fact, in Acts of the Apostles, it shows that he continued to observe many aspects of the sacrificial system and never repudiated his Jewish background.18 Rather, he was a Jewish Christian. He stopped being a slave to the Law under the First Covenant and became part of free-will service in the Final Covenant. When he performed a sacrifice or followed a purity law, he did so from the perspective of one who followed the Anointed One. In fact, Paul found no issues that bothered him over certain Jewish holidays, feasts, and certain rituals as long as they were never counted as merit toward justification and salvation.19
1:14 I went far beyond anything those of my age in studying the ancient traditions of the Jewish religion. I was totally committed to following these teachings with all my heart and soul.
Paul is not finished letting the Galatians know where he came from on his path to believing in the Anointed One and His Gospel. The same thing emerges almost as clear in one of his other epistles where he argues that he has greater reason for confidence in the flesh than others do. After mentioning his circumcision on the eighth day, he itemizes significant bragging points which are his by virtue of birth, namely, “being of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.” Then he lists three reasons for confidence in the flesh which are his own achievements: “as to the Law a Pharisee” – a member of a prestigious group of Jews; “as to zeal a persecutor of the assembly of believers,” that is, he was so ardent that he actively persecuted those he opposed; and “as to following religious laws, he was blameless,” that is, a perfect follower of Jewish religious rituals and regulations.
But Paul had a complete turnaround. All these things that were important to me, but because of the Anointed One, I decided that they are worth nothing. Not only these things but now I think that all things are worth nothing compared with the greatness of knowing the Anointed One Jesus my Lord. Because of the Anointed One, I threw away all these things, now that I know that they are all worthless trash. All I want now is the Anointed One. I want to belong to him. In the Anointed One, I am right with God, but my being right does not come from following the Law.20
1 Luke 7:47
2 1 Timothy 1:15
3 1 Corinthians 15:10
4 John Bunyan: The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, Doctrine: pp. 38-39
5 Acts of the Apostles 8:3; 9:1-2
6 Ibid. 9:26
7 The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians, Romans, by Benjamin Jowett, Vol I, John Murray, London, 1859, p. 265
8 Acts of the Apostles 9:27; See 11:25
9 Messianic Jewish Commentary: On Galatians, p. cit., loc. cit., pp 91-92.
10 Acts of the Apostles 5:34, 22:3
11 Ibid. 9:1-5
12 John 14:6
13 Avi ben Mordechai: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 10
14 Paul uses this term only two other times: Ephesians 4:22, 1Timothy 4:12. The word is used in a similar way in Tobias 4:4 and 2Maccabees 6:23
15 Ephesians 4:22
16 Tim Hegg: Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, Torah Resource – 2002. Edited and Updated – 2010, p.40
17 Ronald Fung: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 54
18 Acts of the Apostles 21:26-29
19 Osborne, G. R. On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 34
20 Cf. Philippians 3:4-9