NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XLIII)
Richard Longenecker believes that the reason it was important in Paul’s day for any Pharisee to see that the Law of Moses was obeyed to the fullest degree, was because it was a vitally important prerequisite for the coming of the Anointed One.1 This may have been Paul’s Pharisaic attitude when it came to his actions against Christians who, in his eyes, were teaching something totally contrary to his perception of the coming of the Anointed One, by proclaiming this itinerant prophet from Galilee as the Messiah. After all, isn’t this what Moses did when he ordered the immoral Israelites slain at Baal-Peor?2 And what about Phinehas ordering the Israelite man and Midianite woman be put to death on the plains of Moab?3 And then there was the actions of Mattathias and the Hasidim in stamping out apostasy from among God’s people.4 Or, says Longenecker, it might have been the commendation given to Phinehas for his actions that rang in Paul’s ears as he marched toward Damascus: “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the religious leader, has turned My anger away from the people of Israel. He was jealous with My jealousy among them, so I did not destroy the people of Israel in My jealousy.5”6
This certainly conforms to what the Essenes taught in their Dead Sea Scrolls.7 For instance, in Psalm (Hymn) 4, we find the following words: “The closer I approach [You], the more I am filled with zeal against all workers of iniquity the men of deceit. For none of those who [can] approach You rebel against Your command, nor do any of those who know You alter Your words; for You are righteous, and all Your elect [chosen] are truth [real]. You wilt blot out all injustice and wickedness forever, and Your righteousness will [finally] be revealed before the eyes of all Your creatures.”8 These words were written around the time of Jesus’ appearance, so it is not impossible that the Apostle Paul was familiar with them. It certainly would give him more reason to persecute the assembly of believers who worshiped this false Anointed One, Yeshua of Nazareth.
Ronald Fung sees parallelism in what Paul said about why he persecuted the assembly of believers so severely and his total commitment to the ideals of the Pharisees. It was his zeal for this ancestral law as an intense personal concern for its fulfillment, which provided both the inspiration and the vehicle of expression for Paul’s progress in the Jewish religion, and it would seem that his “advance” amounted to, primarily and especially, with “the achievement of righteousness according to the standards and ideals of Pharisaism.” It was the same zeal, moreover, which led to his relentless hostility towards Christianity and intense persecution of the assemblies of believers. Paul claimed there were two forces driving him, which we can see by comparing verse 13b with 14b in the chart below:9
the assembly of believers
the traditions of my fathers
Paul was insistent that the Galatians and the Judaizers know what drove him forward and propelled him from being the worst enemy of God and the assembly of believers into being the best friend of God and of these “called-out ones.” He felt that his first motivation (13b) came from him, the second motivation (14b) came from God. That’s why they needed to understand that Paul did not forsake all to follow Jesus the Anointed One by any personally induced karma or vow. It was all God’s doing.
Don Garlington gives a very descriptive review of what the term “zeal” meant to a Jew before and in Paul’s day. Some commentators wish to restrict zeal to “ardent observation of the Torah,” in conformity to what was expected of a first-century Jew. It certainly meant such. But the very mention of zeal calls to mind the war for independence against the Syrians some two hundred years before Paul wrote Galatians. The war was spearheaded by an aged priest named Mattathias who issued the summons: “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”10 Mattathias himself was a mirror copy of Phinehas,11 whose own zeal for Yahweh set the pattern for all subsequent defenders of covenant purity. Garlington tells us that Pentecostal scholar N. T. Wright notes zeal for a first-century Jew was something he did with a knife. Remember Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane? From that point onward, “zeal for the law” became a battle cry for all loyalist Jews.12
Thomas Lancaster highlights Paul’s argument on why he could not have received any education or mentoring from the Apostles that resulted in his understanding of the Gospel and initiated his being called as an Apostle to the Jews. Up until Paul became a disciple of Yeshua of Nazareth, he hated all the disciples of Yeshua. He persecuted them and actually hunted them down to have them incarcerated and even martyred. As such, he displayed a mean streak that drove him to become the most zealous persecutor of Christian believers during his time. After he observed Stephen’s stoning, Paul broke his allegiance with his teacher Gamaliel, defying his ruling regarding the believers .13 He went over to the Sadducees, to Caiaphas the high priest, for legal permission to hunt them down, drag them out of synagogues and publicly punish them with severe flogging. It would be three years before he ever met the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem.14
1:15 But little did I know that by the mercy of God I was chosen for this ministry before I was separated from my mother’s womb.
Being chosen was something that Paul was taught from his youth up. Moses told the children, “The Lord did not give you His love and choose you because you were more people than any of the nations. For the number of your people was less than all nations.”15 This was something Samuel needed to remind them of when they became worried because they thought to ask for a king somehow hastened his death.16
Then when King David neared the end of his life and was turning everything over to his son Solomon, he gave the people assurance that all of this was part of God’s plan. He told them, “The Lord, the God of Israel, chose me from all the house of my father to be the king of Israel forever. For He has chosen Judah to be a leader. And in the house of Judah, my father’s house, and among my father’s sons, He was pleased to make me king of all Israel. The Lord has given me many sons. And of all my sons, He has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the nation of the Lord over Israel. He said to me, ‘Your son Solomon is the one who will build My house and My open spaces. For I have chosen him to be My son, and I will be his father.”17
This was not the first time Paul mentioned being chosen. He wrote the Corinthians, “I have been chosen by God to be a missionary of Jesus the Anointed One.”18 And all of this fit into God’s plan. As he told the Ephesians, “God already planned to have us as His own children. This was done by Jesus the Anointed One. In His plan God wanted this done… He planned long ago to send the Anointed One into the world. The plan was for the Anointed One to gather us all together at the right time.”19 So if all this was already part of God’s plan for this world and His assembly of believers back then, can we not then believe that the same is the case today? Take heart, none of what you see or hear is by accident. It is all part of God’s great plan.
Paul’s mention that, in his case, he was unknowingly called to this ministry even before he was born. This certainly was something that Paul knew about by studying the prophet Isaiah.20 And the prophet Jeremiah was also given the same assurance by the Lord, “Before I started to put you together in your mother, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart as holy. I chose you to speak to the nations for Me.”21 How could all of this be possible? As we have learned before, God’s mystery plan of salvation was already conceived and planned in eternity past. It is only now being revealed and coming true.
For me, we can see this illustrated in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. This involves the speed of light through space. We know that it takes approximately 8 minutes and 20 seconds for light to travel from the sun to earth. So when you look up at the sun, what you see was in existence for 8 minutes and 20 seconds before you felt it. By the same principle the light from earth’s nearest star, Alpha Centauri, reaches us after traveling through space for 4 years at 186,000 miles per second. That means when you look at this star, what you see already existed 4 years ago before you saw it. So what can we say to galaxies and planets that are hundreds and thousands of light years away? The same as Paul said about the mystery of God’s plan to save not only the Jews but the Gentiles. When it started to happen through Paul’s ministry, this plan was already in effect before such a thing as time and years and centuries were every thought of.
You might take heart in believing that your call by grace out of sin into a personal relationship with God through His Son, was not a last minute decision. It was planned all along before you were born. But there are some, who when they felt the heat of the Holy Spirit’s presence bringing the light of truth of their sinfulness and God’s offer to redeem them through the work of His Son on the cross on your behalf, they run for cover; they put up the umbrella of resistance. Thank God every day that you finally saw the light, felt the warmth of His love, and heard the voice of the Spirit calling you.
1 See the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Sanhedrin, folios 97b-98a; also Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 10a; Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 86b
2 Cf. Numbers 25:1-5
3 Cf. Ibid. 25:6-15
4 Cf. 1 Maccabees 2:23-28, 42-48
5 Numbers 25:11
6 Longenecker, Richard N. On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Location 6281-6290
7 During the time of Jesus, there was a shadowy sect of Jews who lived alongside the Dead Sea known as the Essenes. We know about their existence from the Jewish writers Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. They were very strict in their adherence to righteousness and holy living. As such, the Pharisees and Sadducees regarded them as segregationist.
8 The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English by Geza Vermes, (7th Edition) (Penguin Classics), Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition, p. 254
9 Ronald Fung: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 57
101 Maccabees 2:27
11 Ibid. 2:26
12 Numbers 25:11-15; Psalm 106:30-31
13 Acts of the Apostles 9:1-2
14 D. Thomas Lancaster: On Galatians, op. cit., pp. 33-34
15 Deuteronomy 7:7
16 1 Samuel 12:22
17 1 Chronicles 28:4-6
18 1 Corinthians 1:1
19 Ephesians 1:5, 9; See 3:10-12
20 See Isaiah 49:1, 5
21 Jeremiah 1:5