CALLED TO LIVE IN FREEDOM

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NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY

by Dr. Robert R. Seyda

PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES

CHAPTER ONE (Lesson XLIX)

Paul wanted to emphasize again that nobody taught him about Jesus. In fact, he was led by the Holy Spirit into the Arabian Desert east of Israel. We have a comparison between what Paul remembers, and what he told Luke about his experience in the desert.1 Paul understood the Torah and the Prophets, but not in the light of the Gospel. Jesus needed to show Paul the connection. In his letter to the Corinthians Paul shares a somewhat hazy account of his experience in the Arabian Desert. He starts out by telling them: “Let me teach you a few things about visions and revelations. I hope you won’t think I’m bragging because I have absolutely nothing to gain by doing so. I personally know a Christian believer, who fourteen years ago was literally raptured into the third heaven. I cannot tell you whether he went there bodily, or whether it was an out-of-body experience, God alone knows. Let me repeat, I know for certain that this man was raptured up into paradise, but as I said, whether it was an in-body or out-of-body experience, I’m certain God knows for sure. While he was there he heard things said that are impossible to put into words; things that the human tongue is forbidden to repeat.2

Bible scholars say that we should remember that the great Hebrew lawgiver, Moses, spent forty years in the desert of Midian before he was prepared to do his great work of leading and delivering the people of God out of Egypt; that Elijah, the great prophet wandered in the desert before he came out to do his great work; the forerunner of the Anointed One – John the Baptizer – “was in the desert until the day he appeared in Israel,” and there he grew and became strong in spirit. Also, the Redeemer Himself was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” to be tempted and tried after His baptism, and before He entered His public ministry in Galilee as Messiah, the Anointed One.3

Bible scholars tell us we should take note that the Arabic Version reads: “I went to Balcam,” which was a city in Syria; but without any provable facts. It was not Syria, but Arabia to which Paul went. There are three countries which bear the name of Arabia, and which are called such to distinguish them from one another, Arabia Petræa, Arabian Desert, and Arabia Felix. It is very likely it was the first of these which the Apostle went to since it was near Syria, and he went there from Damascus which was at this time under the government of an Arabian king.4

Paul himself gives us some hint of who this Arabian king was when he wrote: “When I was in Damascus, the governor under King Aretas wanted to arrest me, so he put guards around the city. But some friends put me in a basket. Then they put the basket through a hole in the wall and lowered me down. So I escaped from the governor.5 British theologian Adam Clarke states, Paul went to that part of Arabia which was next door to Damascus, over which Aretas was then king.6

In other writings, we are told more about this King Aretas. He was a Nabatæan King who reigned from BC 9 to 40 AD. His full title, as depicted on numerous inscriptions, was “Aretas, King of the Nabatæans, Friend of his People.7 Being the most powerful neighbor of Samaria and Judæa, he frequently took part in the state affairs of those countries and was influential in shaping the destiny of its rulers. His daughter Phasælis married Herod Antipas (BC 4 to 39 AD), otherwise known as Herod the Tetrarch. When Herod divorced Phasælis to take his brother’s wife Herodias, mother of Salome, in 36 AD, Phasælis fled back to her father in Damascus. Relations between Herod and Aretas IV were already strained over border disputes, and with his family’s honor shamed, Aretas IV invaded Judæa, and captured territories along the West Bank of the Jordan River, including the areas around Qumran. The Jewish author Josephus connects this battle, which occurred during the winter of 36/37 AD, with the beheading of John the Baptist, which occurred about the same time.

Jewish writer Avi ben Mordechai offers his answer to those who question, why did Paul go to Arabia? For him, this was the land of Midian where Moses wandered around for 40 years before Elohim met him there on Mount Moriah in the Sinai desert.8 Then, later on, the prophet Elijah came to this same mountain where he sought God for mercy and direction.9 So what better place could Paul choose to go to have God retool his mind and reform his ideas developed by the oral laws of the Rabbis than to go to where the Written Torah was given to Moses. There, the empty cistern of his Pharisaic life could be filled with the true knowledge of Yahweh about Yeshua the Anointed One, who came to fulfill God’s plans for all Israel. God’s people were scattered among all the nations and needed to hear the good news – the Gospel of the Anointed One10.11

One scholar sees Paul’s solitary period as more than simply not seeking instruction from the Apostles in particular, but that he kept himself from being in communication with anyone at all, excluding not only the receiving of instruction but sharing what he was being revealed to him. The most natural, almost the lone possible, implication is that he sought communion exclusively with God.12 In other words, he wanted to be alone with God so he could more fully understand the new revelation he received from the Anointed One, God’s Son. No one should fault him for that.

Historian Pliny tells us that where Syria bordered on lands to the east and south is called Arabia. Among these are Palestine, Judæa, Coele, Phoenicia, and Damascus.13 In other words, Paul did not need to go to the area we know today as Arabia, nor did he need to go far to be in the uninhabited parts of these lands. This raises another question: if he stayed there three years how was he sustained with food and housing? Apparently, it was so private an experience that Paul never felt the need to describe everything in detail. However, Jerome tells us that the river Jordan divides Judæa and Arabia; so that this country into which the Apostle went was not a great way off from Damascus, to which he returned again after some time. This all happened in about three years. We see this in the next verse when he carried out the work and will of God in those parts. No doubt he was the instrument of converting souls and planting churches in that area. In fact, there were churches in Arabia in the decades following the third-century AD, which are mentioned along with the churches in Syria.14

Likewise, church historian Eusebius (260-339 AD) tells us about the work of God that went on in that area. He explains that all the churches throughout the East and beyond were once divided but now united. And all the Bishops are of one mind, and rejoice greatly in the peace which was enjoyed beyond all expectations. Eusebius then names Bishops that were appointed: Demetrianus in Antioch, Theoctistus in Cæsarea, Mazabanes in Aelia, Marinus in Tyre (replacing Alexander who moved on), Heliodorus in Laodicea (replacing Thelymidres who died), Helenus in Tarsus, and all the churches of Cilicia, Firmilianus, and all Cappadocia. He named the more illustrious Bishops so that his letter was not too long and there was so much to read. Eusebius then notes that in all of Syria, and Arabia they sent help when needed, and to whom they previously wrote a letter, namely, Mesopotamia, Pontus, Bithynia, and, in short, people everywhere are rejoicing and glorifying God for being in one accord with brotherly love.15 This should help us appreciate how far and wide the assembly of believers spread and how influential it became by the middle of the fourth century.

Eusebius goes on to tell us that he felt no need to mention the rest by name, or count the multitude of workers, or tell the stories of the admirable martyrs of the Anointed One. Some of them were killed with an ax, as in Arabia. The arms and legs of some were broken, as in Cappadocia. Some were hung by their feet, with their heads down, while a small fire burned beneath them in order to suffocate them with the smoke which arose from the burning wood, as was done in Mesopotamia. Others were mutilated by cutting off their noses and ears and hands and cutting to pieces other parts of their bodies, as in Alexandria. Do we need to be reminded of those in Antioch who were roasted on fire-pit grates, not in order to kill them, but to subject them to longer, painful punishment? Or of others who preferred to stick their right hand into the fire rather than touch the profane sacrifice to idols? Some preferred not to go to trial. So rather than be arrested and fall into the hands of their enemies, threw themselves from rooftops, considering death preferable to the cruel punishment of the godless.16 How long would many believers today remain faithful to the Anointed One if they were treated the same way?

Since there is no other record of any Apostles going into these areas, we may assume that Paul spent his three years there preparing for what would become the greatest missionary journey in the assembly of believers’ history. Paul does not say how long he stayed in Arabia before he returned to Damascus, but scholars reckoned it to be about three years based on this verse here. The one thing he wanted to impress on the Corinthians was that while he spoke so highly of this man’s spiritual encounter with God, he refused to use that as adding any value to himself as a person. Rather, the one thing he would say about himself is how frail and human he was.

Should Paul have kept this experience a secret and thereby avoid any criticism of wanting to appear in the company of Enoch or Elijah? Eusebius doesn’t think so, because he’s telling the truth of what happened. The bottom line was that Paul did not want anyone to think he would use such a heavenly experience to make them feel they needed to treat him as somebody special. He simply wanted them to think of him as an ordinary person they heard and saw. Paul did not envision himself as a renown Pharisee who came to believe in Yeshua of Nazareth through a personal encounter with His Holiness, but as the chief of sinners, a worthless human being who persecuted the assembly of believers, and who did not deserve such grace and mercy from Almighty God. He was not made proud of his experience in the desert. Rather, it made him humble and repentant that God would care that much about him. Perhaps more believers today should adopt Paul’s humble attitude.

1 See Acts of the Apostles 9:23, 26 and 22:17-18

2 See II Corinthians 12:1-6

3 Concise Study of Basic Theology by Henry Epps, Vol. XV, p. 89

4 See II Corinthians 11:32

5 2 Corinthians 11:32-22

6 Adam Clarke: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

7 At its peak, the Nabatæan Empire stretched from modern-day Yemen to Damascus and from western Iraq into the Sinai Desert. No one is really sure how large their empire really was. That is how elusive and mysterious the Nabatæans were. While their caravans traveled widely, it is hard to be certain of the borders of their kingdom or the extent of their travel. The Jewish historian Josephus identified the Nabatæans with Ishmael’s eldest son N’vayot (Nabaioth – NIV) in Genesis 25:13

8 Exodus 3:1; 4:19

9 1 Kings 19:8

10 Deuteronomy 4:26-31

11 Avi ben Mordechai: On Galatians, op. cit., p. 11

12 Ernest DeWitt Burton: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 55

13 Pliny, History of Nature, Bk. V., Ch. 12 (Also see Ch. 14 & 16).

14 St. Jerome, De Locis Hebraicis (On the Location and Names of Hebrew Places), folio 92, G

15 Eusebius, History of the Church, Bk. 7, Ch. 5

16 Ibid. Bk.8 Ch. 12

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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