NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
PAUL’S LETTER TO THE GALATIAN CHURCHES
CHAPTER ONE (Lesson LVI)
1:21 After that, I went north to visit cities in Syria and Cilicia.
The country of Syria is in the news as much today as it was back in Paul’s day. It was first mentioned in Genesis as “Aram,”1 one of the children of Shem, Noah’s son. But after the children of Israel crossed over into Canaan,2 it is called “Syria” 67 times, in the First Covenant. It became part of the Final Covenant narrative when it tells us of how Jesus’ fame spread from Galilee throughout Syria,3 and when Cyrenius, the governor of Syria, ordered a census and tax be taken.4
Damascus, the capital of Syria, is mentioned about sixty times in the Bible, starting at the time of Abraham.5 And Antioch, one of its other main cities first comes to light in Acts of the Apostles.6 When in this sacred spot of God’s Kingdom World, He chose prophets for the First Covenant, and Apostles for the Final Covenant. We must continue to remember, Jerusalem and Damascus are the ancient centers of Bible history. So the fact that the Apostle Paul begins his ministry in this area should be of no surprise – not by his will but by the will of God.
It is also from this chosen middle east spot on the globe, God the Almighty caused it to become the cradle of the prophets and Apostles who spread the Word of God out into the world. His prophets reveal His love, so it is not a surprise that our Lord Jesus the Anointed One selected his twelve disciples from this area to follow Him and learn of the Gospel they would be sent out to share. There are many villages, towns, and cities that still exist and carry the same names as at the time of the Anointed One, like, Damascus, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jericho, and Magdal, the town of Mary Magdaline. There is also Ethra’e (Der’a today), the area, as some say, where Job lived close to his three wise friends. Still, many cities and towns in Palestine are also called the same as at the time of the Anointed One. We may consider Jerusalem as the center of the Bible World in Bible prophecies.
Paul also mentions going into the province of Cilicia. Tarsus was the capital city of the Roman province of Cilicia. Before then, it was a major linen and lumbering center during the time of the Greeks, and before that, it was the seat of the provincial governor during the time of the Persians. Tarsus was known for its wealth and for its great schools which are said to have rivaled Athens and Alexandria. Located in what is today southern Turkey, it was situated adjacent to the Cydnus River, about ten miles north of the Mediterranean Sea. Tarsus is mentioned by name only five times in the Bible, all in relationship to the Apostle Paul who was born there. It is located in south-central Turkey on the Tarsus River, about twelve miles from the Mediterranean Sea coast. If you look at a map of the missionary journeys of Paul, you’ll see how Tarsus and Colossæ, Ephesus, and Corinth line up on a major roadway that runs through Galatia.
The reason for Paul’s departure to this area is because of the overwhelming persecution he received after his conversion to become a follower of the Anointed One, both in Damascus and Jerusalem.7 Bible scholars reckon that Paul stayed about five years in his home town before Barnabas showed up to bring him back to Antioch.8 And after another year, this is where Paul and Barnabas received their commission to go out and do the work for which God called them.9 It is also worthwhile to note that some of the Jews that got into an argument with Stephen, leading to his martyrdom, were from Cilia. Luke does say, but Paul could have been counted among them since that was his home area.10
Paul continues his itinerary where his travels led him; after visiting Peter and James, the only two Apostles he saw during his visit to Jerusalem. He apparently did not hang around to visit or preach in any of the churches in Judæa, even though they were thrilled at his success among the Gentiles. This is so interesting because Acts of the Apostles tells us there were plenty of churches in Judæa, Galilee, and Samaria.11 And if Peter, who was well acquainted with churches in Lydda and Joppa, wanted to introduce Paul to these brethren, he was given plenty of opportunities. Since Paul identified himself as a resident of Cilicia,12 he was, in fact, going home. I’m sure that once he got there, he found out that word about his conversion spread like wildfire. After all, this former arch-enemy of Christianity who tried to kill them now became a champion ready to defend them. Why is Paul so intent on telling this story? Again, it was the pressure he felt from the doubters in Galatia on whether or not he could be trusted, and the Gospel he preached could be accepted.
Paul now further recounts what happened after his conversion. His course of travels went something like this: From Damascus to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem into Syria and Cilicia. “At Damascus, the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket; and when Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he decided to join himself to the disciples.”13 Afterward, when the brethren knew the conspiracy formed against him at Jerusalem, they brought him down to Cæsarea and sent him back to his hometown of Tarsus in Cilicia.14 This account in the Acts agrees with that in this epistle.15
Let’s get a better view of the role that Cilicia played in Paul’s selection of destinations. Theologian Robert Gundry points out that Syria was north of Israel. Even farther away was Cilicia, a province in southeast Asia Minor. So distance separated him once again from the Apostles in Jerusalem.16 But he was unknown by face to the churches of Judæa, which means, that the churches there hadn’t seen Paul, much less spoken to him so as to teach him the Gospel during his fifteen days in Jerusalem. He describes those churches as “in the Anointed One” to point up that their theological location outclasses their geographical location by virtue of their having been called “by the grace of the Anointed One” just as the Galatians were.
Their only hearing about the conversion of their former persecutor into a proclaimer of the Gospel reemphasizes Paul’s independence from them so far as the origin of his Gospel was concerned. He calls this Gospel “the faith” to prepare for an upcoming contrast between faith and works of the Mosaic law in the matter of gaining salvation. Faith means belief both in the sense of believing and in the sense of what is believed. “The faith” is such a part of those who have it that Paul’s having wreaked havoc on God’s assembly of believers now turns into his having wreaked havoc on the faith itself. And they were glorifying God in him shows that they, the early churches in Judæa, recognized that Paul’s case demonstrated the Gospel to be one of sheer grace. The Galatians should come to the same conclusion.17
More or less, those were the conditions Paul faced when he went into Galatia, and now some opposition members were bringing it up all over again. No wonder he sounded disappointed and disgusted. Why did he have to prove to them he could be trusted? That would be enough to drive anyone to their wit’s end. But Paul wrote this letter with a purpose, and by the time the Galatian believers read the whole thing they would be glad he did. Paul mentions that after his visits in Jerusalem, he went back to Damascus in Syria, and then across the mountains into Cilicia. Since that wasn’t too far from his home town of Tarsus, it would be a surprise if he didn’t drop by to see his family and relatives.
Messianic writer Lancaster goes on to say that Paul spent fourteen years in Syria and Cilicia. The first eight years he spent in his home town of Tarsus. He passed his time preaching the Anointed One in the synagogues there as he worked in the tent-making business and tailor shop, both which no doubt belonged to his father. It is also very possible that he engaged in many debates with the Rabbis there on how faith in Jesus the Anointed One compared to faith in the Law of Moses. Paul also may have searched through the writings of the Torah and the Prophets to confirm that indeed the word of the LORD – that the salvation of the Anointed One extended even to the Gentiles.
It was sometime in his eighth year at home that Joseph Barnabas, the disciple he knew from Damascus, showed up at his door looking for him. He explained that the Apostles in Jerusalem sent him to the new assembly of believers in Antioch, Syria to see how it was doing. Barnabas found out that a large group of non-Jews joined the assembly of believers and joined the Messianic Jews in their faith in Jesus the Anointed One. That’s when Barnabas remembered his friend Paul, the one whom the Anointed One called to minister to the non-Jews, and came to get him so he could come and help out in the ministry there in Antioch, Syria.
Imagine if today some atheist who openly and viciously opposed anything to do with Christianity; went around the country filing lawsuits resulting in clergy being jailed and recommending the death penalty for members because belonging to an assembly of believers was a crime, goes on a trip to persecute more Christians in foreign countries. Suddenly news reports come back that while on his way he saw a vision of the Anointed One, and claimed that Jesus gave him a revelation to preach the Gospel, what would you think? Not only that, but he stayed overseas in some Muslim country and did not come back until three years later claiming he did not need to submit to the authority of any denomination. If asked where he went to Bible School or Seminary, he responded that he graduated from the School of Learning Things the Hard Way and did not need any further training because God gave him all he needed through visions and revelations in order to preach the Gospel.
This dispute between Paul and the intruders from Jerusalem reminds me of when Socrates and Crito were having a discussion on principles and remaining true to one’s convictions. Socrates asks Crito, “Should we follow the opinion of the crowd because we fear them, or the opinion of the one man who has understanding, and whom we ought to fear and reverence more than all the rest of the world: and if we desert him we will destroy and injure that principle in us which may be assumed to be improved by more justice and less injustice? Surely, such a principle exists!”18
Paul knew the benefit of having majority support and having the assembly of believers leadership bestowing their favor on him. That would open many doors and put his picture on the wall as “Evangelist of the Year.” But he refused to go against the one Man from whom he received his revelation; the one Man who knew the truth and taught him all he knew about the Gospel. So, for better or for worse; for richer or for poorer; in sickness and in health, Paul was committed to remaining true and faithful to the One who loved him, gave Himself for him, saved him, and commissioned him to preach His glorious Gospel to all the world.
1 Genesis 10:22
2 Judges 10:6
3 Matthew 4:24
4 Luke 2:2
5 Genesis 14:15
6 Acts of the Apostles 6:5
7 Ibid. 9:30
8 Ibid. 11:25-26
9 Ibid. 13:1-2
10 Ibid. 6:9; See 21:39; 22:3; 23:24
11 Ibid. 9:31
12 Ibid., 21:39
13 Acts of the Apostles 9:25-26
14 Ibid. 9:30
15 See Adam Clarke: Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.
16 Cf. Acts 9:30
17 See Robert H. Gundry: On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Location 287-313
18 Crito by Plato