Galatians 1:10-24 – A Former Fanatic Speaks
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 22, 2009.
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in beautiful Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it has been a good week for you and those you love. It was a rough week in my family. I want to give a shout out to my nephew, Erik Wheeler, who is intensive care in Baptist Hospital. We are all very worried about Erik and would appreciate your prayers for him and his mother and sisters. I spent yesterday up in Valdese, NC at a conference on immigration and the churches sponsored by the Waldensian Church and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. It was quite illuminating. One of the difficult aspects of a global economy is that millions of persons are displaced. In addition to spending time in the hospital and at Valdese, I spent some time with the staff of Old Salem looking at ways of up-dating the interpretative part of the museum. It is good to see how interested Old Salem is in the Moravian story. Speaking of Moravians, there will be a reception at Christ Moravian Church this afternoon for the president of Moravian College and Theological Seminary. Stop by and meet Dr. Thomforde if you have a chance. And don’t forget the Moravian art show in the Fine Arts Center of Salem College next weekend. There will lots of beautiful art that you can buy, and your money will go to a good cause. This week we are continuing our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
A Servant of Christ: We saw last week that Paul opens his letter to the Galatians with harsh words accusing them of deserting God by rejecting the good news of salvation in Christ. It appears that Paul’s opponents from Jerusalem were accusing him of preaching cheap grace; that his gospel was designed to please people instead of letting them on the narrow path of righteousness. We will talk more about their argument in a later lesson, but today let’s focus on Paul’s defense of himself. He begins by telling the Galatians that not seeking human approval but to please God. He describes himself as a slave of Christ, and his work with the Galatians was in obedience to the will of Christ.
Paul tells them that he had not become a homeless pilgrim traveling the world, suffering all kinds of hardships, and risking arrest in order to please people or build a name for himself. He was doing all of this in response to a call from Christ. It was not the gospel of Paul that he proclaimed, but the gospel of Jesus. And it was not Paul’s authority that was being questioned in Galatia or was it Paul that was being rejected; it was Christ.
Prophet of Christ: Paul tried to assure the Galatians that the good news that they had heard and accepted was not something dreamed up by an amateur philosopher or trouble-maker; it was a divine revelation. Modern historians are skeptical about claims of divine revelation, but Paul was convinced that he was preaching a message that came from a source beyond him. This was more than just a claim for the authority of his message, Paul wants to make it clear that his teaching is a break with the past. This is a new revelation of God’s work in the world. God has done something new, and the traditions of the elders no longer apply in the same way. Jesus Christ had been revealed to Paul as the agent of salvation who is ushering in a new age. Paul was telling the Galatians that they do not have to repeat the past, they can be the vanguards of the messianic age.
In order to back up his claim that he is a servant and spokesperson for Christ, Paul tells the Galatians about his own conversion. This is a part of the letter that has been of great interest to historians because it provides one of the few first-hand accounts of an individual’s conversion to Christianity in ancient times. The information Paul provides here can be compared with the account of his career given in Acts and with statements Paul gives in other letters, such as I Corinthians. We should not be surprised that there discrepancies in the accounts of Paul’s conversion in different books of the New Testament.
Story Corps Earlier this week I was invited to participate in the Story Corps project. Story Corps started in New York a few years ago and is now touring the United States. Two people, typically friends, sit in a booth and one helps the other tell his or her story. They get a CD of the recording, and a copy is housed in the library of Congress. So far 23,000 people have been recorded. My wife originally suggested that I do Story Corps, but I really do not like talking about myself. It was only when the pastor of Fries Moravian told me that the Story Corps folks really wanted a Moravian to talk about the church that I agreed.
Rob Lang interviewed me, and at one point he asked me to tell about my calling to the ministry, which I had talked about at church during Lent several years ago. For the life of me, I could not remember what I had said then. I told a true story about myself on Story Corps, but I do not know if it was similar to what I had told the church. Even when we are telling our own story, we rarely tell it the same way twice. We Moravians have a practice of writing our life-stories, which are then read at our funerals. We use the German word Lebenslauf to describe these memoirs. I’ve written mine at least four times, and it is different each time.
Paul’s Lebenslauf: Paul’s story changes as well. He shapes the story he tells to the Galatians because of the situation he is addressing at that moment. He leaves out many details that a historian would want to know, just as I do when people want to know why I’m a Christian and a pastor. In Acts we have three versions of Paul’s conversion, told for dramatic effect. The details differ somewhat, but the basic story is that Paul was on the road to Damascus when he saw a bright light and heard the voice of Christ calling from heaven. This story has shaped accounts of Christian conversion for two thousand years, so much so that the phrase Damascus Road is used to describe any sudden change in belief.
I was recently interviewed for the student newsletter at Wake Forest. They like to include personal profiles of classmates and professors. Before I told the student my story I emphasized that it was not a typical conversion account. I did not lose my faith because I began studying biblical criticism in college, like so many kids who grew up in church. I was lost in doubt while I was still in high school. It was actually biblical criticism and the study of theology that brought me to faith. But when the student wrote the interview up, it sounded like a typical evangelical conversion experience. He wrote it the way he thought it had happened. We do the same thing to Paul. We try to make his story fit our models of religious experience instead of listening closely to what he says.
Fanaticism or Faith? Here in Galatians, Paul doesn’t say anything about a blinding light on the road to Damascus, nor does he talk about personal struggles over faith. Instead he reminds the Galatians that he had once persecuted Christians because he was such a zealous person. Verses 13 and 14 are the only times that the word Judaism is used in the NT, and we should not assume that Paul is using the word the way we do today. The word Judaism today refers to a major world religion with a long and beautiful history, meaningful rituals, and positive social ethic that has had a profound impact on our society. The Judaism we know emerged out of the religion of ancient Judea after the destruction of the Temple. During the same time that Christian bishops were establishing the organizational structure, scriptures, doctrines, and rituals of Christianity, rabbis were creating the Talmud that continues to guide the religious life of most Jews.
This is not what Paul is talking about when he says he was advanced in Judaism. It appears that he is using the word “Judaism” to refer to a particular way of being a Jew in the ancient Roman Empire. He uses the word much like people used the word Stoicism or Platonism; it was a way of living according to a particular set of beliefs. Paul indicates that one could advance in Judaism, presumably by adopting ever stricter interpretations of the Torah.
Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul believed that it was his responsibility to see that other Jews were observing the traditions of the elders as strictly as he was. To be zealous for the law, for Paul, meant that he must force others to be observant, too. It was not enough to observe the commandments privately; he felt the need to attack those who did not observe them. In Biblical times, being zealous meant being like the man who killed a Jewish priest for making a false sacrifice during the Maccabean Revolt (I Maccabees 2). Zealots killed to keep the synagogue and Temple pure. Today we would call such a person a fanatic.
Someone at Fries Memorial Church last week gave me a good definition of a fanatic: it is someone whose zeal increases as they lose sight of the purpose of their religion. Paul tells us that his zeal for the law led him to violently persecute the followers of Jesus because he saw them as a threat to the traditions of his ancestors. Such religious violence and persecution is one of the plagues of our time. We have seen how fanaticism can lead to abuse and murder as people become afraid that others are undermining their religion. Paul’s letter reminds us that this is nothing new. He was such a fanatic before he was called by Christ. He does not give us the details, but the language he uses indicates that he was indeed violent in his opposition to Jesus.
Conversion: Why does Paul remind the Galatians of his past? It is possible that his adversaries from Jerusalem were using Paul’s history to undermine his authority. We all have things in our past that could be used against us if they became public. Think of how politicians play the game of “gotcha” during campaigns. My students at Salem Academy several years ago found a poem I had written in my high school newspaper and were thrilled to find out that I had not always been the pious supporter of educational authority that I am today.
It’s possible that Paul’s past was coming back to haunt him, and that he was doing damage control here, but I’m not sure. It is just as possible that Paul had told the Galatians his story years before. He wanted these pagan converts to know who he was before Christ was revealed to him. He doesn’t have to give them the whole story here in the letter to the Galatians; he just reminds them of the crucial details. He was once so wrapped up in his own righteousness that he abused those who believed in Jesus. He tells them and us that religious fanaticism leads to violence, but Christ calls us to sacrificial love. The law can be used to abuse and reject people, but the grace of Christ can bring healing and hope.
A Light to the Nations: Paul interprets his experience in terms used by some of the prophets of old. He says that God had set him apart in his mother’s womb to proclaim Christ among the Gentiles. This sounds very similar to statements made by Jeremiah (1:4-5) and Isaiah (49:1, 6), both whom claimed to have been chosen by God before they were even born. More significantly, as Richard Hays points out (New Interpreters Bible, Galatians, 215), both prophets claim that they called by God to be a light to the nations. There words were not just for the Jews.
Paul believed that Christ had sent him to proclaim the gospels to all the nations, to Jews and Gentiles, and he saw this as a continuation of the work of Jeremiah and Isaiah. Although Paul rejected many of the legal requirements of the Judaism of his day, he believed that his work was a continuation of the Israelite prophets. Paul was proclaiming the same God as the God of the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The new thing in his proclamation was that the Son of God had died and been raised from the dead. Because of Jesus, people of every nation could become the children of God.
Arabia: One of the interesting details in Paul’s lebenslauf is that he went to Arabia after his conversion. This is one of those bits of Paul’s biography not discussed in Acts. We do not know where in Arabia he went, how long he stayed there, or what he did. There are many characters in Scripture who spent time in the desert before beginning their ministry, such as Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the most famous example. During Lent, we remember his 40 days alone in a deserted place after his baptism. When Jesus emerged from the desert, he began his ministry of teaching and healing. It is possible that Paul had a similar period of solitary. Perhaps he went into Arabia in order to think about what had happened to him on the Damascus Road. When you have an experience that completely reorients your life and sense of purpose, it is wise to take some time to make sense of what has happened. It also seems likely Paul received further revelations and mystical experiences while he was alone in the desert. He claims that Christ instructed him in the meaning of his death and resurrection.
Many scholars think that Paul went to the cities of Nabatea in Arabia, southeast of Damascus. Not only does that fit the geography nicely, it also fits our picture of Paul as an evangelist on the move. Paul may have set off to take the good news to the Arabians, but there is no evidence that he did so. Personally, I think it would have been unlikely that he started preaching as soon as he was converted or that he would begin in Arabia. N.T. Wright speculates that Paul actually went of a pilgrimage to Mt. Sinai or Horeb, much like Elijah, but again there is not much to support this idea. The key thing is that Paul went on a pilgrimage after his conversion and then returned to Damascus. It was another three years before he went to Jerusalem to confer with Cephas and James, the brother of Jesus.
Pillars of the Church: Cephas is the Hebrew form of the name Peter, just as Saul is the Hebrew form of Paul. All of the gospels indicate that Peter was one of the most important disciples during Jesus’ life, and he continued to be important in the church after the resurrection. James, who is also known as James the Just is not mentioned in the gospels, but he appears in the Book of Acts as one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem. The Jewish historian Josephus gives an account of his martyrdom in the days leading up to the Jewish War. An ossuary of a man named James was erroneously identified as that of James the Apostle a few years ago. Paul indicates that he spent two weeks with Peter and James, and presumably he learned something about Jesus from them. However, Paul insists that his understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus came from Christ. The death of Jesus was the end of the law, and those who are baptized into the death of Jesus put to death their old corrupt, pagan lives.
It was after this time with Peter that Paul began his missionary journeys. Paul claims that he spent so little time in Jerusalem that the Christians there did not know his face, but they knew his name. The former persecutor was now a preacher. The Christians in Judea rejoiced because he had changed his way and was proclaiming the faith he had once rejected. We need to remember that we only have Paul’s word on this. There may have been some Christians in Judea that remained suspicious of this former anti-Christian zealot who had persecuted their brothers and sisters in the faith.
Conclusion: The reason Paul was telling the Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem rejoiced at his preaching among the Gentiles was to reassure them that the message he had proclaimed in Galatia was approved by the apostles. He was making the case that he had not changed his message over the years. Christ had died for sins, and the followers of Christ are no longer bound by the old laws. He claimed that it was his adversaries who were preaching a new message. They were they ones who were misinterpreting the work of Christ. They were the ones confusing the issue, not Paul. Next week we’ll look at Paul’s account of controversy in the church.