Unexpected Grace

Text: Galatians 1:11-24

Date: 04 Feb 2018


So far in this series of sermons from Galatians we have looked at 1:1-10. Today I want to move on to consider what Paul has to say about himself in 1:11-24. Those opening ten verses contain some tough words from Paul, words aimed at pulling the Galatians up short and pointing them back to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul’s main message from these opening verses is simple; there is only one gospel and anyone who preaches anything other than that gospel should “be under God’s curse” (1:8-9). The next fourteen verses tend to read like Paul’s testimony or CV although when we dig a bit deeper there is far more to it than that.

Paul’s Learning

In the opening two verses of this passage, 1:11-12, Paul once again reiterates the fact that the gospel he has been preaching was not given to him by any human being. He said something similar in 1:1 and seems anxious to remind his readers of that. Having castigated them for turning to a different gospel “which is really no gospel at all” (1:7), he wants to be sure that they understand just who gave him the gospel that he had been preaching. Paul makes it quite clear in 1:12 that not only didn’t he receive it from any man but he was also not taught it by anyone. It was given to him by a revelation from Jesus Christ Himself. Wow, what a way to learn the full details of the good news of Jesus Christ and all that it means. Quite simply, Paul didn’t attend a College anywhere to “book learn” it. In the current age of course fledgling ministers, pastors, missionaries and other Christian workers generally attend College for up to 3 years. Paul however had this amazing “revelation from Jesus Christ” (1:12) and was given the gospel directly by the Author.

Paul’s Pedigree

Having told us how he learned all he knew about the gospel, Paul moves on in 1:13-20 to share with the Galatians what might be viewed as either a testimony or a CV.

Paul’s original name was Saul and in essence 1:13-14 deal with the Apostle’s life when he was known as Saul. Quite how or when his name changed is difficult to discern although there is a passage in Acts 13 where Saul was holding a conversation with Elymas the sorcerer and in Acts 13:9 we suddenly read, “Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit ...” That’s it; Saul’s name changed and from then on he became known as Paul!

Paul suggests in 1:13 that the Galatians may have heard of him and his exploits during his time as Saul. If they had done then it shows just how far and how fast news travelled at that time. If they had heard of him then they would have known that he was the leading persecutor of all those who followed Jesus Christ, a group known as The Way. We know from Acts 7:54-8:1 that he was present at the stoning of Stephen and that he “approved of their killing him”. At some stage later Saul obtained letters from the Jewish hierarchy giving him permission to visit synagogues in Damascus and seek out followers of Jesus Christ in order to “deal with them”. His persecution of members of The Way was intense as can see from Acts 9:1 where we see Saul “breathing out murderous threats”. As he makes clear in 1:13 he was determined to destroy the church.

In 1:14 he talks briefly about his life in Judaism, a religion in which he acknowledges he was advancing “beyond many of his age”. He was undoubtedly very zealous as a Jew and he tells us more in Philippians 3:4-6. In those verses he said, “... though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.” When we read 1:14 Saul comes across as a bit of a prodigy which added to the verses in Philippians, is quite a pedigree and I suspect that Paul mentions all this to show just how big a change there has been in his life as a result of coming to faith in Jesus.

Paul’s life changed dramatically as a result of that unprecedented and unexpected meeting with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’ve already mentioned that he had obtained letters giving him permission to search for followers of Jesus in the Damascus synagogues. He never made it; he never got as far as Damascus for it was on the road between Jerusalem and Damascus that he had that famous encounter with Jesus. The full story of that meeting comes in Acts 9:3-9 and certainly makes for dramatic reading. In that instant Saul went from being the major persecutor to being reborn as a great follower of Jesus. To make things easy from now on I’ll refer to him as Paul. Probably the most important aspect of all this is grace, the grace of God, that unmerited gift that only God can give. As sinners we don’t deserve anything that God does for us, nor do we deserve what Jesus did for us on the cross of Calvary, and yet simply because of the grace of God we do receive all these things. Paul was no different. He had spent a large part of his adult life persecuting all those who believed in Jesus and yet, because of God’s wonderful and unexpected grace and mercy, he experienced a complete about turn and became a great and devout follower of Jesus.

Paul’s Travels

In the days following his conversion Paul spent time in Damascus at the home of Ananias. He had been temporarily blinded during his confrontation with Jesus and needed to regain his eyesight. Once he could see again Paul spent a few days with the disciples in Damascus although perhaps not unexpectedly some of those he was trying to befriend were suspicious of him; they knew who he was and were frightened by his presence. So frightened were they that some of them plotted to kill him. However, those who supported Paul heard of this plot and helped him to escape and send him on his way to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem Paul tried to join up with the disciples although they too were suspicious of him and didn’t trust him. Thanks to the intervention of Barnabas, Paul was eventually accepted by the disciples and was able to move freely around Jerusalem and to preach the gospel. Once again though there were those who opposed him and who plotted to kill him; previously he had obviously made a lot of enemies during his time as a persecutor of followers of Jesus whereas now he was making more enemies amongst the devout Jews. Once again his friends came to his rescue and helped him escape to Caesarea, south of Jerusalem. Once there he made his way by sea north to Tarsus in Syria.

Rather interestingly some of those events that are described in Acts 9:19-30 are seemingly contradicted by Paul’s own comments in 1:17. In the Acts passage Luke makes no mention of Paul’s trip to “Arabia” instead only mentioning Paul going from Damascus to Jerusalem. In the Galatians version of this in 1:17 Paul went from Damascus to spend something like 3 years in “Arabia” before going on to Jerusalem. Quite why this should be is difficult to determine although it is just possible that Luke wasn’t writing what might be seen as a full biography of Paul simply an outline of the Apostle’s major work.

Paul makes that simple statement in 1:17 that he “went into Arabia”. Now “Arabia” is a big place mainly made up of desert and so it is difficult to know where exactly he went. The important thing though is that it is highly unlikely that there would be any followers of Jesus there to help Paul with his gospel learning process. Rather it could be that it was during this time that the gospel was revealed to him by Jesus Himself. It is also possible that he needed a time of rest, prayer and meditation in order to contemplate and meditate on the life changing events on the road to Damascus. It also gave him time to ponder the full meaning of what Jesus had said to him on that occasion and to consider what faced him as a result of being chosen by Jesus to serve Him.

It is both interesting and fascinating to note that Paul seems to have avoided going to Jerusalem to meet disciples until he had been to “Arabia”. He probably felt that spending time alone with Jesus would be more spiritually profitable than spending time with His disciples. Time alone with Jesus is always profitable for our spiritual lives and I suspect that all too many of us find that difficult to do given life’s pressures in the fast moving 21st century. It is also true to say that Paul wanted to be on solid ground regarding his knowledge of the gospel before meeting the disciples. They had had the opportunity of spending a lot of time with Jesus so knew what the gospel was all about. Paul meanwhile was playing catch up and needed to do a lot of learning very quickly. That rapid learning is what happened in “Arabia” where Jesus revealed everything to him.

Following his sojourn in “Arabia” Paul returned briefly to Damascus before going up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas, who we know better as Peter. The only other disciple that he met during this particular visit was James the Lord’s brother. In 1:20 Paul made the interesting statement “I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie.” What he has had to say so far makes for fantastic reading which is why Paul seems anxious to confirm and guarantee what he has said by this solemn affirmation.

Paul’s Further Travels

Paul spent fifteen days with Cephas in Jerusalem before moving on and in 1:20 he simply says, “Then I went to Syria and Cilicia”. That sounds a bit broad brush but I suspect that the reference to Syria probably means Antioch and the reference to Cilicia probably means Tarsus which given that Paul later became known as Paul of Tarsus may have become his base. We don’t know too much about Tarsus but Antioch sounds a fascinating place. Although there were a large number of Jews in Antioch there were also a large number of followers of Jesus who pursued their faith openly and seemingly without hindrance. So active was this group that we read in Acts 11:26 that, “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”

In the next verse, 1:22, Paul states that he was “personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ”. It is difficult to determine quite where he means as there are no actual borders or boundaries of an area called Judea. What we do know is that in his previous life Paul had focussed his attention on Jerusalem and its immediate surroundings. Assuming Judea to be outside that particular area, it seems reasonable to suggest that they didn’t know him personally; although what Paul does add is that they had heard reports of him and that “The man formerly persecuting us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy” (1:23); a perfect example of Paul’s complete turnabout. Consequently they praised God for him.

Paul’s Transformation

On the surface this passage may seem a little dry and lacking in anything major. However, if you think that then I would suggest that you are wrong since to me it illustrates the total transformation of Saul to Paul as a result of his confrontation with Jesus on the Damascus Road. Following that encounter he went from murderous and zealous persecutor to devout preacher and missionary; that is the power of the Holy Spirit at work. In Romans 12:1-2 we see Paul urging us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. In Paul’s case it wasn’t just his mind that was transformed but his whole being; he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was certainly able to offer himself as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).

Paul’s conversion, amazing and dramatic as it was, sometimes causes a problem. Paul had that truly incredible experience with bright lights and a glorious revelation of Jesus Who clearly spoke to him. Not all conversions are like that and so there are those who worry that their conversion may not be real. However, it is true to say that not all conversion experiences are the same, whilst some may be gradual and some may be instant all are important and lead to a transformed life led by Jesus Christ.


On first glance this passage may appear to be solely about Paul and his pre and post conversion experiences. That is right up to a point until we dig a little deeper and consider some of the nuances of Paul’s words.

He had quite a reputation as a persecutor of followers of Jesus, a reputation that spread far and wide. Whilst travelling to continue in that role he was intercepted by Jesus Christ Himself and experienced a total transformation in his life. He went from persecutor of the gospel to preacher of that same gospel.

He reminds his readers that his knowledge of the gospel did not come from men but rather by direct revelation from Jesus Himself. Following his conversion Paul was able to spend three years in “Arabia” in the company of Jesus Himself as the Lord taught him all he needed to know. It was this gospel that Paul was now endeavouring to share with the people of Galatia and it was this gospel that all too many of them were deserting for a corrupted version and travesty of a gospel.

In the next passage we will learn of the major meeting between Paul and Barnabas on the one hand and Peter and the disciples on the other. It is an interesting encounter!

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