Acts (Part 14) - Saul's Beginning
After Saul meets Christ on the road to Damascus, Luke tells us that he meets Ananias who lays hands on him, allowing him to regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost. Then Luke says that Paul immediately proclaims Jesus in the synagogues, confounding the Jews and proving that Jesus was the Christ (9:20-22). This riles the Jews who, as Saul did with Stephen, interpret Saul’s teaching as blasphemous and therefore seek to put him to death (albeit outside the bounds of Jewish or civil legal formalities). The Christians of Damascus learn of the plot against Saul and usher him out of the city by means of a lowered basket over the city wall, since the gates were watched by their enemies (9:23-25). Saul journeys to Jerusalem and finds the Christians there still afraid of him because of his prior threats and violence. However, Barnabas aids Saul in his introduction to the church in Jerusalem. Paul preaches and debates in Jerusalem just as he did in Damascus. And just as in Damascus, the Jews of Jerusalem plot to kill him. So the Christians of Jerusalem send Saul to Caesarea, a seaport on the Mediterranean, where Saul then takes a boat to Tarsus (in the region of Cilicia in Asia Minor—modern day Turkey).
Paul also discusses this time period—the first years after his salvation—in his letter to the Galatians. There (1:17) Paul says that the first thing he did was travel from Damascus into Arabia (south of Damascus and east of the Jordan river). Then he came back to Damascus and stayed there three years before leaving to go to Jerusalem (1:18a). He stayed in Jerusalem only 15 days, and while there he saw only Peter and James, the Lord’s brother, but not any of the other apostles (1:18b-19)—and of this he is very insistent (1:20). After the two weeks in Jerusalem, he travels to the regions of Syria and Cilicia (1:21), where it appears he remained for about 14 years (2:1) before coming back to Jerusalem. On his return to Jerusalem, he finally meets up with other apostles, and he presents his ministry to them. They agree with what he has been doing and recognize his call by Christ to the Gentiles just as they have been called to the Jews (2:1-9).
Obviously there are differences of detail in these passages, but they are not differences which stand in opposition to each other. They can easily be harmonized as follows:
Acts 9:3-19a - Paul in Damascus; just saved
Gal 1:15-17 - Paul goes to Arabia, then back to Damascus
Acts 9:19b-22 - Paul preaches Christ in Damascus
Gal 1:18a - Paul remains in Damascus for three years
Acts 9:23-25 - Under threat for his life, Paul leaves Damascus by basket over the city wall
Gal 1:18b - Paul goes to Jerusalem and stays with Peter for 15 days
Acts 9:26-29a - After the Jerusalem Christians hesitantly accept him, Paul disputes the Hellenists
Acts 9:29b-30 - Paul leaves Jerusalem, going to board a ship in Caesarea to take him to Tarsus
Gal 1:21 - Paul travels in Syria and Cilicia
Acts 13 - Paul’s first missionary journey
Acts 15 - Because of a doctrinal dispute, Paul returns to Jerusalem
Gal 2:1 - Paul arrives in Jerusalem after being gone for 14 years
The two accounts have some differences, but they can nonetheless be harmonized. But why are there differences? The differences, of course, exist based on the intent of each writer. Luke condenses the activity of Paul basically to that which impacts the church in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Paul concentrates on detailing out his activity so as to ensure his Galatian readers of what he did not do—spend time with the apostles to learn about Christianity from them. Paul is writing to the Galatians to correct a distortion that they were beginning to embrace. The “Party of the Circumcision” were Jewish Christians who were preaching that the Gentiles who embraced Christianity had to recognize and follow the Jewish Law concerning circumcision and certain other things. Paul, of course, was preaching against this. But Paul is concerned that the Galatians will ignore his doctrine by thinking it is just his opinion—one that he himself distorted or confused after he had been taught by the apostles. But Paul says, “No!” He had not been taught by the apostles. He received his enlightenment of the gospel directly from Jesus as did the other apostles.
The eleven apostles had an advantage. Everyone knew that they had spent three and a half years with Jesus during his time on earth. They knew that they were taught by him and that it was the apostles’ job to convey that message that was directly from Christ to others. Of course, one of the 12 disciples lost his position because he never had faith in Christ. After Christ’s ascension (as we read at the beginning of Acts), the others prematurely assigned someone to take Judas Iscariot’s place. It was premature because God’s replacement for Judas was Paul. We gather from Galatians 1 that Paul knew he was the replacement apostle, called and taught directly by Christ. And he is insisting this point as he begins his letter to the Galatians.
But Paul must balance somewhat on a tightrope in his discussion. He must distance himself from the other apostles because he wants to assure everyone that his understanding of the gospel comes directly from Christ. Yet he must tie himself to the apostles because, after all, if he received his gospel understanding directly from Christ and they did as well, their understanding ought to be the same. That is the reason for Paul’s seemingly odd bouncing back and forth from insisting, “I never talked with them!” concerning his receiving gospel instruction, to “I came to them to set before them what I’ve been teaching” concerning his delivering gospel instruction. Therefore, Paul’s trip to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 was not to receive approval from those whom he considered authorities concerning matters of faith and law. Paul knows what he believes and is concretely settled in it because he received the understanding from Christ himself. That’s the reason that he constantly refers to the other apostles as “those who seemed influential” (2:2, 6 twice) and “who seemed to be pillars” (2:9). He even comes right out and says that even though they were apostles and seemingly influential, “what they were makes no difference to me” (2:6), arguing that “God shows no partiality.” This is an extremely important point. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul lists apostles at the very top of his list of spiritual gifts. Yet here he shows that even though it is a top spiritual gift, it holds no authority over others and does not grant greater relationship status to God.
Although Paul’s defense of his apostleship and gospel understanding straight from Christ takes up the greater portion of Galatians 1 and 2, it is only introductory material. The purpose for writing Galatians relates to the church problem of Law versus faith. In chapters 1 and 2 Paul has set up the fact that his teaching is straight from Christ, so they had better listen to what he says. It is the false teaching with which he is concerned that has brought us out of Acts and into this epistle.
Acts is a history book. As every good historian knows, you don’t simply memorize a list of dates or the points along Paul’s four missionary journeys and say, “I’ve learned history.” You need to know what is going on. What motivates? What drives people to do and say and preach and go? What’s the story behind the story? God has provided that for us because while we read the history in Acts, especially as the history begins to focus on Paul, we can also discover the mind of Paul as we look through the greater portion of the New Testament record. That is exactly what we are doing in this temporary turn to Galatians. A huge gospel distortion is introducing itself at the transition point in Acts as covenants change and focus shifts from the Jewish Christian church to the Christians of the world. In this transition, the Jews are attempting to hang on to elements of the old covenant to force them unto the Gentile Christians. “After all,” they reason, “did not God instruct these elements of Law? So if God instructed them, we should all obey them.” That thinking is coming into view in our Acts study. Therefore, we have jumped to Galatians for a moment to see what Paul thinks of that reasoning.
Note first that the book is addressed to the churches of Galatia (1:2). These are Christians—members of the covenant community, not Jews or Gentiles who still need to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. These are people who already profess faith in Christ. So the distortion that Paul speaks of in 1:6-7 is a distortion of Christian living, not one of entrance to Christianity. This Law versus faith debate took place within the church, not between the church and unconverted Jews. That’s an important point to realize as we march through Galatians.
Paul lays the groundwork in 2:15-16 as he reaffirms that “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” He then argues in verse 17 that if they try by their own works of law to be justified—and then fail, does that mean Christ (who served them through accomplishing redemption) is a servant of sin? Paul says, “Of course not.” Following the Law after salvation accomplishes only that which following the Law before salvation accomplished. It merely points out the fact that we are sinners. Justification always comes by faith.
Now, note in this section and following that Paul’s discussion of or meaning of justification is slightly different from his emphasis in, say, Romans. Surely (as we learn in Romans) when we are saved—at that very moment—we are justified, that is, we are declared right before God. But then we continue to live, now as Christians in Christ and in the kingdom. Are we justified in our post-salvation activity? At the end of our lives, looking back at our time lived as Christians, are we justified for how we lived? Well, Paul argues that we cannot possibly live our lives as Christians by the Law thinking that adhering to the Law will justify our actions and lives. He says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (3:3). Paul’s argument through this whole section is that the righteousness of Christ is what justifies us—at salvation, at each moment of our lives, and resultantly at life’s end. It is the righteousness of Christ which we have through faith. Therefore, “the righteous shall live by faith.” That idea directly relates to our post-salvation lives here and now in the kingdom.
This is the thrust of Paul’s discussion. I am emphasizing this point because we need to realize that Galatians is not a debate concerning Law versus faith as a means to entrance into the kingdom. It is a discussion of post-salvation living. We now as Christians still live by faith and not by the Law. And so as Paul reaches the climax of this discussion, he states that the law as our captor and guardian (showing us that we are nothing but sinners) held us only until Christ came. But now that he has come, we are “no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (3:25-26). The point of being “sons” is important. It relates our position to the old covenant, patriarchal society in which sons were heirs. Paul is telling us that because of the faith relationship in Christ, we are now heirs; we have all inherited the promised blessing. What is that blessing? Well, certainly salvation is a blessing, but the context forces us to look beyond entrance to the kingdom. Salvation is a blessing because it accomplishes a purpose. That purpose is what the blessing truly is. It is the one purpose that is the same as creation’s purpose—the same one purpose of God from before the world began, and that is realization of the everlasting love relationship with our God. We who are IN Christ, who ARE sons and heirs, now by faith do experience restored relationship with God and with the covenant community of all God’s sons (heirs).
And with that understanding we approach Galatians 3:28. Because of this restored relationship, 3:28 informs us of what we are no longer: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The Patriarchal Complementarian simplistically argues that by this statement Paul is merely saying that all people may come to Christ no matter the ethnic, political, religious, economic, social, or gender background. But that explanation makes no contextual sense. We are talking not about entrance to the kingdom, but rather about restored relationship within the kingdom—the promise delivered to us from God to Abraham through Christ. By this promise, and specifically explained by this verse, we are not segregated from any other “sons” (heirs) by any construct of relationship. In Paul’s examples of 3:28, what is the common element regarding relationships in the outside Christianity, old covenant environment? All three examples include a hierarchy among humans in relationship to God and to each other. So this verse tells us that we are not any longer segregated according to hierarchy in relationship to God and to each other. You are not segregated based on ethnicity, economic status, social status, or gender. No ROLE or FUNCTION that involves your life has any bearing on your relationship before God and AMONG YOUR FELLOW HEIRS. We may have roles and functions (pastor, janitor, etc.), but those who fill the roles and functions are on a level equal with each other and before God. Roles are not assigned based on old patterns of distinguishing marks of hierarchy.
Where does authority lie? It is not in a role or function. We learned in Matthew 28:18 that all authority was given to Jesus. Why Jesus? Because he is worthy. Read any account in the Bible of God exalting Christ with regard to authority (e.g., Philippians 2, Revelation 5) and you will find that it is because of who and what Christ has accomplished. He alone is worthy. He alone has authority. It is a false and unbiblical understanding to believe that roles and functions carry spiritual authority or that authority is not assigned based on worth.
This verse and, in fact, this whole three chapter passage in Galatians have important application to us today. Within the church, in Paul’s day during the Apostolic period, the conflict focused on the Jew-Gentile relationship. In the 1600s through 1800s, the focus within the church was on the free-slave relationship. Today within the church, our conflict focuses on the male-female relationship. It is the same conflict—one of hierarchy and authority. It confusingly assumes a distribution of authority to some and not to others among the redeemed. Today’s gender conflict in the church is the exact same conflict Paul faced with the Party of the Circumcision. Note that those Jewish Christians in Paul’s day were not consumed with getting the Gentiles not to walk more than a Sabbath day’s journey on Saturday or to ensure unblemished peace offerings at the temple. They were concerned with marking and identifying Gentiles through circumcision because that sealed an understanding of hierarchical status. It was still only the Jew who could cross from the Court of the Gentiles to that closer relationship to God.
But Paul and the other apostles said no. As Paul said, in our relationship to God and in our relationship to each other, “God shows no partiality.” There is no more authority-based relationship structure among the redeemed—the heirs of the promise.