A Commentary by John Stott
In this rather longer paragraph the emphatic statement is the first, at the end of verse 16, ‘I did not confer with flesh and blood.’ That is, Paul says that he did not consult any human being. We know that Ananias came to him, but evidently Paul did not discuss the gospel with him, nor with any of the Jerusalem apostles. He now elaborates this statement historically. He produces a series of three alibis to prove that he did not spend time in Jerusalem, having his gospel shaped by the other apostles.
Alibi 1. He went into Arabia (verse 17).
According to Acts 9:20 Paul spent a little while in Damascus preaching, which suggests that his gospel was already clearly enough defined for him to announce it. But it must have been soon afterwards that he went into Arabia. Bishop Lightfoot comments: ‘A veil of thick darkness hangs over St. Paul’s visit to Arabia.’ We know neither where he went nor why he went there. Possibly it was not far from Damascus, because the whole district at that time was ruled by King Aretas of Arabia. Some people think he went into Arabia as a missionary to preach the gospel. St. Chrysostom describes ‘a barbarous and savage people’ who lived there, whom Paul went to evangelize. But it is much more likely that he went into Arabia for quiet and solitude, for this is the point of verses 16 and 17, ‘I did not confer with flesh and blood… but I went away into Arabia.’ He seems to have stayed there for three years (verse 18). We believe that in this period of withdrawal, as he meditated on the Old Testament Scriptures, on the facts of the life and death of Jesus that he already knew and on his experience of conversion, the gospel of the grace of God was revealed to him in its fullness. It has even been suggested that those three years in Arabia were a deliberate compensation for the three years of instruction which Jesus gave the other apostles, but which Paul missed. Now he had Jesus to himself, as it were, for three years of solitude in the wilderness.
Alibi 2. He went up to Jerusalem later and briefly (verses 18-20).
The occasion is probably that referred to in Acts 9:26, after he had been smuggled out of Damascus, being lowered down the city wall in a basket. Paul is quite open about this visit to Jerusalem, but he makes light of it. It was not nearly as significant as the false teachers were obviously suggesting. Several features of it are mentioned.
For one thing it took place ‘after three years’ (verse 18). This almost certainly means three years after his conversion, by which time his gospel would have been fully formulated.
Next, when he reached Jerusalem, he saw only two of the apostles, Peter and James. He went ‘to see’ (AV) or ‘to visit’ (RSV) Peter. The Greek verb (*historesai*) was used of sight-seeing, and means ‘to visit for the purpose of coming to
know somebody’ (Arndt-Gingrich), Luther comments that he went to these apostles ‘not commanded, but of his own accord, not to learn anything of them, but only to see Peter’. Paul also saw James, who seems here to be numbered among the apostles (verse 19). But he did not see any of the other apostles. They may have been absent, or too busy, or even frightened of him (cf. Acts 9:26).
Thirdly, he was in Jerusalem for only ‘fifteen days’. Of course in fifteen days the apostles would have had some time to talk about Christ. But Paul’s point is that he had no time in a fortnight to absorb from Peter the whole counsel of God. Besides, that was not the purpose of his visit. Much of those two weeks in Jerusalem, we learn from Acts (9:28, 29), was spent in preaching.
To sum up, Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem was only after three years, it lasted only two weeks, and he saw only two apostles. It was, therefore, ludicrous to suggest that he obtained his gospel from the Jerusalem apostles.