A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 1:15,16a. What happened at Paul’s conversion.
The contrast between verses 13 and 14 on the one hand and verses 15 and 16 on the other is dramatically abrupt. It is clearly seen in the subjects of the verbs. In verses 13 and 14, Paul is speaking about himself, ‘*I* persecuted the church of God…*I* tried to destroy it…*I* advanced in Judaism…, so extremely zealous was *I* for the traditions of my fathers.’ But in verses 15 and 16 he begins to speak of God. It was *God*, he writes, who ‘set me apart before I was born’, *God* who called me through his grace’, and *God* who ‘was pleased to reveal his Son to me’. In other words, ‘in my fanaticism I was bent upon a course of persecution and destruction, but God (whom I had left out of my calculations) arrested me and changed my headlong course. All my raging fanaticism was no match for the good pleasure of God.’
Notice how at each stage the initiative and the grace of God are emphasized. First, God *set me apart before I was born*. Like Jacob who was chosen before he was born, in preference to his twin Esau (cf. Rom.9:10-13), and like Jeremiah who before he was born was appointed to be a prophet (Je. 1:5), so Paul, before he was born, was set apart to be an apostle. If he was thus consecrated an apostle before his birth, then plainly he had nothing to do with it himself.
Next, his pre-natal choice led to his historical call. God *called me through his grace*, that is, His utterly undeserved love. Paul was fighting against God, against Christ, against men. He neither deserved mercy, nor asked for it. Yet mercy found him, and grace called him.
Thirdly, God *was pleased to reveal his Son to me*. Whether Paul is still referring to his experience on the Damascus road or to the days immediately following it, what was revealed to him was Jesus Christ, God’s Son. Paul had been persecuting Christ, because he believed that Jesus Christ was an impostor. Now his eyes were opened to see Jesus not as a mountebank but as the Messiah of the Jews, the Son of God and the Saviour of the world. He already knew some of the facts about Jesus (he is not claiming that these were revealed to him supernaturally, either then or later, cf. 1 Cor. 11:23), but now he grasped their significance. It was a revelation of Christ for the Gentiles, for God ‘was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles’. It was a private revelation to Paul, but it was for a public communication to the Gentiles. Cf. Acts 9:15. And what Paul was charged to preach to the Gentiles was not the law of Moses, as the Judaizers were teaching, but good news (the meaning of the verb ‘preach’ in verse 16) – the good news of Christ. This Christ had been revealed, Paul says, ‘in me’ (literally). We know that it was an external unveiling, for Paul claimed that he saw the risen Christ (e.g. 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8, 9). Yet essentially it was an inner illumination of his soul, God shining into his heart ‘to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6). And this revelation was so inward, and became so much a part of him, that he was able to make it known to others. Hence the New English Bible phrase ‘to reveal his Son to me and through me’.
The thrust of these verses is very compelling. Saul of Tarsus had been a fanatical opponent of the gospel. But it pleased God to make him a preacher of the very gospel he had been so bitterly opposing. His pre-natal choice, his historical call and the revelation of Christ in him were all the work of God. Therefore, neither his apostolic mission nor his message came from men.
However, the apostle’s argument is not yet complete. Granted that his conversion was a work of God, as is plain from how it happened and what preceded it, did he not receive instruction *after* his conversion, so that his message was, after all, from men? No, This too Paul denies.
Tomorrow: Galatians 1:16b-24. 3). What happened after his conversion.