Paul’s Former Life
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (v. 13). - Galatians 1:13–14
Paul in today’s passage anticipates an objection to what he has written. Having declared that his gospel originates in a direct revelation of Jesus Christ and not the teaching of human beings (Gal. 1:11–12), the apostle knows his readers may wonder whether or not he really encountered the Savior.
Galatians 1:13–2:10 answers this question with an argument from Paul’s experience and an appeal to the testimony of the other apostles. He begins with the argument from personal experience. In 1:13–14 Paul summarizes his life prior to meeting Christ as one in which he sought to destroy the church of God, and he does not try to whitewash his violent persecution of the Christian community before Jesus met him on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1–2, 13–14). The Greek verb translated as “destroy” in Galatians 1:13 (portheo) was also used to describe the sacking of cities, and so we see how much the apostle hated the church and wanted to eliminate it. Paul’s conversion has no natural explanation; his transformation from Christianity’s greatest enemy into its chief advocate can only be attributed to a supernatural encounter with the risen Christ.
Martin Luther’s comments on verse 14 show how Paul’s emphasis on his experience in Judaism should have made the Galatians question the Judaizers’ false gospel. Before meeting Jesus, Paul looked for merit in the doing of the Law just like false teachers in Galatia were doing. Experience taught him that no sinner can be justified by his works (see also 2:15–16), and in mentioning his former devotion to the traditions of the fathers he says “been there, done that” about the false gospel. Having tried to justify himself by works of the Law, Paul must be heard because he knows sinners cannot be found righteous in that way.
It is not the Law’s fault that Paul, prior to conversion, and the Judaizers, when Galatians was written, thought they could do it and be justified. The Law’s rules and sacrifices are designed to make us hope in another to keep it for us, not to make us seek righteousness in doing of the Law. Augustine says, “Blame does not belong to the law…[it] is spiritual and does not allow itself to be interpreted carnally” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 8, p. 10).
Not all of us have had a dramatic conversion experience like Paul had, and by God’s covenantal grace, many of us may not even remember a time when we did not know Christ. Nevertheless, all who have turned from darkness into light have done so only because of the transforming grace of God. We should be thankful daily that the Lord took the initiative to call us unto Himself, for apart from this call we would still be imprisoned in our sin and misery.
Passages for Further Study
- Deuteronomy 31:29
- Philippians 3:2–11