Gal 1:11-19; passages from Jeremiah; 1 Cor 15
On FaceBook this morning, an argumentative friend in a Dialogue group responded to a wise saying of a Church father by reminding us that all prayer in the New Testament is directed towards God, not the saints. Her fear concerning mediation, of course, is shared by many Protestants, who believe that both our esteem of the saints and our traditions separate us from God, rather than bringing us close to Him. Some have understood our epistle reading for this Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost in the same light. Let’s hear what the apostle has to say in Galatians 1:11-19:
But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.
At a first reading, and without attention to the context, we might think that St. Paul is advocating a bare-naked faith, disconnected from the authority of others, and individually dependent upon God alone. After all, the gospel is not “according to man,” was not transmitted to the apostle or taught by humans, was revealed directly by God, and was nurtured privately over three years in a place far removed from the other apostles. Some might assume that in speaking about this directness, Paul is contrasting it strongly with his earlier assumptions, in which he was zealous for the “traditions of the fathers.” But what does it mean to say that the “gospel” is not “according to man”? And why does he go on to speak about the other apostles, Peter, and James? And why is he talking about this, anyway, in his letter to the Galatians?
Closer attention to this letter shows us that the Church in the area of Galatia was being disturbed by those who styled themselves apostles, but were preaching a gospel all of their own making—a gospel that somehow included Jesus and the good news about him, but mixed this with requirements for Gentile converts to keep the Jewish laws of circumcision, only eat kosher food, and celebrate holy days. Effectively, they were teaching that a convert had to become Jewish to be Christian: Jesus’ actions were not presented by them as fulfilling the Law. Paul’s new converts in the province were disturbed, and the teaching of these so-called Judaizers, who claimed to be commissioned by James the brother of Jesus, was leading to great unrest, when the gospel was meant to bring reconciliation and peace. At this insult to our Lord and Savior, St. Paul becomes angry to the point of rudeness (Gal 5:12). For the gospel that he teaches says, “there is, in Christ, no Jew or Gentile.” These so-called apostles were not true apostles, for they had not received the word of the Lord, but the reasoning of human beings. Over against their human confined thinking, Paul introduces himself in the very first verse of this letter as “an apostle through Jesus and through the Father who raised Jesus from the dead.” These false teachers may claim to have received this teaching from James (Gal 2:12), but St. Paul reminds them that the Gospel is not something derived by men, but from God himself, who raises the dead.
It is in this light that we can better understand our passage. In this passage, St. Paul reminds us that the Gospel is FROM GOD, not something cooked up by people, educated or otherwise. Next, he goes on to say that the Lord Jesus was (literally) “revealed” or “apocalypse” IN him. The Gospel is not something that stays external to us, but that lodges within and transforms us. This is, of course, most spectacularly true of St. Paul, who had an astonishing vision (visions, actually), and whose life course followed in the steps of our Savior, as he was humiliated, imprisoned, and died for the faith. But it is also true of each of us who are in Christ: for Christ is also “in us, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). Finally, what Paul then goes on to embody is the life of an apostle who proclaims for God, on God’s behalf, to the Gentiles what Christ has done, is doing, and will do, for all who turn to Him. Elsewhere (2 Cor 6:1), he calls himself, along with the other apostles “co-laborers” with Christ.
His point is not to denigrate the authority of the other apostles in this passage, nor the importance of Church tradition, nor the connection of the gospel with the Old Testament and the authentic traditions of the Jewish fathers. It is to remind the Galatians that all of this is from God, in God, and for God. His extraordinary case, in which Christ spoke directly to him, and nurtured him for three years, is a stark reminder that the gospel is not a human philosophy, nor a derived tradition, but a teaching directly from God, and enacted by God, and carried through to its fulfillment by God, as well. People can’t just make it up, even those who claim some connection with Church leaders! But Paul does not disparage this connection with the twelve, and even in this passage speaks of his communion with Peter and James. No doubt they had a lot to talk about, as Paul would tell them of his vision of the risen Christ, as James would describe how he came to believe that His half-brother really was the Christ when he saw Him alive (1 Cor 15:7), and as Peter would also talk about seeing the risen Lord (1 Cor 15:5). Perhaps even Peter spoke to St. Paul at this time about how the Lord raised Tabitha through him, something that St. Paul had missed (Act 9:40), and that we commemorate this Sunday.
St. Paul did not only have this one encounter in Jerusalem, either. In the next chapter of Galatians, he explains that he went to see the apostles to make sure that he was on the right path with his teaching (Gal. 2:2). Apostolic authority mattered to the apostle Paul, even though he had had a direct experience with Christ. And he also considered that it should matter to St. Peter, whom he had to correct for not behaving as he should with the Gentiles, out of fear for these Judaizers. Neither he nor the apostle Peter were above the gospel, for it is from Christ. So sure he is of this, that just a few verses before our passage, he exclaims, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” No, the apostle is not claiming to be a lone ranger, nor denigrating the other apostles, nor teaching a Christianity without tradition, teachers, or mediation. He is insisting on first things first—what we have comes from God, and must not be changed up or distorted!
His stance here is consonant with the unenviable position of the poor prophet Jeremiah, who suffered greatly for his truthfulness. Jeremiah, like St. Paul, was called “from before the womb” by God. He was himself a priest (Jer 1:1), part of the religious establishment like St. Paul: of course the apostle wasn’t a priest, but he was a Pharisaic rabbi, a handler of the Torah, and one who considered himself on the vanguard of Jewish tradition, zealous to show the Jewish people a thorough way of being religious. So in many ways, the two were similar: both chosen by God before their births, both teachers of the law, both respected by the people. Jeremiah was called by God to sound a wakeup call for the whole land of Judah, including its priests (1:8), who had not been looking for the will of the Lord (2:8), but wrongly “handled the Law” because they did not know Him. God was going to do something new, and “the priests will be appalled” (Jer 4:9): this new thing involved breaking down, and rebuilding. The people were to be disciplined in a time of exile, and then rebuilt, and directed around the promise of a new covenant—God was going to give them shepherds molded “after [his] own heart” who would feed them “with knowledge and understanding.” (3:17). He was calling them to “circumcise …. the foreskin of [their] hearts” (4:4), not just their bodies. The could look forward to a new era: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people… I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them.” (Jer 31:33; 32:39).
The prophet Jeremiah’s vision, of course, was the apostle Paul’s (and our!) reality. The time has come when the true Shepherd teaches us with understanding. The time has come when hearts rather than merely bodies are circumcised by the Holy Spirit. The time has come of this new covenant, written on the heart and not only on tablets of stone. The time has come for ONE heart, and ONE way, which brings good not just to Israel, but to the whole of humankind. Jeremiah’s message was not received, and he was martyred: but it was preserved, and pointed, throughout the ages, to Christ. Paul’s message was rejected by his own people, but received gladly by the Church, and prevailed when there was wavering about whether Christ’s work was perfect, or needed to be accompanied by ongoing ceremonial Jewish law. At Antioch, the apostles James, Peter, Paul, and others met, and, guided by the Holy Spirit, carved out the ONE way that would hold up the glory of Christ when His gospel was proclaimed everywhere. Together, these apostles reminded the people of the gift of Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension; together these apostles passed on the holy Tradition that they had received, both personally, and together, regarding how we live, worship, and proclaim Jesus to others.
Yes, the gospel is not “according to man,” for its content is divine—Jesus the Messiah, crucified and risen, is Lord! Yes, it comes from God, that we might be in Christ, and live lives for Christ, together, and personally.