25 January 2016

Galatians 1:11-24

“I went away at once into Arabia.” (v. 17)

Psalm: Psalm 139


The main point Paul (the writer of the letter to the Galatians) is making in this bit of personal history arises from the unusual nature of his apostleship. Paul never encountered Jesus during his ministry, unlike Peter (Cephas) and James whom he mentions in verses 18 and 19. And so questions arose about the authority by which he preached and taught about Jesus - when compared with those who had actually known him.

Paul wants to show that his own gospel proclamation derives from Jesus, rather than some human source to whom his hearers might appeal 'over his head' for a more accurate version.

This might all look rather pushy of Paul. But the nature of his encounter with the risen Jesus means that it's in fact just the opposite.

There's uncertainty about just where exactly Paul means by 'Arabia'. But the New Testament scholar N T Wright has suggested that, like Elijah before him, Paul travelled to Horeb, the mountain of God, at Sinai - like Elijah before him.

Elijah was a humiliated prophet. His zeal for the Lord against the prophets of Baal was thwarted by Ahab and Jezebel and he ran away to Mount Horeb, apparently to resign his prophetic commission. There, he was sent off in a wholly new direction by a 'still, small voice' (1 Kings 18-19).

Paul, the zealous persecutor of Christians, thought he was doing the will of God. But he had his whole sense of religious meaning and purpose dismantled in encounter with the risen Christ. Like Peter before him, his calling and ministry begin in failure and a wrong turn - and a new beginning.

Any 'authority' Paul claims is based not on his personal credentials or abilities, but in a shattering encounter with Christ which dismantled all his certainties about himself and about God's nature. What Paul made of this experience, as he absorbed it in Arabia, shaped a new life and a new calling centred on the sheer gratuity of God's mercy and grace - shown first to him by the one he encountered on the Damascus road.

To Ponder

  • What part have failure or wrong turns played in your own discipleship?
  • How do you react to failure and weakness in others?

Bible notes author

The Revd Carole Irwin

Carole is a presbyter in the Methodist Church. She has served in circuits in Folkestone and Bradford, and is currently Director of Studies at Wesley House, Cambridge.