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Beginning in Galatians 1:15, Paul gives a brief account of his conversion, his trip to Arabia, and then his return to consult with Peter.
15 But when He who had set me apart, even from my mother's womb, and called me through His grace, was pleased 16 to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with flesh and blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went away to Arabia and returned once more to Damascus. 18 Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother.
Paul asserts that his revelation of the equality of all believers was not something that he learned from Peter or from any other “flesh and blood.” He received it by studying the law with the help of the Holy Spirit, and only later did he receive confirmation of it through Peter, from whom he learned of his vision of the sheet of unclean animals.
Keep in mind that when Paul was converted, there was not yet a New Testament written that he might study. The only Scriptures he had were those of the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. As a Pharisee, he had been taught the traditional view of the Law that allowed Jews to oppress any non-believer and even to despise a non-Jewish convert.
Yet the Law itself demands that all foreigners residing in the land must be treated equally and with love—understanding, of course, that they must abide by the laws of the land. Lev. 19:33, 34 says,
33 When a foreigner resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. 34 The foreigner who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.
Numbers 15:15 and 16 commands us further:
15 As for the assembly [kahal, “church”], there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the Lord. 16 There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you.
The building of a dividing wall in the temple was specifically designed to treat aliens differently “before the Lord.” This was a violation of biblical law and a prime example of how the traditions of men destroyed the law. Even today, the Jews apply their so-called “Noahide laws” for gentiles, while reserving the law itself for themselves—as if non-Jews, having “satanic souls,” are incapable of understanding the mind of God.
Deut. 10:18, 19 continues,
18 He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. 19 So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.
Some argue that “aliens” refer to Israelites who had colonized other lands but who were returning to the old land. But the meaning of a term is ultimately confirmed by its usage in Scripture. Israelites were told to love the aliens because “you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” We know that the Israelites were not Egyptians who had returned to their original home in Egypt. They really were aliens in the sense of being foreigners and non-Egyptians.
In fact, the law appeals to the fact that Israel ought to know better than to oppress aliens in their land, because they knew what it was like to be aliens oppressed by the Egyptians. It may even be argued that God brought Israel into Egypt to teach them how NOT to treat aliens.
I have no doubt that these are the laws that Paul contemplated in the cave of Elijah at Mount Sinai in Arabia. This was the primary revelation of the new gospel that had been given to him. It was an entirely new perspective of the divine law that wrenched him from the traditional mindset instilled in him by his religious teachers. He emerged from that cave a different person.
In Galatians 1:20-24, Paul tells us that most of the Judean Christians did not know Paul by sight, because he was not introduced to them. He spoke only with Peter (Cephas) and James for 15 days, and then departed to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia” (1:21). Ten years later Barnabas found him in Tarsus and asked him to come to Antioch to help with Bible teaching. Paul gives the chronological statement in Gal. 2:1,
1 Then after an interval of fourteen years [from his conversion] I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also.
Paul was converted late in the year 33 A.D., a few months after the day of Pentecost. Because Paul represents a type of Tabernacles, I believe he was converted around the time of Tabernacles in 33. He then left Damascus and fled to Arabia. From there he returned to Damascus.
From Damascus he went to Jerusalem. By this time three years had gone by, Paul says. He spent 15 days with Peter and James and then went to Tarsus for ten years. Barnabas then recruited him and brought him to Antioch 13 years after his conversion. He taught in Antioch for “an entire year” (Acts 11:26). Then Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem with financial assistance on account of a famine (Acts 11:29).
When they returned, the Holy Spirit commissioned Paul and Barnabas to be sent on their first missionary journey. This, Paul says in Gal. 2:1, was fourteen years from his conversion (that is, in the 14th year). It was the winter of 46-47 A.D., precisely 490 years after Nehemiah's commission to go to Jerusalem in the 20th year of Artaxerxes, the Persian king (Neh. 5:14).
We see from this that there were two main beginning points of Daniel's 70 weeks. The first, of course, was Ezra's commission in the 7th year of Artaxerxes (458 B.C.), which ended 490 years later in 33 A.D. The second was Nehemiah's commission in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445-444 B.C.), which ended 490 years later in the winter of 46-47 A.D.
The first culminated with Jesus' crucifixion; the second with Paul's commissioning. We can say, then, that Jesus finished the work of Ezra in making the sacrifice in Jerusalem (Ezra 7:17), while Paul finished the work of Nehemiah in repairing the breach in the walls of Jerusalem. Whereas the dividing wall had caused a breach between men, Paul's gospel repaired the breach by rebuilding the true walls of Jerusalem—the New Jerusalem. The wall was not designed to divide believers (citizens), but to divide the world between believers and non-believers. Hence, we read in Rev. 21:24-27,
24 And the nations shall walk by its light, and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it. 25 And in the daytime (for there shall be no night there) its gates shall never be closed; 26 and they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it; 27 and nothing unclean and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
The Greek word translated “nations” in these verses is ethnos. It is the same word that is usually translated “gentiles.” It is better translated “nations.” The point is that the wall of the New Jerusalem is “a wall of fire” (Zech. 2:5), which is the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2). It keeps out those who practice “abomination and lying,” which are violations of the law. But the ethnos who have faith in Jesus and are obedient to Him are given free access to the City, with no dividing wall to keep them at a distance from Jesus.
At this point it would be helpful to define the word "Gentiles" as used in Scripture, which most people believe means "a non-Jew or non-Israelite." The Hebrew and Greek words translated "Gentiles" do not carry such a narrow meaning. In studying the gospel that Paul preached, it is important to know the meaning of this word.
The Hebrew word is goy (singular) or goyim (plural). The words simply mean "nation" and "nations." They can be any nations within the context of the passage, much like we use the term today. The only difference is that the biblical terms do not refer to nations as political entities having borders, but rather as different ethnic groups of people.
Likewise, the Greek word ethnos is the equivalent to goy or goyim. They refer to ethnic groups, rather than to land-based nations with borders. Genesis 10:32 says,
32 These are the families of the sons of Noah, according to their genealogies, by their nations [goyim]; and out of these the nations [goyim] were separated on the earth after the flood.
Here the word is used to describe the "nations" in general, including the sons of Shem (i.e., "Semitic" nations). Ten generations later, we read God's promise to Abram in Gen. 12:2, 3
2 And I will make you a great nation [goy], and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall a blessing. 3 And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
So we see that God was going to make Abram "a great GOY." Are we to understand that Abram was to become a great Gentile? No one translates goy in that manner in this verse, because it simply does not fit the modern conception of a “gentile.” It is obvious that goy has a meaning much broader than a non-Jew or a non-Israelite. Jer. 31:36 says,
36 If this fixed order departs from before Me, declares the Lord, then the offspring of Israel also shall cease from being a nation [goy] before Me forever.
Thus, the nation of Israel was called a goy by Jeremiah. Obviously, the term does not necessarily mean a non-Israelite nation. Israel is included among the goyim.
When we come to the New Testament, we find the same with the Greek term ethnos. Luke 7:5 speaks of the Roman centurion who had come to Jesus to obtain healing for his servant,
4 And when they had come to Jesus, they earnestly entreated Him, saying, "He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation [ethnos], and it was he who built us our synagogue."
In this case "our ethnos" were the people of Judea. When the high priest was contemplating the execution of Jesus, he called his own nation ethnos. John 11:49, 50 says,
49 But a certain one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation [ethnos] should not perish."
We may conclude, then, that when the translators use the term "Gentiles," they are giving their opinion that the goyim or ethnos referred to in the passage are non-Jewish or non-Israelite nations. They may or may not be correct, but it is simply their opinion. It would be better to leave it as "nations" and to allow the reader to decide for himself how it applies in its context.
In my view, once we understand that these words include both Israelite and non-Israelite nations, then it becomes clear that Paul's ministry to the "Gentiles" was really a ministry to all the nations equally. His ministry was to break down that dividing wall between them and to show that all nations were (by faith) equal citizens in the Kingdom of God. People of all nationalities could receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:45), and all were justified by faith equally.
Of course, even as each of the apostles had agreed to preach the gospel to different nations, so also Paul went primarily to "the uncircumcision" while Peter went to "the circumcision" (Gal. 2:7). This did not mean that Paul ignored the Jews, for we find him preaching in many synagogues in the book of Acts. Likewise, Peter spent much time in Antioch, where he ate with the non-Jews until Judaizers came up from Jerusalem with their divisive gospel.
So let us continue in Galatians 2.
1 Then after an interval of fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. 2 And it was because of a revelation that I went up; and I submitted to them the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles [ethnos], but I did so in private to those who were of reputation [i.e., James and perhaps some elders], for fear that I might be running, or had run, in vain.
In other words, when Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem with financial assistance (due to the famine), they knew that their inclusive gospel was controversial among many of the people. So they spoke privately with the leaders only, so as not to cause trouble in the church.
Paul was certain that his view was correct, but yet he modestly tells the Galatians that he wanted to get confirmation from James that his teaching was correct! In reality, it was a challenge. "Am I running in vain?" Paul asks James? “You tell me. Am I teaching something that is false?" James knew that Paul was right.
3 But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. 4 But it was because of the false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage.
So the problem was not a conflict between Paul and James, but others who were insisting that Greeks had to be circumcised before they could be considered true believers. Circumcision was a requirement of the temple for all Greek proselytes to Judaism.
These "false brethren," as Paul calls them, insisted upon circumcision before Greeks could become part of the Church, even as the temple required circumcision to participate in the temple cermonies. But James and the elders did not insist that Titus be circumcised, and this, Paul says, is evidence that James was in full agreement with him on this issue.
5 But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.
So now Paul begins to deal with circumcision and its relationship to the covenants. Physical circumcision was a sign of submission to the Old Covenant; while heart circumcision was a sign of submission to the New Covenant.
6 But from those who were of high reputation (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—well, those who were of reputation contributed nothing to me.
Those of "high reputation" include the apostles themselves. Paul almost says what he thinks, but backs down at the last minute. It appears that he came close to espousing the equality of all citizens in the Kingdom and that the opinion of those of "high reputation" was not to be accepted without question, as it so often was. Men of high reputation could be wrong, too, as Paul is about to tell us in verse 11.
At any rate, the men of high reputation "contributed nothing to me," insofar as Bible doctrine was concerned. Paul received his revelation of equality from God Himself, and this was later confirmed by Peter and James, who told him similar revelations that they had received. But their revelation was not new to Paul.