11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.[a] 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born,[b] and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to[c] me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone;[d] 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me.
On July 24, 1725, John Newton was born in London. His mother has a godly woman and tried to raise her son in the faith. Before he was seven years old his mother would pass away. At eleven years old, he went to sea with his father, merchant commander. He would spend the next 19 years of his life in the navy. After leaving the Navy, he became involved in the slave trade. He had forgotten the Savior that his mother had taught him about, and become a blasphemer and injurious. Caught in a storm on the high seas he was brought to say, “I stood in need of an Almighty Savior, and such a one I found described in the New Testament. The Lord had wrought a marvelous thing.”
Back on dry land in Liverpool, he encountered the preach of George Whitfield, and leaders of the Evangelical Revival. It was during this time that his thoughts turned to ministry. He was eventually settled at a parish in Olney. He spent 16 years at Olney where he and William Cowper would write hymns for their midweek service.
In 1779, he became the minister of St. Mary Woolnoth in London. He would preach there almost the end of his life in 1807. He was encouraged to give up preaching in 1806 by Richard Cecil. His reply was, “I cannot stop. What! Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?” This man gave us such great hymns as Amazing Grace, and additionally he published his own experiences in the slave trade to aid Wilberforce in his cause to end the trade.
John Newton was the least likely candidate from a human perspective. He was rough and tough sailor, and described himself as a blasphemer. In the life of a man like John Newton, we see a man called by God. God revealed to him his son and our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ gave him the gospel and gave him a ministry. The church glorifies God for turning this misfit into a hero for the kingdom of God.
In our passage, we find that the Apostle Paul is writing to the church in Galatia to answer opponents of him. There are teachers that have risen up in opposition to Paul, and seem to have even challenged his authority or Gospel. An important part of this opposition centers around Jewish Christians that are encouraging or insisting that Gentile Christians accept the mark of circumcision. It is important in this context that the Apostle Paul begin from where God has led him from.
In Verses 13-14, Paul reminds his readers of his past life. Paul’s reputation is widely known in the Church. We know this because he starts these verses by saying, you guys have heard about my previous life as a Pharisee. He references two particular aspects of his former life. First, he was a persecutor of the Church and tried to destroy it. Secondly, he was a staunchly determined to follow the traditions of his ancestors through adherence to the Law. His was fanatical in both these and it was well known to others in the church.
He was a determined persecutor of the church. We know from the book of Acts that he was seeking out Christians wherever he could find them. When Christians were to be put to death, the Apostle Paul voted against believers. We find him in the story of the stoning of Stephen. Not only was Paul seeking to persecute the church, but in verse 13, he admits his aim was to destroy the church.
In the book of Philippians, Paul runs through a more thorough pedigree. In verse 14, we see a similar description. It is far briefer, but the meaning is still the same. I was the most zealous Jew there was. I was absolutely devoted to the law. I lived and breathed the law all the time. John Stott discusses the mind set of the Apostle Paul, and states that a man in that state is in no mood to change his mind. This is an important point. Paul is set in his ways, and only an act of God would change his heart and mind.
Paul has established the type of person he was. The opinions he held so zealously. He then moves forward. He says, folks that is where I was, but had set me apart from before I was born. He set me apart before I was born, and he revealed his Son Jesus Christ to me. He called me out of my old life by his grace and his revealed his son to me.
We see this dramatic change in the life of Paul. He is using this testimony to back up his claim in verses 11-12. This gospel that I am preaching is from Christ. I was so up to my neck in law adherence and hatred for the Church, that the only explanation for the change in my heart is an act of God. God changed his heart. Delivered him from himself, and that is the gospel he received from Christ on the road to Damascus.
God had set him apart from before he was born. Why had God set him apart? We read in verse 16, God had worked this out in order that he might preach this Gospel to the gentiles. When he came to Galatia to preach the Gospel, it was the Gospel he received from Christ. He was sent on mission by God to take the good news to the Gentiles.
In Matthew chapter 5, Jesus tells us to let our lights shine before men that they might glorify God. We see in chapter 23-24, the churches learn that the persecutor has become the preacher, and they glorify God because of it. They know that the only way something so outrageous could have happened, by an act of God. The see it rightly as a miracle of God grace, and they glorify him for it.
I bet you are wondering what this means to you, and I am glad you asked. First, God set his heart on you in eternity past. He determined to call you to himself. He provide the means that you might be reconciled to him through his Jesus. He did this not on account of how marvelous you are. He didn’t do all this because you had all your stuff together. He did it in spite of yourself.
The gospel is from God. II Corinthians calls it the power of God to salvation. That means that preachers do the preaching and God brings in the harvest. The Gospel comes from God, with the spirit of God. That is important for the next part.
God has called you to mission. If God we truly feel the depth of what God has brought in our lives, then we should be overflowing with desire to share what he has done with others. I think of the Samaritan woman, who after meeting Jesus, charges into town saying, “come meet a man who told me everything about myself!” Many are probably telling themselves they just can’t. Perhaps you feel like you just don’t have the gifts to do. Remember God is just asking you to be obedient. When Jesus sends out the disciples, he promises them the Holy Spirit is going to give them the words to speak. Don’t forget that the Gospel is the power of God. We share, but God changes hearts.
Finally, we all have a past. Look at what the Apostle Paul had in his past. We can drag all that crap along with us, or we praise God from what he has saved us from. If we are honest with ourselves, we are our worst enemy. We were headed 100 miles an hour into destruction. We dead to God. We being swallowed up by our own wickedness….But God. God rescued us. He delivered us from ourselves. He broke the power of sin. Follow hard after God, and when people see how far God has brought you, then they will praise God for the miracle he has worked in you. Just like they did when God turned the persecutor into the preacher!