Galatians 1:13-14, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 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.”
Before he became the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul had a former life. A “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul was circumcised on the eighth day according to the law of Moses (Philippians 3:5). He became a Pharisee and Jewish scholar, advanced beyond his years (v. 14). He studied at the feet of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). His learning was not just an academic pursuit, either – he was “extremely zealous” for the Jewish traditions of his ancestors. (v. 14, Acts 22:3). Paul even claimed that he was “blameless” when it came to righteousness under Jewish law (Philippians 3:6).
Paul’s extreme passion for Jewish tradition caused him to persecute the early Christians, violently, “to the death” (Acts 22:4). Paul received letters from the high priest and Jewish elders, authorizing him to bind and deliver men and women to prison (Acts 22:5). He hunted Christians. He watched as the Jews stoned Stephen, with approval (Acts 8:1, 22:20).
All that changed when Paul had an encounter with Christ, on the road to Damascus. Jesus appeared in heavenly light, striking Paul blind. With the help of Ananias – who was justifiably nervous — Paul believed; his sight was restored, he was baptized, and he received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 9:1-19, 22:6-21). He experienced the forgiveness of sins that could never come through his own, legalistic efforts (Romans 8:3-4, Ephesians 1:7).
Incredibly — in light of Paul’s past – Jesus gave Paul a special calling to be his witness, including far away to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15, 22:21). In response to this call, Paul made no fewer than three missionary journeys through Galatia, establishing the churches to whom he wrote the book of Galatians.
As previously discussed in this series, Paul wrote Galatians to warn against the Judaizers, who were distorting the gospel. Paul wanted the Galatians to be certain: salvation does not come from keeping the Jewish law, and it does not come from circumcision. In his former life, Paul tried the route of legalism, and he excelled in it. But after he was called by Christ, Paul considered all his past achievements as garbage (Philippians 3:8). Righteousness – the type that pleases God – only comes through faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9).
Here are my couple of takeaways from this passage.
- The Gospel Has Power to Change Lives. It’s amazing that Paul went from persecuting Christians, to a lifetime of evangelism and being persecuted. Paul’s life changed dramatically, 180 degrees, upon meeting the Lord. It’s easy to get discouraged, to assume that people can’t or won’t change. But we should never doubt the power of the gospel.
- Christ Can Use Our Former Lives for Good. For a Christian leader, Paul’s back story was horrible. Overseeing the imprisonment and murder of believers – that’s worse than being a gang member or a prostitute! But Jesus chose Paul and called him to a very specific ministry, and he used Paul’s past for good. Paul’s knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures no doubt helped him expound Christian theology. And his knowledge of Jewish legalism helped him recognize and oppose the distortions of the Judaizers.
- We Don’t Have to Hide Our Past. Paul was not shy about sharing his history and his conversion. When Paul tells his life story — in Acts, or Philippians, or the couple short verses in Galatians – he is very matter-of-fact. He isn’t trying to hide anything. His whole life bears witness to Christ. There is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus (Romans 8:1). Our past is just part of our testimony.
- We Must Put the Past Behind Us. Although we don’t need to hide our past, we shouldn’t dwell there either. Even the “gains” that Paul had achieved, he considered them all “rubbish,” compared with the overwhelming value of knowing Christ (Philippians 3:7-8). Paul encourages us to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead, following the call of God (Philippians 3:13-14).
We all experience the shame of sins, mistakes, and failures from our former (and current) lives. But believers should take heart from Paul’s witness. There is no condemnation in Christ, who uses all things for our good and his glory. May our stories, however troubled, be a shining testimony to the power of the gospel.