We have all heard about the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. But what exactly was he converted from? The answer to this question is highly significant, and we need to get it right if we are to understand the rest of this epistle.
For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews’ religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it: and profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers (Gal. 1:13-14).
When Paul had first preached to the Galatians, he also had told them about his previous life before he had encountered Christ. He refers to that important fact here again. He had told them about his previous “conversation,” which is an older English expression for “manner of life.” Paul mentions “Judaism” twice in these two verses. He refers to it as an objective set of beliefs, as a religion distinct from the church of God, and as one with an identifiable body of belief, which he here identifies as the tradition of his fathers. This Judaism is not to be understood as the faith of those in the old covenant who looked forward to the coming of Messiah in true and genuine faith. Mary and Joseph, Anna, Simeon, John the Baptist, et al. were not members of this “Judaism.”
A few chapters later, Paul makes this point as bluntly as such a point can be made (4:21-26). Those who desired to be “under the law” were in effect Ishmaelites. Proud of their descent from the free woman, they were actually sons of Hagar, sons of a slave, and not true sons of Abraham. But remember that it was the kind of mistake that was easy for a certain kind of heart to make. The two women lived in the same place.
Those born “after the flesh” will always persecute the sons of the free woman (4:29). Just as Ishmael taunted Isaac, so the deep antipathy continues down the present. This, and this only, is what accounts for Paul’s savagery against the church of God. He says this strongly in two ways. First, he not only persecuted the church of God, but he did so “beyond measure” (v. 13). The word here is hyperbolen, which could be rendered by our idiom “over the top.” His persecution was precisely not measured, but rather blind and irrational. He says this another way when he says the result of his attacks was that the church was destroyed or wasted. The only other time this word is used besides in this chapter (v. 13,23) is in Acts 9:21, when people are talking about Saul’s assault on the church. And remember the word Luke used to describe how Paul “savaged” or “mauled” the Church (Acts 8:3;9:1). This was no ecclesiastical misunderstanding, no mere verbal skirmish over covenantal boundary markers. Paul was an evil, wicked and unconverted man. He was an insolent, blaspheming man (1 Tim. 1:13).
But it is not enough just to be “against” something. Paul was certainly that, but men are created in such a way as to need a god in their system, and their god cannot be silent. It is not enough to be against the true God. An idol is logically necessary. And the idol must speak and direct those who worship him. In this case, the god was Judaism, and this god spoke through the tradition of the fathers. These traditions had the effect of supplanting the Word of God (and this is precisely the effect they were intended to have). Idols are not shy about expressing their will and desire. And what did Jesus teach us about the force of autonomous tradition in Mark 7:9? Now remember that human tradition is necessary, but it is never a necessary god. It is necessary, in fact, for our traditions to be kept in their appropriate place.
This is important on two levels. The first is because some scholars today want to represent the pre-Christian Saul as a faithful representative of Old Testament religion. The reasons for this vary, but the results of thinking this way are consistently destructive. Saul’s conversion was not simply a matter of understanding the transition to the new economy of salvation. Scripture teaches that Saul was not like the Bereans at all (Acts 17:11). He had to be converted, not convinced.
The second reason is this. We must learn to maintain balance as we seek to live our lives as faithful members of the covenant. We reject every form of morbid introspection, but the biblical alternative to this is not a glib covenant presumption. The dividing line between sons of Sarah and sons of Hagar is never works, but always faith. And this means that true sons and daughters of the covenant will always look to Christ.