Demonstrated by Paul’s First Post-Conversion Visit to Jerusalem: Part 3 of 3 (series: Harmony of the Gospels)
by John Lowe
21Afterwards I came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia;
During his brief stay in Jerusalem, the apostle debated and argued with the Grecians there, and must have got the best of them because he irritated them so much that they were going to murder him (See Acts 9.29). St. Luke tells us in Acts 9:30 that “The other believers heard about this. They took Saul down to Caesarea. From there they sent him off to Tarsus.” They got him out of the way; they took him down to Caesarea, and then to Tarsus, a city in Cilicia; where he was born. He preached the Gospel of Christ to Tarsus, and throughout the region. The Caesarea mentioned here was Caesarea Stratonis, the seaport of Jerusalem, and not the Caesarea Philippi in the direction of Damascus. Later on, when Barnabas needed Saul's help at Antioch, he looked for him at Tarsus. It is, therefore, probable that in mentioning "Syria" with "Cilicia" containing "regions" (See Romans 15:23; 2 Corinthians 11:10) in which he was actively engaged in ministerial work after this departure from Jerusalem, he is thinking of the northern part of Syria, and "Cilicia" suggests he is thinking of the eastern portion of Cilicia, about Tarsus. It appears, then, that this Epistle is in perfect harmony with the Book of Acts. The apostle's labors during this period that he was making Tarsus his head-quarters, was probably dedicated to the founding of the Churches in Syria, and especially in Cilicia, which are referred to in Acts 15:23, 41—“With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings… He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.” This shows that his ministry there was met with success, since we read of believing Gentiles and churches in those parts he visited; and that he, along with others, was sent to them with the letter and decrees of the synod at Jerusalem which confirmed them as Christian Churches.
“The regions of Syria”—Syria was between Jerusalem and Cilicia. Antioch was the capital of Syria, and in that city and the adjacent places he spent considerable time (See Acts 15:23, and Acts 15:41, above.).
“Cilicia”—this was a province of Asia Minor, on the seacoast, and north of Cyprus. The capital of this province was Tarsus, Paul’s hometown: “The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11). Since Paul was from there, and no doubt belonged to the synagogue there, it is probable that he was one of those who were engaged in the dispute with Stephen that ended in his death by stoning: “dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58).
22And was unknown by face unto the churches of Judaea which were in Christ:
23But they had heard only, That he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed.
24And they glorified God in me.
The apostle had a short visit with Peter, after which “he came into the regions of Syria and Cilicia” where he returns to his work. He had no communication at that time with the churches of Christ in Judea, they had not even seen his face; “but, having heard that he who persecuted them in times past now preached the faith which he once destroyed, they glorified God” because of the remarkable change in him. Many expressed thanks to God when they heard the report of this mighty change in him, and it filled them with joy, so it enlivened them to give glory to God on the account of it. “The faith which once he destroyed” is not the faith in Christ by which men are saved, but the doctrine which they are to believe, namely, that Jesus is Christ the Saviour.
"By face," he means "in person," and the implication is that although his person was unknown to those in Judea, he was not unknown to them by reputation. The apostle states (v. 22) that the Churches of Judaea did not have at that time the opportunity to know him personally, that is, (since this is what seems intended), no opportunity of knowing him in his new character as a disciple of Christ. Paul had visited Jerusalem only, and he had formed no acquaintance with any of the churches in the other parts of Judea. He regarded himself, even at the first, as called to preach principally to the Gentiles, and he did not remain in Judea to form an acquaintance with the Christians there. What they knew of the apostle was only from hearsay; they had never seen him, or heard him preach, or talked with him, they only knew what had been reported to them; that he persecuted Christians in the past; only a few years ago, and though not them personally, but those who were of the same faith, the members of the church at Jerusalem; which he devastated, committing men and women to prison, and causing others to flee to foreign cities. Though he could not entirely root it up; he destroyed many of the disciples of it, and did all he could to discourage others from embracing and professing it.
The reason for this statement may have been to prevent an anticipated accusation by those false teachers that said, though the apostle had not received the Gospel he preached from any of the apostles at Jerusalem; yet he might have got it from the churches that were in the land of Judea, and from some of the principal men in them; but this was far from the truth, because, as he points out, he was not known to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. There were not many churches established in Judea at this time, though there was a famous church of believers in Christ at Jerusalem, the metropolis of the land, and several smaller assemblies in the various parts of that country. The churches are said to be “in Christ” because they professed to believe in Christ, were called by his name, and called upon his name; and though every individual member of them might not be in Christ, really united to him, and have communion with him; yet since they all had professed faith in Christ the whole Church is said to be “in Christ.” However, the apostle was not personally acquainted with any of the Churches of Judea; he was converted in another place, and had not preached the Gospel to any Christian congregation in that country; he only knew those at Jerusalem.
The period to which the apostle’s comment applies may be assumed to be the whole period between his conversion and the end of his stay in "Syria and Cilicia." This, as we learn from the Acts, terminated with Barnabas's going to Tarsus and getting him to join him in his work at Antioch. After this, he did become known to the disciples of Judaea.
“He which persecuted us in times past” is similar to "our former persecutor;” the title by which he was known among Christians, better than his name "Saul." But the Lord Jesus changed his heart, and St. Paul was wonderfully brought to the knowledge and faith of Christ. All who are saved, are called by the grace of God; their conversion is wrought by His power and grace working in them. It will do us little good to have Christ revealed to us, if he is not also revealed in us. He instantly prepared to obey, without hesitating to consider how a decision for Christ might affect his worldly interests, status, comfort, or life itself. And what a wonderful occasion of thanksgiving and joy it is for the churches of Christ, when they hear of the conversion of a man like Paul, whether they have ever seen him or not! They glorify God for his power and mercy in saving such persons, and for all the service to his people and cause that may be expected from them in the future.
“In me” is like saying, "in my case." “And they glorified God in me,” that is, they praised God on my account. They regarded me as a true convert and a sincere Christian; and they praised God that he had converted such a persecutor, and had made him a preacher of the gospel. The reason this is mentioned is to show that though he was personally unknown to them, and had not derived his views of the gospel from them, yet he had their entire confidence. They regarded him as a convert and an apostle, and they were determined to praise God for his conversion. This fact would greatly assist him in gaining the favor of the Galatians, by showing them that he had the confidence of the churches in the very land where the gospel was first planted, and which was regarded as the source of ecclesiastical authority.
It appears to be of great importance to St. Paul to defend and vindicate his Divine mission. Since he did not have a mission from man, it was even more necessary that he be able to show clearly that he had one from God. Paul was not brought into the Christian ministry by any rite ever used in the Christian Church. Neither bishop nor presbyter, not local preacher ever laid hands on him; and he is anxious to prove this, because his chief honor arose from being sent immediately by God himself: his conversion and the purity of his doctrine showed from whom it came. Many since his time, and in the present day, are far more anxious to show that they are legitimately appointed by Man than by God; and are fond of displaying their human credentials.