The Authority of Sight
Let me tell you, brothers, about the gospel I preached to you, that it is not from man, nor indeed did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it by revelation of Jesus Christ.
Last of all, I too saw Him.
I Corinthians 15:8
The context of Paul’s assertion of his undoubted authority was a situation in which the Galatian Church had received visitors who challenged the belief, taught them by Paul, that everyman is brought to Christ not by observance of the law but by the call of grace. Although Paul would turn to the Gentiles, the Church was born in the synagogue. Its literature was the Hebrew Scriptures and its Messiah was, by His own mouth, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Luke 4:17). It was Paul the Pharisee, student of Gamaliel, learned in the law, enforcer of Pharisaic orthodoxy, who after his conversion knew most certainly that the fulfillment of God’s promise belonged to the heart, not to the observance of the Law.
In Galatians Paul is defending his apostleship and his Gospel, and he begins with the famous imprecations against the preachers of salvation through the law. Paul was indeed disappointed that the Church he had so carefully nurtured had gone over to another Gospel, and knew that this could only be the result of the appearance of false apostles who had come to disturb the quiet life of the Church. As part of their attempt they had asserted that Paul was not an apostle at all, perhaps because he had not been commissioned by the Jerusalem apostles. And thus the retort: just as the twelve had received their commission from Jesus and been empowered by the sight of Christ risen, Paul also had seen Jesus.
Thus here, in Galatians, Paul gives an account of his conversion and hence of his authority. There are other accounts in Acts, and perhaps his description of his being caught up into the third heaven in Second Corinthians refers to the Damascus Road experience. Knowledge of the Lord meant first-hand knowledge of His words and deeds. Mathias was elected to replace Judas because he had companied with them from the beginning to the Ascension; Mathias too had seen the resurrected Lord. And this was what mattered to Paul, for that knowledge of the resurrected Lord was the seal of apostolic commission. So in First Corinthians, when Paul is confronting those who say there is no resurrection, he offers as evidence the fact that the resurrection is certain because Christ was seen by Peter, then by the Eleven; then by more than five hundred brethren, then he was seen by James, then by all the apostles (that large number commissioned by the Twelve who appear in the typical first-century list, apostles, prophets, teachers). Then last of all, as one untimely born, He was seen by me (I Corinthians 15:6). Knox translates: “Last of all, I too saw Him, like the last child, that comes to birth unexpectedly.”
This claim, that he like the other apostles, had seen Jesus was the foundation of Paul’s office and mission. “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” And again, “God who called me through His grace was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 9:1–2, Galatians 1:15–16). And in Acts Paul describes the day when he and his companions were surrounded by a great light, and Paul, then Saul, heard Jesus ask, Why are you persecuting me? And when Paul asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting. I have appeared to you in order to appoint you to bear witness to the things in which you have seen me.” (Acts 22:6–10, 26:12–16).
If the power of the Church came when the promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled at Pentecost, the evidence was the fact that after lawless men had dome their worst, the apostles had seen Him (Acts 2:3). One of the great testimonies to the apostolic encounter with Christ whom death could not conquer is in the prologue to the Gospel of John, in which the writer begins with the words “we beheld His glory, full of grace and truth.” This was the reality described in John’s First Epistle when he wrote: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…. The life was made manifest, and we saw it and testify to it” (1:1–2)…. These words may refer to knowledge of Jesus in His earthly mission, but it breathes of something more. As does the vision of the Prophet John, who saw the one who was the alpha and omega, who had endured death but was alive and who held the keys of death and hades (Revelation 1:8, 14).
Seeing was believing, and when the New Testament speaks of the apostolic knowledge of the Lord, although the word behind “phenomena,” which easily has the connotation of “appearance,” which is not far down the linguistic road from “apparition,” will very occasionally be used, the more common word is some form of the verb for see, so that Christ glorified “was seen.”
Granting that Jesus “was seen,” words always failed to describe the risen Christ whom the apostles knew. There was a significant party who believed that the resurrection of Jesus had been a ‘psychic’ event, spiritual in the sense in which spirit is opposed to matter, in which case there was nothing to see. This the Church countered when Jesus showed the apostles His hands and side and invited Thomas to “Put your finger here and see my hands….” (John 20:21, 28) But our language does not reach into the land of glory, where nature is fulfilled in that which is not less but more than natural.
Paul’s claim that his Gospel was not from man could not have meant that Christ on the Damascus Road gave Paul a propositional knowledge of the faith. In Acts we are told that after the experience of the light and the voice he was told to go to Damascus, where his vocation would be given him. From the fact of Paul’s Messianic expectations, from his study of what a devout Pharisee considered blasphemy as well as the witness of Stephen, Paul surely knew the context of the faith, and denied it. The New Testament did not exist; Paul was writing what would be its greatest part. But the apostles were given the empowering gift of sight; they saw Christ raised from death.
One may always wonder why Divine providence chose to call a Pharisaic zealot into the apostolic mission not from the precincts of Messianic expectation represented by John the Baptist but from among those who had shouted for Christ’s death. Perhaps so that there would be one who would understand with stubborn clarity the futility of salvation through the Law. This would be the Paul who was able in Galatians to call the Church back from that false teaching. His authority was no less than Peter’s for Paul too had seen Jesus.