In Acts 9:19-20 Luke gives us the impression that Paul immediately began preaching the Gospel after his conversion. But, where did Paul get his insight? How could he have been persecuting Messianic believers one moment and preaching the Gospel Messianic’s preached in the very next moment? This doesn’t make sense. We might say that he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was immediately able to draw on the Scriptures he already knew, and with the Holy Spirit inspiring him, he was now able to understand those Scriptures correctly. Well, we might say that, but is this the manner in which God normally works? I, for one, have to study the Scriptures and pray for insight. Just because I have read Genesis to Revelation doesn’t mean I know all there is to know about the Bible, simply because the Holy Spirit dwells within me. How about you?
Another point to consider is Paul’s world was turned upside-down in a moment’s time. Wasn’t he human, just like the rest of us? Wouldn’t he need to withdraw for awhile in solitude to more or less come to grips with the powerful upheaval that had disturbed the certainty of his righteous stand in the Law? Wouldn’t he have needed some inner clarity? Up to this point in his life, he had served the Law, and through the Law, he was convinced that the new Messianic Jews taught blasphemy when preaching that the Temple sacrifices had become obsolete in Christ. He had arrested these people and gave his vote as to their guilt. Yet, now, through the transforming vision of Jesus, he had come to understand that he was, in fact, persecuting Jesus, the risen Savior and Messiah. Could he be forgiven? If so, how could he attain forgiveness, for the Law, which he knows very well, condemns him?
Paul tells us in Galatians 1:17 that he went immediately into Arabia and then returned to Damascus, and three years after his transforming vision of Jesus, he went up to Jerusalem to see the Apostles. Galatians 1:17, therefore, chronologically belongs between Acts 9:19 and Acts 9:20! So, after his heavenly vision of Jesus, Paul was with the disciples certain days in Damascus (Acts 9:19), but then left for Arabia (Galatians 1:17). Immediately after returning to Damascus (Acts 9:20) Paul preached the Gospel. However, this was after a period of perhaps 2-2 ½ years, assuming Paul spent several months in Damascus preaching and proving Jesus was the Christ (Acts 9:20-23), before he had to escape for his life. Therefore, Paul’s New Testament theology was learned during the time he spent in Arabia!
We need to remember that Paul’s NT theology is consistent throughout his letters from his first letter to the Galatians through his final letters to the Ephesians, Philippians and to Timothy and Titus. In Galatians 4:25 Paul used an Old Testament geographical word-play showing that Hagar, Sarah’s slave and Abraham’s concubine, plays off the city Hagra (or Hegra). Hagra is the second most important city in the land of the Nabataeans (Arabia). Sinai, according to Jewish tradition is supposed to lie on the east side of the Dead Sea and in Arabia. Paul combines Sinai and Hagar (a word-play off the city of Hagra) to show that they point to the city of Jerusalem as a slave with her children (the Jews) bound under the Law. Paul puts this in apposition with the city of Jerusalem from above which is free in Christ, with her children of promise (Galatians 4:26-28).
Paul didn’t arrive at this understanding in a moment’s time, but after considerable contemplation and probably meditating upon the land he was visiting, because of its history to the Jews. It is not unjustified to assume Paul chose Arabia for a similar reason that Elijah chose to go to Sinai, when he was confronted with perplexing problems in his ministry (1Kings 19:4, 8). Paul did some soul searching here, drawing on the history of the land and using parallels he saw in the Scriptures to show how the Gospel and Jesus is for all people and not simply for the Jews, but more on this in later blogs.