18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ.
Paul’s insistence that he was introduced to the Gospel through a supernatural encounter with Jesus as Lord can lead readers to believe that there was no discipleship in his life. However, a simple read through the book of Acts reveals Paul’s own journey as one that involved the community of faith and particular men who poured intertwined their lives with Paul, vouching for his character, encouraging his relational growth, and sitting with him while he wrestled with the deep truths of the gospel.
After his initial conversion, Paul was directed by Christ to go to Ananias in Damascus and there Paul recovered his sight and began to live among the saints as one of their number (Acts 9:10-22). Three years later, Paul travels to Jerusalem and spends 15 days learning from and with Peter and James. In Acts 9:26-31 Paul attempts to join the disciples and they avoid him because of his past persecutions. It is at this moment that one of the greatest disciple-makers in Scripture takes hold of Paul and begins to train him in the gospel. Barnabas begins to walk with Paul and teach him the way of Christ.
In Paul’s story, Barnabas serves as his mentor. Though Paul failed to connect with the disciples in Jerusalem, God provided a brave and bold brother who loved others deeply to disciple this stubborn scholar. Barnabas and Paul fought side by side to advance the gospel (Acts 13-15). Barnabas and Paul would eventually separate over Paul’s opinions about John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin. After years together, Barnabas and Paul continue the mission without each other. It is tempting to see the separation of Acts 15:36-41 as a failure of the disciple-making process. However, it is natural that leaders will eventually need to separate from one another and pursue their own specific assignments in the gospel ministry.
Paul had a miraculous conversion and certainly a radical and spontaneous transformation. However, this transformation was shaped and refined in community through careful discipleship. God gave Paul a community of faith that could help mold his ministry and empower him as a leader. Paul was so acutely aware of his community that he writes of them at the end of every letter, including those who are walking with him in the moment. In truth, Paul’s life before Christ was marked by a personal exaltation and a kind of lone-wolf fame. However, as a Christian, Paul is almost never alone. On the rare occasion that he is alone, God provides a convert.
Paul’s testimony in Galatians may lead young Christians to think that they do not need to be discipled or trained in the Gospel. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s growth. Paul was poured into by other believers throughout his ministry. He had a brother who dedicated himself to serving alongside him in Barnabas. Barnabas taught Paul a great deal and Paul’s character changed as he walked with Barnabas. Then Silas walked with Paul and offered kinship. Oh, Christian, God has so much more for you than lone-ranger Christianity. He has formed a community in the Church that can and does help you grow. Don’t mistake Paul’s testimony for one that denies the influence of any community. Paul is simply reminding the Galatians that his own faith is just that – his own.
Paul’s faith is not from Peter or the Apostles. Indeed, as discussed above, Barnabas played a much more significant role in Paul’s growth than the other leaders of the Church. For three years Paul lived the faith out with brothers and sisters whose names we may never know. The point of his testimony in Galatians is not that he did not learn from anyone, but that his authority and understanding of salvation is not drawn from any man.
Paul understood what discipleship is. He recognized that the Holy Spirit is the teacher and we learn together from Him. His work and life are testaments to the truth that believers grow best in community.
So, to whom are you connected? What community are you growing with? Paul’s testimony is certainly not prescriptive for the average Christian. Indeed, everyone’s testimony is unique and individual. However, we can still learn from Paul’s journey. He needed Barnabas to walk with him. He needed the unnamed believers in Damascus to encourage and help give him a start. He needed Silas to walk with him in his later mission work. He needed Timothy and Titus to receive his discipleship. You need the community as well. There is no such thing as a Christian devoid of community. You need the body. To put this simply: go find a church and plugin.