Separated from My Mother’s Womb: A Study of Providence
In his epistle to the churches of Galatia, it is rather obvious that Paul was combating Judaistic elements in these congregations. Most likely, these were the churches he and Barnabas had established on that first missionary campaign (Acts 13:4-14:26).
In the opening segment of the letter, Paul makes a defense of his apostolic authority (Gal. 1:11-2:21). Within this section, the apostle contended that:
“God ... separated me, from my mother’s womb, and called me through his grace” (Gal. 1:15; cf. Rom. 1:1).
His declaration was rather reminiscent of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:5).
The text suggests that God knew of Paul’s great destiny even before his birth. The apostle even sees himself as a partial fulfillment of the sacred ministry to the Gentiles as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 49:6; cf. Acts 13:46b-47).
This is a remarkable statement, the sentiment of which could only have been given to the apostle by inspiration.
What Does Paul Mean?
But what does it mean that he was separated from his mother’s womb?
First, it most certainly does not indicate that Paul was predestined before the creation of the world to be saved and become an apostolic preacher irrespective of his own will. This Calvinistic concept conflicts with numerous texts that assert Paul’s personal obedient response to the gospel of Christ.
The passage must signify that the Lord — in his infinite foreknowledge — knew what the character of this man would be and what he would accomplish.
In view of these thrilling passages, it is no stretch of biblically-seasoned common sense for one to conclude that Jehovah, through his mysterious and amazing operations of providence, prepared his apostle for the mission he was to achieve — a ministry of some thirty years, covering approximately 12,000 miles of travel!
Paul’s Preparation: Hebrew Background
Paul was born to Hebrew parents (Phil. 3:5) and reared in the prominent city of Tarsus of Cilicia (Acts 21:39). At an early age he came to Jerusalem to study under the celebrated rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). He was trained in the strictest sect of Judaism (a Pharisee — Acts 26:5).
From the commencement of his education he acquired a fame that spread throughout the Mediterranean world (Acts 26:4). Under the guiding hand of the Spirit he would write:
“I advanced in the Jews’ religion beyond many of mine own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Gal. 1:14).
In his book, Paul — His Life and Teaching, John McRay has a most informative discussion of the training of Jewish boys (2003, 34-37).
This comprehensive education, coupled with the man’s later bloodthirsty zeal for persecuting the Christian Way (cf. Acts 7:58; 8:1, 3; 9:1-2; 26:11; Gal. 1:13), constitutes a tremendously important backdrop for understanding Paul’s conversion to Christ.
Such was not because he was an ignorant Jew or because he was predisposed to Christianity. Rather, it was because he encountered the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:1ff).
Paul’s Other Preparation
Too, one must not overlook the fact that while Paul was enrolled in the “University of Providential Preparation,” he was receiving an even broader education that would facilitate his ministry to the Greeks as well (cf. Rom. 1:16).
Clearly at some point the young man from Cilicia received some training in Greek culture. Perhaps it was when he returned to his native Tarsus to labor for some eight to ten years (see Acts 9:30).
In Athens he was able to confront the pagan philosophers with an ad hominem argument (an appeal to an opponent’s position) for the existence of a living God, by citing the Greek writer Epimenides (Acts 17:28a; cf. also Tit. 1:12), and Aratus or Cleanthes — both had the quotation (Acts 17:28b).
In an epistle to the Corinthian Christians, he quoted Menander, a Greek dramatist, “Evil companions corrupt good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33).
There can be little doubt that God was working providentially in the life of young Saul long before he became the phenomenal apostle we have come to know and to love so deeply.
The Lord can work in our lives as well — if we let him.
- McRay, John. 2003. Paul — His Life and Teaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.