Galatians 1:17 "nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus."
Paul continues the narrative regarding his personal testimony. Not only did he not “rely on any man” in establishing his relationship with God and laying the foundation for his mission, but he also did not “go up” to Jerusalem. This would be important to the Galatians for two reasons. He mentions the Apostles – the authorities of the church. It is not that authority isn’t vital – Paul will begin to explain how vital he thinks the apostolic covering is beginning in verse 18 – but that the foundation of all he was in Christ was based first and foremost on his personal relationship with Jesus. We can’t depend on people, authorities, or church structure to have that personal relationship. Its not about following rules, or structure, or form, as always, the theme is RELATIONSHIP.
Also, by specifically mentioning Jerusalem, Paul is addressing the ethnic issue. Jerusalem was the center of both the Jewish and Christian worlds. He de-emphasizes the foundational need for his own culture and background as he came to know Christ. Paul bolsters his position – its not about who or what you are, but who you know – Jesus!
“Into Arabia” At first, Paul went into a desolate place, a desert. A dry place, where there is little in the way of vegetation -- not much growing. Is this a metaphor for the concept that we grow the most, we develop the deepest intimacy with God when we are in dry, tough times? This was also an area that was not part of Israel (my notes indicate this “Arabia” would have been a desert area in what was then the Nabatean Kingdom, in present day Jordan). Paul lays his foundation for his relationship with Jesus, not in Jerusalem or Israel, but in a pagan land, a wasteland. Again, Paul establishes that cultural identity has no relevance to our relationship with Jesus. (Interesting side note – Jesus’ own path to public ministry was similar. The initial supernatural manifestation of Jesus’ adult life occurred off the beaten path, at the Jordan River, at His baptism. Jesus then withdrew into the desert to confront Satan).
We know nothing of Paul’s time in Arabia. I suppose the presumption is he went alone, or spent a lot of time alone. Its not that he would have spent all of his time by himself – one could not have survived 3 years in such a place alone. However, I imagine Paul spent a great deal of time alone with God. I presume he also spent a lot of time in scripture – either via what he had memorized through his life experience in the Jewish traditions, or by reading. But while Paul established his relationship with Jesus one on one, He was never a “lone ranger.” He would have always needed to depend on others.
In fact, we really don’t know if he spent 3 years in the desert. Verse 18 says that “after 3 years” he went up to Jerusalem. At the end of v. 17, he states he “later returned to Damascus.” How much “later?” He could have been in the desert 4 days, 40 days, a year, 2 years – we just don’t know. What is clear, is he spent his formative Christian training under the authority of a local church in the town where he had his conversion. This shows that not only was Paul a man under authority, but local authority! Paul’s international apostolic mission grew up in a local congregation in Damascus, Syria.
The emphasis here is also on the concept that culture is unimportant. Damascus was the ancient capital of Aram (Syria), and was a center of Roman/Greek commerce and culture – the kind of “Hellenistic,” pagan influences the Judiazers sought to fight against.