Set Apart by God (Galatians, Part 9)
This week we continue exploring the book of Galatians using a question-and-answer format.
15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born,
and who called me by his grace…
What does it mean that Paul was “set apart” by God?
First, it means that he was chosen as a special possession of God. God took Paul for himself; he adopted him as his child, and made Paul his own. In Leviticus 20:26 (LXX), God says to Israel, “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” God has separated his people from the rest of the peoples of the world so that they would belong to him as his treasured possession (see Exodus 19:4-6). Similarly, in Matthew 25:32, Jesus says that when he (the “Son of Man”) returns from heaven to bring the Kingdom of God in its fullness, he will “separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The sheep will go with their shepherd (Jesus the King) into his kingdom, and the goats will be left out and sent away. So when God separated Paul (or set him apart) he was taking him into his arms and giving Paul a face-to-face, intimate relationship with himself.
Second, it means that Paul has been cleansed from all of the brokenness and corruption that previously made him unfit to be embraced by God. Notice the emphasis on holiness in the Leviticus passage above. God separates the Israelites from the rest of the peoples by making them holy—by cleansing them so that they can be near him. For God to welcome someone into his family and into his kingdom, he has to first cleanse them of every bit of decay and deformity and distortion of the good that has been introduced by sin. In Matthew 25:31-46 (referenced above), Jesus tells how he will separate the sheep who are fit for God and his kingdom (i.e., who are holy and clean) from the goats who are not fit for God and his kingdom (i.e., who are unholy and corrupted). So when God set Paul apart, he cleansed him from brokenness and corruption.
Thirdly (and probably most importantly), it means that Paul was set apart for service to God. Acts 13:2 tells the story of how Paul and Barnabas got sent out on a long journey to a bunch of new places in Asia to tell people about Jesus. While they were praying and fasting with their church family, the Holy Spirit said to the church, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul [a.k.a. Paul] for the work to which I have called them.” Notice that they are set apart to accomplish a specific task: “the work” that the Sprit was calling them to (which, as it turns out, involved taking the good news of the kingdom hither and yon around the Roman Empire). So when God set Paul apart, he called him to a very specific task: to be a witness of Jesus among the Gentiles, “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18).
These three ideas are intricately connected, because Paul could not be sent out by God as his representative (#3) unless he had an intimate relationship with God in the first place (#1). And God could not have embraced Paul as his own without cleansing him and making him whole again (#2). But certainly, the third meaning of “set apart” is the most germane to Paul’s argument in Galatians. He argues that he is not (despite what the false teachers were saying) a false apostle who left out important parts of the gospel message (i.e., circumcision and obedience to Jewish law). Rather, God himself had set Paul apart to be his messenger—and he had done this before Paul was even born.
Wait, what? Before Paul was even born? What does that mean? That question will have to wait until next week!