It appears to me that all great men in the Bible who are chosen by God have some sort of ‘wilderness’ experience or time of testing prior to beginning ‘full-time’ ministry. Jacob was led into the wilderness to ‘wrestle with God,’ John the Baptist also, and of course Jesus, by the Spirit, was led to defeat Satan’s tempting. Paul I believe is no exception.
There are many interpretations of Galatians 1:18 were Paul spends 2-3 years in Arabia. I believe that this was Paul’s wilderness experience. I believe this for three reasons, first the ‘pilgrimage shape’ to his journey as described in 1:13-18, second because of where he spent the bulk of His time, and third, because of His Jerusalem destination.
So first, Paul’s description of his journey is very similar to many Pilgrimage journeys where one reconnects with oneself, with the world, and with God. Paul starts in his dark, confused, cornered life as a Pharisee persecuting the church (vv.13-14) then goes through His spiritual ‘eye-opening,’ physical blinding experience in Damascus. Paul then travels through wilderness to digest this and reflect on it and build a personal relationship with Jesus, and then returns to ‘the scene of the crime’ in Damascus to close the experience and launch his ministry (v.17). His first journey to Damascus was bathed in darkness, blindness of heart, and then blindness of eye. He then repeats the journey to Damascus, this time with both his heart and his eyes open.
Second, Paul did not go straight to Jerusalem, or the other Apostles, or (I believe) straight into ministry. He instead went where the ways of the world are different to his experience. Away from both Jewish culture, and Roman culture, Paul goes into Arabia. He spends three years here, as did Jesus spend three days in a tomb, or Jonah in the belly of a fish. And then at the end of this experience he went on to Jerusalem to receive counsel, advice, and validation from the other Apostles.
Third, and finally, we must consider the journey significance of Jerusalem. Throughout the Scriptures chosen men of God ascend mountains, meet with God, receive instructions, then go on to fulfil their calling. Moses for instance, ascended Mt. Sinai, met with God, received the 10 commandments, and then delivered the Law to Israel. Jerusalem is considered Mt. Zion, the Holy Hill (Micah 4), and Jerusalem is of course also where God’s glory dwells. So Jesus in Mark 1-8 ascends the mountain, Mark 9 meets with God (with the disciples), accepts validation ‘this is my Son’ then goes down to Jerusalem to fulfil His work on the cross. So too, Paul goes up to Jerusalem, meets with God’s chosen, receives instruction, then moves on to the ministry that will occupy the rest of His life.
It is therefore likely that Paul, a man of deep spiritual fever, contemplation, Pastoralness, and a deep relationship with God, foundered this on His own 3 year, wilderness experience in Arabia.