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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997
Paul’s gospel was recognized at the Jerusalem Council
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 1-3
Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Note once more the length of time during which Paul had no contact with Jerusalem. During a good portion of this time, Paul was in Syria and Cilicia. Now, 14 years later, he returned to Jerusalem. Some understand this to be 14 years after Paul’s conversion, just as the “three years” of verse 18 used Paul’s conversion as its starting point. Those who follow that reckoning then say that the visit referred to here was the one Acts 11:25-30 brings to our attention. There Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to deliver a gift to needy Jewish Christians suffering in a famine.
The view favored by this writer is that the 14 years have as their starting point Paul’s previously mentioned visit to Jerusalem, or 17 years after his conversion. This would make it more likely that the reference is to Paul’s attending the Jerusalem Council.
The main reasons for this choice are that the “famine visit” to Jerusalem was apparently brief, not at all controversial, and, above all, without any bearing on the problem of Judaizers that Paul is dealing with in his letter to the Galatians.
On the other hand, the Jerusalem Council, held about A.D. 51, devoted itself entirely to the problem of the Judaizers. So much are they the focus of attention that one can hardly imagine Paul not referring to the council rather extensively in this present letter, which was sent to deal with a very similar problem. An understanding of the circumstances surrounding the Jerusalem Council is useful to a proper understanding of the Judaizers and their way of thinking. So it will be worth our while to review Acts chapter 15.
Luke describes the situation very graphically. After Paul had finished his first missionary journey, he returned to Antioch in Syria, to the church that had commissioned him and Barnabas. There they reported on the success of their mission, pointing to the conversion of many Gentiles and stating very frankly that they had been accepted into membership in the Christian church on the basis of their confession of faith and trust in Christ, without their promising to adhere to the Mosaic Law.
The Antioch congregation was delighted, but Paul’s law-free gospel soon drew sparks from a different quarter. Luke reports in Acts 15:1-5:
“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’ This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the brothers very glad.When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’.”
Note how clearly the issue comes into focus, both in Antioch and again in Jerusalem. Against Paul’s law-free gospel the Judaizers insisted: “Faith in Christ isn’t enough.The Gentiles must also be circumcised and agree to keep the Law of Moses if they expect to be saved.”
This was the same issue under contention in Galatia, and the outcome of this earlier meeting in Jerusalem would surely be important to Paul and would enter into any discussion or letter that Paul might send the Galatians.
For this reason, and because of the obvious parallelism between Acts chapter 15 and the opening verses of Paul’s second chapter to the Galatians, it is our feeling that the Council at Jerusalem, and not the famine visit, is being referred to here.
We need to take into consideration a few differences from the Acts chapter 15 account, however. First of all is the matter of Titus’ presence, mentioned in Galatians but not in Acts. Recall, however, that Luke in Acts reports that the congregation delegated Paul and Barnabas “along with some other believers” to go to Jerusalem. Titus would seem to fit there.
Furthermore, Paul in Galatians speaks of going up to Jerusalem by revelation. That might seem to suggest the famine visit since Acts says that on that occasion Paul went up to Jerusalem as a result of a revelation to Agabus (Acts 11:27-30), but nothing rules out the possibility that God gave Paul specific instruction by revelation also for the Jerusalem Council. That Luke in Acts chapter 15 doesn’t mention it doesn’t prove that it didn’t happen.
Finally, there is the matter of Paul telling the Galatians that he presented the matter privately to the leaders, while Acts speaks of an open meeting. Here too, one does not rule out the other. Consider the manner in which things are often done at synod conventions. Virtually no business is presented to the general assembly without prior discussion.The matter is first assigned to a floor committee (private discussion) for subsequent presentation in the open meeting. The two fit together very naturally. So too, Galatians and Acts are not at odds with each other. One stresses the private, the other the public aspect of the meeting.
What was the outcome of the Jerusalem Council? That decision would be of tremendous consequence for the parallel situation in Galatia. Paul says, “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.”
At the Jerusalem Council as well as in Galatia, the issue was whether or not the Gentiles were free from the ceremonies commanded in the Mosaic Law. Titus was a Greek, a non-Jew, a Gentile. But he was not compelled to be circumcised. The Jerusalem Council agreed completely with Paul and his teaching that salvation comes purely by grace, as a gift, to those who believe and trust in Christ—without any deeds of the law. In fact, the Jerusalem Christians would never have brought the matter up. Rather, the problem stemmed from a different source, as Paul informs us:
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 4-5
This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.
All the apostles were in agreement regarding salvation by faith alone as a free gift from God. The idea of adding works came from “false brothers.” Take another look at the troublemakers in Jerusalem, as described i Acts chapter 15. Luke says, “Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses’” (verse 5).
They claimed to be believers in Christ, but they said some thoroughly unchristian things. In fact,
they were really nothing other than adherents to the party of the Pharisees when they insisted that Jewish ceremonies had to be observed for salvation. Thus, they were Judaizers.
Such people infiltrated the Christian congregation with the express purpose of taking away the free gift of salvation. They would have reduced people to the status of slaves by making them work for what Christ died to give them.
It was a dangerous situation, both at the Jerusalem Council and also in Galatia. Such teaching was a corruption of the gospel and would deprive its adherents of their salvation, for it would make them totally dependent on themselves by robbing them of Christ’s merit. Hence Paul tells the Galatians, “We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.”
The error of mixing faith and works had been successfully withstood in Jerusalem. Paul’s teaching had been completely vindicated. But that was not merely a personal victory for Paul, a feather in his cap. No, the apostles’ firmness against the false teachers had retained the gospel—for the benefit of the Galatians. And in order that the law-free gospel agreed upon in Jerusalem might now remain with the Galatians, Paul begs them not to listen to his opponents, whose message was very similar to that of the false brothers in Jerusalem. Rather, he urges the Galatians to accept the testimony of the apostles, who had totally agreed with Paul’s teaching that no ceremonies or works were to be required for salvation.
An area of gospel work was accorded to Paul
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 6-10
As for those who seemed to be important—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance—those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Paul remains aware of the fact that much of his argumentation to this point has been stressing his independence from the Jerusalem apostles. He has been contending that he is an apostle not by their authorization or support but because God called him. He retains this emphasis by asserting that whatever external role or station in life the Jerusalem apostles held makes no difference. God does not judge by such a standard, nor does it affect the validity of the judgment reached at the Jerusalem Council. Those who were deemed important in Jerusalem weren’t critical of Paul nor did they add anything to his message.
Not only did they find no fault with Paul’s message, but they recognized that he was preaching the same gospel as Peter and the rest of the Jerusalem apostles. Both were building the kingdom by preaching the same message. The only difference was the people to whom they were preaching.
They saw that the preaching of Peter and the Jerusalem apostles had been singularly blessed in its effect upon Jews, whereas Paul was preaching the gospel with amazing results to Gentiles. There was unity in their doctrine and equality in their respective apostleships.
Hence there was really only one thing to do: recognize and acknowledge openly the facts of the case. Paul reports: “James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews.”
Giving the right hand of fellowship didn’t establish anything new. It recognized what was already in existence and was a token of acceptance and equality. With a handshake they agreed that Paul and Barnabas should continue to go to the Gentiles, while Peter and his associates would serve the Jews.
It should perhaps be noted that this division was not intended to be hard and fast. It was not a staking out of territory and daring the other to cross. There were always exceptions on both sides.
For example, on Paul’s second missionary journey, which followed shortly after the Jerusalem Council, he continued his pattern of going first to the Jewish synagogue when he came to a new place (Acts 17:2). He preached in the synagogue as long as the Jews would tolerate him. Usually that wasn’t very long, and after being expelled from the synagogue, Paul would spend the bulk of his time working with Gentiles.
On the other hand, recall that Peter, the prime representative of gospel preaching to the Jews, didn’t restrict his ministry exclusively to Jews either. To be sure, the opening chapters of Acts speak predominantly of Peter’s work with Jews in and around Jerusalem. But Peter also went to the Samaritans who were at best only half Jewish (Acts 8:14-25). And God himself very formally directed Peter to go to Cornelius, who was a full Gentile (Acts 10). Furthermore, there seem to be good and valid reasons for concluding that Peter’s epistles, written toward the end of his life, were addressed to Gentiles.
The handshake in Jerusalem was not restrictive. It didn’t keep either party from preaching the gospel as opportunity arose. What it indicated, rather, was that Peter and Paul were agreed on the gospel that was to be preached. Each of them was a full-fledged apostle, and one acknowledged the other as an equal.
That point was important for the Galatians. They had been fed stories about Paul’s dependence on and inferiority to the Jerusalem apostles. The implication was that Paul didn’t have the message straight and was preaching something else to Gentiles from what Peter was preaching to Jews. Not true! says Paul.
There was total understanding and agreement between the Jewish and gentile branches of the Christian church. Both were to hear the message of salvation by faith in Christ without the requirement of any ceremonies or works. And to give tangible evidence of the spiritual, and thus invisible, unity that existed between Jewish and gentile Christians, a charitable program was agreed upon. Paul says, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” Again, this was not really something new. If we are right in assuming that this is taking place at the Jerusalem Council, then Paul and Barnabas’ famine visit of Acts chapter 11 would have been some three years earlier. And that fits in nicely with the description here. Paul and Barnabas are asked to continue to remember the poor, as they had indeed done in the past.
Peter accepts Paul’s admonition
As a representative of the Christian church in Jerusalem, Peter had given Paul the right hand of fellowship, thereby indicating acceptance and equality. This expression of fellowship was a relatively easy step to take. The real test, however, would come when that arrangement was applied to the realities of everyday life. What would happen if Paul and Peter had a difference of opinion? Who would win out if they ever crossed paths? Paul tells us that actually did happen. A tense and stressful confrontation arose between the two men—and Peter yielded!
We need to remain very clear as to Paul’s motives here. Paul was not building up his own ego but advancing and defending the gospel message to which both he and Peter had agreed at the Council of Jerusalem. In the following section Paul points out that this gospel message saved the day in an unhappy confrontation he had with Peter in Antioch, and that this very same gospel message is what Paul is now defending against a similar attack in Galatia.
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 11-13
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
“Antioch” was not that city in Asia Minor, evangelized by Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, but Antioch on the Orontes River, located several hundred miles north of Jerusalem on the border between modern Turkey and Syria. It was a mixed congregation, one of the earliest containing both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 11:19-26). It was the congregation from which Paul and Barnabas were commissioned at the outset of their gentile mission work, and it always remained the base from which they carried on subsequent outreach efforts. In a way, Antioch became the mother church for Gentiles, as Jerusalem was for Jewish Christians. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the course of Peter’s travels, he would visit this great center of Christianity and associate with Antioch’s mixed constituency of Jews and Gentiles.
The gospel, with its message of Christian liberty, had apparently made things very relaxed in Antioch. The Antioch Christians realized that no human work or merit was necessary for salvation. So no special emphasis was placed either on the observance or the non-observance of Jewish ceremonies. If Jewish Christians preferred to eat kosher food at the fellowship meals, that was fine. Or if they wished to enjoy a pork chop or a ham sandwich with their gentile fellow Christians, that was permissible also. Peter, we’re told, “used to eat with the Gentiles.” He didn’t strictly observe the traditional Jewish patterns. But that was “before certain men came from James.”
We have stated that James, the brother of our Lord, became the dominant figure in the Jerusalem church. So prominent was he, in fact, that his name became virtually synonymous with Jerusalem. Hence we needn’t conclude that James necessarily sent them; rather, some men from James’ area of administration showed up in Antioch while Peter was there.
It’s likely that Peter wasn’t concerned about James, whose position on gentile liberty he knew well from the Jerusalem Council. Nor was he particularly concerned about those who had come from Jerusalem. Peter’s real concern, unfortunately, seems to have been based on a fear of what difficulties and unpleasantness might result for him if word of his eating with Gentiles got back to a troublesome element in Jerusalem. In short, “he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” Call them Judaizers, if you will.
We have already noted what problems they caused Paul—problems that required the convening of a special council at Jerusalem. Nor had Peter been spared their criticism. They complained bitterly about his entering the home of a Gentile, Cornelius, and eating with him and other uncircumcised men (Acts 11:1-3). On that occasion Peter gave these “circumcised believers,” as Acts labels them, a very straightforward, gospel-centered answer.
Unfortunately, he did not do as well here in Antioch. He quietly withdrew from his former open association with Gentiles. He again began to eat kosher at the get-togethers. He mingled with the Jewish Christians and reverted to Jewish customs.
Such an example didn’t go unnoticed. Other Jewish Christians followed his lead. Eventually even Barnabas, Paul’s great companion in mission outreach to the Gentiles, felt the pressure and changed his pattern. These men knew better, but they caved in to Peter’s example. It was, as Paul called it, “hypocrisy” and required immediate and firm action. Paul states:
Galatians Chapter 2, verse 14
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
Note the seriousness of the situation. These people were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. This was soul-destroying error rearing its head. This teaching endangered people’s salvation. Furthermore, Peter’s example had been given in public. His conduct affected them all and put pressure on everyone. As the teaching had been public, so the correction also had to be public. Hence Paul addresses Peter individually and in front of them all, pointing out the contradictory nature of his actions.
Peter was a Jew, yet at his coming to Antioch, he had initially moved very freely in gentile circles, even eating with them. Thereby he illustrated the gospel principle that Jewish customs and ceremonies had no inherent worth. They need not be observed as requirements for salvation.
By changing his procedure, however, Peter was denying that former principle. He was now acting as though living a gentile lifestyle was injurious to a person’s chances for salvation—as though observing Jewish custom or keeping the Mosaic Law really did help to improve one’s relationship to God after all. Thus by his example Peter was forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs.
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