In the previous section of his autobiography (1:17-24) Paul has been describing the nature of his relationship with the original apostles in Jerusalem to show that he had been commissioned directly by God, not by the apostles, to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. He has worked independently from them; he is not their messenger boy. In fact his contact with them has been minimal. He did not visit them until three years after his conversion; and then he spent only two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem in order to get acquainted with him. On that trip to Jerusalem, the only other apostle he saw was James. After that time he remained unknown to the churches in Judea except for the good reports they heard about his evangelistic work in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia. It was a long time before Paul met again with the apostles in Jerusalem, not until fourteen years after his conversion, or about eleven years after his first visit (2:1).
With these facts Paul has sharpened his rebuke for turning to a different gospel. It is ludicrous for the Galatians to discard Paul's gospel as if it were a secondhand, abbreviated version that needed to be supplemented with additional instructions from the Jerusalem apostles. Paul did not spend enough time with the original apostles in Jerusalem to get his gospel secondhand from them. Since Paul's gospel was given by revelation from God, the Galatian believers should have maintained unswerving loyalty to it.
So the direct revelation of the gospel to Paul has been established. But it appears from the next episode of his autobiography that Paul also wants to defend his gospel against another possible misunderstanding. Although it is true that he got his gospel by direct revelation, this does not mean that he preached his gospel without the approval and support of the original apostles and the rest of the church. Paul is not a visionary who simply wants to protect his claim to private revelations rather than building the unity of the church. Nor is he a pioneer missionary who works in isolation from the rest of the church.
Disruptive mystics and lone rangers have often split and splintered the church. People with exceptional gifts and strengths are sometimes prone to exercise their gifts in divisive ways. But Paul saw that the unity of the church was necessary for the success of his mission. So he worked hard to build unity on the basis of the gospel. In fact, his whole argument leads to the conclusion that his gospel to the Gentiles is the only sure foundation for the unity of the church (see 3:28). But that is jumping ahead. Our attention must be focused now on Paul's account of the Jerusalem conference that led to the church leaders' full support for Paul's gospel to the Gentiles (2:1-10). The agreement reached at the conference in Jerusalem demonstrated the power of the gospel Paul preached to unite the church. As we follow Paul's participation in this conference, we will observe eight steps in the process which concluded with the giving of the right hand of fellowship (v. 9). We also can be agents of reconciliation in the church as we take these steps to unite the church to support God's mission to all nations.
First, we observe that Paul attended this conference with a team: he went with Barnabas and took Titus along also (v. 1). The unity of Jews and Gentiles in the church was demonstrated by the composition of Paul's team.
Barnabas was a highly respected Jewish Christian. According to Acts, his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas ("Son of Encouragement") because of his gift of encouraging the early church (Acts 4:36). When Paul was excluded from the church in Jerusalem after his conversion, Barnabas was the only one willing to reach out to this dangerous former persecutor of the church, bring him into the circle of the apostles and believe in God's work of grace in his life (Acts 9:27). Later the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to supervise the mission to the Gentiles. Again, Barnabas was big enough to accept the radically new practice of including Gentile converts in the church, because his focus was the grace of God (Acts 11:22). Barnabas selected Paul to join him in that ministry in Antioch (Acts 11:25). The Christians in Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul with a famine relief gift back to the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). Sometime after their return from Jerusalem, the church of Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul on a missionary trip to Cyprus and southern Galatia (Acts 13:1—14:28). After their return from that trip, they were sent back to Jerusalem to work out the problem of Jew-Gentile relations in the church (Acts 15:1-35). This brief review of the account of Barnabas in Acts brings us up to the conference in Jerusalem, which is the subject of this section of Paul's autobiography. It is important for us to see from this account that one member of Paul's team was an outstanding Jewish Christian leader in the early church who was noted for his ability to be a bridge-builder between diverse factions of the church.
Titus, the other member of Paul's team, was a Greek Christian (2:3). Paul's inclusion of Titus on his team boldly expressed his conviction that it was not necessary for Greek Christians to change their ethnic identity by becoming Jews in order to be included in the church. The presence of Titus forced the conference to resolve the issue of discrimination against Gentile Christians. The conference could not remain neutral about the key issue. If Titus was forced to be circumcised in order to be accepted by the Jerusalem church, then it would be clear that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be accepted in the church. But if Titus was accepted by the Jerusalem church as a Gentile, then it would be clear that Gentiles were regarded as equal members.
Paul's team was a living illustration of the new freedom in Christ for Jews and Gentiles to build close friendships. His team was a microcosmic expression of the power of the gospel to break down the barriers that had separated Jews and Gentiles and to create a new unity in Christ—a unity that transcends the ethnic, cultural and social divisions in the world.
The best place to start building unity in the church is to start working with a team of diverse people who are united by their common faith in Christ and their mission. Finding the right people to serve on such a team is often difficult, but it's worth the effort, because it offers the opportunity to show the unifying power of the gospel.
Second, we observe that Paul went to the conference in response to a revelation (v. 2). None of the attempts to harmonize this reference to revelation with other references in Paul's letters and in Acts can claim to be more than a guess. But we must not miss Paul's point in making this reference to revelation. Here again we see his insistence that he was taking orders directly from God, not from human beings. Neither the Jerusalem apostles nor any other pressure group summoned Paul to Jerusalem for cross-examination. He went because God told him to go. Paul was not outward-directed, pushed and shoved by the changing whims of public opinion. Nor was he only inward-directed, driven by his own needs and ambitions. He was God-directed, led by the Spirit of God (see 5:18). When it comes to making peace in a church torn by conflict, we need peacemakers who are called children of God because they are sensitive and obedient to the voice of their Father (see Mt 5:9).
Third, Paul went to the conference in order to have his gospel evaluated. He set before the leaders in Jerusalem the gospel that he preached among the Gentiles (v. 2). The verb set before indicates that Paul was willing to present his ministry and message at the conference for discussion and debate. The fact that he had been given a revelation did not lead him to think that he was above evaluation.
Some people seem to think that when they deliver their word from the Lord, all discussion should stop. They do not allow any questions or debate about their message. They feel they have delivered the last and final word. But Paul did not approach this conference in that spirit. After all, he had nothing to fear from an evaluation of his gospel, and he had everything to gain. So he placed himself in the vulnerable position of facing a full review of his work by the senior leadership of the church. That must have been a humbling experience for Paul. But he did it to gain the Jerusalem leaders' approval of his Gentile mission. Those who are convinced of the truth of their message should not fear evaluation. They should welcome it.
When Paul says that he presented his gospel for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain, he does not mean that he had secret doubts about the validity of his Gentile mission and needed the apostles' assurance that he was running in the right direction. His confidence in God's call (1:1, 15-16) rules out such an interpretation. But Paul did recognize that his divine commission could not be effectively fulfilled if there was a division between his Gentile mission and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. His God-given mission did not need to be authorized by them, but it would have been rendered fruitless (in vain) if it lacked their support. It was evident to Paul that if the mother church denounced and disowned his Gentile mission, his work of evangelizing the Gentile world would be frustrated. If the unity of all believers in the church was denied, the gospel for the Gentiles would be undermined. It was because Paul desired this unity that he presented his gospel to the leaders in Jerusalem, hoping that they would give their wholehearted support to his mission. In fact, that is just what they did.
Fourth, Paul strongly resisted those who challenged the essentials of the gospel. His willingness to present his gospel for evaluation did not mean that he was willing to compromise the truth of the gospel. For Paul, the truth of the gospel included his Gentile mission. And his Gentile mission presupposed the unity and equality of Gentile and Jewish believers in Christ. This basic presupposition was challenged at the Jerusalem conference when some false brothers tried to require that Titus be circumcised—in other words, become a Jew—in order to be included in the church. But since such a requirement denied the equality and unity of Gentiles and Jews in the church, Paul did not give in to them. As a result he is able to report to the Galatians that not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek (v. 3). Titus was accepted as a Gentile believer; he did not have to become a Jew to be included. Paul's firm resistance to pressure protected the unity of the church.
Those who tried to get Titus circumcised were called false brothers by Paul because they were unwilling to accept Titus as a true brother. They would allow him to be included in the Christian family only if he became a Jew. The basis of unity in the church for them was race rather than grace. According to Paul, they had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves (v. 4). To accuse them of being intruders and spies in the Jerusalem church implies that their primary loyalty was not to the gospel of Christ or the church. Rather than upholding the freedom we have in Christ Jesus to be accepted before God and by one another simply on the basis of God's grace, they required adherence to Jewish customs as the basis of acceptance.
The parallel between these intruders and the intruders in the Galatian churches is clear. In both cases their requirement to maintain a distinctive Jewish lifestyle denied the freedom of all believers to be included in God's family regardless of racial, cultural or social status. In both cases their message led to slavery—slavery to the values of the world.
But, Paul informs the Galatian churches, we did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you (v. 5). Paul's refusal to give in to the demands of the intruders in the Jerusalem church protected the truth of the gospel for the Galatian Christians. If he had given in, they would also have been required to become Jews to be included in the church. As a result the truth of the gospel—that they were accepted by God as Gentile believers in Christ—would have been lost.
Unity in the church can be secure only when there is no compromise of the essentials of the gospel. Working toward unity does not mean a passive submission to misguided zealots. The truth of the gospel is nonnegotiable. Paul's account of his defense of the truth of the gospel against intruders in Jerusalem presents a challenge to his readers to do the same in Galatia. His purpose for recording this episode in his autobiography is to provide an example for the Galatian Christians in their own struggle against the demands of the intruders in their churches. The Galatians should not give in to them for a moment; the truth of the gospel must be preserved.
Fifth, Paul built the unity of the church on the truth of God's impartiality. Although he respected the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, he was not intimidated by them, because he knew that God does not judge by external appearance (v. 6). Paul recognized that the men he met with at the conference in Jerusalem were regarded as the spiritual giants in the church, those who seemed to be important (v. 6). Most people who met them were probably awestruck by the stories they had heard about their relationship with the Master, Jesus himself. It was well known that Peter and John were the disciples closest to Jesus; James was the brother of Jesus. But Paul subtly calls into question the original apostles' basis of authority. His repetition of a qualifying phrase to describe them (those who seemed to be leaders [v. 2]; those who seemed to be important [v. 6]; those reputed to be pillars [v. 9]) connotes a "mild irony." Paul was not impressed by their credentials: whatever they were makes no difference to me (v. 6). For God's assessment is not based on such external factors as temporal priority or temporary popularity: God does not judge by external appearance (v. 6). But God does judge; he judges on the basis of response to the gospel, Paul's message. Paul draws attention to the fact that those who were highly respected in the church agreed with his message (those men added nothing to my message [v. 6]). The authority of these leaders is relativized by Paul, subordinated to the standard of the gospel. Though they were reputed to be pillars (v. 9), their authority did not rest on their reputation but on their faithfulness to the truth of the gospel (v. 5).
Our attempts to build the unity of the church will fail if we are overawed by the impressive reputation of church leaders. We must remember that God does not measure persons by their public reputation, but by their response to the gospel. We must not be afraid to do the same. I once heard an artist say, "Great works of art, `the originals,' are not judged by us; we are judged by them." Similarly, the gospel is not judged by great leaders; great leaders are judged by it.
We need to remember this as well when we are tempted to seek such a reputation for ourselves. Ultimately, we will be judged by our faithfulness to the gospel.
Sixth, unity is maintained in the church by keeping the focus on God's work. Paul says that when the leaders saw something (vv. 7-8) and recognized something (v. 9), they gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas and agreed that they should continue their ministry to the Gentiles. What they saw was God at work in Paul's ministry (v. 8). What they recognized was the grace given to him (v. 9). Just as the miraculous work of God in Peter's ministry validated his call to preach the gospel to the Jews, so also the miraculous work of God in Paul's ministry was irrefutable evidence that God had given him the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles (vv. 7-8).
It was precisely because these leaders were preoccupied with God's work, rather than human traditions and prejudice, that they were able to reach an agreement. Unfortunately, the reverse is too often true. A church is divided because the elders accuse the pastor of breaking with denominational traditions. It does not seem to matter to them that the church has doubled because God has saved many through the pastor's ministry. Another church is divided because some like contemporary choruses and others prefer traditional hymns. While they argue over their tastes in music, they lose sight of God's work in their midst. If only we could keep our eyes on what God is doing in our midst, we would be able to transcend the things that divide us and accomplish the tasks that God has given to us.
Seventh, unity at the conference in Jerusalem was based on a delineation of different spheres of responsibility. The leaders in Jerusalem agreed that Paul and Barnabas should go to the Gentiles, while they would be responsible for the evangelization of the Jews (v. 9). The people groups to be evangelized were simply divided into two different spheres: the Jews and the Gentiles. We know from Paul's other letters and from Acts that he always had a burden for his own people, the Jews, and when he began his evangelistic work in a city, he always began in a synagogue. But he was clear about his primary calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles. We also know from Acts that Peter was the first apostle to evangelize Gentiles, when he went to the house of Cornelius. So the agreement reached at the conference cannot be viewed as a strict geographical or even ethnographical division of labor.
Nor did the agreement include resolutions about the extent to which Gentiles were free from the requirements of the law of Moses. The incident in Antioch described in 2:11-14 is sufficient evidence that such boundaries and definitions were lacking in the general agreement reached at the Jerusalem conference. It simply recognized and approved the different tasks that God had given to leading evangelists in the church. Paul's mission to the Gentiles was confirmed, and he was not required to change his message; uncircumcised Gentile believers in Jesus Christ were to be received as full members in the church.
No one of us can fulfill the Great Commission to disciple all the nations on our own. Laboring under the misconception that the Great Commission is the sole responsibility of any one person or any one organization leads only to competition and conflict. Harmony in the mission of the church must be built on the willingness of each of us to accept and fulfill the particular assignment given to us by God and confirmed by the leadership of the church.
Eighth, the unity of the church was maintained by practical service. The practical outworking of the basic agreement regarding Paul's mission to the Gentiles included the Jerusalem apostles' request that Paul and his team should continue to remember the poor (v. 10). Probably the poor meant, as Paul says in Romans 15:26, "the poor among the saints in Jerusalem." Most commentators have interpreted this request as an appeal for money to support the poverty-stricken church in Jerusalem. While financial help was needed by the Jerusalem church, the request may have had a broader reference to the special relationship between Paul's missionary outreach to the Gentiles and the Jewish church in Jerusalem. The leaders of the Jerusalem church supported Paul's mission to the Gentiles, but at the same time they asked Paul to keep the needs and welfare of the Jewish church in mind. His Gentile mission should support, not harm, the Jewish church.
Paul affirmed his eager desire to express the unity of the church by his practical support of the Jerusalem church (v. 10). We know from his letters to the churches in Corinth and Rome that a major theme of his teaching to his Gentile churches was their obligation to support the Jerusalem church. Paul saw the collection that he took from his Gentile churches for the Jewish believers in Jerusalem as an indispensable expression of the unity of the church. "For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings" (Rom 15:27).
From Paul's account of the Jerusalem conference we learn how to maintain the unity of the church so that the preaching of the gospel to different audiences in different cultures will be effective.
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