Have you ever been listening to someone tell a story, but thought to yourself, “I’m missing the point,” or maybe even vocalized, “What’s your point?” This is exactly the response Paul would have given to someone casually promoting a theology of circumcision for Christians. “What’s your point?” “You’re missing the point?” or any number of other responses would be fit if it was just a casual promotion, but since it’s not just a casual promotion and it is actually a deliberate attempt to deceive, Paul has much harsher words. “False brothers.” “Smuggled in.” “To enslave us.” When one of Paul’s Gentile associates was approached with the fact that he wasn’t circumcised, he responded, “What’s your point?” and didn’t trip for a minute.
Galatians 2:1-10 says, “Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles—but privately to those recognized ⌊as leaders⌋—so that I might not be running, or have run ⌊the race⌋, in vain. But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. ⌊This issue arose⌋ because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised, since the One at work in Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in me for the Gentiles. When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, ⌊agreeing⌋ that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. ⌊They asked⌋ only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.”
Up to this point, Paul has made it very clear that he consulted no one for the content of his gospel. Here, however, he turns the page and explains once and for all that he wasn’t off doing his own thing. Paul’s gospel was confirmed as accurate by the original apostles—those who had followed Jesus during His earthly ministry—and as such, he was on their team.
Paul begins by saying, “Fourteen years later, I returned to Jerusalem. After 14 years of preaching to my countrymen, I made the 300+ mile journey south, back to Jerusalem.” Verse 1-2a say, “Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along also. I went up according to a revelation.” I cut it there to explain briefly some chronological points that need to be addressed here. There is great debate about when this visit (2:1-10) occurs in the life and ministry of Paul and the early church. Was it at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) or before (the famine relief trip of Acts 11:30)? I think, for various reasons, it is best to place this trip in Acts 11:30.
First, the situation in Acts 15 seeks to answer the question of circumcision of gentile converts—much like the book of Galatians does; if Galatians was written after Acts 15 occurred, all Paul would have needed to say would be the letter written in Acts 15:23-29,
From the apostles and the elders, your brothers, To the brothers among the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia: Greetings. Because we have heard that some without our authorization went out from us and troubled you with their words and unsettled your hearts, we have unanimously decided to select men and send them to you along with our dearly loved Barnabas and Paul, who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we have sent Judas and Silas, who will personally report the same things by word of mouth. For it was the Holy Spirit’s decision—and ours—to put no greater burden on you than these necessary things: that you abstain from food offered to idols, from blood, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. You will do well if you keep yourselves from these things. Farewell. (Emphasis added. Note circumcision is not present.)
Since, as today’s passage shows, Paul and Peter and James and John were all agreed on the content of the gospel, Paul wouldn’t have needed to write his own letter if written after Acts 15.
Second, Paul seems to hint in verse 3-5 that the issue of circumcision wasn’t the real reason for this trip to Jerusalem, but I’ll explain that more in the following paragraphs. The Acts 15 situation was definitely over the circumcision issue entirely.
Third, and most importantly—and most conclusively—is the reason Paul gives for his visit in verse 2. “Because of a revelation.” Is this the same sort of revelation from 1:12 and 1:16? Did Jesus reveal to Paul directly that he was to return to Jerusalem a second time? I don’t think so. If we look at Acts 11:27-30, we see,
In those days some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. Then one of them, named Agabus, stood up and predicted by the Spirit that there would be a severe famine throughout the Roman world. This took place during the time of Claudius. So each of the disciples, according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brothers who lived in Judea. They did this, sending it to the elders by means of Barnabas and Saul [aka Paul]. (Emphasis added.)
Is there any merit to using the word revelation to refer to a prophecy? Actually, yes. Paul uses it in a similar way in 1 Corinthians 14:6. “But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in ⌊other⌋ languages, how will I benefit you unless I speak to you with a revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” (emphasis added). Leon Morris explains, “This word is often used in the wide sense, of God’s revelation of himself, but there is also a narrower use for some specific matter that God reveals to one of the believers (cf. Gal. 2:2), and which he might then pass on to others (cf. v. 25). In this sense revelation is closely related to prophecy (vv. 29-31).”
So therefore, it is accurate to understand this trip to Jerusalem as the trip to relieve the churches of Judea during the famine. Paul didn’t plan on having a circumcision discussion, but it was brought on due to the ethnicity of one of the people he brought with him. Part of Paul’s plans while in Jerusalem this time was to share the content of his preaching with the Apostles, which he did. Verse 2b concludes, “[I] presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles—but privately to those recognized ⌊as leaders⌋—so that I might not be running, or have run ⌊the race⌋, in vain.” Paul wanted to make sure he wasn’t preaching in vain. He knew that if his message was different than theirs that he would be a sham.
Verses 3-5 explain a distraction that arose due to Titus being with Paul. “But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. ⌊This issue arose⌋ because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you.” Grammatically these verses are atrocious. In the Greek text, it is all one sentence, and our English translations do a really good job attempting to smooth it out. Literally it reads, “But not even Titus, the one with me, being Greek, was compelled to be circumcised; but because of the false brothers smuggled in, who came in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, in order that they might enslave us, to whom we have not submitted for even an hour, in order that the truth of the gospel might remain for you.”
J. B. Lightfoot explains about the problems with these verses’ grammar, “[T]he sense of the passage is well-nigh lost. The meaning of individual expressions is obscure. The thread of the sentence is broken, picked up, and broken again. From this shipwreck of grammar it is even difficult to extricate the main incident on which the whole controversy hinges.” It is very choppy and says a lot without saying much. The HCSB is helpful when it inserts “This issue arose” at the beginning of verse 4. It explains that the Titus being circumcised thing had nothing to do with the purpose of the meeting, but rather came up separately.
Some in the Jerusalem church must have found out that Titus was an uncircumcised Gentile and started urging him to be circumcised. He was so confident in his standing in Christ—apart from works of the law—that the was not compelled to heed their urgings.
As Paul writes verses 4-5, describing in choppy, almost incoherent phrases the situation regarding Titus, I don’t find it hard to imagine him relating it to the current situation in Galatia. “You guys want to follow works? That’s because of false brothers who want to enslave you. I’m fighting for you for the truth of the gospel. Listen to what I’m saying in the rest of this book.” It’s interesting that Paul views keeping the law as enslaving. We normally view sin as the thing that is enslaving—which it is—but Paul sees law-keeping as enslaving too, and it will come out clearly, and I will spend some time on it in chapter 5. Galatians 5:16-18 is where it will be explored fully; it reads, “I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
Verses 6-10 pick back up where verse 2 left off. Paul’s meeting with the apostles about the content of his message. Verses 6-9 read, “Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism)—they added nothing to me. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter was for the circumcised, since the One at work in Peter for an apostleship to the circumcised was also at work in me for the Gentiles. When James, Cephas, and John, recognized as pillars, acknowledged the grace that had been given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to me and Barnabas, ⌊agreeing⌋ that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”
Paul quickly reiterates again that he got nothing from man in this meeting. They “added nothing” to his message. They saw that he had been called primarily to the Gentiles while they had been called primarily to the Jews. They saw that the same Spirit of God—Christ’s Holy Spirit—was at work on both fronts. The Jerusalem apostles gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas, accepting them as their own, agreeing with their doctrine, and sending them out with their blessing.
“But wait!!!” you cry. “Why does Paul act all sarcastic about their importance if they are on the same team?” Verse 6 reads in part, “those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism).” This makes it seem like Paul has a problem with them. This is not it at all. Paul admits that they are important or he wouldn’t have used the word; he also wouldn’t have called them pillars in verse 9. His point is for the Galatians to not view any man as more important than he really is. He doesn’t want them to think the words of the Jerusalem apostles are more important than his words; he doesn’t even want the Galatians to think the words of their new teachers are more important than anyone else’s words. And to help solidify it in their minds, he reminds them that God doesn’t show favorites. In God’s sight all men are equal. Paul wants them and us to remember this fact.
Verse 10 concludes by Paul sharing the one thing that someone might be able to be claim was added by the Jerusalem apostles (though he says that it was in his mind already). “⌊They asked⌋ only that we would remember the poor, which I made every effort to do.” This would be clearly proven if this trip was the famine relief trip. Paul cared about the poor, wanted to help them, and made a long journey to get them monetary relief.
And it is interesting to point out that in a meeting regarding the content and legitimacy of Paul’s apostleship, an emphasis that is reiterated is helping the poor. There may be a reason why this is. The identifying mark for a believer is love, and what better way to show selfless love than to love someone who is poor who has no way to pay you back for your love? Paul was very much a theologian—the theologian who had to contextualize the Jewish gospel to Gentile hearers—and as such, he could easily be distracted from practical matters, such as caring for the poor. How often today do we get distracted from social gospel activities (physical helps that cater to spiritual help being offered, listened to, and accepted; we can’t leave the social gospel at the word social, because without the gospel it’s just social damnation) to waste time arguing and debating different points of theology? I’m certainly guilty of it; I’d rather keep my head buried in books than utter audible words of evangelism to those who need to hear it.
And here’s the truth: we’re all poor, totally bankrupt, literally in debt, and God loved us enough to save us. If we know that truth about our past, then every non-Christian we meet fits this category of people we need to remember. So who do you need to remember today?
So Paul has made clear that men didn’t add to his gospel, but that he is on the exact same page as the rest of the apostles, and that circumcision has nothing to do with the true gospel. The true gospel is a gospel of freedom that frees people to love the poor. This is what marks Paul’s life and the rest of this letter.
Til next time.
Soli Deo Gloria