Galatians 2:1-5: The Conference at Jerusalem

Galatians 2:1‑5  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 8
“Then after a space of fourteen years, again I went up to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking along also Titus. And I went up according to a revelation; and I laid before them the good news which I am proclaiming among the nations, but privately to the ones having reputation, lest somehow I am running, or had run, to no purpose. But not even Titus, he with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. But on account of the false brethren brought in by stealth to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus, in order that they shall bring us into abject slavery: to whom we yielded by subjection, not even for an hour, in order that the truth of the good news might remain with you.” ch. 2:1-5.
We saw in the first chapter of Galatians that three years after Paul’s conversion he went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Peter. In Acts 11:3030Which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul. (Acts 11:30) and 12:25 we read that Paul and Barnabas again went to Jerusalem with alms for the poor. This seems to have been about the time that Herod killed James the brother of John and put Peter in prison, intending to kill him. In the history of his life in Galatians Paul does not mention this visit. But we have seen that he speaks only of those things which are important for the truth he is defending.
The visit of which Paul speaks in Gal. 2:11Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. (Galatians 2:1) is almost certainly the same visit Luke describes in Acts 15. Paul and Barnabas had returned to Antioch in Syria from their missionary journey to Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium, Derbe and Lystra and other parts. While they waited at Antioch, “certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.” Acts 15:1, 21And certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1‑2).
It is sad to read of “no small dissension and disputation” (Acts 15:2) and of “much disputing.” Acts 15:7. That is how Acts 15 begins, and almost more sad, it ends with the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas: “And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder” (Acts 15:3939And the contention was so sharp between them, that they departed asunder one from the other: and so Barnabas took Mark, and sailed unto Cyprus; (Acts 15:39)). v.39.
Paul knew very well the terrible danger that this teaching of the law and circumcision was to the truth of the good news. It was for this reason that he so earnestly opposed it. He knew very well the great importance of this meeting at Jerusalem to discuss this great question. Barnabas went with Paul, and together they presented the truth of the grace of God. They took with them a Gentile believer, Titus, who had never been circumcised. If the assembly at Jerusalem should refuse to receive a Gentile believer unless he receives circumcision, then the false teachers have won the victory. But if the assembly at Jerusalem should receive Titus, without being circumcised, then the truth of God has triumphed, and it is clear to the assemblies all over the world that it is not necessary to receive circumcision in order to be counted as a Christian.
In Gal. 2:22And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:2) we read: “I went up by revelation.” The Lord no doubt guided Paul and Barnabas to take Titus with them, just as He revealed to Paul that he should go to this meeting. Paul first of all privately laid before the leaders of the assembly at Jerusalem the good news “which I am preaching” among the nations (or Gentiles: the word is the same). Paul mentions especially the names of James, Cephas and John. We must notice that although James probably was not one of the twelve apostles, yet in matters that concern Jerusalem, James is placed first. (See v.9.) But in vv. 7, 8, we see Peter’s name only. This is because to Peter the Lord specially committed the gospel to the Jews. The Lord had used Peter to first bring the good news to the nations, the Gentiles. (See Acts 10, and 15:7.) But Peter had not followed on in this work among the nations, and God in His grace had worked mightily through him as the apostle of the Jews. But in just the same way God had also worked mightily through Paul as the apostle of the nations. They each acknowledge God’s grace to the other, and they agree that just as Peter continued to be the apostle to the Jews, so Paul should also continue to be the apostle to the nations, or Gentiles.
So Paul and Barnabas laid the whole question of the Gentiles and the law before James, Cephas, John, and perhaps others “conspicuous in the assembly.” We see in Acts 15:2222Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: (Acts 15:22) that Judas, called Barsabas, and Silas were also “leading men among the brethren” (Acts 15:2222Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: (Acts 15:22)). After first laying the whole matter before those “conspicuous in the assembly,” then it was publicly discussed, and the teachers of the law had the opportunity to present their side of the matter.
We can see the goodness and wisdom of God in all these matters. First, how good that this question arose in the days of the apostles and that God has given us this complete record in His holy Word of all that happened, so that any person today who wishes to truly know God’s will in this matter need have no doubts whatever about it. Then, how good of the Lord to arrange that Paul and Barnabas should be in Antioch ready to oppose these false teachers, just at the time they arrived. In the assemblies in Galatia we find nobody present to stand up against the false teachers and dispute with them. Then notice again God’s goodness and wisdom in not permitting Paul and Barnabas to silence these teachers in Antioch. Had they succeeded in doing this, how easily a division might have come into the Church of God. Those who accepted salvation by the free grace of God would follow Paul, making a Gentile church, with Antioch as their center; but those who wished to add the law would follow these law teachers and have Jerusalem as their center. In order to hinder such a division, the Lord made it necessary for His servants at Antioch to take the whole matter up to Jerusalem and lay it before the assembly there.
The Lord strengthened His servant’s hands and his heart by giving him this revelation of His will, showing him that he should go to Jerusalem. The men of reputation acknowledged the work of Paul and Barnabas. They approved the gospel which they were preaching among the nations, and God thus prepared everything for the public discussion of this great question.
On the one side were the Pharisees, who believed, and those false teachers—“false brethren brought in by stealth, who were such as came in by stealth to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus.” These were the men who later were troubling the Galatian assemblies and were always trying to hinder and disturb Paul’s work among the nations. They had been so successful at Antioch that even Paul and Barnabas could not silence them, and perhaps they looked forward to a victory at Jerusalem.
Paul and Barnabas were on the other side, and perhaps Titus, the uncircumcised Gentile, sat between them. James, Cephas and John were present, and no doubt also Judas and Silas and ‘many other of the Jerusalem brethren.
“There rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them [the Gentiles], and to command them to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:55But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. (Acts 15:5)). That is the whole question. I can well understand there was “much discussion” (Acts 15:77And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. (Acts 15:7)). But at last Peter, in a short address, reminded them that God had chosen him to first bring the good news to the nations. He pointed out to them that God had borne witness to that work by giving them the Holy Spirit while they were still uncircumcised Gentiles and had made “no difference between us and them” (Acts 15:99And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:9)). He summed up the whole matter by saying: “Now therefore why tempt ye God, by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we shall be saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same manner as they also.” Acts 15:10, 1110Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? 11But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (Acts 15:10‑11) JND.
James followed Peter, proving by quotations from the Old Testament that God had shown before that the Gentiles should be brought into the blessing of God, along with the Jews. James summed up his address by saying: “Wherefore I judge, not to trouble those who from the nations turn to God; but to write to them to abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For Moses, from generations of old, has in every city those who preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.” Acts 15:19-2119Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God: 20But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day. (Acts 15:19‑21) JND.
The victory was won.
Thanks be to God for that notable victory which made sure the freedom of the Gentiles. Thanks be to God for men like Paul and Barnabas, Peter and James: men who are not ashamed of the good news, men who are not afraid to say publicly what they know to be the truth.
The victory is won. The Gentiles are not under law, either for justification or for a rule of life. The threatened division in the Church of God does not take place. No split has come between the apostles at Jerusalem and the apostles of the Gentiles. The false teachers and the Pharisees have been defeated, but they have not been silenced; and now in the epistle we are considering, we find them back at their evil work, disturbing the Galatian assemblies.
Our readers must notice that in the letter to the Gentile believers no mention is made of the Ten Commandments. There is not a single word suggesting that the Gentile Christians are under the Ten Commandments. Those who teach this evil doctrine have not a word of foundation from the Scriptures. On the contrary, there are only four commands given to the Gentile believers. Two of these, “to avoid pollutions of idols” and “fornication,” are included in the Ten Commandments. Every true Christian, with any knowledge of God, knows that he should avoid these things. Notice that there is not a word telling the Gentile believers that they should keep the Sabbath or seventh day.
The other two commands, which are really one, to avoid things strangled and blood, come from Noah’s day. Before the flood it seems as though men lived on grain, vegetables and fruit, and that they did not eat meat. But after the flood, in Gen. 9:33Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. (Genesis 9:3), God gave to Noah and his sons flesh to eat. He says, “Every moving thing that liveth shall be food for you: as the green herb I give you everything. Only, the flesh with its life, its blood, ye shall not eat.” Gen. 9:3, 43Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. (Genesis 9:3‑4) JND. In Lev. 17:10-1210And whatsoever man there be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn among you, that eateth any manner of blood; I will even set my face against that soul that eateth blood, and will cut him off from among his people. 11For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul. 12Therefore I said unto the children of Israel, No soul of you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger that sojourneth among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:10‑12) JND we read, “I will set My face against the soul that hath eaten blood, and will cut him off from among his people; for the soul [or, life] of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that maketh atonement for the soul. Therefore have I said,... No soul of you shall eat blood.” “The blood is the life” (Deut. 12:2323Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh. (Deuteronomy 12:23)). In the Scriptures God always claims the blood as His portion. Life belongs to God. The blood tells us of the precious blood of Christ and that He gave His life for our lives; so Christians may not eat blood. In “things strangled” (Acts 21:2525As touching the Gentiles which believe, we have written and concluded that they observe no such thing, save only that they keep themselves from things offered to idols, and from blood, and from strangled, and from fornication. (Acts 21:25)) the blood has not been poured out, so we Christians may not eat such meat.
There are those today who command the Lord’s people to “abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:33Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3)-5). 1 Tim. 4:33Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3)-5. From these verses we see that Christians today are perfectly free to eat pork, which was forbidden under the law. Now we may eat it and give God thanks. There are those today who forbid it, but such persons do not “believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:33Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3)).
We might think that this is a small matter and that if someone tells me I must not eat pork I may easily yield to his wish. But if we look at the first verse of this chapter in Timothy, we will see that this doctrine which commands “to abstain from meats” (1 Tim. 4:33Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth. (1 Timothy 4:3)) is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:11Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (1 Timothy 4:1)). Those who teach these things have departed “from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:11Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; (1 Timothy 4:1)). In God’s sight it is a terrible thing to put Christians under law, even if that law is only to forbid to eat meat. May God help you and me to understand more clearly God’s thoughts about grace and law.
Because we are not under law, this does not give us liberty to steal or murder. The law says: “Thou shalt not steal” (Rom. 13:99For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. (Romans 13:9)). What does the good news say? “Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:2828Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth. (Ephesians 4:28)). How different from the law! The hand that once went into his neighbor’s pocket to steal his goods now works in order to be able to give something to his neighbor. This is not because of any law that tells me I must do this. But my Lord has borne my sins. My stealing is all forgiven. Not the least punishment will I ever have to bear from God because I was a thief. My hands are purchased with His precious blood, and now I love to use them for Him who gave Himself for me. And so “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 10:55For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. (Romans 10:5)) is fulfilled in those “who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:44That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. (Romans 8:4)). But we see that actually the good news goes far beyond “the righteousness of the law” (Rom. 10:55For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. (Romans 10:5)).
Paul had not “run to no purpose.” Gal. 2:22And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. (Galatians 2:2). On the one hand, the good news to the Gentiles was specially committed to Paul; and on the other hand, the mystery of the Church of God was also specially committed to him. (Col. 1:23-2523If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; 24Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church: 25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; (Colossians 1:23‑25).) As we have seen, the Church of God is a heavenly company of people who are neither Jew nor Gentile, but who are the “body of Christ.” If the Church had been torn in two, making a Jewish body and a Gentile body, then the truth of the Church would have been denied. No longer would the world see “one body.” And we need to remember the dying prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ: “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me” (John 17:2121That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. (John 17:21)). But what does the world see today as it looks at the Church of God? Not one division, but hundreds! And, alas, alas, too often we find the saints of God glorying in their shame.
May God help us to remember that every true believer, no matter what his race, his language, his color, no matter whether Jew or Gentile, no matter to what sect or division of man he may be joined, in God’s sight belongs to the one body, the Church. This is the true Church of God, and every true believer throughout the whole world is part of it. The Scriptures do not speak of members of a church. We are members of His body, as my finger, my eye and my foot are members of my body; but the expression “members of a church” is unknown in the New Testament.
How many today are seeking to build up a sect or a party, instead of seeking to “feed the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:22Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; (1 Peter 5:2)). In a coming day, these servants may find that they are running, or have run, to no purpose. Paul is using the racecourse as a picture of his work for the Lord. Paul loves to use this picture, and we find it again in Gal. 5:77Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? (Galatians 5:7) “Ye did run well; who did hinder you?” This time he refers to all the Galatian believers. Every one of us Christians is running a race. In 2 Tim. 2:55And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully. (2 Timothy 2:5) we are warned that a man is not crowned except he strive lawfully. In 1 Cor. 9:2424Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (1 Corinthians 9:24) Paul exhorts his readers: “So run, that ye may obtain” (1 Cor. 9:2424Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (1 Corinthians 9:24)). Yes, we are all runners. May God help us not to run to no purpose, but so that we may obtain!
“Lord, carry me up to Thy home in the glory,
Where Thou hast purchased a mansion for me,
Where, free from distractions and trials and sorrows,
I’ll rest in the joy of Thy presence with Thee.
Here nations are striving, false teachers deceiving,
Thy saints are divided and scattered from Thee,
Come, gather us, Lord, to Thyself in the glory,
And then come and reign o’er creation set free.”
J.B.D.